Across India, Adivasis (also known as indigenous peoples or first peoples) were and continue to be primarily agriculturists and that too subsistence cultivators who live off the land in tightly knit villages and communities. Their history, which can be traced back many centuries, has often been fraught with oppression. In Assam the history of the Adivasis really starts from the 1850s onwards and is directly connected to the highly exploitive tea industry. This article briefly examines that history, the longstanding disenfranchisement of the Adivasis in Assam and their struggle to gain Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in the state while highlighting its limitations.
The bloody brew
The British discovered tea in the early 1820s when the native tea leaf in Assam, long brewed by the Singpho tribe, was presented to a certain military man by the name of Bruce. The British East India Company (maybe realising the possibility of regaining monopoly from China in tea production) took over Assam in 1826 from the Ahom kings through the Yandaboo Treaty. Soon in 1837, the first tea garden was established at Chabua in Dibrugarh District of Upper Assam, and in 1840 the Assam Tea Company started the production of tea on a commercial basis. The tea industry started expanding rapidly from the 1850s onwards. Vast tracts of land needed were cleared for the establishing of new tea plantations, and soon by the turn of the century, Assam became the leading tea producing region in the world.
Of course, the rapid expansion of the industry and its highly labour-intensive nature meant that a large source of labourers was required. The locals generally preferred cultivation and, if at all, would work in the tea gardens out of temporary necessity.
The process was of course extremely violent and hazardous, obvious from the fact that the first batch of labourers in 1841, from the Chotanagpur area, all died en-route due to malnutrition and illness. Recruitment was carried on through highly abusive contractual networks. Numerous episodes of fraud, forcible recruitment, kidnapping, and torture have been recorded as frequently occurring during the recruitment process. There is even the rumour that the British orchestrated a famine in the Chotanagpur Santhal Paragana areas by stopping food supplies from reaching there so that the Adivasis would presumably jump at the opportunity to work in the tea gardens of Assam.
All the Adivasis in Assam trace their immediate history through this route of indentured, immigrant labour brought in to work in the tea gardens. The socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement that they faced then continues in large part today.
In Assam, the Adivasis today can broadly be divided into two communities, the tea garden workers and those who came out of the tea gardens at the end of their contracts and settled in and around the area after procuring a little land mostly through government schemes.
The condition of the tea garden workers continues to be abysmal. While Adivasis form the vast majority of the workers, there are also small percentages of other tribal communities, as well as Nepalis, Bengalis, Oriyas and so on. During the initial decades from the 1850s till the 1920s under the British, the working conditions were akin to slave labour, with flogging, rape, torture and even the throwing of dead workers in rivers. While certainly not comparable to earlier times, the working conditions today are still far from being the well-regulated environment that functions according to the Plantation Labour Act brought out in 1951 to protect the interests of workers in plantations.
Even a cursory observation of the plantations today brings to light numerous violations of the Act, including inadequate or completely non-existent provisions for drinking water, crèches, schools, proper health facilities, sanitation for women workers (who form the majority of tea industry labour) and shelter. In addition one notices the expanded usage of child labour. Upon further investigation and discussions with workers, one learns that wages paid are much lower than prescribed minimum wages, no over-time payment is made, and occasional physical abuse occurs.
The conditions of the Adivasis who came out of the tea plantations and settled as cultivators around the gardens, is certainly better but not by much. Those who have land tend to be better off and more self-sufficient, while those possessing no or uncultivable land often end up as informal labour in nearby towns and cities. Education levels, health indicators and poverty levels for Adivasis are among the worst among all communities in Assam. Many Adivasi families find it difficult to get their children into educational institutions and later on in finding proper employment.
Furthermore, while Adivasis, both tea garden and ex-tea garden communities form nearly 20 per cent of the population, their representation in the legislative assembly is markedly lesser.
Some of the more prominent Adivasi organisations like the All Adivasi Students Association of Assam (AASAA) as well as groups active with tea garden workers like the Assam Tea Tribes Students Association (ATTSA) point to a particular policy feature that is historically missing here in Assam, which is the granting of Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to the Adivasis. The granting of this status is something these groups feel would go great lengths in ameliorating the historically oppressed condition of the Adivasis in Assam, and it is often the central, if not only, point of many of their campaigns.
ST status and its limited scope
The struggle for ST status by the Adivasis in Assam warrants an examination as it is the only state in India wherein, post Independence, their tribal status has been replaced by OBC (Other Backward Class).
The Government of India made special safeguards to protect Advisasis from exploitation and ensure social justice since the inception of Planning in 1951. This policy of protective discrimination for oppressed communities includes reservation of posts in public services, guaranteed political representation, and seats in educational institutions. And while far from perfect, this policy has certainly seen positive signs over the decades for a lot of communities like, for example, the Dalits (falling under Schedule Caste status) whose education levels, human development indices and levels of franchise have steadily risen across the country, and particularly in states like Tamilnadu, which has historically been far ahead of most other states in India when it comes to safeguarding the interests of oppressed communities through a consistent policy of protective policy-making.
For Adivasis too, ST status in many other states of India has given them greater political representation and resulted in increasing presence in educational institutions and government jobs. This has resulted in some positives for the community with some sections slowly climbing up the socioeconomic ladder. However, despite this improvement, human development indicators still show Adivasis languishing at the bottom among all communities in India. It can be safely argued that, while hardly the only solution, protection through ST status for Adivasis needs to necessarily continue.
It is under this paradigm that the struggle for ST status by the Adivasis in Assam gains particular legitimacy. This struggle has faced a brick wall in the form of either the Assam government or opposition from other identity-based movements. Among the arguments against the granting of this status to Adivasis include pointing to the historic migration of the Adivasis into the state thereby arguing that theyre not tribals of the region per se. However this is a rather flawed argument to make as every community in India has a migratory history behind them, whether its the various Dravidian communities in South India, the numerous tribes in Northeast India, or any other community. Furthermore the migration was as indentured labour, and the Adivasis continue to carry the burden of their historical disenfranchisement even in Assam. Thus to deny the community what has been deemed as a fundamental right by the Indian Constitution is indeed a continuation of that historical injustice.
It must be strenuously added however that ST status alone, while important, will not be some kind of quick-fix panacea to cure all ills. This is evident in other parts of India, where political power via reservation often ends up in the hands of the political elite of that section of society, who themselves sometimes form an oppressive ruling class within the community. There are numerous other issues that the Adivasis face such as lack of economic franchise, serious labour exploitation and social problems such as alcoholism that will require strenuous social movements to tackle.
Without serious examination of the vast gamut of issues that form the oppressive existence that the Adivasis have to contend with, mere political representation will not do. A worrying feature of a group like AASAA is the single-point nature of their campaigns, without vigorously examining deeper issues such as the conditions of Adivasi workers and women, as well as struggling against internal exploitation.
A far clearer analysis of labour and gender by the numerous Adivasi organisations, looking beyond just identity, and the building of movements based on that analysis would serve the community tremendously. The Adivasis have a long history of valiant struggle behind them, with one of the first rebellions against the British Empire being the Santhal Rebellion of 1855 as well as a history of egalitarian living. This legacy can certainly be a guiding force in taking on the oppression that the Adivasis face today in a truly fruitful manner.