Zote village and the hills surrounding Champhai town in Mizoram had not seen such a happening event in a while. In a state where the consumption and sale of alcohol is outlawed, the last “grape festival” had taken place eight years ago. Scores of policemen watched as the crowds hooted and cheered a fashion show on stage; those in exceptionally high spirits ran around with arms flailing; and at the parking area, a group of men played music and danced, confident that no one would be rounded up after a breathalyser test. They were celebrating the one festival that allowed them to drink in a dry state.
Drinking was not always prohibited in Mizo society. Till the advent of Christianity, animistic rituals, social and religious ceremonies and military triumphs were solemnised and celebrated with local rice beer. “Zu, Lushai beer … (alcohol prepared from rice, and sometimes fruits) was never a daily item of diet for the ordinary home, it rather having the mark of a real festa. The chiefs and more well-to-do people would drink it daily, usually to excess, but amid a very natural conviviality,” wrote Major AG McCall, the former superintendent of Lushai Hills (as Mizoram was then called), in 1949.
It was only in the mid-1990s that liquor was banned after sustained lobbying by the church and voluntary organisations. It was partly influenced by Christian missionaries’ teachings that alcoholism is a “sin” and the violence sparked by drinking sessions at home and outside. Its success was preceded by years of patrolling by community-level volunteers determined to maintain order in neighbourhoods — even now, volunteers keep vigil through long winter nights and reprimand drunkards on the streets, sometimes with violence. Recently, bootleggers, drug-dealers and foreigners (Myanmarese) were forcefully evicted from neighbourhoods and villages. In the first half of this year alone, 53,658 bottles and cans of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, beer and imported alcohol, and 20,295.52 litres of country liquor were seized by the state's excise and narcotics department, with 1,175 cases registered under the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition act of 1995. Hospitals in the state are flooded with liver patients addicted to spurious alcohol.
Forbidden alcohol might be, unavailable it is not. Last month, Mizoram governor Vakkom Purushothaman told journalists at a tea hosted at his residence that “Mizoram was the wettest dry state”. Rare trips to neighbouring Assam and even across the border to Myanmar are highly coveted for most, and at airports in Guwahati and Kolkata, you can hear Mizo students and travelers ask each other with a knowing smirk, “Engzah nge I hawn? (How many are you taking home?)”
In Rangvamual and Phunchawng, two villages near Aizawl known across the state as liquor dens, young men almost daily parked their motorcycles and cars next to thatched huts and wooden homes to drink country liquor or something costlier, creating traffic jams on a national highway running between the state’s lone airport and its capital city. But earlier this year, the central committee of the Young Mizo Association, which has been awarded for its work in controlling drug supply, “cleaned up” the area and forcefully evicted over 160 families it believed were involved in bootlegging and drug trafficking, most of them illegal migrants from Myanmar.
Ironically, it was while the state government was mulling the 1995 prohibition law that the seeds of a future indigenous liquor industry were being planted by a farmer bogged by crop failures. “We had no luck with the vegetables we planted on our land or with our animals, so in 1994 I went to Champhai and got some grape seeds. In 1996, we harvested two quintals, and two years later seven quintals of the fruit. We tried selling grapes at the market in Aizawl but there wasn’t much demand, so we began making wine. It became a hit, everyone started doing it,” said farmer R Thanzama, now 79.
The pioneering vineyard owner’s village, Hnahlan, became a home-grown brewery with most of the 600-odd families planting grape seeds on their farms, and brewing their wines in Sintex barrels. In acknowledgement of the popularity, the horticulture department organised the first grape festival in 2005. It was attended by hundreds, who spent the nights at local homes or slept on the meadows. Armed forces personnel stationed nearby sneaked off their base and drank wine hiding in villagers’ living rooms.
A decade later, two grape growers’ societies were formed and wineries established at both Hnahlan and Champhai using loans extended via the Mizoram Rural Bank. The Hnahlan brewery began formal production of Zawlaidi wine in 2009, with Champhai’s winery following suit the next year.
The then-ruling Mizo National Front, whose chief Zoramthanga represented Champhai, evidently caught a whiff of the brew and, in 2008, passed new rules to allow the manufacture and sale of wine from grapes, in what is now known as “the silent amendment”. The name was because of the powerful church's decision to not protest against it, although it did later successfully demand that the alcohol content be restricted to 11 per cent from the earlier 14 per cent. The wine industry is now worth approximately Rs 420 lakh, and a source of livelihood for many. For a state whose debt is 13 times its resources, this is not an insignificant figure.
Wine is not Mizoram’s most popular form of the contraband; it is not found at social gatherings apart from the occasional government-organized festival, where it is actively promoted. But it is consumed religiously by young men and women out for a night’s revels. This year, when production is less than normal, a bottle can fetch up to Rs 180 in the market at Aizawl.
But the public mood is largely against alcoholism, and the church keeps a close watch on the wine industry, strictly making sure indigenous wine is the only alcohol sold. Little wonder, then, that grape growers employ strange arguments to defend their livelihood. Local church elder and “adviser” to Hnahlan Wine Grower’s Society, V Lalthlamuana, sat holding a cup of local wine one evening this weekend and declared, “Grapes and wine are mentioned throughout the Old and New Testaments, they are inherent parts of the scriptures,” before proceeding to gulp down his cup’s contents.