"Our ancestors migrated to these lands from the Orissa-Jharkhand region of present India. We would like to go back and see the villages where we came from."
These were the words spoken by Jeremiah (name changed), a tea worker in the Tinkhuria tea estate in Upper Assam. We met Jeremiah on our field visit to the tea estate last year, where we interacted with workers whose parents and grandparents have toiled in the same plantations. Some longed to go back to their place of origin; some had only stories of their woes to share, of apathy from the government and plantation managers.
They don't have properly built schools or hospitals nearby, and often go without electricity. Deprivation is their only constant, a legacy passed from generation to generation ever since their forefathers set foot in these lands. Assam is today the largest tea manufacturer in India, contributing significantly to the annual produce which makes India the world's second largest producer of these precious leaves. But this vast empire has been built on the sorrow, sweat and blood of millions of tea labourers through the ages.
This is their story.
"Lazy natives" and other failures
Around 1834, tea was discovered in Assam. In the beginning, European capitalist planters cleared large amounts of forest and went about setting up tea gardens. The Charter Act of 1833 allowed Europeans to buy land in East India Company colonies; the 'Wasteland Act' also enabled them to acquire large swathes of "wasteland" at concessional rates. Very soon, these "wastelands" were converted to money-yielding-lands with the setting up of tea plantations in Upper Assam, and the British hoped to end the Chinese monopoly over tea.
The British considered [the people of Central India] more industrious, diligent and docile. Soon there was significant demand for these people in the tea plantation business.
Availability of labour posed a problem, as it often does for the capitalist. Firstly, they brought in skilled Chinese labourers from Singapore and Penang. But they refused to do work like clearing forests (not mentioned in their contracts). The Chinese soon contracted diseases in this foreign land. Many died and the rest deserted. They turned out to be a headache for the British as they demanded improved conditions for working. By 1860, the Chinese labourers completely disappeared. The British had also recruited Nagas, who were forest dwellers. They were given the work of clearing forests while the Chinese worked in tea plantations. But they were not regular, and the planters were dissatisfied with them.
Meanwhile, the planters also started to "recruit natives" whom they accused of being inherently lazy owing to their excessive intake of opium. They too turned out to be unreliable. They worked in the tea garden only when they needed money and then left without notice. The British continued in their search for a compliant labour force.
Next was the turn of Kachari tribals who had migrated to tea plantations from the lower Assam area. But not only were they as unreliable as their predecessors, they also organised a peasant revolt against the British.
After these failed attempts, the British found the kind of labourers it was looking for in the tribal people of central India.
The industrious coolies and British race notions
It is interesting to note that, in the first two decades of tea plantations (1840-1860) "...physical coercion and other forms of extra-legal means to control and tame workforce, did not appear to be in practice..." It is because, as Rana P. Behal points out, the management was cautious about the development of the tea industry and did not want to jeopardize it at any cost.
It was the time when the British were exploiting the regions of Chotanagpur (Central-India). They found the people in these regions more suitable to the work in the tea plantations than Kachari labourers, as they were not the kind "who succumbed to the onslaught of civilization." The British considered them more industrious, diligent and docile. Soon there was significant demand for these people in the tea plantation business. All these "labour-suitable" qualities attributed to the men and women of these regions in the colonial discourse, struck a chord with the planters as they decided to import labourers from Central India. This decided the lives of millions of men, women and children who migrated, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes forcefully or under deception, to the "Slave Kingdom" of tea plantations in Upper Assam.
The recruitment dilemma
There was a section of businessmen who took advantage of this persistent need for labour. They were the large private contractors who thrived on procuring labour and selling it to the plantations in Assam at "exorbitant" prices. In the expanding phases of the tea industry, they charged the planters ₹120-150 per labour, which was quite a significant amount at the time. These intermediaries commercialized labour recruitment. This posed a problem with the British, who were keen on getting labour at cheaper prices. A series of legislations were passed to overcome this problem; thus, the act of 1870 created an alternative system called "Garden Sardar" .
The cruel subordination under slavery was replaced by a "less severe" indentured labour system in 1833, and which became crucial to the British plantations from then on.
Sardars were non-commercial intermediary agents of the plantations who were sent back to their villages to procure labour from their "close kin, community, and caste". This was a measure intended to bring down the level of deception and coercion employed by private contractors. Also, buying labourers from the sardars would be much cheaper than using contractors. However, it was later found that the sardars worked in close collusion with the contractors and were able to exploit the internal vulnerabilities of families in villages.
The cruel subordination under slavery was replaced by a "less severe" indentured labour system in 1833, and which became crucial to the British plantations from then on. Assam Gardens were no exception. Often this system differed little from slavery in practice. It bound the labourers to the plantations through a penal-contract system in which the violators who fled were given harsh punishments by the planters who had been given extra-legal authority. "It was a case of co-existence of an 'irrational' and inhuman labour regime producing a modern 'rational' corporate world."
