Adivasis in Tea Gardens of Assam: Identity and Denial of ST Status

When Adivasis working in the tea gardens of Assam organized among themselves recently and organized protests for ST status saying, ‘no ST no vote’, the protest was dismantled by the political parties by bribing people in the community with one JIO mobile phone and local alcohol.

tea gardens assam
Courtesy: Scroll

The state of Assam has witnessed a lot of migration over the years, of which some have been enforced by colonial rule. One of these streams of migration is that of the Adivasis of central India, who were forced to migrate to Assam as labour in the tea gardens.

The Tea Gardens of Assam were first established by the British colonial government, who realized that there is a lack of labor to employ in the field. In colonial India, Bengal was an educationally developed place and so, Bengali upper-caste people were brought into Assam and were employed in high government posts. These Bengalis were known as Babus. In Assam, the Bengali Babus employed a few other people from Assam as Sardars. The job of the Sardar was to bring people from Central India and employ them in the tea gardens of Assam. Lakhs of Adivasi people were forcefully brought on ships through the Brahmaputra sea route. The Adivasi people who were brought to the tea gardens would be paid only one paisa for 12 hours’ worth of work. If any person tried to escape or take rest during work hours, they were punished and beaten.

tea gardens of assam
Source: Navrang India

After independence, the ownership of the tea garden went from the British officials to private companies like TATA, Jindal, etc. The situation for the tea garden workers did not remain the same but it became more complex. The Adivasi people who were brought from central India to Assam were a heterogeneous group. Part of this group were people from the Tanti community, which is a Scheduled Caste in Odisha. So, due to these complexities and state politics, the Adivasi community was denied ST status and were instead included int the OBC category in 1970. 

Adivasi Identity, Culture, and language

The Adivasi people who were brought from Central Indian states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, etc. belonged to several tribal communities like Santhal, Oroan, Munda, Kharia, etc. During the colonial period, they were employed as unskilled laborers because of the prejudice that the British officials held that Adivasi people do not have brains and only physical strength. So, during that period the people were not known because of their tribal identity but only as laborers, and were labeled as Bagania (tea garden workers).

After Independence, in order to maintain their vote bank among the Upper caste people of the Assamese community and other elite people in Assam the Congress government denied Scheduled Tribe status to the Central Indian Adivasi people. The Congress government labeled the community as ‘tea tribes’. ‘Tea tribe’ is now considered a derogatory term among intellectuals of the Adivasi community. The question that was raised from the community was, how can anyone’s identity be labeled based on the work that they were forced to do by colonial forces? Be it as ‘bagania’ or ‘tea tribes’, the Adivasi people lost their claim over their own identity due to the colonial and the elite-Brahminical forces.

Courtesy: Ahmad Masoon, Reuters

Secondly, they lost their culture, tradition, and language as well. Primary schools in tea garden areas are not maintained by the government but by the tea garden authorities. In primary schools, Adivasi children are not taught any Adivasi languages but they are taught English, Assamese, and Hindi. Slowly, the Adivasi people lost their language and came under the dominant forces of the Assamese language. Over time, like their language, they lost their tradition and culture due to dominant Hindutava dominant forces.

Among Adivasis, there is the culture and tradition of worshipping trees, nature, the sun, and the moon. In the conflict between their worshipping culture and Hindu forces, the Adivasi people were brought under the forces of Hinduism. In many instances, this happened in the process of translations of Adivasi languages into Hindi. For example, while the person who performs worship and devotion is known as ‘Pahan’ it has been translated into Hindi as ‘pujari’.

The introduction of Hinduism has introduced the caste system and the concept of purity and impurity in the Adivasi community as well. Now, generally, the people from the community refer to the tribe and its sects as Jati (caste). The concept of purity and impurity have created hierarchies amongst the Adivasi people. For example, the Oroan community considers itself to be higher born than the Santhals and Doms. The introduction of the caste system has also worsened the status of women. For example, even today, a menstruating woman is considered impure and is locked in one room. In this way, the Central Indian Adivasi people in Assam have lost their culture, tradition, and language and fallen in the net of casteism, where the women are oppressed within their community.

