The history of slavery in India is complicated by the presence of factors which relate to the definition, ideological and religious perceptions, difficulties in obtaining and interpreting written sources, and perceptions of political impact of interpretations of written sources. If current scholarly interpretations of various literary sources are accepted, then slavery as forced appropriation of labour, skill or sexual gratification appears to have existed in various forms from the pre-500 BCE period. Some scholars however refer to interpretations that associates escalation or intensification or extension of slavery with rulers, elite, military commanders, political regimes professing Islam (beginning 7th century), as ideologically motivated. Similar charges of ideological motivations on the part of historians who find associations of slavery with non-Islamic regimes, are absent, and hence there is a greater convergence of opinions in favour of the existence and extent of various forms of slavery in the Indian subcontinent prior to the advent of Islam.
It has to be kept in mind that historians do not apply the same yardstick to measure the degree, extent, and reality of slavery to all periods of Indian history, and in the absence of concrete archaeological supporting evidence for such social practices, all claims about slavery in the subcontinent, both including those that are apparently related to caste and those that are related to specific ideologies or religions such as Islam, are ultimately dependent on interpretations of textual claims. Many modern scholars appear to treat most claims of slavery by Persian or Arabic chroniclers as propaganda or exaggeration for military and political glorification, whereas similar arguments are not applied to the textual claims of the epics, the Smriti, or other pre-Islamic Indian texts (Levi, admits the possibility of exaggeration on the part of Muslim chroniclers but accepts Basham's claims based on Mahabharata without such doubts.) Significantly, Irfan Habib notes in his study of the agrarian system of Mughal India, that in many parts of the country, caste barriers were fluid, and the working classes formed a type of vast labour pool, from which specializations were formed as and when needed without consideration of caste.
In the early period (500BCE-500 CE), where we first have a significant amount of written records, mainly in the form of literature and legal or policy texts, we find features of slavery as practised to have significant differences from contemporary slave-economies such as those of Greece or Rome—such as the absence of records of regular slave markets, or the presence of legal strictures restricting abuse and exploitation of slaves.
The primary relevant textual source attributed to this period is the Arthasastra whose author is given to be Kautilya (or Viṣṇugupta). If the main body of the text was indeed finalized within the early period of the Maurya Empire (4th century BCE), Arthasastra provides some important clues on the extent and nature of slavery during this period. Apart from scattered references, the main relevant portion is chapter 13, book III, which discusses slavery under the significant title "rules regarding slaves and labourers". The sale or mortgage of the life of an Arya is only conditionally permitted under legal court orders or to recover legal costs or combat financial hardships of the family or clan, by kinsmen only of the sold. The definition of "Arya" in this context is clearly stated to include all castes, (and even a Shudra if he is born Arya). However such sale by kinsmen are still to be penalized by fines. If the sellers are not kinsmen, then such sellers are liable to face not only fines but also capital punishment. Arthasastra categorically states that Arya cannot be enslaved, although it allows enslavement of offspring by the Mleccha, which at this period probably includes anyone from the western hinterland of the Indian subcontinent.
The slave appears to have retained degrees of control over money, property, right to compensation or wage for labour, and had the right of redemption, and deceiving or depriving a slave of these rights is also a punishable offence. Slavery also appears to have been of limited duration or of temporary status, as only specific conditions are given for slavery for life. Employing a slave to carry the dead, or to sweep human waste, remnant of meal, stripping or keeping in nudity, hurting or abusing, violating the chastity (of a female slave), causes the forfeiture of the value paid for the slave (although it is not clear whether this earns the slave his or her freedom). In the same paragraph, however, it is stated that the violations of the chastity of nurses, female cooks, or female servants of the class of joint cultivators or of any other category shall at once earn them their liberty. A master’s connections with a nurse or pledged female slave against her will is a punishable offence, (for a stranger the degree of offence is higher), and rape is specifically mentioned as particularly offensive with high penalties as well as forfeiture of sale price. In fact if a child is born to the female slave as a result of sexual union with the master, then the mother and child have to be freed immediately.
