A woman breaks stones in a quarry in Azad Nagar. All photos courtesy of Laura Murphy
In South Asian countries like India, modern slavery takes many forms. The most common is the institution of bonded labor. A worker is caught in debt by his employer and unable to repay the loan due to exorbitant interest rates, so he ends up working for negligible pay. No matter how hard and long they work, the debt remains unpaid because interest rates are simply impossible.
And so on, generation after generation, in an endless loop. In many cases, entire families working together to pay off the debt that can never be fully repaid.
Contemporary slave masters are often also holders of huge plots of land, thus wielding great power in the village hierarchy, with the local administration at their side. So, for those who dare to rebel against the system, the reaction is either harsh or simply fatal, often aided by corrupt cops.
“When you think of slavery, it’s only the slavery of American property [that comes to mind]Laura Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, told VICE. “But what struck me the most was how whispered it was in India, [despite] the [being] we rarely talk about debt bondage in India. The most marginalized people are also the most invisible.
In 2000, slaves in a town, Sonbarsa – later named Azad Nagar (the city of freedom) – in the state of Uttar Pradesh came together in an unlikely show of unity against all odds. Most of them were from the Kol community who had fought the British in the 1830s in one of the most successful mutinies against the colonial rulers. Murphy visited the village where everything was said to have passed peacefully.
The truth, as she would soon discover, was anything but silent or non-violent. In his recently published book Azad Nagar: the story of a 21st century slave revoltMurphy documents what she found to be the real story.
In many ways, according to the book, the genesis of this particular slave revolt could be traced to the most crucial aspect of any slave revolt: the organization of gossip. In this case, the seeds were sown by a certain Uday Pratap Singh, a farmer from a neighboring village who was extremely poor but had managed to escape becoming a bonded laborer due to his privileged caste status.
Singh was nicknamed “Kanchuki” for frequently playing a cross-dressing trickster. Its name comes from that of a transgender person in Sanskrit literature. He wore the nickname as a badge of honor, especially since it also masked his upper caste identity. Under the humorous veneer of a jester, the casteless moniker allowed him to travel through the poorer rural areas of the Kols without arousing any suspicion.
“Kanchuki would stay late at night and hold meetings with the Kols while the owners or slaveholders slept,” Murphy said. He made them realize what they had gotten themselves into because most of them had simply accepted slave labor as their destiny. “He moved from hut to hut and lived and slept with the workers on threadbare mats. We understand through her story how activism can work across caste barriers.
She clarified that it was not a top-down approach. The upper castes did not dictate how the revolution would unfold. Of course, there were whispers and growing discontent against the slavers, a revolution was coming soon, and international organizations had also started helping the workers with literature and resources. But the Kols have been clear about their demand, the root of all difficulties: ownership of the land.
After educating them about their rights and the extent of their suffering, Kanchuki’s first course of action was to enlist the help of a local criminal defense attorney, Amar Saran, who was then part of the district bonded labor monitoring committee. Saran’s first suggestion was to convince the local titular king, who also functioned as a revenue collector, that all his profits were unfairly derived from the blood and sweat of the Kols, most of them enslaved in forced labor for almost three years. decades.
“He seemed moved by their testimonies and promised them mining leases and [offered to] mediate any disputes,” Murphy explained. “But it soon became clear that he had no real plan to do any of this. He wanted to make money which he managed quite well through the owners.
Saran then petitioned the local judge, the District Magistrate, who at first refused to believe that debt bondage even existed. The judge’s bubble burst when he actually visited the village. Slavery was everywhere he looked. He identified a small plot of land outside the village that the Kols could farm on their own.
“Resistance was fierce – men sent by the landlords prevented the Kols from accessing their own land, schools and public wells. In some cases, Kol women have also been assaulted,” Murphy said.
The Devil Incarnate
Every revolution needs a hero. And a villain. In this case, it turned out to be Virendra Pal Singh, also called the “leader of the slave owners” by some locals for his sheer brutality. A woman told Murphy that Pal Singh dragged her by the hair and forced her to break rocks for him when she once refused to work.
“Another little girl, Mantoue, was followed by him as she returned from the fields one evening. Pal Singh tried to rape her and when she resisted, set her house on fire, killing her,” Murphy wrote in the book.
She added that when lawyer Amar Singh wrote to international organizations about the brutality of slavers in Sonbarsa, Pal Singh’s horror stories were often highlighted. However, the spark that set the Kols on fire was when Pal Singh punched Kanchuki in the face during one of the usual displays. “Who will work in my fields, who will break my stones, if you convince them that they must be free? he ordered.
Murphy explained that “it was one thing for Pal Singh and his cousins to rape and even kill the Kols”, but the Kols could not sit idly by as he “abused this kind and gentle man “whose only mistake seemed to be to boost morale.
The bloody revolution
When the Kanchuki incident came to light, the Kols gathered en masse near the local Ramgarh temple.
Pal Singh and everything he stood for had to be punished; he had gotten away with it too much for too long. The air was filled with protest music, drums and local folk songs. There was nothing to lose. The landlords had already taken everything the Kols held dear: land, family, and above all their dignity.
At the end of the day, as everyone was heading home, Pal Singh and his men followed a group of women. Shots were fired to terrify the women who then called for help, and Kol’s men rushed to fight the landlords. They didn’t stand a chance – there were 50 Kols against only eight of them.
In the ensuing fight, Pal Singh was killed.
The cops filed cases against the Kols. Sonbarsa suddenly found itself in the eye of the storm, with international organizations and media monitoring the village. Before the eyes of the whole world, bonded labor could not exist with the same boom. Debt bondage, as it existed, gradually dissipated:
Azad Nagar was formed soon after, even as the Kols battled Pal Singh’s vengeful family in court. A decade later, the court finally found no one guilty of Pal Singh’s murder and ruled it an accident.
But has freedom really been won?
“Nobody came back to follow up. [on] how that utopia worked,” Murphy said. “But the reality was different: there were electric poles along the streets but no lights really came on. They could see other nearby villages light up, find jobs. But it seemed that everything was blocked regarding Azad Nagar. The villagers firmly believe this was the price to pay for their freedom.
Murphy argued that freedom is hard and violently won when it comes to modern day slavery. Not silent, peaceful, as one would like to believe. However, even after freedom is won and newspapers celebrate the rise of the masses to the front page, there is often not much change on the ground.
In some ways, things get even worse. Those in power will always find innovative ways, using everything from bureaucratic bureaucracy to subtle discrimination, to show former slaves that they can never be truly free.
When Murphy visited the village again in 2019, she had to urinate behind a knee-high wall in an acquaintance’s yard. Funds needed to build community latrines had been embezzled by local administrators. Electrical boxes were attached to their huts but no current passed through the wires. More than half of the villagers had chosen to migrate to the cities.
But even though Azad Nagar’s dream was never fully realized and its occupants were unable to extricate themselves entirely from despair, Murphy believes the revolution was not in vain.
“It raised awareness and made governments aware of what was happening under their noses. Laws have changed and labor relations have also changed. But as for the Kols, they now find themselves escaping the depressing downward spiral [instead of the] once the liberating dream of Azad Nagar.
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