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India's Christian-dominated states feel the dead hand of corruption

Church organizations demand liquor prohibition while being silent on worse evils

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: March 18, 2021 03:57 AM GMT

Updated: March 18, 2021 05:15 AM GMT

India's Christian-dominated states feel the dead hand of corruption

An Indian national flag is seen at the Zokhawthar border in India's northeastern state of Mizoram, where Christians account for 87 percent of the state’s 1.1 million people. (Photo: AFP)

Life in India's Christian-majority northeastern states is often full of individual idiosyncrasies — and the focus keeps shifting between the protagonists, particularly when politics seeks shelter under the shadow of church communities.

Former Nagaland chief minister Vamuzo (he uses only one name) has said the Church in his Christian-majority state “is often like the air we breathe. It is everywhere but mostly nowhere.”

Such statements come into focus for Mizoram, another Christian-majority state, where a prominent Congress party leader recently apologized for opening alcohol outlets when his party ran the government between 2008 and 2018.

"We opened shops and issued alcohol permits against the interests of churches and NGOs, which was the main reason for our defeat” in the state polls in 2018, Congress leader Lal Thanzara has said.

It shows the political clout the Christian community wields in Mizoram, where they form 87 percent of the state’s 1.1 million people. The majority of them are Presbyterians and Baptists.

Of course, the alcohol menace has hit young people in Mizoram and Nagaland, where Catholic organizations have time and again demanded the imposition of prohibition laws. With what logic remains a debate, nevertheless.

Prohibition has never yielded the expected results anywhere in India and often led to people, particularly young people, turning to the more dangerous embrace of drug abuse.

In Mizoram, the liquor business boomed with bootleggers making under-the-table deals with officials in the black economy and the state government suffering immense revenue loss.

The Congress government that ruled the state until 2018 allowed the opening of alcohol outlets in March 2015, disregarding Christian groups' opposition. In the polls in 2018, Congress was booted out of power in Mizoram.

The new regime of the Mizo National Front, incidentally an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), reimposed the alcohol ban in 2019.

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So far, so good!

But the real issue is, can prohibition be a success in any state? Modi’s native state of Gujarat has had a sumptuary law in force since the state was created in 1960.

The Gujarat law prohibits the sale, storage and consumption of alcohol, but foreigners and visitors from other parts of India can apply for a permit to consume alcohol. Presenting the permit, they can buy alcohol from some 35 stores across Gujarat. It means that if you need alcohol in Gujarat, you will get it — with or without a permit.

Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister for 13 years until 2014, loses some US$750 million in excise income to implement the dry law.

In Nagaland, where liquor prohibition was initially introduced in 1989 under immense pressure from the influential Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC), the move was considered a failure.

The prohibition move was “a mistake. We only helped the bootleggers, and our cash-starved state lost revenue," commented former Nagaland minister Thomas Ngullie, a church-going Christian.

In 2016, liquor prohibition was enforced in the eastern state of Bihar; of course, Christians had no part in that move in the Hindu stronghold.

Netizens on social media were quick to comment that Bihar’s government was indirectly encouraging massive investment in the money-spinner bootlegging industry.

The issue is not that prohibition laws are bound to fail. The bigger issue is this: why should influential bodies like church organizations demand liquor prohibition while being silent on worse evils.

Everyone would perhaps agree that there are more important issues affecting society such as corruption, lack of infrastructure, educational facilities and job opportunities. Surprisingly, the Christian bodies, including the Catholic Church, failed to stand up for these.

Just as in other states, in these Christian-dominated states too, money allegedly plays a significant role in the elections to sway support, engineer defections and withdrawals from candidates, and lure voters. The Church has seldom raised its voice against such practices.

Armed militant groups operate in almost all tribal-dominated states allegedly fighting for self-determination. Their inter-tribal rivalry, oneupmanship and clashes with federal forces claim hundreds of lives every year.

People in the region often complain that rebellion against the federal government (also called militancy and insurgency) has been curbed using two Ws — wealth and wine. Corruption and black money thrive in the region.

The militants also extort money from people and institutions, including those of the Church. We don’t hear the Church speaking out against these activities.

In Nagaland, the BJP managed to win as many as 12 out of 20 seats it contested due to "resourceful politics." With 12 seats, the party managed to join with a local party to form the government in the 60-seat house after the 2018 state election.

Naga and Mizo politicians are known for sponsoring community feasts and other events to garner votes, making elections one of the most expensive affairs.

With such practices in place, the appeal of the NBCC to voters to reject the BJP did not have much impact. But several Christian leaders and even former pastors have joined the BJP in Mizoram.

Privately, Christian leaders agree corruption is a serious issue that has been eating into the inherent virtues of simple tribal people.

Powerful church groups dabble in politics. In the 1990s when the NBCC was quite influential in Nagaland politics, veteran Congress politician S.C. Jamir said: “It is sad to see that even the Church is dividing God ... you all should stay away from power politics.”

Father John Kavas of Don Bosco School in Nagaland’s capital Kohima told me during a conversation in 2018 that the Catholic Church in Nagaland “has started educating the people, especially students, about the ills of corruption and how it affects society.”

That’s is a good beginning. But we need to wait for a generation to see its impact.

Despite the federal government allocating billions over the past seven decades after independence, most northeastern states still lack infrastructure for travel, education and industries. Corruption is the villain.

But church groups are stuck with alcohol and silent about the worst forms of evils in society. Silence need not always be golden.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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