BBC News – Indian woman set on fire on her way to rape case hearing

Unnao – Uttar Pradesh – India, 05 December 2019. A 23-year-old alleged rape victim is fighting for her life after she was set on fire while going to court in northern India. The woman was on her way to a hearing in the case she filed against two men in March, in Uttar Pradesh state.

She is in critical condition in hospital, where she is being treated for severe burns. Five men including two of her alleged rapists have been arrested on suspicion of setting her on fire, police say.

The woman was on her way to a train station when a group of men assaulted her and dragged her to a nearby field, where they set her on fire, according to reports in local media.

Doctors treating her in the hospital in Lucknow city said she had received 90% burn injuries and that she would soon be flown in an air ambulance to the capital, Delhi, for better medical care.

The incident occurred in Unnao district, which was recently in the news over another rape case. Police opened a murder investigation against a ruling party lawmaker in July after a woman who accused him of rape was seriously injured in a car crash.

Two of her aunts were killed and her lawyer was injured.

This latest incident has sparked widespread outrage in India, which is still reeling from a shocking murder and rape case that grabbed headlines just under a week ago.

A 27-year-old vet in the southern city of Hyderabad was raped and set on fire on 27 November. Protests were held across the country after the victim’s charred remains were found following her disappearance last week.

Huge stigma

Rajini Vaidyanthan, BBC South Asia correspondent

Nearly a hundred rapes are reported in India every single day according to the last recorded crime statistics. Across towns, cities and villages, women, children and sometimes men are subjected to brutal attacks. Many don’t get reported, let alone make the headlines.

In recent days there’s been growing outrage in the wake of the recent gang rape and murder of a vet in Hyderabad. This latest case in Unnao has deepened that anger.

In a country where there’s huge stigma around coming forward and reporting cases of sexual violence, are there enough safeguards for those who do? Are authorities doing enough to punish the perpetrators?

In December 2012 I covered the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi, which opened up a conversation around sexual violence in India. But little seems to have changed.

In recent days some officials have called on women to come home earlier at night or avoid using transport at certain times. Activists I talked to say the emphasis continues to be on how women can change, rather than looking at how Indian society as a whole needs to do better.

According to the latest government crime figures, police registered 33,658 cases of rape in India in 2017 – that’s an average of 92 rapes every day.

BBC News – Kashmir conflict: Pro-India politicians feel ‘betrayed’ by Modi

Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India, 04 December 2019. Dozens of mainstream political leaders and workers have been under detention in Indian-administered Kashmir since August, when India stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status. Sameer Yasir reports on why political workers in the valley feel betrayed.

Saleem Mir stood pensively by the window of his room overlooking the Jhelum river, which cuts through the heart of Srinagar and flows into Pakistan. Mr Mir, who toiled for years to get people to vote for Kashmir’s oldest political party, the pro-India National Conference, now feels like a total outcast in his own homeland.

Kashmiris like Mr Mir are used to being branded as “traitors” by their own people for siding with India during the 30-year armed revolt against Delhi’s rule in the Muslim-majority region. Many have relatives or friends who have been killed by militants for siding with India.

“Now we are also enemies in the eyes of India,” said Mr Mir, who belongs to Kulgam district, a region that has witnessed a spiral of deadly violence in recent years.

Enemies of India

In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oversaw a crackdown that they argued was necessary to prevent disorder in the disputed region.

It was stripped of its autonomy, split it into two federally-run territories, put under a lockdown, and most of the state’s political leaders and workers, including those who have been loyal to India, were incarcerated.

“Our intention is that politicians do not engage in any activities that could serve as a magnet for violence, as it has been the case in the past. A related issue is that social media and the internet have been used to radicalise. We want to prevent the loss of life,” India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.

Mr Mir was among more than 5,000 people, including businessmen, civil society members, lawyers and activists, who were detained. Those still under detention include former chief ministers Omar Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, the first woman to be hold the position, as well as several former lawmakers.

Former chief minister Mr Abdullah, still a member of parliament, has been detained under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows detention without formal charge for two years, among other things.

Mr Abdullah, whose family had been instrumental in tying Kashmir’s future to Delhi, appeared on television before his detention and appealed to the people of India, saying he had stood with them and it was their time to reciprocate.

Mir Mohammad Fayaz, an MP belonging to the PDP, has written to the federal Home Minister Amit Shah, demanding the release of all political leaders. He said that the leaders had been recently shifted to a new jail in “a very humiliating and downgrading manner”.

