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The Complete Guide to Slavery in India

16 Min Read

Jan 19, 2024

Introduction to slavery in India

Today, over 50% of the total number of slaves in the world come from only 5 countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. Out of those countries, India leads the way with an estimated 11 million people held in slavery, with the average age for child slaves between 7 and 14 years old. This is not a category you want to be a global leader in, but there are many reasons why India is. Slavery has become an accessible and lucrative outlet around the world for many reasons, but in India, the key reason can be traced back to one thing: the Caste System.

While slavery is actually illegal in India, the country lives by an ancient tradition called the Caste System. This is closely tied with the Hindu religion, which believes in a process of reincarnation based on karma from previous lives. An outcome of this system is a bottom class of people, known as Untouchables, who are shunned from society. They are the poorest of the poor in India. They are considered sub-human – not even falling as a Caste in the system.

The Untouchable people are trapped in an endless cycle of abuse, leaving them without the most basic human rights and as prey to modern-day slavery. Also, because the underlying belief is that you deserve the Caste you are born into, there is little hope for Untouchables to improve their circumstances.

What Kind of Slavery is in India?

Modern slavery in India takes on many forms. Today, like in many places around the world, slavery can look like forced labor, sex trafficking, forced marriage, and child exploitation. Specific to India, other types such as medical testing, organ harvesting exist as well. The most common forms of slavery include forced labor and sex trafficking – but, one type of slavery often encompasses other forms in one capacity or another. For example, often seen within the bounds of forced labor in India is sexual exploitation of children.

There are many different ways that someone becomes a slave, but the main cause in India, is the extreme poverty found among the Untouchable people. Poverty is given even more suppressing fuel within the confines of the Caste System. Exploiting the poverty and desperation of parents, lenders offer loans with terms that allow them to take children as payment. When families cannot repay their loans, agents remove the children and force them to work in slate mines or brothels. Often, these children are re-sold far from home and the stark reality is – they are now enslaved.

Other times, poverty renders a family so desperate they aren’t manipulated by a loan agent – they simply decide to sell their child. Or, a child inherits a generational debt, that they must spend their life paying off.

For the children that are taken into forced labor slavery, they find themselves in pits so full of darkness it’s hard to fathom that millions are still functioning around India as mines right now. These rock quarries and their dusty, rugged terrain become home for these children. Often, dozens of children are used to mine slate rocks from sun up to sun down each day. They are treated as we’ve seen slaves treated throughout history – not as humans – which, as a reminder, is exactly what the Caste System deemed them to be from birth. These children have never known a life where they were not succumbed to abuse either from their society or now, from these mine owners.

Children who are held captive in these mines are almost always sexually exploited. We must remember that slavery does not function in silos today. A child who is a forced labor slave is also a sex slave. They are used in whatever way will benefit the abuser.

The atrocity that is child slavery is running rampant around the world with India as the leader. There are more people enslaved right this minute than at any other time in history. We must take the time to understand why we find our world in this situation. We must understand the societal and religious implications that have led India to allow 11 million of its people to be slaves.

History of Slavery in India

As with many countries, when you take a look back in time, there is a dark history of enslavement in India. Although India did not practice chattel slavery –  which a group of people is traded as commodity in economic markets, the introduction to slavery was seen in the country with the beginning of Islamic rule.

When – Islamic rule in India dates back to 710 C.E. with the Arab invasions of Sindh. Slavery became a major tool used under Islamic rule and contributed widely to the Muslim population in India today. Then, in 1000 C.E. a large influx in slavery took place as hundreds of thousands of Hindu people were captured as slaves during Mahmud Ghaznavi invasion.

Who – Originally, slavery was used as a war pawn, taking prisoners of war and forcing them into slavery for benefit in wartime. Additionally, soldiers’ families became targets for enslavement. Key examples during this time include:

  • Several thousand women being taken as slaves and forced into marriages with Arab soldiers, forced to convert to Islam, and consequently grow the religion by mothering children within the Islamic faith.
  • During battle, when men were killed, their families were often taken as slaves, brought to the state capital and resold among other Islams and even across nations.

Specifically, slave sales began to take place under the Mughal rule across nations such as Turkey and Persia. Once the introduction of slavery took root, it wasn’t long before slavery took on different forms – much like we still see happening today in India. Soon, women were being enslaved and sold into sex slavery. As slavery became normalized across India, so did hostility amongst the Hindu and Muslim people, furthering the division we still see amongst these people groups.

