It was June 2011, I had to attend a meeting after office. We kept it at Nayyer Ali Dada’s Café Nairang. We chose to sit upstairs since it is less crowded there and the contents of the mineral water bottles in the hands of some of us were, strictly speaking, not exactly aqua pura. We had hardly settled down when I heard the footsteps of a procession marching upstairs. I was totally dumbstruck when I saw it was 20 odd policemen heading towards us. I wondered what could have made thaana Shadman send so many troops to catch us. One would have been enough; in fact we would have appeared before them had they just called us on our cell phone. It took a while to get my breath back even after the police marched right past us and caught three boys and two girls sharing a couple of sheeshas. On that day the police arrested the manager, smashed all glass bases on the floor, and confiscated the rest of the sheesha equipment. They also took with them to the police station the indulging culprits (including the girls).
The next day I discussed the incident with Sohail Warraich saab and he agreed to do a segment on it on his then recently started Meray Mutabiq. For this I got hold of a copy of the FIR. The police had let the girls off with a warning and had filed the report against the boys and the manager and they had to bail themselves out.
It wasn’t too long prior to this incident when a provincial ordinance was passed. Sheesha smoking isn’t banned in our constitution, and a lot of café owners have turned their hopes to the courts and filed petitions to grant them permission to offer sheesha in designated places in their cafes and restaurants, keeping in perspective the Protection of Non-smokers Health Ordinance 2002.
Since there is nothing against sheesha smoking, the police are taking action under Section 144 – the panacea for all ills from bathing in the sea to Dengue. Since 144 is for emergency situations, normal rules get suspended, which makes matters simple for the authorities. The problems is that it cannot be enforced for more than two months, hence the constant need on the part of the concerned city/district governments to keep on extending it after every two months.
By considering the judiciary as a ray of hope, the sheesha parlour owners may be clutching at straws. One Judge in particular of the Sindh High Court has categorically stated being a smoker himself and knowing first hand how injurious it is for health, he can’t decide in its favor. Lahore high court judges don’t seem too enthusiastic either.
Whenever something happens where all the provinces are on the same page and the courts too remain firm in backing them, it is time for conspiracy theories. That all this is associated with a government officials’ son’s death, no self-respecting conspiracy theorist is willing to believe for a moment. A one-off incident can’t possibly result in the organised crusade on display against sheesha. Similarly, there is no mileage in the theory that parlors let the smokers mix kathi with tobacco. Certainly this is possible at home but not in a public place because I have yet to come across odorless kathi (if the reader knows otherwise, please share the information). By the way, kathi is unbearable with sheesha (another excuse). So there must be a better theory that explains the state of affairs.
God knows best but the word is out that it is the Pakistan Tobacco Company putting pressure on all the provinces to minimise sheesha usage. If you enter any tobacco store you will see the biggest section of the store dedicated to Sheesha. The rest of the smoking items don’t get half as much space, including regular cigarettes and I have heard that the PTC hasn’t jumped into sheesha flavors and accessories as yet.
This conspiracy theory reminds me of the incident when in the early 90s, Altaf bhai quit smoking and asked his followers to follow suit. This shut down a privately owned tobacco company in Hyderabad, which started production again when allegedly some party funds were donated and Altaf bhai in his next sermon duly announced that while he will stick to his oath; his followers were free to smoke if they wanted. The situation is very different now – that time it was one political party and one private limited; now it is PTC against the numerous foreign brands and masses.
Coming back to Section 144, in case of Dengue, rallies, protests and the like, generic acts such as 144, 751 or 16 MPO make some sense as they enable governments to avoid legislation and get things done. In the government’s defense, they never know when they will have to face the situation again. But on matters like sheesha, there is no excuse for putting off legislation, one way or the other: Either properly ban the cafes or regularise them as per international standards.
But this is a country where 144 is imposed on wedding receptions, as if it’s a threat to the law and order when people gather for the auspicious occasion of holy matrimony! Legislating a sheesha ban might not be very easy; sheesha parlors are legal almost everywhere around the world and sheesha does not come under drug or alcohol abuse either.
The author is a journalist, director/producer, actor, documentary maker, blogger/columnist, managing director of a theatre company called Mishermayl and a struggling musician.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.