Thuggee and the complex history of a mysterious criminal underworld

Published : Sep 23, 2023 15:48 IST - 15 MINS READ

Thuggees travelled in groups across the Indian subcontinent.

Thuggees travelled in groups across the Indian subcontinent. | Photo Credit: Wikipedia

How their legacy endures through the Habitual Offenders Act, whose draconian provisions marginalise tribal and nomadic communities to this date.

As the East India Company solidified its dominion over the vast expanse of the Indian subcontinent during the early decades of the 19th century, it confronted a perplexing enigma it deemed an ancient creed of criminality, infested with the ominous triad of theft, murder, and pillage. Thuggee, a term that reverberated with dread, was assigned to describe what was portrayed as a ritualistic symphony of violence, a haunting orchestration of murder, plunder, and depredation. Within the corridors of the colonial administration, efforts were earnestly directed toward the codification and comprehension of Thuggee, a venture spearheaded by the indefatigable William H. Sleeman. In his relentless quest for insight, Sleeman conversed extensively with Thugs, documenting their modus operandi and the rituals that tethered them to ominous omens and fervent allegiance to deities, Bhawani and Kali, patrons of their enigmatic “cults.”

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In the 1830s, British authorities unleashed a vehement anti-Thuggee campaign, an onslaught aimed at the utter obliteration of this perceived menace. Villages lay in smouldering ruins, countless individuals found themselves incarcerated, and the innocent too often bore the brunt of Britain’s zealous aggression against a foe that had rarely ventured to assail them. The Thugs, known colloquially as Phansigars, earned their notoriety through a web of duplicity and their uncanny knack for striking with lethal precision, often employing asphyxiation tactics with handkerchiefs and nooses. There existed an overarching narrative of hereditary criminalisation, culminating in the 1870s when these tribes were indelibly branded as criminals and consigned to a lifetime of captivity and servitude.

Criminal Tribes Act and the spectre of legislative tyranny

Historians have embarked on a multifaceted deconstruction of the colonial portrayal of Thuggee, including its supposed hereditary characteristics, some even asserting that it was a product of imaginative British invention. Conversely, an opposing faction contends that Thuggee was a tangible reality, citing corroborative evidence from medieval writings. The facets of criminality associated with Thuggee, much like any characterisation of criminal conduct, found articulation in numerous accounts, encompassing their operational methodology and distinctive traits. Yet, what became manifest was the linkage of criminality to an illusory cultic faith and unwavering devotion to Kali and Bhavani, a connection misconstrued as a criminal religion.

This, undoubtedly, manifested itself as an Oriental conundrum. Individual actors, be they Thugs or Phansigars, tragically endured the reduction of their multifaceted identities to the narrow prism of religious affiliation, ensnared in the British imagination’s web of a hereditary religious cult, a tapestry woven upon the backdrop of the notion of the “uncivilised East” and its unwavering devotion to religion and superstitions.

In the relentless sweep of history, the legacy of bygone colonial endeavours endures, casting its long shadow over the present day. The echoes of a bygone era reverberate in the form of the Criminal Tribes Act, a draconian legislation enacted during the heyday of British colonial rule in India. This Act, a relic of colonial oppression, not only criminalised individuals based on the circumstances of their birth or their associations with particular castes or tribes but also cast its punitive net upon those who dared to defy the prevailing gender norms, such as the marginalised hijra community. Though the Criminal Tribes Act itself met its demise in the annals of history in 1949, it underwent a sinister resurrection in 1952, reborn as the Habitual Offenders Act, purportedly in response to an alleged surge in criminal activities.

This enduring spectre of legislative tyranny continues to haunt India, where scores of tribal and nomadic communities remain estranged from the embrace of affirmative action and other state-sanctioned welfare schemes. Stripped of their fundamental rights to justice, equality, and liberty, these communities dwell in perpetual trepidation of the authorities. Their lives are marred by unceasing headcounts, bearing the ignominious label of habitual offenders according to the dictates of the state. For those belonging to the so-called denotified tribes, justice remains elusive, often without the shelter of credible evidence. So profound is their marginalisation that it has seeped into the common parlance, where the term “Kanjar”—originally denoting a denotified tribe—has transmuted into a derogatory epithet, synonymous with savagery and uncivilised conduct.

