Welcome to the dry state: Dealing with alcohol prohibition in Nagaland
Joel Rodrigues
Independent researcher, Guwahati

Nagaland is a province in India in which alcohol manufacture, import and consumption is prohibited. The Christian missionaries fervently sought to dissuade the Naga tribes from the consumption of the traditional brews. Together the Naga Mothers’ Association and the Naga Baptist Church Council actively pursued alcohol prohibition in Nagaland, which resulted in the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act, 1989. However, alcohol is readily available throughout the state today if one knows where to find it. This article examines the relational modalities stemming from the law and its percolation into everyday life in order to understand the modern state in Nagaland through the agency and culture behind the enactment, promulgation and implementation of the law in the everyday. Through this article, I make the case for the study of provincial laws to gain insight into the ways in which the modern state is being reimagined in the postcolonial era under militarisation and within several restrictions imposed by the hegemonic state.

Keywords: alcohol prohibition; Christianity; militarisation; Modern state; Nagaland; NBCC; NLTPA; Northeast India

It was the summer of 2018. Thritong and I rushed to approach the traffic circle in the heart of Tuensang town to receive three students travelling from a social sciences university in Guwahati via Dimapur. It was merely six in the evening, but it had already gone dark way past sunset. There were no streetlights, even though we were at the town centre. The shops that lined the circle were all shut except two, which mainly sold paan and cigarettes. The intermittent arrivals of passenger vehicles from Dimapur were what we were looking for. Wondering if any of them were carrying the students, we approached each vehicle as it terminated its journey at the town centre. We had received a few frantic phone calls from the students telling us that they had been stalled at the police checkpoint before entering the town for carrying alcohol. Despite repeated pleas and varied negotiations with the police, all the alcohol they were carrying from Assam was confiscated. Their first visit to Tuensang in the eastern part of Nagaland was beginning with a nightmare.

Almost an hour earlier, as soon as the passenger vehicle carrying the three students from Guwahati, along with seven other passengers and the driver, reached the checkpoint a few kilometres outside Tuensang town, Nagaland police personnel asked all the passengers to deboard. It was already pitch dark at 5 p.m., except for the headlights of the vehicle and torchlights that were being flashed. It was an ominous setting with men in uniforms moving around while the passengers stayed still outside the car. Every second passenger was carrying a bottle of alcohol which they were also intermittently drinking from during the ten hours they had already spent travelling by road. Two male passengers sitting in the front seats were already drunk. The entire vehicle was thoroughly checked, and the luggage of every passenger was opened. This rarely happened in recent times on the route from Dimapur to Tuensang, especially at that hour of the day, even less so to passenger vehicles.

The students from Guwahati were carrying four cans of beer, two bottles of whiskey and a bottle of rum. Collectively, these were worth INR 3000 when they were bought from Furkating in Assam, where the passenger vehicle had stopped for the group to have lunch. In Tuensang terms, the cache could fetch between INR 5000 to 7000 with fluctuations based on the availability on the black market. That seemed to be the problem. Since all the bottles were still sealed and thoroughly packed, the students were accused of bringing alcohol to Nagaland for a profitable resale.

Police and army checkpoints and excise department raids until recently remained the vanguard of law enforcement of the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act (NLTPA), the law that bans alcohol in the state barring a few exceptions. The checks to determine the illegal manufacture, supply and possession of alcohol by the state machinery are random at best. In case an active violation is found during these checks, the appropriate disciplining action is deliberated on the ground with the officials present and imposed on the spot. However, buying and selling of alcohol can be easily identified across towns in Nagaland by the peculiar display of shops selling only bottled water, potato chips and juice which often are guarded by iron-barred windows. Buying and drinking traditional brews is relatively clandestine, as one needs to know the by-lanes in residential colonies where they are being offered. In these spaces, people learn and unlearn how to skirt the law and negotiate with the state that has imposed a sweeping ban on alcohol for civilians.

Throughout this article, I focus on the experiences of alcohol consumption in the state of Nagaland in the northeast region of India. This article contextualises the scenario that led to the enactment of the NLTPA before examining the relational modalities stemming from the act and its percolation into everyday life. Thereafter, this article discusses the disconnect between state images and state practices stemming from the NLTPA, which is viewed in the ability to negotiate and consume alcohol in Nagaland, and hence, have a repercussion on the power dynamics between those that exhibit power over this law. In sharing the experiences of importing, procuring and drinking alcohol in Tuensang town, I show how the law is worked by people in its presence as well as absence. In understanding the modern state in Northeast India, I posit that local laws like the NLTPA provide important insights into the colonial and postcolonial governance. Throughout this article, I intend to show the state as a relational entity produced both locally and externally. This article attempts to understand the modern state in Nagaland through the agency and culture behind the enactment, promulgation and implementation of the NLTPA in the everyday.

