In April 1977, the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned the sale of alcohol in Pakistan. It was a temporary order issued after Bhutto had been cornered by a violent protest movement orchestrated by an alliance of right-wing religious parties and other anti-Bhutto outfits. They accused his government of rigging the 1977 election. When Bhutto began talks with the leaders of the alliance, some of their demands included the closure of nightclubs and bars and a prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages. The Bhutto regime also cancelled its plans of launching a large casino in Karachi which was to be inaugurated in May 1977. The casino was largely financed by Tufail Shaikh, a Karachi-based businessman who had close links with the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) and then with the Bhutto government. Sheikh already owned and ran a popular hotel and nightclub in the Saddar area of Karachi and was expecting his new casino to draw in a large number of tourists from the oil-rich Arab countries and Europe. When Bhutto agreed with the opposition to close down the nightclubs and outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages, Sheikh was shocked. However, Bhutto told him that it was a temporary measure which he would gradually reverse once things had cooled down.

Bhutto seemed to have convinced himself of this and didn’t take his orders very seriously. After all, while nightclubs, bars and liquor stores had closed down, alcoholic beverages were still easily available at hotels and through the back entrances of liquor shops. His non-seriousness about the ban can also be gauged from the manner in which he announced the ban during a press conference. In fact, he didn’t say anything about it.

Finally, when asked by a reporter, Bhutto smiled and said, “Yes, alcohol is now banned.” Then lighting up a cigar, he added, “But cigars are not.”

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto with Sardar Muhammad Amin Khan Khoso and Nawab Akber Khan Bugti | Photo by Muhammad Amin Khan Khoso (Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hoping to cling on to power for a second five-year-term, Bhutto was eventually toppled in a reactionary military coup a few months later, in July 1977. Two years later, in 1979, the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq hanged Bhutto for murder through a sham trial. The same year Zia began to roll out laws which he claimed were “Islamic”. The so-called “Islamisation” of Pakistan had begun.

Some ministers in Zia’s cabinet bemoaned the fact that even though nightclubs and bars had been closed down, alcoholic beverages were still being openly served at social clubs. They said the April 1977 order had loopholes and did not carry any serious punishments against those selling or consuming alcohol. Thus, on February 9, 1979, the Zia regime issued an ordinance called the “Prohibition (Enforcement of Hudd) Order”. The order proclaimed that selling alcohol to Muslims of Pakistan was illegal and anti-Islamic. Severe punishments and penalties were imposed on Muslims caught selling or drinking alcohol. The order, however, allowed the operation of “licensed wine shops” which were to be owned and run by members of the non-Muslim communities.

These shops were only allowed to sell liquor to non-Muslim Pakistanis and foreigners who now had to get a special permit for this purpose from the government.

Back in the 1980s, I knew a motor mechanic called Naushad. Some of my friends and I used to buy hashish from him. Sometimes we also shared a drink with Naushad in his tiny apartment in Karachi’s Golimar area where he lived with his wife and seven children. When tipsy, Naushad would begin talking about how wonderful life was when he was young and unmarried. One day he told us that when riots against the Bhutto regime erupted in March 1977, he came to know about a mob who were planning to attack a liquor store in his area. Even though Naushad, who was in his late twenties at the time, was a supporter of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, he could not restrain himself from joining the mob so that he could loot as much booze as possible from the store. “I managed to bring home at least twelve bottles of beer and whisky” he told us (in Urdu), laughing. So a friend of mine asked him, “What happened when you finished drinking the looted bottles and then alcohol was banned?” Naushad suddenly became morose and just shrugged his shoulders: “We were young. Uneducated people like me can’t see beyond our nose. All the mobs who were attacking the liquor shops were looting it. We never thought Bhutto Sahib would ban alcohol.” Naushad then began to moan and groan about how expensive it had become to get even a small bottle of whisky from the licensed wine shops.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha

The largest number of such wine shops were in Pakistan’s Sindh and Balochistan provinces, especially in their capital cities, Karachi and Quetta. Their number doubled during the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and then during the coalition government of Pakistan’s three leading “liberal” parties – the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement – between 2008 and 2013. Musharraf had come to power in 1999 through a coup and viewed himself as an “enlightened moderate”. He tried to do away with the 1979 Ordinance but could not due to the electoral compulsions of his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid). However, acquiring alcoholic beverages from licensed liquor stores became much easier for Muslims during the Musharraf regime. But then over ninety per cent of consumers of these stores had always been Muslim.

