Laura T. Murphy’s Critique of Azadnagar—The Story of a 21st-Century Slave Revolt: The Meaning of Nonviolence in an Age of Oppression

Shining the spotlight on the central Indian hinterland where tribal communities trapped in intergenerational slavery are taking matters into their own hands

Shining the spotlight on the central Indian hinterland where tribal communities trapped in intergenerational slavery are taking matters into their own hands

Democracy is not meant to be compatible with slavery. The first institutionalizes equality and non-violent social relations while the second enforces inequality through violence. Yet, according to the Global Slavery Index, of the 40 million people who are in slavery, almost 8 million live in India – more than in any other country. Who are these Indian slaves? Did no one tell them – the slaves or their masters – that India is the biggest democracy in the world?

Well, pre-war America demonstrated that slavery could go along with democracy. In India, too, slavery-like exploitation flourished alongside constitutional proclamations of equality, nowhere more so than in the central Indian hinterland where tribals dispossessed of their forest lands often end up in servitude. for debts “belonging” to the local owners.

The history of the Kols

In Azad Nagar: the story of a 21st century slave revolt, Laura T. Murphy, modern slavery expert, tells the story of one such group of enslaved workers from the Kol tribal community in Uttar Pradesh who got rid of intergenerational slavery and started their own micro-village , christened Azad Nagar . They achieve this with the help of Sankalp, a grassroots NGO, which helps them raise funds to buy their own mining lease. The Kols, who now earn cash, unlike the meager amounts of grain they used to receive, are even starting to send their children to school. But is emancipation sustainable when the structures of oppression remain intact?

Murphy describes Azad Nagar as “a small cluster of thatched-roof houses on one of the most desolate stretches of land in the larger village of Sonbarsa”. For their former masters, the Patel owners, even this bit of autonomy is unpleasant. They fight back. But the Kols were undeterred and in June 2000 they organized a “hullabol”, or protest meeting, where a landlord died. Several Kols are imprisoned for murder.

But after a few years, they are released after a court calls the death an “accident”. Kol’s men return to Azad Nagar, life goes on and gradually gets worse. The Kols’ quarrying license is never renewed. Large corporations with industrial machinery are laying bare the quarries and rushing in. They leave behind environmental degradation that ruins the health and livelihoods of tribal peoples, putting a question mark over the very meaning of words like ’emancipation’ and ‘revolution’. What do they mean when you are “free” but the deprivation continues?

Intrigued by The Silent Revolution: Sankalp and the Quarry Slaves (2006), documentary film produced by an NGO on the revolt of Azad Nagar, Murphy travels to India to meet the protagonists of Kol. During her conversations, she is stunned to hear a female Kol speak proudly of the murder of a landlord – this is a direct contradiction to the accepted narrative, amplified by the documentary, of a “non-violent revolution”. Murphy questions the reflective writing of violent acts of resistance from stories of emancipation intended for mainstream consumption. The contrast to how the emancipated—in this case, the Kol tribes—view their own struggle is stark, leading Murphy to ponder the politics of nonviolence.

Insufficient memory

In countries where the violence of oppressors is in the daily news – be it police excesses against black people or atrocities committed against Dalits and Adivasis – whose interests are served by erasing from public memory examples of revolutionary violence by the oppressed? Could it be that nothing is more terrifying — and therefore unspeakable — to masters than the violence of slaves?

Commenting on the ongoing threat of violence that envelops black bodies in a racist society, African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates asked, “Why were only our heroes nonviolent? Why indeed. What does it mean when, in a society where the ruling elites are in symbiosis with the state, nonviolence is deemed particularly essential to the morality of the oppressed? These questions illuminate the context as well as the coda of Murphy’s narrative quest in this book.

Azadnagar: the story of a 21st century slave revolt; Laura T. Murphy, HarperCollins, ₹299.

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