Studying the state through the everyday of law

Thelen et al. see ‘the state as a relational setting […] that exists within the relations between actors who have unequal access to material, social, regulatory, and symbolic resources and who negotiate over ideas of legitimate power by drawing on existing state images’ (2018: 7). The state remains an entity produced both locally and externally (Bouchard 2011). Tracing the history of the alcohol prohibition movement in the state of Nagaland and the reasons behind the alliances amongst organisations is an important task in order to show the sociopolitical history stemming from religion and/or the militarisation policy of the Indian state. This sociopolitical history in the study of states, as Bouchard (2011) points out, provides for analysis of the ways in which power is centralised in state structures and maintained in daily practices. The ‘legitimate’ power structure is explicitly mentioned in the law itself. However, it is in the everyday procuring of alcohol for consumption that people negotiate with power and engage with their image of the state and its functions. Actual state practices most often do not conform to images, hopes, or wishes for a coherent state, and the NLTPA reflects this reality. Studying the state through different relational modalities draws on ‘differing normative concepts of what a state should be and how it should act and embody past experiences in structural environments that translate into contingent expectations of the future’ (Thelen et al. 2018: 7–8).

While viewing the modern state through the everyday practices of the NLTPA, in this article I adopt two of the four approaches Sally Falk Moore (1999: 104) suggests for anthropological research on law: the inspection of reciprocity in legal obligations, and the limits on law as a mode of control. ‘The nexus of power, culture and community’ (Bouchard 2011: 184) is at the core of the NLTPA – an important component of the modern state in Nagaland. It is a law that did not arise from the executive arm of the provincial legislature acting independently. Instead, it stemmed from the demands of pressure groups, most importantly, the church (Wouters 2015) and the mothers’ organisations (Khala 2008). Nevertheless, the NLTPA has come to reflect a reality far different in the everyday practices of the law from its conception. Sarat and Kearns (1995) point out that because the law is a scene of action and production, we can turn to the everyday to see the way law is re-enacted and remade. They further elaborate, ‘consumers [of law] produce their own law and, in doing so, transform and reproduce state law’ (Sarat and Kearns 1995: 9).

Alcohol has remained a prominent topic in political discourse and in the public sphere since the late British colonial era in India (Bhattacharya 2017; Alagirisamy 2019). The temperance movement in India was organised, patronised and instructed by English temperance agitators and was not merely a unique component of Gandhian values or sanskritisation of a pan-Indian culture (Carroll 1976). Influenced by American Midwest prohibitionist sentiments, American Baptist missionaries advocated for temperance in the erstwhile Naga Hills and received the support of British colonial officials. Among various Naga tribes, rice brew [1] has traditionally served cultural, social and dietary functions, and drinking it regularly was common (Yano 2015; Longkumer 2016; Kichu 2019). It was used in religious rituals, ceremonies, feasts and festivals, rites of passage from birth to death, in hospitality, peace expeditions and all public functions (Thong 2009).The stronger variant of the rice brew was reserved for elders (Yano 2015; Longkumer 2016). The rice brews were never used as a means of intoxication (Thong 2009) and the oral traditions of the Nagas have stories that warn against the overconsumption or abuse of rice brew (Kichu 2019).

However, all this was ignored by the Christian missionaries who demonised traditional rice brews en masse. For them, all practices associated with rice brews propitiated the anti-Christ – the devil. Justified by the teachings of the Bible that proclaimed the human body as the temple of God, the act of drinking was explained as defilement of the body (Mepfhü-o 2016). The missionaries constantly sought to impose a teetotal form of Christianity, and consumption of rice brews in any of its forms was seen as a barrier to ‘true’ conversion to the religion. Rice brew was associated with laziness, incompetency and sin (Longkumer 2016), contrary to its actual association to communal agricultural practices, which was one of the areas of social life when it was drank collectively (Thong 2009). Converts to Christianity who slipped back into their old ways of drinking rice brews were expelled from the newly formed Christian communities. Guilt and sin became attached to drinking rice brews through the propagation of imposed Christian morality (Kichu 2019; Thong 2009). The American Baptists’ interpretation of Christianity increasingly became the social norm for everyday living, even after their expulsion by the Indian state, as the erstwhile Naga Hills and Tuensang Area adopted Christianity as the state religion after the state of Nagaland was formed. In the years following the end of British colonial rule, as Stockhausen and Wettstein (2008) point out, the Baptist dogmas have become so engrained in Nagaland that Christian belief itself is looked upon as a form of new tradition today.

