It was almost six years ago during a visit to a factory near Sheikhupura a most startling conversation took place with a young colleague. He lived in a small remote village between Lahore and Sheikhupura. They were Bhatti Jatts. What did your ancestors do? I innocently queried. “Oh, they were thugs. Some of us still are”.

If anything has ever taken my breath away it was that innocent youngster’s statement. Almost five years ago I wrote a column on thugs without mentioning specifics. Since then I have researched the topic, revisited the village and examined a lot of documents, especially in the British Museum Library as well as the Cambridge University Library.

On my return visit to his village last year, he repeated his claim. My initial impression was that he was trying to be smart, but then he and his family immediately caught on to what I was thinking. Very sharp they all were. The young man invited me for a fairly long trek away from their main muddy road to visit a huge ‘pipal’ tree. “This is where our tribe used to make sacrifices to the idol Kali”. Then he clarified: “We Muslims do not worship Kali, though we respect her. We make offering to Bowanee the pious strangler, our Pir”. Gosh, this was getting bizarre, if ‘unbelievable’ is not a better description.

Naturally, what shocked me was that within the massive tree an idol with a necklace of skulls was barely visible in the shrubbery. “Do you still follow thuggee?” I asked again. In all his innocence a youngster said: “We now only operate on slow speed trains”. There was a silence as the elders watched on helplessly. I promised never to reveal the location of their village lest ‘over-pious’ police raid the place and throw them in prison.

On Thursday as I watched television an advertisement pointed out to a new film titled ‘The Thugs of Hindustan’, which is about the legendary thug Feringeea. Immediately it hit a chord and on my iPad I watched the film’s official trailer, which was impressive. The name William Sleeman rushed to my mind. But then also burst forth the name H. Brereton, those ‘Report on Thuggee in the Punjab’ was printed by the Chronicle Press of Lahore in 1853.

The original manuscripts of Brereton lie today in the British Museum Library. Incidentally, that printing press was set up in Lahore just as the British took over in 1849, and that very year the very first English language newspaper ‘Lahore Chronicle’ appeared in Lahore, set up by Syed Muhammad Azeem, father of the famous historian Syed Muhammad Latif.

If you ever happen to visit the Punjab Police Intelligence office, also known as Roberts Club, on Nabha Road, just opposite the Punjab Civil Secretariat, as you enter to the left is a portrait of H. Brereton and below is a small board - which probably still exists - which says ‘Thuggee Section’. It was from here that the thug operation of the legendary Sleeman was controlled in Punjab. A bit of history might put things in perspective.

The thug movement was essentially a massive criminal gang spread all over the sub-continent in which every caste and religion could be members, provided they swore allegiance to the deity ‘Kali’. Now this deity is seen by non-Hindus as essentially a manifestation of evil, but if you read the epics it is described as an “aggressive manifestation of feminine fury”. To overcome such forces in nature, appeasing them is what ‘allegiance’ is all about. It was, probably, a device to rid a criminals’ conscience of an evil act.

So when Muslims joined this set of bandits, they insisted on burying their victims, all invariably cut down by strangulation using a velvet handkerchief. That was the symbol and pride of a thug. Near that infamous ‘pipal’ tree with ‘Kali’ hidden in the folds of its trunk were a few slightly raised ‘grave-like’ mounds at a distance. I did not ask what these were presuming that it was an abandoned graveyard.

If you read Khushwant Singh’s ‘History of the Sikhs’, he writes about the very long route the maharajah always took when travelling from his village near Gujranwala to Lahore. When asked he said “it is best to avoid that part of the world lest I am silently strangled and my body disappears.” When I first read that amazing book it made me laugh for surely he was telling a joke. But then within this lay a logic set in the mind over centuries.

Mind you these thugs were no Robin Hoods, but merciless murderers. The 1832 trial file in the Deonagar Case relates to a group of thugs who fled with Rs200,000 in gold and diamonds after murdering a Mughal princess and her entire entourage. If anything it showed their silent ruthlessness. Besides a seminal work by Willian Sleeman, as well as a critique by the great historian Sir Christopher Bayly analyses the logic of this, the world’s largest gang of criminals.

But let me return to a few techniques which I discussed over a cup of tea with my hosts in that remote village just outside Lahore. An elder, who kept falling into fits of laughter, related how his elders would pose as traders going from Delhi to Lahore. At a ‘serai’ they would wait for other traders who travelled only in groups for safety purposes.

Once they had joined the group, who naturally imagined further safety in a larger group, they would strike when everyone was asleep at night. It was swift and very silent. They removed the bodies and the booty to a pre-dug grave and returned to go to sleep. Their victim had disappeared as if by magic. At this point the thugs would go their own way claiming that the group was cursed.

This description is very near to the hundreds of episodes related in the numerous books on the subject. These ‘slow train thugs’ told me that most of their kin had migrated to Punjab in the Sikh era as the British ‘anti-thuggee’ campaign was such a success that they started escaping to the non-British areas of South India and the western Sikh Punjab. “A lot of villages set up around Lahore to the west of the river were set up by these escaping thugs” said an elderly man.

“They had started writing the word ‘thug’ on our ancestors’ foreheads, and also under their eyes”. There was a sense of sorrow in his tone. I asked them about their caste and they said most of them were originally ‘mazhabi’ Sikhs and also a lot were ‘sainsee’ who had converted to Islam to rid the stigma of being from thug heritage.

But to me a man out in search of a story, all this meant that there was no harm writing about this part of our colourful history. It does in a way point to the origins of the social change our society is still undergoing. The kleptomaniac Pakistani joint secretary who made short work of a Kuwaiti wallet does reflect our inner weaknesses. Why pretend to be pious when we can seek forgiveness in an offering, or even a few holy words. Imagine.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2018

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