THE employment of human labour in comparatively more localized by practising
agriculture gives rise to many problems meadow-husbandry, agrestic serfdom had
with regard to the type and conditions gained good ground; whilst in the more
of work which are of supreme importance. settled economic stages of village settlement,
In India, as in all agricultural countries where agriculture became the principal
of the world, forced labour has played an source of subsistence and other primitive
important part in supplying a permanent occupations subservient to cultivation,
source of power in times when family or serfdom had come to stay. Where agricul-
hired help was scarce. Although agriculture ture is practised with crude implements and
was regarded as the most honourable of pro-
without the aid of domestic animals, where
fessions, it was, nevertheless, considered a the working population is scarce, where
suitable employment for slaves who ultimate-
the land must be reclaimed from the wilds
ly outnumbered the other type of workers.
and marshes, and where soil and climate
The system of personal servitude is a act as limiting factors for the employment
picturesque relic of the past. Though the of imported labour—it is not the capital that
history of the development of village com-
is wanted, but native labour to reclaim the
munities in northern India does not throw land and cultivate it under difficult environ-
sufficient light on the origin and growth of mental conditions. Under these circum-
agrestic serfdom, there is ample evidence stances bond-labour of the native population
that this pernicious custom is not exotic to is introduced and pinned to the soil in
India. As a trait of culture, agrestic serfdom conditions akin to slavery and serfdom.
is a creation of environmental pressure,
The institution of slavery in India, with
and must be attributed a parallel growth in special reference to agricultural slaves,
different regions of the earth; and though seems to have been established in very
it manifests itself in multifarious forms at remote times, and is linked up with the
different times and in different places, it idea of innate dependence of Sudras and
shrinks in essence to a simple economic their perpetual slavery as one of the axioms
product of the geographical environment. of Brahmanism; because the Sudra issued
Whenever a transition in economic stages from the feet of Purusa, the primeval male
is forced by the pressure of physical environ-
feet denoting service. Thus the original
ment—soil, climate, fauna and flora—new slaves were called Dasas or Sevaks, terms
economic institutions evolve themselves and which signify eternal social and economic
gradually merge into the social structure, dependence, and the existence of Dasas was
thus making adaptation quicker and easier. considered a liability redeemable only by
The agrarian history of India shows that service.
agrestic serfdom is a socio-economic institu-
As an established social institution
tion, evolved out of an imperious economic slave labour was a conspicuous feature in
necessity in a closed system of village ancient India. The Law Book of Narada
enumerated fifteen different varieties of
Agrestic serfdom is not a primitive them. The Kutumbins, who cultivated land
institution, and therefore, it cannot be traced
as a subsidiary means of livelihood, were
back to the Collectional Economic Stage. understood by Kielhorn to be only serfs.
It is essentially an industrial institution of Similarly, the Upavasas who formed the
late growth. In the pastoral stage, parti-
bulk of the landless class flourished in an
cularly, where the peripatetic tribes became aggressive state of serfdom. Kautalya gave

it his sanction as the lawful privilege of tion, and according to Southerland (1818)
Government servants and the land-owning and Dunbar (1836) the Ghatwals and Dikkus
classes. The number of slaves was increased had completely enslaved the aboriginal
from time to time when the villagers captur-
population of Santal Parganas, and the
ed in a war by an enemy were sold as agri-
Santal insurrection which broke out in 1854
cultural slaves, or by addition of persons was due to the oppression of usurers who
who sold themselves to landlords during had systematically reduced the Santals to
famines, and to money-lenders for relieving poverty and slavery. In 1800 it was
themselves from the burden of cumulative observed by several travellers that the con-
dition of the indebted and landless agricul-
The nature and extent of agricultural tural labourers in Cooch Behar was akin to
slavery in northern India cannot be estimat-
Villain Francs and Sokemen of the French
ed beyond the middle of the 18th century and English manorial villages. In 1808
A. D. from the meagre data available. Dr. Buchanan Hamilton made a minute
Traces, however, of agricultural slavery survey of some of the districts of Bihar and
appear in the history of the occupation and concluded that agricultural slavery was a
development of the Chota Nagpur plateau common feature of the rural economy of
by hordes of immigrants from the Ganges these regions, as is also evident from the
and Mahanadi valleys. The Munda chiefs answers of the Muftis and Pundits to the
were the first and original reclaimers of the questions put by the Nizamat-i-Adalat in
soil, but were subjugated by the Oraons in 1809.
