Prison population of Britain (Image source and courtesy – bbc.co.uk). Click for larger image.
The truth behind ‘Thugee’
Soon after Pindari Wars (1820), from Indian Independence (1947), till now, for nearly 200 years, one resounding claim of British achievements in India was an end to ‘thugee’.
The British myth of The End of Thugee has survived for nearly 200 years now. Every aspect of the ‘thugee’ myth is unreal.
A cursory examination will reveal how hollow the ‘thugee’ claim is.
Set up by William Bentinck, (British Governor-General; 1827-1835), the Thuggee and Dacoity Department, started with William Sleeman as Superintendent in 1835.
William Sleeman wrote a few books on ‘thugs’, ‘thugee’ and their language. It is Sleeman’s accounts that significantly define the ‘thugee’ chapter of colonial history, even today. From Sleeman’s beginning, the Thugee Story spread.
From the many that ‘agreed with the Thagi and Dacoity officer who noted that thags possessed ‘nobility and chivalrous instincts’, and entire villages ‘coming out to defend an accused Thug against British capture’, in the next 50 years, Sleeman made ‘thugs’ into a ‘fiend in human form’.
Britain and Europe, was fascinated by ‘thugs’ – a creature of their own imagination and invention. Queen Victoria called for loose, proof-read pages of a book on ‘thugee’. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (‘Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours’, 1873) turned Feringhea into “le chef Thugs, le rois des Etrangleurs,” ‘The Chief of Thuggee, King of Stranglers’.
William Sleeman’s grandson, James Sleeman added to this ‘thugee’ hysteria and his book Thug, Or A Million Murders in 1920 made out ‘thugee’ into a religion and a cult. Certain Anglophiles claim that ‘thugs’ were killing 40,000-50,000 people every year – yet only 1000 bodies were recovered in the nearly 20 years of anti-‘thugee’ operations. James Sleeman published his book Thug, Or A Million Murders in 1920.
A supposed gang of ‘thugs’. A 19th century image.
It has been estimated that some 30-50 gangs were in operation – at the height of the ‘thugee’ menace. Using a bell-shaped, distribution curve, it would mean that 7-8 gangs were killing 20,000-35,000 of these victims every year. That would mean between 10-20 murders each day – every day, every year.
Yet when some of these monsters were apprehended, like Feringhea (called firangee, meaning foreigner), turned out to be all too human. Feringhea surrendered to obtain release for his wife, children and family, detained by the British, as hostages, till Feringhea surrendered. When the British executed his innocent nephew, Jarhu, Feringhea wept.
Final tally – The British captured no more than 3,000 ‘thugs’ – of whom only 400 could be executed. In nearly a decade!
Was that the problem? 3,000 ‘thugs’ in a nation of 25 crores?
Assuming that all the 3,000 accused ‘thugs’, were ‘guilty’, going by modern imprisonment standards, India was a non-crime society country.
Then, as it is now.
For instance, in modern Britain, there are nearly 17,000 prisoners for violent crime, in a population of little over, 6 crores (60 million). 3 people per thousand in Britain are criminally violent and in prison.
Were ‘thugs’ a bigger proportion of violent criminals in India. Going by modern British ‘norm’ of 3 per thousand, criminally violent Indians should have been close to 75,000 criminals. Just 3,000 ‘thugs’ out of the possible 75,000 criminally violent Indians?
In a population of an estimated 25 crores.
To control ‘thugee’, a draconian law, Act XXX was passed by the British Raj. To convict the accused, all that the courts of the British Raj needed was identification by any ‘approver’, that the accused was a ‘thug’. Accusation by the British Raj and identification by anyone that the accused belonged to a ‘thugee’ group was enough to get the person hanged. One approver’s name that appears repeatedly, was a man called Bukhtawar who ‘identified’ many ‘thugs’. This legal manoeuvre left some officials cold.
As by Kim Wagner, who has written on the thugee subject, reports that “the government went as far as removing a judge from his post because he claimed thuggee did not exist and refused to cooperate in the operations against them.”