Wiping out the middle ground

Kashmir’s political parties have always operated in a middle-ground, between integrating completely with India and seeking outright independence.

By the very act of participating in India’s democratic processes and fighting elections, they acknowledged Delhi’s right to have a say in the affairs of the region. But in order to win votes, they have had to speak the language of popular sentiment.

Therefore, its two main parties, the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) officially stand for Kashmir’s right to autonomy and self-rule within the federal structure of India.

And for more than a decade, after the insurgency ebbed, the status-quo in Kashmir largely worked in India’s favour. People voted in elections and India said it proved that democracy was thriving in the region. With the detention of the leaders, things have changed.

The latest move by Delhi has “wiped out the middle-ground held by Kashmiri politicians” and this void could be very well “filled by militants”, said Siddiq Wahid, a historian.

Mr Wahid added people would now confront these political parties by saying: “We knew it, we told you so all along.”

No trust

“The idea of mainstream politics is dead in Kashmir now,” says Kapil Kak, a retired air vice-marshal.

Mr Kak, a native of Kashmir who has been part of many initiatives aimed at resolving the dispute, said India has lost 70 years of its hard work in Indian-administered Kashmir: “Who will vouch for it now?”

Political workers, who have backed India despite facing threats, attacks and public humiliation, feel completely let down and fear for their safety now.

“We should have never trusted India,” Mr Mir, now a free man, said.

Rehman Sheikh, whose cousin, a founding member of PDP, was killed and his house set on fire in Shopian district, said Mr Modi’s government had simply “belittled my brother’s sacrifice”.

“The India for which we bled so badly has rendered us worthless by forcibly taking away our basic political rights,” Mr Sheikh said.

“Party workers come to us and ask ‘what is our future?’,” said Tanveer Alam, whose cousin, a former lawmaker, is also being detained. “I have no answers. I keep silent.”

We are finished

Mumtaz Peer, who saw his father killed by militants, said if “gunmen arrive at my door, no one will now come to save me”. “We are finished,” Mr Peer, who worked for a former state lawmaker, said. “We are just waiting for this time to pass.”

Mr Peer said that had the valley’s mainstream political class invested time and effort to lobby for Kashmir’s independence instead of trying to strengthen India’s hold on the region, people “would have achieved the goal of independence”.

“Our only problem is we are Kashmiris and Muslim. We fought for India in Kashmir and this is what we got in return,” Mr Peer said.

Ghulam Hassan Rahi, a politician who fought many elections in northern Kashmir during the heyday of insurgency, and continued his activism despite threats from militants, said now when he meets his political workers, he keeps his head down.

One worker, Mr Rahi said, recently confronted him, telling him that it doesn’t matter “how much bidding Kashmiri Muslims will do for India, Delhi will never trust them because they are Muslims”.

“I kept my head down and walked away,” Mr Rahi said.

BBC News – World Toilet Day: The lives of Indian sanitation workers

Sudharak Olwe has been documenting the lives of Mumbai’s sanitation workers for about two decades.

Mumbai – Maharashtra – India, 19 November 2019. The work, often in appalling conditions, is reserved for Scheduled Castes, officially designated groups of historically disadvantaged communities that live on the fringes of society.

And their lives remain substantially unchanged despite India’s overall economic, social and technological advancements. Olwe’s most recent photographs, commissioned by WaterAid, are shown as part of UN World Toilet Day 2019.

“Manual scavengers” from the Valmiki community remove excrement by hand from dry latrines in Amanganj, Panna, Madhya Pradesh. Betibai Valmiki says: “We are not allowed to drink tea in any restaurant here.

“Even if we go to one small tea-shop, we are served in disposable plastic glasses while others are served in regular tumblers.” Most of the women have asthma and malaria, but there is no healthcare and their wages are docked if they call in sick.

“What other option do we have?” she asks. “Even if we open a shop, no-one would buy from us because we are Valmikis.”

Santosh works in Amanganj with his wife and two sons. In 1992, he nearly drowned cleaning a septic tank with colleagues, one of whom died. It was much deeper than they had been told. But despite his eyes being permanently damaged, he has never received any compensation.

Printed on the back of his jacket are the words “Being Human”.

In Agra Mohalla, Panna Geeta Mattu, Sashi Balmeek and Raju Dumar work every day from 05:00 to 13:00 for 7,000 rupees a month.

“There is hardly any respect in it,” Geeta says. “We are treated so badly. It’s such a thankless job.”

