Friday, March 6, 2015

Shoaib Daniyal - A short history of bhang in India // Mridula Chari: Indian Hemp Commission 1894

What coffee was to the American television sitcom, Friends, the cannabis drink bhang was to Hindi’s greatest satirical novel, Raag Darbari. Set in an Uttar Pradesh village during the 1960s, bhang is ubiquitous in the novel and even the children of the village, some of whom are too poor to even know what milk tastes like, are familiar with it. So central is the cannabis drink to the rural world of Raag Darbari that it raises even the making of it to a high art:

For bhang drinkers, grinding bhang is an art, a poem, a great work, a craft, a ritual. Even if you chew half an anna's worth of the cannabis leaf and then have a drink of water, you get fairly high, but this is cheap inebriation. Ideally almonds, pistachios, rose-petal conserve, milk, cream and so on should be used with the cannabis leaf. The bhang should be ground to the point where the grinding stones stick together and become one, before it is drunk, verses in praise of Lord Shiva should be recited, and the whole exercise should be a community, not an individual event.

The author of the novel, Shrilal Shukla, explains: “Although Thakurs have always taken liquor, alcohol was taboo for Brahmins and Banias. Bhang was the only sort of socially permitted intoxication and was important as a major source of relaxation and entertainment. As a boy in my village, the bhang-making used to start at five every evening. Now norms are changing as a result of closer contact between towns and villages and other factors, and people are not horrified by drink as they once were.”

Indeed, if we ignore the Western taboo against cannabis that a section of upper-class Indians have imbibed, bhang, and more generally, cannabis, is ubiquitous in India. Not only that, cannabis has a long history of use in India, stretching right back to the Vedic age.

Cannabis history

The Atharva Veda mentions cannabis as one the five most sacred plants on Earth and says that a guardian angel resides in its leaves. It also refers to it as a "source of happiness," a "joy-giver" and a "liberator". Ayurveda considers the cannabis plant to be of medicinal value and in the Sushruta Samhita (6 BCE) it is used to aid digestion and appetite. So common is it in Ayurveda that the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1894 called it that “penicillin of Ayurvedic medicine”. The Unani system of medicine practised by Muslims in medieval India also used cannabis as a cure for diseases of the nervous system and as an antispasmodic and anticonvulsive.

Although orthodox Islam forbids the use of intoxicants, cannabis has been quite commonly used by Muslims in India. Mughal emperor, Humayan was particularly fond of ma’jun, a sweet cannabis confectionary, the hash brownie of the medieval age. In could very well be possible that that his fatal fall down a flight of stairs was under the spell of a cannabis high.

Sikh fighters often took bhang while in battle to help them fight better and numb their sense of pain. A remnant of this tradition exists till this day with the Nihang, a Sikh order, who ritually consume the narcotic. It is also probable that Mangal Pandey’s doomed-to-fail mutiny in 1857 was driven by bhang intoxication. During his trial, he admitted to “taking bhang and opium of late” and claimed that he was “not aware” of what was doing when he mutinied.

Widespread consumption: 
The British, when they came to India, were astonished by how widespread the consumption of cannabis was in the country. At the time, it was thought that cannabis might be responsible for insanity and to determine whether this was true as well as document the use of cannabis in general, the colonial government started work on the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report. The report was to look into the cultivation of the cannabis plant, preparation of drugs from it, trade in those drugs, the social and moral impact of its consumption, and possible prohibition. Over 1,000 standardised interviews were conducted throughout India by medical experts. The commission was systematic and thorough and sampled a large and diverse group of people in a range of situations.

The conclusion of the report was surprisingly positive: far from causing insanity, cannabis was deemed to be harmless in moderation; in fact, alcohol was determined to be worse. There was therefore no reason to prohibit the use of cannabis. “To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance,” concluded the report.

Cultural and religious use 
The report also noted the widespread cultural and religious use of cannabis in the country. It remarked that it is “chiefly in connection with the worship of Shiva, the Mahadeo or great god of the Hindu trinity, that the cannabis plant, and more especially perhaps ganja, is associated. The cannabis plant is popularly believed to have been a great favourite of Shiva, and there is a great deal of evidence before the Commission to show that the drug in some form or other is now extensively used in the exercise of the religious practices connected with this form of worship.”

Cannabis’ greatest use as per the report though seemed to be during Holi: “there is overwhelming evidence to establish the almost universal use by the people of bhang at the Holi festival”.

Most of urban India has given up the extensive use of cannabis as practiced earlier and taken to more Western forms of intoxication: alcohol and tobacco (even as the West, ironically, slowly sheds its cannabis inhibitions). However, it seems safe to say that in the matter of Holi, things are pretty much the same as how they were described in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report: the spring festival is still linked with bhang, an association that doesn’t seem like it’s ending any time soon.

Indian Hemp Commission 1894
The control of bhang and other hemp-related intoxicants is recent, dating only to the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985, which itself followed a United States-led campaign against drug. Ninety years before India banned most hemp products, the British government in India produced the world’s most comprehensive reflection on the effects of cannabis use that concluded it was not worth banning.

The remarkable seven-volume report that the Indian Hemp Commission submitted to the British Parliament in 1894 was the result of a concerted temperance campaign in the United Kingdom. Mark Stewart, a British Member of Parliament and noted temperance activist, following a report in the Allahabad Times in 1892, concluded that most inhabitants of lunatic asylums in India were ganja consumers. Given that the government was charging excise on ganja, he wanted to know if the substance was indeed worth banning entirely in the state of Bengal.

A Britain that had only a few decades earlier won a second war in China to enforce opium trade in the country was hardly likely to ban a similarly intoxicating though less harmful or prolific product in India, where it had absolute control. In the 20 years from 1873 to 1893, taxes on ganja cultivation had earned the Bengal government alone Rs 1 crore at that rate of exchange.

The solution was the Indian Hemp Commission, created in 1893 to examine whether hemp was indeed harmful to people. Instead of restricting itself just to Bengal, as a direct response to Stewart’s question, the commission thought it best to survey all of India that was under its control, excluding princely states. In its year-long tour of the subcontinent, the commission interviewed 1,193 people in 86 meetings arranged in 30 cities.

Taxed not banned
The tax on hemp was already a century old at the time the commission began its studies. In 1770, the East India Company, then severely in debt, had approached the British Parliament for a loan to underwrite its dues. The parliament agreed in return for control over its operations. In 1798, in an attempt to cover these losses, the British passed a law bringing the three forms of hemp – bhang, charas and ganja – under taxation.

Most interviewees were civil and medical officers who, as the British put it, would be best able to provide an objective view of hemp. The commission also spoke to asylum inmates, cultivators, consumers in both Indian and European styles, missionaries, traders and an ambiguous category of “professional men”.

Of the witnesses examined, most stated that ganja and charas were “deleterious” in excessive and moderate quantities. However, the commission concluded that hemp was not permanently harmful in moderate quantities, was not linked to insanity and that any government move to ban hemp would cause social unrest. Instead of an outright ban, the report recommended instead that the government continue the existing policy of taxation, but at higher rates to discourage its use... Read more: