The 20th century has seen global movements to end all forms of slavery, colonialism, exploitation and discrimination. However, universal freedom remains elusive for more than 40 million people around the world, as illegal forms of servitude and trafficking have replaced older institutionalized forms of legal slavery.
In India alone, an estimated eight million people live in debt bondage, forced marriages and forced begging, or have been trafficked. Dalit and Adivasi men, women and children are more likely to be trapped in such conditions of modern slavery. Is rebellion against a system of social and economic exploitation possible in this context? If so, how do survivors of modern slavery frame their rebellions and can they achieve emancipation through peaceful means?
These are some of the questions Laura T. Murphy, an expert on modern slavery based at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, explores in her book about a unique micro-village in India called Azad. Nagar. Azad Nagar, according to Laura Murphy, “is a small cluster of thatched-roof houses on one of the most desolate plots of land in the largest village of Sonbarsa, located in the poorest province of one of the country’s the poorest in the world. .” At the turn of the 21st century, the people of Kol d’Azad Nagar bought their freedom by building up a reserve of money to buy leases to their rock quarries, for which they faced the consequences of landlords in the area. The Kol people were not discouraged. Sharp community organization has led to a good morning (literally, “raise your voice”) that attracted media attention. A second good morning in June 2000 ended in collective violence, during which an owner died.
Curiously, I couldn’t find any news coverage of this incident using digital archival searches of Indian recorded newspapers dating back to 2000. However, the book contains information from the police blotter of that day according to which the Kols were charged with “unlawful assembly, riot, riot with deadly weapon, intimidation, insulting public order, willful interference, attempted murder and murder”. Those charges were dropped years later.
When she returns to Azad Nagar after many years, Laura Murphy is informed that the Kols killed the landlord during a clash between the Kols and Patel owners during the good morning. Taken aback by the confession, Laura Murphy investigates the incident further, which leaves her with a sense of worry and a cloud of questions. This is where the book begins to veer toward a reflection on how scholars and global NGOs tend to research nonviolent revolutions as inspiring cases of successful revolution. These cases are then romanticized and presented to the world.
Laura Murphy also interviews a documentary, The Silent Revolution: Sankalp and the Quarry Slaves (2006), produced by the NGO Free the Slaves about the Azad Nagar revolt, and how the story of the landlord’s death was seen as incidental to the larger goal of a revolution. Murphy writes, “In a way, the omission of the murder was a silent, benign conspiracy between many actors, none of whom were fully aware of the all-important redaction.”
Laura Murphy is accurate in her argument that extracting violence from tales of revolutions and rebellions is sanitation. This sanitization can serve a global purpose insofar as “successful” cases of peaceful revolution can be presented as models of emancipation that can be implemented elsewhere. However, are these sanitized narratives the true narratives of the oppressed or do they exist to make the revolution more palatable to global and local bourgeois elites?
As we find out, Azad Nagar did not remain a refuge for the emancipated Kol people. Their mining leases have expired and have not been renewed. Soon, with the relentless onslaught of neoliberalism, private quarrying companies arrived with heavy machinery and left a hollow landscape behind. Unemployed residents were now also at risk of deadly diseases introduced by industrial operations. The revolution had taken place, but could it be sustained?
Azad Nagar: the story of a 21st century slave revolt is an interesting case study of how revolutions can fracture even after being successful. It also raises a discussion on the place of violence in any revolutionary movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s success in using non-violence as the organizing principle of India’s anti-colonial struggle in the early 20th century cannot always be replicated with the same level of success, especially by people who do not are not heard by the institutions. India’s state institutions, which are supposed to automatically guarantee the rights and freedoms of the most marginalized people, often fail in this task because these institutions are sometimes militarized against the very people they were designed to protect. Under such circumstances, does it become unethical for an oppressed community (like the Kols of Azad Nagar) to resort to violence to fight their oppressors?
Laura Murphy’s book seems to argue that violence in movements can often be a rational choice because, in conditions of extreme inequality like those we see in India, the state has a monopoly on violence, but castes and the ruling classes too. Between the social structures of domination that wield violence against Dalits and Adivasis, and the state institutions that have carefully built relationships with the dominant classes and landowning castes, marginalized groups seeking rights, freedoms and of equality find themselves without any means of reward and justice. So, is it justified to expect them to succeed in their fight for rights and freedoms without resorting to violence?
The people of Azad Nagar have paid a very heavy price for their violence. They have been neglected by government programs and public works projects. This almost conscious exclusion was a form of punishment that continued even after a decade from the day of the violent incident. What needs to be pondered is this: Do the words “equality” and “freedom” have any substantive meaning to anyone if they remain elusive in the lived experiences of massive population groups by design? How can 21st century states implement these ideals in a sustainable way? Would states even want to implement these ideals when state power is itself beholden to the ruling castes and classes that have flourished precisely because they have been able to oppress others?
Laura Murphy’s book does not pretend to answer all these questions. However, it is empathetic writing that draws on his immense knowledge of modern slavery and the terrains of inequality that make lasting equality and freedom difficult. A reader can easily notice that the author cares about the people she is researching and does not reduce them to mere passive subjects or respondents in a research project. The voices, conversations, lives and discussions of the Kol people are the driving force behind the book. It is his greatest strength.
Vasundhara Sirnate is a political scientist and journalist. She is also the creator of the India Violence Archive, a citizen data initiative aimed at recording collective public violence in India.