For an Arya, slavery appears to have been limited to the person who has sold himself, and not automatically to his family or offspring, as the status of the offspring as Arya is categorically emphasized. A slave is also guaranteed to not only whatever he has earned without prejudice to his master’s work, but also any inheritance he has received from his father.
As for prisoners of war, enslavement does not appear to have been automatic, as it is stated that an Arya who is captured in war can only be ransomed for an amount proportionate to the damage or dangerous work done by the captive at the time of his capture (or half the amount).
Medhatithi observes that 'the captive of war' mentioned by the Manu Smriti does not refer to the Ksatriya made captive in war but to the slave who after the defeat of his owner is brought over and enslaved by the captor. Sometimes feudal invasions resulted in the abduction or enslavement of the people in the invaded territories.
The Lekhapaddhati mentions girls to have been brought from raids on other countries and sold into slavery. The fact that out of the four documents on slavery the Lekhapaddhati assigns two to this type indicates the frequency of such a practice. In one document a certain Rana sri Pratapasimha is said to have brought the girl in question from an attack made on a foreign state. In the second document a certain Rajaputra is said to have captured the girl when fighting in the service of Mahamandalesvara Ranaka sri Viradhavaladeva in his attack on Maharastra, when many people were sold into slavery. The document does not record proper names of the buyers and sellers but uses the expression 'so and so' implying that several general drafts were made so that the names of the buyers and sellers could be entered when the sale was finalised.
General economic condition of the people deteriorated and was one of the factors contributing towards slavery. Medhatithi comments on the practice of the debtor being made to repay the debt by selling himself, and observes that it is an instance of local and king-made laws which are contrary to the Smrtis and therefore are not to be obeyed. During famines, which are frequent during this period, offering oneself up for slavery was an acceptable means of survival. Natural calamities, feudal plundering and frequent Turko-Afghan and Arab raids also impoverished the people. The Lekhapaddhati recognised these factors in a document which describes how as a result of a Muslim invasion and plunder, a famine visited a village leading to its abandonment. A village girl unable to support herself from begging had to request people to accept her as a slave. Here, personal names of the slave and the purchaser are omitted indicating that such transactions were quite common.
Slavery begins to appear in explicit and extensive reference in surviving historical records following the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century. Many chroniclers claim that his campaign of 1024 in which he sacked Ajmer, Nehrwala, Kathiawar, and Somnath was particularly successful in garnering more than 100,000 Hindu slaves for the Muslim general.
The gradual arrival and entrenchment of various Turko-Afghan and Arabic leaders professing Islam took place over nearly 800 years, from the 7th century to the 15th century. During this period, existing sects of Islam (Shias, Sunnis, Ismailis) fought with each other as well as with pre-existing Indian regimes for political and military control of North India. This resulted not only in non-Muslims but also the newly converted Indians, (if considered a heretic Muslim faction) being targets for slaughter and enslavement. The penetration of Islam into the south and far east of the subcontinent appears to be rather slow compared to the rapid collapse of Central Asia, Near East, North Africa and Spain before advancing Muslim forces (roughly half a century compared to 800 years from the first Arab raids in Sindh, 711 to the Battle of Talikota, 1565). This indicates stiff resistance to the progress of Islam with the majority of the population remaining unconverted, and beyond enslavement. The central regions were not conquered until late Sultanate period, and the final penetration into the Deccan Plateau had to wait till the 16th century. Muslim rulers had to compromise with local non-Muslim chiefs, and in each period of Turko-Afghan and Mughal rule, we find significant collaboration between non-Muslim and Muslim elite, especially in regions far away from the centres of Muslim military power.
The minority status of Muslim rulers perhaps led to periodic attempts at coercive measures as a punitive and preemptive terror tactic to keep the majority subject communities under control, with the Delhi Sultanate and its replacement under Babur trying to effectively turn areas under their close proximity and direct military control in India into Dar-ul-Islam (where Islamic law and custom was common). Slavery was an acceptable part of this custom and the enslavement of non-Muslims or kaffirs (non-believers) was specifically mentioned and encouraged numerous times in the core Islamic texts including the Quran, the four principal Hadiths, and supported also by the Sunnah of Muhammad, whose activities as regards enslavement of opponents, dissidents, and the conquered is documented by works such as Sirah Rasul Allah (first known extant biography of Muhammad). The core texts also contain passages that support claims for automatic annulment of marriages of captive women, or their immediate redistribution as "righthand possessions" among the winning army, or sexual enjoyment of these captives in the presence of their husbands or family. In this sense, Islam could be cited by the ruling elite and their retainers itself as justification and recommendations for enslavement of non-Muslims under their military subjugation. Slave markets existed in most major towns in India, especially those where Muslims formed a large minority or majority such as Delhi.