In April last year, the Dom community on the outskirts of Thillai Gaon, Bihar, lost 10 houses and most of their cattle in a fire.
They work in nearby Sasaram but, having lost their ID and ration cards, received no help or compensation.

Meenadevi, 58, carries excrement from a Muslim neighbourhood in Rohtas. She started working as a manual scavenger 25 years ago with her mother-in-law.

“Initially, I used to feel nauseated,” she says. “I wasn’t ready and felt ashamed to work because of the stigma attached to it.

“But now I’m used to the foul smells. “Poverty leaves you with no option. “My mother-in-law died doing this job.

“She used to carry the sewage in tin cans. I did the same. “Now, we don’t use tin cans. Nonetheless, the same fate awaits me,”

To read the original articles and see the pictures:

BBC News – Guru Nanak: Sikh founder’s 550th birthday celebrated

Celebrations have taken place in India and Pakistan to mark the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism.

The anniversary comes just a few days after the historic opening of the Kartarpur corridor, which allows Indians access to one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines in Pakistan without having to apply for a visa.

Tensions between the neighbours have made it difficult for Indian pilgrims to visit the site in Pakistan in recent years. But an agreement reached last month allows Indians to make the 4km (2.5-mile) crossing to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life.

On Tuesday, Sikh pilgrims in Pakistan gathered at Nankana Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanak, which is about 80km (50 miles) from the city of Lahore.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted the nation on the occasion, saying it was “a day to rededicate ourselves” to Guru Nanak’s “dream of a just, inclusive and harmonious society”.

Though Guru Nanak’s anniversary is an important event for Sikhs annually, this time the celebrations were more special due to the opening of the Kartarpur corridor.

Devotees from across the world visit the Kartarpur shrine every year to commemorate his birth. Indian Sikhs will now be able to visit with just their passports, but they will not be allowed to leave the site or stay overnight.

The Golden Temple [Harmandr Sahib] in Amritsar, in north-western India, is the holiest Gurdwara (where Sikhs worship). On the eve of the anniversary, it was lit up to host processions as Sikh worshippers took part in the three-day celebration of Guru Nanak’s birth.

On the first day of the celebrations, Sikhs read the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, from beginning to end*.

As is the tradition on the second day, the holy book was paraded through the streets of Amritsar on Monday in a hand-held carriage [palki sahib].

The procession was led by five people representing the original Panj Pyare, the Five Beloved Ones, who helped shape the religion.

*The non-stop reading of the Guru Granth Sahib takes 48 hours. The reporting is misleading (due to ignorance), the author also shows that she/he does not quite know what the Panj Piare are about.

BBC News – Afghanistan: Blast kills nine children as they walk to school

Darqad district – Takhar province – Afghanistan, 02 November 2019. Nine children have been killed in a roadside blast in north-eastern Afghanistan as they made their way to school.

The children, eight boys and a girl aged between seven and 10, accidentally stepped on a deliberately-planted mine, officials said.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the bomb.

Last month, the UN said 1,174 Afghan civilians had been killed in the three months until the end of September.

More than 3,000 people have also been injured over this period, the UN said.

“At 8.30am (04:00 GMT) this morning, tragically, nine school children were martyred in a landmine blast,” Jawad Hejri, a spokesman for the Takhar provincial governor, told AFP news agency.

He alleged that the roadside device had been planted by the Taliban, which had taken control of Takhar Province for several weeks before Afghan forces recently regained control.

The militants routinely plant roadside devices as they leave a district in the hope of targeting advancing security forces. The Taliban has not responded to a request for comment on the incident.

Last May, a landmine killed seven children and wounded two more in the southern province of Ghazni. In February, seven children were killed and 10 more wounded in Laghman province when a mortar shell exploded as they played with it.

BBC News – Indian-administered Kashmir is gearing up for local elections amid a lockdown and with a large number of politicians under detention.

BBC Hindi’s Vineet Khare reports

The local polls are the first in the region since the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government stripped the region of its special status on 5 August.

Polling will be held on 24 October in 310 blocks, which comprise a cluster of villages, and are part of the local village council system. Votes will be counted on the same day.

But with most of the state’s political leaders in detention, and a crippling communications blockade that is now in its second month, opposition leaders are calling the elections a “sham” and a “joke on democracy”. They warn of a “political vacuum” that will further undermine trust in the Indian state.

Governor Satyapal Malik’s adviser, Farooq Khan, has been quoted as saying that Kashmiri leaders will be released from detention “one by one after analysis of every individual.” But it’s not clear when this will happen or how long it will take.