Religious groups and parties have continued to lament that Pakistani governments have been too lenient in imposing the 1979 Ordinance whereas those opposed to the Ordinance have maintained that prohibition has resulted in the emergence of bootlegging mafias and the proliferation of tainted alcohol (“moonshine”) which has caused the deaths of hundreds of Pakistanis who can’t afford the more expensive brands available (for non-Muslims) at the wine shops. They also point out that prohibition had also driven many young Pakistanis to become heroin addicts and that religious outfits hardly ever mention heroin which was far more dangerous than alcohol.

They might have a point. There were just two reported cases of heroin addiction in Pakistan in 1979. But by 1985, Pakistan had the world’s second largest population of heroin addicts.

The religious lobby has often implied that selling and consuming alcoholic beverages was against the dictates of Islam’s holiest book, the Qu’ran. Those who disagree with these lobbies suggest that the Qu’ran does not mention any punishment for drinking liquor but only asks Muslims to avoid having it in excess and to “leave it aside in order to succeed”. Such debates have increasingly lessened in intensity in Pakistan and acquiring liquor has certainly become a lot easier than it was in the 1980s. In late 2016, a group of petitioners in Karachi moved the Sindh High Court (SHC) against the continuing growth of “licensed wine shops” in the city. The court ruled in favour of the petitioners and ordered Sindh’s provincial government to immediately close down all liquor stores in the province because they were not operating according to the dictates of the 1979 Prohibition Order. The court pointed out that these stores were openly selling liquor to Muslims.

An organisation of wine shop owners in Karachi hired one of Pakistan’s leading lawyers and judicial activists, Asma Jahangir, to submit an appeal in the Supreme Court against the SHC’s ruling. Jahangir told the court that thousands of people belonging to Pakistan’s non-Muslim communities were employed at the shops and would lose their livelihood. She said that the shops were working exactly according to the 1979 Ordinance and that it wasn’t their fault that a majority of their customers were Muslim. The Supreme Court struck down the SHC ruling and ordered the re-opening of the shops.

The irony is that the rate of alcoholism witnessed a two-fold growth during the prohibition. Those studying this phenomenon say that alcoholism as a disorder becomes a complex matter to treat in a society where there is a prohibition in place. They say that whereas it is easier for alcoholics from the upper and the middle-classes to get treatment at detoxification centres, it is tough for people with this disorder from the working classes who believe that they can be arrested for confessing that they drank alcohol regularly.

Ever since the late 1970s, anti-alcohol crusaders have maintained that drinking alcohol (by Muslims in Pakistan) was a “colonial legacy”. They suggest that the habit of drinking alcoholic beverages was imposed on the Muslims of the region by European colonialists. This is how they respond especially when told that all the leading founders of Pakistan, including the highly respected lawyer and politician, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, liked to drink. The truth is that drinking alcoholic beverages is not a “colonial legacy”.

The people of South Asia have been drinking alcohol for over 5,000 years. Interestingly, it is lighter stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes/tobacco and tea which were first introduced in India by the colonialists and all of them are legal in Pakistan.

Recently, the soft drink brand Coca-Cola tried to convince Pakistanis that they should replace tea consumption with their cola. Many Pakistanis responded on social media by suggesting that this was impossible because drinking tea was an integral part of South Asian culture. Drinking tea (or coffee) is a part of various cultures across the world because it is an intoxicant, albeit a mild one. It can only be replaced by another intoxicant. But understandably in a largely dry country such as Pakistan, this aspect of the argument never comes up. South Asians as a whole are usually ambiguous about the use of intoxicants in their respective regions. They have often sought refuge in the explanation that intoxicants were thrust upon them by foreigners.

Yet, 5,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilisation were preparing alcoholic drinks made with sweet and starchy ingredients. In Pakistan’s Taxila Museum lies one of the oldest known distillers in the world (dating back to 3500 BCE). It was discovered in the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, and archaeologists believe that it was used to distil oil and alcoholic beverages.

