Pakistan Paradox: The Love Of Its Leaders For The Bottle

Pakistan’s Westernised founding fathers and their successors loved to have a drink and sat on the periodic demands of a ban on alcohol until the 1970s when the prohibition—at least on paper—was imposed

Pakistan President Ayub Khan with his Indonesian counterpart Sukarno in 1964.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Indian envoy Rajeshwar Dayal’s tenure in Pakistan coincided with military ruler Ayub Khan’s early years in power. He found Khan ‘rather catholic’ in religious observance. Dayal had a first-hand experience of this when the Indian diplomat once met the military ruler during the fasting month of Ramadan.

As he sat with a relaxed Khan on the lawns of the military ruler’s residence, Dayal was taken aback when offered drinks. Conscious of Ramadan’s austerities, Dayal asked for a lemonade only when Ayub Khan insisted. Ayub Khan wondered why was not Dayal, who wrote it was the month ‘when even at social gatherings people vied with each other in proudly recounting the number of days they had fasted’, having whisky.

Dayal hesitated before Ayub Khan told him he wanted the envoy 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.

Ayub Khan was part of the Westernised military and political elite, who have ruled Pakistan for much of its history. He was among the first British-Indian Army cadets selected for training at Sandhurst on the basis of what was thought to be their ‘compatibility with British values and norms.’ Most of these cadets came from the so-called martial races and families seen to be loyal to the British.

Ayub Khan aligned Pakistan fully with the West when he took over as the first military ruler in 1958 and ended the political turmoil following the back-to-back deaths of the country’s founding fathers Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. He revived the economy, carried out agrarian reforms, provided stimulus to the industry, and encouraged foreign investment. His state-backed capitalism and alliance with the United States (US) would power a ‘golden era’ of high growth rates.

Dayal wrote about the social change Ayub Khan ushered in, saying 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.’

It was the time in the 1960s when even Fazlur Rahman Malik, the head of the Central Institute of Islamic Research under Ayub Khan’s rule, insisted there was nothing wrong with drinking beer. Pakistan was founded over a decade earlier in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims of British India. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol in any form and observant Muslims avoid even indirect association with it.

The country’s Westernised founding fathers and their successors loved to have a drink and sat on the periodic demands of a ban on alcohol in Pakistan until the 1970s when the prohibition—at least on paper—was imposed.

Pakistan’s British-educated founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah drank in moderation and ate ham sandwiches and pork sausages. He 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. 

Alcohol was served at nightclubs, bars, cafes, and on board the national carrier before the introduction of prohibition in Pakistan. Pakistan’s dismemberment in 1971 was also blamed on the culture of drinking in the army. General Yahya Khan, who led the Pakistan Army in the 1971 Bangladesh war against India, was known to be a ‘hard drinking man’. His fall in the aftermath of the war led to the rise of populist leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’, who 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],’ Bhutto 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.

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.

Zia made the anti-drinking law more draconian. But ingenious rich found their ways of getting around the prohibition in Pakistan. Murree, the country’s only brewery, grew from strength to strength despite the prohibition. The Parsi-owned brewery is one of Pakistan’s most successful and biggest taxpayers.

Murree Brewery doubled its alcohol production in 2016. Its profits went up by almost 100% since 2012 to reach $19.6 million in 2017. The brewery’s domestic market is supposedly restricted to non-Muslim Pakistanis, expatriates, and foreign tourists.

Minocher Bhandra, popularly known as Minoo who took over the reins of his family-run brewery in the 1960s, was also a member of a council of Zia ul-Haq. 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 at the brewery located just across from the Pakistan Army chief’s residence in Rawalpindi.

Zia struck a rapport with another diametrically opposite man—the Indian writer-journalist Khushwant Singh, who was known for his interest in sex and scotch. Zia and Singh were uprooted from either side of Punjab when it was divided for Pakistan’s creation. When Singh visited Lahore for a wedding, he found six Scotch bottles on the shelf behind his bed courtesy of Zia. 

Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, an alumnus of Harvard and Oxford who swept to power after Zia’s death in an air crash, ‘liked a gin and tonic’. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s last military ruler 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.

The imposition of prohibition 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 February 2007. He argued in the National Assembly the ban on the ‘minor evil’—alcohol—had helped the ‘major evil’—drugs—to flourish.

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

Leave a Reply