Freedom is a many-splendoured and infinite-dimensional state of existence of a human being. Animals other than man also do not submit to the constraints on their freedom without coercion or ‘training’. But unlike them (wo)man is also a creative being from the time she is born. It is that kind of freedom that Rouseeau had celebrated in his fictional state of nature, and blamed civil society with its laws and protection of property for the rise of ‘civilization’, putting mankind in chains. When Marx thought that human beings could be fully free only with the end of their multiple alienations, he had their creative energy as much as their physical energy and ability to learn old things in mind. Rabindranath Tagore’s conception of freedom also conformed far more to the Rousseau-Marx dreams than to the Benthamite liberal’s concept of liberty.
If freedom is infinite-dimensional, so then must be its obverse, unfreedom. Hence there is so much controversy about defining unfree labour. Jens Lerche in his fine contribution (reprinted from The Journal of Agrarian Change, 7(4)) to the volume edited by Breman et al., comes closest to the problem of identification of unfree labour: Guerin’s distinction between milder and harsher forms of bonded labour points towards a continuum from more-or-less free labour relations to fully unfree relations, that is, degrees of unfreedom and/or inequality underlying the labour relations. A categorization operating with such a continuum instead of a bipolar definition better reflects the character of the labour relations discussed. Lerche rightly castigates the idea that capitalism had no concern with creating free wage labour, free in the sense of not being subjected to private coercion.
The US Civil War was fought not on the issue of abolition of slavery (that came in the middle of the war) but on the refusal of the Northern industrialized states to allow the slave-holding states to extend the territory in which slavery would prevail. But that does not mean that capitalism has not used slavery and bonded labour for centuries. Moreover, capitalist states have restricted, if not abolished altogether, the civil freedom of workers and turned fascist with the blessing of Britain, and the United States and their allies whenever the political hegemony of the capitalist classes hasbeen seriously challenged: witness Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Falangist Spain and all the dictatorships of Central and Eastern Europe between the two World Wars of the twentieth century, and the series of dictatorships installed at the behest of, or with the blessing of the imperialist powers. India’s Unfree Workforce contains a number of well-researched papers illuminating the historical background of unfree labour, and also the current conditions of Unfree labour in rice mills, brick kilns, sugar cane work, and so on. But the influence of outmoded theories can still be detected in some of the papers.
The title and the body of Prabhu Mohapatra’s paper, ‘From contract to status? Or how law shaped labour relations in colonial India, 1780–1880’ signals a fascination with the exploded myth constructed by Henry Maine, even if Mohapatra thinks that in India, new laws passed by the government produced status through contract (p. 122). Maine’s myth-making has been thoroughly explored and exposed earlier by a number of historians and legal theorists such as John Burrow, George Feaver, Irfan Habib, Peter Stein, Raymond Cocks, Peter Mayer and others and the reader would be better served by consulting those works. It has been established that mature feudalism in Europe itself had a legal framework of contracts between masters and slaves as the classic study by Marc Bloch documented (Bloch 1965, chapter VIII), so that Maine’s idea that the rise of a market society involved a change from traditionally defined status to relations defined by contract was thoroughly unhistorical.
Mohapatra gives a highly selective summary of earlier studies of legally codified and/or coercively enforced bonded workers in cotton handloom weavers supplying their products to the East India Companyand in indigo plantations in Bengal and Bihar. He could have added to our knowledge if he had asked and answered a simple question, ‘Why was indenture necessary for labour recruitment in plantations in India and abroad but not in the jute mills that came up on the banks of the Hugli from the 1850s?’ In his contribution Jacques Pouchepadass shows how ineffective the legislation disallowing a slave-holder’s claim to his slave as property, passed in 1843 remained: the reasons varied from lack of any penal provision for slave-holders holding on to their slaves, the total lack of knowledge of the Act of 1843 among the slaves themselves and the unwillingness of the revenue collectors to do anything that might jeopardize the payment of the land revenue into the government treasury. Very similar reasons led to the survival of slavery in many British and French colonies in Africa down to the 1930s (Bagchi 2006). In his brilliant paper, K.T. Rammohan points out that in the British Malabar district as well as the former native states of Travancore and Cochin, after the so-called legal abolition of atiyaayma, which in Malayalam means subordination continued there. ‘Atiyaal was a common name for “untouchable” castes like Pulayas and Cherumas and dependent agricultural labour of these castes’ (p. 72). But he adds that the agricultural labourers among Ezhavas or members of upper castes, especially women who had been deprived of ‘caste honours’ could also be called atiyaal.
‘The atiyaal were tradable. They were “held precisely under the same tenures as the land itself” . . . Francis Buchanan, touring Malabar in the early nineteenth century, noted that the atiyaal could be loaned, mortgaged, leased or sold.’ (p. 74). The whole family of the atiyaal wasenslaved, so that the master could exploit the women sexually and families could be broken up and sold separately. So any remaining illusion we might have that no part of pre-colonial or colonial India contained anything resembling the chattel slavery of the plantations of the western hemisphere is destroyed by Rammohan’s paper. Moreover, the Indian system of degrading women lent a special gruesomeness to the atiyaayma: there was a ‘custom that allowed Pulaya and Paraya men the right to take as his wife an upper-caste Nayar whom he manages to pollute on a specified day of the year—the custom of Pulappedi and Parappedi (fear of the Pulaya/Paraya). It has been suggested that it was a custom engineered by the Nayar males who conceived this as a ploy to get rid of rebellious women from the family. It could also have been a perennial threat to women and deterrent to their rebellion . . .’ (p. 74). This also puts another question mark on the idea that the Nayar system of matrilocality could be equated to matriarchy (in this connection, see also Arunima 2003).
