Curious Case Of Prohibition In Pakistan: High Or Dry

Prohibition in Pakistan has been relaxed over the years with provincial governments granting more permits to individuals and hotels to sell alcohol amid a debate on the benefits of the liquor ban

The prohibition in Pakistan killed local brands but Murree survived

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims of British India. But it was not until 30 years later that alcohol was banned—at least on paper. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol in any form and observant Muslims avoid even indirect association with it. The country’s founding fathers and those who helmed it for the first three decades came from westernized backgrounds. They loved to have a drink and sat on the periodic demands for prohibition in Pakistan. 

Pakistan’s British-educated founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah drank in moderation and ate ham sandwiches and pork sausages. He even shortened his name to westernize it. Jinnah’s successor, the Oxford-trained lawyer Liaquat Ali Khan, was cast in a similar mould. On his May 1950 trip to Washington DC, Khan impressed American assistant secretary of state George McGhee with his capacity to hold his drink. 

McGhee came out of their meeting gushing. He raved about Khan’s ability to ‘down many drinks without losing his sobriety.’ McGhee called the Pakistani prime minister tolerant, ‘a big, strong, confident man with considerable international stature’ whom they could do business with. Liaquat Ali Khan fell to an assassin’s bullets in 1951. The assassination triggered eight years of political instability. The longest-serving prime minister among his six successors, Mohammad Ali Bogra, remained in office for just two years and three months. 

More Of The Same

Ayub Khan ended the political turmoil to become the country’s first military ruler in 1958. He revived the economy, carried out agrarian reforms, provided stimulus to the industry, and encouraged foreign investment. State-backed capitalism and alliance with the US powered a ‘golden era’ of high growth rates under Ayub Khan’s reign. Ayub Khan, who was among the first British Indians selected for training at Sandhurst as they were seen to be compatible with British values and norms, aligned himself fully with the West. 

Indian envoy Rajeshwar Dayal’s tenure in Pakistan coincided with Ayub Khan’s early years in power. He witnessed the social change Ayub Khan ushered in. Dayal wrote the military ruler brought about ‘a great improvement’ in the status of women. The clergy’s power was weakened. Dayal found it ‘ironical what Ayub Khan was able to do practically by a stroke of the pen in Islamic Pakistan with hardly a whisper of protest, secular India is unable even to touch without raising a veritable hornet’s nest.’

For Dayal, Ayub Khan was ‘rather catholic’ in religious observance. He once met with Ayub Khan during the fasting month of Ramadan ‘when even at social gatherings people vied with each other in proudly recounting the number of days they had fasted.’ A butler asked Dayal what he would like to drink as he sat with a relaxed Ayub Khan on the lawn of the military ruler’s residence. Dayal was conscious of Ramadan’s austerities. He asked for a lemonade only when Ayub Khan insisted. 

Ayub Khan wondered why Dayal was not having whisky. The envoy hesitated but Ayub Khan persisted. He wanted Dayal to have whisky for a good reason for him to have one too. The two ended up transacting official business in ‘good humour’ over two drinks. Even scholar Fazlur Rahman Malik, who headed the Central Institute of Islamic Research under Ayub Khan’s rule, insisted there was nothing wrong with drinking beer. 

The ‘Coexistence’

Alcohol was served at nightclubs, bars, cafes, and on board the national carrier before the introduction of prohibition in Pakistan. Columnist Ayaz Amir wrote it was a time when ‘faith and subcontinental hedonism co-existed happily’. ‘There were the pulpits from which came thundering speeches, and lurid expositions of the fate awaiting the sinner. And there were the bars which opened regularly in the evenings,’ he wrote.

Ayub Khan’s successor, General Yahya Khan, was known to be a ‘hard drinking man’. His fall in the aftermath of Pakistan’s dismemberment, also blamed on the culture of drinking in the army, in 1971 led to populist leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rise. 

Turn Of Events

Bhutto had no qualms about publicly accepting his fondness for the bottle. ‘Haan mein sharab peeta hoon [. . .] laikan awam ka khoon nahi peeta [Yes, I drink, but I do not drink the people’s blood],’ he declared at a rally in Lahore. An unexpected turn of events followed a few months later. Protests over alleged poll fraud ballooned and threatened to bring down Bhutto’s government. He moved quickly to outmanoeuvre his opponents by giving in to the demands in April 1977 for prohibition in Pakistan.

