When the sale of alcoholic beverages was banned in 1977 in Pakistan, it was more of a political decision than a moral one.
Under pressure from an animated protest movement by an alliance of various right-wing political parties (Pakistan National Alliance [PNA]), Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began to pragmatically address and agree to some of the demands made to him by PNA leaders.
Bhutto’s six-year-old government had come to power through the popular vote and had made a number of socialist and secular promises.
However, by its sixth year in power, the government was facing harsh criticism from its right-wing opponents (especially in the major urban centers of the country).
By the time Bhutto went in for a reelection in 1977, his government was facing grave economic problems (triggered by the international Oil Crises stemming from the 1973 Egypt-Israel War), subsequent inflation and the failure of the Bhutto regime’s nationalization policies that had seen a number of nationalized industries, banks and educational institutions suffering from incompetent management and rising corruption.
During his tenure he had also tried to fuse populist socialist and secular notions of social democracy with a more progressive version of Political Islam (which his ideologues called ‘Islamic Socialism’).
Though the idea was to blunt the opposition coming from the right-wing religious groups with this fusion, it actually regenerated these groups that had otherwise been swept aside during the 1970 general elections.
For instance, as a catch-all slogan, the PNA, led by fundamentalist parties such as the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) demanded that Pakistan be governed by a ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (Prophet Muhammad’s system of governance).
Even though this supposed system of governance was explained with the help of various unrelated hadiths (Islamic traditions based on hearsay about Muhammad’s sayings) and on the modern writings of Islamic scholars such as JI chief, Abul Ala Mauddudi (one of the founders of 20th century Political Islam), Bhutto’s Islamic Socialism had unwittingly given credence to certain myths that began being advocated as historical facts. The historical framework of PNA’s Nizam-e-Mustafa was one such myth.
Secondly, when in 1973, Bhutto purged his own party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), by expelling a number of its left-wing ideologues, he (like Anwar Sadat in Egypt), overestimated the threat posed to his government by the pro-Soviet far-left groups.
And again like Sadat, Bhutto thought that he could deflect opposition from the Islamists by giving them a free hand on university campuses that were until then hotbeds of left-wing thought and action.
By 1973 college and university campuses in Karachi and Lahore had witnessed a surge in the popularity and influence (through student union elections) of the JI’s student wing the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT).
However, it was also true that in the event of the ineffectual and divided opposition against Bhutto in the parliament and the streets, his opponents, especially in the shape of the mohajirs (Urdu speakers) in Karachi and the right-wing anti-Bhutto bourgeoisie in the Punjab, largely expressed their opposition to Bhutto’s populist ‘socialist/secular’ regime through the IJT in educational institutions.
During the campaigning of the 1977 elections, the PNA accused Bhutto of being a drunk and resolved that if the people voted PNA into power it would ‘rid the society of the evils of alcohol.’
During a rally in Lahore the same year, Bhutto responded by telling the crowds that, ‘Haan mein sharab peeta hoon, laikan awam ka khoon nahi peeta!’ (Yes I drink, but I do not drink the people’s blood).
He was lashing out in this respect at the alliance of right-wing religious parties with those industrialists whose businesses he had nationalized.
This was not the first time that the right-wing religious parties had blamed alcohol for the economic, political and social sufferings of the people.
The youth wing of the fundamentalist Majlis-e-Ahrar had attacked coffee houses serving alcoholic drinks in Lahore during the 1953 anti-Ahmadi riots.
Then in the late 1960s the student wing of the JI, (the IJT), began a movement against liquor stores and bars in Karachi when (in 1968) the progressive Islamic scholar, Dr. Fazalur Rahman Malik, (who was appointed by the Ayub Khan regime to head the Central Institute of Islamic Research), publicly claimed that beer (or any alcoholic beverage with less than five per cent alcohol content) was not haraam (unlawful) in Islam.
