A glimpse into lives of Adivasi tea plantation workers

A representative image

The books deal with contemporary socio-political anxieties haunting adivasis of north-east India, many of them working in tea plantations and with history of oppression at the hands of the state

It is June 2018 in Lamabari. With the Durga Puja celebrations gearing up, fields in the Bodo Territorial Administrative Districts (BTAD) brim with some leftover hope, as they witness the idol-making children gathering hay under the dim sunlight. The first ever tea sapling was planted here in 1919 by the British. Today, the main tea estate is under the Tata Enterprises. As per the local folks, this region was once home to the Tibetan monks (hence the prefix “Lama”); this bit is a fading memory. Inside the gardens, the burden of unfulfilled colonial promises hangs still. Like every other year, some political party appeaser or the other reaches the corners of Sonitpur and Darrang, to promise the Adivasis about prospective land, opportunities
and more.

Magan Samra, 42 years old, who has worked since a teenager under scorching humid conditions, tells me he has attended too many such party functions. Son of an Adivasi, he doesn’t prefer to be called by local terms “bagania” or “tea-tribal”. He opines that it is very easy to reduce a community to a vote-bank and give them such labels— a distorted and romantic image is best served that way. Our week long conversations mostly consisted of a news series I had read in a regional daily. The ATTSA (Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association) had been assured by Tarun Gogoi (former Chief Minister of Assam) that an academic centre would be set up to help the students from Adivasi communities to excel in competitive exams. This report stated that the failure to implement the Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951, has come to the government’s notice and strict steps shall be taken henceforth.

Times have changed since the 1950s and a lot of Adivasi workers have been assigned quarters in this area (more than 530 as per Samra). But cultural chauvinism is still a very important factor behind the socio-economic depravity of their lot. On this issue, Samra says “PLA cannot be enacted fully if the Maternity Benefit Act is violated. Since there are many uneducated women who get pregnant soon after puberty, deplorable conditions inside the gardens often lead to their premature deaths”. Low wages, extra labour for no pay, forms of violence—domestic and sexual—are some of the violations of the aforesaid Acts. Moina (30), a mother of three children, happens to be Samra’s neighbour and companion to his wife’s early morning hustle. When asked about the Maternity Act, she pointed out, “Even if there are laws in the gardens, back in our homes, we, the women folk, have other secrets. Few years back, alcohol consumption took a toll on us, since then, de-addiction programmes are held from time to time. But, sometimes, our men secretly procure addictive substances”. As she makes the hand gesture of a drunkard and laughs cynically, her aunt joins us with a “hush-hush”, lest anyone hear us all.

When wounds become a subject of cynicism for thesuffering community, one can concur that the state of affairs is deplorable.From the 2007 Dispur incident, where an Adivasi woman was stripped naked inpublic, to the 2012 killings of a tea management family at Kunapathar Tea estate (followed by a cannibalistic feast), the frustration of Adivasi labourers raises some silenced issues.

Moina and Samra are also negotiating with the rules of NRC (National Register of Citizens) that plans to drive out “illegal immigrants”—and have, often, failed to recognize citizenship even for families that have been toiling away in the tea plantations for generations. In places like Jorhat, the Chah Mukti Sangram Samiti had already spoken up about the workers as ethnic tribes of the region and the need for immediate inclusion in the NRC. “The situation might be better in Jorhat, but here in Lamabari and Mazbat, our documents are not yet arranged chronologically, as most of us are not that educated with numbers and signatures. Further, there is a lapse of generations—both my grandparents were migrants, they hardly had done any paperwork. Today, it is tough for me to prove my ancestry from my paternal side”, informs Samra.

Modern-day political trauma faced by the Adivasis reminds me of the larger socio-economic picture, ever since the pre-colonial days. Revered scholar Amalendu Guha had noted that during 1847-59, the introduction of scientific methods brought a boost in tea production, but the plight of the labourers only went from bad to worse. This tells us that commercial output cannot be a trademark for a society’s overall development. The British industrial idea to forever crush the labourers was later transported to the beneficiaries of Western Enlightenment, the class of the tea-estate managers and their upcoming generations. Some of the literary accounts have taken prescient note of these complexities. Set in the backdrop of World War II, Jogesh Das’ 1955 novel Dawar Aru Nai (Gone are the clouds) depicted the lives of the Doomdooma tea labourers (in Tinsukia district) who were lured to join the airfield by an upper caste estate manager for illegal profits. The names of the labourers—Bhim, Gauri, Duryodhana—has a parallel with the epic Mahabharata, even though the focus is on the changing social landscape after the war.

Then, in 1958, Birinchi Kumar Barua wrote Xeuji Pator Kahini, a novel which studies the social tussle between white planters, tea-estate owners and the labourers in pre-Independence India. Amidst the suffering of the oppressors, we get a glimpse at another side of the story: the rising ennui in the domestic lives of the tea-estate owners. Aparoopa, Jahnu Barua’s 1982 film is one such commentary where the eponymous heroine seeks an escape from her dull physical/sexual imprisonment as a tea-planter’s wife. Another film called Chameli Memsaab, based on Nirode Choudhury’s story, took a nuanced stance on the character of a sahib named Berkeley, who is accused of killing his beloved Chameli, an Adivasi worker. Violence was not an invention of the sahibs, rather their presence created a sense of “outsider” anxiety that had accelerated it.

As I kept chatting with Moina about the depiction of Adivasi women in the arts, Magan Samra showed me his small library. It was a corner of pamphlets and some of his oldest poems written in the Adivasi language. He hopes to set some of them to tune, as he is a very good singer too. “When I am not working in the gardens, I am interacting with the children in the residential labour quarters. The cacophony of little ones keeps this place alive. The brightest of the lot make it to the SEBA affiliated school in Mazbat, about 3 kms from Lamabari,” he says.

While Samra’s wife was busy making a cup of tea for us, I had asked a few of them—“What do you want to be when you grow up?” And they had replied in chorus, with an enthusiasm that I found very surprising. “Ami Army banega”, “Amiyu Army mein jayega” (I will join the Army; I too shall join the Army). It is an answer that haunts me till today—as Lamabari and Mazbat inhabitants have both seen the worst of the Indian Army taking fascist control over the years. Fascism comes in multiple forms; they know it all too well. And now with the NRC, Samra adds, “We have proof right in front of us”.

I only pray that these gardens, home to the Adivasis, are still green to witness the dreams of their children come true.

(The author is an independent writer and researcher based in Guwahati)

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