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Tea Tribes of Assam

Identity Politics and Search for Liberation

Indrajit Sharma ( is a doctoral candidate and senior research fellow at the Centre for Security Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar. 

Assam’s complex social mosaic is at a crossroads with increasing ethnic tensions and alienation among various communities. The tea tribes form a distinct population of Assam and are demanding Scheduled Tribe status from the state. The politicisation and assertion of identity and ethnicity by the tea tribes to counter the unequal distribution of power and resources in present-day Assam has unleashed social and political tensions. 

Assam has been an influential and integral part of India’s North-East region, having substantial sociocultural linkages with the entire subcontinent. The North-East comprises of eight states—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura—and shares its border with the countries of Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, China, and Bhutan. The region served as the only route for migration vis-á-vis trade and commerce with the South-East and East Asian countries. It served as a crossroads for many tribal communities for both migration as well as settling down for livelihood, leading to the diversity we see today in the region. Over time, various races settled and intermingled, developing shared common characteristics. 
Such diversity is equally represented in Assam, home to a complex mix of various communities. The population comprises both tribal and non-tribal groups. This diverse social set-up, however, far from assimilation has found itself in a situation of alienation and isolation today. Ethnic diversity has caused a sense of social insecurity vis-á-vis identity and ethnicity among the various resident communities. The politicisation of identity and ethnicity has stemmed in ethnic distinctiveness and assertion, resulting in identity politics. 
The term “identity politics” can be viewed as when culture and identity, variously perceived to be traditional, modern, radical, local, regional, religious, gender, class, and ethnic, are articulated, constructed, invented, and commodified as the means to achieve political ends (Hill and Wilson 2003: 2). It often includes a claim to power based on the articulation and mobilisation of a particular group identity (Kaldor 2012). Throughout the entire North-East today, political contentions along the lines of demands for secessionism, autonomy or statehood are based on ethnicity and worse, interethnic conflict centred on the question of identity. Identity forms the basis for aspiration and assertion of many ethnic communities, and is rooted in the social history of the region as well as the historical experiences of communities. 
The identity struggles of the tea tribes are socially and politically significant in contemporary Assam, but have received scant attention in academic literature. This article seeks to contextualise this struggle with the use of both primary and secondary data. The primary data has been sourced from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and department of tea tribes of the Governments of India and Assam. 
Ethnic Composition 
Assam has borders with Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal as also Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Ahom Kingdom1 of the precolonial times, located in the extreme north-eastern corner of the subcontinent, can be described as the cultural heartland of modern Assam (Baruah 1999: 21). Assam, as part of the British Empire, came into being after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, which was signed by the Burmese king and the British East India Company. Although colonial Assam was larger than its precolonial avatar, it excluded some areas that were culturally part of precolonial Assam (Baruah 1999). 
Assam has a population of 31.2 million and occupies about 2.4% of the country’s total geographical area. Most of the state’s population lives in the rich and luxuriant valleys of its two major river systems (Brahmaputra and Barak) with a total of 33 administrative districts. 
Assam is populated by three distinct groups of people: the tribes of the hills, the tribes of the plains, and the non-tribal inhabitants of the plains. This diverse population speaks a complex mixture of several dialects and languages, apart from the majority language of Assamese (Asomiya). According to Gurudas Das (2012: 2), 
The political boundary of Assam not only includes the ethnic Assamese but also the Dimasas of North Cachar Hills, Karbis of KarbiAnglong, Bodos, Koches, Miris, Chutias, Kacharis, Deoris, Rabhas, Lalungs, Morans, and other indigenous population and Muslims, Hindu Bengalis and tea tribes in Brahmaputra Valley. 
Thus, linguistically and culturally diverse groups and tribes coexist in the state. The tribal population is dispersed across such administrative categories as the Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBC), and More Other Backward Classes (MOBCs). The tribes that settled and reside in the hill districts are called the “hill tribes” whereas the tribes that settled in the plain areas of Brahmaputra Valley are called the “plain tribes.” The hill tribes are mainly Karbi and Dimasa, and the plain tribes are majorly the Bodos, Mising, Rabha, Tiwa, and Deori. 
