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  • Gina Netto

Guest post - reflections on Rajwantia's journey

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

Rajwantia’s journey from a remote rural village in Uttar Pradesh to the embarking of the ship heading for South Africa makes for fascinating reading. It is a rare glimpse into an under-studied aspect of the British colonial empire from the perspective of a female indentured labourer. Within the field of migration scholarship, the perspectives of women have tended to be neglected, and where considered, viewed mainly through the lens of family migration and reunification with husbands who had initiated the move. Imaginatively narrated by Kaliani, Kasturi and Sanusha, Rajwantia’s life story clearly reveals that women too featured in the plans of colonial administrators and were in fact encouraged to support the sustainability of indentured labour. Her biography also reveals that even when travel to the country of destination could take several weeks, migration histories were complex, and not necessarily limited to a single permanent move to another country.

Rajwantia’s departure from her village provides valuable insights into the chilling exploitation of desperately poor people through a carefully planned and orchestrated system. Her bonds to her young son are all she has as she leaves her village behind. As she meets her fellow travellers, she must negotiate her identity as widow, mother and young person simultaneously, as well as her changing status from an impoverished peasant to that of indentured labourer. Add to this her Muslim identity in a largely Hindu country, and the complexity of her identity struggles are compounded. Her choices in how she would navigate her way through new terrain must always have been influenced not only by how she saw herself, but also by how others saw her – initially, her fellow travellers, and later the multiple colonial administrators and stakeholders of indentured labour. The scope for Rajwantia to exercise individual agency and the fulfillment of her personal aspirations must always have been severely constrained by the way in which colonialism intersected with the oppression of patriarchy, class and poverty. As the distance from her village increased, the opportunities for turning back narrowed, forcing Rajwantia to consider the options available to her within the reach of her shackled employment.

The narration of Rajwantia’s biography invites us to consider parallels between her position and the current situation of migrant workers, and the scope for the evolution of new forms of modern slavery. I would suggest that we do not have to look too far or delve too deep into the annals of history. Earlier this year, in the UK, the existence of ‘repayment clauses’ which are widely used in the contracts of individuals recruited to work within the NHS and the private health care sector came to light. Such clauses force individuals to pay thousands of pounds should they decide to leave before their contracts end, effectively resulting in either their forced retention or their impoverishment should they decide to return to their countries of origin. This is despite their service, often at the frontline, during a global pandemic, and widespread public acknowledgement of the crucial role played by health care workers during this period. At the time of writing, the routine inclusion of such punitive and exploitative clauses is being challenged by MPs. The retention of such clauses suggests that while the system of indentured labour may no longer be as widely practiced as it once was, wherever there is an interest in recruiting individuals on an industrial scale - whether to fill skill shortages in a vital public service or for commercial gain - we must always be alert to the potential for exploitation, if not enslavement.

Gina Netto


Dr Gina Netto

Reader/Associate Professor in Migration and Race Equality,

The Urban Institute,

Heriot Watt University.

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