Thugs is a common word, with variant spellings and pronunciations, in all south Asian languages including Bangla. The literal meaning of the term is 'a cheat', 'a swindler'. Before the Europeans institutionalised the term 'thugs', the people of north India also designated them as phasnsigar, from phansi (a noose). The thugs, whose origins are obscure, flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly during the early period of the company rule. Originating from some criminal tribes of north and south India, the thugs subsequently expanded their operational domain to almost all of India during the transition period marking the end of the nawabi regime and establishment of that of the British.
The operational modes of the thugs were different in different zones according to local topography and transport system. Generally, they would move in-groups in guise of long distance travellers and pilgrims and fall in with stranger travellers and gain their confidence by their kindly and co-operative gestures. At a convenient time and place the thugs would strangle the unfortunate victims by throwing ritually besprinkled handkerchiefs round their necks, plunder them and bury their bodies according to the thug rituals. For example, before leaving for the next operation, they would make an overnight feasting, singing and dancing on the crime spot. In Bengal, the thugs operated mostly on the river traffic. The river thugs usually killed their victims by immersing their heads into water.
The thugs used to visit Bengal districts during winter season and, in collaboration with the hereditary local criminals conducted their traffic until the arrival of the monsoon. The administration of Wiliam bentinck launched a massive civil and military offensive against the thugs. Hundreds of them were captured, tried and executed publicly.
Col Sleeman's name became a household word in British India for his thug eradication campaign. He discovered that there were many Muslims who were members of various thug bands, though the thug rituals were contrary to Islam. Pretending as Arab pilgrim guides (muallem), they used to visit Bengal districts and motivate the rich to perform the obligatory Hajj. The thugs would kill them and plunder their belongings while they embarked on Hajj under their guidance. By the mid nineteenth century, the thug menace, as a threat to law and order, was almost entirely eliminated. But the word, thug, has found a place in the world literature to describe the extraordinarily violent criminals and hooligans. [Sirajul Islam]