In the early 1980s, there just about five liquor outlets selling Indian Made Foreign Liquors (IMFL) in Manipur. When the late Irengbam Tompok became Excise Minister he ensured a quantum leap in the number of Licensed Liquor Vendors, issuing permits numbering nearly 100. His reasoning was to increase revenue for the State’s coffers.
At about the same time, the Maira Paibis or “women vigilante” groups, or women torch bearers who were also dubbed as Night Patrollers of Manipur began marching on the streets of Imphal and elsewhere in the State nabbing drunkards and punishing them through negative social sanctions. All went well till 1990 and the sale of IMFL as well as locally manufactured distilled liquors went about unabated.
Then, towards the end of 1990, the proscribed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made an announcement that sale and consumption of liquor would be banned in Manipur with effect from 1 January 1991. From that day onwards all licensed liquor shops downed their shutters. The then Chief Minister R.K.Ranbir Singh made the de-facto diktat of the PLA a de-jure Government decision from 1 April by passing the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act 1991. The PLA was fairly effective in the first two years in implementing their prohibition policy.
They would regularly round up tipplers and make them confess in the local newspapers to express regrets for their actions. This move had also given rise to many anecdotes, the most famous one being when the cadres would make drunkards do four laps of the local ponds in winter. Then it so happened that a particular gentleman was asked to come ashore after four laps, but he had replied “brothers let me gift you with one more lap of backstroke.” Then the PLA resorted to shooting the hardcore tipplers on their legs.
It was the right foot for the young ones and left foot for the elders. An elderly dipso was rounded up and asked to forward his left foot. But he kept extending his right leg. An irritated cadre asked him, “Old man, don’t you know that it is the left leg for the elders?” To this the old gentleman is said to have replied, “but the left leg had been shot yesterday.” Jokes apart, the PLAs crackdown soon waned as the people whom they had punished started turning against them and apparently became police informers in revenge.
Thus, perhaps realizing that alcoholism is a disease that can only be cured through rehabilitation or for fear of losing its support, the PLA became silent. In the meantime, I had written in these columns that Manipur is a dry State not because alcohol is not available but because it lacks water for drinking and irrigation purposes. For there is a Whiskey Alley bang in the centre of Imphal, half a kilometer away from the Raj Bhawan and the Imphal City Police Station behind the historic Imphal Pologround.
There are about 12 such bars in a row where you can get the liquor of your choice ranging from Scotch Single Malts to down to earth Indian whiskeys plus the Manipuri varieties. And of course, they pay hefty sums to the police daily plus to other ‘do-gooders’ including students’ organisations to keep their trade plying. The police would occasionally make a token raid and round up a few tipplers and the managers of these places, but they were released after a few hours. But this apart, the locally manufactured drink – the distilled Manipuri liquor – has a worldwide demand.
I recall noted Indian writer Manohar Malgonkar writing in one of his books that during the siege of Imphal by the Japanese during World War II, it was the Manipuri “Yu” liquor that had kept the morale of the Allied troops alive even as they were kept fed through air drops. This liquor was part and parcel of the Manipuri way of life till they were converted into Hinduism some 400 years back.
Those who refused to be converted were later classified as scheduled castes in the post-merger status of Manipur with the Indian Union. These hamlets and now villages and towns are Sekmai, Phayeng, Leimaram and Andro. And they produce some of the finest potent distilled liquor in the country and are in high demand. I recall an evening in Arizona State in 1991 where in a bar I encountered two huge pistol-toting American cowboys.
They challenged me to try tequila, the strongest drink in the West. I thought it would be strong but could not be stronger than our our local Sekmai. So, I said yes and downed the tequila. I then asked for another drink, and left the cowboys amazed. Realizing the huge amount of revenue losses that the State is facing, the Biren-led government at its Cabinet meeting on 13 September decided to lift prohibition.
In a statement, it specified that sales would be through Manipur Police Battalions, hotels with seating capacity of more than 20, and other authorized outlets including district headquarters, tourist spots and security camps. The rider is that no one can carry liquor without a receipt. Letpao Haokip, the State’s excise Minister has appealed to all people to cooperate with the decision of the Government. He also mentioned that the health of those imbibing the liquid has already suffered because of spurious drinks available in the market. The minister said the state hoped to garner at least Rs 600 crore in revenue. But what he failed to mention was that IMFL sold clandestinely in Manipur was mostly procured either from Assam or Meghalaya, and that these states would consequently lose revenue.
The late R.K. Jaichandra, late Chief Minister of Manipur between 1988 and 1990 had first broached the idea of distilling the Manipuri local drink called ashaba under state patronage and exporting it to the rest of the world to give Russian Vodka or Mexican Tequila competition. But he found few takers. CM Biren Singh went a step further and sent a delegation of three MLAs to Goa to study the process of distilling Cashew Nuts into Feni, which is now a recognized drink worldwide.
They returned and submitted their report. Soon after, the decision to lift prohibition was taken. There are notably two Civil Society Organizations in Manipur that were formed primarily to the alcohol and drug menace in the state.
The first is AMADA (All Manipur Aniti Drugs Association) and the second is CADA (Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol). The AMADA has not made any statement against the move to legalise consumption of alcohol in the State, but CADA has announced it will oppose the decision tooth and nail. They have also accused the Government of being hand in glove in with some business tycoons who will profit from such a move. The Biren government is now in a Catch 22 situation. While it has been advertising Manipur as a tourist destination where people can relax and have a drink, it will have to confront local demands for a reimposition of Prohibition. But for now, tipplers are saying cheers.