Lathial a distinct social group in the rural society of Bengal during pre-British and British periods. A lathial then lived by wielding a specially designed bamboo stick called lathi. A lathi was a bludgeon, normally made of the male bamboo, and sometimes bound at short intervals with iron rings, forming a formidable weapon. Lathi is a Prakrt word with its Sanskrit form yasti (stick). There are proverbs in all South Asian languages including Bangla saying that right or power belongs to a person who has the lathi. One who specialised himself in wielding lathi and who lived on the martial art came to be known as lathial.
A lathial must not be confused with a barkanduz. A barkanduz was an officially designated lathial of the local authorities. A lathial is one who sold his skill to landholders and others in exchange of remunerations in kind or cash. Lathials were frequently used in settling disputes between zamindars and punishing the recalcitrant raiyats. Every zamindari estate had three wings of establishments: tahsil naib and gomostas in charge of settlement and rent collection, jamadars and mrdhas in charge of fighting in the field and vakils for fighting in the court. It was customary on the part of landholders and other leading landed interests to settle dispute by salix. Lathials were sent only when salis failed. Going to court for redress was normally the last resort and only after being unable to use force effectively.
Of necessity, every zamindar and taluqdar maintained an army of lathials or clubs-men headed hierarchically by jamadars, mrdhas and sardars. Like generals in wars, the jamadars and mrdhas were more strategists and instructors than fighters themselves. As highly skilled and courageous lathials, they worked as security guards to zamindars and kacharis. Gomostas carrying money to treasuries were escorted by lathials. In exchange of their services, jamadars and mrdhas were usually remunerated chakran or service tenure. Landholders, however, additionally maintained ordinary non-paid lathials.
At times of big strife between zamindars on grave issues like occupying newly emerged chars or settling any other dispute affecting possession or dispossession, jamadars and mrdhas were called in to lead the campaign with their lathials in the field battles. If charged with criminality in the court by the opponents, they were normally supported financially and otherwise by their employers.
The early British rule, when the colonial state was yet to penetrate into the countryside and when government patronised the zamindars, lathials roamed around like 'raving locusts'. They lived and even flourished by oppressing the innocent village people. Like zamindars, every indigo planter maintained lathials to coerce the unwilling raiyats. Lathials were highly mobile and were prepared to go on hire to any part of Bengal. For hiring, lathials of Bakarganj and Faridpur were most coveted, and hence most expensive.
The use of lathials for settling disputes began to wane from the 1860s when police system was reorganised. The large districts were divided into sub-divisions for better governance. The chaukidari or village police system was introduced in the 1870s. Many former lathial sardars became village chaukidars with great success. With the tightening of district administration and with the spread of education among the landholding classes, the lathial system eroded fast since the beginning of the 20th century. With the abolition of zamindari system in1951, the lathials as a class were rendered unemployed and got extinct. But in the remote areas, lathials in changed form still operate under the patronage of the upper echelons of the rural society.
Lathials had some contributions to the cultural arena in the form of mock fight between parties. They were invited to perform at social festivals including punya in the zamindari kacharis. The rich peasants tried to display their wealth and influence by inviting lathials to play on their compound. lathikhela (club-game) thus became a very popular folk-game in Bengal in the nineteenth century. With the disappearance of professional lathials, lathikhela as a folk game has also declined. But it is not yet altogether extinct. [Sirajul Islam]