In a tiny speck of a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, a community of rock quarry miners have given their cluster of thatched roofed houses the name Azad Nagar. Freedomville.
The miners named their village in 2000, only a few months after they staged a slave revolt that overthrew the profit-driven landowners who had held their families in slavery in rock quarries for generations. If you search for Azad Nagar on a map, you won’t find it. To everyone else, it’s called Sonbarsa. Located in the poorest province in one of the poorest countries in the world, Sonbarsa is a barren, rocky, plot of land in the middle of one of the most densely populated states in the world.
The rock quarry miners of Sonbarsa are of the Kol caste, which the Indian government calls a “scheduled tribe” but is better understood as the people understand themselves, as "adivasis" or the indigenous people of India. Before the Kol community in Sonbarsa rose up and overthrew the landlords who had held them in debt bondage for generations, most of the people in the village tended to toil in rock quarries all their lives, producing the gravel and cement dust that form the foundation of roads all across India. They were never allowed to go to school, they ate only one meal a day, and they never received any pay for their work. They were not allowed to change jobs, and if they protested their treatment, the response was brutal violence. Several times, overseers burned down the houses of resistant workers. Other times, they raped the women in the village in retaliation for perceived insubordination.
Until the last years of the 1990s, when violence from the landlords reached a fever pitch, the people of Sonbarsa never dreamed that they might one day be free. As one of the rebellion’s leaders, Ramphal, put it, “Freedom of movement was something I didn’t know existed. I was not aware of it. And it was not just me. My mother, my father, my grandparents had to live through this generation after generation. It was in my psyche.” That changed when the people of Sonbarsa learned that villagers nearby had proposed something revolutionary – that adivasi people could own their own rock quarries, their own labor – and did just that with the help of a small grassroots organization that loaned them the money in collaboration with the then newly formed international NGO Free the Slaves.
News of their neighbors’ freedom traveled across the region on the informal circuits of gossip and rumor, and the people of Sonbarsa decided they would approach their overseers with their plans to lease their own mines. Their pleas were ignored and aroused even more violence from the landlords. But the miners continued to press their demands. They held a rally to organize. In one sudden and extraordinary moment, they fought with the landlords, for which they were put in prison, but they managed to convince the local government that now was the time to give them their freedom.
Tireless, the miners continued to work with a local non-profit, borrowed money and paid for a lease of their own, and moved to a spit of land that had been designated wasteland to rebuild their lives. By 2006, they had built a one-room school for their children, begun trading their own gravel, and planted trees to restore the environment destroyed by mining. They were quickly held up as a model for grassroots anti-slavery activism, and their route to freedom was replicated across the region.
No one in the human rights industry mentioned that Ramphal and his neighbors were responsible for the murder of one of the landlords.
Photo by Laura T. Murphy
When I went back to interview the community in 2014, I met Ramphal and the others, and the story they told of the Freedomville Revolt was quite different from the one I'd been hearing for years. The people of Freedomville had the same strong, unified voice of unanimous resistance. But it quickly became clear that their route to freedom was paved with more violence than anyone had ever let on, and their life after emancipation had not been easy either. One very old woman narrated the events of the fateful encounter between the miners and the landowners to me. She told of the build-up of tensions and the plan for a massive meeting with the landlords. Her story reached a crescendo when she declared, “And then we hacked and we hacked and we hacked them,” as she brought her hand down like a hatchet. My translator hesitated in conveying her message to me. I had to ask several times before she would tell me what the old woman had said. But all of the villagers gathered around me that day insisted that the old lady was correct – that when the landowners began to pummel the miners during their meeting, the miners returned the abuse. They used their rock breaking hammers, the very ones given to them by the landowners, to kill one of them and injure several others.
The story the international activist community told sometimes recognized that in the process of the struggle, one of the landowners was killed. But the idea was always couched in the passive voice, as if it had merely been an accident. The film about them was titled The Silent Revolution to emphasize how a non-violent struggle can lead to freedom and happiness.
