Fighting Free to Become Unfree Again

The Social History of Bondage and Neo-Bondage of Labour in India


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Labour bondage is a major feature of the peasant economies that have dominated the subcontinent of South Asia from an unrecorded pre-colonial past until the post-colonial present. Discussing when, why and how servitude originated on the tribal–peasant frontier in West India and was instituted in the rural landscape, this book draws on engagement in anthropological fieldwork from the 1960s onwards to offer a historical perspective on the collapse of bondage. The author argues that the globalized frame of capitalism does not allow for a transition to free labour in the world at large. Subjected to dispossession and to a lack of employment and income, a sizeable workforce at the bottom of the pile remains stuck in neo-bondage. A prologue to the book points out the different pathways imposed on labour by capital in the global North and South in the age of imperialism and neo-imperialism.


Jan Breman has conducted anthropological fieldwork in Gujarat between 1962 and 2015. His empirical research, focused on the bottom segments of the rural and urban workforce, discusses the changing plight of labour in the colonial and postcolonial era. Going back more than once to the same sites of investigations enabled him to trace the shape and direction of the political economy in one of India’s leading states. The book Capitalism, Inequality and Labour in India (2019–20) is an overview of his disconcerting findings. Breman is Professor Emeritus of comparative sociology at the University of Amsterdam and Honorary Fellow at the International Institute of Social History, also in Amsterdam.