Review of Laura T. Murphy’s Azadnagar The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt: The meaning of non-violence in the time of oppression

Democracy is not supposed to be compatible with slavery. The former institutionalises equality and non-violent social relations while the latter enforces inequality with violence. Yet, according to the Global Slavery Index, of the 40 million people who are in slavery, nearly 8 million live in India — more than in any other country. Who are these Indian slaves? Has no one told them — the slaves or their masters — that India is the world’s largest democracy?

Well, antebellum America did demonstrate that slavery could get along with democracy. In India, too, slavery-like exploitation has flourished alongside constitutional proclamations of equality, nowhere more so than in the hinterlands of central India where tribals dispossessed of their forest land often end up as bonded labour ‘owned’ by local landlords.

Story of the Kols

In  Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt, Laura T. Murphy, an expert in modern slavery, retells the story of one such group of bonded labourers from the Kol tribal community in Uttar Pradesh who break out of inter-generational slavery and set up their own micro-village, christened Azad Nagar. They manage to do so with the assistance of Sankalp, a grassroots NGO, which helps them raise money to buy their own quarrying lease. The Kols, now earning in cash, as opposed to the meagre quantities of grain they were being paid earlier, even start sending their children to school. But is emancipation sustainable when the structures of oppression remain intact?

Murphy describes Azad Nagar as “a small cluster of thatch-roofed homes situated on one of the most desolate tracts of land in the larger village of Sonbarsa”. For their erstwhile masters, the Patel landlords, even this smidgen of autonomy is unpalatable. They retaliate. But the Kols remain undeterred, and in June 2000, they organise a ‘hullabol’, or protest meeting, where a landlord dies. Several Kols are jailed on charges of murder.

But after some years, they are released after a court rules the death an “accident”. The Kol men return to Azad Nagar, life continues, and gets progressively worse. The Kols’ quarrying licence is never renewed. Large corporations with industrial machinery strip the quarries bare and scoot. They leave behind environmental degradation that ruins the health and livelihoods of the tribals — putting a question mark on the very meaning of words like ‘emancipation’ and ‘revolution’. What do they mean when you are ‘free’ but deprivation continues?

Intrigued by  The Silent Revolution: Sankalp and the Quarry Slaves (2006), a documentary film made by an NGO on the Azad Nagar revolt, Murphy travels to India to meet the Kol protagonists. In the course of her conversations, she is stunned to hear a Kol woman speak with pride about killing a landlord — it is a direct contradiction of the accepted narrative, amplified by the documentary, of a ‘non-violent revolution’. Murphy questions the reflexive redaction of violent acts of resistance from emancipation narratives put out for mainstream consumption. The contrast with how the emancipated — in this case, the Kol tribals — view their own struggle is stark, leading Murphy to meditate on the politics of non-violence.

Out of memory

In countries where oppressor violence is everyday news — be it police excesses against Blacks or atrocities visited on Dalits and Adivasis — whose interests are served by erasing from public memory instances of revolutionary violence by the oppressed? Could it be that nothing is more terrifying — and therefore, unspeakable — to the masters than the violence of the slaves?

Commenting on the perennial threat of violence that envelops black bodies in a racist society, African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates asked: “Why were only our heroes non-violent?” Why indeed. What does it mean when, in a society where the dominant elites are in a symbiotic embrace with the state, non-violence is deemed particularly essential to the morality of the oppressed? These questions inform 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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Printable version | Jun 12, 2022 4:26:37 pm |