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Bad trip for the Rathore clan

Jaswant Singh’s already gone one up on the standard ‘Bill Clinton “I didn’t inhale” defence’, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2007 22:34 IST

Jaswant ‘I-Say-Old-Chap’ Singh may jolly well use his infamous baritone to bring us an interesting rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds one day. But by the bumpy tarmac of Kandahar airport, he’s not the sort who gets busted in a drug raid!

Well, it wasn’t really a drug bust of the Keith Richard-Fardeen Khan variety. A rather eagle-eyed local by the name of Om Prakash Vishnoi first spotted the former Foreign Minister on TV serving a yellowish liquid to his guests in his ancestral village of Jasol in Rajasthan. And since the yellowish liquid wasn’t a nice, legal depressant like the one that has left the right side of my brain incapacitated after an unusually long Diwali week, Mr Vishnoi suspected the worst. “Is it opium that has been dissolved in water, and then strained and mixed with sugar, saffron and milk?” Mr Busybody asked himself prior to asking himself a final question just before calling the cops, “Is the normally cravat-bound, nose hair-snipped, pride of the Rathore clan openly disobeying the law by throwing an opium party?”

Many moons ago, I had got into trouble with the students’ union of my university for writing an article in The Statesman in which I had pointed out that there was something deeply silly in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPSA) 1985. While the Act made the possession of cannabis in its various forms (ganja, bhang, hashish, etc) punishable by law, it overlooked the fact that it was consumed by a large number of Indians in lieu of other much more expensive but legal recreational devices like cigarettes, pilgrimages and alcohol. Sure, the law was lax, creeping up mostly on backpacking foreigners for an easy buck — or, as is more likely these days, an easy Israeli sheqel. But that made the law even more ridiculous by being there in the first place.

But that wasn’t what got the ruling student body start a signature campaign against me. What made them hallucinate that I was a ‘cultural degenerate’ was the fact that I had made a longwinded analogy that went something like this: the same way many middle-class Indian youngsters have discovered the ‘coolness’ of Ravi Shankar’s music in a second-hand way through the hippies (prime suspect: George Harrison), many middle-class Indian youngsters seem to have come to appreciate ‘smoking pot’ because of a Western counter-cultural context. I pointed out the irony of it all, considering that even after the Indian government made the NDPSA come into effect because of international treaty obligations, it would be a tough task to raid, say, a Kumbh mela gathering and round up the usual Naga sadhu suspects, or bust a Holi celebration where the bhang is doing the rounds among uncles and aunts, elders and eldests, or consider the regular rickshawpuller with his toke to be a drug-addled menace to society. In other words, we had a law that lumped ‘traditional’ users of marijuana with dangerous dopeheads. In the eyes of the students’ union, of course, I had made the ideological error of identifying 'decadent behaviour' as tradition.

Jaswant Singh’s already gone one up on the standard ‘Bill Clinton “I didn’t inhale” defence’. Not only has he maintained in his usual dignified way that all he was serving that fateful Wednesday was a mixture of Ganga jal, molasses and tea, but he also added that even if he had served an opium mix — which he insisted he didn’t — it was part of the traditional Rajasthani ‘riyan’ ceremony that involved serving guests with Opium Lite to underline camaraderie.

In his book Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground, Marek Kohn brilliantly examines how the criminalisation of drugs in the early 20th century can be traced to Western fears about sex, race and class. It doesn’t take a William Dalrymple to realise that our present laws against drugs are heavily based on the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report lovingly produced by the Brits in 1894.

Question is: should there be a legal sanction against someone — even a hot-shot polo enthusiast like Jaswant — if he indulges in a bit of tradition that doesn’t involve raising a toast or popping a champagne bottle? Whash do yoo, bhaiyon aur beheno shay to that?