Jun 10, 2011

Pakistan’s foremost problem: the rites of Bacchus

Ayaz Amir
In a feat of marksmanship that will surely enter the record books, the Frontier Corps valiantly guns down six unarmed Russians near Quetta, including a pregnant woman, and the pall of confusion surrounding the event refuses to lift; the journalist Saleem Shahzad is picked up from a high-security zone in the capital and is tortured to death; an unarmed man is shot dead by Rangers in Karachi and the event is caught on camera but the Rangers insist the man was a dacoit; disorder and mayhem run loose across the land; and their puissant lordships of the Supreme Court (SC), ever-vigilant in defence of the public interest, take suo moto notice of the two bottles of liquor allegedly recovered from the fetching Ms Atiqa Odho – once-upon-a-time showbiz heartthrob, now spear-carrier for the Musharraf League (how the mighty are fallen) – as she was about to board a flight for Karachi.

No one can say we don’t have our priorities right.

Article 184(3) of the Constitution confers upon the SC the right to look into matters affecting the public interest. In its zeal to set things right, the SC has leaned heavily, nay exclusively, on this article, giving it an interpretation so liberal as to leave many a renowned jurist befuddled. Notice of Ms Odho’s alleged contretemps has also been taken under the same article.

Bottles and the Constitution – could be the title of a future play. If in the past generals, lawyers and PCO-swearing judges have played dice with the Constitution, now comes the turn of comedy. At least we are improving in some respects.

The SC’s outrage, we are told, stems from the display of double standards. Recently an air-hostess was booked on the same charge and no leniency was shown to her. Now the law stoops to favour Ms Odho (because of her fetching persona?). The SC has a point but there is reason to fear the worst. Not a more liberal application of a seriously-idiotic law but just the opposite: airport authorities going red in the face if they smell the faintest whiff of liquor or even suspect liquor in a shampoo bottle.

So hip-flaskers beware. The next time they ask for some ice on a PIA flight they are likely to get an earful about Article 184(3) and My Lord the Chief Justice. Far from loosening, the apron strings of morality get that much tighter, at least in the air.

South Asian Islam, from its inception, was a benign form of the faith, a world away from the dry commodity prevalent on the Arabian Peninsula. It was our misfortune that under the aegis of General Ziaul Haq, divine punishment to Pakistan for sins unknown, we imported the peninsular variety of Islam and started making it our own. Ever since that time there has been a serious problem between liquor and the Islamic Republic. The space for a more relaxed version of the faith – in line with our history and traditions, and in line with that immortal line of Ghalib’s ‘masjid ke zer-e-saya kharabat chahiye’...’in the shadow of the mosque do I seek a cup’ (a rough translation) – has progressively eroded.

And the lights are going out one by one. As if we did not have enough darkness to begin with.

Tolerant of every wrongdoing under the sun, our intolerance knows no limits when it comes to what Keats in an inspired moment called “the blushful Hippocrene”. To steal and rob and kill is pretty okay and draws no mighty censure, to inhale heroin fairly in public triggers little outrage, but see a man with a bottle and the dogs of war are unleashed.

Not that the citizens of the Islamic Republic have resigned themselves to a dry existence. Perish the thought. Local and foreign, branded and moonshine, healthy and deadly, the amount of liquor consumed in Pakistan could launch a thousand ships.

Bootleggers have made fortunes, our Christian brothers – mostly brothers and few sisters – in small towns like my hometown Chakwal have prospered from making concoctions more suitable for horses than human beings. This is now a vast underground industry which far from facing any threat from the forces of law and order happily flourishes in connivance with them. Consumers and the state are the biggest losers: the first for paying more than they should and, if not well-heeled, imbibing stuff injurious to health physical and spiritual; and the second for the billions in lost revenue.

Why should any of this be strange? This is how it always is. Make a stupid law and instead of reducing crime it will only encourage it. Prohibition in the US was an absurdity, not working and only leading to a culture of more drinking and more lawlessness, Al Capone being the quintessential product of that phase of American history.

Tough anti-narcotics laws in the US are not working, and for much the same reason. The greater the risk in anything the higher the profit. Where a need exists someone will step forward to meet it – one of the immutable laws of human nature.

The many malik sahibs of Pakistan, the many useful malik sahibs of Islamabad who cater to a need no law can eradicate, would go out of business if the liquor laws prevailing, part of Gen Zia’s legacy, were made less draconian and brought in some conformity with common sense. This would oust the profits from the trade, making it lose its attraction.

The oldest profession operates on the same timeless principle. Rail against it, excoriate it, there is no getting away from the fact that it fulfils a basic need of human society. For this reason, no one, not the harshest ruler, has succeeded in eliminating it. Sensible societies try to regulate such things. When the oldest profession in Lahore was largely confined to Heera Mandi its contours were known and it was amenable to control. When ‘jihad’ was declared against it during Gen Zia’s time many of the votaries of this profession left their traditional abodes and spread out into the rest of the city. The containable thus became a virus.

The worship of Bacchus – god of wine, and perhaps of laughter – also answers to a deep-seated human need, the desire to break free, even if momentarily, from the confines of conventional order and morality. Under its influence some of the hidden poetry in our souls comes alive, some of our loneliness and smallness when we look up at the heavens is assuaged.

Saudi Arabia has not been able to eliminate drinking altogether. It is possible to get the forbidden nectar in the land of the ayatollahs. And these are two of the harshest regimes on offer. But we should learn from our own experience. We have seen prohibition make a monkey of the law. Who benefits from this hypocrisy? Apart from the police and the smuggling fraternity, it is hard to think of anyone else.

Politicians, many of them, will imbibe but trust them not to have the courage to revisit the impracticality of prohibition. Preferring make-believe, they will continue to hide behind self-righteousness. Their lordships, out to reform so much, could do worse than step into the breach. Instead of training their heaviest cannon on a sparrow, and a delicate one at that, shouldn’t they look at the wider ramifications of this vexing subject?

Come to think of it, we are the only democracy in the world, the only one, trying to make a virtue of prohibition. Does some of our intolerance, the readiness to shout and foam at the mouth, flow from this circumstance?

Come to think of another thing, where would the lawyers’ movement be without the rites of Bacchus? Should I name my lawyer friends who imbibed the best of Scotland – well, not the best, but you get my point – as they plotted strategy and tactics with regard to the restoration of My Lord the Chief Justice? If the nexus of bench and bar is one of the pillars of the legal edifice, the bench from times immemorial deriving inspiration from the rites of Bacchus, is also one of the enduring features of the same temple.

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