Planter Raj to Police Raj

The Event

At approximately 7: 30 a.m. on April 22, 2000 roughly one hundred workers, men and women, of Bargara Tea Estate entered the estate’s factory compound. They were angry that the manager had earlier (on 21st April 2000) submitted a show-cause notice to the Union President. In the tea estates of Assam, the early hours of the morning are the usual time when workers gather in the factory compound for ‘attendance’. They are then allotted their tasks for the day, by the management and the foremen.

On that day, the workers had gathered as usual, and were also keen to meet the manager. The manager then ordered the guards to close the main gate leading up to the factory and faced the workers who had gathered there, with his personal security guards. In the argument that ensued, he pulled out his gun and shot one of the workers. This obviously shocked the workers who were trapped inside the compound. They tried to escape but the only gate leading into the factory was closed from outside. Some scaled the walls as the firing continued. In the meantime, the gates were opened from outside by one of the executives (the Assistant Manager) of the garden. Even as the workers ran towards the bustees (shanties) and lines where they lived, the manager ordered his security guards to follow the stragglers and shoot them as they were trying to save themselves. The six workers who were killed in the firing were:

Mr. Rajen Munda
Mr. Ram Urang
Mr. Romen Munda
Ms. Tetri Turi
Mr. Raju Munda
Mr. Albert

The injured and dying were denied immediate medical assistance. The estate’s ambulance and truck were used much later to take them to Dalgaon PHC and (later) to Mangaldoi Civil Hospital. In the meantime, the Union of a neighbouring tea estate sent their ambulance to help with transporting the dead and injured. They were denied access to the factory compound by the security guards. In the meantime, the executive and staff members of the tea estate, all of whom are appointees from outside Assam (barring one staff member who is Assamese) ran away from the estate ‘fearing reprisals’. They even tried to stop the trucks at Dalgaon where the police had detained some of the injured for their statements. The staff members seemed to think that if the injured were allowed to speak to ‘people outside’ at Mangaldoi, the situation would become worse. In all twenty-five (25) people received medical treatment for various degrees of armed attack that was unleashed by the management and the security personnel assigned to guard the manager. The number of those who were either too scared to venture out to get treated, or simply did not have the means to seek any medical aid cannot be ignored. This is because a great number of those caught in the firing were temporary or casual workers, who do not have the job security or the rights to medical assistance even, in such cases.

The four member team, comprising MASS members from Guwahati and Delhi met the families of the deceased as well as many of those who were injured in the firing on 3rd May, 2000. Due to constraints of time and resources the team could not extend their stay to inquire into the efforts being made by the State officials (under Assam and Central Labour Ministries) to address the cause of events that occurred at Bargara. This is not a limitation of the report in any sense, because it (the report) lays no claims to journalistic ethics of ‘objective reportage’. This report seeks to throw light on the miserable conditions that a majority of the working class in Assam have to endure. As such this report seeks to identify the structural conditions in the tea plantations that allow for such blatant use of extra-economic coercion by the management, with the help of the State.

Bargara Tea Estate is owned by a private shareholding company which is registered in West Bengal. According to sources in Bargara, the company has seven estates in West Bengal and Bargara is its only asset in Assam. The company pays revenue for six hundred (600) hectares of land under tea cultivation. Prior to the Assembly elections in 1995, the Revenue Minister of Assam had raised the issue of several tea estates occupying government land. Bargara was one of such estates. Since the election the Revenue Minister has been silent on the issue, hence it is difficult to assess the extent of government land the plantation has occupied. Needless to add there is little doubt that the matter has been sorted out at the level of shadowy deals and compromises.

