Low spirits

Banning wine shops in Sindh is so 1979

Low spirits
When a Hindu MNA goes to court to have wine shops banned, you can be forgiven for doing a doubletake. This news would not have raised eyebrows had an elected rep from a right-wing party done the same.

But this was indeed the case with MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani who filed a successful petition (with other parties such as the Pakistan Bishops Council). Vankwani is patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council as well and one of the six minority MNAs for the Pakistan Muslim League-N. He went to court with other minority figures in October. By the end of the month, the Sindh High Court ordered all 124 wine shops in Sindh to shut after it heard arguments that neither Christianity nor Hinduism allowed drinking and that wine shops were selling to Muslims.

Religious parties welcomed the decision by putting up banners in Karachi. The government started recalling licences. Vankwani’s argument seems to have won: the shops were violating the Prohibition (Enforcement of Hadd) Order of 1979.
3% of Pakistan's 180m can acquire a license to buy alcohol, which limits them to a case of beer or six half-liter bottles of spirits per month: WSJ

“Dictator Zia ul Haq’s era legislated law for non-Muslims for buying liquor,” explains Advocate General Sindh Zameer Ghumro. Article 17 says the government can issue licenses to make, import, transport, sell, possess liquor if it is for non-Muslim citizens to drink as a part of a religious ceremony, among other purposes. This prohibition law says that non-Muslim Pakistanis can drink a “reasonable” quantity of “intoxicating liquor” for the purpose of using it as part of a religious ceremony. You can’t sell to Muslims. The law also says that you can only sell to non-Muslims on religious occasions but the reality was that shops were selling throughout the week (except Fridays), argued the petition.

At one point up to 17 petitions on the topic were filed in the Sindh High Court, including the Vankwani one. Last year, the Supreme Court sent back a case to the Sindh High Court in order to solve the issue as well. Top lawyer Asma Jahangir represented eight wine shop owners who wanted the SC to grant them permission to do business until the matters were settled in the Sindh court. In the end, the SHC’s Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah and Justice Zulfiqar Ali Khan ordered the government to create a proper mechanism to issue permits. (In 2006, the Sindh government had ended the permit system and allowed people to buy liquor based on their ID cards.) Unless the Sindh government now creates a new mechanism, wine shops will remain closed.

“Everyone drinks,” Vankwani says. “Our point is: why they are using Hindus or non-Muslims [to drink]? I don’t mind if anyone drinks but then they should do it in their own name. Muslims have shares in ten wine factories but on paper non-Muslim names are used.” In particular, he mentions two politicians in Sindh with shares in wine shops.
Murree Brewery revenue has almost doubled to Rs6.03b from Rs3.35b five years ago, but they have also started producing juices

Here is where another story emerges. “Some people have issues with Minister Mukesh Chawla and that’s the reason they are against him,” AG Ghumro remarked. “Politics is involved in this case. That’s the reason sometimes the issue is raised. Sindh has many more non-Muslims than the Punjab.” One argument that is presented is that raising an issue such as a wine-shop ban has the effect of earning political mileage ahead of the elections. If you are seen as ‘active’ on issues, you have better chances of being awarded a ticket in the next elections, or a reserved seat if you happen to be a minority member.

“There are many issues which have led to this ban,” argues lawyer Ramesh Gupta, who has been on these cases. “The first is a political issue in which some politicians want to maintain their image through the popular issue of wine and the second is illegal money [bhatta] demanded by influential authorities.” Gupta disagrees with the argument that Hinduism does not allow drink. He refers to the Geeta, Mahabharat and Arthashastra, which tell women that they should not leave their husbands if they are alcoholics but can leave them when they are cured. This is a clear indication that drinking is allowed and acknowledged, Gupta feels. He scoffs at those who say they want a ban to protect Hindu interests. “Those who are interested in caring for the religion should talk about the holy Cow and education for non-Muslims,” he says, referring to what he believes is a selective take on the religious issues. “Is it their job is divide liquor into Halal and Haram? “Banning liquor is itself a violation of Article 36 which gives protection and rights to non-Muslims in Pakistan,” he argues.

Politics mixes with money in this case. And people who oppose the ban from the Hindu community have argued that it is not just about religion. There is big money in this business. Murree Brewery revenue has almost doubled to Rs6.03b from Rs3.35b five years ago, but they have also started producing juices. “My department generates around Rs4.5 billion annually from [license fees] from 120 wine shops operating in the province,” Sindh Minister for Excise and Taxation Mukesh Chawla has said on the record. He decides who gets a permit to open a wine shop and who doesn’t. In 2014, he was removed but he has since been reinstated. In fact, he has been a member of the Sindh Assembly on a minorities seat for the last three general elections, and had been serving as the excise and taxation minister for around six and a half years. One sure fire way of getting to him would be to put a dent in the business.

Veengas is a Karachi-based journalist and tweets at @veengasj