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The history of slavery in India is complicated by the absence 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, though never as a legitimate and generally acceptable widespread practice. Historical consensus points to an intensification of slavery under India's Islamic period. For instance, K. S. Lal discussed in his work "Muslim Slave System in Medieval India" the import of African slaves to India by Muslims through the Middle East, a trade never undertaken by India's indigenous religions due to limited contact with Africa. Caste system under the Hindus cannot be equated with slavery, as in slavery purity-pollution norms were not observed.[clarification needed] In ancient Rig-Veda three types of slavery are mentioned, which suggests that slavery was present in pre-Islamic India. Often, claims about slavery in India, and the sources they are based on, need to be analysed with special attention to context. Some 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.) Susan Bayly of Cambridge University noted in her work "Caste, Society and Politics" that India was never a monolithic caste society with noted shifting and fluidity of the caste structures in some parts of India, and its non-existence in others. Irfan Habib notes in his study of the agrarian system of the Mughal Empire, that in many parts of the country, caste barriers were fluid, and the working classes formed a type of vast labour pool, from which specialisations were formed as and when needed without consideration of caste.
The Vedic association of "Dasas" as slaves has been challenged by some scholars, and is currently held to be debatable. Dasa means servant in a generic sense and just from the term it cannot be said that it was slavery.
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 finalised within the early period of the Maurya Empire (4th century BCE), 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, (including Shudras). However such sale by kinsmen are still to be penalised 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, a term which referred to people living outside civilisation or outside the sub-continent.
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 emphasised. 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).
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 (capital of Gandhara) after Battle of Peshawar (1001), "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 (India's Mughal 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.
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 Hindus 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 Hindu army and yielded "captives beyond computation". Levi finds reasonable K. S. Lal's assertion that the forcible enslavement of Indians due to military expansion "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 Hindu 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.
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, 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 neutrality of this section is disputed. (November 2010)|
The Mughals started their slave trade by preying on fellow Muslims in their bid for expansion into India through the Afghan provinces. 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.”
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 [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".
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.
During the period of Maratha Empire, the slave was able to enjoy what ever he used to earn and entitled to inherit the property of his father. In short, the slavery under the Marathas was different than the slavery in Europe and America. The slaves were treated well, 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 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 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.