Bonded Labour in India: A study of the erstwhile Lushai Hills district of colonial Assam
Dr. Lalhrilmoi Hrangchal
Department of History
Silapathar College, Silapathar, Assam
Having roots in the country’s socio-economic culture, bonded labour, an offshoot of the Caste system in India, continue to remain a burning subject of study through the nexus of time. Slavery and its modern forms were once thought to exist only in valley states, but traditional and customary practices of hill people show otherwise. Bonded labour was practised in various forms even in the remotest areas. The present article looks into the bonded labour practices of the erstwhile Lushai Hills district of colonial Assam where there existed certain forms of bonded labour among the hill people. There was the Bawi system, bonded labour undertaken by Subjugated Tribes, labour of the group of serves known as Sal or real slaves of the hills, and Forced or Impressed labour undertaken by the whole population of the hills under colonial regime. Each of these systems differs in nature and practice while being unique in their own setting. But they all bore the essence of bondage and servitude. Extensive discussion here however, is not possible due to constraint of space. As such, a little of everything is discussed in the present work. The paper follows a descriptive analysis methodologically and necessary data are collected from the National Archives of India, New Delhi, Mizoram State archive, and Assam State archive while secondary sources include books, journals, news letters from various state and district libraries.
Bonded labour, Bawi, Sal, Subjugated Tribes, Forced or Impressed labour.
The Lushai Hills district was inhabited by various communities of tribes having similar cultural and traditional backdrop. These small tribes have entered the hills at different intervals of time. They were the Hmar, Poi, Lakher, Mara, Chakma, Thadou, Vaiphei, Vuite, Ralte, Darlong, Biate, Hrangkhol, and other smaller communities. Clan feuds and quarrels were frequent occurrences. Around 1870, the Lusei tribes under Zahmuaka, entered the scene and settled in those parts where there was more disunity. They vanquished these small communities and occupied the land. In the process of internecine wars, many people became homeless and poor, with none to take them in. The Lusei chiefs took these into their houses or set up a different village of the subjugated tribes who paid tribute to them. Thus, bondage and servitude began to take its shape. When the British occupied the hills mainly to curb their forays and raids into border areas, missionaries were also brought in. Besides giving the English script and converting the population into Christianity, they did nothing to curb slave-like systems that existed prior to their entry. In fact, they cooperated with the tribal chiefs and exploited the cheap labour to serve their purposes. Below are discussed some of the slave-like practices that existed in the region under discussion.
The bonded Bawi system:
The origin of bawi system can be traced to the tradition of debt bondage. According to Guite, the system ‘began with the custom of debt bondage which gradually included other groups of bonded labourers like war-captives, destitute, criminals and those who were bought.’ He noted that Buchanan was, perhaps, the first colonial to notice boi system in Lushai Hills in 1798. Lewin in the 1860s and John Shakespear, the first superintendent of Lushai Hills (1898-1905) recorded the first detailed account of the boi system of Lushai Hills. There were three categories. The Inpuichhung-bawi (in-house, pui-big). These were mostly widows and children who lived in the chief’s house. The number of this category increased whenever there were internecine wars following clan feuds and subsequent raids. These bawis looked after the children of the chief who had taken them in, weaved and darned clothes, weed jhums and gardens, grind and clean daily supply of rice, cut and hewed wood and fetched water. Male children served as lookouts in the chief’s jhums for animals, birds and thieves, visit animal and fish traps, serve as messengers in war and peace, and ran different errands in and around the village. Female children looked after the chief’s children, carried the young and served the old, ran their bawi-mothers’ chores, fetched water and helped in the gardens. The chief acts as loco-parentis in the case of marriageable girls and took their marriage price.
 See Guite, ‘Civilisation and its malcontents: The Politics of Kuki raids in nineteenth century Northeast India,’
Indian Economic and Social History Review, http://ier sage pub.com/, 48, (3) (2011): 339-76,pp. 366-69. See also
Willem Van Schendal, (ed) Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal (1798): His Journey to Chittagong, the
Chittagong Hill tracts, Noakhali and Comilla, University Press, Ltd, 1992, pp. 89-90.
