July- September, 1999 , Volume 1  No. 1

Socio-Cultural Vicissitude and Servitude in Arunachal Pradesh

A. K. Thakur

Even after the successful completion of the 50 years of India’s Independence last year and the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Declaration of Human Rights this year, it would be surprising to the conscious citizens of India that still in a north-eastern state of India the age old practice of servitude is in existence. The continuance of this practice, despite administrative measures to abolish the same, compels us to look afresh into the socio-cultural vicissitude and slavery in Arunachal Pradesh. And for the same, to us, the most systematic approach is still the "Marxist"; despite being conscious of the extremes adopted and consequently providing defective orientation and conclusions by S.A.Dange and S.A.S.Hussaini on the one hand and Karl Wittfogel on the other, while applying Marxist approach in their writings. To us the Marxist history writing should incorporate the application of historical materialism with its post Marx sophistication and regional variations, without blindly accepting the stereotype. Because, Marxist method of history writing is only a tool of analysis, it is not a finished product1. With this conceptual framework we have attempted in the present paper to comprehend the role of religious ideologies as the tool of exploitation of lower orders of the societies in the hands of ruling clique in general with special reference to that of Arunachal Pradesh, where both the conventional as well as the non-conventional religions are in practice.

Here it is significant to mention that the socio-cultural and political arena of Arunachal Pradesh is really a melting pot of age old various socio-cultural and political ethoes of India2 and the world. This paper has been divided in three parts. The first part deals with the prescriptions of various world famous religions in favour of the servitude; in the second part the aspects of the religious beliefs and practices of Arunachal has been discussed, and the third part of this paper is in form of conclusion.


The Aryans in India succeeded in establishing their control over certain areas and consequently enslaved the women and remaining men of the defeated people as most of the early conquerors3. The changes in subsequent centuries (1000 BC – 600 BC) towards an agricultural economy and the urbanisation gave birth to caste and class divisions. The establishment of four Varnas and four Ashrams system with different natures, functions and correspondingly different stages in life, the rights and duties, the procedures and penalties for the different classes of the society were graded and clearly dealt with accordingly. Ideology (mayakarma and rebirth), and force (even of the king) were both systematically employed to slowly and rigidly develop servitude in forms of caste, class, gender, polution, untouchability etc.4 The Aitareya Brahamana characterizes a vaisya as anyasya balikrt, "tributory to another" , anyasyadya, "to be eaten or lived upon by another" and yathakamajyeya, "to be oppressed at will" and a sudra as a anyasya presya, "to be expelled at will" and yathakamavadhya, "to be slain at will". This advantage of the ruling class with the willing and active cooperation of Brahmana priests was not the end of servile position but women were also brought under the same fold. It had been stated that a women, a sudra, a dog and a crow are the embodiments of untruth, sin and darkness5. All these marked significantly the emergence of a politico-economic system where the labour of sudras, slaves and women and the surplus production of the peasant and artisan are naturally and customarily appropriated by the ruling groups.

By the 7th-8th centuries AD the role of temples as an effective agency for maintaining socio-political order and for efficient extraction of surplus from the peasants and artisans have already been highlighted by many scholars6. As the temple gained in popularity with the Bhakti movement, the services in the temple, the jargon of bhakti, and the deliberate and successful efforts of the ruling class of the humanisation of the deity in the temple came to reflect a particular kind of socio-political organization. The king or any landed magnate or local chief was equated with the deity; and the temple with that of palace7. It seems on the line that as the royal harem there started the institution of devadasi in the temples; providing large scope for various exploitations under servile condition of women in general and particularly of the women of lower castes8. The institution had so much influencial supporters and promoters that but for Mahatma Gandhi’s tour in 1927 in Madras Presidency, a legislation to abolish the devadasi system in Madras Presidency would not have been passed as early as 1929, and to greatest surprise in post-independence Indian history an attempt was made by the temple authority of Lord Jagannath temple, Puri, Orissa in 1995 to recruit some virgin girls as devadasis9. Here, thus, it becomes imperative to argue that despite several reforms in socio-cultural and political arena Hinduism is still misused by vested interest groups for bringing the weaker sections under servile conditions.