Bhutto purged Leftists from his Pakistan People’s Party. He felt prohibition in Pakistan would help prolong his rule by appeasing the conservatives. He did not live long enough. Bhutto paid for the mistake of choosing a conservative general, Zia ul-Haq, who ended up overthrowing him and having him executed.

Social conservatism cuts across national boundaries in South Asia. Drinking is not generally considered to be a great thing beyond bigger cities. Only a third of India’s population drinks. Women-led temperance movements have been gaining ground. The prohibition has been extended to more states to check domestic violence, debt, crimes, and road accidents.

Gandhi, whose moral leadership Pakistani liberals admire for shaping the Indian state’s secular foundations, was a proponent of prohibition. The ban on liquor in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat in 1958 predated prohibition in Pakistan.

The Ingenuity

Zia made the anti-drinking law more draconian. But ingenious rich found their ways of getting around the prohibition in Pakistan. Hiring non-Muslim servants to buy liquor in their names is one of them. Pakistan’s anti-drinking law makes an exception for non-Muslim citizens. They get licences and a quota for drinking. Foreigners are exempted too. They can drink in hotels and the rich behind the privacy of their high walls. Alcohol flows in elite clubs. 

In southern Sindh province, licensed shops can sell wine. But there is a catch: only non-Muslims can buy it. The rich pay their way out of trouble when caught violating the condition. Moonshine is easily available for the less privileged. It often ends up killing or blinding the poor. Over two dozen people died in Sindh of spurious liquor during the Eid holidays in 2014.

Roaring Business

Murree, the country’s only brewery, has grown from strength to strength. Its roaring business attests to the failure of prohibition in Pakistan, where the Parsi-owned brewery is one of the successful and biggest taxpayers. Murree Brewery doubled its alcohol production in 2016. Its profits went up by almost 100 percent since 2012 to reach $19.6 million or over Rs 135 crore in 2017. The brewery’s domestic market is supposedly restricted to non-Muslim Pakistanis, expatriates, and foreign tourists.

But the company’s output—820 million half-litre bottles of beer, whisky, vodka, brandy and other alcoholic drinks annually—tells another story. Pakistan’s Christian, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and Parsi men, women, and children would be consuming over 90 bottles annually if it is assumed that only those legally allowed to drink have done so.

A non-Muslim can buy six bottles of whisky or one beer case monthly in Punjab and at six out of the country’s seventy licensed liquor shops. The numbers do not add up. The brewery’s sales would have been even better had it not been for ‘the snob factor’ that is said to also hit sales. ‘[. . .] the drinks cabinets of the middle classes in Sindh and Punjab often hold the preferred tipple of the elite, Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch. It costs £50 on the black market,’ Rory McCarthy wrote in Guardian in July 2000.

Muslim World’s First

The brewery, which counts Bhutto as ‘the biggest consumer of Murree in history’, has produced eight- and 12-year-old single malts. It hit the headlines in February 2007 when it earned the ‘distinction of producing the Muslim world’s first 20-year-old malt whisky’—rarest! A handful of distilleries globally produce 20-year-old malts. 

Tippling cuts across religious class barriers. Newspapers regularly advertise treatment for alcoholism and poor people often die from drinking illicit liquor. Home-distilled country liquor is cheaply available for the poor. The rich can easily buy whisky and vodka smuggled from India, the Gulf, and China. Foreign missions are the favourite haunts for the well-connected in Islamabad to get high.

Thriving Black Market

Murree Brewery faces competition from a thriving black market of smuggled, counterfeit, and imported booze. In 2012, it sold 9,00,000 bottles of whisky annually. The bootleggers were estimated to be selling at least two million, much of it fake, per year. Murree competes with lower prices. A bottle of Murree’s premier whisky is almost 50 per cent cheaper than that of Johnny Walker Black Label. The demand for its beer grows in summer; 70 percent of Murree’s eight million litres are sold from March to July amid blistering heat.

