The province Bengal of the nineteenth century, by and large, conjures up image of sufalam malayajatsitalam, thanks to the hymn in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. That there was slavery sounds discordant with the impression created in literary creation. But the truth is different from the euphoria, if any created thereby, though with best of intentions. The unpalatable fact is that slavery was quite widespread in that land of sujalam sufalam malayajasitalam. The high pitch hype of renaissance in Bengal in the background of slavery is a paradox. The lower province of Bengal was endowed with a large army of slaves till early 20th century. Strangely, the fertile and prosperous Eastern Bengal, now called Bangladesh, returned them in the main. They were called Golam or Golam Kayasthas. Interestingly, they did not grow out of poverty that afflicted Western Bengal more than Eastern Bengal. If poverty was responsible for the birth to slavery in province like Bihar, relative prosperity and comfortable living standards and styles, on the contrary, resulted in other form of exploitation yielding slaves. The key to slavery in Eastern Bengal is shrouded in large-scale sexual promiscuity in Hindu homes there. This makes it most distinctive in character and dimension among the slaves. The colonial records of nineteenth and twentieth centuries bear testimony to it. Table-1 shows the slaves or Golam Kayasthas of Eastern Bengal for half a decade between 1871 and 1921.


Table : One


The origin of slaves in Eastern Bangal merits some discussions to throw light on its scope and character. Sir Herbert Risely, ICS, superintendent of census operations of Bengal in 1901 states that a Sudra caste there ‘‘descended from maid-servants by their masters of good caste; also called Golam or Golam Kayastha.’’ He explains further ‘‘In Chittagong, there are said to be two classes of Sudra viz., Pushpanjali or Phulanjali, who are descended from maid servants by their Kayasth masters, and Hangutia who are the off-springs of widow.’’ Sale of slave black women in the USA by insertion of advertisement in the press is certainly offensive to civilized norms; but the plight of the widow or maid behind the curtain of respectability in Bengal homes is no less reprehensible. It merits serious attention of those who are concerned about violation of human rights and dignity. We may explore the distribution of slaves in Bengal to understand the incidence of this unfortunate social evil.


The district of Dacca, Faridpur, Backarganj, Mymensingh, Tippera, Chittagong, and Noakhali--- all in Eastern Bengal--- claimed the lion’s share of the Golam Kayasthas. Table-2 demonstrates the position more explicity.


The civil surgeon of Dacca in the 1870s, Dr James Wise observed that buying and selling of domestic slaves ‘‘still goes on and it may be safely stated that there is hardly a family of any distinction which has not several bhandaris on its establishment.’’14 Bhandari, it is clear, was but the general name for the slave. He further testified that ‘‘Brahmans, Baidyas, Sunris, and Banias possess slaves, but none of these castes have ever permitted their servants to rise in rank or assume an equality with their masters.  It goes to the credit of the Kayasthas to allow their slaves, Golam to rise in rank and assume the status of their master's caste and this explains why the strength of the Kayasths increased by 64% in three decades between 1901 and 1931.16


In the wake of publication of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India in 1927, there was tremendous uproar in India against her. She was alleged as the colonial stooge to smear India. Prominent Indians including friends of India from abroad in the field of art, culture, literature, politics strongly believed that Miss Mayo had portrayed India as her unfit for selfrule with an ulterior motive with a view to perpetuate the British rule. Several men of talent and sholarship took up pens defend India and her cause for independence. One of them was the gifted Kanhaya Lal Gauba who, in 1929, wrote Uncle Sham, a work of diligent research to merit close attention. While highlighting America's sexual perversion and promiscuity, Gauba quotes a Report of Special Service Committee, Toronto, 1915 on the baneful role the massage parlours, which were very popular then. It says:


‘‘It will be sufficient for the purpose to say that nearly all the so-called massage parlors investigated were houses of prostitution, and worse--- ‘worse’ standing for things abominable and unspeakable.... It is more impossible to give the details of the treatment given by the women to men.’’


In Eastern Bengal, the maidservants and widows in respectable houses were precisely in the same moulds as their sisters in the massage parlours in Toronto, USA. With glee, people tend to raise finger to the fault of others. Gauba was as mindless as Mayo. The women in the respectable households were mere captives. In Toronto, their counterparts had the freedom not to report for duty or business in the massage parlours. In Bengal, they were caged. The unhappy women were like the poultry in charge of the preying foxes and thus a caste was raised in the backyards of respectable households beyond the eyes of the people at large. In Orissa too, the sexual orgies were similar but with a difference. There too a caste, called Shagirdpesha was raised. Unmarried maids were gifted as a part of dowry. This luxury obviously was in the rich, feudal and respectable families. The census of 1911 has documented the follwing:


‘‘In Orissa concubinagae prevails to such an extent, that it is a recognized institution to which no discredit attaches. Formerly it was so widely prevalent, especially among the Karnas, that it has given rise to a caste, known as Shagirdpesha, numbering 46,000. It has long been the practice among the Chiefs, Rajas, and large zamindars for the bridegroom to receive a number of maidservants, who are young unmarried girls, as presents from his father-in-law at the time of marriage. The number is often very great, running up to 50 or 60, while one Raja had 100 concubines. These girls have a recognized position in the household. A separate room is attached to each, and they are given a daily allowance of food from the zamindar’s storeroom which they cook themselves... Almost all the Rajas and big zamindars insist on having and get young unmarried girls as presents when they marry. The greater the number, the greater the eclat of the occasion. These girls are the maids of all work, and the more handsome among them share the beds of their mistresses’ husbands.’’


