Action to shut down sheesha bars in Lahore has resulted in a legal battle between restaurant owners and the government. The restaurant, a private place, established by a private person with personal funds, offers the choice of either entering to avail the offered facilities or of staying away. The learned bench of the Lahore High Court, therefore, shot the case to pieces permitting the smoking of sheesha in private establishments.
Early in the current month, the Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad (‘the Beautiful’, using friend Kamran Shafi’s full title for the city in an article from this paper), was reported in The Express Tribune to have said that his administration would raise awareness against the use of tobacco.
In the middle of the month, suddenly and without any warning, a scourge not of Attila the Hun but of the city’s assistant commissioners descended on sheesha establishments in Islamabad. Each commissioner had in tow a bunch of the Islamabad sub-caste of the dreaded Punjab police. Customers using sheesha were arrested. Where owners intervened, they were not spared either and ended up with their clients in police stations. It was as if these people were hardened criminals engaged in a very grave crime. The whole affair of arresting and traumatising clients and cafe owners was straight out of the early Middle Ages.
The interesting thing is that this action seems to be aimed at selected mid-level cafes. A restaurant owner, whose sheesha-smoking clients were arrested on the veranda of his establishment, alleged that cafes of politically-connected owners in Saidpur and Islamabad as well as a five-star hotel that serves sheesha were spared. Even more interesting is the fact that the commissioners were not clear about the whole thing. For one of them, outdoor smoking was kosher while others insisted on a total ban.
Now, I am not a smoker; have never been one in all my years. I do not approve of it, but if someone is intent upon poisoning themselves, who on earth am I to prevent them? I do not understand what the administration means to achieve by this drive, but it does have one great triumph: it has successfully chased away the clientele of sheesha bars.
First, we chased away the foreigners living in Pakistan with our bombs and violence. They now restrict themselves to their clubs in the diplomatic enclave. Now the Islamabad administration does not want Pakistanis to be seen having a good time. Arrest anywhere is terrible, in Pakistan at the hands of the Punjab pulce it is a bloody nightmare, especially when a young woman is arrested by a scruffy, unwashed policeman. No surprise then that the restaurants of Islamabad, especially those serving sheesha, are now largely deserted.
I cannot imagine that the good deputy commissioner and his team have suddenly awakened to the curse of sheesha smoking without reason. Do they not see the myriad other banes that afflict this sorry land? Why, for example, don’t they concern themselves with the rampant bribe taking in the pulce stations?
I do not know it, but there is a niggling feeling that this whole sordid affair has a deeper meaning. Does someone connected well within the corridors of power have something to do with all this? Is this person hoping to set up an outdoor sheesha bar somewhere in Islamabad and is engaged in this ‘aggressive’ marketing campaign to draw away the clientele of the ordinary café to his/her business whenever he/she opens its doors? I tell you I smell a rat. And a mighty big one.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2012.