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There is evidence of Slavery in India in ancient times, a practice that escalated with invasions of India in 8th century, and particularly after the 12th century. The study of its history in India is complicated by contested definitions, ideological and religious perceptions, difficulties in interpreting written sources, and perceptions of political impact of interpretations of written sources.
The term dāsa and dāsyu in Vedic and other ancient Indian literature has been translated as slave, but other scholars have translated it as servant, religious devotee and an abstract concept depending on context. Kautilya's Arthasastra dedicated a chapter to dasa, granted them legal rights, and declared abusing, hurting and raping a dasa as a crime. Passages of Arthasastra, Smritis and the Epic Mahabharata suggest that the social institution of slavery existed in India by 1st millennium AD, likely by the lifetime of the Buddha.
Historical consensus points to escalation of slavery in India with the military campaign of Muslim armies in India. There was extensive slavery in India's Islamic period from 8th century AD through the 18th century. Slaves were also seized in India and exported to Islamic societies outside the subcontinent. Scott Levi states that, "the institution of slavery continued (in India), in various manifestations, well after the decentralization of the Mughal Empire in the early 18th century".
Scholars differ whether slaves and slavery existed in ancient India. These English words have no direct, universally accepted equivalent in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, but some scholars translate the word dasa as slaves. Ancient historians who visited India offer the closest linguistic equivalence in Indian society and slavery in other ancient civilizations. For example, the Greek historian Arrian, who chronicled India about the time of Alexander the Great, wrote in his Indika,
The Indians do not even use aliens as slaves, much less a countryman of their own.— The Indika of Arrian
Upinder Singh interprets the word dasa (Sanskrit: दास) in the Rig Veda as slave. Kangle, and others, offer a different interpretation, and suggest that the word dasa in Sanskrit is better translated as "enemy", "servant" or "religious devotee" depending on the context. More recent scholarly interpretations of the Sanskrit words dasa or dasyu suggest that these words used throughout the Vedas represents "disorder, chaos and dark side of human nature", and the verses that use the word dasa mostly contrast it with the concepts of "order, purity, goodness and light." In some contexts, the word dasa refers to enemies and in other contexts, those who had not adopted the Vedic beliefs. Dasa also appears in ancient Buddhist literature in various contexts. For example king's dasa, where it means personal servant; and Buddha-dasa, where it means one in service of Buddha. Buddhist manuscripts also mention kapyari, which scholars have translated as a legally bonded servant (slave).
Kautilya's Arthasastra dedicates the thirteenth chapter on dasas, in his third book on law. This Sanskrit document from the Maurya Empire period (4th century BCE), has been translated by several authors, each in a different manner. Shamasastry's translation of 1915 maps dasa as slave, while Kangle leaves the words as dasa and karmakara. Kangle suggests that the context and rights granted to dasa by Kautilya implies that the word had a different meaning than the modern word slave, as well as the meaning of the word slave in Greek or other ancient and medieval civilizations.
According to Arthasastra, anyone who had been found guilty of nishpatitah (Sanskrit: निष्पातित, ruined, bankrupt, a minor crime) may mortgage oneself to become dasa for someone willing to pay his or her bail and employ the dasa for money and privileges.
Shamasastry's 1915 translation of Arthasastra describes the rights of dasa, confirming Kangle's contention that they were quite different than slaves in other ancient and medieval civilizations. For example, it was illegal to force a dasa (slave) to do certain types of work, to hurt or abuse him, or to force sex on a female dasa.
Employing a slave (dasa) to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, urine or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; hurting or abusing him; or violating the chastity of a female slave shall cause the forfeiture of the value paid for him or her. Violation of the chastity shall at once earn their liberty for them.
When a master has connection (sex) with a pledged female slave (dasa) against her will, he shall be punished. When a man commits or helps another to commit rape with a female slave pledged to him, he shall not only forfeit the purchase value, but also pay a certain amount of money to her and a fine of twice the amount to the government.
A slave (dasa) shall be entitled to enjoy not only whatever he has earned without prejudice to his master's work, but also the inheritance he has received from his father.
