Last year, Jaswant Singh had invited ten BJP dissidents to a feudal riyan ceremony in his native village in Barmer, where they allegedly ate opium from his hand as a mark of fealty. Seeing a fantastic opportunity to punish dissidence, Vasundhara Raje’s government slapped charges under the drug law. This August, the case was dismissed by a special court in Jodhpur for lack of evidence. One would have been impressed by this display of legal efficiency, but for the timing — the ruling was delivered just before the election season. Raje had merely embarrassed Singh. If the case were still on, the new Congress government could have put him away.
Singh fell foul of a law founded on colonial beliefs and deeply reverential of international hysteria about soft drugs. A couple of generations ago, opium use was as common in India as post-prandial cognacs are in the West. Little old ladies took it every day. And until the era of globalisation, most Indians were repelled by the Western institution of the bar, regarding it as a sinful place where degenerates gather to tank up before they go home to beat their wives. As the marketing gurus say, location is everything.
Having seen what the East India Company’s opium had done to Chinese society, the British banned its use in the Empire and we still bear their burden of righteousness. With Eastern indolence, of course. Rajasthan’s highways are lined with licensed shops selling a powder called doda post. After the poppy harvest, the sap goes to the pharmaceutical industry for making morphine. The seeds presumably go to Bengal for use in aloo posto, a lunchtime delicacy. And the calyx is powdered and sold on the highways as a source of low-grade opium. Doda post is the active ingredient of the sau meel ki chai beloved of truckers, which operates on the principle that when you come to your senses, you will be a hundred miles away.
Similarly, marijuana is banned by law and crops in Kerala are torched for the benefit of TV cameras. At the same time, bhang is legally sold from government-licensed premises in most states. Even the good and the great drink it on Holi. And if the police did a sweep in Hardwar, where alcohol is banned for religious reasons, the local jails would be teeming with chillum-toting swamis and babas.
Alcohol and tobacco abuse — both foreign imports — present far bigger health hazards than India’s traditional, indigenous soft drugs, which are commonly used anyway. Maybe we should acknowledge reality and re-examine our laws relating to the issue, like the Netherlands has done, instead of criminalising whatever the West finds exotic, and therefore suspicious.
(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)