In Mizoram, you constantly hear about Tlawmngainha, a word in Duhlian, the language that the state’s many multi-tongued ethnic groups use to communicate with each other. It is difficult to translate into English but roughly means selfless service or putting everyone’s welfare before one’s self-interest. It describes a revered ancient custom practised by the various ethnic groups who live within the boundaries of this state in India’s North East, whom we collectively call the Mizos, a politically expedient term that arose in the 20th century. Every Mizo, it is said, has Tlawmngainha in his or her heart.

How do people observe this custom today? To find out, I had spent a day a little more than two years ago at a hilltop graveyard in Lily Veng, a poor, working-class neighbourhood north of the state capital, Aizawl. The day, in mid-June 2012, was special, because it was the 77th anniversary of the Young Mizo Association, the state’s most powerful community organisation. This organisation, to which a majority of adult Mizo men belong, is one of the torchbearers of Tlawmngainha.

A light drizzle fell through the morning. About five dozen of the group’s members were hard at work, dismantling an old building and collecting the leftover bricks to construct a new library for children to go to after school. Ignoring the rain, the sturdier men took turns at hacking the walls with heavy axes, while the rest, who were boys and girls, formed a long human chain along the contours of a terraced hill, silently passing the broken brick chips, one at a time, until they reached a designated location across a cascading burial ground, its modest tombstones decorated with plastic vines and flowers. It was a touching display of volunteerism.

Volunteers of the Youth Mizo Association pass bricks along a
human chain at the Lily Veng cemetary in north Aizawl.
All photos: Maitreyee Handique

Collective action

It was this spirit of Tlawmngainha that saw the people through one of the worst mautams, or famines, in Mizoram, in 1958 and 1959. These mautams come every 48 years like clockwork, triggered by the flowering of the bamboo tree, which produces a protein-rich nut-like fruit, which attracts rats and causes their population to explode. These rats feast on the bamboo fruit, and then descend on crops and granaries. Wherever bamboos flower in Asia, including in Arunachal Pradesh, rats invade, but the species that breeds in Mizoram is particularly destructive.

In the early 1960s, when the Indian government failed to send adequate food supplies to Mizoram, it sparked the beginning of a revolt against New Delhi. But thanks to Tlawmngainha, hundreds of famished families survived, eating wild potatoes and bamboo shoots for months. They shared equally whatever rice they could salvage from the rats.

Laldenga, the political leader who organised famine relief during that time and later led one of the bitterest independence struggles against India, between 1966 and 1986, motivated people to work together by tapping into this entrenched custom.

Today, the pervasive culture of Tlawmngainha is apparent in public life. Women trim wild grass off hillsides across their homes and little boys pick garbage off the streets. These small but significant acts make Mizoram arguably one of the country’s most liveable places in terms of discipline and cleanliness.

Men and women sweep the streets outside their homes in Bawngkawn, a locality in Aizawl.

Young Mizo Association volunteers in different areas of Aizawl rise at dawn to make important announcements on portable mikes, such as about the arrival of LPG cooking gas or an emergency local body meeting. They also announce the deaths of locals, so that neighbours in this Christian-majority state can reach out to the bereaved, organise overnight wakes and make other funeral arrangements.

A citizen volunteer makes a public announcement about a traffic diversion.

Darker side

There is a darker side to this Mizo code of life: it is exceptionally severe on those who don’t fall in line with rigidly structured social mores.

This was particularly so during prohibition, which was in force in the state from 1997 to this January, when the state lifted this partly and permitted the sale of alcohol from March 16. Organisations such the YMA routinely rounded up people caught breaking the ban on drinking alcohol. As an anti-alcohol crusader, the YMA sees its role as just, even legitimate, to publicly shame and, often flog, fellow citizens. Tales of the youth group raiding houses and assaulting their residents are not uncommon. On rare occasions, members of the association have been blamed for setting homes and stalls stocking illicit liquor vendors on fire.

