The Category “Freedom” and Indian Nationalist Campaigns against Labor Indenture
This chapter focuses on how, from the time penal labor laws were liberalized in the 1880s until they were abolished in 1926, Indian nationalists charged that indenture was unfree and resembled slavery. Indian nationalists, living in an increasingly commercial and industrialized society, pushed for abolition on the reasoning that a free labor system was more economically rational than indenture. Most prominent were the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and the Indian Association, two groups foundational to the long history of Indian nationalism. The chapter then looks at the Bengali writer Ramkumar Vidyaratna and his social novel Sketches of Coolie Life (1888). Drawing direct comparisons with the emancipation of enslaved Africans, Vidyaratna's work rested upon the assumption that labor was a commodity that should naturally be free to seek employment wherever it desired, an idea plausible partly because a disposable waged workforce in eastern India had become a general feature of economic life.
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