On October 3, 1830, the Calcutta Literary Gazette published an anonymous letter that spoke at length on the activities of a group of worshippers of Goddess Kali, who expressed their devotion to her in a rather unconventional way. The letter suggested that the devotees murdered innocent travelers and stole all their belongings. They then set down a portion of their booty at the feet of their beloved Goddess, all under the watchful eyes of the priests who promised them wealth and prosperity in return. “It is the imperious duty of the Supreme Government of this country to put an end in some way or the other to this dreadful system of murder, by which thousands of human beings are now annually sacrificed upon every great road throughout India,” said the letter.
The murderous devotees of Goddess Kali that the author of the letter was referring to was a group called the ‘Thugs’ who had gained some attention among the British rulers of colonial India. The Thugs, as the letter explained, was not restricted to any specific geographical region of the country, but were audaciously acting across the length and breadth of India. “In the territories of the native chiefs of Bundelkhand, as of Scindia and Holkar, a Thug feels just as independent and free as an Englishman in his tavern,” writes the author adding that “many of these men be found often most securely established in the very seats of our principal judicial establishment.”
Also Read | Thugs On The Silver Screen
Yash Raj Film’s upcoming movie, ‘Thugs of Hindostan’ starring Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif will be narrating the story of the notorious group, though in very Bollywood settings. Set in the late eighteenth century, the movie is reported to have captured the activities of a band of Thugs led by Khudabaksh Azad played by Amitabh Bachchan and how they had turned into a serious challenge for the British East India Company that was striving to expand its territories in India.
Interestingly, this particular sect that YRF will be bringing to life on the silver screen, appear to have rather mysterious origins. Historical records show that almost all the material available on Thugs are those written by the British. Noteworthy among these were the documents written by the British soldier and administrator William Henry Sleeman, who also happened to be the writer of the anonymous letter published in the Calcutta Gazette, as was revealed later. Sleeman was later put in charge of eradicating this sect, about which he seemed to have the most amount of knowledge. Information about the Thugs also spread among the colonisers through the novels like “Confessions of a Thug” written by Phillip Meadows Taylor in 1839, which detailed the activities of a fictional character named Ameer Ali, who supposedly was part of the thug sect.
Ironically, there is no record written in the Indian vernaculars that can be considered a source for deriving the history of the Thugs. “Seemingly, no document in the vernacular enables us to confirm, invalidate or balance the colonisers’ accounts,” writes researcher Martine van Woerkens in her book, ‘The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India’. Are we then to believe that the concept of a sect called the Thugs was a product of colonial imagination? The answer to this question is far more complicated considering the socio-political landscape of India in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, that did, in fact, allow the existence and sustenance of different sects and tribes who indulged in the kind of activities generally associated with the Thugs. Further, we also need to consider the fact that there is enough evidence documented of the kind of activity described as ‘Thuggish’ long before the British set in.
What do historians know about Thugs?
Wooerkens in her work explains that “according to some historians, Thuggism is a myth invented by the British in order to extend their control over a mobile population, or to seize criminal jurisdiction in areas that had until then been in the hands of Mughal rulers, and so forth.” Colonialist historians like George Bruce and Sir Francis Tuker though believed that the rumours about Thugs were indeed true and that they were the enemies of humankind. Bruce and Tuker also maintained that the British accomplished a major civilising mission by exterminating the Thugs.
Later historians, however, have been more careful in their analysis of the situation and refused to reduce the British sources to mere imagination. For instance, Steward Gordon explained that in eighteenth-century India, the legitimacy of local power was to a large extent based on violence. According to Gordon, Thug was basically an appropriation of a local word to make sense of a poorly understood social institution. Historian Jaques Pouchepadass considers that Thuggism needs to be located into the larger colonial project of segregating certain sections of the Indian population as ‘criminal castes and tribes’. Historian Radhika Singha is of the belief that the discovery of the existence of Thugs is what inspired the British to establish criminal laws in the country.
Where there ‘Thugs’ in India before the British rule?
In order to make sense of the debate regarding whether or not the British constructed the ‘Thug’, it is worth noting the indigenous use of the word before the colonisers set in and the various accounts of highway robbery that existed predating the official discovery of Thuggee by the British in the 1830s. The literal meaning of the word ‘Thug’ in most of the Indian vernaculars translates as a cheat or swindler. It has been used to describe roguish activities in several pre-colonial Hindi, Sanskrit or other vernacular texts.
Historian Kim A. Wagner in his book, ‘Thuggee: Banditry and the British in early nineteenth century India’ notes that in the seventh century when the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang made his famous journey in India, he was set upon by bandits on the Ganges and that he narrowly missed being sacrificed to their Goddess. This incident has been interpreted as an account of ‘Thuggee’. “However, by that rationale, all accounts of banditry and human sacrifice in ancient India would have to be taken as referring to the Thugs of the nineteenth century,” writes Wagner.
Similar accounts are also available in other areas of the country. For instance, in the Janamsakhi-texts of the Sikhs, there is a reference to the story of ‘Sajjan, the Robber’ who had a lodging house for travelers where he killed and robbed the guests and hid the bodies in a well. In two versions of this story elsewhere, the Sajjan is in fact given the epithet ‘Thug’.
