Struggles in the Tea Plantations of Assam: Then and Now

Sanjay Barbora

The working class in the tea plantations of Assam is perhaps the most oppressed in the organised sector of the economy. Low wages, poor housing and lack of avenues for social mobility have been a recurring theme since the inception of the plantation complex in North East India in the early 19th century. Even after the formal transfer of power in 1947 and legal provisions like the Plantation Labour Act (PLA) of 1952 enacted (but not enforced) by the state, recognition of trade unions by the employers in 1946 have not transformed the existence of the workers. Today the working class in the tea plantations have to also confront and negotiate the various ethnic/nationality movements. Political organisations over the last five decades have sought to polarise the issue on the basis of identity and economic struggles. One is not trying to negate these important issues, but merely seeking to look at their historical and material development,rather than react blindly to the machinations of a colonial structure of control over labour power by the Indian Tea Association (ITA)1 in whose interests the state has been working. In a sense, the structure of control in the plantation system has hardly undergone any revolutionary rupture.

Many of the peculiarities of the plantation complex in Assam are rooted in the construction of the complex itself. The capital for the establishment of the tea industry was not got from Assam itself. According to statistics provided by the ITA (in 1914), one sees that of the total nominal capital invested in joint stock companies producing tea, which amounted to Rs. 302.3 million, only about Rs. 43.1 million were accounted for by companies registered in India and the rest were by sterling companies registered in England. This is not surprising if one considers the fact that the tea industry in Assam was the first instance of colonial penetration. In keeping with the salient features of a colonial economy, much of the profit were siphoned off and this was aided by the fact that most planters of that era were Europeans. To make the cultivation of tea as a plantation crop possible on attractive terms, a set of rules regarding the reclaiming of 'wastelands' for farming were framed by the colonial authorities in 1836.2 The 'wastelands' were a reality given the underpopulated conditions that prevailed in the Brahmaputra Valley after a series of wars with the Burmese. But it is the way in which this social condition was manipulated in order pave the way for the introduction of the indentured system as the only form of labour conducive for plantations need further looking into, in order to throw more light on the construction of the plantation complex.

In a report written by C.P. Bruce (a pioneering racketeer who was instrumental in the formation of the tea industry in Assam) in 1839 stated:'...Until recently, we had only two Chinese black tea makers with twelve native assistants... what are these... but a drop in the ocean? We must go on at a much faster pace in the two great essentials Tea manufacturers and labourers...'. The fact that 'native' assistants were already engaged in the art of black tea manufacturing should not be lost here. They were being taught the techniques, but the labour force that would make this possible had to be made available in great numbers and of course, they had to be under the control of the planters.3 The planters were well acquainted with the recalcitrant reactions of the local peasantry when efforts were being made to make community farming unviable. Besides, the peasantry were not willing to undertake the regimentation of a plantation economy given the kind of wages that were being offered.

It is due to these reasons primarily that the need to recruit labour from outside the region was deemed necessary. The indentured system therefore has to be understood within a formal structure of labour control and development of different forms of bondage. Indentured servitude was created to grant widespread penal sanctions to the planters where the breach of contract by the worker resulted in criminal prosecution. The intended outcome of this system was the inability of the worker to withdraw his or her labour power. The legal provisions for such methods were aided by acts such as the Workman's Breach of Contract Act XII of 1859 and its amended act of 1865, where workers could be punished for striking work and where the minimum wage was also stipulated for the workers. A wage that was not adequate to even cover the cost of reproduction of labour power.

The indentured system of recruitment was carried out under two systems. The first (phase) was called the Arkatti system, characterised by unlicensed recruiting from Chota Nagpur and other parts of (tribal) central and South Eastern parts of the subcontinent. The second (phase) was called the Sardari system and was characterised by recruitment of new labourers by those already employed in the tea estates. In a sense, the entire political, economic and ideological superstructure was being shaped to ensure that on the one hand control over the workers be tightened, while ensuring the creation and perpetuation of conflicts between the workers (imported from outside the region) and the peasantry, who were slowly being squeezed in economic terms.