the 10th century A. D. After about two
In 1859 the " S t a t e m e n t Showing the
hundred years the Oraons were crushed by Material and Moral Progress of I n d i a "
Cheros and Kharwars who exercised domi-
showed that agricultural slavery still
nion from Ranchi to Allahabad. In the prevailed in the Chota Nagpur plateau, the
13th century A. D., however, the first influx Ganges and Brahmaputra valleys, and the
of Banias began from Bihar, the U. P. and sub-Himalayan regions. From the classifi-
Central India and, by a systematic policy of cation of bond-slaves made by Professor
money-lending, these Dikkus (immigrant Wilson (1865) and Sir W. Hunter (1872) we
Mahajans) had assumed supremacy over find that the system was introduced by
large stretches of land and become jagirdars. moneyed Hindu settlers. It was organized
With the increase of Hindu jagirdars there primarily for forming various agricultural
grew a competition for raiyats, and the sys-
and domestic duties. In 1886 the Jesuit
tem of bond-labour was inevitably introduc-
Missionaries, after converting them to
ed. Agricultural slavery was therefore Christianity, liberated many slaves from the
established long before the British occupa-
clutches of their masters. The report of
tion of the Chota Nagpur territories.
the Bailey Conference with Christian Mis-
From the proceedings of the Council of sionaries and landlords in 1890 brought to
Revenue dated 17th May, 1774, we learn light the universal practice of Kamiauti
that vending of persons as slaves to land-
(bond-labour) in northern India.
holders was abolished in Bhagalpur district
The first systematic survey was made
of Bihar. Early in 1789 the Collector of by Sifton in 1908, who observed that agri-
Shahabad wrote to Lord Cornwallis request-
cultural slavery was extending in all parts
ing speedy instructions as to the manner of Chota Nagpur, and in 1913 Bridges
in which he should determine cases of agri-
reported that almost the entire aboriginal
cultural and domestic slaves. In 1790 forced population of Bihar had been enslaved by
Santal labour was freely used in Birbhum non-cultivating landlords. In 1930 Dr. Radha
to clear jungles and reclaim land for cultiva-
Kamal Mukerji during an unofficial in-

vestigation found that many villages of often beyond their control. Serfdom in
Ranchi, Hazaribagh and Pallamau were India, therefore, does not amount to personal
populated only by landless serfs. The servitude. It is usufruct-servitude, with a
Government of Bihar in 1934 deputed Chow-
right to enjoy a thing, the property of
dhuri for an official enquiry into the nature which is vested in another, and to take its
and extent of Kamiauti and bond-labour in fruits, but not to destroy or fundamentally
the province, but the report was not made to alter its substance. While it extends for
public. Our systematic investigations from life, the usufruct right might be created for
1933 to 1940, however, have brought to light a fixed term, or it may be terminated by the
several important points : first, that agricul-
death of the holder.
tural slavery in its original form does not
Serfdom, therefore, will be used in the
exist any more, but appears in milder forms following pages to designate, first, a group
of 'serfdom' and 'begar' ; second, that subjection ; and second, a usufruct personal
newly reclaimed forest lands and unhealthy servitude. No doubt, under bad masters,
submontane tracts are hotbeds for agrestic it has assumed the form of primitive slavery
serfdom ; third, that the system, though and involved the entire personality of the
considerably now weakened, is not com-
serf, but recent legislation in all parts of
pletely suppressed and likely to persist India against slave-labour has brought this
until the bogie of absentee landlordism and institution into a stage of further transac-
non-cultivating owners is removed by tion. Thus we have passed from slavery
drastic legislation.
