Who were they?

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • Stranglers and Bandits: A Historical Anthology of ‘Thuggee’ edited by Kim Wagner
    Oxford, 318 pp, £22.99, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 569815 2

In the early 1980s, Ismail Merchant set out to make The Deceivers. He was without his usual collaborator, James Ivory, who was not enthusiastic about the project. The film eventually appeared in 1988, and was met by a near unanimous lack of critical acclaim. The screenplay was based on a novel by John Masters (1914-83), who had served in the British army in India before and during the Second World War. Masters’s family had had a relationship with India stretching back five generations; I have been told by elderly Indian army officers who served with him in the Gurkhas that he cut a dashing figure, full of exciting tales about his participation in Orde Wingate’s Chindit guerrilla. Unlike Bhowani Junction, an earlier film made from Masters’s best-known novel, which had to be shot in Pakistan because of its unfavourable portrayal of Congress leaders during the Indian freedom movement, The Deceivers was shot in India, in the Rajasthani ‘pink city’ of Jaipur as well as other western and central Indian locations. He saw it as a tale of derring-do that focused on one of the early moral triumphs of the British in India, the suppression of ‘thuggee’.

What precisely ‘thuggee’ was remains a contentious question, but in Masters’s novel it’s a cult devoted to highway robbery and murder, with distinct religious overtones: it involves the worship of a bloodthirsty goddess to whom victims are offered in sacrifice. To suppress ‘thuggee’ is thus to make the roads safe, but also to rid the Hindu religion of its more bizarre excesses. One can see why the theme keeps popping up in Hollywood, notably in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the Indian actor Amrish Puri plays Mola Ram, the high priest of Thuggee, ranting in Hindi as he tears a victim’s heart out with his bare hands.

The book from which The Deceivers was derived was, Merchant noted, ‘loosely based on the work of Major-General Sir William Sleeman, who, as William Sleeman of the Indian Political Service, discovered, exposed and destroyed thuggee’. William Savage, the hero modelled on Sleeman, ‘enters a mysterious world of superstition, ritual and death’ and ‘uncovers an unknown side of his personality, a mystic affinity with the blood brotherhood’ of the thugs. While Merchant’s sometime collaborators (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as well as James Ivory) seem to have winced when faced with the chief plot premise – that an upper-class Englishman could effortlessly pass himself off as a lower-class Indian – Merchant himself was convinced that this was ‘a matter of record’: Sir Richard Burton ‘had done exactly that again and again’. Merchant was educated at St Xavier’s College in Bombay before leaving for the US in 1958, and was clearly not so sceptical about colonialist claims of conducting a mission civilisatrice in the way that generations of scholars trained in post-colonial studies have since learned to be. A thug was a thug, and a British hero was a British hero.

One of the claims that empires and conquerors like to make is that they are bringing order where previously disorder reigned. This was certainly true of the empire built by the East India Company. At the outset, the Company belonged to a particular early modern category, the national chartered trading company, with counterparts in the Netherlands, France and Denmark, but the Crown also gave it the legal right to sign treaties and wage ‘defensive’ wars, as well as build fortified settlements. Over the second half of the 18th century, the Company created a sizeable territorial state, first in eastern and southern India, then in the north and west. The morality of what was being done was under challenge, however. Indian rulers and other elites often directed sarcastic barbs at Company Bahadur (or the Honourable Company), that rapacious warlord masquerading as a merchant. In Britain, the Company was attacked by Burke and Adam Smith for combining opportunism and monopolistic greed. The Company eventually responded by building up what it saw as its moral superiority and entitlement to rule India, even if only as the ostensible representative of an absent Mughal emperor.

Three ideas were central to these claims. The first was that the Company and its servants were restoring a pristine form of government that had existed centuries before (say, under the early Mughals) but had since degenerated. The second was that there was a particular affinity between Indians and Englishmen, which made the latter particularly well qualified to carry out this task, as opposed, for example, to the French. The third idea, related to the first, was that over the centuries a number of vicious and superstitious notions had come to tarnish Indian cultural norms. These would have to be stripped away, and the underlying institutions reformed.

The Company was always on slippery moral ground, however, not least because its early record of administration was pretty appalling, as we can see from the mismanagement of the great Bengal famine of 1769-73, which led to several million deaths, though the statistics were conveniently uncertain. There is little doubt, though, that it was poorly equipped to rule a territory like Bengal, and that its employees were too concerned with lining their pockets and returning home as ‘nabobs’ to bother about their Indian subjects.