Udayon Misra (2007) observed that there are 23 STs in the state, of which 14 are hill tribes and nine are plains tribes; wherein those who have been accorded ST status in the hills lose the same if they settle in the plains and vice versa. The tribes of the state are also categorised as “autochthons” and “non-autochthons” (Misra 2007: 12). The “tea tribes” that the present article deals with, fall under the latter category. Monirul Hussain (1992: 1047) subdivides autochthons into two distinct groups, that is, tribals of the plains and tribals of the hills, and all of them are recognised as STs; and the non-autochthons include various tribal groups which migrated to present-day Assam during the colonial period in search of livelihood. This includes the plantation labour brought in by the British for Assam’s growing tea estates, mainly from Jharkhand. This section of indentured ethnic population is today recognised as the “tea tribes.” 
Identity Crisis of Tea Tribes 
Over the years, Assam has witnessed conflicts over identity, ethnicity and nativist sentiments. Most of the issues and problems in the state, according to various scholars, have been related to immigration. The debate over the politics of migration is often addressed with reference to those migrants and natives. Notably, Myron Weiner (1978) pointed out that the conflicts of Assam are between the original inhabitants of the area and more recent settlers, also known as “sons-of-the-soil” conflicts. Such terminology reveals that those who are native to a given territory and are recognised/self-identify as “natives,” and enjoy accessibility to local resources, begrudge the competition that arises from immigration (Weiner 1978). 
In the multi-ethnic social sphere of Assam, the tea tribes form a distinct population therein. They have been traced as the descendants of Adivasi communities such as Munda, Oraon, Santhal and other tribals of mainland India (found in present-day Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal). The Adivasis, meaning original inhabitants, is a term used to refer to the aboriginal or indigenous people of India. In administrative parlance, all tribal communities on the scheduled lists of the state are referred to as “STs.” The STs also comprise the most underprivileged section of contemporary Indian society. 
Demographically, the tea tribes form around 20% (approximately 5 million) of the total population of Assam (Mishra 2005). Of this, it is estimated that more than 11 lakh work in the state’s 800-odd tea gardens and are, thus, called the tea garden tribe (Kalita 2015). In Assam, these Adivasi tea tribes are not recognised as STs as they are not indigenous to the state. However, these ethnic groups are recognised as STs in the states of their origin (Hussain 1992).2 Over the years, most of the immigrant communities in the Brahmaputra Valley adopted the Assamese language and assimilated into Assamese culture (Kimura 2003: 228). The tea tribes are not accorded a tribal identity in mainstream Assamese society (that is, their integration and assimilation with the broader Assamese identity has not taken place, as it has 
for several other communities) even after their presence over many decades in the state and are classified as OBCs in the central list. They are economically backward with low levels of literacy among them (Government of India 2014). 
The tea tribes in Assam have been experiencing a sense of deprivation, suppression and exploitation, arising out of their identity and plantation work. The combination of deprivation and lack of a tribal identity has led to a situation of identity crisis. Today, the tea tribes of Assam are promoting their ethnic distinctiveness and as such stressing on their “tribal” identity. In their assertion of ethnic distinctiveness and search for liberation, the tea tribe population has been continuously demanding the ruling government to grant them the status of ST so that they can avail their unmet needs under the mandate of the Indian Constitution and mitigate the exploitation and discrimination they have been facing over the years. 
Nomenclature and History 
Historically, the tea tribes migrated to the mainland of Assam prior to Indian independence. Their migration can be traced back to British Raj, when the colonialists started to exploit the economic potential of the region through tea plantations in the early 1820s. Similarly, connections must be drawn to the colonial interest in practical agriculture, as a means for developing the colonies through the study of botany, and the constant search for new plants which were consigned back to Britain’s botanical institutions for study and propagation (Ellis 2011). The erstwhile Adivasis were brought for the first time to Assam as plantation labourers by the British in 1821. 