Such moral policing can be terrifying. In 2012, in Champhai district, bordering Myanmar, a mob paraded on the street a man who had had a drink too many and then locked him in an animal cage in full public view. Some justified this terrible public humiliation by saying that he would have had to spend a month in jail had he been handed over to the authorities.

Lalbiakzula, the YMA president, who took over this post in 2013, said another civil society group, not YMA, had been involved in this incident, acting on the basis of “public complaints”.  “I don’t support extreme [actions] like putting drunkards in cages. This is my personal view,” he told over the phone.

But he said that some policing was needed to see that prohibition was maintained because society widely denounced the consumption of alcohol. “Drinking alcohol and prohibition cannot go hand in hand,” he said. “The church doesn’t want it. Local councils don’t want it. Civil society doesn’t want it.”

Prohibition partly lifted

Things are likely to get more complicated this year, after the Congress-ruled state partly lifted prohibition. The state now allows the sale of alcohol but requires eligible people, namely those over the age of 21, to obtain a licence from the excise department. It has also set a ceiling of six 750 ml bottles a month as the quota that a person can buy.

By partially lifting prohibition the state has tried to strike a compromise between its dire need for revenue, which it can get from liquor sales, and a politically powerful but deeply conservative church, which is intent on imposing abstinence from alcohol. But until March-end, only one government-run alcohol shop had opened, in Dawpui, in the heart of Aizawl. Several neighbourhoods have refused to allow liquor sale, at least for now.

It is not clear how the government is going to enforce the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition & Control Act, 2014, the law passed earlier this year to regulate alcohol consumption. In the months before the state assembly passed the law, the church and organisations such as the YMO opposed the government plan. The opposition party, the Mizo National Front, organised a state-wide bandh on March 25 to make several demands, including that full prohibition remain.

The church wields tremendous political and social influence in Mizoram.

At the same time, for all these years, prohibition hasn’t worked. Liquor has always been available in the state, which falls between the two porous international boundaries, with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Rum and whisky are clandestinely sold by security force canteens. Bee, a potent spirit that bootleggers make from a dry powder they buy from Burmese soldiers.

Most disturbing, however, has been the substitution of alcohol with other intoxicants, such as variants of prescription drugs Alprazolam and pseudoephedrine, and the deadlier one of heroin, which is available through the two-way drug trafficking between India and Myanmar.

Draconian provision

As the debate over prohibition rages, the new law has retained one controversial feature of the old: the power of citizens to report and arrest people consuming liquor.

“Any private person or private persons may arrest or cause to be arrested any person who in his/their presence commits a non-bailable or cognizable offence under this Act,” the law says. It also says that private citizens “can make over any arrested person to the excise or police officer” and in the absence of such officers, such persons can be taken to the nearest excise or police station.

But “private persons” who catch offenders rarely march to local police stations. They usually take them to the YMA’s central office in the Tuikhuahtlang area of Aizawl, a few twisted lanes below Government Aizawl College.

During my visit, I saw half a dozen men and women sitting in a corner of a large empty hall at the entrance of the YMA’s headquarters, waiting to be questioned by a strongly-built man sitting across a wide wooden desk a few feet away. The only other objects in the hall ­­­­were stacked-up plastic chairs and some hollow plastic pipes strewn on the floor. A few uniformed policemen were playing carom at another table.

Among those waiting was Zodinpuii, a skinny woman with a tanned face. Zoram, a YMA volunteer, had introduced her to me as a “drug addict” with an “uncontrollable’’ habit. Her husband was an alcoholic, and to support herself she started peddling drugs and eventually became an addict herself, Zoram said. YMA volunteers caught her in the main town with drugs worth Rs 24,000.

Most of these volunteers belong to the YMA’s Supply Reduction Service squad, or SRS, a dreaded wing dedicated to apprehending drug and alcohol consumers. When going after drug addicts, the squad is called the Central Anti Drug Squad, or CADS. “Usually, we give offenders a warning not to do such things. Then we give them a second warning,” said Tyson, another YMA volunteer, leaving me to guess what happens when that went unheeded.