to serfdom, and now to Begar, which is
A distinction, however, might be drawn simply a seasonal servitude justified both by
between slavery and serfdom. Slavery is custom and law. This transition was forced
the subjection of men individually, and a by pressure of changing custom due to
subjection which includes the whole person-
cultural penetration and diffusion, the
ality of the slave. The master of the opening up of dark regions, and a more
slave is entitled to all the services of the effective political administration. Wher-
slave, including his personality or his very ever the status of the peasant proprietor has
existence, which makes him a living chattel. been encroached upon by high-caste money-
Serfdom, on the other hand, is the subjec-
lenders, who have broken through the weak
tion of men individually or collectively for system of tenancy and usurped the land of
rendering services to the master in lieu of poorer classes, the farm-hand verges on
some obligation. The slave owner may do serfdom like that of the Chakar in Bengal,
with his slave whatever he is not by special the Baramasiya in north Bihar, the Kamla
laws forbidden to do ; the master of a serf in Chota Nagpur, the Muliya in Orissa, the
may require from his men such services or Sewak in the U. P . , the Hurwahee in Central
tributes only as the law allows him to India, the Cheora in Kumaon, the Shalkari
in the C. P . , the Halia in Gujarat, the
Serfdom in India is characteristically Bulla in Bombay, and the Padial in
a group status where custom still mainly Madras.
controls status and tenure. The depressed
Agrestic Serfdom, as a social liability
and exterior castes are supposed to be to landlords, by virtue of their property
degraded and despised and their members ownership, has still a stronghold in certain
are in collective subjection to the members backward agricultural regions of northern
of higher castes. The fate of many caste-
India, and appears to be an old and heredi-
groups, whether due to poverty, low birth tary practice. If one travels along the
or the nature of occupation, is sealed by Himalayan base, from the valley of Kashmir
forces of socio-economic nature which are to the Brahmaputra basin, a multitudinous

variety of serfdom will be found associated different forms under modified conditions.
with the agricultural practices of different The Tharus, Chamars, Nats, Doms and
regions. Purely physico-environmental Ghoriyas, who are generally landless
rather than social causes are responsible for labourers, form the bulk of Sewak popula-
the consistent prevalence and inertia of tion. The Hariya is a seasonal serf, wher-
agrestic serfdom in these 'dark' regions of as the Sewak is permanent. Both the
the country. The institution, as old as the Hariya and the Sewak are under a debt
cultural history of the Aryans, has flourished bondage, pure and simple. The ordinary
unimpaired by the vagaries of times and sum so given varies from Rs. 20/- to
has played an important part in the rural Rs. 100/- according to the needs of the
economy of the regions where it has been borrower, which, it must be noted, multi-
established. The vestigial remains of plies to an enormous amount due to an
agrestic serfdom, still found under different exorbitant rate of interest. The Hariya can
forms, are briefly described below : —
liberate himself any time after paying off his
The Haliyas and Chyoras of Kumaon.— debt, but the bondage of the Sewak is
These are household slaves as well as slaves hereditary, passing on to his children down
for the cultivation of the land, and are to the remotest generation. It is quite
recruited from the Khasiya and Dom castes common to meet labourers, whose forefathers
respectively. Both these classes of slaves entered into these obligations, and who still
are dependent on their masters for food, labour in their discharge, although well
shelter and clothing, and an obligation for aware that they can discard them and be
the discharge of marriage expenses. Slavery free to sell their labour in the open market.
in the form of household women slaves (who The serfs, however, never receive cash, and
are also sold for immoral purposes) are not their grain pittance never exceeds their
uncommon even under strict prohibitory bare requirements, lest they should repay
measures. Up to 1840 the name Haliya their debt and be lost to their master.
was given to these Doms who were employed Even when cash wages are received, they
as ploughmen with their families, and could are never in a position to pay more than
be sold with the land, that is, title in land the interest during the year.
also gave title to the slaves cultivating it.
The Hurwahees and Baramasiyas of
The Cheora, or the domestic slave could be North Bihar :—The lowest depth of serfdom
sold or given away with his family without is touched by the Baramasiyas of Bettiah,
any reason being assigned. These slaves are Motihari, Darbhanga and Pertabganj in
almost solely confined to the hill-pattis and North Bihar, who perform whatever menial
to Bhabar regions, and along with many services are required of them by their
other low castes, such as Ruriyas, Orhs, masters. They are purely domestic slaves
Bhuls, Bhairsuwas, Agaris and Kolis, con-
and their serfdom is hereditary, whereas
stitute the bulk of the agricultural serf the Hurwahees are bond-servants who work
population. All these castes represent in lieu of the interest due on the loan. The
apparently an aboriginal race and from time Baramarasiya is given a small pittance, but
immemorial have played the part of serfs allowed a hut and the left over food from
to the agricultural land holding-castes of the master's table. The Hurwahees often
the Bhotias, Khas-Rajputs and Bagbans.