One writer notes that "Mohammad Ghori needed a large number of slaves for his campaigns in India and for administration in and outside India. During his time, Lahore and Delhi rose to be prime centres of slave trade and the Sultan used to purchase slaves in bulk.
Qutb Minar remains one important example of the use of slave labor to erect monuments under Muslim rule. It is located in a small village called Mehrauli in South Delhi. It was built by Qutb-ud-din Aybak of the Slave Dynasty, who took possession of Delhi in 1206. It is one of the first monuments built by a Muslim ruler in India.
Probably the greatest factors contributing to the increased supply of Indian slaves for export to markets in Central Asia in this period were the military conquests and tax revenue policies of the Muslim rulers in the subcontinent. The early Arab invaders of Sindh in the 700's, the armies of the Umayyad commander Muhammad bin Qasim, are reported to have enslaved tens of thousands of Indian prisoners, including both soldiers and civilians. According to the Persian historian Firishta, after the Ghaznavid capture of Thanesar (c. 1014), "the army of Islam brought to Ghazna about 200,000 captives, and much wealth, so that the capital appeared like an Indian city, no soldier of the camp being without wealth, or without many slaves", and that, subsequently Sultan Ibrahim’s raid into the Multan area of northwestern India yielded 100,000 captives.
Levi notes that these figures cannot be entirely dismissed as exaggerations since they appear to be supported by the reports of contemporary observers. In the early 11th century Tarikh al-Yamini, the Arab historian Al-Utbi recorded that in 1001 the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni conquered Peshawar and Waihand, "in the midst of the land of Hindustan", and captured some 100,000 youths. Later, following his twelfth expedition into India in 1018-19, Mahmud is reported to have returned to with such a large number of slaves that their value was reduced to only two to ten dirhams each. This unusually low price made, according to Al-Utbi, "merchants came from distant cities to purchase them, so that the countries of (Central Asia), Iraq and Khurasan were swelled with them, and the fair and the dark, the rich and the poor, mingled in one common slavery". Elliot and Dowson refers to "five hundred thousand slaves, beautiful men and women". Later, during the Delhi Sultanate period (1206–1555), references to the abundant availability of low-priced Indian slaves abound. Levi attributes this primarily to the vast human resources of India, compared to its neighbours to the north and west (Mughal Indian population being approximately 12 to 20 times that of Turan and Iran at the end of 16th century). Many of these Indian slaves were reserved for use in the subcontinent, but their availability in substantial numbers greatly contributed to their affordability, which likewise increased their demand in international markets.
Alongside Buddhist Oirats, Christian Russians, non-Sunni Afghans, and the predominantly Shia Iranians, Hindu slaves were an important component of the highly active slave markets of medieval and early modern Central Asia. The all pervasive nature of slavery in this period in Central Asia is shown by the 17th century records of one Juybari Sheikh, a Naqshbandi Sufi leader, (the Sufis appear to have a representation in standard modern historical texts in India, as a very liberal, humane, tolerant and integrative interpretation of Islam) owning over 500 slaves, forty of whom were specialists in pottery production while the others were engaged in agricultural work. High demand for skilled slaves, and India's larger and more advanced textile industry and agricultural production, architecture, demonstrated to its neighbours that skilled labour was abundant in the subcontinent leading to enslavement and export of large number of skilled labour, following successful invasions. After sacking Delhi, Timur enslaved several thousand skilled artisans, presenting many of these slaves to his subordinate elite, although reserving the masons for use in the construction of the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand. Young female slaves fetched higher market price than skilled construction slaves, sometimes by 150%. Because of their identification in Muslim societies as kafirs, "non-believers", Hindus were especially in demand in the early modern Central Asian slave markets, with Indian Hindu slaves specially mentioned in waqafnamas, and archives and even being owned by Turkic pastoral groups.
