Thug Life

John Stuart Mill on Terror in India


Although he is primarily remembered today as the author of On Liberty and other works of political philosophy, John Stuart Mill also worked his way up from junior clerk to examiner of Indian correspondence in London’s India House on Leadenhall Street from 1823 to 1858, during which time he penned over 1,700 dispatches to British India. Writing these dispatches may have been the type of work that only a “mechanical drudge” would love, as Mill himself observed, but he nevertheless put together several dispatches on the suppression of thagi that make for fascinating insights into his political thought.

Thagi (also Thuggee, from which the English word “thuggery” is derived; from the Hindi verb meaning to cheat or to deceive) is the crime of highway murder. Its suppression involved approximately 4,000 total criminal convictions up to 1840. Convicting, trying, and punishing murderers is important in a civil society, but the way that it was done under company rule in India was, as Mill says, “of questionable propriety.” Tactics included apprehending thugs by detaining their family members; convicting on the testimonial evidence of other thugs, or “approvers”; arresting those reputed to be members of a sect or group; passing death sentences on accomplices who had acted as guards or buried victims’ bodies; and handing down death sentences without oversight or the possibility of appeal.

The campaign against thuggery was launched by William Sleeman, an administrator in British India, in the 1820s. Thuggery offended Sleeman’s desire for order at a time when it seemed possible to achieve order. The crucial problem posed by thuggery was its terroristic combination of violence and deception. Thugs were arrested while acting as officers in British or native service, as servants of European officers, or as dealers and merchants in bazaars and large towns. One 1838 summary of documentary evidence recounts the story of a woman responsible, with her gang, for 400 to 500 murders. Because they collected and dispersed along the highways, it was “almost impossible to distinguish them from the common mass of

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