By Mohsin Ilyas
Youngsters from Christian localities turn to bootlegging as an easier alternative to making money. The bleak scenario of economic opportunities leads many such Christians to jump into this clandestine business.
The Prohibition Order in 1977 established the sale of alcohol to Muslims is illegal in Pakistan. This ordinance also laid that the licensed trade of liquor could take place through members of non-muslim communities. Which explains why a large chunk of Christian youth possesses liquor permits – widely seen as a “filthy piece of paper”.
Oftentimes, the indulgence of Christian youth in this liquor trade is a result of the discrimination and despair they face in availing of mainstream job opportunities. Conversing with my friends from 66 quarters, Islamabad (a Christian slum) I learned that they feel they have fewer chances of professional growth due to their religious orientation.
The quota for minorities in government as well as the private sector is quite narrow and in practice recruiters prefer Muslim candidates, leaving the educated Christian community feeling betrayed. Quite predictably, a percentage of the Christian youth takes to other shady means of earning as an alternate route.
Dynamics of bootlegging in the capital slums
As an Islamic State, easy access to consumption and purchase of alcohol is not the case in Pakistan. It is forbidden for Muslims and after the prohibition, there exists an ostensible legal barrier. However, liquor consumption is allowed to Pakistani Christians for which they have to get a license issued by the Government.
Some young Christians, with access to the liquor market, misuse their permits as they buy liquor for their non-Christian acquaintances. These buyers are willing to pay heavy prices for the drinks however, both the parties can be imprisoned for illegally buying and selling the liquor.
Although these young men do realize that the chances of them being bailed out of the prison (in case of getting caught by the police) are very low in comparison to their buyers who are mostly really rich and resourceful.
On being asked why they are willing to take such a risk and face the severe circumstances, a young boy who demanded anonymity replied “we just want to earn a living”.
Akram Masih, bootlegger becomes a government employee
Akram Masih, a young Christian man living in Islamabad, had a similar set of circumstances. “After my intermediate (twelve years of education) I started looking for a job. But it turned out fruitless for years”.
He shared that it was a colossal challenge to support his education as his father did not have enough resources to pay the fees. “I have worked very hard to complete my degree”, Akram continued and made mention of the first job he found “it paid me Rs. 10,000 per month but barely helped in supporting a family of six members”.
Akram’s search for a decent white-collar job did not end. In fact, he still wishes to continue his education and get a professional degree.
“My sisters were old enough and willing to get married but my parents were unable to marry them off due to financial constraints. That helplessness led me to adopt illegal methods of earning which I did not want to indulge in”, he added.
Akram’s friend offered him money in lieu of selling liquor to the clients on his behalf to earn easy money. He immediately agreed. Within a few weeks, Akram had clients directly reaching out to him for supplies as he gained fame for providing genuine and original liquor.
“Within a short passage of time, I started earning pretty well. My family, friends, and acquaintances had no idea of what I was doing and where was all the money coming from”, said Akram. Many bootleggers claim that they keep their families in the dark concerning their involvement in the liquor business.
“During this time, I was constantly looking for a job as well, as I did not want to continue in that line of work for the notoriety attached to it. I was happy to see my earnings grow but deep down in my heart I felt dissatisfied with the illegal character of it”, told Akram.
With a sparkle in his eyes, Akram told that he finally received an interview call for a position that he had applied for. “Finally, a silver lining. I was extremely happy to be shortlisted for a position at a Government institute that I had applied for some time ago”, announced Akram. It was a wonderful opportunity as I had always dreamt of getting a Government job.
“I instantly decided to quit bootlegging and take up the job offer”, Akram Masih cuts out an exception because many young Christian men who are knee-deep in the bootlegging business continue with it despite the threats.
Akram mentioned that the amount he is earning now is a little less than what he used to make by selling liquor however he’s happy and satisfied with what he does.
He informed that most of the community residents have not even passed their matriculation. Without basic education and technical know-how, they can not possibly get decent jobs. There are hundreds of boys like him in the neighbourhood who struggled to get an education, but the lack of economic opportunity pushes them to take to rum-running.
The structural discrimination has dampened their hopes of earning a decent living. “If we are welcomed and allowed in the system we would not want to indulge in shady options (bootlegging)”, another friend of mine in 66 Quarters explained.
Arshid Masih tries not to recall his bootlegging days
Another resident of the same slum in Islamabad started selling alcohol so he could meet the daily financial needs of his family. His father was not earning enough to sustain a family of 5 children.
He said that “I was a student of matriculation when I realized that I should be doing something to add to the family income. It resulted in a diminished interest in studies”, Akram confessed. He tried finding a decent job but without prior experience and incomplete education, he could not compete well enough to find an opportunity to earn.
“Unwillingly I started selling drugs and alcohol, but my parents remained unaware of it. I continued in the bootlegging business for a year and was able to support my family”, he added that he “would not give them a portion of my total earnings for the fear that they might guess my means of making money”. In fact, with the excess money, I couldn’t help but drink more. The indulgence in gambling and other bad practices was a direct result of my company and clandestine liquor trade.
Akram’s tone grew emotional as he shared further about this bootlegging trajectory and revealed that one day his father came to know about the work he was doing. “He was so furious that he kicked me out of the home”. I slept on the footpath and reflected on my life, that night changed a lot in me.
“I decided to quit and returned to my family the next morning” Akram asked them for forgiveness, and with such strange swiftness that chapter came to a close.
He started learning how to operate sound systems alongside photography and videography. “I earned 100 rupees for each event because I was a beginner. That was very little or almost no amount, but I had peace in my life and my family was happy with me. My message to all those who come to this business of selling drugs/alcohol is that the terrible feeling doesn’t leave”.
Akram shared that some of his friends don’t quite believe that he is not a bootlegger anymore and ask for a bottle of alcohol every now and then, “I can only jokingly refuse, which I do”.
Bootlegging not specific to Christian youth
Steering past the stereotypes we come to see several cases where the bootlegger belongs to the Muslim majority. The reasons behind entering this covert business posture may be unique to the individual in it. But as a fact, the profession is not specific to Christians only. “The chain of persons through which I can buy and sell liquor is tricky because it’s illegal and everyone demands money”, revealed a Muslim bootlegger who has been in the business for a couple of years.
What needs to be done
In a country like ours where the youth bulge is significant, it’s important to facilitate productive activities for the youth, so as to minimize chances of their indulgence in illicit and immoral activities. Vocational training initiatives can also help Christian youth start their professional careers, and not resort to options as bootlegging.
Names were changed to protect identities.