The estate employs roughly seven hundred and fifty (750) workers of whom only three hundred (300) are on its permanent payroll. The others are employed during the peak season as either ‘temporary’ or ‘casual’ workers. In reality most of those employed within these two categories are entirely dependent on their daily wages from working in the tea estate for their survival. They are made to work throughout the year in different capacities within the boundaries of the tea estate, including working in the executives’ bungalows. There is a formal trade union in Bargara. The committee of the estate was formed in the latter part of 1999. The union is affiliated to the Asom Cha Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) which in turn is dominated by the Congress (I) backed Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

In 1997 the then manager of Bargara, Mr. S.K Rai, was killed by activists of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), a proscribed armed opposition group fighting for self-determination for the people of Boroland. The state government therefore saw it fit to deploy armed security personnel for the safety of the executives in the tea estate. Two (2) Assam Police personnel and fifteen (15) Home Guards were deployed for this purpose. As mentioned earlier, there is only one ‘native’ employed in the clerical staff at Bargara. The executives belong to different states of India as do other members of the clerical staff. The ethnic composition of the work force is heterogeneous, with a majority belonging to the (administratively ill-defined) category of ‘Tea Tribes". There are also a sizeable number of members of recent migrant communities among the work force.

Bargara Tea Estate is situated in Darrang district, approximately thirty (30) kilometres from Mangaldoi. The nearest police station is situated at Dalgaon. The road linking Dalgaon to the nearest market centre (for Bargara) at Kopati is in shambles. The area is inhabited mainly by Boros and recent migrant communities. Besides, the few Tea Estates situated in the area also employ a sizeable work force comprising mainly members of the ‘tea tribe’/ Adivasi (tribal) communities. The estate itself does not have adequate medical infrastructure for the workers. Its dispensary lacks technical and material aid. There is no proper ambulance and a makeshift arrangement, whereby a dilapidated jeep doubles up as an ambulance, has continued for a long time now. There are no schools for the workers’ children in the plantation itself. The nearest primary school is situated far away near Kopati. The permanent workers who live in the labour lines have not been provided with reinforced concrete houses by the management. Most workers live in villages (or ‘bustees’) adjoining the plantation, where conditions are even worse. The manufacturing unit, or factory is situated at the heart of the plantation. It is surrounded by a high wall of approximately seven (7) metres and has only one large gate leading into it. The office, bungalows and staff quarters are clustered around the orbit of the factory. For some bizarre reason, a new temple dedicated to Shiva has been constructed opposite the factory, by the management.

Life and work in the tea plantations revolve around the factory as much as the outlying areas under tea cultivation. Every morning the workers assemble in the factory premises where work is assigned to them. Their work is regimented and closely supervised by figures of authority appointed by the management. Adult workers are paid Rs. 37.50 (thirty seven rupees and fifty paise) as daily wages. There is also a payment of Rs. 9 (nine rupees) that is given to ‘children workers’.(1) The wage paid to ‘children workers’ is to try and lower the cost of production as much as it is to dissuade them from attending school. None of the workers on the Rs. 9 wage are permanent and have to wait for years before they are upgraded to another pay scale.

It is against this backdrop that the workers were forced into a series of confrontations with the management.

In March 2000, a thirty seven year old permanent worker was forced into ‘voluntary retirement’. The MASS team was told that such a practice is common in the plantations. Where the workers have no access to even the basic legal advice, such practices assume larger proportions. As it is, only three hundred (300) workers are permanent employees in Bargara. The rest of the seven hundred (700) strong workforce are either categorised as temporary labourers or child labourers. For the last few months, since their appointment, the present members of the Union have consistently sought to make more members permanent. The process is highly subjective and almost entirely dependent on the whims of the manager. In this case, the Union sought some plausible answers from the manager, Mr. O.P Chawla. Of course none were forthcoming. This was the new Union’s first run-in with the manager. However, the workers’ woes run further back.

