Death and Despair:  Reflecting on Assam’s Tea Gardens and Its Workers

Co-Written by Prithiraj Borah and PoojaKalita

deben dutta

Perhaps the void that is produced by death sometimes creates a space – to reflect and to introspect. The despair that some deaths evoke, rather than pushing us to a state of nothingness or blind blame-games should set in motion strings of questions in which we and some of our fellow beings exist and how. Such has been the recent death of Dr Deben Dutta; a doctor/medical officer who was brutally attacked and lynched by a mob on the 31st of August, 2019 at Teok tea estate. Of course, it is beyond painful to come across such tragic news. But pain at times gives us a deeper understanding of living that is beyond the dichotomy of death-life, absence and presence. Thus, along with our condolences for this particular death, in this article, we attempt to look deeper into the paraphernalia of issues of ‘justice’ in question following it. These reflections are imperative at this point as we cannot afford any more of such tear-jerking incidents.

After the death of Dutta, the civil society in Assam, particularly the doctors have called for protests and strikes. Police arrested 21 men, because of the video, which is widely circulated in social media. Although it is a distressing incident, such a ‘death’ inside a tea plantation of Assam is not an unfamiliar one. In colonial and post-colonial times, these ‘deaths’ have also been categorised as ‘spontaneous’ and ‘violent’ means of protests. The news of this incident has sadly ignited a ‘class’ war in the social media. The print and television news media are not left behind. Most of the dominant ‘Assamese’ media houses are calling them ‘uncivilised’ and primitive’, somewhere mentioning them as ‘coolies’. This is certainly not an adequate approach to bring justice by evoking colonial stereotypes.

The term ‘coolie’ has its origin grounded in the history of atrocities and exploitation done to the indentured labourers during colonialism. If today some section of the ‘Assamese’ population privileged by their class and caste are classifying themselves as ‘modern’ subjects, and at the same time painting the ‘adivasis’ on the canvas of ‘other’, it is because they suffer from certain kind of a historical amnesia. They have forgotten that Assam achieved ‘modernity’ because of the work and labour provided by these very ‘adivasis’ in the tea plantations, often under exploitative circumstances that have hardly changed even in contemporary times. The exploited ‘adivasi’ workers are dehumanised by the brahminical/colonial system which privileges the latter. They enjoy a hegemonic authority through the cultivation of norms, culture and idea of progress, civilisation and barbarism. The ‘adivasi’ labourers are dehumanised in the same way as the one who adopts the coloniser’s world as their own and look upon their fellow colonised with anger, disgust and pity, through a profound internalisation of prejudices of the colonisers.

The disciplined workforce is produced through a culture of patronage and in the contemporary situation the figure of burra sahib (senior manager) is the outcome of colonial lordship. Social practices inside the garden are explicitly patriarchal, however the women pluckers inside a garden has been exploited through ‘wage slavery’ to create the system of inequality. Manager’s hukum(order) works through a hierarchy of overseers and supervisors who all are man, however, the role of sardarniis also ‘masculine’ in nature. Work and domination inside the garden along with colonial roots also carries oppressive material practices. The relationship maintained between planters and workers are in the form of mai-baap meaning father and mother, which still exists inside the tea gardens.

Thus, gender, class, caste, and ethnicity are closely embedded within the plantation practices of difference, power, and hierarchy. The social separation inside the garden can be understood through symbols of caste, race and ethnic boundaries, which comprises of rituals, gestures, conversation, demographics and the disciplined body of work. A majority of the plantation workers either belong from lower caste or adivasi community and there is a clear differentiation between the workers and the upper castes planters. The commentary on atrocities cannot be limited to the social history of colonialism. The upper caste ideology towards a lower outcaste is coded within the feudal practices.

We should also scrutinise the economic condition of the plantation labourers.In most of the gardens in Assam they receive a wage of Rs. 167 per day. The student unions Assam All Adivasi Student Assoction of Assam (AASAA) and Assam Tea Tribe Student Association (ATTSA) are still protesting for the increase in wage to Rs. 351 per day. Last week the tea estate management decided that in the upcoming Durga Puja the labourers would not get the usual 20% bonus. This authoritarian resolution was outrageous for the labourers.Under the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965 the minimum bonus payable is 8.33% while the maximum stands at 20%. But the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA) told that the tea industry might not be able to pay more other than the minimum 8.33% due to ongoing recession in the tea industry. While the trade unions and student associations are protesting against the issues of bonus and wage increase of the labourers, all of a sudden, the lynching case took the central stage and the agony shifted against the adivasi community of Assam. Although on 3rd September the AdivasiJatiyaMahasngha, AASAA and ATTSA condemned the incident of Teok tea estate.

Moreover, the dismal state of public health is not a secret. A public health system which is affordable and accessible not only in terms of quantity but also the quality is something that is most needed for the masses. Education, working conditions free from exploitations and humane living conditions are much needed if such deaths or any tragic incidents have to be averted in the near future. If we care about ‘justice’, we also need to address the circumstances that lead up to such violent outburst by a section of people. By merely taking recourse to an idealized romantic picture of Assam’s tea gardens would not serve us much. Without a doubt, we need to face the discomfort of seeing what lays beneath all the beauty of lush green tea gardens of Assam.

Prithiraj Borah is a PhD candidate with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay.

PoojaKalita is a PhD candidate with the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi (India).




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