“Slavery still exists…” | Read an Excerpt from “Azad Nagar” — HarperCollins Publishers India

In a Rashomon-like retelling — a complex, constantly changing narrative of a murder that captures better than any sanitized account just why it is that slavery continues to exist in the 21st century, Laura T. Murphy narrates a gritty and inspiring real-life account in Azad Nagar. Azad Nagar’s enormous struggle to gain and maintain liberty shows why it is unrealistic to expect radical change without violent protest — and how a global construction boom is deepening and broadening the alienation of impoverished people around the world.

Read an excerpt from the book:

In a tiny rural village about an hour outside of Varanasi, a woman operates what is essentially the Indian equivalent to a station on the underground railroad, that collection of unmarked safe havens that enabled enslaved people to make their way to freedom in the United States in the nineteenth century. “I won’t tell you where, but I hide runaways here,” the diminutive great-grandmother said.

Weary men who traveled across the state of Uttar Pradesh to escape slavery would seek shelter here. Some of the men had been working in brick kilns, where they found themselves indebted to their employers. As their debts inexplicably grew, their employers expected them to work without being paid more than a bit of grain to fuel their next day’s labor, and many expected their children to do the same, sometimes even for generations. Others fled across several provinces to arrive here. Many migrant workers had traveled to big cities for better opportunities, but found forced, unpaid labor in construction or other industries instead. When they tried to quit their jobs, their employers responded with violence or threats. The police often defended the employers.

On the rare occasions that they did run, if they found their way to this village, the woman kept them hidden until she could guide them to the next hideout. A few nonprofit organizers knew she ran a safehouse, and they quietly assisted her. When the police suspected she might be hiding someone, they lurked around the village and harassed her. But she was unshaken. She had been a bonded laborer herself, and she once believed that she would never be able to escape the clutches of the family that had enslaved her own for generations.

People often forget how anonymous the African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman kept herself in order to act as an effective “conductor” of the underground railroad. Today, Tubman is the subject of biographies, children’s books, songs, and a whole abolitionist imaginary. However, if her contemporaries had known too much about her-her name, where she lived, where she worked, who she ferried, what routes she traversed with fugitives in tow-she would have lost her ability to help people escape to freedom. Yet she was only one of possibly hundreds who conspired across thousands of miles to provide routes to freedom for enslaved people in the American South, all of whose identities were studiously well-kept secrets. This is one of the great achievements and mysteries of the underground railroad. So, when I heard this woman’s story, which she shared to enlist the help of the community organizers with whom I was traveling, I quickly deleted her name from my notes. To ensure her ability to continue her work, her story must remain only whispers.

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Many people have only recently come to realize that slavery still exists. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 40 million people enslaved globally. Slavery today comes in many different guises. Haratin people enslaved in Mauritania endure a kind of chattel slavery that eerily resembles the inherited, transgenerational ownership of human lives and labor that characterized plantation slavery in the United States. But most slavery today is less a matter of ownership than it is of inescapable and unpaid forced labor, as it has been in many of its iterations throughout history. Southeast Asian migrants are kidnapped and held captive on fishing boats for years at a time, and often their only escape is death at sea. Chronically unemployed women in Albania are recruited to be nannies in the households of rich Europeans but are surreptitiously trafficked against their will in the sex industry. Young boys and girls in Congo are initiated into the violence of civil war when they are illegally conscripted into armed militias. Even in my hometown of New Orleans, immigrant laborers were held captive and forced to work without pay in the reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Katrina. In the last two years, Uyghurs and Kazakhs have been increasingly compelled to make sports apparel and other cheap textiles and electronics bound for Western markets in extrajudicial internment camps in China in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. What defines these varied experiences as slavery is the largely inescapable forced labor that all of these people endure.

I have spent the past 15 years in India, Nigeria, Ghana, the United States, and the United Kingdom, collecting stories similar to the ones I recount here, as told by the people who have lived through slavery and fought for their freedom. The people I have met around the world describe the slave revolts and underground railroads of the twenty-first century-the real means by which people are insisting on their freedom and liberating one another from bondage using informal, sometimes necessarily secretive, grassroots, survivor-led strategies that have been crucial to every anti-slavery movement that has ever existed. These strategies challenge the very foundations of our deeply unequal economies and societies.

In almost every story of a successful escape or revolt, formerly enslaved people reveal that sustaining freedom is a challenge. An economy or industry that relies on slave labor is never quick to adopt fair wages. Slaveholders are not wont to regard formerly enslaved people as their equals. Anti-slavery activists are threatened and beaten and sometimes even killed for their efforts to change the systems that maintain slavery. And these self-emancipated people constantly live with the unshakable feeling that their own true freedom is inextricably bound to the emancipation of those still held in slavery.

***

This book tells the story of how one small group of impoverished, malnourished, and transgenerationally enslaved men and women fought to liberate themselves from their slaveholders, wrest control of the rock quarry in which they worked, found their own town called Azad Nagar, and become masters of their own fates. It also tells the story of the precarity of that hard-won freedom, as they fought to sustain their liberty without the tools necessary to run their own businesses, develop their town, or improve the opportunities available to their children. But not coincidentally or insignificantly, whispers and deflection suggested for years that there was something troubling about Azad Nagar’s success. Was it too good to be true? It was not until townspeople had reached yet another breaking point that they were ready to tell the whole story of their struggle for freedom-including the murderous violence hitherto unmentioned in the global celebrations of their revolution-as well as the subsequent dissolution of it.

The stories of the Azad Nagar Revolt reveal how it is that slavery continues to exist in the twenty-first century, how the slow and possibly interminable dissolution of the caste system has led to a veritable class war in India, and how the global construction boom has contributed to the continued alienation of impoverished people around the world. The struggle for Azad Nagar tells us much about the radical social change necessary for sustainable freedom to exist for enslaved people and for us all-and about whether or not our hope for that complete revolution is realistic.

Originally published at https://harpercollins.co.in on April 12, 2022.

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