In October 1999, the assistant manager was reported to have sexually harassed some women workers in the plantation. The matter was duly taken to the manager by the workers. It has to be mentioned here that women make up a bulk of the workforce in the tea plantations. Their economic status may well be on par with men, but in almost every other respect, they have to face a wall of prejudice and abuse from the management and staff. Even within the Unions, the representation of women workers is not proportionate to their participation in the production process. In cases such as the one reported above, the women are placed at an immediate disadvantage due to the fact that the management runs on absolute patriarchal lines, where such incidents are seen as "a harmless bit of slap and tickle"? It has been common practice amongst planters, since the inception of the plantation system in Assam, to sexually exploit the workers in their place of work. Since they exercise absolute control over the regimented work process, their word is literally law. Junior assistants are groomed to take the place of the managers, hence their so called ‘indiscretions’ are often overlooked and at times even encouraged. In this case as well, no action was taken against the erring assistant. Instead, the manager took the workers to task for reporting ‘such a trivial issue and blowing it out of proportion’.

The again, in February 2000 some workers faced the wrath of the manager when they were ‘caught’ gathering old firewood from the plantation. The tea bush needs a lot of shade to grow, hence one finds rows and rows of ‘shade trees’ in the plantations. These trees are supposed to serve no other function. The workers are supposed to have access to firewood, as per the rules of the Plantation Labour Act of 1951. In Bargara the workers are not provided with even a nominal amount of fuel to make ends meet. They have to forage amongst the dead trees and bushes most of the time. When the two workers were ‘caught’ by the manager, they were merely taking enough (dead) wood to cook an evening meal and nowhere near enough to cause ‘permanent ecological damage’ to the shade trees. They were then dragged to the factory and half a kilo of salt was placed before them. The manager threatened them with dire consequences unless they ate the salt right there. Fortunately for the workers, the local gaonburah (village headman) appeared on the scene and prevented the manager from carrying out his threat.

Trouble flared up in the plantation again in March, when the Union presented the management with a set of demands pertaining to medical facilities. Their demands are enumerated below:

(a) Appointment of a proper doctor in place of the existing one, who does not have the required qualifications to be a medical practitioner.

(b) Food should be provided to those who were sick in the hospital.

(c) Permanent workers to be given financial aid in case of medical emergencies that could not be handled within the estate.

(d) The management should invest in acquiring an ambulance.

(e) Temporary workers also should receive free medical aid in the dispensary.

Obviously, these demands did not go down too well with the manager because he summoned the Union representatives to his office and gave them a tongue lashing for ‘daring to come up with absurd demands’ just before the plucking season.

As if this were not enough, in April 2000 the manager decided to put permanent workers to work on a perimeter fence on the estates borders. An agreement was duly signed by Union representatives and the manager whereby all the permanent workers employed to build the fence, would work one shift on this task, then tend to their other tasks in the fields. In total contravention to the agreement signed, the Union found out that the manager was making them work two shifts in addition to assigning them tasks in the field. When the President of the Union, Bijoi Tanti, took the issue to the manager, he summoned the former to his office on April 13, 2000. Mr. Tanti arrived with the Union secretary. The manager then chased the secretary away and threatened Bijoi Tanti, saying: ‘Who do you think you are in this garden? I will beat you up.’ Thus, he pushed the Union president out of his office and on the same day sent him a show-cause notice. Being unable to decide the implications of accepting such a notice, Mr. Tanti refused to accept it. The workers felt he was well within his rights to do so. They came out en masse to demonstrate against the arbitrary issuing of the notice. As they reached the manager’s office, which is located inside the factory premises, the manager ordered his security guards to lock the gates. He then threatened to shoot the workers and made the guards point their guns at the workers. The workers then retreated in fear.

On April 21, 2000 Bijoi Tanti (Union president) was suspended from work, arbitrarily at approximately 11:00 a.m. After reading the order, he and Gala Munda (the Union secretary) decided to take it to Dhekiajuli where an ACMS office is situated. They did so because they were not sure as how they should respond to the notice. The Union officials in Dhekiajuli read the notice, where Mr. Tanti was held responsible for some mishaps in the fencing work, and assured him that he had no cause to worry. Rightly so, because the order came without a proper enquiry and before the three mandatory show cause notices. An answer to this order was formulated jointly by Bijoi Tanti and other Union officials in Dhekiajuli. By the time Bijoi Tanti and Gala Munda returned to Bargara, it was late at night.