At the time of the emergence of Hinduism’s earliest sacred text Rigveda in 1400 BCE, Hindus were drinking alcoholic beverages so much that the Rigveda asked them to desist from the habit.

As an alternative, the Rigveda advised them to imbibe a much “holier” drink, the Soma. Soma was made from the extract/juice of an unknown plant which was then fermented. The usage of cannabis too was common during the time of the Rigveda. Cannabis at the time was either eaten or mixed with water or milk as a drink (bhang). Unlike alcohol, this intoxicant was not frowned upon by priests. Another drug which is reported to have been common in ancient India was opium. By 1000 BCE opium was being consumed as a medicine by a large number of ancient Indians. By 500 BCE, Soma, Sura (beer made from barley) and Madhu (honey wine) were also commonly available in India. Some of the earliest Greek sources written after Alexander’s invasion of the region (in 325 BCE) mention that after Alexander’s army found large vineyards in the hills (most probably in present-day Swat in Pakistan) they believed that Dionysius, the Greek god of wine, had already come to India before Alexander.

The same sources also say that Buddhism outrightly forbade its adherents from drinking alcohol, stating that Gautama Buddha (483 BCE-400 BCE) had once remarked, “Drinking ends in madness.” When Xuanzang (Hieun Tsang), the seventh century traveller from China, visited India during the reign of Harsha (who ruled over a large part of north India including present-day Peshawar in Pakistan), he noted that people drank “wines made from flowers” and some “strong distilled liquors”.

By the emergence of Muslim rule in India in the thirteenth century CE, alcoholic beverages, bhang and opium were widely available in the region. One of India’s foremost historians, the late Abraham Eraly, in his books on the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526 CE) and Mughal rule (1526-1857 CE) has commented in some detail on the many indulgences of the people of the region under Muslim rule. Eraly informs us that most rulers of the Delhi Sultanate drank wine which was largely produced in India, but some of it was also imported from Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Jahangir giving a cup of wine to a young woman | Wikimedia Commons

Having opium and bhang was common among the masses. The court’s ulema often advised the Sultans to ban intoxicants (especially wine and spirits) but only Sultan Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316) actually imposed a ban on alcoholic beverages. However, illegal distilleries operating outside the cities continued to supply wines and spirits to the populace – including Alauddin’s own court officials. Babur, the founder of the mighty Mughal Empire, was an opium-eater and loved to drink fine wines. Though he is reported to have quit drinking during the later years of his life, he did not impose any ban on intoxicants. Ironically, it was the most “liberal” Mughal king Akbar (1556-1605 CE) who issued the Empire’s first major decree against the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The sale and usage of opium and cannabis on the other hand remained legal. But Akbar soon repealed the proclamation and made the indigenous Indian wine “toddy” (made from coconut palms) entirely legal. Eraly extensively quotes two seventeenth century Western travellers – the Italian Niccolao Mannuci and Edward Terry – who wrote lengthily on Mughal India.

Both noted that although the consumption of alcoholic beverages was frequent among court nobles and both Hindu and Muslim commoners, Indians did not drink as much as the Europeans, “mainly due to the hot weather in India”.

In their 2008 research on alcohol consumption in Pakistan, Waseem Haider and M. Aslam Chaudhry discovered that despite the 1977 prohibition on alcohol and the further strengthening of this prohibition in 1979, alcohol consumption remained prevalent (mainly due to bootlegging and illegal distilleries). As proven by the region’s history, it is almost impossible to legislate morality.

We stopped meeting Naushad when we gave up smoking hashish some time in the early 1990s. A friend once told me (in the late 1990s) that Naushad had been arrested and was in jail for selling heroin. I never saw him again. But while doing this chapter, another exchange between Naushad and a friend of mine came to mind. Golimar, the congested area where Naushad lived, had numerous drug dens, some in plain sight. So a few days after Naushad had told us how he had joined a mob to loot liquor stores in 1977, my friend asked him why didn’t he gather a mob and loot the drug dens in his area. I remember Naushad in his typical manner had just shrugged his shoulders and said: “Because nobody has asked me to.”

Excerpted with permission from Points of Entry: Encounters At The Origin-Sites of Pakistan, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, Westland.