… But some rozaadaar are more equal than others
“By all means, implement this ordinance. But dare to implement it uniformly.”
There is something I must confess. This column is being penned at 4:00 pm at an upscale café at a 5-star hotel. This café is fully open, as are all restaurants in this hotel, even though we’re nearly three hours away from iftar time.
Seated at a table in the garden, I begin my research on Ehtaram-e-Ramzan ordinance. A recent amendment unanimously adopted by the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs has expanded the law, and introduced harsher penalties. Any person who consumes food or beverage openly in public space, may be sentences to up to 3 months of imprisonment. Hotels serving food during fasting hours may also be punished.
“Ready to order, sir?” the waiter inquires. I draw my eyes away from my laptop to meet his. With a smile, I ask him if he could come back later. The waiter nods and moves to another table.
I take a moment to examine the customers around me. The café, like all other restaurants of its kind in opulent hotels, claims to remain open all day long during Ramzan for travellers and non-Muslims. I pause to wonder if I’m surrounded completely by travellers, non-Muslims, and sick people, and decide that that would be highly unlikely. By then, I’d already read through the Ehtaram-e-Ramzan ordinance 1981, and found no such exemption from a legal standpoint. This café would have been exempted, had it been located in a hospital or a dining car of a train.
One wonders if this is one of those dormant laws that exist only on paper, but are rarely used to prosecute anyone. Surely even the most honourable and disciplined of police officers might recognise that chasing down a man for allegedly eating a pakora before sunset, is a task that somewhat trivialises his worthy profession.
I continue my research. I discover that only two weeks ago, four people were arrested in Rawalpindi near Pirwadhai area for eating publicly during fasting hours. The owner of “Al-Madina Birney Shop” was found to be selling food to hungry citizens by policemen patrolling the area. This alleged consumption or sale of biryani, I assume from the name of the shop, was not ignored by our diligent police officers, who then booked the violators under this ordinance.
“Ready, sir?” the waiter asked me again, this time a little less politely. I realised I was being nudged into violating section 3 of this ordinance as a price for keeping my table at this serene café. I skirted this potential legal issue by ordering an overpriced sandwich to be packed, not served. I figured I’d eat it later at home for iftar.
I returned to my work, ignoring the irritating clattering of silverware around me. I took a few minutes to chat with my friend about the café being open during fasting hours. My friend argued that the hotel attracts a lot of ‘foreigners’, which is why it is understandable why they’d keep the restaurants open. Understandable to him perhaps, but inconceivable to me; because clearly even foreigners are subject to Pakistani law while on Pakistani soil, and cannot evade punishment except for in the rare circumstance of possessing diplomatic immunity. And even if the foreigner cannot be arrested, I doubt the Pakistani proprietor, manager, server, and owner of this restaurant is immune from section 4 of the ordinance.
In the following hour or so in which the police did not raid this 5-star hotel and start handcuffing its prized clientele, the true perversity of this situation dawned on me.
This isn’t new. The elite make laws that they do not have to abide by. Politicians and celebrities who support the Ehtaram-e-Ramzan ordinance to the roaring approval of a growingly religious public, can do so with the assurance that they’d never be subjected to this regulation. They can make or amend any religious law, and then retreat to their luxurious enclaves in Islamabad to munch upon a club sandwich made with the finest organic ingredients, never having to worry about the rules they themselves put into place. Those rules are for Al-Madni Birney Shop at Pirwadhai. Those rules are for middle-class restaurants in Saddar.
Remember this year’s self-parodying crackdown on Valentine Day that completely failed to notice the uproarious celebrations at 5-star hotels, but brought its hammer down full-force onto street vendors selling heart-shaped balloons? The same plutocracy now brings you this month’s latest demonstration of pseudo-piety which, brace yourself for a shock, only applies to the common rabble.
To a Pakistani non-Muslim staring at the closed shutter of his favourite café, this ordinance is a reminder of being a mere spectator in a country whose law is determined by cultural forces that bypass his wishes and needs entirely.
But that’s not what I’m arguing against for now. By all means, implement this ordinance. But dare to implement it uniformly. There can be no democratic law-making, while the upper class is immune to the effects of its own laws.