‘All our leaders are under house arrest’

Political leaders in detention include former chief ministers Omar Abdullah, Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti (the first woman chief minister of the state); as well as Sajjad Lone, Shah Faisal and several former lawmakers.

The administration recently ended the detention of political leaders based in the Jammu region, which has largely welcomed the controversial decision to revoke special status. But the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, where there has been a decades-old insurgency against Indian rule, remains tense and has witnessed protests.

The region is also under a communications lockdown, with internet and mobile phone connections suspended since August.

Political parties say they are struggling to even contact their party workers and probable candidates. Many party workers have fled their homes and most local party offices are shuttered.

“How do we select candidates when we cannot contact them? All our important leaders in the valley are under house arrest,” said Ravinder Sharma of Congress party, which has decided to boycott the elections. Mr Sharma says he has even been prevented from addressing a press conference.

Harsh Dev Singh of Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, who was recently set free after 58 days in detention, says political parties and leaders “should get equal opportunity and [a] level-playing field” for the elections to be credible.

“These elections seem like a formality. This is to just to show that elections are being held in the valley.”

Devender Rana of National Conference, one of the main regional parties, says it’s “inappropriate to talk about politics when everything is under a lockdown”.

“How can political activity happen in this situation? Unless political workers meet people, understand their aspirations and inform leaders, only then a system can work.”

A political vacuum

Shehla Rashid, an activist-turned-politician, who joined the newly formed Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement, says she is quitting politics.

“What is underway is not democracy, but the murder of democracy. It is a plan to install puppet leaders,” she tweeted.

The BJP, however, is upbeat about its prospects, it says it will field its own candidates and also support independents.

“There is no political vacuum in Kashmir,” says BJP’s Ravinder Raina.

BJP leaders say the elections will infuse fresh blood in the valley’s restive politics, which have long been dominated by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the National Conference.

The house arrest of a veteran Kashmiri leader Farooq Abdullah under a controversial law has generated heated debate in India. Mr Abdullah is being detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which among other things, allows detention without formal charge for two years.

Many Kashmiris say they are shocked at the treatment meted out to Mr Abdullah.

A delegation of workers from the National Conference party recently met Mr Abdullah, and his son, Omar, who is also in detention.

“They are sad about the situation. They are worried about the people,” said Devender Rana, who met both leaders.

The BJP disagrees that the detention of leaders has impacted the political process.

“No cases have been registered against political leaders, barring Farooq Abdullah,” said Mr Raina.

He attributed the detentions to “apprehensions that they [the leaders] could poison minds, which can deteriorate the situation and can lead to the deaths of innocent people. That is why they are in preventive custody”.

Political scientist Noor Ahmad Baba warns that the elections could end up “creating anarchy in Kashmir”.

“This would be a repressive, imposed process. It would cause revulsion and revolt, anger and mistrust,” he said.

BBC News – US imposes China visa restrictions over Uighur issue

The US has said it will impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials accused of involvement in repression of Muslim populations.

Washington DC – USA, 09 October 2019. It follows the decision on Monday to blacklist 28 Chinese organisations linked by the US to allegations of abuse in the Xinjiang region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Chinese government had instituted “a highly repressive campaign”.

China has dismissed the allegations as groundless.

In a statement, Mr Pompeo accused the Chinese government of a string of abuses against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz Muslims and other minority Muslim groups.

These included “mass detentions in internment camps; pervasive, high-tech surveillance; draconian controls on expressions of cultural and religious identities; and coercion of individuals to return from abroad to an often perilous fate in China”.

China has rebuffed the US moves.

“There is no such thing as these so-called ‘human rights issues’ as claimed by the United States,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday.

“These accusations are nothing more than an excuse for the United States to deliberately interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

Visa restrictions are to be imposed on Chinese government and Communist Party officials, as well as their family members.

“The United States calls on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, release all those arbitrarily detained, and cease efforts to coerce members of Chinese Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate,” the US statement said.

The US and China are currently embroiled in a trade war, and have sent delegations to Washington for a meeting about the tensions later this week.

What is the situation in Xinjiang?

China has been carrying out a massive security operation in Xinjiang, in its far west, in recent years.

Human rights groups and the UN say China has rounded up and detained more than a million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in vast detention camps, where they are forced to renounce Islam, speak only in Mandarin Chinese and learn obedience to the communist government.

But China says they are attending “vocational training centres” which are giving them jobs and helping them integrate into Chinese society, in the name of preventing terrorism.

