As Josh Katz says in a recent New York Times article, there has been a 540% increase in Fentanyl-related deaths over the past three years in the United States. Fentanyl, an opioid used medically for the management of pain, is highly addictive. When asked to read Dr. Haq's book, the issue of how we got here was already on my mind. Dr. Haq, a Professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at North South University, has absorbed himself in this question for the past 25 years – beginning with his doctoral dissertation entitled, The Politics of Narcotics in South Asia, which he completed at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. In his latest work, Colonial Drug Trade in South Asia From Palashi to Partition, Dr. Haq sets out to unveil “the darkest side of the British political history of South Asia” by explaining “the politico-economic background for the rise, and expansion of the drug trade in Bengal and across South Asia from the colonial era” and which he claims was camouflaged by the “Divide and Rule” policy.
The book opens with a retort against a commonly held belief that it was the Arabs and Mughals who brought opium into South Asia. It is here that the author begins to give evidence of how it was the British East India Company (BEIC), through their taking over of territories “one after another in their centuries long battles in the region,” that in pursuit of geo-strategic interests in drug revenue were the true culprits. Even after global anti-opium pressure, he claims, “the government of British India, the biggest exporter of opium, disagreed on the need to control opium production.” In fact, he goes on to argue that “in an attempt to consolidate its control over the local drug market, the colonial government adopted the Bengal Act of 1909 that helped promote excise revenue in subsequent years. He adds how the European companies ignored the “long-term catastrophes of drug addiction,” and concentrated on accumulating as much wealth as possible from the South Asian drug trade. As a result of their enthusiastic engagement, the region emerged as the centre of the world's opium trade by the end of the eighteenth century.
In the book, Dr. Haq describes how Mahatma Gandhi had made the drug issue a part of his Non-Cooperation Movement to overthrow the British in India and encouraged picketing against establishments involved in selling intoxicants of any kind to which the government retaliated when it saw a drop in its revenues. It wasn't until after the Geneva Dangerous Drugs Convention of 1925 that the government of India conceded to diplomatic pressure and only then began to make changes to its policy of “manufacture, trade and consumption of opium and other injurious drugs in the region.”
What struck me most was that Dr. Haq—a Bengali himself—maintains the balance of a seasoned researcher by presenting historical material that might otherwise render one immobile by the impact of its brutality. My sense of it is that he left no stone unturned in order to let the facts tell the story instead of his emotions. He paints a picture of despair in vivid detail leaving us with not only a sense of the injustice but also a feeling of responsibility to do something so that history does not repeat itself.
We know, and it is well documented, that when a local economy is disrupted for the purpose of cultivating export crops that the farmers lose their ability to sustain themselves, as was the case when opium and indigo replaced grain, jute, spices and other crops in Bengal. Here the most shocking finding is revealed, “This large-scale conversion of paddy fields into poppy cultivation contributed to the Great Famine of Bengal of 1770…This famine caused the death of 10 million people.”
We know that if people get addicted to medical opioids, they will seek a replacement upon release from their doctor's care and may even turn to the illicit drug trade when their prescription runs out. Does this help me to understand how we got to where we are today? The roots of the larger global drug problem of today can be traced back to the colonial period, Dr. Haq insinuates. “As a result of diffident official policy, the abuse and trafficking of cannabis, opium, bhang and charas have never been completely eradicated from the country…This reluctance to engage in antinarcotics drives meant that the country was open to the cross-border supply of contraband drugs in 1980s.” Perhaps the same could be said for the “War on Drugs” in other parts of the world as well.
We know that Fentanyl will kill you if you take too much of it, but who is going to stop you if you do?
The bottom line is the bottom line.
Dr. Katherine Li is an Assistant Professor and Director of External Affairs at North South University.