Legacy of colonial criminalisation 

Over the course of seven and a half decades, civil society and the communist party have rallied their forces, launching impassioned campaigns. Numerous panels and commissions, both judicial and legislative, have been convened to address this historical injustice. Even the international stage, with the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, voiced its disquiet. It expressed grave concerns regarding the continued stigmatisation of denotified and nomadic tribes, relics of a bygone “criminal tendencies’‘ tag under the erstwhile Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, now perpetuated under the aegis of the Habitual Offenders Act of 1952.

In a bid to ameliorate the plight of these marginalised communities, the Indian government instituted the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) in 2014. However, the measures subsequently implemented, while well-intentioned, fall short of comprehensively addressing the harsh realities faced by the denotified tribes in contemporary India.

All of these developments can be traced back to the ramblings of a colonial officer when, in the midst of October 1830, an enigmatic article found its destination in the hands of the Calcutta Literary Gazette’s editors. This letter, replete with groundbreaking implications, embarked on the ambitious endeavour of outlining what it coined an archaic modus operandi of violence and predation. It was a narrative that aspired to demarcate the boundaries of a particularly primordial form of criminality.

Major General William Henry Sleeman.

Major General William Henry Sleeman. | Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Notably, the anonymous originator, cloaked in the shadow of ambiguity, made an intentional effort to withhold identification. However, the shroud of secrecy was eventually lifted, revealing William Henry Sleeman as the author. The proclamations bore witness to a captivating analogy—the vices of homicide and plunder, he posited, shared an uncanny semblance with the rituals of a religious sect. The name “Thuggee”, laden with criminal religiosity, emerged as the emblem encapsulating this thesis.

“Thuggee,” as a term, assumed dimensions both ominous and intriguing—an entity where felonious deeds interwoven with spiritual devotion. Sleeman’s articulation suggested a nexus between criminality and worship, where every act of thievery and assassination operated as sacred liturgy. The nomenclature itself, forged from the Sanskrit root “thug”, connoted a realm of deceit and falsehood.

The colonial archives and the making of Thuggee

Within the labyrinthine corridors of Colonial Knowledge’s archives, an oddity unveiled itself—an eccentricity that further solidified their dominion over the Indian subcontinent. This anomaly became a cornerstone that fortified their ascendancy, positioning them as the veritable rulers of this vast domain.

Yet, beyond the realm of intellectual discourse, the repercussions of the letter’s revelations reverberated through the echelons of the East India Company. It ignited fervent discussions, evoking sentiments of enthusiasm and apprehension. In their ceaseless quest for territorial expansion, the official echelons found themselves ensnared within the tumultuous currents of uncertainty, while some saw an opportunity.

Sleeman’s depictions of Thuggee bore the hallmarks of an intricate web of factors that likened it to an inherited religious cult. The modus operandi of these criminal actors was steeped in deception, akin to a concoction of organised crime seasoned with elements of superstition and religious fervour. Sleeman’s discourse delved into the mechanics of these actors’ operations, positing that the Thug was intrinsically embedded within the clandestine society. Their methods were imbued with the blessing of Kali and Bhawani and meticulously guided by the observance of omens—a practice they believed appeased their deities.

His collective works were compiled in Ramaseeana, the book of secret dialects of Thugs, which was published in 1836, where he unearthed the various secret phrases that were very much used by Thugs of very ‘ruffian’ dispositions. Their secret dialect Ramasee had various coded phrases that the thugs would come to use during their operations. It had phrases like Dil loona (Give me the moon) meant to strangle the victim, and Sarkar referred to a victim who appeared wealthy or worth robbing.

The ramifications of Sleeman’s narrative rippled far and wide. The press, fragmented between the presidency media and the local mofussil newspapers, inadvertently criticised the Thuggee system. The pages of the Bombay Gazette, in the year 1831, recounted the apprehension of a Thug group implicated in numerous murders and robberies. The exposé meticulously chronicled their apprehension, the amassed evidence, and the ensuing legal proceedings. Likewise, the Madras Courier, in 1833, illuminated a case involving the arrest of Thugs responsible for the slaying of a European officer. The newspaper provided an exhaustive portrayal of the crime and the subsequent investigative labyrinth.

