Tales of Resistance: Women Tea Plantation Workers in Assam By Devangana Kalita (Student, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU)

Devangana shared her research work with women tea plantation workers in contemporary Assam. The research for her was a political project seeking to document, engage and historically locate the stories of resistance of women plantation workers in Assam today. The presentation captured and analysed the complex and paradoxical interplay of global commodity flows, imperial rule, class formations and local cultural contestations that produce the fractured positionality of women tea-plantation workers within the specific context of Assam and the post-colonial multi-ethnic democratic context of India. It then tried to explore and understand from that location the myriad spectrums and repertoires of resistance and subversion that exist among the women plantation workers.

The talk began with a narration of a poem by Carol Anne Duffy which spoke about the tea drunk by bourgeoisie tea lovers. Devangana then sang “Chal meemee Assam Jabo”, a song sung by women labourers in Assam which narrates the circumstances bringing in tea plantation labourers and the disillusionment experienced by the workers when they realise the exploitative nature of their employment. The song reflects the anguish in the heart of the labourers.

There has been a depiction of the female tea plantation labourer as an exoticised labourer, who otherwise invisible and unheard. The female tea plantation labourer is the official history subaltern; her story if silenced by mainstream history. Tea was invested in by the British to stop monopolisation over tea. Tea was indigenised. The forests were cut off and the landscape was transformed for cultivation. Land revenue was imposed, and the production of opium was regulated. ‘Coolie’ labourers were brought to the plantations and there was the advent of the indentured system of employment. Many people migrated to Assam and to other countries with the advent of this system. The labourers were ‘free’ bound to the plantations with a private-penal contract. These labourers were brought in via ships where the conditions were so terrible that it recorded a 50% mortality rate. Such migrations were a precursor to the holocaust where a large number of people were brought in a confined space in an organised fashion with great survelliance. There was a significant feminisation of labour where women were hired massively on account of them having nimble fingers. Labour was exoticised to the titillating and nurturing fingers of a woman’s hand. This migration to the tea plantations was a precursor to the industrial revolution in Europe.

Historically, during the nationalist movement, there were debates surrounding the conditions of labour and the abolition of indentured system of labour at a nation level. However, this did not materialise and there still exists the outsider and the migrant.

 

The minimum wage for the tea plantation labourers is presently half the minimum wage for the rest of the labourers. They are generally given piecemeal wages which has emerged as a legally illegal mode of extracting extra labour. The working conditions are terrible as there is little concern for the health and the body of the workers. It is illegal for a child below the age of fourteen to work as it constitutes child labour. There is a strict network of surveillance established through the feudal metaphor of the ‘mai-baap’ where the manger embodies the transgendered role of the mother and the father. There is one watchman for each labourer. The plantation labourer is dehumanised with a racialised construction of ‘the other’ who are the ‘coolies’, the indigenous lower caste group. There have small tea growers who have also started to grow tea in smaller lands. The working conditions in such spaces are even worse owing to the lack of permanent labour.

Many of the women come to urban cities such as Delhi where they work as domestic workers, sex workers, and are sometimes sold in Haryana and other places afflicted with a terrible sex-ratio as brides. Those who reside in the plantation are treated with a paternalistic attitude. The tribal labourer is looked upon as a gentle being, with the men’s bodies inscribed with alcoholism while the woman is looked upon as a more earnest worker. Such paternalism attracted the missionaries, the first ‘saviours’ who came to the areas for civilising the minds of the workers with Christianity. This has led to a sense of transreligion in the tea plantations.

There has been a great deal of debate surrounding the social status of the plantation labourer. They have been demanding the status of a Schedule Tribe, a demand which been opposed by the Government and other forces. There is further, a paradoxical nature of the relationship of Insurgent groups such as the Bodos and the Maoists with the tea plantation labourer. The Marwari and Assameese business have evolved as the big tea plantation owners and plush manager bungalows have emerged as tourism enterprises.

The plantation owners approached the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), affiliated with the Indian National Congress for the purpose of organising the labourers into a trade union. Any other independent or allied union has been denied recognition from the management making the INTUC the only option available for organising and collectivising. There are certain student associations emerging with a strong sense of identitarian politics. These associations remain largely as male spaces with negligible women participation.  Different groups with identitarian politics have emerged which are internally very heterogenous with a complex process of assimilation.

Devangana, after setting the socio-political and economic background went on to narrate various tales of resistance. She narrated this conversation with a worker who told her that there is ‘blood in your tea’. She noted that there are various ruptures inherent to the politics of resistance (Rancier) which makes visible that which has not been seen, makes heard and understood that which has not until now been heard as noise. There is a form of protest which marked all her narratives; there was no angle of religiosity to the narratives. Death was a primary issue, primarily on account of the strict regimentation attached to the worker’s body. The woman’s body is constructed by the narrative of who owns the woman and has access to her.

The position of the woman labourer is so fractured and marginalised. They however, have a 20% population and serve as a major vote bank, and hence have some space for rights based negotiations. There are various labour cases which are pending which are expensive. The intimate partner violence has been normalised through the inscribing of the bodies of men with alcoholism. But it is the women who own the house, who are permanent labourers and it is within this context that the violence of this form needs to be located. Women sometimes ask the men to leave. During the annual fair, women drive away men who get too drunk or come to their houses.

It is important to track the double bind of the worker, to stay with the ‘blood in our tea’ and not settle for the carnivalesque alcohol laden anger.

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