India Letter: Curtain falls on women’s temperance movement

Fearsome bands of women enforced prohibition for decades before end of alcohol ban

During the 1980s any man caught drinking by the tough female brigades would be stripped, tied on top of a donkey and paraded through the streets with a blackened face. Photograph: Getty Images

During the 1980s any man caught drinking by the tough female brigades would be stripped, tied on top of a donkey and paraded through the streets with a blackened face. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The successful Manipuri women’s temperance movement, which secured the imposition of prohibition in its home state in northeastern India nearly a quarter of a century ago, seems to have run its course.

Recent reports from the state capital Imphal indicate that the government plans on lifting prohibition in Manipur, which was imposed in 1991, ending the robust Meira Paibis or Torch Bearers campaign that symbolised the ultimate in female empowerment.

Chief minister Okram Obibi Singh told the state assembly on July 1st that prohibition had deprived Manipur of much-needed revenue, besides creating a lucrative market for moonshine, brewed in neighbouring Assam state.

Singh appealed to NGOs to approve lifting the ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol, so that the poverty-ridden state could generate resources to fund social programmes and provide subsidised rice to poor families.

Principally, he was appealing to Manipur’s masterful Meira Paibis who, by conducting co-ordinated nightly patrols armed with fire torches, brought alcohol drinking to an end and forced authorities to impose prohibition.

Female brigades

He had to publicly undertake never to drink again and was then locked up for the night. The following morning, the hungover and somewhat bruised drinker was handed over to police.

Led by the impressive Nupi Lan or Women’s War Association volunteers, thousands of Paibis organised themselves on a roster whose schedule lasted from sunset until midnight across the valley, where a majority of Manipur’s 2.5 million people live.

Positioning themselves at street corners, they whistled up reinforcements within minutes if confronted by drunken males. Once collared, the inebriated men were forced to tell their captors the location of the still or speakeasy responsible for supplying the alcohol, before being handed over to another group for “special treatment”.

This alcohol supply site was then destroyed or wrecked beyond easy repair by squads who, over years, developed a proficiency in swift demolitions.

Most men seized by the Paibis rarely wanted a repeat experience. Many either gave up drink altogether or remained sober for extended periods.

Male alcoholism

The Meira Paibi movement began in the mid-1970s as the All Manipur Prohibition Association, after male alcoholism became endemic and was cited as a factor in cases of wife-beating and the break-up of homes, as well as spiralling unemployment.

Manipuri women petitioned the state authorities to impose prohibition and in small numbers began patrolling streets looking for drinking dens and their patrons.

By the mid 1980s their membership had swelled to over 30,000 women and they had emerged as a formidable force that ushered in prohibition in 1991.

Manipuri women have always played an assertive role in their tribal society, keeping the family together and working harder than men in running the many daily fish, meat and vegetable markets across the state.

Locals talk proudly of how their women defied the British in 1939, forcing the colonial administration to rescind a tax on rice production.Their bravery is celebrated every December and has been an official state holiday since independence 68 years ago.

The Paibis’ success in enforcing prohibition encouraged female temperance squads in southern Andhra Pradesh state. Armed with brooms, feisty Andhra wives launched attacks on shops selling bottles of moonshine known locally as arrack.

These fiery women then pinned down their inebriated husbands and stuffed their mouths and all other orifices with red chili powder, for which the state is renowned and which is available in abundance.

The chili-wielding temperance groups persuaded the Andhra government to impose prohibition in the early 1990s. But deprived of revenue the state became insolvent and the authorities were forced into rescinding it a short while later.