References to Muslim tyranny and misrule provided periodic justification for acts of conquest, as we can see from the episode of the so-called Black Hole of Calcutta and the demonisation of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula. The British were often portrayed not as aggressors but as victims, and here narratives of captivity (such as those retailed recently by Linda Colley) played a significant role. The central figure in these stories was the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, who was killed in his capital city of Srirangapatna in May 1799 by Company forces. After 1800, when there were few such iconic hate figures available for the Company’s publicists to focus on, the idea of a threat to the Company and its rule was increasingly diffused across population groups rather than centred on tyrannical individuals.

Alexander Walker, or Walker of Bowland (1764-1831), joined the Company as a cadet in about 1780, and served in the wars against Tipu Sultan. Later, he was sent as a Company administrator to Gujarat and Malabar, before ending his career as the governor of St Helena in the 1820s. There, he wrote extensively on such subjects as ‘Hindoo Manners, Practices and Customs’ and ‘Castes and Professions in Gujarat’, and looked back on his earlier collaboration with the likes of Edward Moor in exposing such practices as female infanticide, which he claimed was particularly common among the Jadeja Rajputs of Gujarat.

Walker, like many others, was inclined increasingly as his career progressed to see Indian society as made up not of individuals but of groups with distinctive forms of behaviour. These had to be studied, and reformed where needed. ‘The influence of the English in changing the sentiments of the Hindus,’ he wrote, ‘has been considerable but the changes we have effected are cold and philosophical.’ To be sure, he added, ‘we have taught the natives useful arts and improved them in others. We have instilled into them a more rational use of money by enabling them to spend it in security and by making them better acquainted with the elegancies and conveniences of life.’ But this had not struck at the heart of a number of deplorable practices. ‘The Maina caste,’ he noted,

is celebrated for its expertness in committing theft. It is customary for them to allow no child to see the light for three days after birth; that its eyes may strengthen themselves in their natural clearness, and by this their sight is better in the night than ours. If they wish any person to be unusually expert, they do not allow him to see a candle for forty days after his birth; and they say that a person who has not seen a candle (or light) for forty days after birth will see as well in the darkest night as at noonday.

Walker’s collaboration with Moor on the subject of female infanticide coincided with the first persistent mentions in Company records of a group called the ‘Thugs’, described in a report of 1809 as a ‘detestable race of monsters … who are constantly lurking in jungles and wastes [to] entrap any travellers who may be incautious enough to travel by night’. Bandits and robbers were known to act as the irregular auxiliaries of rulers, as in the case of the ‘Pindaris’, against whom the Company was fighting in western and southern India. There were also organised groups that apparently combined violence and ritual activities, such as the sannyasis or warrior-ascetics. Deftly juggling a mix of trade, warfare and sectarian religion, they emerged in medieval times and came to the notice of the Mughals in the later 16th century, when the emperor Akbar intervened in a violent conflict between them at Thanesar. In the new political circumstances of the 18th century, some of them acquired considerable prominence. In 1761, at the third Battle of Panipat, the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali is said to have expressed his disgust that his Maratha adversaries resorted to using ash-smeared men, who could not even be bothered to cover their private parts before venturing into combat.

In the first three decades of the 19th century, Company officials made a considerable effort to separate out from this confusing mixture of bandits, freebooters and warrior-ascetics a specific group called the ‘Thugs’. As Kim Wagner’s anthology shows, they did not invent the term. Wagner begins with excerpts from articles by the Indologists Wilhelm Halbfass and Paul Dundas, suggesting that the word thaka or thaga can be found at least as early as the medieval Jain textual tradition to mean a cheat, swindler or slippery character. The British simply shrank the term semantically, to give it a specific meaning. They also invented the far wider concept of ‘thuggee’, which became a sort of pseudo-ethnographic term meaning a well-organised group of robbers, with a specific technique, a secret language, a ritual (or religious) purpose and a considerable geographic spread, extending from the Gangetic plain well into southern India.

Company officials themselves had considerable doubts about ‘thuggee’. One of them noted in the 1820s that ‘the word Thug is a local cant term, and consequently little understood in any uniform way.’ The arrest of the first group of suspected thugs in Etawah in March 1810 did not help. Many of them, such as a certain Ghulam Husain, were Muslims, as were their victims, despite British claims that the murders were ritual acts linked to the worship of the goddess Kali or Bhavani. Of course, heterodox practices and worship among Muslims were not unknown, but a lack of proper evidence meant the case against Ghulam Husain and the others collapsed. It was only in 1826 that a group of ‘thugs’ was finally convicted in a colonial court, but by this time the view had become firmly rooted that the phenomenon was widespread. In 1816, R. Sherwood published a description of phansigars (or ‘stranglers’) operating in southern India, and noted that ‘though the Phansigars are almost all Mussulmans, they have nevertheless universally adopted, on certain occasions, the idolatrous worship of Hindu deities.’

Sherwood mentioned earlier accounts, such as one by the 17th-century French traveller Jean de Thévenot, and underlined the importance of a secret language, which he termed pheraseri-ci-bat, made up of ‘signs, and of words and phrases not understood by others as channels of communication’. ‘Phansigars,’ he said, ‘never commit robbery unaccompanied by murder, their practice being first to strangle and then to rifle their victims.’ These were a ‘distinct class of hereditary murderers and plunderers, settled in various parts of India, and alike remarkable for the singularity of their practice, and the extent of their depredations’. Once ‘stranglers’ and ‘thugs’ became one and the same, the picture was complete and the stage set for a campaign to make the roads safe both for the passage of travellers and soldiers (or sepoys), and for the expanded traffic in cash and key commercial goods such as central Indian opium.

It has been claimed that in the campaigns against ‘thuggee’ in the 1820s and 1830s, some 4000 people were convicted and hanged. The laws were draconian and the definition of ‘thugs’ and ‘thuggee’ extremely vague, even in the so-called Act XXX of 1836. The campaign was also an opportunity for self-aggrandisement on the part of some Company officials, most conspicuously Sleeman, who published the so-called ‘standard work on thuggee’, Ramaseeana, or a vocabulary of the peculiar language used by the Thugs (1836). According to a report he wrote in May 1830, the activities of the thugs ‘make almost every road in India between the Jumna and the Indus from the beginning of November until the end of May a dreadful scene of hourly murder’. In October of the same year Sleeman published an anonymous account of the thugs in the Calcutta Literary Gazette, where he made strenuous efforts to link them to a particular Bhavani temple at Vindhyachal (near Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh). He also made much of the thugs’ ritual practices and their use of a consecrated scarf or rumal to strangle their victims; he added that ‘the investiture with the rumal is knighthood to these monsters.’ The religious paradox involved did not escape his attention, and he made a point of insisting that these were peculiar Muslims, who worshipped the goddess, did not eat beef, and ‘are not suffered to invoke the name of Mahommud’ even though ‘the Koran is still their civil code.’

Historians have been unable to agree about the status of these claims. That the bulk of the thug trials relied on testimony extracted from ‘approvers’ – people who testified against others in order to receive reduced sentences – is one problem; another is the relentlessly sensationalist and self-serving character of Sleeman’s account, which held that the thugs were an ancient secret society ‘discovered’ by the British and then attacked and disbanded. His view pervaded historiography for more than a century from the time of the anti-thuggee campaigns, and is still standard in popular histories and movies (including Merchant’s). In the late 1950s Hiralal Gupta argued that thugs did indeed exist, but that they were not a ‘religious fraternity’. Rather, the peculiar circumstances created by Company expansion in the later 18th and early 19th centuries led to forms of banditry that were secular in character, and their logic simply one of ‘reciprocity of interest’. This approach, initially part of Indian nationalist historiography, came to be generalised among American historians in the 1960s and 1970s, who emphasised the pragmatic aims of the ‘thugs’, their alliance with local magnates, and their attacks on couriers and bankers’ agents.

The question then arose of whether all this was no more than ‘colonial myth-making’, as Christopher Bayly put it in the 1990s. With Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s celebrated 1983 formula of ‘the invention of tradition’ in mind, it became common to accuse the British of having ‘discovered’ nothing and ‘invented’ everything in their encounter with India. Reviewing an old-fashioned and inconsistent work on thugs by Martine van Woerkens, Satadru Sen wrote: ‘Over the course of the 1830s British administrators in India invented, unearthed, pursued and popularised the “thug” as a particularly horrifying category of colonial criminal and native subject.’

Eventually, and inevitably, scholars of literature entered the scene en masse, abandoning any hope of recovering ‘facts’ and instead shifting the focus onto the representation of thugs and ‘thuggee’. Parama Roy, for example (who is cited in Wagner’s anthology), pointed to the way ‘the discourse on and around thuggee can be instrumental in opening up our present understanding of the theorisation of colonial mimicry.’ Finally, Tom Lloyd, a writer with vaulting epistemological ambitions (he is given the last word in Wagner’s compendium), noted in 2006 that ‘a historical account of “thuggee” can only study its representations,’ because ‘as historians, dealing with documents from the past, we can assess the discursive constitution of “thugs”, not their actual behaviour.’ It was the same old story: the thug could perhaps strangle, but he certainly couldn’t speak.