Assam was known for its tea industries, but plantation work needed significant humanpower. For this, the tea tribes were brought in as indentured labour from various provinces of India. During their tenure at the plantation work, the communities began to be identified as tea tribes. Today, they are mainly found in the districts of Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Jorhat, Golaghat, 
Dibrugarh, Cachar, Hailakandi, Karimganj, Tinsukia, and other districts of Assam. There are communities of tea tribes known as the “ex-tea garden tribes,” to refer to the members of the tea tribes who have settled down close to the tea estates in the state after the end of their contract and occasionally provide their services as casual labourers. The ex-tea garden tribes are mainly present in Khokrajhar in western Assam; Marigaon, Nagaon, Sonitpur, and Darrang in middle Assam; Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh, and Tinsukia in upper Assam; North Cachar and Karbi Anglong in southern Assam; as well as the Barak Valley (Kandulna 1999; Mishra 2005). 
While it was the British that first recruited the above-mentioned Adivasi communities to the tea plantations, later on a continuous flow of migrants to the plantations sustained. During the colonial period, Assam attained high economic growth primarily due to its tea industries. This economic expansion further required an influx of workers who eventually settled down in the state. This immigration of labour was also abetted by the fact that the native Assamese were involved in domestic agriculture and allied businesses. As a consequence, a large number of labourers were imported from various provinces of the Indian mainland, including Odisha, Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh as well as Chennai. 
Weiner (1978) classifies Assamese immigrants into several groups: tea plantation labourers (comprising Adivasis from Odisha and Bihar), Bengali Hindus and Muslims (forming the administrative and peasantry class), and Marwaris (mostly engaged in trade). Ajai Sahni (2001) adds that the indigenous tribes of the North-East represent successive waves of migrants, both from the East and West, with many entering the region as late as the 19th century. The cultural mosaic was made more complex as a result of the British policy of importing large numbers of administrators, plantation workers and cultivators from other parts of India. 
In the postcolonial era, the migrant Adivasi population, popularly identified as tea tribes in the state, after their subjection to exploitation and deprivation rose up to assert their self-formulated identity. The history of exploitation has its roots in the colonial period in the region. During the colonial times, according to Hiren Gohain (2007: 13), the British had lured them in lakhs from the Chota Nagpur Plateau, Bengal Presidency, even Andhra Pradesh, and forced them into a terrible state of servitude marked by low wages, restriction on free movement, denial of right to education and near total absence of medical care. Such imported labour was exploited by the British, including the contractors, and were given very low wages. Moreover, from the 1850s until around the 1920s, the working conditions were akin to slavery, with flogging, rape, torture and even throwing of dead workers’ corpses in rivers (Kar 1999; Toppo 1999). 
Demand for ST Status 
In Assam, it is not only the tea tribes that have been pressing for recognition as STs, there are five other communities—the Tai Ahom, the Moran, the Motok, the Chutia, and the Koch Rajbongshi, that are currently classified as OBCs. Of these, the first four predominantly live in the districts of upper Assam while the Koch Rajbongshi live in western Assam, sharing broadly the same physical (and political) space as the Bodos, the most numerous of the tribal communities in the state (Prabhakara 2007). At present, the Adivasi tea tribes constitute about 60% of the total ST population in Assam which, according to the 2011 Census, amounted to 3.9 million persons (Deka 2016). M S Prabhakara (2007) observes that the addition of such a large population to the present ST pool will undoubtedly affect existing allocations in areas such as reservation of seats in legislative structures, higher education and jobs. 
