By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
June 25, 2015
According to Pakistan’s Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, 1981 (XXIII of 1981), whose preamble self-proclaims itself to be “necessary to provide for measures to observe the sanctity of the month of Ramazan”, it is forbidden for any person who “according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast” to eat, drink or smoke in public places. Much like any other law derived from religious scriptures, or with a religious pretext, the ambiguity in verbiage – and hence in implementation – leaves it open to abuse.
With the myriad interpretations of Islam exists a plethora of takes on who is “under an obligation to fast” and who isn’t. Hence when one witnesses anyone eating in the public, it is impossible to assert without any doubt the eligibility of the person to fast in Ramazan, especially for magistrates, chairmen of district councils, municipal corporation mayors, or members of Zakat and Ushr committees – the only individuals given authority to arrest the ‘culprit’.
A person can be imprisoned for up to three months for the ‘crime’ of eating in public according to the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance. Considering how allegations pertaining to breaching religious laws are never substantiated, it is safe to say that eating between sunrise and sunset in front of anyone could lead to jail time and/or being beaten to the pulp by ‘pious’ individuals. Many examples of people being physically attacked by the masses for eating in public have been witnessed over the past three decades, highlighting the inclination of any law with a religious connotation to be taken up by violent mobs, with the aim to ‘mete out justice’ there and then, without any delays.
Ironically, those who are the most vulnerable to the misuse of the law are the ones on whom the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance doesn’t apply. Any law that vies to shield the intangible sanctity of anything related to Islam automatically becomes a quagmire for the religious minorities. And hence, when a mob decides to unleash its wrath on an individual eating out in the open, it won’t pause to reconfirm the person’s faith. If anything a non-Muslim’s act would be deemed prodigiously more “disrespectful”, as we’ve witnessed far too often in the past.
The heat wave in Sindh, which at the time of writing has killed over 800 people in Karachi alone – over 1,200 in the province – has been made even more menacing owing to the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance. As Karachi suffers from the highest temperatures since 1979, dehydration and heat-related illnesses are becoming ubiquitous, and have been confirmed as the principal cause behind the growing number of casualties. For there to be a ban on restaurants, cafes and other outlets that provide food and drinks to the common man, under these harsh circumstances, is tantamount to state collaboration in murder. Help to the people dying of heat has to come in the form of awareness and acceptance that eating and drinking in Ramazan is acceptable especially when one’s health is at threat and does not hurt Islam nor does it disobey religious injunctions.
According to Article 4 of the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance, which prohibits serving food or drinks in public places: “No proprietor, manager, servant, or other person in charge of a hotel, restaurant or canteen, or other public place, shall knowingly and wilfully offer or serve or cause to be offered or served any eatable during fasting hours in the month of Ramazan to any person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast.” The punishment for the crime, again, is up to three months in prison.
With businesses, understandably, not considering themselves in a position to give verdicts on “fasting obligations”, coupled with the general guardedness of those not fasting against conspicuously contradicting the socio-religious pressure, the Article 4 becomes an unequivocal call for the closure of all eating outlets during fasting hours.
Access to basic necessities cannot be denied regardless of any religious obligation. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure availability of food and water at all times, leaving every individual to test their self-control, and their faith, according to their personal beliefs. Considering the record-shattering harshness of weather, where dehydration has become fatal, forcibly demanding ‘respect’ for Ramazan was always going to backfire.
Muslims do not have a monopoly on fasting, with many other religious communities practising it as an act of self-endurance and self-discipline. In fact Islam inherited the ritual of fasting from pre-Islamic Arab traditions of abstaining from food, water and sexual contact from sunrise till sunset. Hence, for us to enforce ‘respect’ for an idea that exists in many communities, and predates all of the modern day religions, is to clutch at straws in our bid to establish our religion as holier than every other idea, including basic human rights.
When any ideology is deemed holier than human life the fatal subordination of life to a set of ideas will self-manifest in multiple forms. Any ideology that needs to breach human rights to enforce reverence, can never garner the respect that it claims as its right.
In the 21st century, and beyond, every ideology, religion, thought or idea has to earn respect. The claim that any ideology automatically commands respect, on the basis of the number of adherents is outmoded, especially if it imposes itself on others, against their will. And the fact that the state has to impose antediluvian laws to help people out in an act of ‘self-endurance’, in a bid to establish ‘respect’, is self-defeating.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a member of staff.