Denial of ST status, land rights, and low wages

The crisis of the workers in tea gardens is very much rooted in three core problems- the denial of ST status, land rights, and low wages. When the Constitution was framed, Adivasi people were brought under the category of Scheduled Tribe in order to uplift them and to make reparations for the historical injustice that has been done to the community. But the tea garden workers who were much behind even the other tribal communities were not given ST status.

Due to the denial of ST status, they have been disadvantaged in many fields like education, employment, etc, and due to the historical injustice against them, it is nearly impossible for them to compete with the people from the General category or Other Backward Classes.

The upper caste people from the Assamese community who have a stronghold in state politics also tried their level best to not provide them ST status, as the Adivasi people are large in number, and if they get ST status, can become a threat for them. Now for decades, they have been promised that they will be provided ST status but no party that has come to power has fulfilled this promise. The issue of ST status has become a mechanism for the political parties to grab votes from the community.

Attempts at Organizing for ST Status

There have been many times when the community’s movement against the government to demand ST status was very strong, but every time the communities became united, the unity was broken by the creation of divisions amongst them. Somehow the politicians were successful in making the people believe that their political organization is dominated by one tribal community and others are getting overshadowed. For example, the people were made to believe that AASA (All Adivasi student’s Association) is dominated by the people from the Oroan tribe which overshadowed the other tribes, especially the Mundas.

The suspicion and the division become so enrooted that AASA got divided and another political party, called Assam Chai Majdoor Sangh, was formed. The division weakened the whole protest for the demand for ST status.

The second time when AASA mobilized people to get united for demanding ST status and Rafel Khujur was an MP candidate from Congress, every Adivasi decided that they will vote for Rafel Khujur and he will fight in parliament for ST status. However, BJP bribed another candidate Pradeep Nag from the Adivasi community to contest against Rafel Khujur. At the end of the election, Pradeep Nag won and the whole demand for ST status was dismantled.

After that, when people organized among themselves recently and organized the protest against the government saying that they will not participate in the election if they are not given ST status under the banner ‘no ST no vote’, the protest was dismantled by the political parties by bribing people in the community with one JIO mobile phone and local Alcohol.

Assam tea garden workers protest
Courtesy: Deccan Herald

The denial of ST status has kept the people of the community away from education and employment. When there is no employment, they move back to the tea garden where they are paid only Rs. 167 which is much less than the minimum wage of Rs. 350. Second, the people are so poor that it is impossible for them to buy land outside the tea gardens. Inside the tea gardens, in the quarters where they live, they do not have any land rights and to ensure that they have land to live on they are forced to join the tea gardens. This lack of land right is responsible for people not moving out and working in the tea gardens even when they are paid extremely low wages. The low payment pushes them into poverty, poverty creates illiteracy, frustration, alcoholism, and violence, and the vicious circle of exploitation and slavery continues. 

Balaka Chattaraj is pursuing her M.A in social work with a specialisation in Dalit and tribal studies at TISS, Mumbai. This article is based on her fieldwork conducted in Assam. For accessing the full report she can be contacted at [email protected]

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2 COMMENTS

  1. […] Chattaraj explains that, because of the denial of ST status, the community is unable to seek employment outside, or compete in the same educational spaces as general or OBC category students. Thus, they are forced to return to the exploitative tea gardens. The workers are also so poor that they cannot buy land outside the plantations. They have no land rights within the garden and therefore have to work on the fields. This is similar to the way American slave plantations and quarters were conceived. […]

  2. It’s the wrong notion and misconception of the Congress Government to give a name to Adivasi Community i.e Tea Tribe. We cant call farmers as farmers tribe/ Municipality as cleaners tribe etc. It doesn’t make good sense. Its very negative to compare to one’s job/profession to his Community.
    Its the complete social injustice to the Adivasi Community by the Assam Government for denial of ST Status. ( Present – BJP Govt.)
    Adivasi people are not given equitable rights for which they are deprived of their dignified rights.
    Indian Constitution has become just a “written Story” in this concerned analysis.

    India is internally damaged. Rise up People – Save State, Save Nation.

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