receive cash wages (not exceeding 113 of the
The Sewaks and Hariyas of Oudh.—The daily rate), but on account of their extrava-
'Sewak' system is prevalent mostly in the gance the cash is utilized in drinks and
submontane districts of Gonda, Bahraich, feasts, and often the labour of women and
Basti, Gorakhpur, Kheri and everywhere children is pledged for paltry sums.
east of the Ghagra river, and appears in
The Chakars and Muliyas of Orissa.—The

Muliyas are evidently the descendants of the treated, and his master always anxiously
forest races by whom the uplands of Orissa looks after his health and welfare, and
were inhabited before the Aryan conquest. provides him with at least the bare neces-
At present there are three kinds of Muliyas: saries of life. The chief diet of the Kamia
(a) Nitmajur, whose social position is consists of coarse rice and dal. His wife
de-facto that of a slave. He is a hereditary and children also get clothes and a free
slave. He gets food and clothing from his house attached to a makan-bari plot. The
master and works as a domestic slave. (b) Kamia never has any money, and the
Naga, who is also a slave, but of higher restrictions imposed on his movement render
status and works on the field of his master. him not better than a slave. An absconding
At harvest time he sleeps on the field to Kamia can hardly find asylum anywhere in
watch over the crops. He seldom receives the district, because the landlords, as a
cash wages, but in addition to the customary class, combine to maintain the system and
grain allowance he gets a strip from his return to his master any Kamia taking
master's land (20-25 decimals) which he shelter in their village. A Kamiauti bond,
cultivates for himself. (c) Danda, who is a therefore, involves a life sentence. Many
seasonal serf, hired usually for sowing or Kamias have, however, run away to the
harvesting season, and paid in kind.
mining centres at Giridih and Kodarma and
The Kamias of Chota Nagpur :—The liberated themselves from their cruel and
Kamias are bond servants of their masters. unsympathetic masters. The Kamia popula-
In return for a loan received, they bind tion comprises of the semi-primitive tribes,
themselves and often their generations, to such as the Mundas, Oraons, Bhuiyas,
perform whatever menial services are Dusadhs, Kols, Santals, Ghatwars and a
required of them in lieu of the interest large number of other aboriginal castes.
due on the loan. Such loans are usually Big zamindars command a large number of
borrowed at times of economic distress or Kamias because their prestige is measured
social necessity. It is usually the poor by the number of their retinue. The social
labourers and low caste agriculturists who position, befitting zamindars, can not be
are victimised by those rich and high caste maintained by many of the small zamindars
ryots and landlords who do not care to do if the Kamia system is suppressed and
the actual cultivation themselves. In Chota serfdom abolished.
Nagpur, owing to the presence of a large
Agrestic serfdom is most commonly
aboriginal and depressed caste population, associated with conditions of socio-economic
the Kamia system has become a common nature. These conditions are not peculiar
feature of rural economy. The term Kamia to certain backward provinces of Northern
stands for the fourfold characteristics of an India, but are characteristic of all regions
agricultural labourer :—
where the agricultural population has been
(a) A field worker whose labour is dissociated from modern social and economic
exacted by force.
changes in the country. A systematic and
(b) A working client of the mahajan-
detailed study of this time-honoured institu-
cum-landlord master.
tion in India leads us to the following
(c) A farm hand whose duties are conclusions: —
varied and many, and without whom the 'Sir'
(a) Agrestic serfdom is a common
land of the landlord may lie uncultivated.
feature of those places where the low castes
(d) A sweated class of worker, underfed and depressed orders are most numerous.
and mentally stunted, and regarded by their The ethnic composition of the village
masters as little better than human chattel.
