Slavery in India: No Road to Freedom | Swagat Baruah

Swagat Baruah

In 2017, in an age when humans are discussing and debating on post-humanism and an AI takeover of the world, the horrifying statistics of modern slavery might come as quite astonishing. There are 46 million people around the world today who are yet chained by the circumstances they live in or were born into. 18 Million (39%) of them are in India. Although the numbers do come as shocking, locating such high prevalence of slavery in India doesn’t. One of the main but also the subtlest and least discussed reasons for this is the self-perpetuating caste system.

It is tempting to believe that the caste system in modern India is dead. As most evolutionary theorists have predicted, caste didn’t inevitably disappear with the dawn of modernity and development or Indian independence. Caste system in India has adapted itself to the changing Indian economy and politics, and continues to hold a pivotal place in an Indian’s life. According to the 2015 Equity Watch report there has been a 19.4% increase in crimes against Dalits from 2014. The number of cases registered under the Scheduled Caste (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) Prevention of Atrocities act has also risen every year since 2011, taking a leap in 2014 to 47,064 cases against 13,975 cases in 2013. Other reports go on to suggest the existence of serious obstacles that lower caste people face in obtaining justice, with alarming conclusions like, “most cases of caste abuse and of rape most frequently end in compromises.” Women and girls particularly belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes still face significant discrimination and high rates of sexual violence. However, in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya gang rape case, this scenario is predicted to change, with the broadening of sexual offences against women.

India, funnily enough, makes the strongest case for affirmative action when it comes to representation of minority rights with its reservation policy. It is, as Kevin Bales of University of Nottingham argues, a paradox: the best anti-slavery laws co-existing with the highest rate of slavery. He cites the example of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 which helps the victims of bonded labour by providing them with a little bit of capital once they’re out of slavery. Even the recent 2016 Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act is a great attempt on the part of the government to better the status of Dalits in India, by instituting special courts for SC/ST victims, in addition to inclusion of subtler discriminatory practices as offences.

Slavery in India is mainly dominated by bonded slavery and child slavery inter alia many other important forms. The existence of bonded slavery can be traced back to the Indian Zamindari system which heavily relied on the caste system for its perpetuation. The son of a slave had to pay the never ending debt of his ancestors by serving the zamindar. Although this system was abolished after independence, its interplay with the caste system has had serious repercussions even after it has ceased to exist formally. The centuries of caste system coupled with the zamindari system has resulted in the “monopoly of knowledge” by the upper castes, to speak in terms of Foucauldian power dynamics. The feeling of intellectual superiority amongst the upper caste Hindus still exists today and it is unsurprising that economic empowerment is still failing the cause for Dalits. The problem of the ‘caste system’ is purely a societal one. The fault lies in our legal perspective on it. Casteism having found its fundamental origins in Hinduism or at least in its history becomes hard to be dealt with legally. Racial segregation in the West in contrast didn’t find religious justification and hence could be rejected as inhuman. Else, casteism is a gross violation of human rights and the international standard definition of slavery should be revised keeping in mind the pivotal role it plays in slavery in India. It is an evil equal or worse than apartheid. But are Indians willing to accept it? No. The Brahmin in India still boasts of his cultural heritage and of his learned ancestors but will he acknowledge their deliberate oppression? No.

In her seminal essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak raised questions about who speaks for whom when the subaltern of history becomes the subject of literary or any other kind of representation. Contrary to many of India’s international legal obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR, the ICESCR as well as Articles 14, 17 and 21 of India’s own Constitution, the traditional methods of rules, legislations and orders exhibit the same flaws which Spivak critiques in her essay, which is the absence of adequate social connect between the end that the legislation seeks to achieve, the objects (e.g., manual scavengers) who are the intended beneficiaries of such State action and law-makers.

Until very recently, India had not ratified the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which it finally did in June this year. This comes as a positive step towards curbing slavery in the form of child labour. As mentioned above, there have been certain legislations which have genuinely made an attempt at trying to reduce casteism in India. But the fact still remains that this caste remains a key connection with slavery and no anti-slavery legislation can be drafted in isolation from the disease of caste discrimination. We must not hold onto vacuous optimism for there is nothing to be optimistic about. We must not rest our hopes in our future for it cannot exist without us mending our ways and we must not delegate this task unto the posterity for the history of caste system tells us that it existed as a norm in the past, spun out as an abnormality in the recent past and is now still a complete norm.


An edited version of this piece first appeared in the Oxford Human Rights Blog.
Swagat Baruah is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University and writer/editor for Catharsis. He can be reached at swagatb13@gmail.com.

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