From Revered to Illegal: The Controversial History Of Hemp In India

Image Credits: National Library of Scotland
Image Credits: National Library of ScotlandNational Library of Scotland

American author and cannabis activist, Jack Herer, also known as the ‘Emperor Of Hemp,’ wrote in his book The Emperor Wears No Clothes (2016) that Hemp is among the oldest cultivated crops in the history of mankind. Europe, Middle East and South-East Asia (the Himalayas in India) were introduced to cannabis and its various uses between 2300 BCE and 1000 BCE because of the nomadic tribes (referred to as Aryans) from Central Asia and Persia who conquered the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Tracing back history to the prevalence of Silk Road for trading might be able to give us a better understanding of the use of hemp. Salt traders from China and Opium traders from Persia halted in what is now Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Nepal. They rested with the locals and enjoyed their local culture with food and Hashish (also known as Charas).

Once the locals were introduced to Charas, they started cultivating the plant, soon realising that it needed to be harvested in October. Since the region experienced heavy snowfall in November, they were losing on the buds of the Cannabis plant. This led them to the art of rubbing the buds with their hands and extracting the resin (THC-psychoactive substance) out of it.

The local community used Bhang to keep themselves warm in the high hills of Himalayas. They also consumed hemp seeds to maintain high immunity and used hemp fibre and leaves to create shoes, socks, clothes, yarn, ropes and cords. Hemp attire also became a part of their culture.

Amongst the four Vedas in Hinduism, namely, Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, the Atharvaveda recognises cannabis as one of the five sacred plants. Ayurveda, a sub-script of the Atharvaveda recognises the Cannabis plant as ‘Vijaya’. It goes on to say that a guardian angel resides in its leaves and is a source of mirth, a “joy-giver” and a “liberator”.

The idea of worshipping plants dates back to the Vedas (2300 BC-1000 BC). People were dependent on trees and plants for their basic needs – lighting fire to cook using the branches of trees.

The Vedas also associate Hindu God Shiva with cannabis. It is believed that Shiva chose cannabis as his favourite food, after having spent one night sleeping under the plant’s leaves unknowingly. When he got up in hunger, he collected the leaves and devoured it; the instant rejuvenation led him to consider the plant in his meal regularly.

Another belief suggests that when the poison Halahala came out from the Samudra Manthan (churning of the sea as narrated in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Vishnu Purana), Shiva drank it to protect everyone from it. Bhang was then used to cool him down. Today, Bhang has come to be associated with many rituals related to Shiva.

Sushruta Samhita, one of the most important treatises of the ancient Indian world, recommends cannabis as the perfect cure for phlegm, catarrh and diarrhoea.

The course of history though has not been kind to hemp and this wonder of the ancient world has been relegated to the realms of illegality in many parts of the world. Let us explore some of the acts that have led to mystification and invisibility of Hemp.

When the British came to India, they witnessed widespread use of cannabis all around India with the country being the biggest exporter of Hemp fibre to the British after Russia. Astounded by the reputation of cannabis in India, the British Parliament to pass a law to tax Charas, Ganja and Bhang in 1798. The motive behind the tax was to curtail the use of cannabis “for the sake of the natives’ good health and sanity”.

They imposed restrictions on the use of cannabis which was freely grown all around India, mostly in the mountainous region of the Himalayas, westernm and eastern ghats of India. They claimed that the use and consumption of cannabis should be monitored and regulated. This gave birth to the Indian Hemp Drug Commission Report whose task was to “look into the cultivation of the cannabis plant, development of drugs from it, trade-in those drugs, the cultural and moral influence of its consumption, and possible ban”.

However, conclusions from the report were counter to what the British expected. It stated that moderate use of cannabis causes no harm. Thus, the plan to prohibit the plant was ditched. “To forbid or even severely to limit the use of a herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance,” concluded the report.

The United Nations drug control system restricted “the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution, trade-in, use and possession” of Cannabis exclusively to “medical and scientific purposes”. The 1961 treaty gave India 25 years to consider the ban.

India and some other countries opposed this as they stated that bhang, ganja, charas were used heavily in India. However, due to extensive international pressure, the Indian government decided to negotiate.

India promised to keep the export of hemp limited on the condition that the definition of cannabis under the convention will be reconstructed.

In the ‘60s, cannabis/hemp came to be associated with youthful rebellion and a form of political dissent. A major part it came to be seen as part of a political movement run by the anti-war left and the hippie movement. As anti-war sentiment against Vietnam burgeoned, a politically charged environment started to form against Richard Nixon, the then-President of the USA. In June 1971, the War on Drugs was declared. It would forever alter the perception of hemp and cannabis.

According to the Drug Policy Organisation, top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, later admitted, “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Within the Indian context, India has had a long history of cannabis and opium use with permitted sales by the government and even taxation on the products. Following pressure from the USA, India too joined the War On Drugs criminalising the use of previously legal drugs.

While the NDPS Act of 1985 places cannabis in the category of Schedule I drug (among the most dangerous), it exempts the bud of the cannabis plant as it is used as ritual purposes in India. This is the sole reason why you can still find government authorised Bhang shops in the state of Rajasthan, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

About the author:

Mohak Mohta from Odisha is a Journalism and Mass Communication student at the Xavier Institute of Communications with an interest in Photography and Film-making. A self-taught photographer, Mohta likes to explore minimalism and work around pastel themes.

He also curates a blog Hemp Veda along with four other students from XIC. At Hemp Veda, they wish to mould and present their audience with ‘hempire’ of ‘hempic’ knowledge. The blog concentrates on simplifying the science and beliefs related to the Cannabis plant, thus, demystifying the myths surrounding the plant.

You can check out the blog here.

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