greatly determines the social and economic
The Kamia is too valuable to be ill-
status of the people and is reponsible for the

survival of these conditions. ' Whether in both a social and an economic menace and,
the capacity of the slave, a serf, or a beggar,
in these days of considerable freedom,
at present more than five crores of people widened economic outlook, social up-
in India suffer both socially and economically heaval and a strong central Government, it
on account of the stigma of untouchability tells on the whole social and administrative
attached to them. In Bihar and Orissa, machinery of a progressive country. Though
about one-sixth of the total population social and legislative measures are being
(i.e. 71/2 millions) belongs to 24 purest taken to eradicate this evil, yet a more
aboriginal and 17 semi-aboriginal tribes. vigorous and determined move is required
Besides these, more than 61/2 millions belong to abolish an old custom that preys upon
to the depressed classes. Roughly speaking the very life of the man behind the plough. •
one-third of the total population of Bihar
Under British Rule slavery was not
and Orissa is composed of semi-serf, de-
abolished at once, but only gradually. The
pressed and exterior castes. In Chota existence of the institution of slavery in the
Nagpur this class accounts for 65 to 85 per latter half of the 18th century was brought
cent of the total population. The Kamla to light by Jesuit Missionaries in Chota
population is composed of those aboriginal Nagpur. These missionaries took an active
tribes and depressed castes which are lazy interest in the temporal interests of their
and careless, and are content with a dole of converts, and lent a sympathetic ear to the
food and a house to live in and, so long as complaints of the aborigines about the heavy
these are not denied, consider it an honour load of praedial services and the cruelties
to relish the crumbs from their masters' and injustices to which they were subjected
in the capacity of slaves. In 1774 legal
(b) Serfdom is au evil of the Zamindari measures were taken in the Bhagalpur
system. In districts where there is land-
District (Bihar), and 1789 Lord Cornwallis
lord tenancy over big estates, and Zamindari despatched instructions to the collector of
is under the Brahmins, Thakurs, Rajputs, Shahabad as to the manner in which he
Pathans and other high castes, the system should determine cases of slavery.
has gathered enormous strength. Wherever
On the basis of the Minute of Sir
the original population was subdued by Buchanan, more effective measures were
foreign immigrants, who, though financially taken in the Government of India's Regula-
powerful, were unable to cultivate the land tion X of 1811, prohibiting the importation
themselves on account of the natural condi-
of slaves from foreign countries into the
tions of soil and water supply, a regular British territories. This rule was, by Regu-
supply of labour became imperative for the lation III of 1832, extended to the Provinces
cultivation of the landlord's 'Sir' land, and which subsequently came into the possession
to assist the agents of an absentee landlord.
of the British Government. Later on, Act V
(c) Serfdom is almost entirely associated of 1843 prohibited all Government officers
with indebtedness. The mahajan has always from recognizing slavery, and it was finally
exploited the miserable plight of the poor abolished in 1860 by the I. P. C. which »
peasantry and reduced them to eternal declared the equality of all men and provided
serfdom. Since the Kamia population is punishment for buying or selling any
composed of migratory tribes, in whose person as a slave.
hands neither the principal debt is secure
In spite of these legal measures this
nor a guarantee of regular labour supply evil custom continued to flourish in a
obtainable, they have to be pinned to the modified form known as Kamiauti (debt-
estate and their wanderlust broken.
bondage), in remote rural areas of Northern
The existence of the Kamia system is India. In 1872 Hunter found that the

system was a universal feature of the rural should be offered to the Khunt-Kattidar
economy of Chota Nagpur. In 1908 Sifton and not to the holder of adjoining cultivated
observed its detrimental growth in Hazari-
land, as has been the practice in the past.
bagh, and in 1913 Bridges submitted a Otherwise the landless labourers will have
report to the Government of Bihar and no chance of settling down as peasant
Orissa sounding the dangers of a growing proprietors.
menace of slavery in the Province. It was
Legislation, in order to be effective, must
on these findings that the Government of cover all the problems directly or indirectly
Bihar and Orissa passed the "B & 0. assoicated with the system of serfdom.
Kamiauti Agreement Act VIII of 1920", There is au urgent need for a new Anti-
which declared that such agreements were Kamiauti Act which should be based on the
void, unless (a) the full terms of the agree-
following considerations : —
ments were expressed in a stamped docu-
(a) Almost all forms of agrestic serfdom
ment ; (b) the Kamia was given a copy of take their root in indebtedness. When the
this document ; (c) the period of the agree-
yoke of the moneylender becomes unbearably
ment exceeded or could possibly exceed one heavy, and indebtedness assumes a chronic
year ; (d) the Kamia's liability was com-
form, the plight of the derelict farm-hand is
pletely extinguished on the expiry of the nothing short of serfdom. Therefore, neither
term of the agreement; (e) the Kamia's the principal debt nor the interest accrued
remuneration under the agreement was thereon, should be repayable in services.
fair and equitable.