Why – What leads to slavery in any instance? It’s safe to say that although the origin of slavery was seen as a way to convert people to Islam, and gain an upper hand in battle, the “why” at the root of all slavery is a deeply rooted desire for power, control, and personal gain. Whether you take a look at the origin of slavery in India or how it looks today, you can see this “why” so evidently. There is no clearer example than the fall of humanity than slavery. To enslave another human for labor, sex, etc., is a darkness we ache to turn our gaze away from. But we cannot do that. We must look back, uncover the present, and shine a light on the atrocities still happening in the 21st century in order to ever put an end to it.

How Can Slavery Still Exist?

Is slavery in India illegal?

Yes, while slavery is actually illegal in India, under the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act in 1976, modern slavery in the form of bonded labor and sexual exploitation remains widespread. Maybe you learned what the caste system is in world history class in school. Maybe you thought it was a historical system that was left in the past a long time ago. But, unlike other societal divisions we’ve seen throughout history – this one still dictates much of life in India today. Including where you can live, what job you can hold, and even what water you can drink. But let me rewind. The caste system is deeply rooted in the Hinduism belief in karma and reincarnation.

Dating back more than 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras based on who they were in their past life, their karma, and what family line they come from. Many believe that the system originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, believing that the Brahmins represent the eyes and mind of Brahma and are therefore often teachers and priests, the Kshatriyas represent his arms and are often warriors, the Vaishyas represent his legs and are often farmers or merchants, and the Shudras represent his feet and are often laborers.

An outcome from this system is a bottom class of people known as “Untouchables” who are shunned. They are the poorest of the poor who aren’t even considered a part of the system. They are trapped in an endless cycle of abuse, leaving them without the most basic human rights, falling prey to modern day slavery. Other contributing factors to the persistence of bonded labor and sexual exploitation today include lax enforcement of labor laws, limited access to justice for marginalized communities, and the normalization of such exploitation within certain sectors and regions – each of these factors pointing back to the overarching stronghold that the Caste System keeps on the Untouchable people.

Because the underlying belief is that you deserve the caste you are born into, there is little hope for Untouchables to improve their lives until they meet Jesus. Through Jesus they learn that they are loved unconditionally. His love does not separate His children into a system that abuses, enslaves, and shuns.

Modern Slavery in India

Modern slavery in India feels anything but modern. With slavery still so deeply rooted in the confines of the country’s ancient caste system and the ways in which it instills from birth the societal differences and neglect of lower castes. For the bottom caste of people in India, the Untouchables, they are valued less than a cow in their culture. So, the deeply rooted cycle of abuse happening in India functions under the idea that although slavery is illegal, it isn’t illegal to enslave them. Because according to the caste system, well, they aren’t people. Not only are they isolated from society, forced to drink unclean water, and live in extreme poverty with limited to no access to employment, health care, etc. but they are also targeted by loan sharks for all the reasons previously stated. They are easy – often illiterate prey to a predatory loan.

These predatory loans are most often offered for $68. To us, that’s a dinner out. To them, that’s the possibility of keeping their children alive. Their family afloat. That’s the only help they have ever been offered. Once they agree to the terms of this loan, which include astronomical interest rates, they often unknowingly are agreeing to send their child to pay off their loan if they are unable to. This falls closely under today’s definition of bonded labor, explained below. Once a child is taken as collateral and told that they can return home once their family’s loan is paid off, they are instead often sold across state lines to the highest paying slave owner. These slave owners are often quarry owners too, which makes these taken children forced laborers.

According to testimonials of children rescued by Set Free’s partner pastors, they are forced to work from sunup to sun down with just a piece of bread and a cup of water for the day. They sleep on the rocks, exposed to the elements, they are raped and assaulted, and are forced to mine for rocks that are often bigger than them. But don’t take our word for it. Take a moment and read Shakti’s story.

These children face a hopelessness that is hard to comprehend. And the only way to stop it is to understand why it’s happening.

How Do We Define Modern Slavery?

According to Global Slavery Index, we define modern slavery as situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, or deception. There are an estimated 50 million people living in one form of modern slavery, more than at any other time in history. The slave trading infrastructure has only expanded with the use of technology, interstate systems, etc. And the counties with the highest number of enslaved people – India being number 1 – are the most conflict-affected or have the weakest governance over anti-slavery laws.

