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 Ryots [peasant cultivators].” Hereditary gang membership often remained a secret, even from a thug’s wife and family.

Although wholly supportive of the suppression of thagi, Mill’s dispatches to India raise significant questions about the investigative powers of government during a war on terror, the justice of broad enforcement powers, and the proper scope of judicial discretion. Was this liberty at work, or was the suppression of thuggery but one result of the East India Company’s general highhandedness?

Mill does not give a definitive answer. In some of his dispatches, which are collected in the British Library’s India Office Records,he argues that “placing under restraint the wives and children of persons known or strongly suspected to be thugs, is one [strategy] which ought to be very sparingly resorted to.” However, he also admits that the tactic is “one of the most effectual means of facilitating the arrest of the criminals themselves,” as it resulted in the surrender of Feringheea, a historical figure later described in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days as the “King of the Stranglers.” Given the difficulty of finding evidence of thugs’ murders, Mill countenances the use of informers. He even shows a willingness to pay them, although he observes that this can lead to greater impunity for their “horrible occupation.”

At still other times, Mill recognizes the trap presented by permitting convicted thugs to accuse others and points out that in at least one case, this tool was used to extort money from an innocent man. Mill insists in an 1831 dispatch that “no person must ever be convicted merely for being reputed a Thug, or being in the company of Thugs, without satisfactory evidence, bringing home to himself, individually, a participation in some specific offence.”

Act XXX (passed in 1836) of the Thugee and Dacoity Suppression Acts limited punishment of thugs to life imprisonment. Writing on the question of the proper punishment for thuggery in 1840, Mill observes that the “penalty of labour in irons for life, is much more dreaded by the Thugs, than capital punishment.” Mill also approves of the limitation of capital punishment to the actual murderers and not to the sentinels and accomplices who help to bury the bodies. “Suppression of crime” is the object, he writes in 1838, and that aim is not advanced by “wholesale executions.” Mill also hopes that in the future “the doors of mercy” can be opened “more widely than at present.” And his thinking on the thuggery question did not stop at the criminal justice system. Implicitly rejecting the laissez-faire small state, Mill also supports the establishment of a manufacturing plant in the form of a 1,000-rupee loan to an officer who is supporting the project at his own expense. The plant will provide employment to thugs, and he approves the use of public support to train thugs and their families for future employment, a project pursued by Sleeman in 1835.

To end thuggery is to celebrate the rule of law and to vindicate Mill’s own famous harm principle—namely, to exercise power over others only to prevent them from doing harm to others. However, the harm principle applies only in “civilized” communities, and practices such as sati or thagi are not only the types of harm that the company should suppress. They are also supported by local customs and superstitions. In the Edinburgh Review, an anonymous 1837 reviewer tries to give a factual account, for a domestic readership, of “a moral and political phenomenon, which is, perhaps, the most extraordinary that has ever existed in the world.” Later accounts, such as Colonel James Sleeman’s 1933 work, Thug; or, a Million Murders, revisit the phenomenon of thuggery with a sensationalist’s relish. Contemporary scholarship identifies the phenomenon of social banditry as real but describes William Sleeman’s strategy emphasizing the dire political and religious dangers of thuggery as an attempt to gain influence with the evangelically inclined governor-general of India, William Bentinck. It would be incorrect to frame the problem of thuggery as a regional problem, but when one tries to address thuggery as a system, it becomes, in William Sleeman’s report, something of an Orientalist construct.

Here, it is important to note that Mill’s job consisted of receiving and commenting upon correspondence from the company’s officers in India. In the 1820s, when Mill started working at the company, a letter took six months to arrive from Bengal. By the time he finished his service in the 1850s, it took two months. He is therefore offering control and criticism well after the fact and without investigative powers of his own to challenge or accept the Thuggee and Dacoity Department’s framing and descriptions of thug-related crimes. He can insist only on justice—strict in its procedures, determined in its focus on crime control, and lenient in its emphasis on utility.

And so, of the many lessons the reader can take from Mill’s dispatches at the East India Company, of particular note is his practical understanding of good governance and misrule. Philosophy compromises itself by descending from the heavens to administer in the India House. Clearly, extending rights for women, protecting rights of association and travel, and guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion, as Mill wanted to do, all through the operation of impartial courts, requires governmental intervention. The price paid for instituting these reforms in India was high: association and speech were sometimes restricted; justice was used as a lever to extend political agency; and political and military power were used to advance procedural justice. Company officers were not allowed to edit or manage newspapers. Sympathetic princes harboring thugs were forced by arms to give them up. For example, Mill observes in 1837 that local chieftains in Rajputana expressed “jealousy” about the company’s seizure of thugs in their territory. Rajputs were in the same situation when they submitted to Akbar, the sixteenth-century Mogul emperor whose strong hand Mill praises in On Liberty.

Mill learned as we learn―by constantly drawing historical parallels between the past and the present and in general by seeing how the machine of government works as a whole. If we are to understand colonialism and how it changed the West, we must see with clarity the practices of administration as much as the values of democracy. Otherwise, our own age may well be neither truly democratic nor well administered.

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  • CHRIS BARKER is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwestern College. He recently completed his first manuscript on John Stuart Mill’s liberalism.
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