Social Evils Extirpated by the British in India

During their rule in India, the British rooted out many social evils in India. These included:

Abolition of Suttee - the practice of the wife jumping into the funeral pyre of her dead husband to be consumed alive by the flames. Girls as young as 12 years old, crying bitterly, were forced to commit suttee. 

Suppression of Thuggee - Thugs were hereditary assassins who were secretly  murdering 30,000 - 40,000 travelers, pilgrims, merchants and soldiers  annually on India's roads in the early 19th century. The British rid India of this scourge.

Destruction of the Pindaris - Pindaris were irregular soldiers who followed Mogul armies, then the Maratha armies during their wars and subsisted on plunder. After the weakening of the Maratha chiefs, they began plundering British held territories.  One example of their plundering activity was the raid on the Masulipatnam Coast and northward, in which they plundered 339 villages, burning many, killed or wounded 682, tortured 3,600 to extract whatever they could, and carried off property estimated to be worth £250,000, a huge sum in those times. Governor General Hastings destroyed the Pindaris and ended that menace to Indian society.

Female Infanticide -  Governor General Richard Wellesley had issued a regulation prohibiting child sacrifices at Saugor Island in Bengal and other places. But female infanticide was still prevalent among the Rajputs and even in Malwa, Cutch, and Punjab. Bentinck outlawed the practice as a punishable crime, and strictly enforced the regulation. 

Human Sacrifice - Some primitive tribals in the Khond region offered human sacrifices in the hope of a good harvest. Bentinck outlawed the practice and imposed the death penalty on those practicing it. However, the practice continued until governor-general Lord Hardinge put an end to it in 1845. 

Legalization of Widow Remarriages - With the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, widow remarriages were legalized. The problem is very well described by Lucy Carroll ((2008): "The problem of widows—and especially of child widows—was largely a prerogative of the higher Hindu castes among whom child marriage was practiced and remarriage prohibited. Irrevocably, eternally married as a mere child, the death of the husband she had perhaps never known left the wife a widow, an inauspicious being whose sins in a previous life had deprived her of her husband, and her parents-in-law of their son, in this one [meaning in this life]. Doomed to a life of prayer, fasting, and drudgery, [or forced to commit suttee] unwelcome at the celebrations and auspicious occasions that are so much a part of Hindu family and community life, her lot was scarcely to be envied. 

Here are excerpts from the book on suppression of thuggee:

Suppression of Thuggee

  "As the British extended their rule in central and northern India after the defeat of the Marathas, reports began to filter in to British authorities about the disappearance of large numbers of merchants, pilgrims, and other travelers along India’s roads. That was not unusual in 1812 because of the anarchy that reigned over much of India. However, authorities’ suspicions were aroused when mass graves of upward of fifty victims were discovered around the Ganges River, with the victims being murdered and buried in a similar fashion. The British then suspected that a secret society of murderers operated nationwide.  Thuggee was a profession practiced by a secret society of hereditary assassins who were worshippers of the goddess Kali Maa (black mother) or Durga. (The origins of Kali will be traced later.) According to their wretched beliefs, all the victims they murdered were sacrifices to the goddess as a part of worship. 

  To the world around them, the thugs were usually agriculturists or pursued other upstanding professions. But at certain times during the year, they would leave their wives and children behind in their villages and attach themselves to travelers. They usually posed as traders, pilgrims, or soldiers while traveling. Some even posed as rajas, traveling with their retinues.  

Travelers usually attached themselves to other groups of travelers for safety. This made it easy for the thugs to blend in, and with cheerful conversation, gain their victims’ confidence. The thugs traveled in groups of a few individuals or bands as large as several hundred. Sometimes scouts had identified their victims by gaining information on the number of coins or other valuables they were carrying when they stopped at sarais (inns).  

Their modus operandi was to travel along with their intended victims, sometimes for hundreds of miles, and when they reached the site they had selected for the crime, to strangle the victims when they camped at night. They carried strong pieces of cloth tied around their waists (called rumal) or looped their turbans around the necks of the victims. It was a mark of honor to kill 100 percent of one’s victims. If any escaped the noose, lookouts caught them and finished them off.  

Their consummate secrecy and mastery of the art of murder probably made them the deadliest secret society in humankind’s history. It is estimated that they murdered between thirty thousand and forty thousand persons annually in the early nineteenth century. Their origins date to the sixteenth century. Hence, they probably operated as a secret society for at least three hundred years, murdering an estimated two million people. The actual number could be much higher.  

As the evidence of the existence of a secret cult terrorizing the country’s roads began to mount, William Bentinck firmly resolved to rid India of this scourge. For this task, he chose Major William Henry Sleeman, whose name is inseparably associated with the extirpation of this evil. 

  Sleeman’s job was by no means easy. Known thugs enjoyed protection from landowners as well as Indian princes just as the Pindaris had enjoyed protection from the rulers. The motive, of course, was sharing the loot. When soldiers and police came to apprehend the thugs, these rulers and landowners sometimes resisted violently. Villagers may have suspected who the thugs were, but they turned a blind eye, as the practice brought wealth into the community. Some simply kept silent due to fear.  

The other problem was that it was difficult to identify the thugs, as some lived as normal, upstanding members of society. Literally anyone—a farmer, a trader, a noble, a next-door neighbor, or even a close friend—could be a thug. So Sleeman and his police were often faced with a wall of silence when they tried to elicit information from the public.  

But Sleeman took up the challenge with innovative policing methods. With his dedicated men, he first assessed where the next attack might take place from the known murder sites where the mass graves were found. His men paid close attention to reports of suspicious men in the area. Then they turned the tables on the thugs by posing as merchants and ambushing them as they approached to commit murder by strangulation.  

Once some thugs were captured, Sleeman’s task was made easier; the thugs willingly cooperated with the authorities and shared information about their brothers and colleagues without any remorse. They were fatalists and believed that whatever happened to them was the will of Kali. They showed no emotion or remorse when they were condemned and hanged.  

As more were apprehended, more information became available to Sleeman and his band of police officers. He was then able to coordinate ambushes of the thugs simultaneously in all directions. Since the British ruled almost the whole of India, the thugs could no longer obtain protection in different provinces, thus ending the menace. Sleeman and William Bentinck obtained the gratitude of India, and Sleeman became known as the 'Thuggee Sleeman.'