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Colonial imaginings?

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Some time in the early 19th century, zealous East India Company officials discovered ritual highway killers scattered all over central, northern and southern India. Followers of the cult of Bhowanee, they befriended unsuspecting travellers, strangled them with a silk scarf at an opportune moment and then escaped with their belongings. They often received the patronage of local Rajas and landlords. They were called the thugs, though in some places they were also known as rahgirs or phansigirs.

When not out on a “mission,” they were farmers and lived in communities. Once the harvests were done and there was nothing to do in the village, they would spread out in the countryside to carry out their nefarious trade.

Then one day in 1838, the company announced it had wiped out the lot from the face of the earth after a long campaign. All of them were captured, tried and put behind bars or killed. Some others turned approvers. And the roads were safe once again for travellers, pilgrims and traders alike. They were dealt such a blow that one never heard of thugs again.

The hero of the action was William Henry “Thugee” Sleeman (1788-1856). Our knowledge of thugs emanates to a large extent from him. His book, Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, finds buyers till date, though there is a wide array of and articles on the subject. Anybody who wants to know about thugee has to start with Sleeman.

Stranglers & Bandits adds a fresh coat of perspective to the age-old story of colonial triumph over Asian social evil. Kim A Wagner has collected a unique range of material, ranging from interviews of thugs, scholarly articles and old official records. The book will make you look at the thugee campaign with some suspicion.

The British for long counted the suppression of thugee along with the abolition of sati, the construction of the railway network and the establishment of a modern judicial system as their civilising influence on India. True to a large extent, but there are holes in the thugee story which Wagner brings to light.

Non-British accounts, including those of travellers during Mughal rule, have not talked of thugee at all. Robbers and dacoits did indeed have a free run whenever the central authority was weak. But you will hardly come across an account of a community of people who killed just to please their goddess, unless you turn to East India Company officers like Sleeman.

That leads to the next question: Did the officers of the East India Company spin a yarn just to justify their military presence all over the country? Was the charge that the thugs shared their loot with the local Raja another excuse to attack and annihilate these small independent rulers?

The full story may perhaps never come out. But Wagner’s book raises some questions. Similar stratagems by the officers of East India Company, after all, were not unknown. It was gardi ka waqt (time of turbulence) and everything was justified if it pushed your boundaries a few miles further.

One of the reasons that the British cited in their war against Nepal for Kumaon and Garhwal was the trade in slaves carried out by the Gurkha commanders at Rishikesh. At the chowkee there, hundreds of thousands of helpless Garhwalis and Kumaonis were sold every year. Of course, Kumaon and Garhwal held all the passes that led to Tibet, yet another market for clothes woven and stitched in Manchester and an inexpensive source of gold.

Many of the thugs were decidedly Muslims. Some of those captured by officers of East India Company had Muslim names. Would they follow the cult of Bhowanee? It sounds unlikely because Islam does not allow idol worship.

Much of our knowledge of the rituals they followed comes from confessions made to officers of East India Company. In present day law, can such confessions be taken as complete evidence? Moreover, these confessions were all recorded by officers like Sleeman. How much was lost or added in translation?

What is definitely true is that local rulers did patronise bandits. But these irregulars carried out attacks on neighbouring kingdoms. It was an important source of personal revenue for these petty rulers. But were they hand in glove with thugs? The evidence is inconclusive.

It is also true that there was huge demobilisation of soldiers during the first half of the 19th century. Mughal rule was on its last legs and small rulers did not have the resources to maintain a regular army. Many of these men, Muslims and Hindus alike, did take to highway robberies. But thugs are a different story. Were they for real or were they just a figment of the Company Bahadur’s imagination? The question deserves an answer.


Kim A Wagner
Oxford University Press
318 pages; Rs 695

First Published: Fri, February 27 2009. 00:25 IST