The fall of kohhran swarkar in Mizoram
26 August 2014
What the repeal of prohibition means for current power dynamics and good governance.
On 10 July 2014, Mizoram’s Legislative Assembly passed the controversial Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition & Control) (MLPC) Bill and overturned a 17-year-long prohibition on the consumption and production of alcohol within the state. The Bill, introduced by the Congress government’s Excise and Narcotics Minister R Lalzirliana, was unanimously passed by the Assembly’s 34 Congress legislators. The Assembly’s six opposition members from the Mizoram Democratic Alliance staged a walkout as a mark of protest at the overturning of prohibition and the heralding of a new era in which licensed liquor shops and bars will once again be open for business.
Despite the Bill’s passage, prohibition in Mizoram has, historically, achieved robust support. The Lalthanhawla-led Congress enacted the now defunct Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition (MLTP) Act in 1995. When the Zoramthanga-led Mizo National Front (MNF) emerged with an absolute majority in the state’s 1998 elections, there was little desire to overturn the statute. Throughout the MNF’s decade-long rule, the MLTP Act of 1995 remained intact.
For some time now, the policies of consecutive Mizoram state governments have been in lockstep with the moral diktats of the state’s authoritative Christian sects and their numerically significant votebanks. According to the most recent statistics, 86.97 percent of Mizoram’s population identify themselves as ‘Christian’. The Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, the Baptist Church Mizoram and other Christian sects have long pressured church-goers to resist the temptations of alcohol while warning of the dire social implications of repealing prohibition. As one church-goer told me, “Mizoram would never have become a state full of IAS [Indian Administrative Service], IPS [Indian Police Service] and IFS [Indian Forest Service] officers, as well as peace and high literacy, if it was not for the blessings of the church.” Others are more nuanced in their approach to faith and politics, with one church member providing a salient counterpoint: “Last I heard, India is a non-religious state.”
Predictably, the church campaigned against the introduction and passage of the MLPC Bill. Of more interest is the fact that prominent NGOs within Mizoram openly (and unanimously) took umbrage with the church’s opposition to the Bill. Indeed, the church found itself alienated and at odds with other civil society groups, including those of Christian origins, signalling a change deeper than one’s legal sanction to imbibe.
A question of doctrine
After Congress returned to power in 2008, a study group headed by former IAS officer H Raltawna was formed in 2011 to assess the efficacy and worth of the MLTP Act. The group submitted its findings to the government of Mizoram in 2012, reporting that the Act had failed the people of the state, and making clear that the high demand for alcohol was the primary reason for the government’s inability to enforce prohibition effectively. The Act was also found to have had a negative impact on public health. According to records of the Aizawl Civil Hospital, between 1995 and 2005, a significant increase in the number of cases of liver disease were witnessed, due primarily to the consumption of low-grade, illicit moonshine. Critics of prohibition, including NGOs, have likewise labeled the Act a law of the rich, citing the disproportionate number of the poor and uneducated being apprehended on charges of bootlegging and illicit consumption.
Despite these findings, Christian sects have been strident in their appeals to Chief Minister Lalthanhawla and Excise Minister Lalzirliana to retain the existing Act unamended. In response to the 10 July passage of the Bill, the very next day synod moderator Reverend Lalhmuchhuaka led a mass prayer in the capital, Aizawl, and embarked on a poster campaign throughout the state.
These initiatives are nothing new: the church has long been active in Mizoram politics. In 2013, the synod and other churches in Mizoram issued guidelines to their members on upcoming Assembly elections, urging them to reject candidates who offer cash for votes. They also asked political parties and their candidates to spend the least possible amount of money during their campaign and decline individuals or organisations encouraging the pernicious art of pork-barrelling. As a supplement to these measures, the churches requested their members pray for good governance.
For many, the church remains a font of moral guidance and reform within Mizo society due primarily to its contribution to peacemaking during the state’s troubled history. Synod Reverend Zairema initiated the first peace talks between the state and the Mizo National Front in 1968 based on his credibility with MNF leader Laldenga, a devout Christian. Though initially unsuccessful, throughout two decades of insurgency the church acted as an effective go-between, eventually contributing to the attainment of a lasting peace between state and rebel forces in 1986. Since then, the church has positioned itself as a moral and social beacon, assuming a role for itself that extends beyond matters of war and peace.
Given the MLPC Bill’s passage, it is apparent that the church’s moral sway has declined. That the church has remained silent on the continued use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, some 18 years after a formal peace was established, is indicative of a moral compass that, for many, is no longer adequate.
While the Bill’s passage says much about shifting power dynamics within Mizoram, it likewise illustrates the financial predicament of the government’s exchequer and the cynicism of its political leaders. Though prohibition may indeed provide “good business for bad people”, its repeal, according to estimates by the Congress ministry, is likely to result in an annual INR 30 crore windfall to state coffers via taxation – a sum that would go some way to alleviating the state’s current financial mess. Mizoram daily Vangalini recently reported the government as incurring an INR 5000 crore deficit (in a budget speech in 2014 the government put the number at a more modest 1596 crore) as a direct result of its National Land Use Policy (NLUP) – the policy by which it swept to power in 2008.
Though the NLUP’s aims of uplifting the poor and improving livelihoods are laudable, the wanton provision of fiscal ‘incentives’ to petty farmers and traders has resulted in a political approach that amounts to little more than vote-buying. Reflecting the policy’s discretionary implementation, in August 2013, prior to Assembly elections, the Congress government embarked on its largest distribution of cash to date. Around 8500 families across eight districts received handouts ranging from INR 1 to 2 lakh, while tractors and auto-rickshaws were also distributed. But though some have profited as a result of the policy, its selective implementation hints at the less noble motivations behind it. A farmer in Mamit district, yet to receive any incentives, told me, “We have never voted for Congress. We always vote for MNF. Local Congress workers know us. The NLUP does not favour us because we do not belong to Congress.”
Public servants have likewise been negatively affected as a result of the policy. Despite the government’s apparent generosity, state employees throughout Congress rule have been paid haphazardly, at times being forced to wait for between three and five months to receive their salaries. Many contractor bills remain outstanding; the government is unable to raise the required funds to pay them.
There is a direct link between the passage of the MLPC Bill 2014 and the financial mess that the Lalthanhawla-led government finds itself in. Though the welcome decline of church power signifies a changing dynamic that better reflects the secular underpinnings of Indian democracy, the cynical use of the NLUP denotes a political approach that is deeply problematic and fails to exhibit a long-term vision for the state. Prohibition or not, the deeper ills of Mizoram’s political class will continue to manifest themselves, democracy and good governance be damned.
~ N William Singh teaches sociology at Pachhunga University College, Aizawl.