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.

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