When the Constitution of India was drafted and passed [2], Article 47 in the Directive Principles of State Policy made provision for ‘prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs’ which are injurious to health. The Constituent Assembly discussions for alcohol and drug prohibition brought up arguments which varied from caste and class bias [3] to Gandhian ideals. Jaipal Singh Munda, a member from the indigenous tribes of the undivided Bihar, did oppose the alcohol ban by making the case for religious significance of rice brews in rituals (Constituent Assembly of India 1948) [4]. However, the article was passed citing that the Directive Principles of State Policy are non-binding and tribal communities covered under the Fifth and Sixth Schedule can always contest the matter at district and regional boards [5].

In Nagaland, the discussions around alcohol prohibition largely involved the state actors and various pressure groups. Despite their continual demands for the abandonment of traditional rice brew consumption from 1872 to 1962, the Baptist churches did not request state intervention towards prohibition. It was only in February 1962 that the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) passed a resolution in the city of Mokokchung for the first time appealing to the Governor of Nagaland to ‘abolish the sale and use of liquor in Nagaland and divert the fund of the political rum [6] to some other welfare projects’ (Linyü 2019). In 1967, after its formation, the Nagaland Baptist Women’s Union (NBWU) submitted a memorandum to the state government for alcohol prohibition. In 1969, the NBCC formed the Nagaland Central Committee on Liquor Prohibition. Thereafter, NBWU persisted with the issue of prohibition with the support of the NBCC (Linyü 2019).

To summarise this section, it was American Baptist missionaries and later the NBCC that strived for alcohol prohibition, justifying this based on Christian morality which they had accepted to be strongly opposed to Naga traditional practices. Christianity holds a strong sway in modern state practices in Nagaland, so much so that it is incorporated in state ceremonies: even the sessions of the State Legislative Assembly begin with the invocation of the Christian God by a state chaplain appointed by the NBCC (NBCC-Nagaland Official Website n.d.) [7]. Therefore, as we will analyse further, the law on alcohol prohibition epitomises the existing sociocultural tensions that are reflected in the political functioning of the state.

The Naga Nationalist Movement and the calls for prohibition
The NLTPA also is a direct consequence of central law – the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 and the policies of the Indian state. Several laws were enacted to violently deal with the Naga aspirations of self-determination beginning with the Assam Maintenance of Public Order (Autonomous Districts) Act in 1953, followed by the Assam Disturbed Areas Act in 1955. Finally, the Indian Parliament passed the AFSPA in 1958 specifically for Naga areas – declared as disturbed – in Manipur and Assam, providing the armed forces the power to shoot and kill with impunity (Thomas 2016) [8]. The resulting major influx of the Indian armed forces in these areas brought along with them not only unbridled violence but also alcohol.

Tsuhah (2015) in her research on alcohol drinking culture in the Chizami village of Nagaland points out that the introduction of Indian Manufactured Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and commercialisation of local brews started in the 1950s with the settlement of the army camp in the village. People exchanged firewood, rice and other raw materials for alcohol. Similar practices were witnessed across the Naga areas as the actions of the armed forces decimated village economies and made them dependent on the hegemonic Indian state. Linyü (2019) points out that the periods of active mobilisation for alcohol prohibition in Nagaland were marked by violent political actions by the Indian state against Naga insurgents. In 1966, this coincided with the AFSPA being imposed in the entire geographical area of the newly formed province of Nagaland. The NBCC then passed a series of resolutions for alcohol prohibition. In 1988, the AFSPA was again implemented across the state when the Naga insurgent group National Socialist Council of Nagaland split into the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions. The NBCC once again called for a prohibition law (Linyü 2019). By then, the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), which had been formed in 1984, was continuously working against alcohol abuse and drug addiction (Deka 2016). Collaborating with the NBCC, the NMA demanded a complete ban on alcohol in order to protect the future generations of Nagaland amidst increased inflows of alcohol from outside the state. At the height of the conflict between the Indian state and Naga insurgents, Nagaland saw a high influx of alcohol and drugs into the state, and the NLTPA served as a watershed moment for the movement for alcohol prohibition.