It is important enough that like the Upnishadas, Dharmasastras and other brahmanical texts, Lord Buddha also expressed full faith in the theory of high and low births and material position being connected with action in previous birth10. Buddha has given the description of six quarters, where he placed slaves in the lower quarters and according to the commentary this lower quarter is situated where the feet are, where the base, palitha-ana is. He derives his conclusion from the widely accepted belief in the theory of Karma. He also advised the slaves to bear patiently with their lot and never allow any feeling of revenge to grow within themselves, even if the master should try to kill them. In such cases a change of destiny is promised to the slave in the next birth. The rules of the Buddhist and Jaina monastery too did not favour the release of considerable sections of the toiling masses from their world by obligations.

It is true that Lord Buddha tried to confront the caste system squarely or sought to destroy it which had significant appeal on Dr Ambedkar; but Lord Buddha never wanted to obliterate it from society. Because caste was part and parcel of the existing mode of production which benefited the haves at the cost of the have-nots and he was not only perceptive enough to broadly accept this socio-cultural reality but also tried to safeguard the same. The safeguarding of the caste structure is achieved through the highly restricted movement of women or through female seclusion. The purity of women has a centrality also in brahmanical patriarchy because of the purity of caste is contingent on it11.


It is truism to state that the Holy Law of Islam which existed in the time of the Prophet and the pious forefathers for enslaving people does not exist today; even then the study of servitude in Islamic societies is still in its infancy12. This observation seems correct to us also in case of Indian society. The Aligarh School of historians who have been doing some praiseworthy work on various aspects of Islamic history have indifferently treated the subject of servitude and Islam. The same is the condition of some other universities of India. However, the theme has caught the stray attention of some scholars13. But little attention has been paid by scholars, perhaps cautiously, to analyse exclusively the religious sanctions towards the origin of servitude, unlike the "Scientific" Scholars who have worked on the aspect of Hinduism and Buddhism. Even Irfan Habib, writing exclusively on slavery in Medievial India has very carefully treated the theme. He writes in only one sentence that "since slaves under Muslim Law are saleable as any chattel, there was a large slave market"14. Again writing in the Indian Historical Review, (devoted to the theme of the world of slavery) he exclusively confines his analysis on the three sufi texts and keeps completely the aspects of reflections of Islam on survitude out of his analysis15. Almost identical treatment to the theme has been provided by W.Arafat. He has tried to emphasise at length the provisions of manumission of slaves in Islam neglecting fully the analysis of the aspects of origin of servitude in Islam, important enough to be studied16.

Though it is rightly pointed out that "He (Prophet Muhammed) did not condemn but taught that slaves should be treated with humanity and that the liberation of a slave was a pious and meritorious act"17. However, it is clear that the Islamic ideology came to rest upon the premise that the servile state was somehow preordained; that some persons were predestined to servility as securely as others were preordained with the gift of prophesy. Since the tenets of Islam are tethered so tightly to the seinna (model) of its Prophet that servitude and polygamy command wide presence in social annals of Islam. And a simile sometimes struck to us significantly between the condition of servility and the condition of marriage in Islam. It is said that in the market the master buys his slaves, whereas in marriage, the husband purchases his wife’s productive part. For the security of the dower, the women’s sexual self is enslaved for the protection of his lord, as the slaves’ physical person is secured. Manumission is seen to break the seal on the neck of the abd (slaves) as divorce is viewed as release for the women’s productive self18. Here it is also important to note the regulations of the Hidayah – if the Musalalmaans subdue an infidel territory, before any capitation tax be established, the inhabitants together with their wives and children, are all plunder and the property of state, and it is lawful to reduce to slavery all infidels, whether they are Kitabees, Majoosees, or idolaters.19 All these contributed to the emergence of adjectives attached to the servile class in Islam viz. abd, riqq, regaba, fataya, fatati, qain, qaina, ghulami etc. However, in subsequent centuries the servitude could not remain the exclusive domain of infidels, we have the information that the people of Sudan had been Islamised by 19th century, even then the Sudanis were exported as slaves.


