Slave system, India


Slave system, India

Was there any slavery in Assam? The essence to validate and answer this million dollar question arose, when I have confronted with a few scholars in New Delhi. History says that there was (and is) not any slavery in Assam. The broad overview of the definition of the term ‘slavery’ depicts that ‘slavery is the practice of bondage: the state of being under the control of another person or work done under harsh conditions for little or no pay (wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn). The web- encyclopedia, Wikipedia also defines slavery as a condition of control over a person against their will, enforced by violence or other forms of coercion. Slavery almost always occurs for the purpose of securing the labour of the person concerned. A specific form, known as chattel slavery, implies the legal ownership of a person or persons.If, we will look back to the history of Assam, it can be found that the human population and society as an institution, is found since 200 BC. The population of Assam comprises the migrants from Burma, China (and indigenous people, who have been living there before this ‘mass migration’). They came into Assam after the mongoloid migration. They came from Punjab through Bihar and North Bengal. Thus Assam presents a fusion of Mongol-Aryan culture. The early history of Assam is believed to be of the Varman dynasty. The reign of this dynasty extended from 400 AD to 13th century. The Ahoms ventured into Assam in about 1228 AD. By 15th century the kingdoms of Ahom and Koch were established. This period witnessed a change in all walks of life in Assam. In the later part of the 18th century the Ahom Kingdom was weakened due to internal strife. The Burmese ran over the political authority in Assam thus invoking British intervention to subdue the Burmese. After a conflict between the Burmese and the English, peace was restored by the treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The British then set out to organize the administration, transport and communication. Besides the various changes, the construction of railways; introduction of tea plantation, discovery of coal and oil etc. and with a slow pace of ‘social incarnation’ - the modern society of Assam was developed.During this entire process of social solidification of Assamese society, no evidence and records are found on ‘classical or European type of slavery’ in Assam. Starting from the time of the earliest inhabitants of the region (the Middle Pleistocene period, 781,000 to 126,000 years ago) in the Rongram valley of Garo Hills to the Kamata kingdom, Ahom kingdom, Kachari kingdom, Chutiya kingdom, Bhuyan chieftains and the post-modern soicety, assesmse society playes a more or less enjoys an egaleterian role. D.D. Kosambi in his book The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India states: "It is impossible to find slavery in the classical European sense in India at any period" (page 23). This is true of Assam also. First of all, zamindars in the true sense were present only in Goalpara district. In lower Assam there were rich landowners but in upper Assam the availability of surplus land did not allow the growth of a landed gentry.While giving reference to the myth of the ‘Slavery System of Assam’ the renowned scholar Prof. Amalendu Guha has also lined in his bestseller book ‘Pnater Raj to Swarj: Freedom Stuggle & Electoral Politics in Assam 1826-1947 that ‘the Brahmin and Kayastha landowners of lower Assam hired labourers for a year. They were paid mostly in kind, in the form of a share of the crop. These laborers also owned some land which they usually tilled after they finished their employers' work, sometimes with the employers' bullocks as Guha has rightly pointed out. These laborers had enough liberty to decide if they wanted to continue working with the same employer or not after the contract ended. Their social status was caste-determined, which again in Assam was not so rigid as in other parts of India. This social condition was not conducive to the development of slavery’.The historical evidence of the 14 century also social engineers like Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1568) was rather created a thread of unity to Assam straddling two major kingdoms, building on past literary activities to provide the bedrock of Assamese culture, and creating a religion that gave shape to a set of new values and social synthesis without any caste and class barriers. A non-brahmin, Srimanta Sankaradeva started a system of initiation (saran lowa) into his religion. He caused a huge Social revolution by fighting against anti-social elements like casteism prevailing at that time. He initiated people of all castes and religions, including Muslims. In this social set up of Assam, even imagining about the slavery system will be an ignorance of social transformation of Assam.In fact, a sort of human exploitation was seen among the tea garden labourers during the 17-18 centuries conolial penetration in Assam. In this colonial economy, much of the profit was siphoned off and this was aided by the fact that most planters of that era were Europeans. To make the cultivation of tea as a plantation crop possible on attractive terms, a set of rules regarding the reclaiming of 'wastelands' for farming were framed by the colonial authorities in 1836 and were bringing labourers from Bihar, Chatisghar, Orissa and other parts of India . In a report written by C.P. Bruce (a pioneering racketeer who was instrumental in the formation of the tea industry in Assam) in 1839 stated:'...Until recently, we had only two Chinese black tea makers with twelve native assistants... what are these... but a drop in the ocean? We must go on at a much faster pace in the two great essentials — Tea manufacturers and labourers...'. The fact that 'native' assistants were already engaged in the art of black tea manufacturing should not be lost here. They were being taught the techniques, but the labour force that would make this possible had to be made available in great numbers and of course, they had to be under the control of the planters. The planters were well acquainted with the recalcitrant reactions of the local peasantry when efforts were being made to make community farming unviable. Besides, the peasantries were not willing to undertake the regimentation of a plantation economy given the kind of wages that were being offered.It is due to these reasons primarily that the need to recruit labour from outside the region was deemed necessary. The indentured system therefore has to be understood within a formal structure of labour control and development of different forms of bondage. Indentured servitude was created to grant widespread penal sanctions to the planters where the breach of contract by the worker resulted in criminal prosecution. The intended outcome of this system was the inability of the worker to withdraw his or her labour power. The legal provisions for such methods were aided by acts such as the Workman's Breach of Contract Act XII of 1859 and its amended act of 1865, where workers could be punished for striking work and where the minimum wage was also stipulated for the workers. A wage that was not adequate to even cover the cost of reproduction of labour power .The indentured system of recruitment was carried out under two systems. The first (phase) was called the Arkatti system, characterized by unlicensed recruiting from Chota Nagpur and other parts of (tribal) central and South Eastern parts of the subcontinent. The second (phase) was called the Sardari system and was characterized by recruitment of new labourers by those already employed in the tea estates. In a sense, the entire political, economic and ideological superstructure was being shaped to ensure that on the one hand control over the workers be tightened, while ensuring the creation and perpetuation of conflicts between the workers (imported from outside the region) and the peasantry, who were slowly being squeezed in economic terms .In sum, Assam enjoys a balanced social life without any slave ships crisscrossing the mighty Brahamaputra with their human cargo of misery and desperation. And, Little by little, since medieval time, social metamorphosis of Assam is developing an ‘egalitarian society, without any class and social hatred.References1. Baruah, S. L. (1993) Last Days of Ahom Monarchy, New Delhi2. Borpujari, H. K. (ed.) (1990), The Comprehensive History of Assam : from the Pre-historic Times to the Twelfth Century A.D., Guwahati3. Choudhury, P. C. (1966) The History of Civilisation of the People of Assam to the Twelfth Century A.D., Guwahati4. Gait, Edward A. (1906) A History of Assam, Calcutta5. Guha, Amalendu (1977) Planter-Raj to Swaraj, Delhi


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