Barefoot Harsh Mander

Lost livelihood

Workers on a tea estate in Assam. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  

The even greater tragedy of the coordinated murderous December 23, 2014, attack on unarmed Adivasi forest dwellers in Assam, which left dead more than 70 people including children and women, is that the assault targeted one of the most oppressed and dispossessed communities in that entire region.

A meticulously researched paper titled “‘Lazy’ Natives, Coolie Labour, and the Assam Tea Industry” by Jayeeta Sharma recounts the grim history of their settlement as indentured labour in Assam since the mid-19th century as an element of the great colonial capitalist enterprise. The discovery that Chinese tea flourished in the hills and plains of Assam led to the clearance of vast forest tracts for tea plantations. They originally relied briefly on labour imported from China, but they were found unequal to the hard labour required for clearing the thick jungle undergrowth.

This gave way to employment of workers from indigenous tribal communities like the Nagas, who they found sturdy and hard-working and often willing to work in return for as little as some rice, shells and beads. But they worked when they chose, and refused to be regimented and controlled. They experimented with other local tribes, but the problem of their resistance to the iron discipline of the tea gardens led them to search for outside workers.

Around that time, tribal communities from the Chotanagpur plateau of Central India were recruited in large numbers to labour at dirt wages in sugar factories, indigo plantations and railway construction. These workers abundantly met the standards of tough, resilient and acquiescent labour that the plantation owners were seeking. Sharma recounts, “Men, women, and children were sent from Central India; a long, difficult journey by steamers, roads, and later railways, into the jungles and gardens of Upper Assam.”

These indentured workers and their families were housed in cramped and poorly serviced workers’ lines. Sharma records: “Flight was almost impossible since ignorance of the terrain, coupled with bounties offered to hill people to track runaways with dogs ensured that the plantation existence had to be borne against all provocation.” To make matters worse, British planters were armed with private penal powers to arrest workers who tried to leave before their indenture contracts were completed.

The availability of large forest tracts attracted workers to remain in Assam even after their contracts ended. They cleared forests to carve out paddy fields, and were also available as contract labour, called faltus, during peak plantation seasons. Gradually settlements grew in erstwhile forests in which indigenous tribal communities like the Bodos, former ‘coolie’ Adivasis, caste Hindu Assamese, and Nepali and East Bengali new settlers lived side by side. Their links with their original homelands gradually snapped; although they spoke their original Adivasi tongues, they learnt Assamese and often Hindi.

The system of virtual slave labour continued right up to the 1920s, when a nationalist agitation led by Gandhi and C.F. Andrews finally resulted in the ending of the indenture system. But even though they were now nominally free, these workers remained submissive and severely exploited, and continued to work under near-colonial conditions of employment and housing long after Independence.

It is estimated that the so-called ‘tea-tribes’ constitute between 15 to 20 per cent of the population of Assam today, but they survive with the poorest human development indicators in the state. The tea-tribes are not notified as Scheduled Tribes in Assam; therefore they are deprived of the benefits of reservations. Labour economist B. Saikia reports in 2008 that tea-garden labourers are typically paid wages lower than the minimum and even paid partly in kind. Tea-garden labour lines have been always kept underdeveloped and dependent for their basic survival needs of the tea-garden management, so that they can procure cheap labour.

The misfortunes of this oppressed and deprived people were compounded following the creation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council in 1993. In this region, indigenous tribal Bodos, the Bengali Muslims and the tea tribes each constituted roughly 30 per cent of the population. Waves of violence successively targeting Bengali Muslims and Adivasis were unleashed by armed Bodo militants. Some of the most brutal attacks on Adivasis were mounted in 1996 and 1997, at the peak of which three lakh Adivasis escaped to relief camps. Some of these camps have not been disbanded even nearly two decades later.

Indentured labour from the same regions, who were transported to countries like Fiji and Mauritius, have today acquired education, economic strength and on occasion risen to positions like the Prime Minister. It is a dishonour to India’s democracy that in their own country, this gentle and industrious people still remain exiled to the outer margins of survival, exploited, malnourished, uneducated, and defenceless before wave after wave of targeted violence.

The views expressed in this column are that of the author’s and do not represent those of the newspaper.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 10:18:17 AM |

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