Where do You Get Liquor in Imphal? And Why do We Turn a Blind Eye to This Illicit Activity?
By Homen Thangjam
I ask these questions as an incident that occurred somewhere in Manipur (circulated on social media) in which “concerned” Meira Paibi destroyed the property of a woman, because she is a Yu-yonbi (female liquor seller), churned my stomach questioning the tenacity of our collective moral fiber. The shanty-patched hut at the background, smashed aluminum and plastic vessels, and finally, the laments of the “evil” woman in the face of horrendous collective bravado is a sight of misplaced justice. One does not need to listen to her cries, the panoramic sight of destruction reveals the stark poverty of the evil woman. By the way, I call her evil because this is a tag used by our society to disown any person who does not take the accepted path (honestly I do not know what that is) and they are deemed evil, therefore, the “must” to punish them.
It is early in the morning and I cannot honestly come out with an analytical or historical thesis on the evils of alcohol. Except that as a person who has experienced struggles to come out of poverty and near-death experiences, I can only say, hypocrites cannot understand the basic tenets of humanity, and the will to know truth. Yes, today, I am with this evil woman who indulges in illicit liquor trade.
Now let us turn to the posers of the title of this sketchy note. First, where do you get liquor in Imphal? Understanding this underbelly undercurrent might be useful in unhinging our notion of evil, morality and justice, given that liquor is banned in this tiny state. Obviously, it is common knowledge, you can get it in every leikai, CSD canteen, Chak Hotel, semi-posh hotel, farm house, Kabui Khun and most notable of all, behind Pologround. Indigenous brands in addition to the local variety include bottled Sekmai, Andro, Chakpa and Heiyu Drink, etc. Then there are the assorted Indian Made Foreign Liquors (IMFL) and imported liquors such as the Scotch, wine and Soju. Literally, Imphal is flooded by liquor.
Manipur is declared a dry state except for scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) community areas in the hills, Chakpa villages and Kabui Khun. Prohibition has been in place since the Liquor Prohibition Act was passed in 1991 in Manipur on account of strong anti-liquor campaigns by various civil society organisations. Nisha Bandi Lup (transformed into Meira Paibi as women vigilantes against security forces and armed-youths) which are local women bands spearheaded the movement to stop sale and consumption of alcohol. In fact the first feature film of Manipur, “Matamgi Manipur” portrayed the menace of alcohol. The excise department was given the task to regulate and implement the prohibition.
Now the more serious question is, in-spite being a dry state, despite crackdowns by the excise department and vigilantism practiced by civil society groups, how is alcohol freely available in Imphal. The phenomenon of alcohol market, is turning white. One can say, it is no longer a black market. Thus, our second poser, why do we turn a blind eye to this illicit activity? Answering this question can unravel the world of hypocrisy and fabricated truth we live in.
Assuming indigenous alcohol industry generates household employment in SC and ST areas, the same cannot be applied to urban Imphal areas. There are few brewers but mostly traders who are financially insignificant compared to smugglers who source IMFL and other foreign brands from outside the state such as Myanmar and Assam. Then there are the heavy-weights who can bottle and distribute brands such as Sekmai, Chakpa and Heiyu Drink, etc. the unfortunate evil woman is an insignificant entity in the ocean of these giant moonshiners.
One liquor vendor (country liquor) in Imphal confided, “Everyday, there are 3-4 rounds of visits by the police and the excise personnel. They demand money. Once we pay them, they let us sell peacefully and do not harass our customers. Same applies to anti-liquor vigilantes who visit us once in a month or two. First, they threaten us, summon us to their office. Then we arrive at a settlement. Small timers like us suffer a lot”. Then one big trader submitted, “As long as we pay the security personnel, there is nothing to be afraid of. Anti-liquor vigilantes cannot/dare not intrude our space in the thick of security cover. Even if they come, we can negotiate with them”. And, there is no way, vigilantes can summon CSD canteen operators.
Perhaps, the answer to our posers lie in these statements even if I have taken the liberty to generalize overtly. So, there is a political economy of liquor, in which the concerned authority, the brewers, traders and the anti-liquor vigilantes thrive in the shadow of prohibition. And these are the stakeholders who do not want to lift prohibition from Manipur. In July 2014, former Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi Singh mused about lifting prohibition in the state. He also suggested that the country liquor produced in Manipur could be sold in other states, and he sought support across political parties to implement the proposed plan. The opposition supported the chief minister’s proposal by stating that prohibition needs to be lifted, and the focus should be on producing quality country liquor to be sold to other states to strengthen the state economy. The present Government under the leadership of Shri N. Biren Singh also proposed revoking the dry state status of Manipur. But these initiatives were strongly opposed by the above mentioned stakeholders in the name of morality and social cost. Because, ultimately, they want to protect their value chain, and use small flies like the evil woman to set an example of social ethics using violence and atrocity. Perhaps, she is a victim of poverty who could not buy the services of the stakeholders. Here lies the tragedy, not only of poverty but also of our collective conscience.
(The author is a passionate movie-buff and can be reached at [email protected] Statements used in this article is for illustrative purpose only and does not intend to harm or undermine anybody)
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