Then Lama, another YMA volunteer, invited me to join him and two SRS men for a spin around town.

Vigilante justice                                       

As evening approached, shrouding Aizawl in mist and cloud, we cruised in a dark-grey Maruti through the town’s main street. The three men made little small talk, but answered the questions that I asked them.

Off Zodin Square in central Aizawl, as people hurried home, our car jerked to a halt. Two of the men leapt out and accosted a young pedestrian who appeared to be in his 20s.

They exchanged a few words, and then the men grabbed the youngster by his shoulders and slapped him a few times, as belongings from his rucksack tumbled to the pavement. They found nothing. They let the youngster off, after a slapping him a few more times.

Embarrassed, I looked away. “How did you know you would find what you are looking for?” I asked Lama later. “We just know,” he replied curtly as we drove off to another location.

That evening, the YMA squad confronted several more men along the town’s main streets, underpasses and over a footbridge, and searched their belongings. They found nothing that they deemed incriminating.

Watchdog group

Founded in 1935 by Christian missionaries, the YMA was modelled along a vanished traditional village institution called zawlbuk, an all-male boarding house that was a training ground for young boys to learn life skills and cultural values as they transitioned into adulthood. YMA’s motto, according to its website, is to ensure the “proper utilisation of leisure time” and foster the “holistic development of Mizo society.”

Under its constitution, members are supposed to refrain from drinking alcohol, and its work against drug and alcohol abuse has gained it nationwide recognition and several awards, the latest in 2013, from the social justice and empowerment ministry.

About 300,000 adult Mizo men, including political leaders, government servants and students, count themselves as its members. Today, its activities extend from helping landslide victims to keeping an eye on so-called “outsiders”, who are mostly construction workers and truck loaders violating the inner-line permit, which every mainland Indian requires to enter the state. Typically, labourers from mainland India bribe officials to stay and work in the state.

Of this larger membership, an elite minority of about three dozen people make up the SRS in Aizawl, where about 80% of the state’s population lives. Not every YMA member accepts this squad’s brute tactics or even its crusade against alcohol. But fearing social ostracism, few dare to publicly condemn its methods.

“Everything was going on during prohibition,” said an Aizawl-based advocate who wanted anonymity. “What the YMA ends up doing is punishing only the poor. The rich always escape punishment and jail.” The YMA cadre also end up drinking most of the alcohol they confiscate, the advocate claimed.

“As a member of society and as a church member, we’re against drinking,” said P Sangkhumi, a leading activist and a former head of the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl, a group fighting for equal inheritance rights for women under Mizo customary law. “But we’re also against human rights violations in enforcing prohibition, by YMA or any other group.”

Playing with drugs

Citizens and state officials share rights, and this sometimes causes friction. Under Section 52 of the Indian Narcotics Act, officials are supposed to destroy narcotic and psychotropic drugs that they seize after presenting them in court. But often, the YMA squad’s drug hauls do not reach the government storeroom for such contraband.

Confiscated drugs at the YMA office

The YMA regularly destroys seized goods without informing the excise department, the state’s main agency for combating narcotics use. Drugs worth several lakhs of rupees that are not officially recorded go up in smoke in private bonfires, sometimes in the full presence of the Congress chief minister, Lal Thanhawla, as it happened in May 2011 and April 2013, according to a government press release and news report.

When asked about all the allegations against the YMA, Lalbiakzula, the group’s head, said: “In most cases we work with the excise and police departments. In some cases, we send addicts to recovery centres because handing over the person to police means he will be held in custody. The government could not resolve the problem on its own. If we do not look after the welfare of the people, who will?”

But an excise official said this amounted to politically supported vigilantism, which was deeply dispiriting for his department. “When the squad seizes alcohol and drugs, it does not report it to the police but to its leaders,” said the official. “At times, we don’t feel like receiving the cases they send us because by then these people have been beaten black and blue. When YMA members get drunk, they act like the real police.”