What happens when an Indian village tries to escape from 'bondage'

The commotion caused in the village by the stranger's arrival, compounded of a mixture of fear and hope, soon gave way to a general feeling of unease. He looked like an official, and certainly bahaved like one, blustering and strutting from house to house, waving his list of farmers and of laborers they had bonded. Slavery, heproclaimed for all to hear, had been abolished in the land long ago. How was it, he asked, that there was bonded labor still in the village?

The practice continues because some farmers find it the best way -- the only way -- to raise cash. They "bond" one of their family to a master for a certain sum of cash; when the loan is repaid, the family member is "redeemed," like a watch retrieved from a pawnshop.

The unease spread first among the landless laborers, whom he berated for failing to take advantage of the law that freed them. He sounded almost like the anti-landlord agitator who had come to harangue them a little while back. The agitator had urged them to stand up and act like men and at the same time reviled them as impotent defeatists. They had soon sent him packing.

But this visitor had an official's pressed trousers, white shirt, and city haircut. And the list he waved so ostentatiously had the name of every bonded laborer in the village.

The landlords had their own suspicions. They were not overawed by the fiery language he was using in the Harijan settlement, a little cluster of huts set apart for the untouchables who supplied most of the village's bonded laborers.

That was as it should be -- he had his official role to play.

What bothered them was that he refused their hospitality.

The first step was usually to offer a visiting official tender coconut -- pick the fruit as he waited in the shade, and let him have his fill of the most refreshing drink known to man.

"I didn't come here for tender coconut," the newcomer railed at them. Their astonishment when he refused to be bought off, and instead pilloried them as slave drivers, knew no bounds. He read out to them the penalties prescribed for flouting the law, imprisonment as well as fines, and then left.

The rich farmers held a council of war and decided not to fight. A trial of strength could end badly for them. They virtuually pushed all the bonded laborers out of their houses.

The villagers who told me the story didn't know the half of it. I learned the rest from a social worker in the nearby town. The agitator who had been sent away by the villagers with a flea in his ear had been so incensed at his own failure that he arranged another visit to the village by a friend who masqueraded as an official. The benefits of the "government inspector's" visit did not last. After a few months, when no arrests followed, the landlords demanded the return of the bonded laborers, and they all meekly trooped back.

But some of the untouchables had learned the power of the law. They sent a petition asking the government to free the re-bonded laborers. Their request found its way to the desk of an incorruptible official (they do exist) who had a proper survey made, arrested one of the farmers for flouting the law, presented the laborers with "freedom certificates," and released them from bondage.

After a few weeks the landlord was freed from arrest, came back, and organized the farmers' revenge. In the families supplying bonded labor, usually only one man would be bonded. The rest of the family often eked out a living as casual laborers, depending on the farmers to call them to work, not knowing from day to day whether they would be wanted.

After the arrested landlord returned, the families of the newly freed laborers were no longer called to work by any of the farmers. Many went hungry. One by one the bonded laborers drifted back to their masters.

The rebels refused to give up. They sent a list of the rebonded laborers to the Tahsildar, the government official in town, and he ordered the clerk of the village council to hold an inquiry. The clerk summoned the bonded laborers. But the landlords got at them first. At the inquiry, all the laborers said that they were free, not bonded, and the clerk accepted their testimony without question. The landlords had got at him, too. No action followed. The men's spirit was broken.

Few villages would have gone this far. But here and there a new spirit of rebellion is stirring against the blind forces of oppression and exploitation. "Blind forces?" Some of the bonded men are beginning to ask "Why?" and "How long?"

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