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The Moghia Menace, or the Watch Over Watchmen In British India*


This paper contributes to the history of ‘criminal tribes’, policing and governance in British India. It focuses on one colonial experiment—the policing of Moghias, declared by British authorities to be ‘robbers by hereditary profession’—which was the immediate precursor of the first Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, but which so far altogether has passed under historians’ radar. I argue that at stake in the Moghia operations, as in most other colonial ‘criminal tribe’ initiatives, was neither the control of crime (as colonial officials claimed) nor the management of India's itinerant groups (as most historians argue), but the uprooting of the indigenous policing system. British presence on the subcontinent was punctuated with periodic panics over ‘extraordinary crime’, through which colonial authorities advanced their policing practices and propagated their way of governance. The leading crusader against this ‘crisis’ was the Thuggee and Dacoity Department, which was as instrumental in the ‘discovery’ of the ‘Moghia menace’ and ‘criminal tribes’ in the late nineteenth century as in the earlier suppression of the ‘cult of Thuggee’. As a policing initiative, the Moghia campaign failed consistently for more than two decades. Its failures, however, reveal that behind the façade-anxieties over ‘criminal castes’ and ‘crises of crime’ stood attempts at a systemic change of indigenous governance. The diplomatic slippages of the campaign also expose the fact that the indigenous rule by patronage persisted—and that the consolidation of the colonial state was far from complete—well into the late nineteenth century.

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Work on this paper was funded by the Rhodes Trust, the Oxford Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Wolfson College (Oxford), the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and King's College (Cambridge). Unless otherwise noted, all primary sources were consulted at the National Archives of India in New Delhi. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Oxford Seminar in South Asian History and at the meeting of the American Association for Asian Studies in Boston. I am grateful to Paul Dresch, David Gellner, Jonathan Norton, Rosalind O'Hanlon, Kim A. Wagner, and two anonymous MAS reviewers for helpfully commenting on drafts, and to Alice Taylor for all the Breakfasts.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

S. Guha (1999). Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1200–1991, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Chapters 3–5

K. A. Wagner (2007). Thuggee: Banditry and the British in Early Nineteenth-century India, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

S. Nigam (1990). Disciplining and Policing the ‘Criminals by Birth’, Part 1: The Making of a Colonial Stereotype—The Criminal Tribes and Castes of North India, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 27:2, 131164

N. Sinha (2008). Mobility, Control and Criminality in Early Colonial India, 1760s–1850s, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 45:1, pp. 133

H. Schwarz (2010). Constructing the Criminal Tribe in Colonial India: Acting Like a Thief, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford

M. Radhakrishna (1992). Surveillance and Settlement under the Criminal Tribes Act in Madras, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 29:2, 171198

T. R. Metcalf (1965). The Aftermath of Revolt: India, 1857–1870, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

K. A. Wagner (2010). Confessions of a Skull: Phrenology and Colonial Knowledge in Early Nineteenth-century India, History Workshop Journal, 69, 2751

D. H. A. Kolff (1971). Sannyasi Trader-Soldiers, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 8:2, 213218

S. Gordon (1993). The Marathas, 1600–1818, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

N. Peabody (1991). Ko ṭā Mahājagat, or the Great Universe of Kota: Sovereignty and Territory in 18th Century Rajasthan. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 25:1, 2956

N. B. Dirks (1979). The Structure and Meaning of Political Relations in a South Indian Little Kingdom. Contributions to Indian sociology, 13:2, 169206, especially p. 171

B. Chatterji (1981). The Darogah and the Countryside: The Imposition of Police Control in Bengal and Its Impact (1793–1837), The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 18:1, 1942.

H. C. Payne (1958). Theory and Practice of Political Police during the Second Empire in France, The Journal of Modern History, 30:1, 1423

B. Chapman (1970). Police State, Pall Mall, London

S. Nigam (1990). Disciplining and Policing the ‘Criminals by Birth’, Part 2: The Development of a Disciplinary System, 1871–1900, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 27:30, 257287

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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