 Lewin, Wild Races of South Eastern India, TRI, Aizawl, 1870, p. 132.
 Mizoram State Archive, ‘Official Tour Diary of John Shakespear’: Diary for the week ending 20 June, 1891, in
Memo of Offg. Commr. Chittagong, 29 June 1891.
Inhrang-bawi (in-house, hrang-seperate). These were the bawis living in a separate house while being the chief’s bawi. Such a bawi is under obligation to help the chief when he is entertaining guests. He also has to give the legs of any animal caught or hunted to the chief. Chemsen-bawi (chem.-dao/knife, sen-red). Thieves, vagabonds, wanderers and criminals pursued for serious crimes sought the chief’s protection in exchange for freedom to become the chief’s bawi. They live as either Inpuichhung or Inhrang bawi and perform all duties expected of them. Tukluh-bawi (tuk-promise, luh-enter). This category was those who sought the protection of a chief after defeats in war or any other fights. They willingly entered the chief’s house with a promise that they and their children would continue serving the chief in exchange for protection. These were mostly from the tribes subjugated by stronger chiefs. All these bawis could gain freedom by paying a mithun to the chief or Rs. 40, equal to the price of a full grown mithun. Interestingly, no bawi could ever buy his/her freedom as he/she had to serve the chief full time and he/she seldom had time to earn separately. However, they were free to leave their chief as long as they chose a chief related to their former chief which was more of a common practice.
Scholars differ in opinion regarding the status of these bawis. C. G. Verghese and R. L. Thanzawna views that bawis were dependents as they were dependent upon the chief while Sangkima called a bawi a domestic servant or personal attendant of the Chief. Mangkhosat is of the view that it was a ‘mild form of slavery’ for which the early missionaries did not criticize it. H. Vanlaldika described it as ‘the under-privileged strata of society belonging to the lowest strata of the society. Suhas Chatterjee opines that ‘the chief was the head with the slaves doing all the work for the community under his authentication. In the fields and jungles or on the dirt tracts the slave labour was utilized by the chiefs. Slave labour was the basis of feudalistic chiefdom. Lawmsanga described the Lushai slave system into captive and non-captive slaves while Peter Fraser, the British missionary criticized the unjust social structure in the light of the Bible and the British Law by pinpointing the system as slavery.
 C. G. Verghese and R. L. Thanzawna, History of the Mizos, Vikas Pub House, 1997, pp. 39-41.
 Sangkima, A Modern History of Mizoram, (ed), Spectrum Publications Guwahati: Delhi, 2004, p. 18.
 Kipgen, Mangkhosat Christianity and Mizo Culture, (The Mizo Theological Conference, Aizawl,
1997), p. 73.
 Andrew H. Vanlaldika, Social Stratification Among the Mizos, Ph. D Thesis, North Eastern Hill
University, 2003, p. 232.
 Chatterjee, Suhas ‘Socio Economic Change in Mizoram’, in Essays on the History of the Mizos,
Sangkima (ed), Spectrum Publications, Guwahati, 2004, p. 84.
 Lawmsanga, A Critical Study on Christian Mission With Special Reference to Presbyterian Church of Mizoram,
Ph. D Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2010, pp. 110-111.
Bonded labour of Subjugated Tribes:
Subjugated tribes were those conquered and subjugated by the Sailo chiefs of Luseis in various inter-clan and inter-tribe wars. Shakespear notes these “living among the Lusheis under the Thangur chiefs and have become practically assimilated and included in the wider term Lushai. For example, McCall notes 1000 houses of Hmars in Zawlnghak, 150 houses of Rangte, 80 houses of Thado, Biate, Vuite and other clans living in the state of semi-slavery in Kairuma’s village and others in Sailo villages. The subjugated tribes were therefore, remnants of conquered clans, living under the oppressive control of the Sailo chiefs, in a species of serfdom and were not allowed to leave the village. They were chased and brought back forcefully if they made any attempt at escape. Major tribes under subjugation of the Sailo chiefs included the Thadous and Biates, Hualngo, Hualhang, Hmar, Vai sal (foreign captives) and Khiangte, Pnar in Meitei.