In the meantime, the workers were keen to know about the outcome of Mr. Tanti’s meeting with other Union officials in Dhekiajuli. They gathered in front of his house before leaving for work. There he briefly explained to them what the situation was and what course of action could be taken. The workers were enraged that the manager could issue such an arbitrary order and think that he could get away with it. A decision was taken then and there to stage a demonstration in front of the office. The idea was to let the manager know that they were displeased, after which they would resume work. As soon as they entered the factory, the manager ordered the guards to close the gate. A few workers panicked when this happened and some tried to force their way out. Just then, the manager ordered the home guard to open fire. Ms. Tetri Turi died on the spot. A few others were injured in the shootout. Some, like Albert, hid under the leaf truck but they were dragged out and shot at close range.

On hearing the gun-shots, one of the assistant managers, a certain Mr. Misra, rushed to the spot and opened the gate from outside. As the workers ran outside towards their houses, the manager ordered the security guards to follow them. More workers were shot dead as they tried to hide in their houses and vegetable patches. By 7:30 a.m six workers had died and twenty five lay injured. As mentioned earlier, the manager ran away immediately. The non-local staff members soon followed suit. The dead and injured were loaded onto trucks and taken first to Dalgaon, then to Mangaldoi.

The incident received front page coverage in most local dailies. Politicians like Silvius Condipan went to Bargara and met the bereaved. The district commissioner of Darrang, S.K Lohiya was quick to set up an inquiry under an additional district commissioner, which was to be tabled within the period of a month. Incidentally, as this report is being filed, more than two months have elapsed and one still hasn’t seen a paragraph of the report itself. The Superintendent of Police, P. Bhattacharya himself stated that preliminary inquiries ‘suggested that the manager was responsible’, but today the manager is out on bail and in all probability posted to one of the gardens outside Assam. Justice can drag its feet in the plantations. Even then, such public relations measures serve to hide other, more insidious events.

Barely forty-eight hours after the incident the factory in Bargara resumed work. One was told that the workers were gently coerced by the authorities, mainly the labour officer who is supposed to uphold the workers’ interests, to resume work. They were told that a strike would only worsen their chances of getting their wages. As a sop, their ration entitlements were released before it was due. The management coughed up a princely sum of ten thousand rupees to each of the families of the deceased workers, as an ex-gratia payment. In the meantime, the joint director of the company, a certain Mr. Firoz Khan, flew in to assuage the staff’s fears. He did not as much as visit the families of the workers who were killed or injured. When the fact-finding team met the new manager, he responded with monosyllables and said that ‘no human rights violation had occurred in the garden’. The question that may be asked at this stage is: how could this be possible? For a provisional answer one has to just look at the manner in which the planters have twisted the provisions of the Plantation Labour Act, as well as the extent to which the plantation lobby controls the political economy in Assam.

The Plantation Labour Act of 1951 was the first real piece of legislation enacted by the Indian State to protect the interests of the workers in the tea plantations. The history of the tea industry in Assam is an unenviable one, in terms of workers’ experience. The industry itself was built entirely by the use of indentured labour in the mid-nineteenth century. The process of bringing a compliant and impoverished labour force from tribal and semi-tribal pockets outside the region continued well into the twentieth century. The exploitation of the people who were often duped into working in the plantations is well documented, both academically as well as part of folklore. One can safely say that the workers in the plantations were socially constructed by the planters in such a manner that they would not have even an ounce of power over their lives. Punitive laws were enforced at the level of individual tea estates and the planter was seen as the de facto lord of the estate. After the transfer of power in 1947, the struggles of the plantation workers received some attention. This was largely due to the fact that working class protests against the European planters in upper Assam had taken a militant turn. The Plantation labour Act, 1951 was therefore considered to be a landmark legislation, against a history of mindless and arbitrary exploitation.

The passing of the PLA was welcomed by workers and unions alike. The planters however were opposed to such enactments that would reduce the extra economic control they exercised over labour. Strong planter lobbies, such as the Indian Tea Association, Tea Association of India and others made representations to the government stating that they were unable to put up with the financial costs of implementation of the PLA. The government of India caved in to the planter lobby’s arguments and called for a ‘phased implementation’ of the provisions of the Act, instead of making it binding on all planters from the word go. In effect this has made things vague and has left the planters with loopholes, of unimaginable sizes, to slip out of. The Act itself defines several things. Firstly it defines plantations as: a piece of land of five hectares or more…used for growing tea, coffee, rubber, cinchona or cardamom and on which fifteen or more persons have been employed for even one single day in the previous twelve months [Sec. 1 C1.4 (a) and (b); PLA]. Over and above this the PLA also defines the category worker and includes within it, adults, adolescents and children, with clearly defined working hours and responsibilities for each. The PLA lays down the minimum working hours for the different categories of workers and also has a clause to prevent the management from arbitrarily issuing work. Furthermore, because the plantation industry is mainly based outdoors and is extended over wide areas, the PLA makes it mandatory for the employers to provide adequate shelter to workers at all times. Other sections also make it mandatory for the management to provide paid leave, maternity leave, medical facilities, recreational facilities and other such essential obligations.

In reality these provisions are tossed to the monsoon winds in Assam. The more established companies that are members of ITA have undertaken some window-dressing measures to comply with the PLA. Even these are far from satisfactory. In four decades not a single company in Assam can claim to have enacted the PLA in full. Most of the planters have their own associations. As mentioned earlier, the ITA caters to a select group of companies that are perhaps the oldest multi-nationals in Assam. The other, newer companies where shares are not traded in the market but retained by extended families or single proprietors are associated with the Tea Association of India. Their record of implementing the PLA is even worse. Furthermore, other planter associations like Assam Tea Planters Association that cater to a class of native planters are lax in undertaking any effort to give the workers their due. The reason why the planters can get away with such blatant subversion of the legal procedures and rule of law, is largely due to fact that the plantation system controls the political economy of the region.

In recent times their position has been challenged by various popular movements. The resentment of the local peasantry and middle classes against what they perceive as the remnants of colonial control has begun targeting the executive class in the plantations. However, it is MASS’ contention that such a mechanistic identification of the class adversary, in terms of ethnic identity, class position and exercise of extra economic power, can only be a limited intervention. One has seen the planter class vociferously lobby with the State authorities for the creation of quasi-legal paramilitary bodies on the plantations. The creation of a Tea Security Force is reminiscent of colonial planters using ‘coolie catchers’ to intimidate (and often kill) workers who resisted their diktats. As long as one is burdened with the baggage of trying to invert the power equations in the plantations by allowing ‘natives’ more access to executive posts, incidents like the Bargara massacre will continue to plague the people of Assam. Mere surface changes are not enough. The plantation system, it has to be reiterated, was built on violence and it continues to be run under subtle (sometimes overt) threats of violence. In presenting themselves as the unwilling victims of insurgency, the planters have managed to shift the focus away from the fact that they are largely responsible for the militarisation of Assam. This holds true today as it did under European rule. The Assam Rifles, incidentally was created as a paramilitary force to ensure that the plantations in Assam were not troubled by tribes living in the bordering areas. In today’s context, the connivance of the planter class in aiding the government’s counter insurgency policies cannot be overemphasised. There is an urgent need to redress this condition and Bargara is as good a place as any to ensure that the workers in Assam receive justice that has long been denied to them.

1. The category of "children workers" is misleading. While it true the Plantation Labour Act allows for the employment of persons below the age of 18 to do light work in return for some form of remuneration, the management have used this loophole to continue paying workers lower wages by classifying them as ‘child labour’ or ‘children workers’ .[Ref. Xaxa, V: 1995, Plantation Workers in Assam, FES, New Delhi].

[Edited by Sanjay Barbora, for Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti]


Click here to return to the September 2000  index.