(b) No landlord should have more
But the Kamiauti Agreements Act of 'Sir' land than he can cultivate himself with
1920 did not prove effective in suppressing family assistance. (The U. P. Government
the abuse. The master-landlords proved too has now limited the 'Sir' to 50 acres).
elusive in getting round the legal restric-
(c) All praedial services (Begar) and
tions. Moreover, the Act did not apply to illegal dues (Rukumats) should be commu-
agreements entered into by 'skilled work-
ted into cash.
men' , so that the old Kamiauti conditions still
(d) There should be a strict regula-
applied to labour rendered by such persons tion of the hours and conditions of work.
as Chamars.
(e) The employment of agricultural
All legal measures have so far proved serfs should be considered a penal offence.
ineffective to suppress this system of
The Kamias are gradually emerging
serfdom completely. And thus the matter at from the state of serfdom to that of free
present stands. But no legislation can labour. But the improvement in their
ever become fruitful unless the people for social status is very slow. This is due to
whom it is formulated consciously strive to their ignorance, improvidence and disincli-
make the best of it. In this particular case, nation to fight their own battle. Whenever
legislation preceded the economic and social they have shown signs of independence, they
uplift of the serf population, a policy have been subjected to most inhuman
nothing short of putting the cart before atrocities by their masters—their lands have
the horse. As a temporary measure, when been taken away, their house and property
such special legislation is enforced, the confiscated and their families mercilessly
Government should provide new lands by beaten. The acquirement of servile dispo-
reclamation for the discharged serfs in the sitions after generations of toil and labour
same vicinity, or provide facilities for by the serf population, has developed a
emigration to industrial districts. In the character which cannot be modified by a
case of the extension of cultivation, the stroke of the pen. Legislation, therefore,
tendency of land hitherto uncultivated cannot immediately be a cure but only act

as a palliative. The real cure lies in the pinned as they are under the weight of
improvement of the lot of these wretched heavy chains of prejudice and usage of long
classes, the diffusion of elementary educa-
times, their existence acts as a drag on the
tion, and above all the creation of a strong body politic.
public opinion by patient toil in the right
The salvation of India as a whole must
be preceded by the solution of this grave
Viewed in a correct perspective, the problem which has of late attracted the
problem of agrestic serfdom in India is attention both of the politician and the
essentially one of justice and humanity. It reformer. Everywhere, throughout the
requires a complete readjustment of social world, attempts are being made to amelio-
conditions of the depressed orders of huma-
rate the plight of the poor. The humani-
nity who suffer from numerous disabilities, tarian efforts of Mahatma Gandhi and the
injustices and cruelties on account of Christian missionary institutions in India in
their birth. This state of affairs cannot be the cause of Harijans have been noteworthy.
defended on grounds of equity or true reli-
Whatever motives may be attributed to the
gion. Indians who are striving for national uplift of the depressed, one fact stands out
freedom ought not to deny just treatment to prominent, namely, the present national
a section of their own countrymen. They awakening in India is entirely due to the
must remember that in the struggle for realization of the spirit of freedom amongst
national freedom and social emancipation a the lower strata of humanity. It would
country cannot efficiently work in sections.
perhaps not be far wrong to say that those
At present more than five crores of the who make the allegation that the movement
entire population of this country belong to for the uplift of the depressed classes is due
the so-called exterior castes and depressed to the political motives (e. g. with Mahatma
classes. There can be no denying the fact Gandhi), or religious motives (e. g. with
that most, almost all, of these classes labour Christian Missionaries) are themselves
under disabilities only on account of the victims of such motives in making this
stigma attached to their castes. These down-
assertion. Whatever may be said, it is the
trodden classes have developed a deleterious bounden duty of every true Indian to do
inferiority complex on account of the time-
everything in his or her power to wipe out
worn custom which has consigned them to the stain of untouchability from the country,
their present degraded conditions. They
eschewing every idea of exploiting the
have to rest content with whatever little miserable plight of these unfortunate human
opportunities are allowed them to develop beings for communal or political ends.
their full stature. Under the circumstances,