This subjugated tribes strengthened a chief’s territory economically. They were required to put in extra labour for the chief besides their own share of work for daily existence. They had to give a measure of their jhum products, pay certain taxes, give portions of animals they killed and caught, built their houses around the chief’s serving as a fort. It was from this time that the compulsory custom of building the chief’s house came into existence. This class of bonded labourers could not play major roles in religious functions and they occupied no important positions. However, they were the pillars of the chief’s chiefdom. They serve as the main fighting force in war.
 J. Shakespear, The Lushei-Kuki Clans, p Tribal Research Institute Department of Art & Culture, Aizawl, (1st
Reprint), 1925. p. 129-130.
 McCall, Lushai Chrysalis, Elephant Industries, New Delhi, Reprint, TRI , , 2003, p.71
 Shakespear, The Lushei-Kuki Clans, p. 184
 See McCall, Lushai Chrysalis, Elephant Industries, New Delhi, Reprint, TRI ,, 2003,
- 71; Shakespear, The Lushei Kuki Clans, pp. 48-49; Peter Fraser, Slavery in British Territory, Assam and
Burma, p.17; Indrani Chatterjee, ‘Slaves, Souls and Subjects in a South Asia
Borderland,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt accessed on 27.07.2010, Rudgers University, p. 9.
Sal or Captive labour:
Sal means a ‘person in captivity’. According to Shakespear, sals were ‘persons captured in raids. But as a rule, only children and marriageable women were taken captive, and the latter were disposed of in marriage, the lucky captor acting in loco parentis and taking the marriage price. Sangkima, and N. E. Perry notes that a murderer becomes a slave. If a man kills the chief’s slave, he becomes the slave of the chief. Among the Lakhers, ‘the first captive made by a warrior became the property of the chief and the village. Men who could not settle their debt asked help from the chief and became his slave for life or unless freed from service, which was a rare occurrence.
Sals were mostly acquired from raids which became prominent from the 1830s onwards. Lewin writes that ‘they were carried out for reasons like (a) recovery of debt, (b) for plunder or to wipe out the disgrace of a previous raid on themselves, or (c) to procure slaves. Frontier areas bordering the hilly tracts lying between Araccan, Chittagong, Tripura, Cachar, Manipur and Burmese plains were regions where raids were most committed. Of these, the highest recorded incidents came from the Chittagong Frontier. The first record dates from 1777. In 1854 alone, Chittagong frontiers recorded 19 raids in 17 years in which 186 persons were taken into captivity. Between 1860 and 1869 in the plains of Tipperah, a total of 100, 80, 15, and 91 persons in Chengri Valley raid were carried off. In Arracan frontiers between 1863 and 1869, there were 30 raids in which 268 persons were carried into slavery. In the Sylhet-Tipperah-Cachar Frontiers, 6 captives, and 42 persons, 64 captives were carried off. In 1859, 45 captives were taken from Manipur and around 200 to 300 people in 1847. In the Burmese Frontier, the Whenohs in 1876, carried off 29 persons, Haka and Yokwa Chins took 28, Tashons in Kale valley carried off four boys in 1887. In October, the Tashons and Siyins carried off 122 Shans.
Sals of Lushai Hills had immense economic value. They were not only the labour force, but were used as medium of exchange especially for the much needed weapons. Female captives were more valued as one fetches two to three guns and more if she was skillful while a man was exchanged for one gun in the exchange market. When married to the hill men, women were more easily absorbed. As such, female sals were more preferred. Generally, sals were also used as gifts to the chiefs of more powerful villages to induce them not to raid.