Even the mofussil papers, while largely uncritical and unquestioning of the Company’s policies within this realm, dedicated columns to these narratives. The era of nascent press censorship had receded into the past. With William Bentinck steering the reins of the Company’s dominion in India, the treatment of Thuggee and its intricacies gained a newfound directness. Both the illustrious presidency press of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, as well as the mofussil publications of the Gangetic heartland, harmoniously resonated with the narrative orchestrated by the English East India Company.

Approvers and informers

These transformations did not materialise abruptly. By 1829, William Bentinck had assigned Mr. F.C. Smith the Agent-General of the company in the Malwa and Narmada territories to address the Thug issue, while Sleeman served as his deputy. As the campaign against Thuggee, aimed at its eradication, progressed, the combined impact of media frenzy and the manoeuvring of the English company succeeded in crafting what could be described as a Foucauldian monstrosity out of these individuals.

Subsequently, in 1835, the Thuggee and Dacoity department was established, and under the leadership of Sleeman, its sphere of operations extended as far south as Hyderabad and as far north as Awadh. However, during the initial phases of their endeavours, the Thuggee department encountered various obstacles, as the perceptive Indian Civil servant Percival Griffiths pointed out. He emphasised that the scene of the crime was consistently distant from the thug’s residence, as these criminals spent weeks on the road, befriending their victims who were vagrant travellers and constantly altering their identities in the process. Another formidable hindrance was that local Rajas, chiefs, and Zamindars often provided protection to the Thugs in exchange for a portion of their gains, akin to rent.

Water painting depicting Thuggees strangling a traveler.

Water painting depicting Thuggees strangling a traveler. | Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Their ways of operation were distinct, which set them apart from other criminals who operated in these domains. They would tag along with a party of travellers, insisting that it would be great for their safety if they tagged along. Their preferred mode of murder was to strangle the victim using a scarf with a pre-formed noose, often fitted with a coin–which would eventually crush the victim’s windpipe resulting in a swift death, an act for which the Thugs were also called Phansigar. The remains of the victims were then meticulously looted and subsequently buried in unmarked shallow graves.

As the Thuggee department proceeded with its operations, they caught and implicated many individuals. The system was based on an apparatus of approvers, informers, and former accomplices. This introduction of approvers into Indian criminal justice was so novel that even colonial historians, often critical of indigenous practices, found cause to castigate the preceding Mughal judicial procedure for its eccentricity in not recognising such informants.

Interestingly, this colonial implantation of approvers was unique to the Indian context. In his book Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922-1992, Shahid Amin problematised the historicity of approvers. Across the vast expanse of the thirteen American colonies, similar dynamics were at play. Take, for instance, the case of Virginia, where a precedent existed: if a “person indicted for treason or any other felony” chose to confess, thereby implicating their accomplices and securing their conviction, the “approver” would receive a pardon for their own crimes. However, if the approver’s testimony failed to achieve the intended outcome, leading to the acquittal of their felonious associates, a grim fate awaited them on the gallows. This dual nature of approver participation, one of potential reprieve or ultimate doom, underscores their pivotal role in the complex web of Thuggee.

The fissures of the Colonial Knowledge system (a system of knowledge production) thus came to the fore. C.A. Bayly rightfully pointed out the inherent contradictions innate to the modalities of information, with regard to the novel English experiment in India. The systems of colonial knowledge production were heavily reliant on an army of translators and individuals who could comprehend Indian languages and their nuances; Dubhashis or Bilinguals were the cornerstones of the spreading British influence in the administrative sphere. However, it was the same system of information gathering and dissemination whose inherent fissures gave birth to the idea of looking at Thugs as a Foucauldian Monster.

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All three observations indeed hold significance. These operations were unfolding during a pivotal juncture in India’s transitioning political-economic landscape. The decline of the traditional Mughal ways ushered in the chaos of 18th-century India. As the centralised power of the Mughals ebbed, with their once-mighty empire reduced to a mere fraction, the East India Company sought to fill the resulting power vacuum by asserting their own methods. One such approach involved projecting themselves as the guardians of the Indian populace. The company’s mercantile bureaucracy sought to derive legitimacy from this portrayal as upholders of law and order.

The statutory implications of these ramblings were ultimately felt in the form of a legislative undertaking, The Criminal Tribes Act, was conceived within the crucible of imperial exigencies, bearing witness to the colonial administration’s relentless pursuit of control and dominion. Its initial enactment in 1836 heralded the dawn of a legal mechanism designed to codify and categorise communities designated as “criminal tribes” and eunuchs. This legislation sought to subject these marginalised and often nomadic groups to the unceasing surveillance and scrutiny of the colonial apparatus, perpetually branding them as subjects of suspicion and vigilance.