The Mughals started their slave trade by preying on fellow Muslims in their bid for expansion into India through the Afghan provinces in North-West India. An Afghan chieftain belonging to the Kakar clan pleaded to Sultan Taj Khan Karrani: “At our backs are Mughal armies that capture and enslave members of the Afghan race. You also are an Afghan. Therefore it is necessary that we come under your protection.”
Most extensive records of the Mughal Badsha’s interest in the slave trade is available for Shah Jahan (1630 C.E. - 1658 C.E.). The fact of Shah Jahan being the son of a Hindu princess, Jagat Gosain (a wife of Jehangir), and the grandson of another Hindu Rajput princess, Jodhabai (an influential wife of Akbar and mother of Jehangir), illustrates that the Mughals pursued slave trade and enslavement of Hindus as a matter of state policy without any consideration to kinship and other consideration. Shah Jahan's style of organizing enslavement campaigns is illustrative of the Mughal strategy to rally religious and political forces behind what essentially was a move for acquisition of valuable human and biological resources. For example, in 1632 Shah Jahan ordered all recently constructed or partially-constructed Hindu temples, Christian churches obliterated. Seventy-six temples were destroyed in Benares, and Christian churches at Agra and Lahore were demolished and ten thousand inhabitants were executed by being "blown up with powder, drowned in water or burnt by fire". As a result of this campaign, four thousand were taken captive to Agra where they were tortured to try to convert them to Islam. Only a few apostatised; the remainder were trampled to death by elephants, except for the younger women who went to harems.
Abd Allah Khan Firuz Jang, an Uzbek noble at the Mughal court during the 1620s and 1630s, was appointed to the position of governor of the regions of Kalpi and Kher and, in the process of subjugating the local rebels, ``beheaded the leaders and enslaved their women, daughters and children, who were more than 2 lacks [200,000] in number.
When Shah Shuja was appointed as governor of Kabul he carried on a ruthless war in the Hindu territory beyond Indus. Most of the women burnt themselves to death to save their honour. Those captured were distributed among Muslim Mansabdars. Under Shah Jahan, peasants were compelled to sell their women and children to meet their revenue requirements. The peasants were carried off to various markets and fairs to be sold with their poor unhappy wives carrying their small children crying and lamenting. According to Qaznivi, Shah Jahan had decreed they should be sold to Muslim lords. The Augustinian missionary Fray Sebastiao Manrique, who was in Bengal in 1629–30 and again in 1640, remarked on the ability of the shiqdār—a Mughal officer responsible for executive matters in the pargana, the smallest territorial unit of imperial administration to collect the revenue demand, by force if necessary, and even to enslave peasants should they default in their payments.
A survey of a relatively small, restricted sample of seventy-seven letters regarding the manumission or sale of slaves in the Majmua-i-wathaiq reveals that slaves of Indian origin (Hindi al-asal) accounted for over 58 per cent of those whose region of origin is mentioned. Khutut-i-mamhura bemahr-i qadat-i Bukhara, a smaller collection of judicial documents from early eighteenth-century Bukhara includes several letters of manumission with over half of these letters referring to slaves ``of Indian origin. Even in the model of a legal letter of manumission written by the chief qazi for his assistant to follow, the example used is of a slave ``of Indian origin''.
It is to be noted that sections of Indian society, such as the Gakhars, actively participated and profited from the slave trade involving Indians. This is consistent with evidences of collaboration by sections of the Hindu elite and merchant communities with Turko-Afghan Mughal military adventurers and rulers.
Levi is of the opinion the supply of Indian slaves for export dwindled as the Mughal Empire weakened, decentralized and its military expansion came to an end. The degeneration of the Mughal empire coincided with the increasing general exclusion of slaves from the tax-revenue systemsof the successor states and the growing commercial and cultural separation of India and its neighbours to the north and west under the British Raj.
