Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

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


King's College, Cambridge Email:


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.

(Online publication November 12 2012)


*  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.