Since not one civilian government has dared to have a public debate around the Ehtram-e Ramzan law since 1981, it is time to start one
The other day as I was walking in my street in the afternoon, just because the weather allowed it, a young girl of twelve or thirteen came running from an adjoining street and went straight to the water cooler installed against the outer wall of a sprawling house. As she pressed the button, no water came out. Disappointed, the girl who appeared to be a house maid went back her way.
Apparently, in Ramzan, rich people who otherwise dole out truckloads (literally) of charitable goods withdraw this kind act -- of letting poor passersby have cold water from their coolers.
Every Ramzan brings some news related to a law that prohibits eating, drinking and smoking in public -- people being hauled up, arrested, only because the law says so. The image of an old Hindu man with bleeding hands in interior Sindh, brutally beaten up by a policeman in 2016 for eating a little before Iftar, is unforgettable. A year before that, about 1000 people died in Karachi, mostly from the labour class, due to a heat wave. It was said a lot of them died because of unavailability of water in the month of fasting; a time when you can’t carry or buy or drink water in the open.
It seems everyone, including the rich people who shut their coolers down during Ramzan, fears the law. The law, Ehtram-e Ramzan Ordinance 1981, is believed to have been introduced by the then military dictator who was on an Islamisation spree. I think he only made an existing harmless law more stringent by introducing fines and punishment.
Unlike the experience with some other laws introduced during that regime, despite this one the people and society at large appear relatively kind and generous to those who do not fast. But the law is very much present on the statute books and not one civilian government has had a debate on the rationale behind this law since 1981. If anything has happened, the punishments and fines have increased for the Ramzan ‘violators’.
In 2017, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs approved a bill (Ehtram-e-Ramzan Amendment Bill) as per which the fine for hotel owners was increased from Rs500 to Rs25,000, people who smoke or eat openly during Ramzan would be fined Rs500 along with 3-month imprisonment and tv channels or cinema houses that violate the law fined Rs500,000 or more.
The law does make some exceptions, for minors in schools or people who are travelling etc.
In this respect, the most interesting news that has appeared this year is from Hyderabad, Sindh. The Sindh High Court has announced a reserved verdict rejecting some 262 petitions (yes you read that right!) by hotel businesses who had sought exemption from the Ehtram-e Ramzan Ordinance 1981. The court held that their businesses did not fall under the ambit of exemptions. The news report stated, "The court noted that perusal of different sections of the ordinance showed that it was aimed at inculcating respect and honour of the holy month in the minds and hearts of Muslims."
This is where the intent of the law becomes clear. The respect and honour are reserved for the holy month and not the people, and that too shall be inculcated in the "minds and hearts of Muslims" through the law. In a Muslim majority state, with no acknowledgement of diversity, the law presumes that everyone fasts, or should. It then presumes that those who fast deserve the respect of everyone else and no one must eat or drink in public (you are free to eat, drink and smoke in your homes). It also presumes that those who fast cannot resist the temptation and don’t deserve to see anyone eating or drinking before their eyes.
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While the governments may not have debated the law, individual voices have consistently been raised, articulating a need for a public debate on the issue. In 2017, after the Senate’s standing committee approved the amended bill, Bakhtawar Bhutto-Zardari criticised it publicly on Twitter: "People are going to die from heat stroke and dehydration with this ridiculous law. Not everyone is able. This is not Islam." Not deterred by the response, she further explained: "We are more than capable of resisting temptation and keeping our fasts" and "Not everyone in Pakistan will be fasting -- children in school, the elderly, people with medical issues -- Should we arrest them for drinking water?"
It could be argued that the state brought in this law to prevent vigilantism but from what we see and hear, it is only state functionaries who punish the ‘violators’. The public debate that must happen could refer to non-Muslim-majority states (in Europe and North America) where Muslims fast perfectly normally without any prohibition laws. It could refer to how right it is to prohibit people from eating while the media sells food-related advertisements and programming throughout the day. It should definitely refer to the fact that the Ehtram-e-Ramzan law presumes that fasting alone does not inculcate self-control and abnegation as it must and, therefore, a law is required to enforce it somehow.