According to one author, in spite of the best efforts of the slave-holding elite to conceal the continuation of the institution from the historical record, slavery was practiced throughout colonial India in various manifestations. In reality, the movement of Indians and Afghans to the Bukharan slave markets did not cease and Indian slaves continued to be sold in the markets of Bukhara well into the nineteenth century. Several nineteenth century records documenting the presence in Bukhara of slaves of Indian origin, some identified as "Hindu" and others as "Chitrari" (i.e. from Chitral, in the Karakoram mountains, modern Pakistan, bordering Afghan Badakhshan). An early nineteenth century author mentions that Balkh and Bukhara regularly sent weaponry and clothing to Badakhshan in exchange for "black-faced slaves" who came from Chitral and were not Muslims. In an early nineteenth century account, Josiah Harlan notes frequent slave raids into Chitral organized by the Afghan ruler of Kunduz, Murad Beg, and a "great wholesale dealer in this unholy merchandise". According to the author, the Central Asian slave trade "opens an insatiable outlet for the disposal of Muraad's insubordinate subjects, thousands of whom, with the useful and inoffensive Hazarrahs and the natives of Chitraul, are sold into distant and irredeemable bondage". It is further observed that Chitrali women were in particular demand as they were considered, by nature of their physical features, to be even more beautiful than the famed Circassian women. .Meyendorff also records the presence of Chitrali slaves in early eighteenth-century Bukhara.. Mohan Lal likewise came across a thirteen-year-old Chitrali slave girl in Qarshi who, reportedly, was ``carried off by the ruler of the country, who reduced her to slavery".
Slavery also existed in Portuguese India after the 16th century. "Most of the Portuguese", says Albert. D. Mandelslo, a German itinerant writer, "have many slaves of both sexes, whom they employ not only on and about their persons, but also upon the business they are capable of, for what they get comes with the master.
The Dutch, too, largely dealt in slaves. They were mainly Abyssian, known in India as habschis or seedes. The curious mixed race in Kanara on the West coast has traces of these slaves.
The Dutch Indian Ocean slave trade was primarily mediated by the Duth East India Company, drawing captive labor from three commercially closely linked regions: the western, or East Africa, Madagascar, and the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius and Reunion); the middle, or Indian subcontinent (Malabar, Coromandel, and the Bengal/Arakan coast); and the eastern, or Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea (Irian Jaya), and the southern Philippines.
The Dutch traded slaves from fragmented or weak small states and stateless societies in the East beyond the sphere of Islamic influence, to the company's Asian headquarters, the "Chinese colonial city" of Batavia (Jakarta), and its regional center in coastal Sri Lanka. Other destinations included the important markets of Malacca (Melaka) and Makassar (Ujungpandang), along with the plantation economies of eastern Indonesia (Maluku, Ambon, and Banda Islands), and the agricultural estates of the southwestern Cape Colony (South Africa).
On the Indian subcontinent Arakan/ Bengal, Malabar, and Coromandel, remained the most important source of forced labor until the 1660s. Between 1626 and 1662, the Dutch exported on an average 150-400 slaves annually from the Arakan-Bengal coast. During the first thirty years of Batavia's existence, Indian and Arakanese slaves provided the main labor force of the company's Asian headquarters. Of the 211 manumitted slaves in Batavia between 1646 and 1649, 126 (59.71%) came from South Asia, including 86 (40.76%) from Bengal. Slave raids into the Bengal estuaries were conducted by joint forces of Magh pirates, and Portuguese traders (chatins) operating from Chittagong outside the jurisdiction and patronage of the Estado da India, using armed vessels (galias). These raids occurred with the active connivance of the Taung-ngu (Toungoo) rulers of Arakan. The eastward expansion of the Mughal Empire, however, completed with the conquest of Chittagong (renamed Islamabad) in 1666, cut off the traditional supplies from Arakan and Bengal. Until the Dutch seizure of the Portuguese settlements on the Malabar coast (1658-63), large numbers of slaves were also captured and sent from India's west coast to Batavia, Ceylon, and elsewhere. After 1663, however, the stream of forced labor from Cochin dried up to a trickle of about 50-100 and 80-120 slaves per year to Batavia and Ceylon, respectively.
