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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

When Thugs and Dacoits Defied the British | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 19 November 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy



Tales of Crimes Past: A Casebook of Crime in Colonial India

by Sunil Nair

Hachette India

Pages: 226; Price: Rs 599

They were thugs, they held the authorities in contempt, they strangled innocent travellers at will, and they never showed remorse for the innumerable cold-blooded murders they committed. But they were a bizarre lot. Before they set out to kill, they studied good and bad omens. Welcome to the world of thuggery in British India.

According to journalist-author Sunil Nair, William Henry Sleeman, the English officer credited with putting an end to the menace of thugs, saw them as members of a quasi-religious fraternity, a perverted brotherhood that took great pride in what was to them a preordained task.

Buhram, a thug who by his own admission had killed 931 unwary travellers, admitted to Sleeman (who has a village after his name in Madhya Pradesh) that he felt no guilt over his deeds and compared himself with professional hunters who killed animals for sheer pleasure. It was as simple as that: bands of thugs would set out in large numbers, befriend travellers on the roads and, after gaining their confidence, lure them to some secluded spot where they would be throttled with a piece of cloth. Some thugs mostly operated in the riverine areas of Bengal and Bihar where they strangled people travelling by boats on the Ganges and dumped their bodies overboard.

The British were amazed at the sheer audacity. Thug expeditions set out every year from their villages and made their way down to the great cities, trading centres and pilgrim towns of the vast subcontinent. After returning to their villages with ill-gotten booty, they would tend to other professions (if they had any) and, then, set out again to strangle more victims. Sleeman, who could speak Hindi, Urdu and Persian, and his men did wonder how thuggery could continue unchecked for god knows how long during which thousands may have fallen victim.

The thugs read the omens before setting out on an expedition, Nair says. Unless these were propitious, ill luck would befall them. Among the good omens were a lizard chirping, a crow calling from a tree on the left side, and a noise of a partridge on the right. Conversely, a hare or snake crossing the road before them, a crow sitting on a rock or a dead tree and making a noise, the sound of cats fighting in daytime, an ass braying, an owl screeching or the sound of a single jackal, or the sight of a leper or a maimed person beckoned misfortune.

The whole business did seem to have some arcane initiation ritual. The thugs swore an oath on a consecrated pickaxe to vouchsafe the protection of Hindu goddess Kali. They ate a piece of coarse sugar too. For a long time, the thugs scrupulously followed Kali’s injunctions and were seemingly protected by the goddess. But once greed and the cockiness to ignore ill omens came to play, their downfall began.

The Thagi and Dakaiti Department set up by the British government did achieve success. In a 10-year period till 1835, over 1,500 thugs were killed, 382 sentenced to death and 909 packed off to transportation. Another 77 received life sentences and 71 others got various terms of imprisonment.
But if the British police succeeded in curbing thuggery, they could never fully overcome dacoity, another major crime across the country. According to the author, the most notorious of the tribes who embraced dacoity were the Budhuks, who resided mostly in Sitapur and Kheri districts near the Nepal border. They were feared for their ferocity which they used to raid treasure bearers, killing guards where necessary. Convicting them, the British realized, was not easy due to lack of witnesses. But some villagers did put up resistance. On the whole, the actual number of dacoities was said to be far more than that stated in the records. The Thagi and Dakaiti Department was later used to gather political intelligence and became what came to be known as the Intelligence Bureau.

Poisoning to kill was another crime that greatly afflicted British India. Unlike the thug who was traditionally most active in and around the upper and North-Western Provinces and central India, the poisoner – who also moved in bands — covered a much wider field: from Sind in the west to Bengal in the east and from Punjab in upper India all the way down to Madras in the south. The wandering poisoners gave a bad name to the wandering ascetics simply because a professional poisoner found it to be the most convenient disguise. The modus operandi was to befriend unsuspecting travellers loaded with valuables and offer them food laced with poison; once they collapsed, one could skip away with all the booty that could be carried away. No blood was shed.

Political unrest then was not the only problem the British faced in undivided India. Sunil Nair’s captivating book also uncovers other crimes from the era of the Raj – an Anglo-Indian couple who fell in love and plotted murder, a poisoning attempt that cost a maharaja his throne and the first instance of a cold-blooded murder by plague bacilli. The British clearly had a lot that kept them busy. A part of the crime gangs did spill over to independent India. But that is another story.

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