When we speak of an Adivasi woman, we think of a feeble-looking woman working relentlessly in the fields plucking tea leaves. They belong to tribes like Santhals, Gonds, Bhils, Oraons, etc. who came to Assam from far off places like Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal. Today, the tea tribe community is one of the most significant vote-bank in Assam. But what has been the participation of these women in setting the political agenda?
Oswald Spengler, the famous German historian and philosopher, believed that the linear view of history is intellectually dead. So, in the many mutinies and revolutions India witnessed since 1715, perhaps the participation of Adivasi women never made its mark in our history books. During the Santhal Adivasi rebellion of 1855, numerous women participated and were killed. One of them was Tilka Murmu. Then there were Pahariya Mutiny in 1778 in Chota Nagpur, Tamar Mutiny in 1789 and again from 1794-1795, Tanti Mutiny in started in 1786 under the leadership of Harihar Tanti and the famous Sardar Mutiny, which happened in 1830 popularly known as The Great Rebellion started under the leadership of Kate Sardar and his comrades.
These revolutions started when tribal communities witnessed that the British were exploiting their resources and were displacing them from their natural habitats. During those revolts, the participation of women was at par with the men. In 1895 when Birsa Munda gave the clarion call for revolution, several women too joined him. One of them was Sali, who was one of his most trusted comrades and led the revolution with him. One of the most pivotal roles played by women during these revolutions was, they used to smuggle weapons and travel from one unit to another. The bow and arrow were the most used weapons in tribal rebellion. The women used to attach the kaars (finger tabs worn by archers) around their stomach and used to disguise themselves as pregnant women to smuggle it.
In the 1930s, Mungri Oraon became the first female martyr of Assam. She used to work as a domestic worker in the house of a British official and acted as a spy. She used to pass on confidential information to the Indian National Congress (INC). When that British official came to know about it, she was killed. In Assam, the Congress was dominated by the upper-caste, elite Hindus. There were allegations that the tea tribe community was discouraged from participating in the freedom movement. But in spite of these, they participated. There were anecdotes of how Congressmen worked as middlemen to suppress the unrest of labourers and helped the British administration.
There were instances when Congressmen did not encourage freedom struggle movements within the tea gardens. During a meeting of INC in 1934, the issue of treating tea adivasis as untouchables came to the fore. Over the years, Adivasis were recognized for their valour and unity. So, the Congress came up with a plan to initiate class collaboration so that class contradiction does not arise and the Adivasis are forced to make compromises. Thus, in 1948, a year after India’s independence from British Raj, Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh (ACMS) and Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) were born just to dominate and suppress the class struggles among the working class.
There were women who came up as trade union leaders who made lots of compromises that suppressed the community rights of the Adivasis reducing ACMS to a PR agent of the tea estate management. Thus, coercion was used as a tool to catalyze class collaboration in the tea estates so that no uprisings can deter the business of a tea estate. Post-independence, the role of Adivasi women was politically limited to being transported from one public meeting to another just as a mute audience sitting in the arena, hearing the politicians speak. According to Tapan Sutabanshi (General Secretary of Adivasi People’s Liberation), four women were killed in Kokrajhar’s Mornai Tea Estate where the Communist struggle was gaining momentum. Three of them were Sagorika Soren, Mipsha Goria and Sita Marandi.
In the book Sargula Exodus, it is mentioned that in Cachar district of Assam, the women of All India Trade Union Congress pro-actively participated in a rebellion at par with the male comrades. Durgi Bhumich was one of the revolutionaries who fought till the end. In one hand where ACMS uses the workers’ movement for the interest of the tea management; on the other hand, they did fear women’s integrity. Therefore they reduced the role of women as puppets with no decision-making capacity. Thus today you will hardly find any Adivasi woman in the frontline politically reducing their role as mute spectators sitting in the public rallies or holding flags and walking in a protest march with no right to voice their rights and opinions on any concern.
(Sumantra Mukherjee is a National Media Fellow, and this article is a part of his work which is supported by National Foundation for India.)