It is hardly surprising therefore,that reactionary (and revisionist) theories/analyses on the conditions of the plantation workers and on their history, fail to consider the theoretical and tactical importance of this phenomenon. And even when this conflation of economic and ethnic issues is mentioned in passing, there is still no effort on the part of such theoreticians to recognise its historical significance. The workers and the peasants are viewed as separate and distinct classes, with autonomous social development. This method of viewing the political economy of the plantation system, is not only un-Marxist but opportunistic, to put it mildly.4 This is made possible because they view class and class consciousness in a narrow, occupational sense. Although it is quite tempting to apply a mechanistic occupational classification in the plantation setting, the fact that class as a concept has to refer back to the society within which it exists ought to dissuade one from such a pitfall. Marx wrote: '...families lie under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life...interest...culture from those of other classes and put them in hostile opposition to the latter... Insofar as there is merely a local inter-connection and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them they do not form a class' [Marx, K, 1971]. Historically, therefore, classes evolve and do not exist as isolates. In his writings Marx takes pains to clarify that classes not only evolve historically but also the fact that it is the mode of production that determines the classes that are antagonistic and those that are not in a relationship of immediate antagonistic conflict with each other.

This is the context within which one can reexamine movements and organisations in the plantation system. I wish to address two events, one chronologically rooted in history and the other, in the present day, to understand the continuity of the resistance against capital as well as the political manoeuvres that seek to break this unity.

To understand the form of protests undertaken by the toiling masses in the plantations (and outside) in the past, one has to consider two important factors. The first was the growth of the anti-imperialist struggle in the subcontinent. The dominant trend of this struggle in Assam, was the one established by the Indian National Congress. It has to be mentioned that the Congress itself showed differing opinions on the relationship between the struggle and the issues that affected its constituents. While these issues and the ways in which they were raised reflects the dynamics that gave impetus to other organisations that mobilised along class lines, like the communists, they also show the importance of the Indian bourgeoisie in defining the political limitations of the national liberation struggle in Assam, prior to the transfer of power in 1947. The involvement of the Assamese middle class in the Congress also meant that the organisation had to toe a fine line of appeasing all its constituents in trying to forge a united front against the British government.5 This meant that the Congress was susceptible to manipulation by certain classes within the anti-imperialist struggle.

The second factor that has to be taken into consideration while looking at the forms of protest in the plantation is the strategic alliance between the workers and the peasants, cutting across cultural boundaries. It is here that one sees the coming together, in specific ways, of cultural identities and class consciousness in the anti-colonial struggle. The period starting from 1905-06 to the end of World War I, was one of extremely high dividends for the shareholders in the tea industry and relatively low wages for the workers. Out of the 210 reported cases of conflict between the planters and workers, from 1904-05 to 1920-21, as many as 141 were cases of rioting and unlawful assembly, arising from the issue of inadequate remuneration and trying economic conditions. The rise in prices caused widespread resentment amongst the peasants and workers and this culminated in the looting of rural hats. The hats were a peculiar pre-capitalist institution, where surplus was exchanged for other commodities. With the introduction of cash as the medium of exchange especially in the plantation system, these weekly marts (hats) started to act as the main points of exchange for the non-plantation sector. It was the only place where the worker could spend her/his earnings. The mart was incomplete without the presence of the moneylender (almost always a North Indian, belonging to the traditional money-lending caste), the local peasant, worker and the planter whose presence was determined by the fact that he had to control this localised market, in the last instance. The nationalists saw the hats as instruments of colonial subjugation of the peasantry by the planters, and therefore made arrangements to set up alternative hats, which were outside the control of the planters and the moneylenders. But their liberal nationalist intentions somehow did not consider the position of the workers in this structure. Left out of the grand nationalist plans the workers viewed the existing relations within the hats as one of exploitation, where they had to wage battle against the moneylender. The local peasantry, who were directly affected by the dealings of the moneylenders, made a common cause with the workers. What is interesting is the fact that these uprisings were largely spontaneous and the liberals not only failed to provide leadership during these events, but often frowned upon such militant actions as looting and burning.

