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Book Review

Book Review: Laura T. Murphy's ‘Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt’ asks questions on the price of freedom

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
‘Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt’ by Laura T. Murphy (HarperCollins India, 2022)

‘Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt’ by Laura T. Murphy (HarperCollins India, 2022)

Rock quarry mining in progress in Azad Nagar.

Rock quarry mining in progress in Azad Nagar.

An interesting case study on the Kol people of Azad Nagar who bought their way out of slavery, this book talks of how revolutions can become fractured even after they have succeeded, and also raises questions on the place of violence in any revolutionary movement.

The 20th century saw global movements that aimed to end all forms of slavery, colonialism, exploitation and discrimination. However, universal freedom still remains elusive for over 40 million people globally, as illegal forms of bondage and trafficking have replaced the older institutionalised forms of legal enslavement.

In India alone, an estimated eight million people either live in debt bondage, forced marriages and forced beggary, or have been trafficked. Dalit and Adivasi men, women and children are more likely to be trapped in such conditions of modern slavery. Is rebellion against a socially and economically exploitative system possible in this context? If so, how do survivors of modern slavery frame their rebellions, and can they succeed in emancipating themselves using peaceful means?

These are some of the questions that Laura T. Murphy, an expert in the field of modern slavery based at Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom, explores in her book on a unique micro-village in India called Azad Nagar. Azad Nagar, according to Laura Murphy, “ is a small cluster of thatch-roofed homes situated on one of the most desolate tracts of land in the larger village of Sonbarsa, located in the poorest province in one of the poorest countries in the world.” At the turn of the 21st century, Azad Nagar’s Kol inhabitants bought their freedom by building a pool of money to buy leases to their rock quarries—for which they faced consequences from the landlords of the region. The Kol people were not deterred. Sharp community organising led to a ‘hulla bol’ (literally, “raise your voice”) campaign that attracted media attention. A second ‘hulla bol’ in June 2000 ended in collective violence, in which a landlord died.

Oddly, I could not find any news reports of this incident using digital archival searches of Indian newspapers of record dating back to 2000. However, the book does contain information sourced from that day’s police blotter that the Kols were charged with “ unlawful assembly, rioting, rioting with a deadly weapon, intimidation, insults that breach the peace, voluntarily causing harm, attempted murder, and murder”. These charges were dropped years later.

When she returns to Azad Nagar after many years, Laura Murphy is informed that the Kols had killed the landlord in a clash between the Kols and the Patel landlords during the ‘hulla bol’. Taken aback by the confession, Laura Murphy inquires further into the incident, which leaves her with a sense of disquiet and a cloud of questions. This is where the book begins veering into a reflection on how researchers and global NGOs tend to seek non-violent revolutions as inspirational cases of successful revolution. These cases are then romanticised and presented to the world.

Laura Murphy also questions a documentary, ‘The Silent Revolution: Sankalp and the Quarry Slaves’ (2006), made by the NGO Free the Slaves on Azad Nagar’s revolt, and how the narrative of the landlord’s death was considered incidental to the larger goal of a revolution. Murphy writes: “ In a way, the omission of the murder was a silent and benign conspiracy between many players, none of whom were entirely conscious of the very significant redaction.”

Laura Murphy is accurate in her argument that leaching violence out of the narratives of revolutions and rebellions is sanitisation. This sanitisation may serve a global purpose in as much as the “successful” cases of peaceful revolution can be presented as models of emancipation that can be implemented elsewhere. However, do such sanitised narratives constitute the real narratives of oppressed people or do they exist to make revolution more palatable to global and local bourgeois elites?

As we find out, Azad Nagar did not remain a haven for the emancipated Kol people. Their quarrying leases ran out and were not renewed. Soon, with the relentless onslaught of neoliberalism, private quarrying corporations came in with heavy machinery and left behind a hollowed landscape. The unemployed inhabitants were now also at risk from life-threatening diseases ushered in through industrial operations. The revolution had occurred, but could it be sustained?

‘Azad Nagar: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt’ is an interesting case study of how revolutions can become fractured even after they have succeeded. It also raises a discussion on the place of violence in any revolutionary movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s success in using non-violence as the organising principle of India’s anti-colonial struggle in the early 20th century cannot always be replicated with the same level of success, especially by people who are not heard by institutions. Institutions of the Indian state, which are supposed to automatically guarantee the rights and freedoms of the most marginalised people, often fail in this task because these institutions are sometimes weaponised against the very people they were built to protect. In such circumstances, does it become unethical for an oppressed community (like the Kols of Azad Nagar) to resort to violence to fight their oppressors?

Laura Murphy’s book seems to be arguing that violence in movements can often be a rational choice because, in conditions of extreme inequality like we witness in India, the state has a monopoly of violence but so do dominant castes and classes. Between social structures of dominance that exercise violence against Dalits and Adivasis, and the institutions of the state that have carefully constructed relationships with dominant proprietary classes and castes, marginalised groups seeking rights, freedoms and equality are left without any avenues for recompense and justice. So, is it justified to expect them to succeed in their battle for rights and freedoms without using violence?

The inhabitants of Azad Nagar did pay a very heavy price for their violence. They saw themselves being overlooked by government schemes and public works projects. This almost conscious exclusion was a form of punishment that continued even after a decade from the day of the violent incident. What needs to be reflected on is: do the words “equality” and “freedom” have substantial meaning for anyone if they remain elusive to the lived experiences of massive population groups by design? How can states in the 21st century implement these ideals in sustainable ways? Would states even want to implement these ideals when state power is itself beholden to dominant castes and classes who have thrived precisely because they have been able to oppress others?

Laura Murphy’s book does not presume to answer all these questions. However, it is an empathetic piece of writing that draws on her immense knowledge of modern slavery and the terrains of inequality that make sustainable equality and freedom difficult. A reader can easily note that the author cares about the people she is researching and does not reduce them to mere passive subjects or respondents in a research project. The Kol people’s voices, conversations, lives and discussions drive the book. This is its biggest strength.

Vasundhara Sirnate is a political scientist and journalist. She is also the creator of the India Violence Archive, a citizen’s data initiative aimed at recording collective public violence in India.
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