“In the various European travel accounts of the later Mughal period there are numerous stories of robbers, bandits, and thieves who infested the roads and obstructed trade across the subcontinent,” writes Wagner. The Frenchman Jean de Thevenot who traveled in India during the 1660s described a group of robbers who operated in and around Delhi. “They use a certain slip with a running noose, which they can cast with so much slight about a man’s neck, when they are within reach of him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice,” he wrote. The act of murder by strangulation was yet again accounted by the Englishman John Fryer who claimed to have witnessed it in areas near Surat in the late seventeenth century.
Interestingly, the precise act of murder by strangulation, in fact, was part of the colonial understanding of ‘Thuggish’ activity in the nineteenth century and the word ‘Thug’ was frequently used interchangeably with the word ‘Phansigar’ which literally means strangler.
While there is sufficient evidence of ‘Thug’ like activity in the Indian subcontinent since much before the East India Company entered its borders, there are certain unique features of the way in which the sect came to be conceptualised in nineteenth-century British India.
How do we contextualise ‘Thuggism’ in nineteenth-century British India?
William Sleeman wrote that there were certain conditions peculiar to the Indian landscape that facilitated the Thugs’ crime. Foremost among these as he mentioned was the political and social organisation of the subcontinent that saw lack of ties between the rulers and the ruled. He noted that this gap was bridged by an intimate association between kings and robbers, who were entrusted with the job of collecting taxes for the king through violent means.
Contrary to what Sleeman would have us believe, historian Hiralal Gupta wrote in 1959 that thuggee actually emerged as a result of the chaos and instability caused by the expansion of the Company’s rule. By the 1830s, the English East India Company had expanded their control over large sections of the Indian subcontinent. However, expansion of Company rule took place parallelly to the rise of multiple local chieftains in the country. As Woerkens mentions in her work, “while the British conceived of themselves as a nation by drawing on the symbols of monarchy, in India everybody wanted to be king of the world.” In eighteenth-century India, there were multiple loci of power which included the Muslim provincial kingdoms, Hindu kingdoms of the Marathas in the West, Afghan kingdoms, Sikh kingdoms in Punjab, Rajput kingdoms and the European trading posts. Each of these points of power consequently handed down authority to local landlords who were assigned the job of collecting taxes from the peasants. Violence played a vital role in the maintenance of the economy of this system. “It has been ascertained by recent investigation, that in every part of India many of the hereditary landholders and the chief officers of villages have had private connection with Thugs for generations, affording them facilities for murder by allowing their atrocious acts to pass with impunity, and sheltering the offenders when in danger; whilst in return for these services they received portions of their gains,” writes Philip Meadows Taylor in his book, ‘Confessions of a Thug’.
Each of these groups did pose a threat to the British who had to suppress them in order to extend their rule over larger parts of the subcontinent’s territories.
How did the British deal with the ‘Thugs’?
The letter written by Sleeman anonymously in the Calcutta Gazette created a sudden furore among the circle of Company officers. This is not to say that they had not acted against these groups previously. In fact, as Wagner notes in his book, the first time that the British authorities became aware of the existence of something called the ‘Thuggee’ was in 1809 in the North Indian district of Etawah where the Company came across a number of instances of mysterious murders being carried out by a secret sect. On investigation, they discovered the prisoner to be 16-year-old Ghulam Hussain who reluctantly recounted several instances of murders committed by their gang. Hussain however, was pardoned by magistrate Thomas Perry in the hope that further information could be acquired from him.
However, it was only from the 1830s that the British began attacking the sect in an organised manner. It was largely the efforts of William Sleeman that led to an institutionalised suppression of the Thugs. Sleeman believed that information acquired from one group of murderers could be utilised to attack another one in a different region. Further, the ‘Thuggee’ Act of 1836 was passed which ruled that “whoever shall be proved to have belonged, either before or after the passing of this Act, to any gang of Thugs, either within or without the territories of the East India Company, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, with hard labour.” The Thuggee and Dacoity Department was established in 1835 with Sleeman as its first superintendent.
Historian Mike Dash in his work, ‘Thug: The true story of India’s murderous cult’ explains that Sleeman maintained a large volume of cross-referenced files on the Thugs, including travel routes, hometowns, associates and the like that resulted in thousands of men being imprisoned, executed or expelled.
Interestingly though, even when the Company was acting most systematically against the ‘Thugs’ of India, as Singha mentions in her work, nowhere in their legal enactments did they specify what exactly the offense of a ‘Thuggee’ was.
“The theme of ‘criminal communities’ occurred not only in a judicial context but was also used to justify special executive powers of punitive drives of various sorts,” she writes. In other words, much of the British attention towards the thug and the institutionalised oppression that followed was a way of making the subjects of an empire both ‘taxable’ and ‘policeable’.
However, regardless of how the ‘Thug’ came into being, stories about the mysterious cult continued to circulate in British networks, convincing them about the need for civilising India. Post the supposed suppression of the sect, several fictional accounts of the Thugs in Western literature and films too came about. Popular among these would be George Stevens’ direction, ‘Gunga Din’ (1939), ‘The Stranglers of Bombay’ (1960), and ‘The Deceivers’ (1988). These stories have overtime also played upon the historical fantasies of Indians, a product of which we will be viewing in the theatres soon.