I would like to clarify here that there can be no comparison between the NLTPA passed by the Nagaland state legislature and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) passed by the Indian Parliament. The latter curbs the right to life and freedom and provides impunity to the armed forces to kill without accountability in the name of the state. However, both have their roots in the excesses of the Indian state. The AFSPA was introduced to violently thwart the possibility of independence movements in Northeast India, and the NLTPA was passed to protect Naga society from bodily degradation and death due to alcohol abuse facilitated by the Indian state with the view to thwart these independence movements. Therefore, the NLTPA could be passed in the state despite it being in direct opposition to traditional Naga customs and practices [9].

During the 1990 Budget Session of the state assembly, church leaders gathered in the state capital Kohima and went into an indefinite fast demanding total prohibition, and the NLTPA was passed on 29 March 1990. The language and the vocabulary used by the prohibition movement indicate that liquor was seen as a weapon used by the Indian state to undo the patriotism and unity of the Nagas (Linyü 2019). Declaring Nagaland as a dry state, the act prohibits the transport, import, possession as well as selling, buying, consumption and manufacture of all forms of liquor. It also forbids the ‘use or keep [of] any material, utensil or apparatus whatsoever for manufacture of liquor’ (NLTPA 1989: § 2.3.5). The act, however, exempts persons from the armed and paramilitary forces, prescriptions for medical reasons, and production and sale of alcohol not meant for consumption (NLTPA 1989). Its only amendment has been in 1994 to include newer formations of paramilitary forces that have since been deployed in the state (NLTPA 1989: § 1.2.5).

The act assigns various government functionaries – state government employees, gaonburas [10] and assistant gaonburas – and landlords the duty to provide information about violations of the act. The act also obliges government functionaries to ‘take all reasonable measures in their power to prevent the commission of any such offence’ (NLTPA 1989: § 4.42.6), providing them regulatory jurisdiction. Various stakeholders emerge locally that control/restrict, regulate/ban or hide/reveal the circulation of alcohol in Nagaland. These negotiations and actions are part of life in the modern state. Since mid-2019, reports and photographs have been emerging in the local media of youth organisations, with the support of various local organisations, conducting search operations to confiscate IMFL from bootleggers and shopkeepers. These vigilante operations have continued to proceed even in 2020 despite lockdown measures during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There was another exemption made in the NLTPA – local rice brews. At the end of the act, in Article 84, exceptions were made for Zu and Rohi [umbrella terms to denote local rice brews], provided it is used for domestic purposes only (NLTPA 1989: § 5.84.2). This was despite NBCC’s call to include all forms of alcohol. Traditional rice brews have become central to the discussion of reimagining alcohol prohibition in the state.

Reimagining prohibition in Nagaland

The Nagaland state government started the Hornbill Festival in 2000 to promote tourism to the state [11]. It was advertised as an invitation ‘to experience the diverse pulsating rhythms and colours of Nagaland’ (Kikon 2005). At the Hornbill Festival, there are many cultural tropes at play, ranging from performing the songs and dances of every tribe domiciled in the state to exhibiting their material culture (Longkumer 2013). The focus has been to showcase a Naga cultural identity that is both authentic enough to draw in tourists but that also pacifies anxieties ‘rooted in Christian heritage by not portraying an image too savage or uncivilised’ (Keditsu 2014: 25). The festival provides a state-sanctioned platform for a narrative of culture, several aspects of which the Baptist churches long tried to dissociate with Naga culture in favour of Christian moralities, e.g. rituals associated with traditional practices or the prevalence of youth dormitories called morungs.

Prior to the Hornbill Festival, Christian identity enjoyed hegemony over the Naga ethnic identity in the state (Keditsu 2014). The Church leaders remain sceptical about the practical benefits and are concerned about the morality of the event (Longkumer 2013). In addition, the introduction of rice beer as part of the Hornbill Festival was viewed as objectionable by the church, as it is associated with shamanistic rituals and seen to be contradicting the Christian faith (Longkumer 2015). As stringent as the Baptist proscription on alcohol may be, the consumption of local rice beer has persisted (Keditsu 2014).