In contrast with other areas of the Indian subcontinent, Coromandel remained the center of a sporadic slave trade throughout the seventeenth century. In various short-lived expansions accompanying natural and human-induced calamities, the Dutch exported thousands of slaves from the east coast of India. A prolonged period of drought followed by famine conditions in 1618-20 saw the first large-scale export of slaves from the Coromandel coast in the seventeenth century. Between 1622 and 1623, 1,900 slaves were shipped from central Coromandel ports, like Pulicat and Devanampatnam. Company officials on the coast declared that 2,000 more could have been bought if only they had the funds.
The second expansion in the export of Coromandel slaves occurred during a famine following the revolt of the Nayaka Hindu rulers of South India (Tanjavur, Senji, and Madurai) against Bijapur overlordship (1645) and the subsequent devastation of the Tanjavur countryside by the Bijapur army. Reportedly, more than 150,000 people were taken by the invading Deccani Muslim armies to Bijapur and Golconda. In 1646, 2,118 slaves were exported to Batavia, the overwhelming majority from southern Coromandel. Some slaves were also acquired further south at Tondi, Adirampatnam, and Kayalpatnam.
A third phase in slaving took place between 1659 and 1661 from Tanjavur as a result of a series of successive Bijapuri raids. At Nagapatnam, Pulicat, and elsewhere, the company purchased 8,000-10,000 slaves, the bulk of whom were sent to Ceylon while a small portion were exported to Batavia and Malacca. A fourth phase(1673-77) started from a long drought in Madurai and southern Coromandel starting in 1673, and intensified by the prolonged Madurai-Maratha struggle over Tanjavur and punitive fiscal practices. Between 1673 and 1677, 1,839 slaves were exported from the Madurai coast alone. A fifth phase occurred in 1688, caused by poor harvests and the Mughal advance into the Karnatak. Thousands of people from Tanjavur, mostly girls and little boys, were sold into slavery and exported by Asian traders from Nagapattinam to Aceh, Johor, and other slave markets. In September 1687, 665 slaves were exported by the English from Fort St. George, Madras. Finally, in 1694-96, when warfare once more ravaged South India, a total of 3,859 slaves were imported from Coromandel by private individuals into Ceylon.
The volume of the total Dutch Indian Ocean slave trade has been estimated to be about 15-30% of the Atlantic slave trade, slightly smaller than the trans-Saharan slave trade, and one-and-a-half to three times the size of the Swahili and Red Sea coast and the Dutch West India Company slave trades.
The arrival of the British East India Company and the imposition of crown rule following the Indian Mutiny in 1857 along with the influence of the British anti-slavery society of William Wilberforce eventually brought slavery and the slave markets to an end in India. According to Sir Henry Bartle Frere (who sat on the Viceroy's Council), there were an estimated 8,000,000 or 9,000,000 slaves in India in 1841. In Malabar, about 15% of the population were slaves. Slavery was abolished in both Hindu and Muslim India by the Indian Slavery Act V. of 1843. Provisions of the Indian Penal Code of 1861 formally tried to abolish slavery in India by making the enslavement of human beings a criminal offense. However, as late as August, 1873, there are newspaper reports indicating forms in which slavery appeared to survive. The case reported refers to Sylhet, (now part of Bangladesh) where polygamy was widely practised, and wives, sisters and daughters were sometimes surrendered to a rich man or a debtor to be a slave for life. The newspaper further notes that the purchase and sale of slaves in the traditional way had not yet altogether disappeared.
Gyan Prakash, is of the opinion that the abolition of slavery in India in 1843 constructed the British government as a force of reason and progress, while it actually refashioned slavery and turned it into debt-bondage. In form of a detailed case study, he has studied the changing fate of the kamias, a group of agricultural labourers, who were largely members of a larger outcaste Bhuniya community in the Gaya district of south Bihar. These kamias had long-term relations to landlords (maliks), who mostly belonged to upper castes. In fact, this kamia-malik tie was shaped like a patron-client relationship as is evident for example through the institution of kamiauti, a transaction of grain, money and a plot of land given to the kamia by the landlord if the former’s son married -"these relations were structured as dependent ties that represented the landlord as a munificent patron and the labourer as his dependent subject".
