I cheated on the title of this. It was pilfered directly from a book I read recently: “Freedomville”, by Laura T. Murphy. I finished this slim treatise in a single setting, and immediately afterward I vowed to purchase a copy for everyone I know.
The premise of Freedomville is modern century slavery, one of the vastest and most pressing problems we face today. The data shows that slavery did not die out in the nineteenth century, as we like to think. Human trafficking is a booming industry worth $150 billion in profits as of 2020 (over half of Elon Musk’s net worth), with an estimated 25 million victims scattered across the world. South Asia is a major hub, with some statistics saying that a child goes missing every eight minutes in India. Many of these are women and girls who are trafficked into the sex trade. There are reams of books and films about this dark world: Sold by Patricia McCormick, Mardaani starring Rani Mukerji, The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara, The Parcel by Anosh Irani.
But there is another, less popularly-known form of slavery in the subcontinent, one which does not involve people being snatched from their homes and transported overseas. The practice of bonded labour, a form of hereditary slavery strongly tied to caste, has ancient roots in South Asia. For centuries, oppressed-caste people have been “owned” by privileged-caste landlords, and forced into work conditions which bear ghastly similarities to antebellum American chattel slavery. Women and children are regularly raped, workers are beaten and starved, and their autonomy as human beings is trampled underfoot by smugly cruel masters. This is the situation in which the inhabitants of Azad Nagar, a town established only a few decades ago, found themselves for generations. They belong to an Indigenous tribe in Uttar Pradesh, the Kol, a group which had long been enslaved and abused by local landlords. In interviews, Kol villagers told Laura Murphy shocking stories of starvation and misery, of women being raped and burnt alive by cruel masters.
But that changed at the turn of the twenty-first century, when a revolution occurred amongst the enslaved Kol villagers – a revolt which successfully resulted in their freedom. After they were attacked at a peaceful political meeting, the Kol people successfully petitioned for their freedom and were granted independent lands on which they built a schoolhouse, began efforts to combat mining-related environmental damage, and overall gained access to a future which for so long had seemed unreachable.
But, as Murphy unearthed, this narrative was clouded by myth. The political protest which paved the road to freedom for the Kol people was, in fact, a violent uprising – a fact which the villagers cheerfully shared with her. A local NGO, Free the Slaves, had provided them with political support, and they had come to the meeting armed with weapons. The most vicious of the landlords was killed in the resulting skirmish, sparking a series of negotiations between the landowning families and the Kol villagers. In short, violence worked where non-violence had previously failed. Yet the killing of the landlord was shoved under the rug by his family, the Kol people, and Free the Slaves. The narrative was sanitised of all hints of bloodshed on the part of the Kol people.
Nonviolent protest is often glorified as the only truly “moral” method of gaining freedom. Restoring to armed rebellion is, all too often, seen as stooping to the same level as the power being fought against. But, as Murphy points out, the violence of the oppressed is not the same as the violence of the oppressor. Would the Kol people have been able to negotiate their freedom if they hadn’t engaged in an uprising? Would they have been able to create a future for themselves and future generations? With a string of failed peaceful protests behind them, many of the villagers Murphy interviewed answered in the negative. They showed no regret for taking up arms – and, as Murphy eventually concludes, despite her knee-jerk reaction of shock and discomfort – why should they? “The cultural romanticisation of non-violence… puts oppressed classes on even more unequal footing,” Murphy writes, “for we cast as immoral what is sometimes a marginalised group’s last best chance for survival in the face of the… everyday violence that is tacitly accepted.” In other words, people like Murphy and me – people who were born with privilege – have been trained to expect both violence from oppressive forces, and submission from the oppressed. We shake our heads and say “How terrible!” when we see news reports of privileged castes committing atrocities against oppressed-caste people – yet in the rare cases when retaliation occurs, we find ourselves shifting in discomfort at the thought of “condoning” violence, however well-deserved. Now is the time to ask ourselves: if we are so dead-set against violence in any form, if we are truly pacifist, why then do we not wage a stronger war against the everyday violence of the oppressor? Why are we not louder and more active in our condemnation of caste atrocities – or, for that matter, any system of violent oppression across the world? Why do we continue to empower casteist and white supremacist bigots across our societies, yet clutch our pearls if marginalised groups rise up?
I would love to see a world where violence is never the answer. But in order to do that, we must acknowledge that our society is already filled with normalised violence – and we must do our best to de-normalise it.