HARKING BACK: Lahore’s ‘thugee school of industry’ and ‘kooree mars’

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn March 5, 2017

Just opposite the main gate of Lahore’s Civil Secretariat is a set of Sikh-era buildings which is known as the Roberts Club. This is the Special Police office. When the British took over the first offices set up here was the ‘Thugee Department’.

When the East India Company took over Punjab in 1849, as they set about asserting control they noticed that the number of ‘thugee’ incidents had started to shoot up. In 1852, H. Brerton was appointed the Superintendent of Thugee Investigation Punjab on the recommendation of the famous Colonel Sleeman, who had done a lot to suppress ‘thugee’ in British India before Punjab was captured after the Second Sikh War.

But besides ‘thugee’ Punjab had another very evil social practice - “evil in every respect” as Robert Montgomery was to describe it - which was called ‘kooree mar’ or daughter slaying. Amazingly, this was ‘normal’ in the countryside and also secretly practised within Lahore’s walled city. This, according to a description by P. Melville, a Secretary to the Chief Commissioner in July 1853, was rife mostly among the Bedi clan of Punjab living to ‘the south-west of Lahore’, as well to a lesser degree among Khatri families, both Hindu and Muslim. These families had two basic reasons for killing off their newborn daughters. Melville lists the reasons as, firstly, the expected expense of a future marriage if a good marriage proposal came forth, and secondly, the fear of not finding an appropriate marriage partner for their daughters in the first place. On both presumptions the girl was doomed.

The expected shame perceived by such families propelled a large number of people to consider killing off their girls by filling their mouths with cow dung, or drowning them in cow’s milk, or filling their the newly-born girl’s mouth with opium. Hence the probable origin of the term “teray maun vach khaak”.

Both ‘thugee’ and ‘kooree mar’ squads had different methods of operating, though both were entirely intelligence-based. At Roberts Club both these squads were headed by senior EIC officials, and the methodology given in both Montgomery’s and Brerton’s reports make imminent sense. But first let us talk about the ‘kooree mar’ phenomenon. Within a year the police had instructed every revenue official on government pay to inform the local police head constable of all couples expecting children. Then a watch was kept on them and if a girl was born the policeman would visit that house. Sounds amazing today, but then such were those times.

Of the numerous cases within Lahore, the one that stands out worth narrating is that of a Bedi clan person called Ram Das of Lohari Gate. He already had two daughters and no son. When a third daughter was born, according to the report mentioned in Montgomery’s ‘Minute on Infanticide in the Punjab, pp 86-90, Sept 1853’, he drugged his daughter, filled her mouth with cow dung, stuffed her in a large ‘gharra’ (earthen water goblet), threw some cow dung on his own head and brazenly threw the ‘gharra’ in the River Ravi. He was arrested and murder charges levelled against him. He was hanged in an open space near his house and his property confiscated. Alarmed by this sudden development, amazingly only the Khatri community protested, but to no avail.

There are numerous examples, especially in Wazirabad and Gujrat districts, of similar cases. In every case the trial was swift and maximum punishment meted out. Invariably the culprit’s property was confiscated. Relatives were also warned of property confiscation if they protested. Very soon this evil practice became a rare happening.

But the fight against ‘thugee’ in Punjab was a very tough and different operation. This reminds of a saying of Maharajah Ranjit Singh who is recorded as saying that every time he returns to Lahore, he “avoids Sheikhupura”. Such was the hold of the thugs even then. Amazingly, a few years ago in these columns I wrote about ‘thugee’ still being practised in a village just near Sheikhupura, where they operate in gangs on local trains, and still carried out old thug rituals. I also visited a large-stone site in a village of a Bhatti youngster who worked for me, and he was, to my utter shock, proud of being from thug heritage.

The typical Punjabi ‘thug’ was a Jat, be he of any religion, or a ‘sansee’, though ‘mazahabis’ and ‘chooras’ castes also worked alongside. In and around Lahore, especially in nearby Sheikhupura, the poorer sections of Bhatti, Virk and other clans formed a considerable force of thugs. In the days of Maharajah Ranjit Singh their victims were mostly Sikh soldiers returning home from faraway districts like Multan and Peshawar. The favourite season for thugs was before the Dussehrah festival when these soldiers, and other people working away from home were returning home.

Thugs had a common culture, they all worshipped Devi, the goddess of criminals, as also they respected Pir Sarwar Sultan, the patron saint of thieves and ‘vagabonds’. The thugs believed that by making offerings to their deities and various pirs, especially at the shrine of Pir Sarwar, brought them good luck and plenty of booty.

The ‘thugs’ operated in large gangs, disguising as barbers, faqirs, brahmins or any other profession that was respected by their victims. They would travel with them and at night kill them off and invariably bury them. Their favourite weapon was a large coin with a hole knotted at the end of a silk handkerchief. On the victim’s grave they would all sit and offer thanks to their patron Devi.

The Punjab Thugee Department operation had agents in disguise with thug gangs, who were nabbed just before a kill was to take place. Within five years Punjab had almost been cleared of this old menace. In the operation Superintendent Brerton had realised that the best way forward was to buy out a thug by offering a pardon as also a small portion of the looted money recovered.

As the thug menace in Punjab receded, by 1854 a stage had been reached where the ‘thugee’ office were raiding faraway villages in search of suspects. By 1858 not a single case of ‘thugee’ was reported in Punjab and the Thugee Office was merged with the normal crime branch of the Punjab Police.

In 1853 the EIC had allowed the building of jails in Punjab, and that is when the Lahore Central Jail was built. The very first inmates were captured thugs from all over Punjab, who were made to work hard in a newly-opened ‘Thugee School of Industry’. With all captured thugs moving to Lahore, a major tent-manufacturing enterprise was started. This continued for almost 20 years, by which time most thugs were aged and ‘thugee’ had been eliminated. The school of industry was, therefore, closed.

This was a major success for the East India Company officers who worked hard to personally see to it that both the evils of ‘kooree mar’ and ‘thugee’ had been eradicated from Punjab. In a way the crime and order situation most certainly did pave the way for a modern and peaceful British Punjab.

Maybe, there is lesson in this for our present rulers, who have seen crimes ‘reported’ in 2016 rise by a whooping 25 per cent over 2015, at least the Punjab Police website says so. Sadly, the story on the prosecution side makes very grim reading. The reality remains so different from the fake ‘all is well’ news we are fed on.


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