It is rightly said that "His (Prophet Muhammad) attitude toward it (slavery) as revealed in the Quran was similar to that of the Christian Churches…."20. Coming to the aspect of studies in Christianity too, we find that some efforts have been made, perhaps, for religious sanctions in favour of servitude like Islam. Perhaps in the same line. S. Manickam in the introduction of his book21 writes in very clear terms, criticising Hindu practices in detail, "Thus in the case of Judaism and its offshoots, Christianity and Islam humane treatment was meted out to the slaves…..The Roman religion (Paganism) was always sympathetic and considerate to the slave." He further writes in support of his formulations" conversion to Islam, Christianity or Buddhism was yet another potent factor that has weakened the hold of serfdom in India." But the objective study of the faith and its sanction towards the enslavable mass provide us an altogether different picture. Some of these aspects have been discussed by Dr V C P Chaudhary and P P Singh in an archival probe in Indo-Nepalese relation on slavery, some other research works and some of my previous papers on slavery22.

In place of slavery by nature of Aristotle now ‘slavery by fortune’ was propagated by the Hellenistic, Roman and Christian treatises. Though the New Testament at one place appears denying any difference between slave and free, ‘there is neither free bond nor free….’ But the lines of a text in Ephesians clearly ordains slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling as unto Christ. The slaves must obey their respective masters in reverence and fear as a counterpart of God. St.Augustine accepted slavery as God’s punishment upon mankind for the sin of Adam – a highly indiscriminate method of collective punishment. St.Ambrose says "The lower the salvation in life, the more exalted the virtue." It is also said "Christians saw virtue in meekness, obedience, patience and resignation"23 opening vast area for exploitation of the lower order. The feeling of equality might have existed before Almighty and had nothing to do with temporal affairs. Thus it can be said on the basis of above discussion that such type of discriminatory and exploitative mechanism of Christianity was highly developed as that of any other non-conventional religion24.

On the basis of the above discussion in respect of non-conventional religions (Brahmanism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) it can objectively be argued that discrimination, seclusion and exploitation were the integral parts of their socio-religious culture. Their sanctions significantly emerged as the powerful tool into the hands of the ruling clique for their socio-cultural, economic and political dominance. And, all these were very masterly bestowed upon the servile class as divinely ordained to isolate them socially, to deprive them economically, to oppress them politically, to humiliate them morally and also to deculturise their personality. Thus, the servile class was created to be exploited and were exploited only to be enjoyed by the master.


Conventional Religions

For investigation into the relationship between the religion and servitude we have also to analyse the aspects of the conventional religions. In this paper our area of investigation is confined to the conventional religious practices in Arunachal Pradesh only. Here, like non-conventional sanctions, the religious beliefs, myths and dogmas were also in favour of servitude, giving birth to oppression of servile class for the material progress of the society.25 The aspect of slavery in the North-East India in general and in Arunachal in particular, have not been studied by historians, sociologists, anthropologists and other scholars seriously. Except some stray references in Assamese Buranjis, Govt. records, reports, travel accounts etc. and brief descriptions in scattered form in some researches of post Independence period a serious monograph has not come out as yet26. So my personal contact with the people of this area of about a decade is of great help to analyse the aspects of conventional religions prescriptions, like non-conventional religions, towards the origin of servitude. In Arunachal Pradesh some regional variations have been observed but due to scope and ceiling on space of this paper that aspect has to be left out.