Slavery and empire-formation tied in particularly well with iqta and it is within this context of Islamic expansion that elite slavery was later commonly found. It became the predominant system in North India in the thirteenth century and retained considerable importance in the fourteenth century. Slavery was still vigorous in fifteenth-century Bengal, while after that date it shifted to the Deccan where it persisted until the seventeenth century. It remained present to a minor extent in the Mughal provinces throughout the seventeenth century and had a notable revival under the Afghans in North India again in the eighteenth century.— Al Hind, André Wink
Slavery as a predominant social institution emerged from 8th century onwards in India, particularly after 11th century, as part of systematic dethesaurization (plunder) and enslavement of infidels, along with the use of slaves in armies for conquest. For each conquest, the religious law on khums incentivized and distributed 80% of the plunder and slaves to the soldiers, while requiring 20% of the captured wealth and slaves be transferred to the Caliph and sponsoring Islamic state.
Islamic military contexts in north and northwest India led to widespread seizure and slavery of non-Muslims and an increased supply of Indian slaves for export to markets in Central Asia. The early Arab rulers of Sindh in the 8th century, the armies of the Umayyad commander Muhammad bin Qasim enslaved thousands of Indians, including both children and women. Andre Wink summarizes the slavery in 8th and 9th century India as follows,
(During the invasion of Muhammad al-Qasim), invariably numerous women and children were enslaved. The sources insist that now, in dutiful conformity to religious law, 'the one-fifth of the slaves and spoils' were set apart for the caliph's treasury and despatched to Iraq and Syria. The remainder was scattered among the army of Islam. At Rūr, a random 60,000 captives reduced to slavery. At Brahamanabad 30,000 slaves were allegedly taken. At Multan 6,000. Slave raids continued to be made throughout the late Umayyad period in Sindh, but also much further into Hind, as far as Ujjain and Malwa. The Abbasid governors raided Punjab, where many prisoners and slaves were taken.— Al Hind, André Wink
According to the Persian historian Firishta, after the Ghaznavid capture of Thanesar (c. 1014), "the army of Islam brought to Ghazna about 20,000 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 10,000 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 (capital of Gandhara) after Battle of Peshawar (1001), "in the midst of the land of Hindustan", and enslaved thousands. 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".
Al Biruni who visited and lived in India for 16 years in early 11th century, mentions slavery but only in context of demand for Hindu slaves in Islamic territories. He wrote,
Kumair is the name of a people the colour of whom is whitish. They are of short stature and of a build like that of the Turks. They practice the religion of the Hindus, and have the custom of piercing their ears. Some inhabitants of wakwak islands are of black colour. In our countries there is a great demand for them as slaves.— Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī
During the Delhi Sultanate period (1206–1555), references to the abundant availability of low-priced Indian slaves abound. Many of these Indian slaves were used by Muslim nobility in the subcontinent, but others were exported to satisfy the demand in international markets.
The revenue system of the Delhi Sultanate produced a considerable proportion of the Indian slave population as these rulers, and their subordinate shiqadars, ordered their armies to abduct large numbers of locals as a means of extracting revenue. While those communities that were loyal to the Sultan and regularly paid their taxes were often excused from this practice, taxes were commonly extracted from other, less loyal groups in the form of slaves. Thus, according to Barani, the Shamsi "slave-king" Balban (r. 1266–87) ordered his shiqadars in Awadh to enslave those peoples resistant to his authority, implying those who refused to supply him with tax revenue. Sultan Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296–1316) is similarly reported to have legalised the enslavement of those who defaulted on their revenue payments. This policy continued during the Mughal era.
An even greater number of people were enslaved as a part of the efforts of the Delhi Sultans to finance their expansion into new territories. For example, while he himself was still a military slave of the Ghurid Sultan Muizz u-Din, Qutb-ud-din Aybak (r. 1206–10 as the first of the Shamsi slave-kings) invaded Gujarat in 1197 and placed some 20,000 people in bondage. Roughly six years later, he enslaved an additional 50,000 people during his conquest of Kalinjar. Later in the 13th century, Balban's campaign in Ranthambore, reportedly defeated the Indian army and yielded "captives beyond computation".
Levi states that the forcible enslavement of non-Muslims during Delhi Sultanate was motivated by the desire for war booty and military expansion. This gained momentum under the Khilji and Tughluq dynasties, as being supported by available figures. Zia uddin Barani suggested that Sultan Alauddin Khilji owned 50,000 slave-boys, in addition to 70,000 construction slaves. Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq is said to have owned 180,000 slaves, roughly 12,000 of whom were skilled artisans. A significant proportion of slaves owned by the Sultans were likely to have been military slaves and not labourers or domestics. However earlier traditions of maintaining a mixed army comprising both Indian soldiers and Turkic slave-soldiers (ghilman, mamluks) from Central Asia, were disrupted by the rise of the Mongol Empire reducing the inflow of mamluks. This intensified demands by the Delhi Sultans on local Indian populations to satisfy their need for both military and domestic slaves. The Khaljis even sold thousands of captured Mongol soldiers within India. China, Turkistan, Persia, and Khurusan were sources of male and female slaves sold to Tughluq India. The Yuan Dynasty Emperor in China sent 100 slaves of both sexes to the Tughluq Sultan, and he replied by also sending the same amount of slaves of both sexes.
