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Amar Farooqui


By Kim A. Wagner
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xxvi 261, Rs. 995.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 3 March 2016

The curious history of the ‘discovery’ of thuggee by officials of the East India Company, and of its suppression, continues to baffle historians. Do we really possess evidence of such a phenomenon, or is thuggee a colonial construct? Even if we were to ignore the more sensational accounts (and there are several), much of the literature on the subject, including that which approaches the problem with sobriety, is overwhelmingly in favour of conceding that thuggee did actually exist. In this study Kim Wagner by and large goes along with the present consensus, though he has put forth a nuanced thesis, carefully weighing the available evidence. His conclusion is that ‘thuggee cannot simply be reduced to a colonial construction’ (p. 231). Colonial officials initially came across persons called thugs, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, when the Company was in the process of establishing its authority in frontier tracts of territories acquired recently from the kingdom of Avadh. These tracts included the inhospitable Chambal ravines stretching along the loosely defined border between the Sindia kingdom and the Ceded and Conquered Provinces of the Company. It was here that an incident occurred in 1812 which set afloat rumours of the presence of a body of outlaws who came to be referred to as thugs by colonial officials, and this peculiar form of banditry itself as thuggee. ‘Thug’ (thag) was one among several terms used locally for armed retainers of landholders, and occasionally for cheats and tricksters (this is the specific sense in which it continues to be used in common parlance). In the latter sense it did not have the sinister connotations that it was to acquire in colonial records. It is pertinent that the term was used interchangeably with ‘sipahi’, and that the Scindia state formally collected a tax from zamindars in the area called ‘sipahi jama’ based upon the number of armed retainers, or thugs, inhabiting a village. In other words they were a traditional component of rural society where they would have been used by landed elites to oppress cultivators. Hence the statement in a contemporary official report that while zamindars referred to these retainers as sipahis, ‘the rest of the world [call them] Thugs’ (p. 75). Moreover, these armed retainers might have engaged in highway robbery from time to time, something that is not surprising given the protection they received from locally influential clans to which they owed their ...


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