During the rest of the year, the complex which hosts the Hornbill festival transforms into a site where young people drink alcohol away from the gaze of their families and gossipy neighbours (Wilkinson 2017). Several spots like these constantly emerge away from the panoptic gaze of the church and elders and are often found at lonelier spots adjoining unfrequented roads and buildings. Within the state machinery itself, one such spot remains the compound of the Nagaland State Secretariat in Kohima which has revellers congregating on weekends to drink alcohol – a phenomenon that would be unknown elsewhere in the country [12].

Sales of rice beer and IMFL continues in Kohima through the informal economy, and many households depend on these as their only source of income (Wungreithan 2017), and by extension, this also is the case in the rest of the state. Every year, during Christmas and the preceding Hornbill Festival, illegal alcohol enters Nagaland in increased quantities from neighbouring states (Chanda 2016). Alcohol is also a covert offering during elections to entice voters to vote in favour of a candidate hosting a feast (Wouters 2015). Most of these bottles of alcohol are clearly marked for sale in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya or to the armed forces. In 2012, the then excise minister of Nagaland, M. C. Konyak, estimated that the state loses INR 750 crores annually due to the prohibition act which prevents the legal sale of (and hence, taxation on) IMFL (The Telegraph 2012).

I view the discussions for amendments to or a repeal of NLTPA revolving around two aspects: Naga culture and revenue generation for the state. Nevertheless, the NBCC remains opposed to both and instead demands a stricter implementation of the law under Christian morality. Showcasing indigenous culture to boost tourism is often touted as a reason to allow various forms of rice brews. In addition, the clause in the law which allows local brews ‘for domestic purposes only’ (NLTPA 1989: § 5.84.2) has become the reason why these are sold in rooms adjoining households rather than designated drinking spaces outside homes [13]. This allows for the practice that, despite the NLTPA, local brews are allowed in the state. The income generated from this supports the livelihood of many households that have been marginalised by state and church policies. However, the discussions around the law are not restricted to rice brews but encompass all forms of alcohol available in Nagaland. The loss of revenue to Nagaland through taxes that can be levied on alcohol sale is significant for a state with limited avenues for income generation. Instead, IMFL bought in Nagaland has already been officially taxed in other provinces of the region and hence, provides revenue to those provincial governments.

The NLTPA has become the site of an ideological battle for power between the state and the church. State formations can be seen through the relational modalities in the implementation of the act. The actual state practices most often do not conform to images, hopes or wishes for a coherent state as an entity (Thelen et al. 2018). The widespread flouting of the act, the lack of cooperation from state employees and the failure of the pressure groups to put in practice the law beyond its articulation all signify that the relational modalities envisaged by the NLTPA have fallen apart in the everyday. Instead, new pressure groups have now emerged that have taken on the role of vigilantes and seek to destroy alcohol consignments themselves beyond legal authority. Ever since the first edition of the Hornbill Festival, the state government has been calling for consultative meetings with the tribal councils, NGOs and civil society groups seeking a new consensus over the law. In the past few years, it has been excluding the NBCC from these meetings – the most prominent body continuously challenging the state government’s disposition to amend the law.

Kaisii suggests that insisting on consumer decisions regarding alcohol is leading to the breakdown of social deterrence as ‘the consumption pattern has crossed beyond cultural permissiveness while deviating from [the] cultural value of temperance’ (Kaisii 2018: 455). However, more than individual decisions, it is the economics of income and alcohol revenues in addition to the power dynamics between NBCC and the state government that are the incentives for reimagining prohibition in the state. What has affected the ideological and material aspects of state construction (Sharma and Gupta 2006) in Nagaland is the change in the political situation. In addition, there is continuous pressure on the state government to generate revenues to finance state expenditure at a time of reductions in central government contributions and expanding local needs. The next section narrates everyday encounters with the NLTPA in Tuensang – and adherence to and violations of this law.

Modern state in the everyday of the law

I have travelled several times to Nagaland without the police rummaging through my luggage, thus escaping being caught for breaking the alcohol prohibition law. For example, while travelling to Tuensang, a few days prior to the students that are mentioned at the beginning of this article, for the same survey on the feasibility of community radio station, I carried a bottle of Bhutanese whiskey and wine for my host and for a professor at the local college, respectively. My luggage was not checked. It has never been checked at the checkpoint on the outskirts of Tuensang town. However, the experience of the three students from Guwahati was very different. They learnt about the alcohol prohibition in Nagaland at the police checkpoint before entering Tuensang, after having travelled through Dimapur and Mokokchung – both significantly larger towns.

