Bullets for Wretched Serfs

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.

Reading Proof as ‘Proofs’: The Search For The Elusive Bangladeshi in Assam

Gorky Chakraborty

One can feel a palpable sense of disgust amongst a large section of population, Assam in general and Central and Lower Assam in particular, for having to provide the proof that one is not a ‘foreigner’ in her motherland. Interacting with them recently at various locations in Barpeta, Goalpara and Dhubri districts, a speech of a noted Assamese intellectual at the dawn of independence flashed in my mind. It was delivered in the following manner:

“Culturally, racially and linguistically, every non-Assamese is a foreigner in Assam. In this connection we must bear in mind that Assam from the very ancient times never formed a part of India. Mythology and legendary allusions apart, viewed in this perspective every foreigner who came to and reside in Assam for trade and other purposes after the occupation of the province by the British in 1826 AD might be treated as alien” (Lecture by B.K. Baua at the Narayani Historical Institute, July 1947, referred in P.S. Datta ed. Ethnic Movements in Poly-Cultural Assam, Vikas: 1990, p.253).

Ironically, what B.K. Barua mentioned about non-Assamese then seems to be now true of a sizeable section of the Assamese as well, the so-called NoAsomia (New Assamese), virtually the latest entrants to the fold of Assamese nationality. The future of the past in the name of on-going updating and ‘correcting’ National Register of Citizens (NRC) has set in a predicament. The mood seems to be filled with exasperation.

Sanskritisation and the Social Ladder
Observers on Assam will agree that migration, settlement and development have been more than often related. In this process, nationality formation also evolved where by different communities became a part of the overarching inclusionary Assamese nationality that evolved over centuries. Sanskritisation facilitated different communities, to come under this fold and those outside were simultaneously accommodated under the fold of the Satras (Vasihnavite monastery, where the reformer, Sankardeva played a pioneering role). Simplistically put, this evolution of becoming a part of the larger Assamese identity happened through a twofold phenomenon.

The first step involved communities outside the fold to be ascribed as Horu Koch (Lesser Koch) whereby adopting the life style of the caste Hindus e.g. through abstaining from pork, beef, rice beer consumption, residing in land instead of the elevated changghar, cremating the dead instead of burial, replacing animistic faith and practices with Vaisnavism/Shakta/Saivism etc. ultimately over a period elevated them to Bor Koch (Higher Koch). This has been an on-going inclusionary phenomenon till the late colonial period. It slowly transformed into a not so inclusionary process, if not exclusionary in the post-colonial era as nation building and linguistic states gathered momentum as a tool for gaining political exigency. This simultaneously created the process of constructing the ‘other’ comprising of population groups which did not suit the requirement of the dominant political discourse.

Wasteland and Migration
Wasteland has been one of the colonial constructs which had far reaching ramifications in the history of Assam. In a nut shell, ‘any land that did not yield revenue to the Crown was marked as wasteland by the colonial administrators’. The usufruct based subsistence agricultural practices of the communities, where private proprietary rights was not entrenched, has never been understood by the colonial administrators who were trained in the Lockeian logic of property. To them, there was plenty of land available in the colony which was to be utilised for generation of revenue to the Crown and thereby usher in civilisation at the door steps of the savages inhabiting the state.

Tea plantation was introduced to utilise the wastelands through lease to the European planters. This necessitated a workforce which was fulfilled by transferring tribal from various parts of Odisha, Bihar and parts of Bengal to work as indentured labour in these plantations. Over the years, it increased the food grain requirement in the state. This necessitated further utilisation of the wasteland by putting in larger tracts of land under cultivation. The colonial administrators coerced the agricultural sector by steeply increasing the land revenue rates, which they thought would force the peasantry to bring in more wasteland under cultivation and thereby increase food grain availability in the state. But it did not work according to their plans and between ‘1869 and 1905, land revenue increased by 80 percent while the area under cultivation increased by 17 percent only’.

The alternative was to bring in population groups from outside the state to undertake agricultural expansion. Debates regarding different population groups (e.g. Bihari Hindu or East Bengal Muslims) and mode of revenue settlement (zamindari or ryotwari) continued for a while and ultimately it was decided that the Bengali speaking Muslims from the densely populated districts of erstwhile East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) will be facilitated to migrate to the Brahmaputra valley under ryotwari settlement. The first partition of Bengal in 1905 put Assam and East Bengal under one administrative unit, which actually helped the process of migration of East Bengal peasant to Assam. This was evident in Census 1911, which recorded more than 26 per cent increase in population due to the migration of peasants from East Bengal, who now comprised nearly 20 per cent of the districts population. By 1921, 2,58,000 migrants settled in Assam and now they started moving beyond Goalpara to Kamrup, Darrang and Nowgong districts as well. To cut it short, till 1951, there number must have been between ‘one to one and a half million, which was between one-tenth to one-sixth of the total population of the state’. Correspondingly, ‘out of the total (1.1 million acres, including plantation) wasteland settlement in 1941, about half a million acre was with the migrants from East Bengal, which was further added by 6,213,000 acres during 1940-41-1947-48’. This introduced a sea change in the agrarian economy of the state within a short span of time, but also had an impact on the socio-cultural matrix of the state as well.