The legends and myths, an integral part of the conventional religions, throw some light over the origin of caste/class like structure in Arunachal Pradesh. According to a popular legend – long long ago all men descended from heaven to earth by means of ladders. The Assamese and Akas (a major tribe of western Arunachal Pradesh) of the royal blood came down through a golden ladder, the remaining Akas had a silver ladder, the Tibetans and the Monpas (another major tribe of western Arunachal) were given a ladder of iron. The Daflas and Aboras (major tribes of Central Arunachal) had to be satisfied with a bamboo ladder, while the Cacharis (Assam) and Khoas (a minor tribe of Aka area) shared a plaintain ladder. After evaluating the legend with socio-cultural realities of the area we come across the fact that Khoas were not fully in match with Akas or other major tribes of the area. Now though the situation has changed very sharply still it is correctly reported that inter-dining and matrimonial relations between the two communities is non-existant. The Kutsun section of the Hrussos (Akas) boast that they were called ‘Hazarikhoas’ since they had been the master of a thousand Khoas.

It has been seen that pride and self-esteem is a mighty psychological force in practice in most of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. And the eschatological beliefs in the same line favour the formation and continuity of the servitude. Hence, the institution of slavery was fully in practice under conventional religions, consequently approved by customary laws. The eschatology denies any reward or punishment in the next birth. A man’s status in another world would be the same as in this. If he has been rich here, he may have houses and good possessions there. If he has had slaves and servants in this life, he will also have them in the next. The ghost of a warrior will be respected even after his death as he himself was admired during lifetime. On the other hand a poor man will remain poor even after death.

It is reported that some times masters did not feel illogical or immoral to be accompanied by the alive slaves on their own death to utilise their services for their comforts in the other world. Among the Daflas (Nishis) the Orums (Souls) of the deceased on the way to Gneli Nyoku (the land of the dead) had to meet the guardians of the under-world who questioned the new comer to his demesne. Deeds of valour are approved of and who had killed many enemies and had honours was entertained with food and drinks for several days. Hence, as per the practices of conventional religion masters are afraid, ‘if they give up their slaves their ghosts will be unattended and without honour in the other world’. So, the masters were desirous to maintain the servile class.

Here not only masters but some slaves were also guided by eschatology of their own as thrust upon by the traditions of oath in the name of the tiger, the elephant, the bear, the fish etc. If the slave disobeys the oath, he would die. The oath might have been taken by the slave or his ancestors. Here, it is also significant to mention that to continue the caste and class purity the members of the servile class were secluded sexually as the case with Brahmanism and Buddhism. It is the outcome of the socio-cultural vicissitude that in a recent survey more than three thousand five hundred bonded labour/slaves have been identified in the East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh.



In the light of our preceding discussion, it can be asserted that our civilization seems to have developed a diamorphic character – a symbiosis of its different socio-segments against nature, but parasitism within itself. In this connection it has rightly been expressed that social parasitism creates a situation in which most of the achievements of culture or civilization are available to a relatively small group of socially privileged people, as a result of which the mass of the population are robbed of what is rightfully theirs, and even find that many of the achievements of culture and civilization are used against them.27

And in such a situation where they were being exploited, to continue the exploitation, religions have been used or misused by the ruling clique to keep the servile class "in meekness, obedience, patience and resignation". Role of religion in the society on the line suggested by Marx that Religion is the sigh of the opporessed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.28 Even young Bhagat Singh has ably realised this role of religion and has clearly explained that religion is not created by the ruling and exploiting classes merely to deceive the people to legitimize their class privileges and power, to keep the people socially quite, but it also serves that purpose in real life and, therefore, it becomes an ally and instrument of these classes.29

After the above discussion we also reach the conclusion to explore further the linkage between the psychological and material dimensions in the process of enslavement. For instance, was the slave a slave only because of his/her broken will or because of the exclusion from material resources and the existence of an effective coercive system which ensured their captive submissiveness?