After discovering bottles of alcohol in their luggage, the two male students from Guwahati were directed to a room for interrogation. The ground was uneven, and the room was brightly lit. They were reprimanded: ‘Nagaland is a dry state! You are breaking the law!’ The students stood shocked. They pleaded that they did not know so. The policemen told them: ‘You can’t take any of these.’ After 15 minutes, the negotiations in English and Hindi were heading nowhere. In panic, they called Thritong, their friend living in Tuensang, who told them: ‘Ask for half at least. They will surely give. They are not very strict.’ However, the discussions were taking longer and longer, and their female companion stepped into the office to offer explanations and apologies. But the policemen never looked at her while responding. They instead kept their gaze fixed on the men. After 30 minutes, they reached a deal – the students would take the beer and the officers would confiscate the rest. The students took the four cans of beer, still shocked and stuttering. While they were leaving, a fellow passenger from the vehicle who was drunk came into the room and reprimanded the police for their high-handedness. He demanded that all bottles of alcohol be returned: ‘They are just students. Let them be!’ Infuriated, the police asked for the beer cans to be returned and asked them all to leave empty-handed.

These checks are not isolated events even though I call them random. Juxtaposing them with the clandestine yet open availability of alcohol in towns in Nagaland shows the variance in the ‘commonplace experiences and images of law’ (Ewick and Silbey 1998: 43). While none of the Naga passengers were caught for alcohol possession, the students from Guwahati encountered the NLTPA unexpectedly. The extent of control that was applied in the name of the law was different. During the last hour of journey to Tuensang town, fellow passengers offered several explanations for the incident to the students. They apologised to the students who were visiting Tuensang for the first time. The students reached the town confused, angry and exhausted after travelling for twelve hours on some of the worst roads in the country. Thritong felt compelled to serve his friends some alcohol to ease their fatigue and body aches. He phoned his uncle to make arrangements for a bottle of rum. His cousins arrived at his lane, jumping puddles of rainwater that had collected in metre-long potholes outside the bus station. One of them took a plastic bottle of rum from beneath his vest and slipped it into Thritong’s hands. A sum of INR 1200 was paid for the delivery and his cousins disappeared back into the street without streetlights, guided by the moonlight reflecting strongly in the water below. The entire night was passed discussing the events at the police checkpoint. Thritong began with apologising for his humble arrangement of rum, as no other variety of alcohol was available. In a town that usually sleeps by 7 p.m., Thritong and his friends stayed up past 4 a.m. that night. By the next day, the urge to drink alcohol was deflated due to the incurred loss from the confiscation. In addition, alcohol prices in Tuensang were quite steep for students.

When I had visited a small eatery a few days earlier, I had seen a uniformed police constable sipping beer from a can openly while having puri with vegetables. Like many travellers, I presumed that drinking alcohol openly is not as conservative a matter as it is in bigger towns in Nagaland. After some deliberations with Thritong, we called the server and asked, ‘Beer ase?’ (Do you have beer?). He responded that they did not stock beer, but he could get it for us from the neighbouring shop. His sister and his mother who ran the shop started to roll their eyes. However, the money was already passed on by then. The young server returned after five minutes, while we were still eating our puri and vegetables, and passed on a can of beer from inside his vest. This made us wary about the level of acceptance of drinking beer in the eatery. We slid the can into our bag and decided to drink it later. The can of beer cost us INR 300 instead of INR 100. It was imported from Arunachal Pradesh as marked on the can. In Nagaland, it is often said that alcohol marked for Arunachal Pradesh is considerably inferior to alcohol marked for Meghalaya. Often one would hear customers ask at the shop, ‘Meghalaya laga maal ase na?’ (You have the stuff from Meghalaya, right?). Bottles of alcohol that are marked for the army cantonments are revered as the best amongst the Indian-manufactured ones.

A few blocks away from the eatery was a home from which emanated the aroma of rice brew, right beside the road, behind high walls and a small iron gate which led a few steps down to a residential building that had a separate section created by green trampoline sheets. Behind the sheets, young and old men enjoyed their rice beer while singing songs and engaging in animated conversations. The home doubled up as a mudhu ghor (alcohol house) not very far from one of the several churches in the town. It was not a full-fledged bar. Traditional rice brews were served with homemade snacks of pork and chicken. Every now and then, people went in and out. Emerging out of the mudhu ghor, after the deed, people usually fell silent as they swayed to their homes in different directions.

