When the British contemplated keeping a military at bay to counter tobacco smuggling in Wayanad

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Monopoly of resources — The East India Company functioned on this philosophy in the 18th century. It applied to the Malabar region as well.

They scoured our mountains for gold, traded in timber and took along the spices. A file from early 19th century shows how the British at one point contemplated banking on the military to prevent the smuggling of tobacco.

Smuggling of tobacco by the natives in Mananthavady in Wayanad was proving to be a headache for the colonisers. To prevent a solid source of revenue being lost, the then Collector of Malabar writes to the authorities in Madras. In a letter written to the Chief Secretary, the Secretary at St. George brings up the issue of tobacco smuggling in Wayanad. Following the Collector’s letter, the Board of Revenue puts pressure on the Secretary to take up the matter with the Chief Secretary who had to take it further to the decisive Governor-in-Council. From the letter written on October 23, 1834, one realises that a force called the ‘Wayanad Rangers’ was being withdrawn from the region, which would put controlling of smuggling on civilian forces.

Apparently, the Principal Collector of Malabar had asked for no less than 100 peons in “addition to his present establishment for the prevention of smuggling and the protection of the tobacco revenue.”

The Board pitches in for Collector Clementson in a big way. The Secretary writes, “The Board entirely concur in the opinion expressed by Mr. Clementson that the presence even of a small military force affords a greater check to smuggling than could be effected by almost any establishment of peons kept up for that purpose so as long as the present monopoly of tobacco is as continued.”

Clementson had suggested that a small military force be stationed at Mananthavady to act as a deterrent for the smugglers. He wanted the commanding officer to attend “to all urgent requisitions from the Revenue authorities in arresting gangs of smugglers.”

‘Fear’ apparently has been a key deterrent in the past. When the Wayanad Rangers were in operation, the Collector had never had to call them in, as their name spelt fear in the region.

The letter mentions the same. “The Board is satisfied that the dread instilled by the knowledge of the military being within reach and ready to act when called upon is the most effectual check to that system of a daring smuggling which till within the last two or three years was so prevalent in the part of the country,” says the letter.

The letter reveals that the “smugglers are principally Moplah men of desperate character who assemble in large gangs armed with bludgeons, swords and as the records of Government testify have on occasions dared to meet the encounter of a military force.” According to the Board, as long as tobacco monopoly exists it is important to prevent smuggling even if it means keeping a force to prevent it.

A guarded approach

In what is considered to be a response to the letter to the Chief Secretary, the Governor-in-Council agrees that deploying a detachment will help.

“This detachment shall afford assistance when necessary to the Revenue peons for overcoming and arresting gangs of smugglers.”

The Governor-in-Council however, adopts a cautious approach to the matter. The higher authority makes sure that the Government is not seen resorting to the military at the drop of the hat. Instead, the primarily task of preventing smuggling is put on the revenue peons who will be assisted by the force in times of crisis. The response says, “Although the troops are not commonly to be employed for the prevention of smuggling which duty is to be performed by the revenue peons with the aid which is thus to be given by the troops on urgent occasion.”

It adds, “It appears that the present establishment of peons will be sufficient. It is to be distinctly understood that it is only on urgent occasions when the smugglers are assembled in gangs of such force that the peons are unable to oppose them without aid that the assistance of the troops is to be called for.”

Finally, it is the cautionary approach of the Governor-in-Council that prevents a rash deployment of military to prevent tobacco smuggling in Wayanad.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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