My Take

Opium Triangle to Golden Triangle, drug smuggling flourishes

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act has been amended four times, but still does not differentiate between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs

Opium Triangle to Golden Triangle, drug smuggling flourishes

Photo for representation only. - File photo

Rahul Singh

ONE of the beauties of the English language is the metaphor, or literary device. ‘Red herring’ is among them. Herrings are fish common in the colder climes of north Europe. Like most fish, they have a silvery hue. In the pre-refrigeration era, they were dried and smoked, so that they were edible for months. The smoking transformed their appearance, turning them reddish brown. Hence, a ‘red herring’ came to mean “a piece of information intended to mislead, by diverting attention from the main question”. The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) is a master at producing “red herrings”.

On September 21, one of the largest-ever drug hauls was made by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) at Gujarat’s Mundra port: 3,000 kg of heroin was seized from two containers of a ship, the street value of which was a mind-boggling Rs21,000 crore. It is virtually certain that the heroin originated from Afghanistan. The Taliban, now back in power in that country, used to fund their activities through the illegal sale of heroin. Then, a few days later, on October 2, NCB personnel raided a cruise ship which was about to sail to Goa. They apprehended 17 youngsters, who were accused of possessing drugs. Among them was the 23-year-old son of superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The NCB had their red herring, as since that day, the media has been agog with that case, while hardly any further news has been forthcoming about the massive heroin haul at Mundra port.

Incidentally, Mundra port is India’s largest private port, handling the maximum number of containers. It is owned and run by Gautam Adani. The phenomenal rise of the Adani group coincides with the years that PM Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat.

The Mumbai zonal director of the NCB is the same official who was also in charge when the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case took place. Red herrings were then also strewn all over, drawing in Bollywood actors, just to hoodwink the public into believing that the NCB was doing its job. Then, too, only “soft” drugs, like hash and charas, were involved, which are legal in many countries. What happened to all the people the NCB apprehended on that occasion?

At this point, a brief history of drugs is called for. I have just finished reading Thomas Manuel’s ‘Opium Inc.’, a fascinating account of the opium trade. India, under British rule, was at its heart. China was then the only major producer of tea, a beverage that had caught the fancy of a great many Britishers. To pay for the tea, the Chinese authorities only wanted silver, as they were not interested in the other goods that the West had to offer. So, the British colonialists devised a diabolical plan: to export opium from India to China and make millions of Chinese addicted to the opiate, which could be smoked or ingested. Large parts of India were ideal for growing the poppy plant, from which opium and its derivatives, such as poppy husk and heroin, are produced. Morphine is another derivative, used by doctors to alleviate pain.

“Over the 18th and 19th centuries, the British transformed entire farming economies in Bengal and Bihar into opium-producing machines,” writes Manuel. “And their agents smuggled the drug illegally into China, exchanging it for tea. Suddenly, the balance of trade leaned the other way. Silver started flowing back out of China into British hands. Slowly, this new equation solidified into a stable system: the Great Opium Triangle… the Chinese got opium, the British got tea, and the Indians got colonialism.”

The Opium Triangle became so indispensable to the British that when some Chinese nationalists, outraged by how their fellow countrymen were rapidly becoming opium addicts, tried to halt the trade, the UK government went to war to sustain it! These were the ‘Opium Wars’, fought in the false guise of protecting “free trade”. Curiously enough, two of the leading merchants of this nefarious trade were a Parsi and a Jew settled in India, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and David Sassoon. They became enormously wealthy. Jejeebhoy became the first Indian to be knighted by the Queen of England and also the first Baronet. He set up two of Bombay’s premier institutions, the JJ School of Art (where Lockyard Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling, taught) and the JJ Hospital. The Sassoons have Bombay’s Sassoon Dock and the Sassoon Library named after them.

Much later, the Opium Triangle was replaced by the Golden Triangle, with Afghanistan at its centre. Opium became the main source of income of the Mujahideen, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Mujahideen morphed into the Taliban, who ran the country after the Soviet exit, from 1996 to 2001. They are now back in power and despite their denials, the illegal export of opium is going to be their major financial support. The heroin seizure at Mundra port is evidence of this.

Let me end by outlining the major difference between “soft” and “hard” drugs. The derivatives of opium, particularly heroin, are addictive and are “hard” drugs. The two classic “French Connection” films, largely based on fact, were a vivid portrayal of this. Cocaine is another “hard” drug. But as the coca plant is not known to grow in India, it’s of marginal importance here. However, as the “Narcos” web series shows, it caused havoc in countries like Colombia and Mexico. The many derivatives of the marijuana, or cannabis, plant (which can be easily cultivated) are the “soft” drugs. They come under a variety of names — charas, hash, bhang, ganja — and are basically “recreational” drugs, widely ingested or smoked and legal in many countries. India has a Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985. It has been amended four times. Unfortunately, it still does not differentiate between “hard” and “soft” drugs. Which is how the NCB can make a show of tackling the drug menace, when it is doing nothing of the sort.

— The writer is a veteran journalist

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