Ewick and Silbey (1998) explain that commonplace transactions and relationships come to assume a legal character. The multiple and contradictory character of the meanings of the law is a crucial component of its power rather than its weakness (Ewick and Silbey 1998). Sale of alcohol is not as clandestine as it seems to be made out. Of course, Tuensang does not have lines of shops that display packaged water, juice and potato chips for sale while stocking alcohol in a nearby hideout. But alcohol does exchange hands openly. During my first visit to Tuensang, four years ago, I was taken to a shop on a Sunday that sold alcohol that was sourced exclusively from the army canteens. For those who could afford it, it implied ‘assured quality’ and neutralised any possibility of spurious adulteration. While all shops were closed on Sundays, practised in Christian spirit, the ‘supplier’ managed to sell his wares due to the patronage he received from local people. He just needed to be phoned in advance and informed about the requirement, ‘Premium pabo? Army laga maal?’ (Do you have [Kingfisher] Premium beer? From the army canteen, right?). A bottle would then be slipped from below the rolling shutter of the shop. Larger orders that required cartons would be sent from a separate room upstairs that also belonged to the seller. Despite the seller’s direct link to suppliers within the armed forces, the availability of brands and alcohol was subject to availability. Advance orders, otherwise, are also taken for specific preferences.


This article is the by-product of the process of conducting a government-mandated survey of 500 respondents on the need for a community radio and several other experiences while visiting Nagaland. It is a collation of everyday lived experiences in the state where alcohol is prohibited and builds upon Hyphen’s theme of Excess by bringing to the fore my encounters with alcohol procurement and consumption in Nagaland. I have never visited Nagaland with the sole focus of writing on alcohol, but drinking alcohol on almost every visit is always a calculated journey in itself. For a person who has to obtain an Inner Line Permit on every visit, one that every tourist – Indian or foreign national – has to procure, I fully understand the illegality of my actions. However, I gain confidence from my friends who find the law a sham in itself and have phone numbers saved in their phones of ‘dealers’ and ‘regular’ shops to buy alcohol from. Here, I feel it is important to mention that none of them are alcoholics. However, what I narrate in the article is the everyday for many who drink alcohol in Nagaland.

The NLTPA signifies what Sharma and Gupta (2006) call the ‘cultural constitution’ of states. These cultural struggles determine what the state means to its people, the extent of the state’s domination over daily lives and where the boundaries between the two are drawn. Allowances for rice brews during the Hornbill Festival are part of the same process of negotiation between the church and the state. The festival has led to a temporary destabilisation of the stronghold the Church sustained in the prohibition debate (Keditsu 2014). While the NBCC and the NMA claimed ideological victory over the NLTPA, neither could monitor the effective implementation of the law and maintain sustained pressure. Despite it being 30 years since the law has passed, there is hardly any comprehensive data available around alcohol consumption and alcoholism in Nagaland, especially on the nexus that runs the alcohol mafia in the state. Contrary to the official discourse around customary law that prevents a dynamic discussion over amendments to it, the fact that there are continuous demands for the repeal or amendment of NLTPA show that neither state nor culture are static and rigid.

Significantly absent from this article are the accounts of mothers’ organisations in regards to what led them to mobilise for the law towards alcohol prohibition and the impact of the Indian state’s alcohol policies on Naga society at the height of the insurgency movement. Though these were not the objectives of this article, there is a need to fill this gap by wider ethnographic accounts that registers those issues in greater detail. In addition, there is a lack of scholarship in regard to the effects of the NLTPA on many stakeholders that were silenced in the process of passing the law – women who financially supported their household income through brewing alcohol and livelihood alternatives provided then after the promulgation of the law, people following indigenous religions who saw a part of their rituals being illegalised, voices from the now defunct Nagaland Sugar Mills for whom forwarding the ‘waste’ molasses to the alcohol industry would have been an important source of revenue, the people who continued to drink after the law first came into force, to mention a few. As the horticulture industry expands in Nagaland and processing fruits become an important source of income and revenue, will winemaking still be resisted in the absence of an effective supply chain to send fresh produce to lucrative markets? I feel these are poignant puzzles of the past and important questions for the future waiting to be addressed in the social sciences and the media.

Questioning the accountability of the modern state regarding the failure of the NLTPA seems rather inappropriate amidst the existence of the AFSPA which provides impunity to armed forces and paramilitary forces to kill at mere suspicion. Nevertheless, the provincial laws that respective state governments have passed in Northeast India provide an insight into how the state is being reimagined in the postcolonial era within the several restrictions imposed by the hegemonic Indian state. The bureaucratic and political decisions to conceptualise and prioritise certain laws are reflective of the cultural bearings of the state. Three of the eight states in the region have alcohol prohibition laws. Various provincial governments have policies that effectively restrict women’s participation in politics through reservation. Women’s inheritance is barred by local customary laws with little intervention from the modern state. Therefore, I can see two forms of research progressions to understand the modern state here: local laws that emerged amidst the hegemonic crackdown on local liberties, and the impact of these laws on local communities.


I owe my intrigue and inclinations towards the everyday of the NLTPA to my discussions with Neivikhotso Chaya. Dolly Kikon encouraged me to expand my NGO work experience into academic writing. I thank Kezhosano Kikhi and Lhusisato Iralu for their legal insights on the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act 1989. I also thank Sanjay Barbora for his comments on the initial draft of this article. Gratitude to Swati Bakshi, Harshavardhan Bhat and Matthias Kispert whose comments and suggestions helped improve this article and prepare it for publication.


[1] All Naga tribes traditionally brewed drinks from rice. It is the most common and popular form of traditional drink. The fermentation and distillation processes vary from tribe to tribe and also result in the different variants of the drink. For the purpose of this article, I stick to using the term ‘rice brew’ to denote these varieties. In addition to fermented beverages made from rice, the various Naga tribes also prepare them from corn, millet, yam, pumpkin, cassava root, sweet potato or banana. All of these have unique names in the respective tribal languages (Thong 2009).

[2] It is important to note here that no representatives from the Naga tribes were part of the Constituent Assembly that finalised and passed the Indian Constitution. The erstwhile Naga Hills were part of the province of Assam, which was, however, represented by eight members.

[3] Shibban Lal Saksena, a member of the Constituent Assembly, argued that alcohol prohibition would save family incomes especially for ‘labour and Harijan families where the vice is most prevalent… [they spend] a large portion of it [their income] in the toddy shops and the drink shops.’

[4] Munda pointed out that alcohol is not merely an indulgence that amounts to wasting wages. He challenged the idea of prohibition leading to economic and labour efficiency. Working in difficult conditions required alcohol for dealing with the discomfort of the labour conditions, as is the case with working in the paddy fields. In addition, he reiterated the significance of rice brews as part of religious rites, which should justify its consumption being enshrined within religious rights.

[5] Article 244 (1) and (2) provide special protections to areas with significantly large indigenous tribal populations under Fifth Schedule (states outside Northeast India) and Sixth Schedule (states in Northeast India) rules. The Sixth Schedule safeguards tribes through the formation of Autonomous District Councils with varying degrees of autonomy. These are also called district councils or regional councils (previously district boards or regional boards) depending on the area covered under their administration.

[6] The NBCC believed that the government of India had a separate fund to finance alcohol at political meetings for entertainment of the attending delegates at the height of the Naga Nationalist movement.

[7] This is peculiar as the Republic of India is a secular state as one of its foundational principles.

[8] The act was later expanded to include several states in Northeast India through parliamentary amendments.

[9] Even though Nagaland is not covered by Sixth Schedule protections anymore, Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution protects the customary laws and traditions of Nagaland. Therefore, no law passed by the Indian Parliament applies to the province of Nagaland if it conflicts with its customary practices. Parliamentary laws have to be tabled and adopted in the provincial legislature to be made applicable.

[10] Gaonburas are village elders with designated authority under the customary laws of various Naga tribes, with the sanction of the former colonial state which has been extended by the present Indian state.

[11] It is also a celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the separate province of Nagaland merging the Naga Hills district and the Tuensang Area.

[12] From the author’s observations from mid-2017 to mid-2019.

[13] However, Article 51 of the act imposes a penalty for turning a space into a ‘common drinking house’ (NLTPA 1989: § 4.51). This can be punished with imprisonment of a minimum of one month and a maximum of six months and a fine of INR 50–100. However, much more than the cost of this fine is extorted by local police officials in bribes for the functioning of these spaces under the gaze of local regulatory authorities.


Joel Rodrigues is an independent researcher based in Guwahati, India. He has completed his MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He has also previously worked with various organisations, including Population First, Oxfam India, Human Rights Law Network and North Eastern Social Research Centre. His research areas include Human Rights, Law, Governance and Food.
ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8417-5876