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Choti

In 2000, some of the 220 residents of Sonebarsa, a quarrying village in Uttar Pradesh, India, revolted against their slaveholders. About 40 families lived in Sonebarsa, all of them Kols, an ethnic group near the bottom of India’s steep ladder of caste and discrimination, and all locked into hereditary debt bondage. Children worked from the age of three or four, and infant mortality was high. Choti was one of the slaves who rebelled. The villagers had begun meeting with organizers from Sankalp, a grassroots NGO that has so far helped 4000 slaves to free themselves from slavery in the stone quarries of Uttar Pradesh. Seeyawati, who works for Sankalp, explained that organizers offered the villagers two things initially: “an example of another village where we’d been able to get some progress done,” and the question: “how long could they live this life as a slave?” Bala, who also works for Sankalp, added: “Earlier on there was no hope at all amongst the people. They didn’t believe they could be free. We gave them a new hope, and said to them: ‘What has happened has happened. The past is past. But it’s up to you to make a change, because it’s your life and the lives of your children.’” The slaves began to organize. Women were particularly central to this process of self-liberation, as Bala explained: “When one of the slave owners came to a house and raped a man’s wife, 15 females came out of their houses and said ‘No more,’ formed their own self-help group and joined us in the movement.” The narratives focus on the role of women in the process of self-liberation: Choti observes that the women “played a very big role in getting revolution.The slaves called a mass meeting, and were joined by 3,500 people from 60 villages. Slaveholders interrupted the meeting, attacked the villagers, and shot guns into the air. The villagers retaliated by throwing stones and one of the contractors was killed. His friends set fire to Sonebarsa—“not a thing was left, everything was gone,” recounts Choti. Eight men from the village were scapegoated and jailed, including Choti’s husband. After the burning of Sonebarsa, Sankalp assisted the 40 refugee families and helped them form micro-credit unions. The villagers pooled their money, and petitioned for a mining lease. But the Allahabad Mining Corporation wouldn’t allow leases and so the villagers moved onto unoccupied land in Uttar Pradesh and began mining it. Authorities protested this in court, but a judge ruled that no unauthorized workwas being done and signed leases. Today the villagers continue to build their community, which they have named Azad Nagar, “the land which is free.”