The struggle for identity and the demand for ST status by the above-mentioned groups are fuelled by the tangible benefits that come along with identification in this category. The Constitution provides special status for the STs, and thereby allocates special welfare provisions and safeguards to ensure their well-being and facilitate their empowerment. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs governs the implementation of these constitutional and governmental provisions, including social security measures, tribal welfare planning, project formulation, research and training, promotion and development of voluntary efforts for tribal welfare, and certain matters relating to administration of the Scheduled Areas, as part of its mandate. These schemes and programmes are intended to support and supplement through financial assistance, the efforts of other central ministries, state governments and voluntary organisations (Government of India 2014). 
Even after residing for over a century in Assam, the overall condition of the tea tribes is pathetic. The recognition as tea tribe has no benefit attached. In fact, Adivasis find the terms “tea garden tribe” and “ex-tea garden tribe” derogatory. They earn a paltry sum of 
`94 a day, far below the state minimum wage of `169. Their literacy rate is abysmally low at 23%. And more than 70% of them are landless and live on encroached forestland (Kalita 2015). The socio-economic conditions of these tea tribes are very poor and the working condition is highly abusive. Commenting on such exploitation, Biswajeet Saikia (2008: 308) points out that
the apathy of the mainstream Assamese society towards the development of the tea garden labourers has put the community on the war path. The reluctance to assimilate the tea garden labour community in the larger process of an Assamese identity is mainly responsible for the dismal state of underdevelopment in the community. 
Such a condition often gives rise to dissatisfaction and resentment towards the state. And as such there has been a rise in the feeling of exclusion within the tea tribe community. Although they are considered tribes, the communities are excluded from the Assamese mainstream. The exclusion is brought on by its non-inclusion in the ST category and thereby, the denial of constitutional rights as also a low self-image. The exclusion also bears out in their material conditions, such as their working conditions in the plantations and alienation from accessibility to land rights. The state government’s take on the issue is that the tea tribes are not an indigenous tribe of Assam. In doing so, the state has denied them the opportunity of free education and of seeking employment beyond the gardens (Fernandes 2003). 
Identity for Social Justice 
The process of the tea tribes asserting their identity had begun in the early stages of their settlement in the state due to the differential treatment meted out to them by the other tribes. The reason behind this is perhaps because the tea tribe communities are continued to be viewed as outsiders. Observing the condition of the plantation labourers, the Parliament passed the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 after independence, which underwent amendments subsequently. The act contained various provisions for the socio-economic development and employment of labour by tea companies for their production. However, poor implementation of the act, especially in terms of health-related and other social security measures, failed to arrest the degrading condition of the plantation labourers. The employment rules and wage system also had its flaws. For example, Saikia (2008: 310) notes 
The workers are mostly unskilled except a handful, who work in the tea processing factories. The majority of the workers remain unskilled as no skill training avenues are open to them. Every worker, permanent or temporary, young or old, inexperienced or experienced, receives the same wage and is classified as daily wage worker. 
Apart from the Plantations Labour Act, there were many other legislative measures intended to protect tea plantation workers, such as the Workmen’s Compensation (Amendment) Act, 1929 and the Assam Tea Plantations Employees Welfare Fund Act, 1959. However, the provisions of these legislatures were also violated from time to time (Kar 1999; Toppo 1999; Bharali 2004). The government, too, undertook various initiatives for the welfare and development of the tea tribes in Assam. The Directorate for Welfare of Tea and Ex-tea Garden Tribes was established in 1983 and the Assam Tea Labour Welfare Board in 2004 to further the welfare of the tea labour in the state through various schemes. Although the community is not recognised as a ST, the state government provides all necessary facilities that the STs enjoy minus political empowerment, in terms of political consciousness and inclusion in local governance. A comprehensive study by the North Eastern Social Research Centre based in Guwahati in 2004 across 172 tea gardens in Assam, revealed numerous violations of the existing acts, including inadequate or completely non-existent provisions for drinking water, crèches, schools, health facilities, sanitation for women workers (who form the majority of tea industry labour) and shelter (Bharali 2004). 