This can be best gauged from the events that had their genesis in the workers strike in 1920, by the workers of the Dibrugarh Sadiya Railways. When the railways workers went on a ten day strike, the plantation workers in upper Assam went on a series of lightening strikes. In the British owned Doomdsoma Tea Company in Sibsagar, the workers went on the rampage, looting shops that belonged to the Marwari traders in the hats around Moran and Sepon, as well as Demow. The local Congress representatives went on an all-out effort to dissuade the peasants from joining the strikes.6 To no avail, it seems, because the militant character of struggles in 1920 in Sibsagar, exposed the machinations of the liberals, at the same time cemented the strategic solidarity of the peasants and workers. As many as 37 hats were raided and the shops of moneylenders razed to the ground. A plantation worker, arrested after the rioting, said that he justified his actions because this 'Asomiya Bhai and he were not given their due'7, [Assam Labour Enquiry Report 1921-22]. On the other hand, the Moran former in Demow justified his participation in the burning of a hat in the nearby tea estate because he 'shared the same fate' as the workers of the estate. [Bardoloi, N.C. 'Conditions of the Labourers in the Tea Gardens of Assam', 1929]. The planters reacted by appointing special constables to ensure that the workers did not mobilise or organise. But these 'chowkidars' too were killed, at least in three estates in Sibsagar district.

Historically therefore one sees that the worker had to look beyond the formal structure of the tea garden organisations to resist and seek redressal from the colonial and capitalist exploitation of the plantation system. This is the history of reliance on other agents, who had suffered the anomalies of the plantation system as well. The colonial authorities did their best to contain this militancy by creating a divisive environment where ethnicity and identity became important in the fight over scarce resources.

The events in Assam today point to the replaying of the same events. Identity is an issue that the state uses to resist any revolutionary transformation of the social structure. A case at hand is the operation of armed groups such as the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) and the Bengali Tiger Force (BTF). These two organisations came into existence in the 1990s and mobilised along narrow ethnic lines. Their efforts were to undermine the activities of the democratic movement for self determination spearheaded by the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).

By 1995 the movement for self determination had attained a level of strategic and tactical strength, wherein the different ethnic groups in the Brahmaputra valley were mobilised by the NDFB and ULFA, against the Indian state. Around this time, a new group was being formed in the Bodo dominated areas, by the Indian army and the administration. This was the BLTF.8 This organisation, along with its fraternal ally the BTF conducted a series of armed actions against specific communities. The BLTF targetted the 'ex-tea garden' workers belonging to the Santhal community and a situation arose wherein the workers in the plantations of the north bank (of the river Brahmaputra) were inexorably drawn into conflict with other ethnic groups in the area. Things came to a head in 1996 when the BLTF, accusing the NDFB of 'selling out to the Marxist-Leninist Camp' and posing as the 'true' representatives of the Bodos, attacked Santhal Villagers?9 This did not seem to pay much dividends in terms of a strategic mobilisation for the BLTF. It still could not recruit young Bodos into its ranks. What it did however was to undertake a systematic campaign of assassinations against Santhals, who were branded as outsiders. The conflict had tacit support from the authorities who took ages to react. In 1995 the army was already stationed in the north bank, but it did precious little to stop the killings. It was only when the ULFA and NDFB issued statements and directly intervened, that the conflict abated and the government rushed in with 'relief'. This however gave the BLTF enough time to regroup. It first branded the NDFB as stooges of the ULFA and the latter as 'chauvinist Assamese'. Its next action was to target the Assamese speaking community, for which it sought an alliance with the BTF.It is indeed a telling comment on the solidarity of the oppressed, that four years down the line, both the BLTF and BTF have not managed to make much headway into the communities they seek to represent.

