When the amendment to the Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance was passed last year, I remember my uncle, a caterer, shook his head in dismay. Most restaurants in Pakistan, including his, remain closed during the day in the month of Ramazan. Even so, prohibiting service as well as eating, drinking, and smoking in public was a step too far for him, and as it transpired, many others.

With the advent of Ramazan, the bill has been subject to much backlash on social media and other forums for debate for appearing to condone religious discrimination. One widely-circulated argument, for example, is that the bill was primarily enforced to prevent any unwanted temptations that a fasting individual may experience if they see another person eating, drinking, or smoking in public. Much of the bill’s criticism has questioned this notion’s relevance and decried its partiality.

It is true that a significant proportion of Pakistan’s population comprises of children, the elderly, the sick, and non-Muslims. Each of these groups is exempted or even forbidden by Islam from fasting. To eat and drink openly, as citizens, is their fundamental right. Furthermore, there is no reason they cannot exercise this right in light of an obligation set on the fasting adult Muslims, but not them, and especially not if it were a matter of 'unnecessarily' tempting the latter. As critics have correctly pointed out, one of the core purposes of fasting is the ability to resist such inclinations and pursue higher aims. But is it this bias on which the bill was enforced?

One clause of the ordinance states, "No person who, according to the tenets of Islam, is under an obligation to fast, shall eat, drink, or smoke in a public place during the fasting hours of Ramazan." Each penalty laid in the bill only pertains to a person who is required to fast according to Islamic teachings. To emphasise, the phrase "according to the tenets of Islam" indicates that this ban cannot apply to children, the elderly, the sick, non-Muslims, and any person not required to fast by Shariah. Therefore, any repercussions they face as a consequence of this ban are transgressions of its limits. As it happened, no case was reported or registered last year against any person falling into these demographics.

However, partly because the bill’s propositions have been somewhat miscommunicated, its immediate repercussions include making non-Muslims, already a reserved community, even more secluded. Most are now reluctant to eat or drink in public out of fear of being reprimanded. Another complication is the recent heatwave across Pakistan and India. People are choosing not to eat or drink despite very high daily temperatures. The consequent hazards are, in turn, being associated with the bill – people are reasoning that if it weren’t enforced, they may have had adequate food and drink, and may have avoided any health problems altogether. And thus, in the short run as animosity toward the ban is increasing among non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

This could be mitigated by spreading the assertion that if anyone does eat, drink, or smoke publicly during the day in Ramazan, it is because they are not obligated to fast.This should be emphasised as one of the main principles of the bill. At the very least, it could be used to lower the risk of ill-treatment of non-Muslim citizens during Ramazan. This, of course, requires that it is enforced appropriately and explained clearly.

The Ehtram-e-Ramazan Ordinance is an affirmation of Pakistan as an Islamic republic. This does not mean that its premise is to establish religious discrimination into legal practice. Nevertheless, the criticism against it does have a basis in fact.

Though abstinence is an important aspect of fasting, eating, drinking, and smoking in public is often seen as generating and building on temptations for those fasting, and is taken as a sign of discourtesy. Doing so is being faced with increased stigmatisation and even serious consequences, including verbal and physical assault, for appearing to disrespect the act of fasting.

An instance of this prejudice was seen in 2016, in a rural district in Sindh, when a Hindu octogenarian was beaten by a policeman for eating during Ramazan. The bill, if not accurately understood or informed, may be abused by people regarding it as an incentive to persecute those eating or drinking openly. It may be perceived as offering a free rein to impose one’s own ideals of an Islamic community during Ramazan, regardless of how rigid or hard-lined.

As the Ehtram-e-Ramzan Ordinance has now been implemented, it should accordingly be adequately promulgated. This includes enforcing stronger action against any abuses of the bill and creating a better general understanding of what the bill actually doctrines. It is also necessary to emphasise the importance of not taking any unauthorised, aggressive action against eating, drinking, or smoking in public. Imposing these measures would be a good sign that the bill is coming closer to creating a universal respect for the practice of fasting rather than an atmosphere of religious intolerance.