Differences between bonded labor, forced labor and slavery:

Bonded Labor – 

By definition, bonded labor is an abuse analogous to slavery in which individuals are pledged to work either for a money lender or a landlord to repay a debt or loan. This also applies to children who are forced to pay off their family’s debt. According to Article 1(a) of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Silar to Slavery (1956) as “the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or of those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined.”

Forced Labor –

By definition, forced labor occurs when individuals are compelled against their will to provide work or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Traffickers for forced labor frequently target vulnerable populations such as children, individuals without lawful immigration status, those with debt, and those who are isolated, impoverished, or disabled. Forced labor is also considered by the ILO “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Forced labor includes slavery and practices similar to slavery, bonded labor, and debt bondage. Just with bonded labor, anyone can be exploited in this way, but specifically marginalized groups such as women, children, or low-caste people are targeted.

Specifically, the Asian and Pacific regions are targeted by this time of exploitation in the form of forced labor. Traditionally, forced labor was seen widespread in agriculture but is also seen in growing proportion in the mining, tailoring, rice-milling, carpet weaving, and brick-kiln industries.

Slavery –

By definition, slavery is the practice or institution of holding people as chattel involuntarily and under threat of violence. It is also considered the state of a person who is forced, usually under threat of violence, to labor for the profit of another person, or a situation or practice in which people are entrapped by debt and exploited. This type of slavery is what we saw in American history from 1804-1865 against groups of African people and in many other places around the world.

When slavery began in India, and the Hindu people were held captive as chattel during wartime, it would be defined as slavery. Modern slavery in India falls more directly under forced labor but it’s important to note that these different definitions do not function in silos.

Why Does This Still Happen?

As discussed, specific to India, the deeply rooted belief in the caste system, extreme poverty, limited government assistance, and economic structure, make the Untouchable and lower caste people of India ideal victims of modern-day slavery.

Not specific to India, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has reported that human trafficking is a $150 billion-per-year business, which has eclipsed the illegal arms trade and is well on its way to eclipsing the international drug trade. Modern slavery, inclusive of bonded labor, forced labor, and human trafficking, is rising minute by minute, an epidemic that we must not ignore. We must not remain compliant.

How You Can Help

Set Free’s in-country partners are working tirelessly to set thousands of children free from slavery. To date, Set Free has rescued over 80,000 children and won’t stop until every child is free. Here’s how we’re doing it:

  1. Prevent slavery
    • Children are taken as payment for predatory loans that families take out. Many families agree to these loans under false pretenses – that their child will work for a stipend to pay it off, be treated fairly and protected, and come home to their families. Instead, these children are taken and sold as slaves.
    • Set Free’s solution: To stop the cycle of child slavery, Set Free’s partners pay the lenders directly and in-full, receiving the paperwork and ensuring that children will not be taken as payment.
    • After Set Free pays off the lenders, the families pay us back in terms they can afford, either in cash or the equivalent in rice or firewood. This repayment is used to care for the children rescued from slavery in our care that have not been able to be reunited with their families.

2. Rescue children – There are more people enslaved in India than anywhere else in the world. Despite slavery being illegal it does not operate in the shadows. The process of rescuing a child usually starts with a phone call. Our partner network of over 11,000 pastors are regularly tipped off to the locations where children are being held in slavery. Some of these locations include quarries, brick factories, brothels, medical testing facilities, and even child sacrifice situations. The process varies depending on the situation and the location, but after receiving a phone call tipping our partners off to the location of child slaves – they will travel to visit the location for themselves. These pastors work to develop a relationship with the children. They work to gain their trust, offer hope, and eventually rescue them from the bondage of slavery.


3. Reunite when possible – There are numerous reasons why children are victims to child slavery and trafficking. While some children were sold into slavery by family members, many have been kidnapped or manipulated into those circumstances. When our partners find villages where children have been taken, they work to build relationships with these families. We want to reunite as many children as possible with their families, but we must also ensure that their homes will be a safe environment for them. While the large majority of families are desperately longing for their children, there are some families where the risk of the parents selling their children into slavery again is too great. These children are then cared for long-term, loved, and equipped for a successful future under the care of our partners.

The epidemic of slavery around the world, and specifically in India, is complex to understand. We hope by looking back at slavery’s origin in the country, its evolution, and who is marginalized by it, you now have a better understanding, leaving you feeling more equipped to make a difference.

Learn how you can make a difference through Set Free’s work in India.

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