The size of the respective population ---- Golam Kayasth and Shagirdpesha-- suggest the vastness or smallness, as the case may be, of the people engaged in sowing the wild oats. In Bengal, the harvest was bountiful because large section voluntarily engaged themselves in its cultivation than in Orissa. However, the Bengali's misdeamanour did not remain confined to the native boundaries. It spilled over other areas beyond his homeland. In the background of the Golam Kayasths in Bengal, the case of the slaves in Orissa warrants careful attention for details. Edward A Gait, ICS had recorded the Oriya slave’s state and status in some details. According to him:


‘‘The Shagirdpeshas are specially interesting, as they are the true caste in this Province which takes its origin from miscegenation, and which is still adding to its numbers in the  same way. Amongst

the members of the highter castes of Orissa who do not allow widow remarriage, and also amongst the Kayasth immigrants from Bengal, it is a common practice to take as maidservants and concubines women belonging to the lower clean castes, such as Chasa and Bhandari. The offspring of these maidservants are known as Shagirdpesha. They form a regular caste of the usual type and are divided into endogamous groups with reference to the caste of the male parent. Kayasth Sharirdpeshas will not intermarry with Karan Shagirdpeshas nor Rajput Shagirdpeshas (their number is very small) with those of Kayasth origin, but intermarriage between the Shagirdpeshas of Karan and Khandait descent sometimes take place, just as such marriages sometimes occur between persons belonging to the castes to which they owe their origin. The caste of the mother makes no difference in the rank of the children, but those who count several generations from their original progenitor rank higher than those in whose case the stigma of illegitimacy is more recent.’’


Incidentally, the word Shagirdpesha is Urdu and not Oriya. The same authority has favoured the  posterity with little more details in this behalf. He says that :


‘‘The word should properly be confind to the offspring, of Bengali Kayasths, and that the illegitimate children of Karnas and other castes of Orissa should be called as Golam Krishnapakshi or Antapura or again Antarkaran, Antarkhandait, etc... The relationship between the legitimate children of a man of good caste and their bastard brothers and sisters is recognized, but the latter cannot eat with the former, hence they called Bhatantar, or separated by rice. They are entitled to maintenance, but cannot inherit their father’s property so long as they are any legitimate heirs. They usually serve in their father’s house until they grow up and marry; male children are then usually given a house and few bighas of land for their support. The Shagirdpeshas are sometimes known as Golam (Slave), a term which is also applied to the Sudras of Eastern Bengal who appear in several respects to be an analogous caste. Another appellation is Kotha po (own son), as distinguished from praja po (tenant son), which formerly denoted a purchased slave. Their family name is usally Singh or Das. Some of them have taken to cultivation, but they will not themselves handle the plough. They usually live in great poverty. It is said to be impossible for a Shagirdpesha under any circumstances to obtain admission to his father’s caste. If a man of that caste were to  marry a Shagirdpesha woman he would outcast and his children would become Shagirdpeshas. Persons of higher rank (usually outcastes) are admitted to the caste. A feast is given by applicant for admission, and he is then formally acknowledged as a caste-fellow.


Every caste in this great ancient country has a scriptural or divine or enigmatic origin. Golam Kayasths in Bengal and Shagirdpeshas in Orissa defied the seers and siants. K L Gauba overlooked the domestic brew though it left homes strinking.


By his institutes, Manu classifies slaves into several categories (1) one who becomes slave for food in scarcity or  famine; (ii) one who is born in the house of a female slave; (iii) one bought; (iv) one given by his parents or relatives; (v) one inherited as part of patrimony; (vi) one who becomes so far paying of fine or judicial decree. (Manu. Ch. VIII.415). Even the ancient seer could not conceive of the kind of slaves aforementioned in Bengal and Orissa. Grinding poverty, no doubt, reduces man or woman to slavery. Famine too compels people to sell  off children, no doubt, reduces man of responsibility of proving food and shelter by their parents. There are ample historical proofs to show that in war victorious armies have taken the vanquished slaves. Indiscriminate indulgences in sexual misdemeanour raised a formidable army of slaves in that part of Bengal that fits squarely into the description of the famous sujalam sufalam malayajasitalam, bande mataram of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. What a contrast of the Bengal of renaissance to elude notice altogether !

Notes & References


1.                  Dogra, Bharat, Gender Injustice, article in Frontier, Vol. 31, No. 4, August 23-29, 1998, Calcutta, p.3


2.                  Biswas, A.K., Understanding Bihar, Blumoon Books, New Delhi, 1998, p. 170.



3.                  Biswas, A. K, Sonepur Fair --Slave Market of Yore? Article in The Hindustan Times, Patna, December 16, 1996.


4.                  Ibid.



5.                  Biswas, A.K. Understanding Bihar, p.170.


6.                  Ahmad, Qeyamuddin, A Mid-nineteenth Century Case of a Long Term Lease ; Article in The Indian Historical Review, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, Vol. XV Numbers 1-2 (July 1988 &January 1989), 1991, pp. 276-277.



7.                  Ibid.


8.                  Ibid.



9.                  Ibid


10.              Ibid.



11.              Ibid.


12.              Sec.1, Act V, 1843.



13.              Census of India, 1901, Vol. VI, Part 1 Report, p. xiii


14.              Ibid, p.348.



15.              Biswas, A.K, Understanding Bihar, p.189


16.              Ibid.



17.              Gauba, K. L, Uncle Sham, The Times Publishing Company Lahore, May, 1929, p. 129.


18.              Census of India 1911, Vol. V, Part 1 Report, pp. 325-326.



19.              Census of India, 1901, Vol. VI, Part 1 Report, p. 433.


20.              Ibid, pp. 433-434.



21.              Ibid, p. 434.