The fuss around Udta Punjab revealed everything that is wrong with debates in India. Before the film’s release and after, all discussions on Udta Punjab revolved around the subjects of censorship, freedom of expression and political affiliations. Not once was there a constructive dialogue on psychoactive substances, the forgotten core of the movie.
What is an acceptable or unacceptable drug has changed over the ages. Opium, a major source of addiction in Punjab and a taboo in our times, was not always thought of as a bad drug. It has a long history of consumption, from medieval Asia to the ancient Middle East, and for purposes as varying as a painkiller in folk medicine to an aphrodisiac in aristocratic brothels. Rarely in those times and places did it lead to large-scale abuse or addiction.
The 19th century was a unique moment in the social life of opium, as it mutated with the rhythms of the factory system. Identifying its immense commercial potential, multi-national pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer AG, Parke Davis and Co., Winslow Curtis & Perkins intensified opium’s psychoactivity to produce synthetic compounds called morphine and heroin (generally known as narcotics). Opium and its derivatives were freely marketed as medicinal drinks. Bayer’s Heroin and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup promised to treat coughs in adults and irritableness in babies. “Soothe the child, soften the gums [and] allay all pain,” assured one drink’s pitch.
Coca plants of Latin America too were used for centuries by farmers to energise themselves at work before multi-national corporations mutated them into the highly potent powdered cocaine.
In South Asia, it was the advent of European capitalism, with various East India companies, that greatly intensified the large-scale production and consumption of opium and its derivatives. The British East India Company initiated the production of highly potent opium on a phenomenal scale in Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to produce a commodity that was addictive and relatively cheap. This lucrative commodity was then bartered for tea with China, checking the fiscal deficits that England had been running when it paid with silver for the imports of thousands of tonnes of tea a year.
Massive factories were set up in Patna, where farmers and labourers were forced to produce tonnes of opium. This was shipped 600 km down the Ganga to Calcutta, from where fleets of the East India Company would carry it to China. Rudyard Kipling, the author of the Jungle Book, wrote a lesser-known short story in 1888 titled In an Opium Factory, in which he described the factories as an “opium mint” from “whence issue the precious cakes that are to replenish the coffers of the Indian Government”.
The arrangement was so profitable that Britain, a country that now supports the American war on drugs, fought two Opium Wars with China in the 19th century to ensure that opium remained legal there. The French East India Company and other European powers followed similar patterns in the Indo-China region.
What does this have to do with Udta Punjab and Punjab’s population?
In 1912, a few Western powers finally became aware of the opiate epidemic in the world and along with China, Japan and others signed the International Opium Convention at the Hague in the Netherlands. This was the first serious (but like the current war on drugs, utterly useless) move to ban unregulated production and consumption of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine at an international level.
Like most attempts at a ban, this ultimately drove drugs underground and mutated the erstwhile legal opium trade routes created by the European companies. Two of the most infamous centres of illicit narcotic production today – the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle – are byproducts of that ban. Punjab’s proximity to the Golden Crescent, and its political regime that seems to be a distorted mirror image of colonial drug traders, is what has made the North Indian state into a transit hub of international narcotic traffic.
The problem of abuse and addiction does not lie in a psychoactive plant, nor in any ethnic community, be it is the Punjabis, Chinese, Mexicans, African-Americans, the British or Europeans. The problem lies in a behavioural orientation – that of exploitative capitalism, which cuts across ethnic differences and makes men suck psychoactive juices out of plants, chemically intensify them and then distribute the synthetic product in such a way so as to maximise consumption and profit.
The psychoactive addictions shown in the film Udta Punjab are only symptoms of a larger malaise. The real addiction and the real drug that we are hooked to is capitalism itself.