The curious case of prohibition in Pakistan

Updated February 12, 2017

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In 1997 Professor John Strang and Professor Michael Gossop of King’s College, London, published a paper on the modern history of heroin addiction. Their research suggested that even though heroin addiction was rampant in Asia (especially China) in the early 20th century, it only became widespread in South Asian countries (such as Pakistan) in the 1980s. Various Pakistani commentators over the years have claimed that in Pakistan heroin addiction not only shot up due to the sudden influx of the drug from Afghanistan during the 1980s’ civil war there, but also because of the alcohol prohibition imposed in Pakistan in April 1977. The prohibition was ordered by the Z.A. Bhutto regime which at the time was under pressure from a violent protest movement by an alliance of right-wing opposition parties.

Interestingly, a 2015 paper by researchers associated with the University of Sydney in Australia (Basma Al-Ansari, Anne Marie Thow, Caroline A. Day, and K.M. Conigrave), pointed out that consumption of alcoholic beverages in Muslim countries where a prohibition was in place actually grew after a proscription on alcohol came into effect.

The aforementioned paper, ‘Extent of Alcohol Prohibition in Civil Policy in Muslim-Majority Countries’ points out that the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Muslim-majority countries (where there is prohibition) has considerably gone up in the last many years. The paper states that historically these countries had low alcohol consumption rates when there was no prohibition, but that these rates have increased due to factors such as an increase in social stress triggered by political and economic instability.

In their research on alcohol consumption in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, Waseem Haider and M. Aslam Chaudhry (Biomadica Vol:24, July 2008) discovered that despite the 1977 prohibition on alcohol and further strengthening of this prohibition in 1979, alcohol consumption remained prevalent (in the Punjab). Their study also indicates that a majority of consumers comprised daily-wage labourers. They add that instead of addressing issues such as alcoholism, the prohibition has further complicated the matter.


Alcohol laws need to reviewed and replaced with a more pragmatic approach


Even though a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages (for Muslims) was placed in 1977, in 1979 the ban was given a more official tinge. Whipping and jailing were ordered for consumers but provisions were made for non-Muslim Pakistanis who could acquire alcoholic beverages from ‘licensed wine shops’ present in Sindh and Balochistan, but not in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Recently, due to a petition which pleaded the courts to shut down these shops, the courts ordered that the shops be moved to ‘minority areas.’ However, it must also be pointed out that these shops have for long kept in check bootlegging mafias in Sindh and Balochistan. Indeed, bootleggers are ever-present in these two provinces as well, but the number of cases of deaths and injury caused by tainted ‘moonshine’ whisky is higher in Punjab where there are no ‘wine shops.’

The Sindh government earns revenues of over four billion rupees annually from these shops which are also important employment avenues for Sindh’s non-Muslims. The last reported case of a person being whipped for consuming alcohol was in 1981. As studies by Basma, Thow and Conigrave and even Haider and Aslam show, consumption actually increased after the prohibition came into effect. In fact, it may now actually be higher compared to the consumption rates in some Muslim countries where there is no prohibition on alcohol.

So, basically, one can conclude that in Pakistan, the rate of alcohol consumption was lower when there was no prohibition. This was further endorsed by the University of Sydney findings that the same is the case in almost all Muslim countries where there is a prohibition. What’s more, Haider and Aslam point out that alcoholism becomes a more complicated issue in countries with prohibition because those suffering from alcoholism do not come forward for treatment out of fear of the laws. A letter in Dawn (published, November 28, 2016) questioned the logic of the prohibition by suggesting that alcohol consumption was hardly ever reported to have been involved in causing any major heinous crime in the country.

Famous historian (late) Abraham Eraly in his last two books Age of Wrath (on the Delhi Sultanate) and The Mughal Throne informs us that drinking wine was a popular habit among mediaeval Muslim rulers and their Muslim subjects of the region. He added that some Muslim kings did, however, try to prohibit wine drinking (among Muslims) but failed.

April 1977 is usually the date given for the imposition of prohibition in Pakistan. This is correct, but the lesser-known fact is that some forms of prohibition had already come into force before 1977. While researching on prohibition in Pakistan (for an upcoming academic compilation published in France), I was reminded of what Dr Manzoor Ejaz, an intellectual and an authority on Punjab culture, had once told me. He said that till 1977, alcohol was entirely legal in Pakistan but the Punjab Assembly had banned its sale in the Punjab province in the late 1960s. This must have been after 1968 because famous playwright Shahid Nadeem who was a student at university till 1968 is quoted in Iqbal Haider Butt’s book Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan as saying that cafes behind Punjab University used to serve beer to students.

The second ban in this regard was imposed when, in 1972, army chief General Tikka Khan barred the serving of alcoholic beverages in Army mess halls. Interestingly, Karam A. Siddique former ex-officio of the army’s Services Club in Multan reminded readers of Dawn in a letter (published, December 12, 2002) that this ban was ironically removed in 1976 by Gen Zia! He lifted the prohibition just before he replaced Tikka Khan as army chief. This was done on the request of military officers.

In 1973, the provincial government of KP (former NWFP) imposed a blanket ban on sale of alcohol in the province. The KP provincial government was a left-right coalition of National Awami Party (NAP) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI). Though the NAP had won more provincial assembly seats in KP in the 1970 election, the JUI leader Mufti Mehmood was elected as chief minister of the province. JUI was also NAP’s coalition partner in Balochistan’s provincial government. It urged the Balochistan government to impose a similar ban, but the suggestion was vetoed by Balochistan’s governor, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo (a NAP man). In his autobiography In Search of Solutions Bizenjo wrote that he found the act of introducing prohibition in KP irrelevant because it had nothing to do with the problems confronted by the people of KP and Balochistan.

So when the prohibition was imposed in April 1977, it was already in effect in KP and Punjab. In 1977 it was stretched to Sindh and Balochistan, in army mess halls and on PIA flights. But as we have seen, it completely failed to dry out the country. Instead, it pushed many people in the hands of bootlegging mafias and deadly drugs. And those who could not afford buying alcohol from ‘licensed wine shops’ (because the prices had shot up), fell in the trap of moonshiners distilling cheap, tainted spirit.

Prohibition laws need to be vigorously reviewed and need to be replaced with regulations based on a more moderate approach towards the issue. For instance, the more pragmatic laws regarding alcohol consumption in Dubai can certainly be replicated in Pakistan, especially in the country’s major urban centres.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine February 12th, 2017