With the apparent failure of various welfare measures, the tea tribes began their demand for ST status to mitigate their exclusion and subordinated status simultaneously by availing the special constitutional provisions. One of the major benefits of being ST in India is gaining access to reservations in various sectors. In this aspect, the tea tribes are in search for liberation from the exploitative condition related to its identity—a blanket identity that has been imposed upon them. Another dimension of this demand is the hostility of the existing STs in the state who believe that once the tea tribes are given ST status, there will be competition for reserved seats in public employment and access to other development schemes. The tea tribes’ struggle for liberation and demand for ST status have, thus, created a situation of conflict with other STs in the state. 
The tea tribes, on their part, have resorted to form associations and movements in the mid-1990s to fulfil their demands. These included the All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) and the Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association (ATTSA). Gohain (2007: 14) affirms that both AASAA and ATTSA have been agitating for years demanding recognition of tea tribes as STs. The tea tribes argue that they had been branded as tea tribes because their families are involved in tea plantations. They also claim that their relatives enjoy ST status in Jharkhand and such other parts of India while they do not in Assam because they are seen as belonging to the tea tribes. It is true that the tea tribes lost their ST status after migrating out of their original habitat. Prabhakara (2010: 268) suggests that this aspect has been posited in Assam much along the lines of the exclusionary locational provisions that govern the recognition of people as hill tribes and plain tribes, and not to the more relevant social and economic denominators that should govern such recognition. The major issue is that in the last few decades, the tea tribe community in Assam has continued to languish in severe underdevelopment. However, it is argued that until and unless the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 is amended, the socio-economic condition of the tea tribes cannot be improved by simply granting them ST status. As Saikia (2008: 321) points out: 
By this action, it will create an elite section of the community itself who could get benefits in the long run and make the rest remaining poor and under developed as earlier. Unless basic amenities are not provided in the tea garden cooli lines, there are no rationales to provide the ST status to the community at present. While the struggle for ST status 
may provide new momentum to the struggle of the identity politics in Assam to the tea garden community, which would also help in the vote bank politics in the coming elections, but utmost urgency at present is to address the socio-economic development of the community at large. 
The article has highlighted the nature of ethnic distinctiveness of the tea tribe population of Assam. It may be observed that the continuous disenfranchisement of identity together with exploitative conditions of work and life for the tea tribes have contributed to the emergence and growth of identity politics among them. Their identity struggle has often carried a perceived sense of deprivation. Their search for liberation includes the quest to defend and promote collective interest in terms of their recognition as STs in the state. However, today’s demand for ST status arising from the assertion of identity may create further tensions in the future. The recognition of the unmet needs of such communities, by other communities as well as civil society in this regard is necessary and should be dealt with effectively. The state as well as the central government should bring out new policies on equal distribution of resources and power to its citizens. 
India being a democratic country follows the policy of accommodating the various demands of its society. It is this spirit of the state that is believed to have managed and resolved various disputes from time to time. In the case of Assam, the question that arises is how to include the increasing demands of various ethnic groups, demands of not only the prominent Asomiya middle class but also the growing aspirations and sentiments of many minority communities in the state, like the tea tribes.
1 The Ahom Kingdom was constituted during the last 140 years of Ahom rule, bounded on the north by a range of mountains inhabited by the Bhutanese, Akas, Daflas, and Abors; on the east, by another line of hill tribes, namely the Mishmis and the Sighphos; on the south, by the Garo, Khasi, Naga and Patkai hills; on the west, by the Manas or Manaha river on the north bank and the Habraghat Pargannah on the south in the Bengal district of Rungpore. The kingdom roughly corresponds to the five districts of the Brahmaputra Valley Division of present Assam, namely, Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong, Sibsagar and Lakhimpur and portions of Sadiya Frontier Tract which have become part of present-day Arunachal Pradesh. 
2 An indigenous people are officially regarded as socially disadvantaged. The scheduled tribes, as per the Constitution of India, are characterised by primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness. 
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Updated On : 5th Mar, 2018


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