Its narrative derived from Phillip Meadows Taylor’s tome, Confessions of a Thug, the Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif starrer Thugs of Hindostan follows a familiar trope, involving a mysterious criminal cult given pan India “reach” by a previous book (The Deceivers by John Masters) which too was turned into a film by the same name in 1988.
While Masters’ fictional account of the adventure and exploits of William Savage, who was cast in the mould of the East India Company Colonel (later Major General) William Henry Sleeman, credited with eliminating the so-called thuggee scourge, was a masterpiece. The film in which, Pierce Brosnan played the character of a savage, who impersonates Gopal, a strangler thug, and penetrates the thuggees’ network, was a shallow reproduction of the pacey novel. In other words, a celluloid disappointment.
Set in 1832, Confessions of a Thug is the story of Ameer Ali, born a Pathan, who after his family was killed by thugs, subsequently headed a thuggee gang as its jamadar, strangling scores of travellers – men, women and other wayfarers – across northern and central India, when the East India Company had yet to codify criminal laws. Meadows Taylor claimed that he “became acquainted with this person (Ameer Ali) in 1832. He was one of the approvers or informers who were sent to the Nizam’s territories from Saugor (present day Sagar in Madhya Pradesh), and whose appalling disclosures caused an excitement in the country, which can never be forgotten.”
Meadows Taylor’s account and Thugs of Hindostan are at the intersection of fact and fiction. Ameer Ali did exist in the records of Sleeman, but he was a “lowly” thug and not the cold-blooded strangler that Meadows Taylor made him out to be.
More recently, the practice of thuggee, who constituted Kali (or Bhawani) worshipping Hindus and Muslims, roaming unchallenged in the ragged plains and plateaus of northern and central India at a time when the Mughal empire had reached its limits and was disintegrating, has been challenged by historians such as Kim A Wagner.
While there is a large element of frightening mystique to the putative phenomenon of thuggee, which was at once appealing and subversive to East India Company officials struggling to make sense of the strange habits and practices of the Orient, men such as Sleeman took it upon themselves to civilise their barbaric subjects. Sleeman may have been motivated by the imperial need for putting together the nascent structures of a legal system under the auspices of Enlightenment Britain. But there is no denying that his mission was driven to a large extent by personal glory. The project of empire, could not happen without individual agency.
In Wagner’s words, therefore, the “phenomenon of thuggee” is one of the “more contentious and controversial subjects of nineteenth-century South Asian history”. Wagner characterises the thuggee practice as a form of early 19th century “banditry” that may not have extended across the whole of north and south India.
But for the British, well on their way to empire building by the time Sleeman began his anti-thuggee operations, backed entirely by successive governor generals, including William Bentinck, a pan India “cult of highway murderers” using silk roomals and heavy one rupee coins of the time to strangle unsuspecting travellers, had to be constructed to justify the territorial expansion of English law.
“As one of the most potent images of colonial lore and fiction, interpretations of the reality, meaning, and representation of thuggee vary. Were the thugs religious fanatics who practiced human sacrifice? Or were they a mere figment of colonial imagination, invented as a convenient pretext for the expansion of British rule?” questions Wagner. Other historians such as C A Bayly have outrightly described the “British reaction to it riven by contradictions and inconsistencies”. The accounts of Sleeman and his colleagues in the civil services of the time have been labelled as “exaggerations” too.
There are no physical-historical remains of thuggee, not even small, rudimentary shrines they may have dedicated to Kali-Bhawani, who was supposedly intoned by Hindu and Muslim thugs, before each man consumed a piece of jaggery and set themselves upon nocturnal travellers. The objective was to loot, which was then divided among the men. Once the initial deed of killing by strangling with the roomal was done, the thuggees would slash the bellies of the victims to prevent the bodies from bloating and putrefying. The bodies would then be buried in large pits. No East India Company official was ever killed, though popular accounts speak of sepoys being victims.
It is not that highway robbers, dacoits and even murderers did not exist in the socio-political vacuum created in the peripheries of a crumbling Mughal empire. But Sleeman and some of his colleagues seized upon some social and religious practices of the time, giving them “disproportionate significance” and thereby creating stereotypes of an all-Indian conspiracy and criminality, as if entire communities were involved in a ritual killing spree. It is the scale of the crime and criminality that is questionable.
A more plausible conceptualisation of the thugs of the early 19th century would be to see in their origins as small bands of “bandit-retainers” tied to “local elites in a form of client-patron relationship”. Wagner’s contention is that the thugs would set out on expeditions typically after the “harvest”, following the “agricultural cycle” and especially when resources were meagre.
It will take a while before Thugs of Hindostan hits Indian silver screens. But when it does, enjoy the movie for what it is worth. The film will surely veer around from the historicity – or the lack of authenticity – surrounding the thugs. For many, the story of Ameer Ali would be a “discovery”, just as much as the thugs were for the East India Company officials imbued with a “reformist zeal” and Saleeman sahib who “created the sense of an urgent emergency, for which he was the only remedy.”