Thuggee Law

Posted by sepoy on October 20, 2004 · 6 mins read

Continuing from yesterday, I started to think about the role of law enforcement in apprehending Veerappan. Linking back to the Thuggees, it reminded me of the innovations that enabled the Company to consolidate and institutionalize its dominion over India. Specifically, the civilizing mission (let's stop the barbaric sati) and law and order (Thuggee Act of 1836). In the later case, the argument was that the entirety of India was being menaced by these devotees of Kali and it was only the Company's intervention that can provide security to the people of India. The intervention into the legal code, though, would not come from Muslim or Hindu Law as understood at the time but from Enlightenment.

Between Delhi and Agra, the Company legends went, were a band of robbers, most cunning. They roamed around the Road and when they happened upon a solitary traveller, they slipped a silk scarf around the neck and strangled him. Or sometime, they would have a beautiful accomplice who would appear distraught and begging for help. The gullible traveller would try to help her and try to get close to her to comfort her. In a second, she would throw her silk noose around his neck and that would be the end of that.

The lore of Thuggees is an illuminating study in the transitional state from the Company to the Raj. The British civilizational mission found a champion in Lord Bentnick and his anti-Sati efforts. The campaign against the thuggee menace was very much in the same vein. Previously, the Company had been very reluctant in "policing" or "intervening" into native practices. Since 1770s, the colonial project was heavily invested in the creation of a body of knowledge to help govern the land (through ethnographic, linguistic and archeological surveys of India). Criminal registers were the hot ticket in early 1820s--as were descriptions of "communities of bandits" and "villages of dacoits" culled from "interviews" were all the rage.

The earliest thuggee account was R. C. Sherwood's Of the Murderers Called Phansigars which was based on interrogations and depositions of supposed thuggees and published in 1820. This was augmented and supplemented in the bestseller (in England and America) by W. H. Sleeman entitled Ramaseeana. Sleeman's narrative linked all thuggees in India under seven clans descended from Alexander's invading armies.

Just as Bernard Cohn's work shows, the forms of knowledge were linked intricately to the colonial enterprise. Sleeman was heavily involved in the creation and enactment of the Thuggee Act of 1836 which was quite revolutionary:

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 labor. Court shall, on a trial of any person accused of the offense...require any Futwa from any Law Officer

It should be noted that there was no clamor from the natives to save them from the Thuggees-- whoever the brigands and robbers may have been. There is scant evidence that they existed or ever attacked any European. Starting with Lord Bentnick's governor-generalship the civilizing/law meme gets fully propogated. Instead of relying on princely states and affiliates to manage the safety, the Company wanted to create a systematic power over all of India.

The Thugee campaign in the 1820s-40s were part of the classification and characterization mission of the Company. Long lists, people. Long, long lists of informants, suspects, criminals, on and on. Of special concern was a lingo, code words, special signals, those markers of hidden knowledge that congealed the community togethar. The body of knowledge compiled to demystify the thuggee (the past, the ritual, the omens) were used to outline a "system", a comprehensive "menace". These were not mere criminals but representation of the nature of the native that had yet to undergo the civilizational laundry mat. However, present research shows that there was no such overarching hereditary community or profession and even the scale of thuggee operations as depicted is highly suspect. Caste hierarchy and criminality became the defining meme of the thuggee.

The enforcement of law and order meant mass arrests and executions. Families were sent to prison (remember that this was hereditary so no one was innocent) and mass hangings took place in the early 30s as spectacle. In the 1843 Act, the definition of thuggee was broadened and the "professional dacoit" was added, and police units were created specifically to hunt the dacoits. We continue to have these special units in police forces in homistan. Largely speaking, it is safe to say that the thuggee and dacoit campaigns were the essential steps in a centralized police bureaucracy that emerges after the 1857 Mutiny.

The fascination of the West with the thuggee continued long after they were "wiped out" from India. Philip Meadows Taylor's 1939 epic Confessions of a Thug was a huge bestseller in America and England. More recently, there is the Pierce Brosnan movie, Indiana Jones, many novels and inane statements like on that BBC page. And like Cricket, the mimicry extends into the romanticization of dacoits, brigands in Pakistan or India. Sindhi dacoits, before they went nuts with the kidnappings, were romantic heroes living in the jungle under the protection of Saints (see H. T. Lambrick's The Terrorist). Oh and the thuggees gave us the word Thug.


Jonathan Dresner | October 21, 2004

Very interesting, thank you. I particularly like the part where the anti-Thuggee campaign begins without anyone asking for it....

desesperanto | October 21, 2004

and on and on and on, despite denotification.

sepoy | October 22, 2004

jonathan: just like the middle east clamoring for freedom, no? desesperanto: thanks for the link. same issues face the Roma (gypsy) community in present day Italy, France etc. When you live outside of societal norms, you are not up to any good, i guess.

Nitin | October 25, 2004

Sepoy, I'm halfway through Philip Meadows Taylors' Confessions... and was struck by the remarkable religious harmony among the thugs. In one chapter, the father-thug gives a wonderful lecture to his madrassa-educated protege on the very 'secular' nature of their trade. Anyway, your post has given me a different perspective on Thuggee and the motivations of the East India company

mitchell | May 21, 2006

so the tactic used by brits was to identify a threat (invent one if it doesn't exist as in the case of the Thuggees) and then use it to give themselves sweeping powers to commit barbaric abuses against the native peoples of India who might oppose british political or economic interests. state terrorism. comes from machiavelli

Kerim Friedman | January 16, 2008

Just came across this post. I recently posted something on Savage Minds: I'm also engaged in an ongoing discussion with the authors of the Wikipedia page to revise the current text.

Rodney Atwood | November 16, 2008

Although your website is written in good faith and an attempt to be accurate, it gives a distorted account of thuggee. Probably some 50,000 men, women and children were murdered by thugs, although the figure may have been twice as large. Sleeman thought the number much larger because of the nature of his interrogations. Europeans were not attacked, it is true, but sepoys of the East India Company were frequently murdered returning home on leave with their pay. The complaint which lead to the original investigation was from a zamindar named Laljee. As to the punishments, some 4,500 men were arrested and placed on trial by Sleeman and others; a total of 504 were executed. 'Mass hangings' is subjective; I think the largest group was eleven. Three thousand were sentenced to life imprisonment with labour, and half of these transported to penal colonies. There is no doubt that Sleeman rendered a great service, although he exaggerated it. A Hyderabadi nobleman Hussain Dost Khan, certainly not a lacky of the British, wrote, 'the whole of the inhabitants of this country, and travellers, have been emancipated from the fear of Thugs.' SAleeman's mistake was to demonise the thugs as worshippers of Kali. They in fact carried out their murders for money. If they worshipped Kali it was only in the way that so many Indians then did, as today they pray to Ganesh. That thuggee gained a distorted and romanticised aura in later years, as your article makes clear, is certainly true. But to regard it as an invention of Sleeman and the British, as some American academics think, is totally wrong.

anuradha Rao | December 12, 2008

were thugs psycopathic and therefore mentally disturbed commuinity ? Kevin Rushby in his book Children Of Kali , explores the notion of thuggee being alive in secret even today and also draws some parallels..

xrap | October 11, 2009

Agori cult is even more interesting