The reason for dwelling on the present day policies of the state in combatting the armed struggle, is to try and draw a lineage, or continuity of the policies followed by the British and the post 1947 Indian state. This continuity is almost self evident when one considers the perpetuation of coercion and economic bondage under the plantation complex. The need of the hour therefore is two-fold. At the theoretical and academic level, one has to insist on the application of scientific Marxist-Leninist methods and resist the revisionist tendencies that seek to dilute the history of struggle against capital, by adding to it strange theories of 'primordial identities'. Simultaneously, one has to ensure that the reactionary elements that seek to represent the plantation workers be exposed in their efforts to create divisions in the organic solidarity of the workers and peasants against capital. This will only be possible if the trade union movement in the plantations moves away from economism and adds the political agenda. This in turn would pave the way for a democratic struggle for a revolutionary transformation in the North East.


Antrobus, H.A.: (1951) The History of the Jorehaut Tea Company, 1859 to 1946; London.
Bardoloi, N.C.: (1929) Conditions of the Labourers in the Tea Gardens of Assam, Calcutta.
Beckford, G.L.: (1972) Persistent Poverty, New York.
Griffiths, P.: (1967) The History of the Indian Tea Industry, London.
Guha, A.: (1977) Planter Raj to Swaraj; New Delhi.
Lenin, V.I.: (1959) Selected Works; Moscow.
Marx, K. and Engels F.: (1971) Selected Works, Moscow.


1. The Indian Tea Association (ITA) a powerful lobby of tea plantation owners was formed in a tavern in London in 1879 by European planters, most of whom had big plantations in Assam. The reasons that it was founded in London and not in Calcutta, or Guwahati, was in the words of a member 'because the members saw a NATURAL GRAVITATION TO LONDON'.

2. In much of the literature available on the early phase of the tea industry, the 'wastelands' remain a recurring theme, which seems to be a problematic area. The Anglo-Burmese wars saw the decimation of a large section of the peasantry. Historical sources also suggest that many were also taken away from Assam as slaves. If this is true then the Yandabu treaty, signed between the British and the Burmese in 1826, does not mention it. What is beyond dispute is the fact that during the wars large sections of the peasantry took flight from the areas, later termed as 'wastelands'. This depopulation was viewed by many a colonial historian as a tragic but inevitable reason to introduce the indentured labour system, because the native populace in its devastated condition was 'in no shape to reap the benefits of the industry as wage workers'.

3. The first labourers in the plantations were local Kachari and Bodo tribesmen, who were too uppity demanding higher wages, better work conditions etc. And the planters could not even threaten them by throwing them out, because they had their farms to go back to. It should be noted here that in 19th century Assam there were not any landless peasants - at least no class of landless.

4. When one looks at the pattern of mobilising the workers in the estates since the early 20th century by political parties such as the Congress and even the revisionist left, one sees the reiteration and overwhelming emphasis of the cultural and social distinctiveness of the working class, from those not employed in the plantations. The only political articulation of historical unity for undertaking revolutionary action in the present day have been the banned (underground) organisations, such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Revolutionary Peoples Front (RPF) in Manipur (in a slightly different social context).

5. This is borne out by the fact that in the early 20th century there were quite a few 'native' planters, who though tied to the colonial market economically, had thrown in their lot (politically) with the Congress. 'Nationalist' planters such as Bisturam Barooah can at best be described as 'coconuts'- Brown-on-the-outside-but-white-inside.

6. A tactic that worked in the Surma Valley, where the workers were left to fend for themselves following the Changola Valley exodus. (For details on the exodus see Guha, A: 'From Planter Raj to Swaraj).

7. Most of the workers of the Dibrugarh Sadiya Railways were Assamese speaking people, as distinct from the different dialects spoken by the workers in the plantations.

8. There exist a series of public statements of the police in Darrang and Kokrajhar districts, that not only implicate the army in the activities of the BLTF but also point out that this patronage disallows the police to take effective action against the BLTF.

9. A nagging question may be posed here as to what political motive would seek to take a few steps back and keep the democratic struggles on a back burner? The fact remains that the BLTF and BTF swear allegiance to the Indian constitution while the groups demanding the right to self determination do not. The BLTF has reiterated its commitment to preserving India's political boundaries, by asking for autonomy for the Bodos, at a time when the NDFB have been demanding the right to self determination for all the peoples of the North East, especially those in Bodoland.

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