Monsters in the dark: the discovery of Thuggee and demographic knowledge in colonial India
(2020) Palgrave Communications, 6 (1), art. no. 78.
The thugs have been one of the most lasting images in the portrayal of India in Western imagination. Although several scholars have questioned the authenticity of the information contained in the thug archive, that is, the corpus of colonial knowledge about the thugs, Martine van Wœrkens and Tihanyi (The strangled traveler: colonial imaginings and the thugs of India. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002) and Macfie (Rethinking Hist 12(3):383–397, 2008) argue that the very phenomenon as it was known to the British, was an orientalist construct. However, though the orientalist and romantic genesis of the thug imagery has been well established, the precise nature, reasons, and implications of the same largely remain “terra incognita”. This article examines the discovery of the thugs and analyzes parts of the thug-archive through the concept of the monster as elaborated by Mary Douglas (Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. Routledge, New York, 1966), Victor Turner (“Betwixt and between: the liminal period in rites de passage”. The forest of symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967) and Michel Foucault et al. (Abnormal: lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975. Picador, New York, 2003), and establishes the thug as an epistemological monster emerging from the cracks and gaps in colonial information gathering mechanisms that arose as a result of the changing nature of the Indian “state” and the employment of alien categories for demographic knowledge production. The key question here is: how can we explain the sudden appearance of thugs in the colonial archive in the 1830s and the disproportionate interest of the administration in eradicating them? This article analyzes the journalistic and legal discourse surrounding the thugs in the nineteenth century and tries to demonstrate how the notion of the “monster” can act as a methodological tool in explaining the efforts of the Thug Department. The argument is then concluded through an investigation into the implications of the discovery of the thugs for the teleology of Indian history and the consequence of “othering” tribal and other anomic populations in the new Weberian state that the colonial and post-colonial regimes envisioned to establish.