This indentured labour system created a power hierarchy based on coercion and extra-legal authorities. The European planters became an oppressive class and the labourers became the oppressed. There was also a great demographic gap between the Europeans and labourers. The primary purpose of this intimidation was to create a sense of fear and inspire obedience among the coolies whose population outnumbered the Europeans.
People called this the "new slavery", with the coolies trapped between Scylla and Charybdis -- staying and fleeing were equally fraught with danger.
The life of labourers under the sadistic tea planters was harsh and dismal. They got a meagre wages, there was a shortage of food, epidemics and diseases were rife. This was complimented by the cruelties meted out to the labourers by their European masters in the form of flogging, making them do extra work, confining them for days without food, humiliating and threatening them with trained dogs that would find those who fled and much more. The high mortality and desertion rates in the plantations across Assam reflect the miserable conditions of the workers. Figures show that out of 84,915 labourers imported between May 1863 and May 1866; only 49,750 remained, and the rest either perished or managed to escape. People called this the "new slavery", with the coolies trapped between Scylla and Charybdis -- staying and fleeing were equally fraught with danger.
The question Of women
The recruiters brought a large number of women and families to the tea plantations, as this acted as an advantage and bonded the labourer to the gardens. There was also a disparity in the treatment of women in the gardens though the work done by both sexes was equivalent (women received monthly wages of ₹4 while men earned ₹5).
[T]he planters were "egalitarian" in giving punishments. Rapes, flogging, confinement, and other brutalities were committed against the "coolie" women.
However, the planters were "egalitarian" in giving punishments. Rapes, flogging, confinement, and other brutalities were committed against the "coolie" women. Women were also victims of deceit at the time of recruitment owing to the thriving flesh trade which was carried out under the smokescreen of labour mobilizations. As Samita Sen points out, "The buyers of young girls were usually older 'prostitutes', who 'adopted' and apprenticed them as a source of future income."
British "justice" And Indian "injustice"
The planters were beyond the rule of law, given that the indentured labour system came with the "blessing" of extra-legal penal authority for them; the coolies had no recourse for justice. The planters considered it necessary to use flogging and other severe measures to discipline their workforce. As Elizabeth Kolsky argues, "The tea planters demanded protection from law and not protection under law." The State projected a "protector" image to the coolies, but had greater allegiance to the planters. Kolsky asks some important questions, "Having authorized the private use of force, could the state subject the planters to prosecution and punishment under the ordinary criminal law?" By flogging someone to death "were they (planters) transgressing or enforcing the colonial order of things?" Could you unlawfully kill a coolie who had no legal status? Could it even amount to murder?
The tea planters also used force to contain the coolies within the village so that they would not leave the estate to file complaints.
The tea planters also used force to contain the coolies within the village so that they would not leave the estate to file complaints. Most police stations were too far to access anyway. The Europeans were well connected and influential while the tea workers were illiterate and most often did not even know the procedures of the court and other grievance addressal systems. Even if a case was filed, the Europeans got away with light punishment while workers committing transgressions of a similar magnitude faced the severest sentences.
The labourers unite
All this had earned the tea industry the title of "Planters' Raj". The 20th century was the era of brewing tension and eventually many labourers took the law into their own hands. There were increasing instances of coolie resistance and violence in the tea plantations. The labourers acted collectively with "premeditation, organization and rational inspiration". They mobbed the Europeans, and in some cases set them and their bungalows on fire. There was also tactics such as collective refusal to work that led to violent confrontations leading to many killings of workers as well as planters.
The colonial legacy, in the form of certain practices of hierarchical division which diminish the status of labourers, prevails.
With the rise of nationalism all over the country, there was widespread protest against the cruel indenture system, spearheaded by Gandhi and C.F. Andrews. The Indian press and nationalist leaders frequently brought to the fore the inhumane conditions suffered by tea garden workers. The penal contract and indentured labour ended in the Assam gardens between 1908 and 1926. As Jayeeta Sharma points out, "Over the years, high mortality and desertion rates coupled with low fertility rates had raised the real cost of labour and reduced its productivity... The state was eventually forced to act to abolish indenture to ensure the long-term viability of the tea sector."
The colonials who considered themselves to be racially superior used their position to legitimize their violence over these poor people. The "coolies" were deceived or coerced right from the recruitment process and had to meet with grave injustices at the tea garden. They were flogged, raped, killed, confined and denied justice at the hands of planters, who made the State dance to their tune and exploited the labourers further. Even the collective spirit of labourers could not change the status quo much.
The spectre of rising peasants continued late into the years after Independence, with reports of riots and protests. It is rather disheartening to know that not enough has improved in these gardens. The colonial legacy, in the form of certain practices of hierarchical division which diminish the status of labourers, prevails. For example, "the garden culture" in which the silent servant must continue to hold the tray throughout the duration of a guest's visit as putting it aside would be "improper". The colonial mindset of the planters and the eternal deprivation of labourers still continues.
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