If you thought slavery doesn’t exist in India today, Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt will make you question your assumptions. It takes just over 150 pages for Laura T. Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, to break down how we compartmentalize the plight of workers who do not have the agency to ask for a safer work environment or the long hours they put in for very low wages. Think workers in sweatshops, employers taking official identification papers and refusing to give them back, landless farmers working for a pittance and compelled to take loans at interest rates that the landowner decides.
Murphy argues that after the abolishing of slavery in India, a new form of bondage emerged that is entrenched deep within the set hierarchy of the caste system, in which power is vested with the upper caste communities. Drawing on her work on contemporary global slavery, she highlights how slavery today means the inescapable forced labour that people across the world take up—often with no means to survive or fend for themselves.
She links the overview of slavery to how the most marginalized communities in India remain in bondage across generations, even as they are able to exercise their right to vote. The majority of the book is set around the uprising of the Kols, an impoverished Adivasi community in Uttar Pradesh, against their upper-caste landowners in 2000. She examines the circumstances that led to the uprising and then dissects the many layers that got added over the years—whether things changed for the community and what exactly transpired during the course of the uprising.
There is scant media coverage or easily available information about how this Adivasi community revolted against their landowners, eventually going on to establish an Azad Nagar of their own. This reflects two things: the unsavoury truth that many in India are still uncomfortable to acknowledge that slavery exists, just in a different form than it used to, and that the uprising in 2000 was a one-off incident that did not lead to any institutional change over the years, and did not receive much interest from the media to have been documented or discussed at length.
Murphy looks with a critical eye on the intergenerational burden of debts leading to indebted labour with little in return, and how welfare schemes and protective measures for Scheduled Caste or Schedule Tribes do not make much of a difference, as the signatories are vested in the hands of the upper-caste landowners. She is just as critical about the narrative set by NGOs working with Adivasi groups heralding the uprising as a triumph. She finds that the making of Azad Nagar has achieved little despite the efforts put in by NGOs to make Adivasis the owners of land and that the community has new burdens to bear—their lives do not matter at all but are interchangeable for the development of the country, more so when there are profitable mining and quarrying opportunities.
Murphy's writing provokes one to reflect on the sociopolitical realities of India—the country has the fourth highest number of billionaires globally, but the Adivasis are counted amongst the poorest people in the world. There is just the right balance of academic text with ground reportage that makes this short book extremely readable.
Chitra Ahanthem is a Delhi-based journalist.