Born to be a Slave?

"You cannot begin to help the world unless you begin to call things by their right names." said Confucius.

In the Global hunger index released on October 16th 2008, India ranks 66th among the nations of the world! The major threat of hunger is in 33 countries, including India. Rising food prices have worsened the situation.  Even after 60 long years of glorious democracy, India has not been able to feed all its billion children. Why? Not being a political analyst does not hinder me from believing that alleviating hunger IS NOT the top priority of any government- remaining in power is!

But there are some selfless Indians committed to the cause of serving social justice. One among these stalwarts is Sri Harsh Mander who is a social worker and writer. He was the member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) till he resigned in 2002, after the Gujarat riots, in protest against the attitude of the administration in dealing with the communal riots there. He was honored with the M. A. Thomas National Human Rights Award from the Vigil India Movement in 2002. This award is conferred on individuals or organizations that have made significant contributions in the field of Human Rights.

His article, ‘In Bonded Servitude" brought tears to my eyes. I want to share with you the heart-rending tales of people in bonded labour, no better than modern day slaves in the Indian state of Orissa, recently in the news for relentless violence. This one tale will serve as an eye-opener as to why the poor Adivasis and Tribals in Orissa had to be killed and burnt to stop them from being educated and knowing their rights!

This is the story of Gopinath Dura, in the words of Harsh Mander.

‘Gopinath, bonded slave for more than 40 years to one master, does not want to be free. He is terrified by the thought of liberty. His master gives him food and a new Dhoti twice a year. "If I am freed, where will I go? I have nobody in the world", he says.  He was born in Malkangiri, a remote backwater area which is driven by hunger, debt bondage and sporadic Naxalite bloodletting.

Gopinath?s words are slow and halting, as he reconstructs the sparse and humble details of his life. He was barely five years old when he was given away in bondage to a rich landed moneylender, Ramchandra Kelap. His father had taken from Kelap a loan of two bullocks to cultivate his two acres of dry land. In return he gave away his son as a bonded slave. Forty years later, Gopinath remains yoked to Ramchandra Kelap?s son.

Gopinath?s memories of his family are blurred and painful, like flashes of a dimly recalled bad dream. He remembers only that his parents would always quarrel. One day he learnt that both had in a moment of crazed frenzy swallowed poison and died. His younger brother still cultivates the small tract of land that they owned and from time to time takes further loans from Kelap against Gopinath?s unending and unresisting servitude. For Gopinath, the only legacy of his barely remembered parents is a lifetime of bondage.
Gopinath, for as long as he can remember, stretches out to sleep at night at the corner of the courtyard of his master?s sprawling mansion. He works in his fields, tends his cattle and attends all day to domestic chores in his home. He is paid three bags of paddy every year after each harvest. Since he eats his meals in his master?s kitchen, the master takes back the paddy!

It is not that Gopinath has no dreams. He still hopes that one day he will be married, and own a home and a small patch of land. His master has long promised him that he will give him land, find a bride for him and get him married. Gopinath trusts that some day his master will redeem his promises to him. He bears him no rancour. "It was my father who gave me away to the master," he reasons.

Apart from two sets of clothes annually, Gopinath sometimes is given two or three rupees as a treat. He spends this to buy bidis, his only occasional indulgence.

GOPINATH is not alone in his situation of bonded servitude. For thousands among the 13 tribal communities that inhabit the wooded terrain of the remote district of Malkangiri, bondage is literally their only lifeline to survival. Their lands are almost entirely mortgaged or expropriated by moneylenders, and the denuded forests, guarded by a Forest Department which is still colonial in its ethos, are unable to sustain them any longer?.

Shades of "Uncle Tom?s Cabin", in India after centuries?

Bondage is outlawed in India, and in theory, an employer of bonded workers can be sent to jail for up to three years. But this modern slavery is a way of much-accepted tradition in Orissa because the government is concentrating all its energies on digging up the earth for riches rather than resurrecting the zombies called slaves!

A cash loan of sometimes no more than a few hundred or a thousand rupees, or a bag of seeds, or a pair of bullocks, or some sacks of paddy; these are all that it takes to secure a bonded slave for years, sometimes even generations. The bonded worker agrees to work for little or no wages, often nothing more than food and clothes. The wages for their work under bondage are usually credited against only the interest for the loan, and bondage continues often for many long years, sometimes even beyond a lifetime, until the principal is finally deemed to be repaid!

Now we know the reason for the intimidation with swords, daggers, and trishuls- It was to ensure that the free bonded labour supply does not dry up because some do-gooders are feeding and educating the ‘slaves? to know their rights!! 


Author: Vera Alvares- India