How long till the last slave?

“We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years”

– Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, nominal representative of a billion-plus people, in New York to a rapt audience of many thousands.

A two-century margin of error is at least curious, if not an abomination, when cherished liberty is spoken of, surely?

Even if we may tolerate this frivolity, the statement reveals more. What happened in India in 800 – 1000 CE that apparently so strongly relates to the notion of ‘slavery’? Foreign invasions, yes; but by far not the first. Alexander came to India more than two thousand years ago. A hundred years before him, Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote of India paying homage to Persia, and that was earlier still, and must have been drawn in the aftermath of battles. Also, India, like Germany in later times, has always been a term perhaps best stated within quotes, because borders were not fixed, and there was no formal political unity.

The more recent invaders of 1000 CE were Muslims – Islam was relatively young – from the west, some with a religious bent to their marauding; some of them went on to found an empire that ruled a large chunk of what is commonly thought of as India. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister, who belongs to a Hindu-leaning political alliance – in a part of the world where Hindu and Islamic philosophies have often bloodily clashed – picked that as the advent of slavery. Choosing the Islamic invasions as the starting point of a supposed Indian slavery might be defensible, but it is scarcely conciliatory. It is especially surprising coming from an acutely intelligent orator, and a little worrying given his great influence. Moreover, the past in its entirety belongs to all of us – the good bits, the glorious bits, the embarrassing bits, the absolutely despicable bits.

India saw so many invaders, travelers, traders and immigrants over the many millennia, and developed or adopted so many tongues, races, Gods, arts, and customs at meat, that the notion of identity, of ‘we’, is necessarily complicated, going far beyond the demarcation of land borders. Who was enslaved, who did the enslaving?

As an aside, the term ‘slavery’ itself is not very precise. Surely, we may not restrict it to the legally-sanctioned ownership of a human being? Are not some forms of exploitation the same as slavery, as well as some forms of forced dependence, and also institutionalized or widespread discrimination against certain groups of people on arbitrarily chosen grounds? The latter includes the caste system, racism in general, the outlawing of homosexuality, and the persecution of religious minorities, and those who rebel against taboos.

Going back to the original statement, ‘We were slaves for a thousand or twelve hundred years’: this is largely irrelevant – at least, it has become so since the time the people of France conceived of the ideas of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. What does it matter whether a nation is ‘free’, if large numbers of her citizens languish in unending misery and debilitating indigence, and are bereft of a voice, of justice, and of access to humanity’s cultural wealth? Indeed, the definition of liberty would have to be changed, before such a nation be deemed to be free. To insist upon a country being ‘free’ only because the ruling class has a few external characteristics in common with the exploited class, is anachronistic nationalism.

We have many freedoms, but we are slaves, all of humanity, and we shall not rid ourselves of this ghastly mark till every single one of us is free.