In South Asian countries like India, modern slavery takes many forms. The most common is the institution of bonded labour. A worker gets caught under piling debts from his employer and is unable to repay the loan because of exorbitant interest rates, and so they end up working for a negligible salary. No matter how hard and long they work, the debt remains unpaid because the interest rates are plainly impossible.
And so it goes on, generation after generation, in an endless loop. In many cases, entire families work together to repay the debt that can never be fully repaid.
Contemporary slave masters are often also holders of huge parcels of land, thus commanding great power in the village hierarchy, with the local administration on their side. So, for those who dare to rebel against the system, the backlash is either harsh or simply fatal, often aided by corrupt cops.
“When we think about slavery, it’s only the American chattel slavery [that comes to mind],” Laura Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K., told VICE. “But what struck me the most was how whispered it was in India, [despite] there [being] rarely any talk of bonded labour in India. The people who are most marginalised are also the ones who are the most invisible.”
In 2000, the slaves of one town, Sonbarsa – later named Azad Nagar (the town of the free) – 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 that had fought against the British in the 1830s in one of the most successful mutinies against the colonial rulers.Nearly a decade and a half after their legendary revolt – dubbed a “silent revolution” by international organisations – Murphy visited the village where it all was said to have gone down peacefully.
Villagers gather to tell Murphy the story of the revolt
The truth, as she would soon discover, was anything but silent or non-violent. In her recently published book Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt, Murphy 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: gossip organising. In this case, the seeds were sown by a certain Uday Pratap Singh, a farmer from a neighbouring village who was extremely poor but had managed to escape becoming a bonded labourer because of his privileged caste status.
Singh was nicknamed “Kanchuki” for frequently playing a cross-dressing trickster. His name comes from that of a transgender person in Sanskrit literature. He wore the nickname as a badge of honour, more so because it also masked his upper caste identity. Beneath the humorous veneer of a jester, the caste-less nickname allowed him to travel to the poorest rural areas of the Kols without arousing any suspicion.
Kanchuki tirelessly led the Azad Nagar revolution
“Kanchuki would stay late into the night and hold meetings with the Kols while the landlords or slaveholders slept,” said Murphy. He made them aware of what they had gotten into because most of them had simply accepted bonded labour as their destiny. “He moved from hut to hut and lived and slept with the labourers on threadbare mats. We understand through his story how activism can work across caste barriers.”
She clarified that this was not a top-down approach. The upper castes did not dictate how the revolution would take place. Sure, there were whispers and rising discontent against the slaveholders, a revolution was soon coming, and international organisations had also begun to aid the workers with literature and resources. But the Kols were clear with their demand, the root of all the hardships: ownership of land.
Women of Azad Nagar
After having educated them about their rights and the extent of their sufferings, Kanchuki’s first plan of action was to enlist the help of a local criminal defence attorney, Amar Saran, who was then part of the district bonded labour vigilance committee. Saran’s first suggestion was to convince the local titular king, who also functioned as a revenue collector, that all his profits came unfairly from the blood and sweat of the Kols, most of them enslaved in bonded labour for nearly three decades.
“He seemed moved by their testimonies and promised them mining leases and [offered to] mediate any disputes,” Murphy explained. “But it was soon clear that he had no real plan to do any of that. He wanted to make money which he managed quite well through the landlords.”
Saran then petitioned the local judge, the district magistrate, who initially refused to believe that bonded labour 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 mine on their own.
“The resistance was sharp – men sent by the landlords prevented the Kols from accessing their own lands, schools and public wells. In some cases, Kol women were also assaulted,” said Murphy.
The devil incarnate
Every revolution needs a hero. And a villain. In this case, it turned out to be Virendra Pal Singh, also referred to as the “chief of the slave owners” by some locals for his sheer brutality. One woman told Murphy that Pal Singh had dragged her by the hair and forced her to break rocks for him when she’d refused to work one time.
“Another little girl, Mantua, was followed by him as she walked home from the fields one evening. Pal Singh tried to rape her and when she resisted, set her home on fire, killing her,” Murphy wrote in the book.
She added that when the lawyer Amar Singh would write to international organisations about the brutality of the slaveholders in Sonbarsa, Pal Singh’s horror tales would often be highlighted. However, the spark that set the Kols alight was when Pal Singh punched Kanchuki in the face during one of the usual protests. “Who will work in my fields, who will break my stones, if you convince them they should be free?” he demanded.
Murphy explained how “it was one thing for Pal Singh and his cousins to rape and even kill the Kols” but the Kols couldn’t stand by as he “abused this kind and gentle man” whose only mistake seemed to be lifting their spirits.
The bloody revolution
When the Kanchuki incident came to light, the Kols gathered in droves near the local Ramgarh temple.
Pal Singh and everything he represented had to be punished; he had gotten away with too much for too long. The air was thick with protest music, drums and local folk songs. There was nothing to lose. The landlords had already taken away everything the Kols held dear: land, family, and above all, their dignity.
At the end of the day, when everyone walked to their homes, Pal Singh and his men followed a group of women. Shots were fired to terrify the women who then called for help, and the Kol men rushed to fight the landlords. They didn’t stand a chance – there were 50 Kols against just eight of them.
The field next to Ramgarh temple where the revolt took place
In the ensuing fight, Pal Singh was killed.
The cops registered cases against the Kols. Sonbarsa suddenly found itself in the eye of the storm, with international organisations and media monitoring the village. With the whole world watching, bonded labour could not exist with the same flourish. Bonded labour, as it existed, gradually dissipated:
Azad Nagar was formed soon after, even as the Kols fought against the vengeful family of Pal Singh in court. A decade later, the court eventually held no one guilty for the Pal Singh murder and termed it an accident.
But was freedom truly won?
“Nobody went back to follow up [on] how this utopia was working out,” said Murphy. “But the reality was different: there were electricity poles lining the streets but no lights really came up. They could see other neighbouring villages getting light, getting jobs. But it seemed that everything got stuck when it came to Azad Nagar. The villagers very much believe that this was the price they had to pay for gaining their freedom.”
Murphy argued that freedom is hard-won and violently so when it comes to modern slavery. Not a silent, peaceful one, like we’d like to believe. However, even after the freedom is won and newspapers have celebrated the rise of the masses on their front page spreads, often, not much changes on the ground.
A newspaper article after the revolt in the Hindi daily Amar Ujala
In some ways, things become even worse. Those in power will always find innovative ways, employing everything from bureaucratic red tape to subtle discrimination, to show the 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 of an acquaintance’s courtyard. The funds to construct community latrines had been syphoned off by the local administrators. Electrical boxes were fixed to their huts but no power ran through the wires. More than half of the villagers had chosen to migrate to the cities.
Houses of Azad Nagar village today
But even though the dream of Azad Nagar was never fully realised and its occupants couldn’t lift themselves out of despair entirely, Murphy believes that the revolution was not fruitless.
“It raised awareness, and it made governments aware of what was happening right under their nose. The laws have been changed and labour relationships have seen a change too. But as for the Kols, they now find themselves escaping the depressing downward spiral [instead of the] once liberatory dream of Azad Nagar.”