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Radhika Sindgha reading on Thuggee

For this Thursday we will read an essay by a historian of colonial law about 19th
century efforts to control “Thugs” or hereditary robbers. We will try and connect this 19th
century material with our discussion of the military labor market from Tuesday.
Communities of Thugs or ‘Thuggee’ supposedly emerged as a scourge on
travelers in 18th through mid 19th century India. These were supposed to be organized
communities of professional criminals; specifically groups of highway robbers who
descended on Indian travelers, murdered them by strangulation, and stole their property.
However, historical focus on Thuggee has been less concerned with the material
motivations of the groups. The most important factor of this description in colonial
histories of Thuggee is the aspect of Thuggee being a ‘religious cult,’ and that the
members of Thuggee believed the act of organized murder was religiously sanctioned.
This was an image drawn from the investigations of colonial officers such as W. H.
Sleeman who headed the anti-Thuggee efforts, helped draft laws, and later published
several accounts of his experiences in India with this particular criminal group that made
him into a minor cleberity.
There is heated debate among scholars across disciplines about whether Thuggee
as a religious cult actually existed. One view is that Thugs are merely a colonial
construction with no historical evidence to prove their existence since no source earlier
than the 19th century mentions them. Literary scholars usually take this view to criticize
the sensationalism that was popular in England, particularly in the coverage of
spectacular crimes and criminal trials. Another view acknowledges the
limitations/exaggerations/misrepresentations of Sleeman’s accounts regarding certain
aspects of Thuggee, but asserts that Thugs did exist and they were bound within a
fanatical religious cult. Yet another view claims that Thugs were not religiously
motivated nor were they a homogeneous and centrally-organized group, but rather a
product of larger issues related to the changing conditions in India at the time. Think
about which view you think Singha falls into as you read her work.

Terms

 Futwa/fatwa: a former legal opinion given by Muslim law officers on the guilt or
innocence of a prisoner under Islamic law
 Nizamat Adalat: Indian superior court
 Dacoity-highway robbery and Anglicization of the Hindi word for robber, “daku”
 Sagar/Narbada (also spelt Narmada) territory—parts of western central India,
formerly occupied by the Marathas
 Pindaris—irregular cavalry units working with the Marathas
 William Bentick, Marquess of Hastings—both served as Governor Generals of
colonial India. Hastings in the late 18th century, and Bentick in the early 19th
century. Both were involved in sweeping legal reforms.
 Goindas/approvers: informers
 AGG—assistant to the governor general
 Sharan: “sanctuaries by those seeking refuge from a revenue collector or from
some powerful chief. In 1840 the government began to assert that such sharans
could become asylums for thugs” (Singha 122).

Questions

1. How did the Thuggee acts of the 1830s and 1840s define “Thugs” and what legal
measures did they authorize against such criminal groups?
2. How does colonial literature and records about Thugs in the archives describe
these? In what circumstances was this literature created?
3. What classifications and terms did the colonial “experts” on Thuggee use in trying
to explain how it functioned and how the state should fix this criminal issue?
Why was “mystery” a phrase associated with “Thugee?”
4. In what ways would Kolff’s discussion of the term “military labor market” relate
to the debate about thuggee between Radhika Singha and historian Stewart
Gordon? What were the circumstances of the Maratha occupation of this region
in the late 18th century (see the Pinch reading from Tuesday)?
5. How does Singha approach her sources—how would evaluate her attempts to
contextualize and analyze such problematic sources?