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How Assam’s Tea Gardens Flourished On The ‘Abuse And Torture’ Of Their Labourers

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By Richu Sanil Chemmalakuzhy:

Plucking_tea_in_a_tea_garden_of_Assam“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. We had the experience of interacting with the workers who have been shedding their sweat in those tea gardens since the last three generations. Some had the longing to go back; some had only stories of their woes to share, of government and plantation managers not listening to their demands. They don’t have properly built schools or hospitals nearby; and often no electricity. They only have deprivation as their asset. One which is passed on from generation to generation ever since they set foot on these lands. Assam is today the largest tea manufacturer in India, contributing significantly to the annual produce which makes India the second largest producer of tea. But this vast empire has been built on the sorrow and sweat of millions of tea labour who had come to these distant land to earn manage a living. This is their story.

The Failed Attempts

Around 1834, tea was discovered in Assam. In the beginning, large amounts of forest clearing and setting up of tea gardens were undertaken by European capitalist planters. The Charter Act of 1833 allowed Europeans to buy land in East India Company colonies. Also, the ‘Wasteland Act’ enabled the Europeans 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. The British were keen on ending the Chinese monopoly over tea. Availability of labour always posed a problem 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 ‘Lazy natives’ whom they accused of being inherently lazy owing to their excessive intake of opium. They too turned out to be deserters and were hardly regular. They worked in the tea garden only when they needed money and then left without notice. All this added to the annoyance of British in its inability to find a compliant labour force.

Next was the turn of Kachari tribals who had migrated to tea plantations from lower Assam area. Besides most of them leaving just like the local labourers and Chinese, the Kacharis also organised peasant revolt against the British – all the more reasons for the British to be disappointed with the Kacharis.

After these failed attempts, the British found its rightful labourers 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 during this period.” It is because, as Rana P. Behal points out, the management was cautious about the development of tea industry and would not want to jeopardise 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 civilisation. The British considered them more industrious, diligent and docile. Soon there was significant demand for this tribe in the tea plantation business. All these ‘labour-suitable’ qualities attributed to the men and women of these regions in the colonial discourses, struck a chord with the planters as they decided to import labourers from Central India. This decision decided the lives of millions of men, women and children who migrated, sometimes forcefully or deceived by recruiters or voluntarily owing to pressures, 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 in the Assam gardens. 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 Rs. 120 – Rs. 150 per labour, which was quite a significant amount at the time. These intermediaries commercialised 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’ .

Sardars are 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 the private contractors. Also, buying labourers from the Sardars would be way too cheaper than buying from the contractors. But later on, it was found that the Sardars worked in close alliance with the contractors and were able to exploit the internal vulnerabilities of families in the village. Thus, the contractors and Sardars both emerged as exploitative labour recruiters with the Sardars failed in their purported aim of lowering the irregularities in recruitment.

Indentured ‘Slavery’

The cruel subordination under slavery was replaced by a ‘less severe’ indentured labour system in 1833 which has been crucial to the British plantations from then on. Assam Gardens were no exception, where this system was established around 1860. Often this system shared a blurred line with slavery as the coercive methods employed in these gardens were similar to the ones practised under slavery. The indenture system 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 structure of 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 among the coolies whose populations outran the Europeans and also keep the labour force obedient. “To preserve their authority, the planters devised the indenture regime to keep their workforce docile, disciplined and intimidated, enforced by legislation from the colonial rule.”

The life of labourers under the sadistic tea planters was harsh and dismal. They got a meagre amount as wage, there was a shortage of food, there were epidemics and diseases. 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. Their life grew miserable by each passing da as reflected in the high mortality and desertion rate in the plantations across Assam. Figures show out of 84,915 labourers imported between May 1863 and May 1866; only 49, 750 survived, and the rest either perished or managed to escape. People called this the “New Slavery” with the coolies trapped in the predicament of ‘die-if-you-stay’ or ‘die-if-you-go.’ Nothing was done to improve the health and sanitation of the labourers.

The Question Of Women

The recruiters brought a large number of women and families to the tea plantations. The planters used the tactic of bringing the family as this acted as an advantage and bonded the labourer to the gardens. There was also a disparity in treatment of women in the gardens though the work done by both men and women would be the same (Rs. 4 each month to women and Rs. 5 to the men).

The planters were ‘egalitarian’ in giving punishments. Rapes, flogging, confinement, and other brutalities were committed on 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 smoke pretence of labour mobilisations. 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..” All this made the women’s life more pathetic and put them in perilous situations.

The British ‘Justice’ And Indian ‘Injustice’

The planters were beyond the rule of law and justice evaded the coolies permanently. As the indentured labour system came with ‘blessing’ of extra-legal penal authority for the planters, they used this provision at their liberty. The planters considered it necessary to use flogging and other severe measures to discipline their workforce. As Elizabeth Kolsky argued, “The tea planters demanded protection from law and not protection under law.” The State projected a ‘protector’ image to the coolies, but Kolksy brings to light the real image of the state – protector of the planters. She asks some important questions, “Having authorised 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, therefore, it not even amounting 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. Also, the police stations where, in most cases, situated far away from the estates. The European were well connected and influential while the “tea workers were poor, disenfranchised and internally divided along the lines of region and language” . They were illiterate and most often did not even know the procedures of court and other grievance reprisal systems. Even if some case were filed, the Europeans used their influence in higher echelons of Judiciary and administration to get away with light punishment, while the coolies were given severest punishment for the crimes of the same gravity. There were many cases in which planters killed the Estate managers and set them and their bungalows on fire. There were incidents of mob violence and riots. These were considered to be grave ‘injustices’ by the Europeans who turned a blind eye towards the ‘justices’ they meted out to the coolies.

The Labourers Unite!

All this had earned the tea industry the title of ‘Planter’s Raj’. The 20th century was the era of brewing tension. Convinced that the prevailing law is entirely unjust, the labours 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 on fire along with their bungalows too. There was also tactics of refusal to work collectively that led to violent confrontations leading to many killings of workers as well as planters.

With the rise of nationalism all over the country, there was a widespread protest against the cruel indenture system, spearheaded by Gandhi and C.F. Andrews. “Nationalist leaders and the Indian press drew frequent attention to the mortality rates and abysmal living arrangements, and slave-like working conditions on the tea gardens.” 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 it to legitimise 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 tunes and exploited the labourers further. Even the collective spirit of labourers could not change much.

The spectre of rising peasants continued late into the years after Independence. There were reports of riots and protests. It is rather disheartening to know that “time has stood still in these gardens” as not much has improved here. The colonial legacy, in the form some practices certain practices of hierarchical division which diminish the status of labourers, still is being carried out. For example, “the garden culture” in which the silent servant, who has to hold the tray when guests arrive and carry out their mundane business deals; he cannot even put the tray aside as it is ‘improper‘ to do so. The colonial mindset of the planters and the fate of eternal deprivation of labourers still continues. Marching on to eternity.

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