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Points Interview: Cannabis narratives in British India with Utathya Chattopadhyaya

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today’s post features an interview with Utathya Chattopadhyaya, an assistant professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He is a historian focusing on the British Empire and South Asia, who looks at British colonialism’s role in reshaping agrarian communities and the political economy of intoxicant commodities.

Utathya recently authored ‘Reading cannabis in the colony: Law, nomenclature, and proverbial knowledge in British India‘ in the upcoming Fall 2022 issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Find out more about Utathya’s background, article and future research plans in this interview.

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.

I am a historian of the British Empire and South Asia in the long nineteenth century. My research draws on social and cultural history to study how cannabis substances inhabit and shape the intertwined histories of agrarian life, gender, imperial politics and knowledge, and practices of liberal political economy. I take a materialist approach to history, state formation, and multispecies relationality as the grounding for thinking about the power of empire and colonialism as well as their contradictions and the possibilities of anti-imperial historical narratives.

What got you interested in the history of alcohol, pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals?

Well, more than a decade ago, like many students trained in history-from-below and subaltern studies, I read Sumit Sarkar’s luminous essay about one night in a village in colonial Bengal when three men, under the influence of a cannabis substance, performed a deeply complex set of actions that involved collective intoxication, shifting agrarian social structures under imperial rule, caste contradictions, inversions of masculinity and patriarchy, the belief in an apocalypse, and a possibly premeditated homicide. A lot of my work has been a way of answering questions that arose from that essay. Although at first, I sought the history of medicine as the framework for understanding the role cannabis played that night (and in general), I think my ideas have subsequently led me to frameworks that are more fundamental, politically thoughtful, and materialist, that also go beyond treating cannabis substances as medicine.

What motivated you to write this article specifically?

I had two aims: first, to explore how Indian laws, written in English and reliant on botanical and pharmacological frameworks, remain caught up in wordplay when it comes to adjudicating the social and political use of cannabis. This complements how the operation of such laws are also arbitrary, contingent, and contradictory on the ground. Second, I wanted to cautiously but seriously open up the possibility of engaging postcolonial and decolonial approaches specifically with regard to marginalized, everyday, and non-Brahminical ways of knowing the cannabis plant and its relationship to human bodies. I don’t think there are easy answers because of how layered the effects of colonialism, Brahminism, and gendered knowledge are, and how challenging Indian politics is at present, but I wanted to at least nominate the possibility of including plant species and intoxication in discussions of politics, knowledge, and the undoing of deep set effects of colonialism.

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

This is fun because I might have done a version of this at a bar where I live in California. Here it goes – Several times over, men who wrote laws about drugs for British colonial rulers wanted to know how South Asian people liked their weed. So, they asked around. Turns out, too many South Asian people liked it too much, had too many names for it, made too many things from it, and told too many people about it in just far too many ways. So, these men thought, “oops, we’re in too deep!” And then, like every other time something like this happened, they simply took three names, boxed them into a table, juggled around how to regulate them, and walked on eggshells whenever problems crept up or things didn’t fit. In India, we’ve been stuck there ever since.

So, we can now start by embracing how messy and rich all that existing knowledge was, and maybe we can begin to learn from it and ask new questions. If we don’t, then cannabis will remain something that people know intimately but in public discussions, it will remain a bad thing, especially when consumed by people who don’t enjoy favor with ruling governments.

Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?

Quite a few things. Two examples immediately come to mind. One is an idea and name of cannabis as a “cementer of friendship,” which one 19th-century official found when tracing names for cannabis in Bengal that had Arabic roots. The other is the reference to smoking ganja as a “whip,” or chabuk, in parts of what is now Bangladesh. It was called that because after drinking alcohol and reaching a certain state of subjective feeling, one pull of a smoking pipe with ganja would intensify one’s state of the mind further, almost like a whip lash. This was usually an act that ended a night of revelry, sort of like a ritual before bed. I imagine some readers have walked home after last call at the bar and smoked a quick one before bed might be able to relate to this.

What do you think is the most important takeaway from this article?

In a nutshell, that we need more rigorous social history, cultural critique, political theory, language training, and engaged critical approaches to colonialism and empire when we work on intoxicants, especially those produced from plant species but also otherwise. Without this, calls to globalize or decolonize drug history won’t take us very far, and worse yet, they can become misleading.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Yes. In a way, it is a combination of two different sets of arguments from a monograph I am writing. The book covers the material, gendered, and political history of cannabis from several interrelated sites in British India in the long nineteenth century. It brings into view how cannabis substances inhabit all kinds of existing as well as little-known histories which, when taken together, suggests a rich methodological approach to understanding human-plant interactions and colonial history.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

If I take histories of cannabis, and particularly cultural approaches to drugs, then I think the challenge has been to bring the weight of wider historical debates on capitalism, empire, race, gender, the body, migration, and ideology to bear upon cannabis.


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