There have been increasingly vocal denunciations from the US and other countries about China’s actions in Xinjiang.

Last week, Mr Pompeo alleged that China “demands its citizens worship government, not God” in a press conference in the Vatican.

And in July more than 20 countries at the UN Human Rights Council signed a joint letter criticising China’s treatment of the Uighurs and other Muslims.

Who are the Uighurs?

Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims. They make up about 45% of the Xinjiang region’s population; 40% are Han Chinese.

China re-established control in 1949 after crushing short-lived state of East Turkestan.

Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?

Since then, there has been large-scale immigration of Han Chinese and Uighurs fear erosion of their culture.

Xinjiang is officially designated an autonomous region within China, like Tibet to its south.

BBC News – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh: More than 100 dead in fresh India flood chaos

Uttar Pradesh – Bihar – India, 30 September 2019. More than 100 people have died due to flooding caused by heavy rains in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, officials have said.

Dramatic images of the impact of flood water on urban life have been coming out of the affected areas.

Railway traffic, vehicular movement, healthcare services, schools and power supply have been disrupted in both states, officials said.

An Uttar Pradesh government report said 93 people have died since Thursday.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, flooding caused officials to relocate more than 500 prisoners from the Ballia district jail to other prisons after water entered three buildings.

The Additional District Magistrate told reporters that officials were awaiting permission to move all of the prison’s 850 inmates to Azamgarh jail, which is about 120 km (74 miles) away.

The death toll in Bihar is 29, according to the state disaster management authority. The impact on its main city, Patna, has been grabbing headlines.

Satellite images from 20 September and 29 September show the extent of the flooding as the Ganges river overflowed due to the torrential rains in the region.

A video of a man struggling to pull his cycle-rickshaw out of flood water has been circulated widely on social media.

In it, the man filming the video can be heard consoling the visibly upset rickshaw puller, he suggests that the man leave the vehicle where it is and return for it after the flood waters recede. He and a woman, who can be heard in the background, offer to keep an eye on it for the rickshaw puller from their spot on the balcony.

The state’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi was on Monday rescued from his residence, the ANI news agency reported.

Mr Modi and his family were evacuated from their flooded home by disaster relief personnel.

The city has been deluged with rain since Friday, submerging many residential areas. People are navigating the main roads, which are dotted with abandoned and partially submerged vehicles, by boat.

The PTI news agency quoted an official as saying that the amount of rain the city received was “completely unexpected”.

In many parts, the rain water has mixed with overflowing sewage, and the dirty water has entered several homes, according to reports.

Similar scenes have been reported from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh as well.

“The condition of the water is very bad – the condition of Varanasi is very bad. Drainage arrangements have gone very bad,” one local in the northern city of Varanasi told Reuters news.

The state government has asked the Indian Air Force for helicopters and machines to pump out water.

BBC News – Farooq Abdullah: Outrage over detention of senior Kashmiri MP

The detention of a veteran Kashmiri parliamentarian and former chief minister under a controversial law has generated heated debate in India.

Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir, 17 September 2019. Farooq Abdullah is now detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which among other things, allows detention without formal charge for two years.

He had previously been under house arrest along with other leaders ahead of a move to strip Kashmir of its special status in August.

His detention has been criticised.

Many, including veteran journalists and politicians, have condemned the move as “draconian” and argued that it sets a dangerous precedent.

“If an 81-year-old politician is seen as a threat to public safety then it flies in the face of the government claim that the situation in the Kashmir valley is returning to normal,” senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai said in a television programme that is being widely shared on social media.

The leader of the the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) Sitaram Yechury called the decision a “cowardly afterthought” and said that Mr Abdullah had “supported India through thick and thin”. Salman Khurshid, a leader with the main opposition Congress party, said that Mr Abdullah had “upheld the unity and integrity” of India.

Regional politician MK Stalin tweeted that the move was “excessive, arbitrary and unlawful”.

The announcement that Mr Abdullah would now be detained under the PSA came hours after a regional politician from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Vaiko, filed an application in the Supreme Court, asking for Mr Abdullah to be produced before the court.

He had said that there were “competing claims” about where Mr Abdullah, a member of India’s upper house of parliament, was.

The court, in turn, asked the government to respond by 30 September.

Earlier, Home Minister Amit Shah had told parliament that Mr Abdullah was “not detained”. He was responding to criticism that the government had not followed procedure in informing parliament about the arrest of a member of the house beforehand.