When the complete story of the Freedomville Revolt is laid bare, however, it becomes clear that it has more in common with the famous violent slave revolts of the 19th nineteenth century, such as the Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1803 or Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1831, than anyone was ever willing to admit. The history of violent self-emancipation from slavery remains shrouded in silence and myth.
As was the case in the nineteenth century, workers toil in rural areas scattered throughout the world without pay under threat of constant violence. They are told—and many believe—that they are inescapably compelled to remain in servitude to land and factory owners because they are inferior by nature, and that inferiority is often cemented with mounting debts that they cannot ever pay off. The products of their labor support global industrial growth, while the markets that support that growth separate the workers from the profiteers more and more each year.
Ramphal, photo by Laura T. Murphy
Localized, underground, grassroots movements for freedom emerge in the interstices of this global economy, much as they did in antebellum America. Information about human rights is whispered from community to community. Gossip about collectives of enslaved people who freed themselves from their overseers spreads cautiously but powerfully, encouraging people to defy the demands of their slaveholders in everyday acts of resistance as well as in violent revolts like the one in Freedomville. As landowners witness institutionalized caste systems erode, they fear their privilege, power, and profit will dissolve with it.
As was the case in Haiti and Virginia, every time revolution is on the horizon, land and factory owners crack down on workers with increased violence, which in turn spurs more vivid dreams of freedom. When the violence exceeds what workers can stand or when they can no longer abide by their children being subservient to the morally bankrupt landowners, they plot their revolutions. Sometimes those revolutionaries, like L’Ouverture and Turner before them, use violence to gain their freedom. Some of them succeed in liberating themselves and others, while others do not, but all of them inspire more people to freedom. Unfortunately, too often, the cycle of violence against workers increases regardless of the other outcomes of resistance.
Many freedom struggles are successful, and enslaved workers do manage to overthrow the people who have held them in bondage, sometimes for generations. I have witnessed many such successes studying contemporary forms of forced labor. I have also seen cases, such as the one in Freedomville, where maintaining slavery becomes too costly for the slaveholders, whether that be because of corporate intrusions, non-profit interference, or government enforcement. Regardless of the forms emancipation takes, however, the barriers to social mobility after emancipation suggest an ironic reinforcement of unfreedom that is caused by the capitalist drive to ever-cheaper prices. Capitalism is itself a barrier to sustainable freedom for people like those in Freedomville. Grassroots freedom struggles, compelling as they may be, are often haunted by the unsustainability of freedom in the current economy. Workers find themselves trapped in a cycle of unfreedom that is nearly inescapable.
Forms of unfreedom and, indeed, even slavery continue to exist in India and in every other country in the world because capitalism supports caste systems, the global construction boom has contributed to the continued downward spiral of wages for workers around the world, and the international anti-slavery industry is often unwilling or unable to address the root causes of slavery, which is the radical inequality that plagues our planet. Thus, a tiny place like Freedomville can tell us much about the perhaps impossible struggle to sustain freedom in a global economy where profit is of more concern than human dignity and forced labor is more reliable than liberty.
This book is the story of a small group of enslaved villagers in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, who founded their own town of Azad Nagar—Freedomville—after staging a rebellion against their slaveholders. International organizations championed this as a nonviolent “silent revolution” that inspired other villagers to fight for their own freedom. But Laura T. Murphy, a leading scholar of contemporary global slavery, who spent years researching and teaching about Freedomville, found that whispers and deflections suggested that there was something troubling about Azad Nagar’s success.
Laura T. Murphy is the author of Freedomville: The Story of a 21st Century Slave Revolt, published by Columbia Global Reports. She is Professor of Human Rights and Contemporary Slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.
I refer here to the human tendency to lift ourselves up by comparing ourselves to others in a way that demeans others, sometimes even to the point of regarding them almost as “inhuman,” deserving no respect or consideratio