How many innocents were killed on trumped up charges, I will not estimate!
British imagination and invention is passed off as history today.
The Act XXX did not identify any criminal activity. Instead it specified that members of ‘thugee’ groups, were ‘criminals’. The act did specify any ‘activity’ as a crime.
British prosecutors built a bank of nearly 500 ‘approvers’, who would ‘identify’ members of alleged ‘thugee’ groups. One source says the British had recruited 483 approvers exactly.
Even after these legal inventions by Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, from the 3,000 arrests, only some 400 could be executed by the British.
In nearly 20 years.
One more curious aspect of this entire ‘chapter’ was about religion. ‘Thugs’ were supposedly worshippers of Kali. Yet, many of the ‘alleged’ thugs were Muslims. Muslims worshipping Kali? This worship pattern points towards Pindaris being mis-declared as ‘thugs’.
Some of the most infamous ‘thugs’, like Behram was attributed to have committed more than 900 murders – for which he never faced any trial, for murders he confessed to, even after being captured.
The probable story
Most of these ‘thugs’ were possibly rebel peasants, waging war against the dispossession of the lands – like the Muslim, Santhals, Bhils, Gujjars, etc. A prior story, were the Anglo-Pindari Wars (1815-1820).
Publicity material for a Introduction Lecture by Prof. Dr. Harald Fischer Tiné titled – “War on Terror” in colonial India: The Thuggee Campaign in the early 19th Century and the demonization of a world religion. Friday 27 Feburary 2009, 17.15 clock, ETH Zurich, Rämistrasse 101, Main Building, F 30
Many of Pindari leaders, close allies of Maratha chiefs, were mostly Rohillas (for bulk), Pathans (for horses) and general Muslims. Many leaders were Muslims, like Hiru and Barun, sons of Shahbaz Khan. Barun’s son, Muhammad Husein, was allegedly murdered by another Pindari leader’s people. Karim Khan, a wealthy Pindari ruler from MP region, was most famous, whose nephew, Namdar Khan continued to lead a major Pindari faction. Chito, and Wasil and Dost Muhammad are the other names that occur frequently.
Interestingly, annual Pindari conferences of various factions were scheduled for Dusshera, known as Kaali Puja in Bengal, Orissa, etc. These so called ‘thugs’ were probably Pindari stragglers who were led small factions that targetted the British and their Indian allies. And in turn were the focus of British efforts.
The ‘problem’ of ‘thugee’ was recognized and ‘rooted out’ first by Warren Hastings’ administration (1773–85). Subsequent, administrations seized on this ‘creation’ and built an edifice of imagination and invention.
As Maratha power declined in central India, the ‘thugee’ phenomenon reared its head. Similarly, in Punjab also, as the Sikh Empire withered, disbanded soldiers, attacked. More than 552 ‘thugs’ and arrested and some 328 were executed.
The turn in the tale
The mechanics of British propaganda, called modern history, were crafted during the impeachment of Warren Hastings, who did not defend himself, unlike Clive. Instead, Hastings and his team created a narrative of how Hastings and the British Empire were doing ‘Good for India.’
A narrative that survives till today.
Leading By Example?
No analysis examined the effect of British soldiers’ loot of India on Indian soldiers. Is it that Indians soldiers, disbanded and unemployed, emulated British soldiers?
After all, British armies from Plassey (1757), to 1947, were made up of Indian soldiers. However, the loot and wealth from British conquests, went to the British soldiers. Robert Clive for instance. Various thug confessions repeatedly talk of ‘bad omens.’ The idea that ‘bad omens’ can predict Kaal, as the unceasing, unsleeping cycle of Time. And Kaali – who presides over these cycles.
Were Indians soldiers trying to change their ‘bad-times’ by aping British soldiers, who were going through ‘good-times’?
(Book-extract below details how the anti-‘thugee’ campaign was full of holes).
Thugee – Reality and Laws; Extract from Indian traffic: identities in question in colonial and postcolonial India By Parama Roy; from Pages 56-65. Click to browse the book at books.google.co.in