Correspondents say the decision to detain Mr Abdullah could well be an attempt to pre-empt any court decision compelling the government to release him even for a few days, as this could be used as a precedent to release other people currently under detention.

The government is believed to have detained thousands of people including activists, local politicians and businessmen. Many have been shifted to jails in cities outside the region.

However, there has been some social media support for the government’s decision as well. The government has not made any public statement regarding the order to detain Mr Abdullah under the PSA.

BBC News – How Britain’s opium trade impoverished Indians

Soutik Biswas India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 5 September 2019. In Amitav Ghosh’s acclaimed novel, Sea of Poppies, a village woman from an opium-producing region in India has a vivid encounter with a poppy seed.

“She looked at the seed as if she has never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life; it was this miniscule orb, at once beautiful and all devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.”

At the time when the novel is set, poppy was harvested by some 1.3 million peasant households in northern India. The cash crop occupied between a quarter and half of a peasant’s holding. By the end of the 19th Century poppy farming had an impact on the lives of some 10 million people in what is now the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

A few thousand workers, in two opium factories located on the Ganges river, dried and mixed the milky fluid from the seed, made it into cakes and packed the opium balls in wooden chests.

The trade was run by the East India Company, the powerful multinational corporation established for trading with a royal charter that granted it a monopoly over business with Asia. This state-run trade was achieved largely through two wars, which forced China to open its doors to British Indian opium.

Historian William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy, a new book on the East India Company, says it “ferried opium to China, fighting the opium wars in order to seize an offshore base at Hong Kong and safeguard its profitable monopoly in narcotics”.

Some historians have argued that the opium business bolstered India’s rural economy and kept the farmers happy. That was not the case, as new research by Rolf Bauer, a professor of economic and social history at the University of Vienna, has found. For years Dr Bauer trawled through archival documents looking at the costs of producing opium and paying money to farmers.

He also examined an exhaustive history of the trade, the 1895 Report of the Royal Commission of Opium, which ran into seven volumes and 2,500 pages.

It contained 28,000 questions and hundreds of witness reports on the use and consumption of opium in India, and studied how the colonial government regulated its production and consumption.

The result of the research is published in Dr Bauer’s new study of the trade, The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India. His conclusion: the opium business was hugely exploitative and ended up impoverishing Indian peasants. “Poppy was cultivated against a substantial loss. These peasants would have been much better without it,” Dr Bauer told me.

This is how the East Indian Company ran the trade. Some 2,500 clerks working in 100 offices of a powerful colonial institution called the Opium Agency monitored poppy farmers, enforced contracts and quality with police-like authority. Indians workers were given commissions on every seer, a traditional unit of mass and volume used in large parts of Asia, of opium delivered on their beat.

In the thriving, state-run global trade, exports increased from 4,000 chests per year at the beginning of the 19th Century to more than 60,000 chests by the 1880s. Opium, says Dr Bauer, was for the large part of the 19th Century, the second-most important source of revenue for the colonial state. It was only outmatched by land taxes. (India remains the world’s biggest producer of legal opium for the global pharmaceutical market.)

“The government’s opium industry was one of the largest enterprises on the subcontinent, producing a few thousand tons of the drug every year a similar output to Afghanistan’s notorious opium industry today, which supplies the global market for heroin,” Dr Bauer says. More importantly, the crop, he adds, had a “lasting negative impact on the lives of millions”.

Interest-free advance payments were offered to poppy farmers who could not access easy credit. By itself, this was not a bad thing for those producing for the global market. What made it bad for them, according to Dr Bauer, was what they paid for rent, manure, irrigation and hired workers was higher than the income from the sale of raw opium.

In other words, the price peasants received for their opium did not even cover the cost of growing it. And they were soon trapped in a “web of contractual obligations from which it was difficult to escape”.

Stiff production targets fixed by the Opium Agency also meant farmers, the typical poppy cultivator was a small peasant, could not decide whether or not to produce opium. They were “forced to submit part of their land and labour to the colonial government’s export strategy”.

Local landowners forced their landless tenants to grow poppy; and peasants were also kidnapped, arrested and threatened with destruction of crops, criminal prosecution and jail if they refused to grow the crop. “It was a highly coercive system,” Dr Bauer says.

By 1915 the opium trade with China, the biggest market, had ended. However, the British Indian monopoly on opium continued until India won independence in 1947. What confounds Dr Bauer is “how a few thousand opium clerks controlled millions of peasants, forcing them to produce a crop that actually harms them”.

It’s a good question