top of page
Rectangle 7.png


  • Writer's pictureNyayshastram

Slavery From Inception to Abolition

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Vijayant Goel & Jiya Jain, Nyayshastram


Slavery is when a person is owned as property by another person. It is considered as a person who is treated as a chattel and does not have fundamental human rights which are available to a free person. Slavery has existed in many cultures in human civilization. It was legal in many societies but is now outlawed in many countries. Though it is said that slavery is abolished in many places, but still it is practised beneath the eyes of the law.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declared freedom from slavery is an internationally recognized human right. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration states:

"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

As of 2019, there were an estimated 40 million people worldwide subject to some form of slavery,25% of them are children. Human Trafficking is one of the most common forms of the modern slave trade.

Nearly 46 million people live under conditions of slavery across the world, with 18 million (39%) of those in India, which makes it the home to the world's largest number of slaves, according to 2016 Global Slavery Index, in India hundreds of children are trafficked and enslaved for work.

The practice of slavery was abolished in many countries all over the world, but the same has not been criminalized in many countries. In almost half of the world's countries, there is no criminal law penalizing either slavery or the slave trade.

Types of Slavery

In a broad context, slavery is classified into four categories:

1. Forced Labour: In this, labour is forced to work against his/her own will. They work due to the threat and coercion exercised by their employer. One prominent example is that of Child Labour. The children are forcibly exposed to hazardous industrial work.

2. Bonded Labour: Under this type of slavery, labour is forced to work to pay off his/her debt which they own against their debtor. Another example of bonded labour is that they are made to work for long hours and paid significantly less.

3. Chattel Slavery: The people are bought and sold in the market. An individual becomes the property of the owner and has to serve as a servant throughout his/her life. This type of slavery is considered a disgrace to human dignity.

4. Forced Marriage and Sex Slavery: In this type of slavery, women and teenage girls are forced to marry a man who is way more in age than her. Throughout her life, she is physically and sexually tortured by her husband.

Laws Governing Slavery in India

Ancient Times

Slavery has been common in India since ancient times or likely earlier. In the historical period, there were many dynasties which followed the practice. For instance, the Mauryan Empire banned slavery. Slavery in India escalated after the 11th century when Muslim invaded India. According to Muslim historians of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire era, after the invasions of Hindu kingdoms, Indians were taken as slaves, with many exported to Central Asia and West Asia. Slavery in India continued throughout the 18th- 19th century. During colonial times, the slave trade was carried by the British East India Company. Over a million labourer from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Malabar was taken as a slave to European colonies of British, French, and Portuguese. The Portuguese imported the African slaves into their colonies in India.

Prohibition and Regulation

In 1773 East India Company opted to codify the pre-existing pluralistic judicial system, with Europeans subject to English Common law. The legal tradition of Muslims to the sharia-based Fatwa-e-Alamgiri, and Hindus to an adaptation of a Dharmaśāstra named Manusmriti, that became as the Hindu law. For Hindus, an interpretation of verse 8.415 of the Manusmriti regulating the practice of slavery. The Company later passed regulations 9 and 10 of 1774, prohibiting the trade in slaves without written deed, and the sale of anyone. A Danish Captain, Peter Horrebow, was caught and prosecuted with fine and imprisonment for attempting to smuggle 150 Bengali slaves to Ceylon. The Company subsequently issued regulations 10 of 1811, prohibiting the transport of slaves into Company territory.

Indian Slavery Act, 1843

The Indian Slavery Act, 1843, also known as Act V of 1843, was passed in British India under East India Company Rule, which outlawed many economic transactions associated with slavery. The Act criminalized the sale of persons as a slave across the country under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956

The Government of India Act ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others in 1950. After that, in 1956, India passed the Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act 1956(SITA). The Act was amended in 1986, resulting in the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, also known as PITA.

PITA discusses trafficking in relation to prostitution. The Act defines the illegality of prostitution and punishments for owning a Brothel. The act punishes a person for a minimum period of 7 years which extend to a lifetime for taking a person takes a child for prostitution.

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976

The Parliament enacted the legislation to end the practice of bonded labour that flourished across the country for a long time. It was passed to free the people across the country and prevented physical and economic exploitation of the marginalized people. The Act also sought to work on the rehabilitation of the bonded labour and see to it that they are not pushed to do the same thing again. The Act made any requirement of repaying the Bonded Debt by the bonded Labourers null.

Indian Penal Code, 1860

Under Indian Penal Code 1860, Section 370 of IPC criminalizes importing, exporting, buying, and selling of any person as a slave. Even if a person detains, any person will also be charged under the provision.

Section 370A of the IPC criminalizes trafficking. Trafficking is defined as dealing with something illegal. The provision was introduced under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. It says that if any person for exploitation hires or harbours any person by way of coercion, threats or abduction will be made liable under the provision. The offence is non-bailable and cognizable in nature.


Slavery was practised in almost all parts of the world. There are several treaties, declarations and conventions which abolish slavery, but even today there are practices in many countries which come under the broad definition of slavery.

India is the second-most populated country in the world. There are many people who are employed in the country, but beneath the cover, they are still employed as bonded labours or slaves. Apart from the bonded labours, some people get meagre wages or do not even get paid for their work. They are made to work for long hours and not awarded a decent salary in return.

India has implemented various slavery laws for the protection of people. On the other hand, more people are living in modern slavery than any other country. For instance, The Bonded Labour Act 1976 has a provision which allows assistance in providing food, shelter, and clothing. They are made to work under bad conditions and hardly paid, so they do not have an asset or skill to survive. Several NGOs are also working for the same cause. Government of India should strictly implement such laws which are enforced and take more steps to rescue these people.



100 views3 comments


Shrishti Jain
Shrishti Jain

Well Articulated, a good read!


Anjali Baskar
Anjali Baskar

Slavery in the USA and UK on Africans is extensively covered, but Indians in slavery is overlooked. Slavery is not only indentured labour. Even the institution of wrongful incarceration is considered to be a form of modern-day slavery. Nice Analysis!


Juhi Maheshwari
Juhi Maheshwari

Very well written!

bottom of page