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The malignant genius

July 22, 2010

Drink and drugs control in the United Provinces of British India, 1907–47 – by Luke Gibbon

In 1924, A A Waugh, the Officiating Excise Officer for the United Provinces (UP), compared the British attempt to control abkari (intoxicants) “to the familiar fable of the malignant genius who was confined in a bottle. He was likely to escape and overpower his captor if pressure on the bottle was not maintained. But an attempt to finish him off by sudden, intensive pressure would have been likely to result in his escape by the bursting of the bottle rather than his extinction.”

The colonial administration attempted to exercise monopoly control over the production, distribution and consumption of country spirit, European liquor, tari, sendhi, cannabis and opium. It also sought to crack down on the circulation of cocaine. This was the era of the emergence of a legal framework for international drugs control, codified in conventions such as the Geneva Opium Convention (1925). The focus was primarily on controlling the production and international distribution of narcotics.

As R J S Dodd, Inspector-General of the UP police, put it: “We know that efforts are being made by the League of Nations to stop the importation of this wretched drug; but meanwhile it is our duty to get sent to jail all those who make large sums of money from the traffic.” In India control remained the business of the colonial agents, from licensing liquor distilleries and vendors to the registering and limiting of individual consumption.

In the UP the administration also had to manage poppy cultivation. By 1911 the province was the sole centre of production for the British Indian opium industry. The ‘weeding out’ of unproductive and unwilling cultivators began with the Ten Year Agreement (1907) with China and continued under conventions of the League. Remaining poppy tracts were widely scattered and often remote. By 1932 it was reported that “out of the way licenses have escaped investigation for a number of years”. It was felt that “opium smugglers will always offer to cultivators many times the price which is offered by the Government”. ‘Leakage’ of government opium into illicit markets was a constant anxiety for the colonial agents.

From 1921 to 1935, facing interwar financial stringency, the provincial governments cut the number of chaukidars (village policeman), ‘the eyes and ears of the rural constabulary’, from 87 963 to 40 419. Moreover, in this period of peasant agitation, nationalist unrest and temperance campaigning, colonial agents felt increasingly isolated from hostile sections of the population. A sense of besiegement was evident during the Quit India campaign of August–September 1942: “Ghazipur [the opium factory] was entirely without communication with the outside world…British troops were stationed in the Factory for the first time in its history.” In the months preceding, the Excise Commissioner, B V Bhadkamkar, had reported: “In the matter of detection of excise crime the Excise Staff have to contend with the definitely hostile or obstructionist attitude on the part of the general public.”

The sense of impotence generated by diminishing resources and a hostile public was exacerbated by the challenge of the geographical and technological scope of abkari crime. Illicit hoarding of opium by licensed cultivators, illicit distillation of liquors, smuggling of intoxicating substances within, out of and into the UP, and unregistered consumption of intoxicants all had to be contained. Increasing prices and restrictions of abkari, as part of a ‘minimum consumption, maximum revenue’ policy, forced these activities further underground and into new geographical and technological channels. The activities of urban and rural populations – within the UP, from adjacent provinces and the Indian states of Rajputana and Central India – had to be tracked in the city, in the village, along waterways, trunk roads and railways, and even through the postal system.

On 28 June 1947, D Das, Excise Collector for Allahabad, reported that “a gang consisting of six persons who were not opium cultivators was winding its way down the river Ganges in a boat, when a search was effected by the Provincial Excise staff. The opium was found concealed in the thatch of the boat.” On the eve of independence for India, the Opium, Police and Excise departments of the UP were still struggling to keep a lid on the malignant genius of abkari crime.

Luke Gibbon is a postgraduate student in his first year of study at the University of Strathclyde.

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