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Three Laboring Figures: Classification and Legal Regulation Beyond Abolition in Colonial India

My dissertation examines the governance of labor after the abolition of slavery in British India (1843-1947). I focus on Sindh in the Bombay Presidency, locating the dynamics examined within wider imperial processes of classification and order making. I investigate the emergence of conceptual and legal categories that mediated how the law and the state adjudicated questions of free and unfree labor – “race,” the notion of the “free” contract, and the customary social relationship. These three obscuring prisms refracted imperial designations of both “slavery” and “labor,” constraining the extent to which the cultural signifier or analogy of “slavery” could be applied to censure exploitative labor relations.


I trace the local and global iterations of these prisms through three laboring figures in India: the Shidi – the term for African “slaves” and their descendants, the coolie – the formal contract laborer, and the hari – a category of landless, indebted sharecroppers in Sindh. In anchoring the analysis in these figures I traverse three moments of global significance: the 1830s when the British abolished slavery in her colonies, the 1920s when conventions on Forced Labor and Slavery were drawn up at the League of Nations and the International Labor Office (ILO), and the 1940s preceding colonial independence in South Asia. This dissertation argues that the inability to recognize and regulate unfree labor persists through today and explains this, in part, by providing an account of the imperial origins of the category of “labor.”


The challenges of what we now call “modern slavery” and “bonded labor” are not failures of law, but rather stem from dynamics intrinsic to the world order forged by international institutions in the interwar period – embroiled as they were in their colonial entanglements and the epistemic limits of categories of colonial rule.

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