Wednesday 18 July 2018

“Slaves” and “Bondsmen” after Abolition: Grey Areas and Missed Opportunities

by Mishal Khan

Agricultural worker in India
Photo credit: The British Library, page 485 of 'The History of China & India, pictorial & descriptive

The conviction that slavery is an institution that belongs in the dustbin of history is a view that has moved from consensus to consensus as a matter of international law – the lowest common denominator that nations agree upon. In Pakistan, and indeed in South Asia in general, bonded labour has become synonymous with “modern slavery,” the most blatant violation of this now sacred international principal. Bonded labour entered the spotlight during the 1990 Darshan Masih case, often hailed as a watershed moment leading to the passage of the Bonded Labour Systems (Abolition) Act of 1992. In light of the persistence of the practice today, the solution is usually to be found in enhanced enforcement of legislation, in greater legal penetration of the court system, and increased alignment with international law.

An important intervention in this debate is to reorient attention back to the mid-nineteenth century, to the abolition of slavery itself. It was in fact India’s very embeddedness in an emerging international legal regime that both abolished slavery, and at the same time legitimized debt bondage in the same stroke. The abolition of slavery therefore - a moment that we traditionally think of as a terminus - in fact represented the initiation of a wholly new moral and legal regime of labour that was global in scope. Scholars tracing contemporary bonded labour systems to the colonial era have tended to focus internally on colonial land policies, rather than on the more globally dispersed legal regime that underlay imperial order making. Legal definitions of “slave” and “free” were part and parcel of the codifying impetus of empire, crucial to meeting imperial labour demands. While the unfree must be freed, the free – or rather those not considered unfree enough – must be held in place and like everyone else, made to work.

After much debate “slavery” was officially “delegalized” by the Indian Slave Act of 1843 or “Act V”, and subsequently criminalized by the Indian Penal Code of 1860. While we now view bonded labour as a “modern” form of slavery, what is less known is that prior to 1843, members of the British colonial regime could not help but see debt bondage as one of the most exploitative “slave-like” relationships in India.

In fact, the dizzying variety of institutions that resembled slavery led some such as Sir Bartle Frere to famously assert in 1841 that there were over 8-9 million slaves in British India – more than the total number freed in the British Caribbean. The practice of “pledging oneself” represented a more reprehensible condition than that of “slaves” they saw attached to wealthy households. In the words of W. Adams in The Law and Custom of Slavery in British India written in 1840, the bond-servant was described thus: “The practice of contracting for a service of seventy years… must often practically become perpetual slavery by the inability of the bond-servant to discharge the pecuniary obligations he has incurred to his master.” Similar analogies between slaves and bondsmen can be found strewn across the initial reports on slavery in India.

After 1843, however, this analogy all but disappears. Abolition seems to have recoded and channeled these practices into the nebulous boundaries between servitude, concubinage, household dependents and agricultural labour. Indebtedness in particular became upheld as a valid, “mutually beneficial” and “freely” entered contract between creditor and debtor, ignoring the stark hierarchies that rendered this relationship into one where the bonded worker’s labour power was effectively monopolized.

It is this disappointing anticlimax that leads scholars to label abolition as at best a non-event. However it is by perhaps going against the grain of this “non-event” narrative that we must piece together the history of bonded labour as a peculiar institution that remained perpetually in the grey area between freedom and unfreedom. A crucial part of this story traces how slavery came to be seen as a racialized category – servile groups of “African” origin became increasingly seen as ideal typical slaves. At the same time, the readily available analogy between slavery and agricultural indebted labourers – “haris” in Sindh – slowly disappeared. Paying specific attention to these processes allows us to question the traditional boundary between “slavery” and “modern slavery” as two separate and self-evident categories.

Almost 80 years after Act V, the Indian delegation to the League of Nations in 1924 was still mincing their words. They sheepishly insisted that slavery - “in the usual sense of the word” had all but disappeared. What were the consequences of this persistent definitional uncertainty? Given that the issue of “pledging” was once again brought up when drafting the Slavery Convention of 1926, where did bonded labour ultimately fit in this scheme of free and unfree? It is understanding this ultimately liminal position, that grants us greater insight into the historical legacies of the colonial legal regime on bonded labour systems today.

*Mishal Khan has worked with the Collective on their ‘Kinship Groups and Marginality’ project, and is currently a visiting researcher with the Habib University while doing fieldwork for her PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago.