Bullets for Wretched Serfsi 

Pranab Doley and Suraj Gogoi

The tea-tribe workers or bagania/cha-jonogusthi, as it is commonly referred in Assam, are one of the most deprived communities in India. Becoming a target of a colonial project of tea cultivation or Planter Raj, they became bonded labourers in the tea gardens of Assam. Dwelling primarily in tea garden premises in quarters and small huts, they are repeatedly humiliated, isolated and ignored. In many ways, they are the most unfree of labourers in Assam. Often the relationship between the labourers and managers or owners is one of master and slave. This dialectical relationship is evident in the recent shootings in Bogidhola tea-estate in Golaghat district of Assam on the 13th of this month.

A Profile of the Bagania: at the margins/peril of a caste-class intersection

The tea-tribes or bagania were settled around different areas of Assam in various configurations, mostly in the Upper Assam from 1860 onwards to last decade of the 19th century. They include Munda, Oraon, Kharia, Santhal, among others. These tribes were largely from the Chottanagpur plateau, brought to work in the tea gardens. According to the estimate made by social scientist Walter Farnandes their total population in Assam stands roughly at 60lakh. In most social indicators, like health, income and education, the numbers are very dismal. There were also many cases of malnutrition death in a few tea gardens in Barak valley. In short, their quality of life remain in a very precarious state.

Even being a huge group and having significant amount of people also in Barak Valley and Bodoland, they have been denied Schedule Tribe (ST) status. They have been recently clubbed together in the six-group category that have been demanding the tribe status. The others include Motok. Moran, Tai-Ahom, Koch Rajbonshi and Sootea. The United Liberation Front of Assam have also voiced their support to this demand. This presents them with the best possible chance to obtain the ST status.

Tea estates could be a linguists dream to study convergences in its historical progression with diverse cultures from Koraput, Sambalpur, Gondwana, Chottanagpur, and Bihar among others dialectically constructing and deconstructing itself. The faltu/idle profiles of Tea Estates are increasing at an undeterred rate turning them jobless and seasonal wage labourers in their own Tea Estates where they were born. The increasing cutting down on labor intake as a cost cutting measure of tea estates and the increasing propensity to use the sick industry syndrome by the owners leaves the workers with no choice but to migrate out in search of livelihood. Pushed out, the bagania is left to the mercy of a turbulent and hostile world of caste based exploitation in an extremely chauvinistic Assamese society, where they are mostly treated as second class citizens. Without any recognition of their agency or their identities within the tea estate spaces they are worst off in the hitherto semi feudal spaces. Now terminologies such as Bengali (pronounced Bongali), coolie, majdoor, bagania are used in a derogatory manner to categorise the other. Untouchability has become a predominant norm, where castes and classes distinctions are perpetuated without even an inherent understanding of it! Despite this entire social ostracising, the battle for dignity rages on, erupting at times only to be decimated by their own, with grandiose promises and assuming a vicious circle of its own.

The struggle for increase in wages have been a long-standing one, however, the owners and the state still remain unperturbed by it. Even though the workers decision to increase their wages from the existing 115-150 rupees/Day (Approx) to 350 rupees could be considered a unanimous demand, but the unions representing them like the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress seems to have a difference of positions with its own wards. The gathering of thousands of tea workers again on the 20th of Nov, 2017, in the now emaciated Dighalipukhuri Space (a space use for socio-political expressions in the Capital City of Assam) did not usher in much hope.

The wage board of the Sarbanada Sonwal led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Govt. has seen the inception of Bharat Cha Mazdoor Sangha (BCMS) a  BJP patronised union with no history of working for the rights of the tea garden workers in Assam to determine the wage of Tea Garden workers. The casuality of this crony-capitalist decision was the Cha Shramik Majoori Briddhi Songrami Samiti, led by seven different units of progressive workers organisations with commendable mass base amongst the tea workers. Thus hangs the demand for the increase in wages to 350 rs/day in a conundrum. 

Verbose promises from well adored podiums galore every five years, only to be forgotten in the rubric of tokenism. Not even the multiple ministers and Members of Legislative Assembly that they benignly forward their concerns has been able to lift them up from the fate of extreme destitution. The due recognition of a worker is still elusive to this huge mass of population that decide the fate of the electorate in Assam. To this date the struggle for the increase in minimum wages has been haggled around. The Tea Districts Emigrant Labour Act, 1932 or the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 does not give the labourers any agency to negotiate their rights, whilst they continue to be under the mercy of the management and its cohorts of unions. Anyone daring to raise their voices is met with punitive measures, even to the point of losing their jobs.