 Shakespear, The Lushei-Kuki Clans, p. 49.
 Sangkima, Essays on the History of the Mizos, Spectrum Publication, Guwahati, 2004, p.78.
 N. E. Parry, The Lakhers, Macmillan and Company, 1932, p. 224.
 G. C. Rigby, History of Operations in Northern Arakan and the Yawdwin Chin Hills 1896-97, Mizoram
Government Press, Aizawl, 2000, p. 148.
 Lewin, Wild Races of South-Eastern India, W. H. Allen & Co, Tribal Research Institute, Aizawl, 1978,p. 139.
 A. S. Reid, Chin-Lushai Land, Tribal Research Institude, Aizawl, 2008, p. 7.
 Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, 1979, p. 338.
 Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, p. 342.
 Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, p. 351.
 A. S. Reid, Chin Lushai Land, Kessinger Publishing, 2010, p. 46.
 Carey and Tuck, The Chin Hills, Vol-1, p. 17.
 Mackenzie, The North East Frontier, pp. 274-90.
 Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, p. 299.
 Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, p. 305-09.
 Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, p. 290.
 Carey and Tuck, The Chin Hills, p. 125.
 Carey and Tuck, The Chin Hills, pp. 25-26.
 Jangkhomang Guite, ‘Civilisation and its malcontents: The Politics of Kuki raids in nineteenth century Northeast
India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, http://ier sage pub.com/, 48, (3) (2011): 339-76, p.370.
 N. E. Parry, The Lakhers, p. 222.
Forced and Impressed labour:
With the annexation of the Lushai Hills to the British Empire in 1898-99 till statehood in 1987, the population suffered and laboured forcefully under colonial regime’s forced and impressment of labour. It adopted such rules that require every Lushai village to pay tribute in rice, contribute labour for ten days annually irrespective of the days spent in coming and going, the carriage of luggage of officers and escorts, the maintenance of Government roads within their boundaries, and construction and maintenance of paths to admit officers touring freely without great hardships. In 1892-1893, new rules compelled the people to pay taxes to the government every year in the form of chicken, rice, goats by the chiefs. Every adult male was liable to give coolie labour.
 Mizoram State Archive, Letter from Major J. Shakespeare, Superintendent of Lushai Hills to the Secretary to the
Government of Assam, Shillong. No 931 G dated 24th November, 1904.
Lushai Government impressed labour was called Kuli work. This was of two kinds Kulipui and Kulite, major and minor coolie work respectively. The former meant impressed labour for which wages were paid-such as building, carrying loads for Government officers, sepoys, etc. The latter consists of works that involve carrying chaprasies loads not more than one day’s journey, for which, wages were not paid. Through this impressed method, the Government engaged the hill people for almost every work taking advantage of the cheap labour. Though paid for doing these, it was mandatory for the people to contribute such whenever and for whatever called for. In default of such labour, payment was to be enforced at the rate which costs to import coolies from Bengal, that is, a rupee a day.
Impressment was so resorted to that all connecting roads such as, Aizawl to Lunglei, Aizawl to Sairang, Aizawl to Silchar, Fort White to Tiddim, Aizawl to Falam, Aizawl to Tipaimukh, Aizawl to Changsil, Demagiri road, Aizawl to Silchar, Lunglei to Haka, Lunglei to Chittagong, Lunglei to Sherkor, Dokham to Kolodyne, Zongling to Tongkolong, Tuipang to Chakhang and timber bridges on Demagiri-Lunglei road, suspension bridges between Thega Khal and Lunglei, bridges on Oldham Cart road etc were constructed through impressed labour.
In the Annual Report on the Lushai Hills for 1906-07, the total number of Lushais impressed for one day fell from 33,574 in 1905-06 to 23,677 in 1906-07, which was a substantial decrease indicating that the orders of Government on the subject of impressment had received attention. Of the 23,677 impressed coolies, nearly 5,000 were supplied to the military police. The most number of impressed coolies came from the Public Works Department. Even missionary undertakings required impressment of labour. The number entered in the report is staggering.
 Government of Mizoram, Letter No. 226, p. 1.
 Government of Mizoram, CB-27, Gen-335, 1907, Appendix B, p. 13.
 Government of Mizoram, CB-27, Gen-335, 1907, Appendix C.
 Government of Mizoram, CB-27, Gen-335, 1907, Appendix D, p. 13.
The four classes of bonded labour of Lushai Hills did not receive much attention except for the bawi system. A controversy arose between the British Government and missionaries on the issue of it being a system of slavery. The controversy ended with the abolition of the system in 1927. The subjugated class suffered so much under the Sailo chiefs that many escaped and settled in Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Assam while those who could not escape remained and formed the bulk of population in present Mizoram. Regarding the class of Sal, time healed the wounds and is now forgotten. As for forced and impressed labour, the educated class formed unions and relentlessly revolted against their chiefs and the colonial masters. Chieftainship was abolished in 1952. However, forced and impressed labour continued till the district attained statehood in 1987.
Government of Mizoram, Letter No. 226
Government of Mizoram, CB-27, Gen-335, 1907, Appendix B
Government of Mizoram, CB-27, Gen-335, 1907, Appendix C
Government of Mizoram, CB-27, Gen-335, 1907, Appendix D
Mizoram State Archive, Letter from Major J. Shakespeare, Superintendent of Lushai Hills to the Secretary to the Government of Assam, Shillong. No 931 G dated 24th November, 1904.
Mizoram State Archive, ‘Official Tour Diary of John Shakespear’: Diary for the week ending 20 June, 1891, in Memo of Offg. Commr. Chittagong, 29 June 1891.
Andrew H. Vanlaldika, Social Stratification Among the Mizos, Ph. D Thesis, NEHU, 2003.
- S. Reid, Chin-Lushai Land, Tribal Research Institute, Aizawl, 2008.
Carey and Tuck, The Chin Hills, Vol-1, TRI, Aizawl, 2008.
Chatterjee, Suhas ‘Socio Economic Change in Mizoram’, in Essays on the History of the Mizos, 1999.
- G. Verghese and R. L. Thanzawna, History of the Mizos, Vikas Pub House, 1997.
- C. Rigby, History of Operations in Northern Arakan and the Yawdwin Chin Hills 1896-97, Mizoram Government Press, Aizawl, 2000.
- Shakespear, The Lushei-Kuki Clans, TRI, Aizawl, (1st Reprint), 2008.
Lawmsanga, A Critical Study on Christian Missions With Special Reference to Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, Ph. D Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2010.
Lewin, T, H, Wild Races of South-Eastern India, W. H. Allen & Co, TRI, Aizawl, 1978.
Mackenzie, The North-East Frontier, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, 1979.
McCall, Lushai Chrysalis, Elephant Industries, New Delhi, Reprint, TRI, Aizawl, , 2003.
Mangkhosat Kipgen, Christianity and Mizo Culture, The Mizo Theological Conference, Aizawl, 1997.
- E. Parry, The Lakhers, Macmillan and Company, 1932.
Peter Fraser, Slavery in British Territory, Assam and Burma, Carnarvon: Evans, 1913.
Sangkima, A Modern History of Mizoram, (ed), Spectrum Publications Guwahati: Delhi, 2004.
Sangkima, Essays on the History of the Mizos, Spectrum Publication, Guwahati, 2004.
Jangkhomang Guite, ‘Civilisation and its malcontents: The Politics of Kuki raids in nineteenth century Northeast India,’ Indian Economic and Social History Review, http://ier sage pub.com/, 48, (3) (2011)
Willem Van Schendal, (ed) Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal (1798): His Journey to Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill tracts, Noakhali and Comilla, University Press, Ltd, 1992
Indrani Chatterjee, ‘Slaves, Souls and Subjects in a South Asia Borderland,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt Rudgers University, accessed on 27.07.2010