The brewery gets its name from the resort town of Murree, where it was set up in 1860. The brewery was shifted to its current location in Rawalpindi near Pakistan Army headquarters over half a century later. Minocher Bhandra, popularly known as Minoo took over the reins of his family-run brewery in the 1960s. He diversified it to introduce Murree whisky, vodka, gin, and beer. 

Minoo prevailed over foreign competitors with the tagline ‘have a Murree with your curry.’ He focused on middle-class consumers, who could not afford expensive imported beer and whisky. Murree’s aggressive marketing, its ubiquitous neon-signed billboards, and hoardings in bigger cities, especially Karachi, fuelled sales. 

The prohibition in Pakistan killed local brands but Murree survived. The wealth accrued has brought the Bhandras clout. The late Minoo was a member of parliament from a reserved seat meant for non-Muslims. His son, Isphanyar Bhandra, has followed in his footsteps to become a member of the country’s top legislative body.

Minoo was also a member of a council of military ruler Zia ul-Haq. Zia is the Pakistani liberals’ favourite whipping boy whose conservatism is blamed for everything that has gone wrong in the country. Oxford-educated Minoo advised Zia, who introduced the punishment of 80 lashes for drinking alcohol, on minority affairs. The liquor baron became a member of parliament in 1985 during the peak of Zia’s rule. The two got along well. Zia would drop by to meet Minoo. The brewery is located just across from the army chief’s residence in Rawalpindi.

Unlikely Rapport

Zia struck an instant rapport with another diametrically opposite man—the Indian writer-journalist Khushwant Singh, who was known for his interest in sex and scotch. Singh wrote he was genuinely grieved when Zia was killed in an air crash in August 1988 even as most ‘Pakistanis spit’ when they hear the military ruler’s name.

Zia and Singh, who were uprooted from either side of Punjab when it was divided for Pakistan’s creation, went back a long way. Singh first met Zia in the aftermath of Bhutto’s hanging. For Singh, Zia stood out for public relations among all the heads of state the writer had met.

A few years later, Singh returned to Pakistan for a wedding in Lahore to find six Scotch bottles on the shelf behind his bed courtesy of Zia. Zia also gifted Singh a copy of poems of Ghalib, the celebrated Urdu poet, who famously described himself as ‘half a Muslim; I drink but do not eat pork’ when asked about his religion.

Back To Normal

Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, an alumnus of Harvard and Oxford universities who ‘liked a gin and tonic’, swept to power after Zia’s death. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s last military ruler from Sharif in 1999-2007, loved whisky. An old-school general, Musharraf was a proponent of what he called enlightened moderation. He spent his formative years in Turkey, where he developed an admiration for Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the ultra-secular Turkish state. 

Musharraf’s successor and Benazir’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, ‘is said to be no teetotaller’, wrote Jonathan Foreman in the Telegraph in March 2012.

A Non-Issue

Columnist Nadeem F Paracha, whose favourite pastimes include sharing a drink with close friends, wrote in Dawn in December 2013 that alcohol ‘as a burning moral issue’ has now ‘greatly receded into the background:

Nobody throws up their arms anymore and shouts out loud moralistic platitudes if they find out that someone drinks. It is an issue that is just not talked about much anymore

The imposition of prohibition in Pakistan has been relaxed over the years. Provincial governments have been granting more permits to individuals and hotels to sell alcohol. The punishment for drinking—80 lashes—has never been implemented. Pakistan’s main Islamic court declared it un-Islamic in 2009.

A debate over drinking has also flourished. Ali Akbar Wains, a parliamentarian, questioned the results of prohibition in Pakistan in February 2007. He argued in the National Assembly the ban on the ‘minor evil’—alcohol—had helped the ‘major evil’—drugs—to flourish.

Columnists such as Ayaz Amir have contributed to the debate. He has written in the press about the pros and cons of prohibition. In a 2015 column, Amir argued for ‘loosening social bonds’ and making ‘Karachi a Las Vegas or a Dubai’ for the world to ‘flock to its door’. 

Amir recalled the celebrated writer Saadat Hasan Manto could be tried for obscenity, but nothing prevented him from ‘getting a drink if he wanted one and had the money to afford it.’ He wrote Karachi ‘had its share of cabarets and no one seemed to mind’ and how cabaret shows went on, and bars remained open. He reminisced about the days when there was ‘no straitjacketing of morality.’

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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