On my neighbor’s driveway, several men were sawing enormous wooden boards in the midday sun. One of them sported a baggy red t-shirt over a sub-zero refrigerator frame. His black hair was swept away from his forehead and pulled back in a long pony-tail. The mustache and beard on his round and large face added to the menacing stance of a don’s sidekick. He looked like a thug.
The word “thug” has its origin in the Hindi and Urdu thag. It means, literally, “thief” and is believed to have derived from the Sanskrit verb sthagati meaning “to hide or conceal.” While “thug” suggests brute force, in recent times, it has taken on the broader meaning of “ruffian,” implying the sociopathic swagger of someone who manipulates others to his end. In 2016, I noticed how the word “thug” has been bandied around a lot in the media. For instance, Donald Trump, one of the two aspiring to the highest office in the United States has been called “a thug” by many publications. The New Yorker called him “a ham-fisted thug.” As if “thug” was not in itself a pejorative term, the adjective further qualified what manner of thug he may be: incompetent, bumbling, and maladroit.
In the mid 19th century, thuggee (thagi) was a form of brigandage native to India. This band of thieves befriended wayfarers and offered to share a journey with them. These thuggees were so skilled in deception that they quickly earned the confidence of the wary travelers and then, when the time was right, they garroted, robbed, and buried them.
From 1829 to 1841, after sixty mutilated corpses were discovered in wells and ditches scattered along the highway of the turbulent frontier district of Etawah, the East India Company ran the Anti-Thuggee Campaign (ATC) for over a decade. It commissioned William Sleeman, a soldier turned magistrate, to head a campaign to rid the country of these bandits. By 1836, Sleeman had captured and tried a total of 3,266 thags out of which several hundred more were in prison awaiting trial and 1,400 were either hanged in the company gallows or transported for life to the Andamans. A judge who presided over a major trial of these alleged thuggees was appalled by their depravity: “In all my experience in the judicial line for upwards of twenty years I have never heard of such atrocities or presided over such trials, such cold-blooded murder, such heart-rending scenes of distress and misery, a such base ingratitude, such total abandonment of every principle which binds man to man, which softens the heart and elevates mankind above the brute creation.”
The Anti-Thuggee Campaign brought order to northwestern parts of India. It also served another purpose—to justify rule under the British crown. In his paper “Thuggee, marginality and the state effect in colonial India,” Tom Lloyd of the University of Edinburgh implies that the ATC furthered Britain’s strategies for assuming colonial sovereignty: “Through this policing, this defining and controlling, they characterized (and indeed caricatured) not only those individuals who would henceforth be considered non-subjects to which the ordinary procedures of British administration could not apply—dacoits and thugs—but also those who would be afforded protection of its laws, the supposed benefits of the rule imagined and enforced by this exception.” As the trials wore on, many miscreants were locked up in prison—mendicants, highway robbers, hermits, gamblers, child-traffickers—adding to the vagueness of the Anti-Thuggee legislation. It became unclear as to who were in fact the most depraved of all the thugs.
Two hundred years later, even in these United States, thuggery continues to manifest itself in different ways even among people born into the best circumstances in life. “Once a thug, always a thug,” was the title of an April 2016 Salon magazine article discussing Donald Trump’s lack of restraint and deliberation.
In an election year rapidly devolving into vitriol, one man uncoiled the worst fears in others in the nation. For me, the words in the preamble to the United States Constitution elucidated what we owed future generations: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
We owed ourselves and our descendants people in office who were upright, well-intentioned and introspective, men and women who would not suggest or resort to thuggery to drive an agenda. I was saddened by the new normal in the nation that I now called home. The coarseness in public. The disrespect for another human being and for the office of the President itself. Decency was no more a virtue or an ideal—even for those aspiring for the loftiest office of these Untied States.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.