In an interesting contribution, Raj Sekhar Basu analyses the condition of agrestic serfs in Chingleput but also ranges over the situation in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu in colonial and postcolonial times. The most interesting part of the paper is his account of Christian missionary efforts and their failure to redress the desperately poor and starvation-prone conditions in face of the determined opposition of the mirasidars and the unwillingness of the colonial government to take any steps. This is reminiscent of the efforts of the International Labour Office narrated by Jens Lerche in his paper to introduce ‘decent work’ conditions in work places and abolish child labour and bonded labour everywhere, including India? Do the ILO officials really believe that the incidence of child labour has declined in India because of their propaganda? The only state that has got rid of Kerala, and that has been very largely the result of attainment of universal literacy through the decades long social movements and the activism of the communists, supported by appropriate legislation and public support by the left-led governments. In the Kuttanad area of Kerala studied by Rammohan as well as the regions of Tamil Nadu agrestic slavery declined because of the growth of agrarian capitalism, and opening up of new opportunities of employment but many of the earlier serfs or slaves were reduced to the status of dependent landless labourers or tenants.
In both states it is resistance on the part of the liberated serfs and organization by activists mainly from the communist movement that led to a drastic decline in bonded labour. But ‘voluntary’ bondage, mainly through a debt nexus, often among migratory, ‘contract’ labourers, continues in many sectors such as brick kilns, rice mills and sugar cane fields asmany earlier studies by Jan Breman, Ravi Srivastava and others and the studies compiled in the current volume such as those by Isabelle Guerin and G. Venkatasubramanian, and by Aseem Prakash on brick kilns, by Isabelle Guerin et al on cane cutters in Tamil Nadu and Marc Roesch et al in rice mils in Andhra Pradesh and Sharit Bhowmick on plantation labour demonstrate. Djallal Heuze, in his study of bondage in the mining areas of Dhanbad focuses on the rise of Surajdeo Singh, a Rajput don from North Bihar (Heuze calls him a rajputra), who used the Congress-affiliated Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and subsequently the Hind Majdoor Sangh and the state apparatus (among other connections, he was a friend of the late Prime Minister Chandra Sekhar) to stymie any effective militant trade unionism among workers. Actually, Dhanbad was not an isolated case of how the ruling Congress Party used its political clout to try and manipulate the trade union movement. On the eve of Independence, the most powerful trade union federation in India was the All India Trade Union Congress, which had been set up and mainly led by the communists.
The Congress leadership was determined to break its hold on the workers and set up the INTUC for that purpose (Chibber 2003). However, I am surprised that he nowhere mentions the long struggles waged by communists such as A. K. Roy to organize miners, other wage workers and Adivasi peasants against the exploitation by the coalmafia infesting the region. That struggle contributed to the birth of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and eventually to the state of Jharkhand. As in many other cases, a radical struggle by the poor was converted into an ethnicist politics by opportunist leaders. Jharkhand has given birth to new levels of corruption in the usual story of incorporation of militants in a class-collaborationist political milieu. New struggles are being waged to change the nature of that milieu, and in the near future the prospects are very uncertain. But it is ahistorical to obliterate the print of past struggles. Besides, the kinds of bondage covered in the book, there is another kind of bondage that has developed as the consequences of the widespread female feticide have revealed them selves. With horribly low sex ratios in Northern India and especially in Haryana and the neighbourhood of Delhi, men are buying women from poorer states and using them both for sexual exploitation and as bonded agricultural labour. So the idea that economic development as such is a cure for bondage has to confront this horrible counter-example.
In Western European countries, for a number of reasons, including the availability of colonial markets and resources to sustain profitability and accumulation, and the enormous flows of migrants from Europe tothe Americas, Southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand, labour markets tightened, and in the concern for political stability and in response to workers’ struggles, their wages, social security and working conditions improved from the late nineteenth century. Nothing like this happened in India. Post-Independence employment growth in manufacturing was always slower than output growth. After economic liberalization, that growth has been stagnant or even negative. With only 7 per cent of the labour force engaged in the organized sector, which enjoys a certain degree of legal regulation, even though much of which is not implemented, the Indian workers are tossed on an ocean of insecure, underpaid and hazardous work. Contrary to the propaganda of neo-liberal economists, even in the organized sector, the degree of protection enjoyed by the workers is quite low.
There is a very large number of contract workers recruited through middlemen in every manufacturing industry (Sen and Dasgupta 2009) and the reforms proposed by the neo-liberal policy-makers would really implement a fully contract labour regime everywhere. Unfreedom is not characteristic only of labour designated as ‘bonded’. One of the largest sections of unfree labour is the pool of ‘illegal’ or ‘undocumented’ workers in the EU countries and the USA, and the immigrant workers in West Asia who often work under servile conditions. It is a virtue of the book edited by Breman, Guerin and Prakash that while presenting micro-level studies of bondage, it does not evade the structural issues of hard political economy.