Notes and References

  1. V.C.P.Chaudhary (ed) Bhartiya Itihas Lekhan, Patna, 1983; Swami Sanjanand Saraswati, Patna, 1990; C.Sharma (ed) Itihas Lekhan Men Anchalikta, Patna, 1992, A.K.Thakur (ed) Itihas Ka Mukti Sanghara, Patna, 1992, S.Prasad (ed) Price of Scientific Historiography, Patna, 1991 (All these books of Rahul Press, C/12, Patrakar Nagar, Patna-20); Sharad Patil Dasa-Sudra-Slavery, New Delhi, 1982 (Passim); A New Way of Life; towards a synthesis of Marx and Ambedkar" Mainstream, 31, June 24, 1995 pp.15-18 and V.K.Thakur, "Role of religion in the exploitation of lower orders in ancient India" paper presented to the meeting of the Marxist Study Circle, Patna University. March 1992 and reproduced in Swayanprabha, B.M.D.College, Dayalpur, Bihar 1994-95.
  2. A.K.Thakur, ‘Defence Mechanism in Arunachal Pradesh : A study of fortification and forts’ in the theme paper State City and Society World Archaelogical Congress, New Delhi, 1994 and Karnal Singh, A.K.Thakur et. Al. (ed) Customary Laws of Arunachal Pradesh, Patna, 1993 (Passim).
  3. For details see Gerda Lerner The Creation of Patriarchy, New Delhi, 1986.
  4. V.Jha, ‘Social Stratifications in Ancient India: Some Reflections’ Presidential Address, Indian History Congress, Calcutta, 1991, Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya Lokayat : A Study in Ancient India Materialism, New Delhi, 1959, : Bhagvat Gita I, 40-44; Uma Chakravarti Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India’, Economic and Political Weekly, April 3, 1993, pp.579-85; A.K.Thakur ‘ Comparative Perspective of Origin of Slavery and Position of Slaves of Arunachal Pradesh’, Proceedings of North East India History Association, 13th session, Shillong 1993.
  5. The Satapatha Brahmana, xiv. 11.31.
  6. M.G.S.Narayan and Veluthat ‘The Temple in South India’ and some other papers presented in the symposium on ‘The Socio-Economic Role of Religious Institution in India’ Indian History Congress, Badhagya, 1981 and Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya, op. Cit.
  7. M.G.S.Narayan and Veluthat’ ‘The Bhakti Movement in South India’ in S.C.Malik, (ed) Indian Movements : Aspects of Dissent Protest and Reform, Simla, 1978, pp.51-2 and Keshvan Veluthat ‘Religious Symbols in Political Legitimation : The Case of Early Medieval South India’, Social Scientist, xxi, 1-2, Jan-Feb.1993, pp.23-33.
  8. Jogan Shankar, Devadasi Cult : A Socilogical Analysis, 2nd end. New Delhi, 1994, A.S.Altekar, The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, Benaras 1956; D.R.Chanana, Slavery in ancient India, (Rev.edn.), New Delhi, 1990; Engles, The Origin of Family, Private Property and State, Moscow, 1985 and Amrit Srinivasan ‘The Devadasi and Her Dance’ in economic and Political Weekly, xx, 44, Nov.2, 1985 (Passim).
  9. B.S.Chandrababu, Social Protest in Tamil Nadu, Madras, 1993, 115; The Samaj (Oriya Newspaper) ‘Mahari’ and The Telegraph, (English) 24th Sept.,1995.
  10. R.S.Sharma, Sudras in Ancient India, reprint, New Delhi, 1990, pp.149-50; D.R.Chanana, op.cit, pp.60-63.
  11. Uma Chakravarti’ Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India’ op.cit. and V.Jha, ‘Social Stratification in Ancient India’ op.cit. (Passim).
  12. John Ralph Willis, (ed) Slaves and Slaves in Muslim Africa, VOL.I, London, 1985, p.ix.
  13. Except a few unpublished dissertations no serious monograph exclusively on this problem has been published as yet. Here V.C.P.Chaudhary and P.P.Singh (eds) Unclassified Class Oppression Under the Crown, Patna, 1991, pp.61-65; Salim Kidwai ‘Sultan Eunuchs and Domestic’ in Utsa Patnaik and M.Dingwani (eds) Chains of Servitudes Madras, 1988: A.K.Thakur, India and the Afghans, Patna, 1992 (Passim), are important to be mentioned.
  14. Tapan Raychaudhury and Irfan Habib (eds) The Cambridge Economic History of India Vol.I., Orient Longman Edn. 1984, p.91.
  15. IHR. Xv, 1-2, July 1988-Jan.1989, pp.248-56.
  16. The Attitude of Islam to Slavery in Islamic Quarterly x.1-2, Jan June, 1966, pp.12-18.
  17. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol.xxvii, 15th edn; Chicago, 1987, reprint, p.230.
  18. John R.Willis, op.cit. pp. Xiii-ix, 1 4-9, 22; Roger Sawyer, Slavery in the Twentieth Century, London, 1986 and L.J.Archer, Slavery and other Forms of unfree labour, London, 1988 (Passim) and Ram Swarup, Women in Islam, New Delhi 1994, pp.22-25.
  19. K.S.Lal, Muslim Slave System in Medieval India, New Delhi, 1994, p.55 and (passim).
  20. The New Kncycloaedia Britannica, op.lit., p.230.
  21. S.Manickam, Slavery in the Tamil Country : A Historical Overview, revised edition, Madras, 1993, pp.7 and 99.
  22. V.C.P.Chaudhary, and P.P.Singh (eds). Op.cir; Dick Kooiman ‘Conversion from Slavery to Plantation Labour: Christian Mission in South India (19th Century)’, Social Scientists, xix, 8-9, Aug.-Sept. 1991, pp.57-71; A.K.Thakur, ‘British Policy of abolition of slavery in Arunachal Pradesh’ and ‘Christian Missionary: Emanicipation of Slaves in Kerala’, The Journal of North East India Council for Social Science Research, xvii, and xviii 1 & 2 April and Oct. 1993 (respectively).
  23. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. Vol. Xviii, op.cit. p.636.
  24. S.Manickam, op.cit. pp.39-40; Studies in Missionary History: Reflections on a Cultural Contacts, 1st ed., Madras 1988, pp.32-61 and 154-71; B.S.Chandrababu, op.cit. pp.68-93; U.Bisoondayal and S.B.C. Servansigh (eds) Slavery in South West Indian Ocean, 1st ed.Moka, Mauritious, 1989, pp.102-3; Abdul Alkalimat, Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Premier, Urbana, 1984, p.193.
  25. For details see my article and some others in Karnal Singh, A.K.Thakur, et. Al. (ed) Customary Laws of Arunachal Pradesh, (Himalaya) Academic Council, Bomdila) Patna, 1993.
  26. H.K.Barpujari (ed) The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol.V., Guwahati, 1993, pp.209-14; Problems of Hill Tribes in North East Frontier, 1863-1962, Vol.III. p.133; R.Ried, History of the Frontier Areas Bordering of Assam 1883-1914, p.133 (ed) India’s North East Frontier in the 19th Century, Madras, 1972; C.F.Haimendorf, Highlanders of Arunachal Pradesh, New Delhi, 1982 A Himalyan Tribe : From Cattle to Cash, Delhi, 1980, Kanath Ganguli, Slavery in British Dominion, Calcutta, 1972; A.K.Chattopadhya, Slavery in Bengal Presidency, London, 1977; M.M.Sasmana, The Ramos of Arunachal , Delhi, 1979; A.K.Thakur ‘Institution of Slavery : Conflict in Continuity’ in Karnal Singh, A.K.Thakur, et al ed op.cit. A.K.Thakur’s Comparative perspective of Origin of Slavery and the Position of Slaves of Arunachal Pradesh’ op.cit. and A.K.Thakur’ Religion and Slavery : A Case Study of Arunachal Pradesh’ accepted for publication in Prajana Bharti, K.P.J. Research Institution, Patna, Bihar.
  27. Mikhail Mochedlov, ‘The Concept of Civilization in Marxist Philosophy’ Lidiya Novokiva. (ed) Civilization and the Historical Progress, Moscow, 1983 p.37.
  28. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol.III, Moscow, 1975, pp.175-76.
  29. Bhagat Singh, Why I am an Atheist, New Delhi, 1994, pp.9-10.
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