The Schism
The presence of Muslims in Assam goes back to the Ahom era, if not earlier. Later, the first Census of 1871 while locating population groups with more than 2 lakh population in the then Assam identified three groups, namely Koch-Rajbongshi (2,99,346), Kachari (2,58,810) and Muslim (2,50,470). But the migrant farm settlers from East Bengal, who were overwhelmingly Bengali speaking Muslim, generated a threat to the Assamese speaking elites in Assam. Although the migration process was initially appreciated by the Assamese elites, threats emanated once the migration increased at an exponential rate. Threat perception was more socio-culturally rooted as the amorphous group of people, termed Assamese, feared being overwhelmed by the dominant Bengali speakers and simultaneously being engulfed into Pakistan as Muslim League became a principal player in Assam politics under Maulana Bhasani. History suggests that Assam successfully managed to come out of both the threats, but this apprehension has been ‘sustained’ by both the state and non-state actors in the post-colonial era to sustain their hegemony over the masses.

On the other, the community leaders of the farm settlers from East Bengal displayed unusual foresight. Quite early in the process of migration to Assam they understood the difficulty of negotiating a minority status on both counts i.e. language and religion. Quite judiciously, they voluntarily changed the former while retaining the later. In the census declaration, they returned Assamese as their mother tongue and this enabled this language speaker to officially claim a majority status in the state. The puzzle seemed to have been resolved and the politics of majoritarianism through dominance of language ala census became the justification. This has been a common experience in several Indian states in the post-colonial era; Assam has not been an exception in this direction.

The Twists and Turns
The churning related to the evolving process of identifying ‘who is an Assamese’ is an interesting one. Although, not linear yet inclusion into the Assamese fold has been the trend during the late colonial and early post-colonial period. Here, affinity of language has been the pivot around which the deliberations revolved. Religion, although a bone of contention, did not generate fault lines leading to major contradictions. The movements of 1960 (Assam Official Language Act) and 1972 (Bongal Kheda) saw the Bengali Hindus being targeted and tormented in the name of ‘protecting’ the Assamese language from the hegemony of the Bengali. The farm settlers from East Bengal were no more a threat after their acceptance of Assamese as their mother tongue. However, things started to change during the Assam Movement (1979-85) when the slogans Ali, Kuli, Bongali…. Nak Chapeta Nepali….now belonged to a cohort euphemistically ascribed as Bidexi were urged upon to ‘get out of Assam’. This movement while consolidating the core in the Assamese speaking society generated fault lines in the peripheries of the Assamese social structure. The tribes of Assam such as the Bodos, Karbis, Missings, Dimasas, Rabhas to name a few, chose the path of identity assertion through homeland aspirations.

The Assam Accord, which was the signed document that was agreed upon by the Indian state and the leadership of the Assam Movement, specified among various other clauses that ‘any foreigner who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law’ and ‘the government will give due consideration to certain difficulties regarding the implementation of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983’ as well ‘as safeguard the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people’. It was made to appear that with these safeguards Assam was entering an era of peace and social harmony. Consequently, the Supreme Court repealed the IMDT Act in July 2005 while the updating of NRC started in March 2015 where it was promised that by 31st December 2017 the final draft of NRC will be published. All these efforts were undertaken to free the state from the presence of the alleged illegal immigrants referred as the Bangladeshi!

The Predicament
The process of constructing the ‘other’ has been an on-going phenomenon in post-colonial Assam, except for a brief phase during the early days of insurgency when a person in the state was addressed (in leaflets) as the Asom Baxi (residents of Assam) instead of being the Assamese. This utopia was albeit short lived. While the periodic interventions, both by the state and non-state actors, punctured the inclusionary evolution of Assamese nationality formation, the raij (people) kept the hopes alive through intermingling and intermixing through a permeable social milieu. In fact, the scenario in the state seems intriguing, while in Europe, exclusion and denial of voter’s right goes hand in hand, in Assam bestowing of political rights does not guarantee a freedom from the impending threat of exclusion. In any election, the East Bengal farm settlers always vote in maximum numbers yet these are the areas where the necessity for citizenship proof is the highest.

Will the NRC provide a relief in this direction or there will be newer alibis under a different pretext to treat the compatriot as strangers? As one erosion affected resident from Chikni village (where the river Beki meets Brahmaputra, Barpeta district) explained, ‘we forward the authorities with our proof of citizenship but they visit again for the same and again, are our proof then mere ‘proofs’ for the next print order?

Gorky Chakraborty teaches economics in Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK). His book Assam’s Hinterland: Society and Economy in the Char Areas is one of first detailed research works on char areas in Asssam.

(The feature image first appeared in The Hindu)