Assam tea is a very familiar commodity around the world, however, the lives of the labourers who make it available to the world is one of humiliation, isolation, poverty and exploitation. Sameer Tanti, a very well-known poet who was born into a tea-tribe family, very vividly and painfully recounts the everyday suffering and humiliation of his community. His poems and prose are a reminder, at the very least to what we have done to them. He took to poetry with a strong resolve to bring out the ‘unsaid’ social world of the tea-tribe of their wretched state and maybe, in the process, instil some sensibilities among the government and the land owing class, not to mention the caste Assamese. His poems are filled with experiences of death, loneliness, humiliation, hunger, sadness, and grief, among others. Even after all that he and his community have experienced, he still speaks of love and a space of connection with others and them. However, what they get is a bullet, when then demand their rightful wage.

The adivasis remain isolated and violated. They have been at the receiving end of multiple violence both from state and non-state actors. In Bodoland, and even before Bodoland was created, they have been repeatedly targeted by armed groups. The most recent is the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction) killing of 2014, where 81 odd people were gunned downed near the foothills of Bhutan. Apart from that they were also attacked in 1996, 1998 and 2002 where more than 300 people lost their life. Tanti writes:

Go, give them the news

tell them the water is knee deep now
they have to give the boats alone
the graveyards are to be dug up tomorrow
that should tell them allii

Their life of humiliation and as an out-caste culminated to a very significant event in Guwahati where Laxmi Oraon, a 19-year-old braveheart was brutally assaulted and stripped in the broad daylight in the city. That is the image that most of the oppressors want to see and make them become one. They continue to remain hapless. The poet writes again:

Where a murder will occur
Where a girl will be raped
Where a youth will hang him
I am still living just to pay the taxes for last one time.iii

Firing at Bogidhola Tea Estate

While gathering to demand their rightful wages, the workers of Bogidhola Tea Estate were openly fired at, gravely injuring 11 workers which leads to a district wide strike by Tea garden workers in Golaghat District of Assam. Tea Estate Workers have been the victims of an unending vicious cycle of exploitation for centuries. This experience has not just been post-colonial, but was widely seen in the colonial period too. The protest of Bowalia T.E. in 1884 and the similar strike in 1921 in the Helem T.E. are some of the striking examples where the protest were brutally suppressed. In the same year, in Kacharigaon T.E. the local Congress leaders belonging to the caste Assamese section even sided with the British to suppress the labour unrest. They struggle to survive, to make themselves heard, they burn in the effigy of broken promises and at times which is very often there are outbursts where their anger is always met with brutal repression and wily negotiations. Reeling under a daily wage that is almost half the government wage, not to mention of demonetization and doling out ATM cards to those indentured workers, who struggles every evening to manage every penny of their wage in a long queue, while weighing small quantities of 200 gm of pulses/dal, 50 ml mustard oil, 2 kg rice, and a little fish or meat is a luxury which they have to manage with arduous calculations. Not to mention the millions of particles of thyodine (a pesticide which is so poisonous that it can rip off tissue on the chest outside when consumed, even diluted) that they inhale on a daily basis.

Now, when feudal owners are gradually shifting their interests from tea gardens to other lucrative usage of land, they have completely abandoned the workers welfare. It has gone from being non-existent to invisible. There multiple such accounts that can be scripted on the mortal remains of a classical field of colonial exploitation that still continues in the tea estates of Assam. Bogidhola is no different in reflecting all that is wrong in an enclave labour based economy. They went in search of their rights and met with the bullets of feudal owners. Do we ought to treat them like that?

Assam is not just a ‘colonial hinterland’iv, it is also of caste, dominance and slavery. Roughly 60% of the total tea-garden labourers are females and they are constantly harassed by the babus and mohoris (supervisors). Such exploitation never see the light of the day. The bi-polar nature of caste in Assam relegates them to outcaste, creating a fertile ground for distinction. In Tanti’s words, Adivasis are ‘discriminated and segregated’. They have largely been kept isolated form the larger Assamese society. This distance is of great sociological importance as they become an Other, voiceless and victims. Or, wretched serfs.

We have taken oath in the hovels,
to remain forever happy asking for alms.
What else has remained in the earth to eat?v

i Expression borrowed from Sameer Tanti’s poem no 35 of the collection Kali Norokor Pora. These poems of Tanti are translated from Assamese by Bidyut Sagar Baruah.

ii Stanza borrowed from his poem Go, give them the news.

iii From his poem no 35 of the collection Kali Norokor Pora

iv See Tilottoma Mishra’s Assam: A Colonial Hinterland, EPW, Vol. 15, Issue No 32., 09 Aug, 1980.

v See Sameer Tanti’s poem no 35 of the collection Kali Norokor Pora.

§ Pranab is an activist based out of Kaziranga, Assam and Suraj is a PhD student at NUS.

§ Parts of the article might have appeared in various social media platforms of the authors.