Landmark study on caste slavery in Kerala gets a new edition after four decades

In the early 1970s, K. Saradamoni, one of the pioneers in Dalit and gender studies in Kerala, came across an old file titled 'Abolition of Slavery in Kerala', while going through the archives at the India Office Library, London. She was at that time about to begin working on her PhD under the French anthropologist Louis Dumont. That file set her off on a quest which led to her pioneering work 'Emergence of a slave caste: Pulayas of Kerala', published in 1980.

Though that first of its kind study on caste slavery in Kerala became an important reference material, the book was not re-issued, until four decades later, a second edition came out last month, published by People's Publishing House, Delhi.

"The publishers had received several requests regarding this book. Though the book physically came out after she passed away in May, the work on it had begun before that, but got delayed due to COVID-19," says Saradamoni's daughter G. Arunima, Director of Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR).

With a wealth of source materials, including administrative reports, writings by British officers, travellers and church mission records of the 1800s and 1900s, Saradamoni traces the evolution and abolition of slavery in Kerala. According to the system that existed in Kerala in the early 1800s, slaves were the absolute property of their masters. They were not attached to the soil. They could be made to do any work and could be sold to anyone. They did not even own their children. They begot children so that the master could have a continuous supply of workers. Pulayas constituted the largest slave community in Kerala.

She notes that the price of slaves in Kerala, as gleaned from several records, varied from ₹6 to ₹18. There were instances of the master selling the husband and wife or the children separately to different persons. The masters gave them just enough for subsistence. The master was not accountable to any person for what he did with his slaves. He was the legal judge of their offences and could punish them by death.

The British Government in India legally abolished slavery in 1843. Malabar came under the scope of this act as it was under Madras presidency, but it did not apply to the princely states of Travancore and Cochin. The first anti-slavery proclamation was issued in Travancore in 1853, but it had a clause ensuring that the freedom of slaves will not affect the caste hierarchy and other 'customs'.

The Cochin royals issued the proclamation in 1854, with an additional clause ensuring that the slave and a free man will not be treated differently, if found guilty of any penal offence, thus granting the slave equality before law for the first time. This clause was included in a fresh declaration in Travancore in 1855. Travancore had around ten thousand slaves during the time of abolition.

The final legal blow to slavery in India was struck by the Indian Penal Code, which came into force in 1862. But Saradamoni writes that the Government did not also bother to create the climate nor the necessary machinery for implementation. The abolition did not result in immediate emancipation of the slaves, with many still remaining with their old masters. These castes were still denied access to public courts and other institutions, and education was also denied to them, making it hard for them to improve their social situation. The Cochin State Manual of 1911 admitted that the state of the 'freed' slaves had not changed even after half a century.

She writes how the former agrestic slaves and traditional agricultural labour of Kerala had to wait for nearly a century before they could attain proprietary rights over the sites on which their huts were built, through land reform measures.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 4:57:53 PM |

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