In response to Rahman’s statement, JI asked for his resignation and IJT activists attacked a number of liquor stores and hoardings and billboards advertising the Pakistani made Murree Beer in Karachi.
Nevertheless, the IJT campaign did not resonate with the public that was already embroiled in the largely left-wing student movement against the pro-US Ayub dictatorship, even though Rahman did decide to resign after realising the weakening of the Ayub regime.
After the loss of East Pakistan (that broke away and became Bangladesh) in 1971 and the subsequent defeat of the Pakistan army at the hands of their Indian counterparts, JI accused the Pakistani generals’ liking for ‘wine and women’ as one of the main causes of Pakistan’s defeat in the war.
In 1974 prime minister Bhutto banned alcohol in the army mess halls, although no such action was taken against bars, nightclubs, coffee houses and liquor stores.
Throughout the Bhutto regime IJT tried to initiate various campaigns against liquor stores and nightclubs but it failed to find much public support – until the 1977 PNA movement.
After Bhutto’s PPP swept the National Assembly polls in the 1977 elections, PNA claimed that the results were manipulated and that there were widespread cases of fraud undertaken by government agents during the polling.
After boycotting the Provincial Assembly elections, PNA began a tense protest movement. The movement demanded Bhutto’s resignation. It got its strongest support in Karachi where thousands of students, shopkeepers, businessmen and professionals agitated in the streets and clashed head-on with the police.
A number of liquor stores and nightclubs were also attacked and looted. So when Bhutto got into a dialogue with the PNA, he agreed to close down all bars, liquor stores and nightclubs, also banning gambling and announcing that the Muslim holy day of Friday would replace Sunday as the weekly holiday.
Just when it seemed that a breakthrough was on the horizon between the PPP regime and the PNA, General Ziul Haq pulled off a military coup in July 1977.
Although he also arrested PNA members along with PPP ministers and Bhutto himself, Zia adopted the PNA’s Islamic overtones and then invited the JI to help him turn Pakistan into becoming a “true Islamic state.”
The bans imposed on alcohol by Bhutto remained, but Zia added a punishment of 80 lashes to anyone defying the ban.
Today, sale and usage of alcohol beverages is still banned in Pakistan (for the Muslims).
‘Wine shops’ licensed by the government to cater to Pakistan’s Hindu, Christian and Parsi communities are allowed to function but only if they sell locally brewed beer, whisky, gin, vodka and rum and only serve the country’s (or foreign) non-Muslim consumers who have a permit.
However, according to the owner of Pakistan’s largest brewery, Murree Breweries, Isphanyar Bhandara, almost 90 per cent of the consumers of his brewery’s products are Muslim.
Karachi and the interior of the Sindh province have the largest number of legal ‘wine shops’ and getting alcoholic drinks from these shops has always been easier and less harassing than it is elsewhere in Pakistan.
The province of Punjab has the strictest of laws compared to the more liberal ones found in this regard in Sindh. That is why the JI and IJT have continued to try initiating campaigns against the ‘wine shops’ in Sindh and Karachi. But these campaigns have failed to enjoy any public momentum whatsoever.
Whereas some anti-alcohol crusaders suggest that such campaigns have been a failure due to the bigger problem of heroin addiction in the cities, JI and IJT blame Karachi’s leading political parties, the PPP, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP) of having economic interests attached to the liquor business.
In the rest of Sindh, JI accuses PPP ministers and members belonging to nationalist Sindhi parties of being the real owners of the liquor shops.
It is also interesting to note that the use of deadly drugs such as heroin increased (almost tenfold) in Pakistan after the ban on liquor went into effect in 1977. For example until 1979 there was only a single reported case of heroin addiction in Pakistan (reported to the Jinnah Hospital in Karachi), but by 1985, Pakistan was burdened by having the world’s second largest population of heroin addicts.
Also starling is the fact that there has been little or almost no action by the country’s mainstream religious parties on the issue of heroin usage and sale.
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