ON THE MORNING of June 1, 2000, thousands of villagers from a historically marginalized indigenous group in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh gathered for a halla bol, a protest form that means “raise your voice.” The villagers of Sonbarsa were protesting against the upper caste group to whom they had been bonded by debt. “Freedom of movement was something I didn’t know existed,” one said. India has nearly eight million people enslaved, and more than 55 percent of the population is vulnerable to slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index. Across the world, 40 million people are similarly oppressed.
The halla bol ended badly: a member of the upper caste group, known as the Patels, arrived to strong-arm the villagers, called Kols, leading to a melee in which a Patel labor contractor was killed. Eight Kol men were arrested. Rather than weakening their resolve, the arrests seemed to strengthen their determination to rid themselves of their tormentors.
Several months later, and against all the odds, the Kols did exactly that: they won control over the quarry where they had been forced to work. On a barren strip of land so small that it can’t be found on a map, they founded a micro-village called Azad Nagar — “Free Town.” In the international media, Free Town was glorified as the outcome of a “silent revolution” — a term that is synonymous with nonviolence — writes Laura T. Murphy in Freedomville: The Story of a 21st-Century Slave Revolt, but as her often nuanced portrayal of these events shows, the truth was somewhat murkier.
Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University, was captivated by the story of the Kols, whose courage can’t be overstated. Between 2001 and 2014, India’s indigenous communities reported tens of thousands of cases of violent attacks, rape, and murder, likely to be a fraction of the real numbers. This particular group of Kols was inspired by an activist named Kanchuki, who told them that they were “beautiful pigeons.” He compared the Patels to “bird hunters” with trapping nets but who could be defeated through resistance.
Calling Azad Nagar “Freedomville” perhaps reflects the urge to make a very Indian story more readable to a Western audience. Murphy, for example, draws comparisons with slavery in the United States, which may be useful to some but is unnecessary, especially because her reporting stands on its own. While she taught the story to her students, it wasn’t until 2014, 14 years after the halla bol, that she visited the scene of the revolt. “I felt like I had a pretty good handle on its history. […] I had no idea how much I still had to learn,” Murphy writes. When she came face to face with the people she’d been teaching about, she “practically cheered.” Murphy is an attentive and respectful listener, and her conversations with the villagers brim with life.
These joyous moments are disrupted by a woman, a wizened one, perhaps 70 years old, who chuckled spitefully as she conveyed to Murphy that the death of the contractor back in 2000 was far from accidental. “I could discern that she was repeating a single word again and again,” writes Murphy. “The word sounded to me like ‘marengay.’ Each time she said the word, she chopped one hand into another, mimicking an axe striking wood.”
The contractor, Murphy discovers to her horror, was in fact murdered by the Kols with their work tools; the wooden poles, stone hammers, and metal rods that were the “very instruments of their enslavement.”
To Murphy, whose celebration of the Kols’ freedom was centered on their idea of a nonviolent protest, the news is shocking. When the Kols quickly shift to a practiced recitation of how much they appreciate their freedom, Murphy believes that they “harbor no regrets, no remorse. In fact, they seemed to be expressing a kind of collective pride.” Far from being a silent revolution, the birth of Azad Nagar was seeded in blood. The author concludes that “it was not one deliberate obfuscation that reduced Kol violence to the passive voice. Instead it was a range of motivations. […] Politically, diplomatically, financially, legally, it didn’t make sense to stress the Kols’ deliberate, unified insurrection.”
Given the extent of Murphy’s scholarly knowledge of slavery, her reaction is difficult to understand. She is so focused on her big reveal — this act of deliberate violence — that she invests in an overlong buildup that the denouement can’t justify: it’s hardly surprising that people who have been historically subjected to violence should turn violent themselves. She says as much later:
When we remove violence as a legitimate response to oppression, we condone the notion that the state has the only legitimate right to use force, and we exonerate those non-state elite actors who disregard that notion themselves and enact violence with impunity nonetheless.
Readers will be more interested to know how the Kols fared as free people. Despite owning their proverbial “forty acres,” writes Murphy, they are cut off from all the entrapments of freedom. They are still under the thumb of a caste and class system that relegates them to the lowest rung. While migration allows them to improve their circumstances somewhat — leaving the village allows people to assume new identities, which in turn opens professional and personal opportunities — the change is largely material. Over time, Murphy sees the village huts transform into brick houses with bicycles leaning against the walls.
Then, in 2014, the Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi came to power, presiding over an era marked by anti-minority violence. This is a change that the Kols, like many Indians, couldn’t anticipate and didn’t prepare for. “Trinkets and hate. That is what we are offered in India today,” a retired High Court judge reflects. These seismic changes undermine India’s democracy, but they also undermine the Kols’ already tenuous grasp of freedom. It becomes clear that their dreams are still a far distance from being realized.