On Privacy and Surveillance-03

In my earlier blogs, I discussed on “Khabreegiri”, the “trade” of snooping, information gathering and reporting. (click here) (and click here). I call this a “trade” because it is. No one will waste their time sneaking into my window and monitoring my entry and exit in main gate of my house if one is not getting something in return, or hopes for it someday.

In this blog, I discuss a historical side of surveillance used for violent purposes. It happened in India.

Thuggee” was “re-discovered” in India in 1800’s. The “profession” is prevalent since prehistory. For the first time, it was extensively investigated and documented by Britisher – Major General Sleeman. He is credited with ending “Thuggee” in India. A concise article on Thuggee is here.

Sleeman may have ended the violence associated with the act, but the spirit of Thuggee still remains. The word – Thug (ठग) means “a cheat”. The Thugs 200 years ago cheated and also killed people. But that’s just a surface of the practice. The major of work of “Thuggee” is “information gathering” and this begins even before the victim leaves his home for travel.

In “The Thugs or Phansigars of India“, General Sleeman mentions the ways and means the Thugs employ to gain access to the victim’s information. Firstly, there is never one single Thug. There is a network of Thugs. And then, there is a Leader. All information flow to the Leader and all actions and strategies originate from the Leader. They get the victims net worth, then befriend them, take them off track, finally loot and kill them. “Phansigars” means killers by strangulation. Except perhaps toddlers and infants, the Thugs killed everyone in the group. They didn’t want their identity and information to get out. The spared toddlers and infants were made future Thugs.

For the success of the mission, the Thug’s process of information gathering is interesting. A Thug, as traveller, will “happen” to meet his “target victim” “by chance.” Conversations flow over “drinks.” Too much friendliness will be shown. Common problems will be found and cried over. The Thugs may know the victim from before, hence know the victim’s boss. The Thug knows that the best way to gain fellowship is by criticizing the victim’s “boss.” Once pally, the victim is in the grip of the Thug.

But what if the victim becomes suspicious. Most people are suspicious of new people. Thugs have a solution to this too. The leader Thug will dispatch another Thug. The second Thug will befriend the victim against the first thug. A game is played between the Thugs who know each other but act like quarrelling strangers. The first Thug leaves the scene in a huff and the victim is left to share the gossip with “another Thug.”

But what if, even this does not work. The network of Thugs are so extensive that the leader Thug can swarm the victim or victims with groups of Thugs. This strategy can happen to a large group of innocent travellers being joined by equally large group of Thugs. The Thugs will create fear of thieves, dacoits and roads, will promote the idea of “safety in numbers” and “different safe road.” Well, the victims will never know that some numbers are never safe and some roads are better “less travelled.”

Rarely anyone escapes a Thug’s target. The tactics employed to ensnare are numerous. I write this in present tense because I believe that the practice is still on at less violent but equally lethal levels.

The story of “Thuggee’ is extensive and there are several books on this. But what fascinates me is the practice of “Khabreegiri” which follows similar lines as the practice of “Thuggee.” The Thugs of today gain access to weaknesses and vulnerabilities to undermine and hurt professionally.

At the turn of this century I joined a company where the art of snooping, “Khabreegiri” was pretty refined and fine tuned. In my almost one and half decade with the company, there was never a party, get together, picnic, outstation tours, trekking, classes, seminars, where “informers” were not present. Every method as in ‘Thuggee” were employed by the company “pimps.” They spread their “prostitutes” liberally. Humorously, “prostitutes” informed on each other to the “pimps.”

Culture is infectious and bad culture is even more so. The company, “the brothel” suffered a demise in 2019 and most of the “pimps and prostitutes” escaped into employment in other companies. Those companies may have their own “Khabrees”, but they will now see – “Khabreegiri” at scale, finesse, skill and subtlety. This might be happening. Now.

Thugs are ordinary, respectable, decent looking people. They work as good employees and live with families. They are the unsuspecting pimps and prostitutes in every environment.