India’s Opium High in WWII


by Shilajit Mitra

Chennai, November 3: Although the official Indo-China opium trade ended in 1917, Calcutta continued to be a world trade centre over the two world wars, far into the geopolitical turbulence of the 1940s. Speaking at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, historian and author Srinath Raghavan expounded India’s role in the Second World War and how it shaped the gestating nation into a powerful political economy of South Asia, an economy that cannot shy away from its long history with opium.

“After sugarcane, muslin, indigo and saltpetre, Opium was the major revenue for the British,” said Rghavan.

At the beginning of World War II, Indochina’s opium dens and retail shops were still maintaining more than 100,000 addicts and providing 15% of all tax revenues. The French imported almost 60 tons of opium annually from Iraq and Turkey to supply this vast enterprise.

However, as WWII erupted across the face of the globe, trade routes were blocked by the battle lines and Indochina was cut-off from the poppy fields in the Middle East. Following the German conquest of France in the spring of 1940 and the Japanese occupation of Indochina several months later, the British Navy imposed an embargo on shipping to Indochina. Although the Japanese military occupation was pleasant enough for most French officials who were allowed to go on administering Indochina, it created enormous problems for those who had to manage the opium monopoly. Unless an alternate source of opium could be found, the colony would be faced with a major fiscal crisis, observed Sir Alfred McCoy in his book, ‘The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia’. Indochina’s opium production increased from 7.5 tons in 1940 to 60.6 tons in 1944 – a whooping 800 percent increase!


An opium den in Kolkata, 1940s clicked by Clyde Waddell, US military man and press photographer.

In British India, opium trade was legal and was encouraged by Raj for the revenue it brought in. There were licensed opium traders operating on a healthy profit. This however barely accounted for the bulk of opium in the nation. Chinese smugglers, loyal to Chinese gangs such as Shanghai’s Green Gang, thrived in Kolkata’s first Chinatown situated in Tiretta Bazaar which had a number of opium dens. As portrayed in the detective fiction of Sharadindu Bandyopadhya, American GIs were in constant pursuit of these gangsters in these murky dens as smuggled opium harmed the economy. Some of these dens were legal too – each licensed to a certain number of pipes. Each pipe cost a rupee and a phial of opium cost five rupees. An average smoker consumed a phial a day and there were about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta, according to Clyde Waddell, US military man and personal press photographer of Lord Louis Mountbatten.



A famous Cartoon depicting an Englishman feeding Opium into a Chinese person (pic:

It was common practice to use Opium to generate exercise revenues for states, especially colonial powers. Britain in India (and also Malaya) used different forms of state intervention to ensure that a portion of the sizable proceeds from the sale of opium ended in state coffers. In some cases, the revenue accounted for well over ten percent of all state revenues.

However as ethical debates increased towards the end of WWII, the state voluntarily instituted changes in their opium problem in the colony. Restrictions on shipping and strict port security created a hiatus in global opium trafficking. The Second World War cut the long-distance smuggling routes between Asia and the West. By the end of the War, the US addict population had dropped to an historic low of 20,000.

In Southeast Asia, local monopolies were cut off from their major source in India and were forced to expand domestic production. Since India supplied to these monopolies of Burma, Laos and Northern Vietman with low-cost opium, governments had no reason to encourage local cultivation.

Raghavan’s lecture focused on military history and the plight of Indian soldiers abroad in North Africa, Italy and the Middle East – lurched into the War without deliberation and consent by the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow.

At the war’s end, the Japanese forces began to suffer revenue reverses on the Indian Front. Japanese army was notorious for trading in opium smuggling with India. After the war, the communist victory in China eliminated the world’s largest opium market within a decade. With Independence and the Cold War, the focus of opium trade shifted away from India towards the  ‘Golden Triangle’ – one of Asia’s two main opium producing areas (The other being the Golden Crescent in Afghanistan) encompassing Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.












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