However, the saga of the Criminal Tribes Act did not culminate with its inaugural promulgation. Instead, it unfolded as an ongoing narrative of amendments and extensions, each layer adding complexity to its application. Subsequent years bore witness to revisions and adaptations as colonial authorities grappled with the ever-evolving social and political landscape of India. In 1952, this legislative behemoth underwent a transformation, re-emerging as the Habitual Offenders Act, albeit preserving its fundamental essence of control and classification.

The trajectory of the Criminal Tribes Act, from its genesis in 1836 to its metamorphosis into the Habitual Offenders Act in 1952, mirrored the shifting sands of colonial rule in India. It stands as a poignant reminder of the multifaceted strategies employed by the British colonial apparatus to assert dominance with the prevailing Victorian ethics, colonial norms, and the census of 1871, contributing to the meticulous mapping and categorisation of India’s diverse populace during the era.

Unveiling Thuggee’s hidden realities

Kim A. Wagner’s Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-Century India delves into the intricate dynamics of Thuggee and its interactions with the British colonial administration during the early 19th century. Wagner adeptly emphasises the role that colonial records play in shaping our perception of Thuggee. He underscores the need to approach these records critically, as they bear the imprints of the agendas and viewpoints of colonial authorities. By acknowledging the conventional portrayal of Thuggee as a criminal monolith, forged by British colonial narratives. This depiction, he asserts, often glosses over the intricacies and diversity of criminal groups that existed during the era. To counter this simplified portrayal, Wagner introduces the notion of “social banditry” as a framework for re-evaluating the complexities of criminal identities.

During the 1960s historiographical traditions took a new turn with the publication of Eric Hobsbawm’s Rebels, a monogram steering a sweeping argument that across the world, banditry in pre-modern and pre-political societies was in itself a challenge to authority—a phenomenon known as Social Banditry. Wagner argued that “Thuggee” should be reexamined within the broader context of social banditry. Suggesting that many criminal groups, loosely categorised under the term “Thuggee,” might more accurately fit the characteristics of social bandits—individuals who challenge authority and are perceived as folk heroes by local communities.

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British officials often employed terms like “Thug”, “dacoit”, “gang-robber”, and “bandit” interchangeably, blurring the distinctions between various forms of criminal activities. Moreover, he added the complexities of identity and categorization during the British colonial period, exploring the challenges of distinguishing between individuals labelled as Thuggees and those who were not. Wagner highlights the intricacies of defining criminal groups and the fluidity of criminal identities in colonial India.

Thuggee is often presented as a homogenous criminal tradition. However, Wagner asserts that this perception oversimplifies the reality. He introduces the concept of “non-Thuggees” to challenge the notion that all criminals during that period could be neatly classified into a single criminal category. The boundaries between different criminal groups were often blurred. The diversity of criminal activities, motives, and affiliations in India during the 19th century further complicated the task of categorising individuals.

Historiographically, Thuggee has undergone a metamorphosis, oscillating between narratives of colonial invention and historical authenticity. The dichotomy of these interpretations has provoked spirited debates, with some scholars challenging the very existence of Thuggee as a distinct criminal tradition, while others seek to unravel the complexities of criminal identities and the fluidity of categorisation during colonial rule.

Wagner’s introduction of the concept of “social banditry” within the Thuggee discourse urges us to reconsider the diverse motivations and identities of criminal groups during this era. The blurred boundaries between various criminal activities, coupled with the challenges of distinguishing Thugs from “non-Thugs”, underscore the intricacies of defining criminal groups in colonial India. Thus, the legacy of Thuggee resonates as a testament to the dialectical interplay between colonial knowledge production, indigenous identities, and the multifaceted nature of criminality and the far implications of colonial law.

In the end, Thuggee’s enigma remains imprinted on the annals of history, a testament to the complexities and contradictions of colonial encounters. It serves as a stark reminder that our understanding of this historical phenomenon must navigate the treacherous terrain of perspective and perception, ever mindful of the intricate dance of power and knowledge that shapes our narratives of the past.

Roshan Abbas is a student of history at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.

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