In their pledge to uphold Indian traditions, the British – according to Prakash – first had to discover and invent these traditions by alleging that slavery had a base in indigenous laws. Recognition of slavery started with a declaration in 1774 of the Provincial Council at Patna, stating that slavery should not be hereditary but life-long, and that a particular form of slavery was "almost as if no bondage existed." With this, slavery was put under the category of "unfreedom" with the only antonym as "bondage". Further recognition of slavery was the Orientalist interpretation of classical texts, such as H.T. Colebrooke's Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Successions (1801), which allowed the British to assume inherent classifications of polluted and non-polluted labour to certain groups, with corresponding categories for unfree and free. In 1808, a Magistrate from Bundelkhand sent a letter to the court in Calcutta in which he denounced the existence of slavery in India, leading to a series of questions being made to pundits and muftis attached to the court whose replies were interpreted as support for the indigenous existence of slavery.
Slavery was reconstituted – in the case of kamias – as "voluntarily entered" bondage. The meaning of kamiauti changed notion with changing agrarian relations as a result of the 143 Abolition Act, and was now seen as a "loan" but no longer an advance given by the malik to the kamia. After the abolition of slavery in 1843, the kamias had to sign contracts for the raising of loans in which they pleaded to pay back a given sum or remain in bondage until they had done so. With these contracts essentially establishing a debtor-creditor relation, landlords could proceed to the court in case the labourer did not fulfill his plea and demand their right, leading to debt-bondage. The previous dependent-patron transaction of kamiauti was recasting as "voluntary" contracts of otherwise free persons. According to Prakash, "the beginning of kamiauti’s documentation in the early nineteenth century initiated its objectification in a body of records that (...) revealed the history of kamia-malik relations in terms of transactions of things."
In this case, he points to the Surveys undertaken by Francis Buchanan in south Bihar from 1809-12 in which Buchanan stated regional and also structural variations in the actual process of kamiauti. It furthermore suggested that the money given to kamias had varied effects. However, these variations of kamiauti were not included into The Report from the India Law Commissioners in 1841. Rather than acknowledging these variations, the Commissioners’ ignored the inconsistencies in the debt-bondage view and saw variation only in terms of the length of servitude. After slavery had been abolished in 1843, all kamia-malik disputes were brought to district courts as violations of creditor-debtor contracts, with the positions of kamias significantly worsened compared to pre-colonial times.
Only recognizing in the beginning of the 20th century that kamias were actually treated as debt-serfs and their condition similar to slavery, the government tried to reverse the process in the Bihar and Orissa Kamiauti Agreement Act issued in 1920, which stated that the labour of one year was sufficient to repay the advance plus interest on it, thus making bondage exceeding this duration illegal. The law did not achieve its purpose and reinforced the view of bondage being "so deeply rooted in Indian otherness that no law could change it." With the failing of these laws, it was concluded that kamias "lacked the desire for freedom.
The colonial bondage system absorbed larger parts of society as well as territory. Thus it was possible even for low-caste rich peasants to hire kamias indicating a separation of labour relations from traditional ritual hierarchy. Further more groups were subjugated into debt-bondage and the system expanded into other areas of south Bihar and Chota Nagpur. Additionally, the unleashing of the bondage system led to the fact that agricultural production increasingly relied on intensifying labour exploitation.
As many as 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits, are bonded workers, many working to pay off debts that were incurred generations ago. These people work under slave-like conditions. There are no universally accepted figures for the number of bonded child labourers in India. However, in the carpet industry alone, human rights organisations estimate that there may be as many as 300,000 children working, many of them under conditions that amount to bonded labour.
The existence of 'child slavery' or sex slavery in South Asia and the world has been alleged by NGOs and the media. With the The Bonded Labour (Prohibition) Act 1976 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (concerning slavery, servitude and forced labour) a spotlight has been placed on these problems in India. In Pakistan, of an estimated 20 million bonded labourers, approximately 7.5 million are children.