The Mughals continued the slave trade. 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 200,000 in number.
When Shah Shuja was appointed as governor of Kabul he carried on a ruthless war in the Indian 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".
Levi is of the opinion the supply of Indian slaves for export dwindled as the Mughal Empire weakened, decentralised 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 systems of the successor states and the growing commercial and cultural separation of India and its neighbours to the north and west under the British Raj.
Fatawa-e-Alamgiri (also known as Fatawa-i-Hindiya and Fatawa-i Hindiyya) was sponsored by Aurangzeb in late 17th century. It compiled the law for the Mughal Empire, and involved years of effort of 500 Muslim scholars from South Asia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The thirty volume on Hanafi-based sharia law for the Empire was influential during and after Auruangzeb's rule, and it included many chapters and laws on slavery and slaves in India.
Some of the slavery-related law included in Fatawa-i Alamgiri were,
Alongside Buddhist Oirats, Christian Russians, non-Sunni Afghans, and the predominantly Shia Iranians, Indian 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, 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 slaves specially mentioned in waqafnamas, and archives and even being owned by Turkic pastoral groups.
During the period of Maratha Empire, some slaves were able to enjoy what ever they used to earn and entitled to inherit the property of his father. In most cases the slaves were forced to work all their lives and their children were also slaves. The slaves were given food, shelter and clothes and they did not have means to escape their owners. In short, the slavery under the Marathas was different than the slavery in Europe and America. Some slaves were treated well and they were set free on several occasions, festivals and due to their old age. They were released on the suitable substitute for their owner and allowed to marry with the person of their choice. The marriage of slave girl means it was as good as her manumission.
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 practised throughout colonial India in various manifestations. In reality, the movement of Indians 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.
Slavery 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 Indian Ocean slave trade was primarily mediated by the Dutch East India Company, drawing captive labour from three commercially closely linked regions: the western, or Southeast 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 centre 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 labour 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 labour 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 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 labour 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 centre 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 Devanampattinam. 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 Indian 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.
Between 1772 to 1833, the British parliament debates, as recorded in Hansard confirm the existence of extensive slavery in India, primarily for Arabian and European colonial markets under the East India Company. When Britain abolished slavery in its Empire, through Slavery Abolition Act 1833, it included a clause that allowed slavery inside India and enslavement of Indians for colonial markets operated by the East India Company. Andrea Major notes,
In fact, eighteenth century Europeans, including some Britons, were involved in buying, selling and exporting Indian slaves, transferring them around the subcontinent or to European slave colonies across the globe. Morever, many eighteenth century European households in India included domestic slaves, with the owners' right of property over them being upheld in law. Thus, although both colonial observers and subsequent historians usually represent South Asian slavery as an indigenous institution, with which the British were only concenred as colonial reforms, until the end of the eighteenth century Europeans were deeply implicated in both slave-holding and slave-trading in the region.
— Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843
In this new system, instead of calling people slaves, they were called indentured labourers. South Asians began to replace Africans previously brought as slaves, under this indentured labour scheme to serve on plantations and mining operations across the British empire. The first ships carrying indentured labourers left India in 1836. In the second half of the 19th century, indentured Indians were treated as inhumanely as the enslaved people previously had been. They were confined to their estates and paid a pitiful salary. Any breach of contract brought automatic criminal penalties and imprisonment. Many of these were brought away from their homelands deceptively. Many from inland regions over a thousand kilometers from seaports were promised jobs, were not told the work they were being hired for, or that they would leave their homeland and communities. They were hustled aboard the waiting ships, unprepared for the long and arduous four-month sea journey. Charles Anderson, a special magistrate investigating these sugarcane plantations, wrote to the British Colonial Secretary declaring that with few exceptions, the indentured labourers are treated with great and unjust severity; plantation owners enforced work in plantations, mining and domestic work so harshly, that the decaying remains of immigrants were frequently discovered in fields. If labourers protested and refused to work, they were not paid or fed: they simply starved.
The existence of child slavery in South Asia and the world has been alleged by NGOs and the media. With the Bonded Labour (Prohibition) Act 1976 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (concerning slavery and servitude), a spotlight has been placed on these problems in India.