All of this may seem disheartening, because we could easily substitute for the words ‘thugs’ and ‘thuggee’ many others, such as ‘cricket’, and come up with the same debates and conflicting diagnoses. We would then get: ‘the discourse on and around cricket can be instrumental in opening up our present understanding of the theorisation of colonial mimicry,’ or ‘a historical account of “cricket” can only study its representations,’ because ‘as historians, dealing with documents from the past, we can assess the discursive constitution of “cricketers”, not their actual behaviour.’ The central question remains, however: was colonial ‘knowledge-making’ a simple act of conspiracy, or was it a series of small misunderstandings and misrecognitions which eventually cohered to form a pattern?

It might be useful here to compare the problem of ‘thuggee’ with that of ‘suttee’. The abstract concept of ‘thuggee’ was, as I’ve said, probably invented by the British. In the case of ‘suttee’, on the other hand, a semantic displacement was effected whereby the word sati, which meant a true or virtuous woman, was understood to mean not a person, but the act of self-immolation. Did ‘suttee’ (in the British sense) exist in a pervasive way before Company rule? The accounts of numerous European and Muslim travellers can be quoted to suggest that it did, even if it is likely that a number of them made up their stories of self-immolating widows since no travel account worth its salt could fail to mention it. Indeed, a parallel compendium to Wagner’s, edited by Andrea Major, is entitled Sati: A Historical Anthology (2007). ‘Thuggee’ and ‘suttee’ were the major preoccupations of the governorship of William Bentinck (1828-35), but what is questionable is the extent to which self-immolation was practised. Was it restricted to certain castes and regions, or – as British officials sometimes implied – to be encountered up and down Indian society, and in all corners of the subcontinent?

What is clear is that ‘suttee’ has been defended as a glorious part of traditional Indian culture: no Indian social activist or postcolonial theorist has yet defended ‘thuggee’ in quite the same terms. The travails of Merchant and The Deceivers are not without interest in this regard. A court case was brought during the filming arguing that by taking Sleeman’s (and Masters’s) view of the matter, The Deceivers projected a ‘wrong picture of our Hindu culture, religion and mythology’, notably the place in it of the goddess Kali; Merchant’s response, which, astonishingly, won the day, was simply to the effect that ‘thuggee is a well-documented part of Indian history.’ A second lawsuit brought by the same parties took up the issue of ‘suttee’, which also features in the film, when Savage, not content with ridding India of thugs, takes time to rescue a beautiful widow from the flames. In the light of recent incidents, notably the infamous Roop Kanwar immolation at Deorala on 4 September 1987, it was suggested that Merchant and his crew were glorifying this dreadful practice. Once again, Merchant was categorical: ‘Sleeman and his exploits, on which the novel is based, were not fiction. Neither is sati.’ He presented himself as a defender of women’s rights, and noted that this was another instance in which the British had helped improve India. Besides, no one had objected to the ‘suttee’ scene in The Far Pavilions.

‘Thuggee’ had a long institutional afterlife in India. The idea that criminality was hereditary, ritually handed down and enshrined in the caste system (in its broader sense), continued to play a significant role in colonial thinking, even after the transition from Company to Crown. It eventually led to the singling out, in the Criminal Tribes Acts of the 1870s and 1920s, of a series of groups who were defined as criminal by default. Sleeman’s interest in phrenology may have helped point the way in this direction. The acts were eventually repealed, but the stigma associated with them remained in place and may not have disappeared even today.

The Indonesian-Chinese historian Ong Hok Ham once joked that colonialism was an encounter between ‘the inscrutable and the paranoid’. If that diagnosis is correct, it may explain the history of ‘thuggee’ as forming part of a larger problem of mistrust and misrecognition. But the end of colonial rule did not provide a happy ending. The ‘thuggee’ campaign left a troubling legacy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Indian state launched a set of draconian campaigns to eliminate what was described as Sikh ‘terrorism’ in the Punjab. The chief of police, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, was given powers equalling or exceeding those entrusted to Sleeman, and the number of people summarily killed certainly exceeded those who were hanged in the thug trials of the 1830s. As in the 1830s, some of those who died may have been implicated in various crimes and acts of violence while others surely were not. Like ‘thuggee’ in the 1830s, ‘terrorism’ in the 1980s and early 1990s was a sufficiently vague and capacious category to cover much that was merely reason of state.