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Some Aspects of Our Work
Among Teagarden Workers

Vivek Das

Our work in the teagardens in Assam began in the district of Sonitpur in 1989. AGP government had been in power and its all-round failure provided a fertile ground for the strengthening of ULFA. Our trade union named Assam Revolutionary Tea Workers Association had, since its very inception, developed a powerful movement through organising bandh, gherao etc. In 50 years of independence, this movement was the first organised movement of the tea-workers in Assam. In a short time the movement spread to 5 to 6 tea gardens and the management as well as the police administration felt threatened with the rise of the tea workers association. Assam Tea Workers Association (ACMS), the union affiliated with INTUC and which enjoys virtual monopoly in Assam started spreading slanders against us and subsequently came out with a propaganda pamphlet where they repeated their old promises to workers. It must be noted here that ACMS has no tradition of propaganda pamphlets. Well, by then 1992 assembly elections were announced and in that election Cong. came back to power in Assam. And thus began the second phase of our activity where we had to face the Congress offensive.

We made plans to expand our association at the state level and in May 1994 we succeeded in organising the state conference. Representatives from Sonitpur, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Nagaon districts participated in the conference. In February 1995 we organised a state level mobilisation of tea workers in Guwahati against the killings of workers. This mobilisation attracted the intelligentsia as well as the media and an editorial in Dainik Assam termed it as the first mobilisation of the tea workers in Assam after independence.

If, on the one hand, we made substantial progress and acquired a greater profile, on the other hand, the entire period witnessed a combined attack of the management-police nexus against our association. Moreover, this attack enjoyed the full-scale backing of the Congress government. In almost all the areas of our association's influence, lockouts, dismissals, arrests of leaders became a common phenomenon. Amidst this scenario 1996 elections were announced and it is remarkable that out of 5 candidates whom CPI(ML) fielded in elections, four were associated with the tea workers association. This is how we completed the second phase and entered the third phase of our activities.

The present situation is quite favourable to us in organising tea workers. This is because AGP, the ruling party doesn't enjoy any clout among tea workers whereas Congress being out of power, ACMS is in a defensive position. Still we could not make much out of the advantageous situation primarily because we faced some disorganisation after elections. In recent months we have organised workshops, conventions, a three-month long propaganda campaign to collect signatures particularly to consolidate the new tea garden areas where we received good support during elections. We are also striving ahead to earn a statewide recognition.

It won't be out of place here to recount some characteristic features of tea-workers which we came to realise in our work in all these years.

First of all, tea workers are quite backward and in many cases their life-pattern is influenced by feudal, even pre-feudal aspects.

Secondly, their trade union consciousness is almost nil. In contrast to modern workers, they are not conscious of their trade union rights. In fact their trade unions didn't emerge in the process of their struggles. They perceive trade union as a mechanism of linkage between the management and the workers and not as their weapon of defence against the management. May be for the same reason, except for a few left-dominated tea gardens, one doesn't find any tradition of legal battles. In almost all the gardens for years together management resorts to suspension or dismissal of hundreds of workers illegally and just by oral orders. Union doesn't show any inclination to defend the workers interest in such cases.

Thirdly, ACMS which is the biggest and the most powerful union in the gardens acts as the agent of the management and that they do quite nakedly. As this is the only recognised union, management holds negotiations or signs agreements only with them.

Fourthly, tea garden workers are divided along ethnic, tribal and religious lines and management quite skillfully utilises these differences to pit one section of workers against the other. Though at present there are no instances of an ethnic or communal flare-up, still the differences are quite sharp. The ethnic or religious community that is backed by the management differs from garden to garden. In Jinjia tea garden, we have seen that while management launched repression against one section of workers, it could get the support of the other section of the workers, in this case the Christian workers.

Fifthly, under management's instructions entry of outsiders is prohibited in the workers' lines. The old system of British days when tea workers were confined within the confines of the garden, still continues. It goes without saying that the socalled outsiders are individuals belonging to protesting organisations, primarily left organisations. In total disregard to the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, signboards declaring 'outsiders are not permitted to enter workers' lines' are displayed in almost all tea gardens.

Sixthly, tea garden workers are the most backward and oppressed social segment of Assam. Hence they feel discriminated by and alienated from other social segments of Assam and this often becomes the focal point of their sense of social dignity and cause of voicing protest.
Seventhly, in comparison to other backward social segments the social progress among tea workers after independence has been very slow. Doctors, intellectuals, highly educated persons even graduates are very few. Primary education among children is quite low. In fifty years of independence, tea workers neither got any rights nor achieved any socio-economic progress.

And finally, though they possess a rich cultural tradition, the all-pervasive influence of cheap Hindi cinema has become a part of their cultural life. Government took no initiative in developing any cultural institutions to promote their cultural assets. On the contrary, the government and the management are quite occupied with supplying cheap Hindi cinema and as a result this has become the sole attraction in any cultural get-together.

Next we shall deal with the problems that we face in our organisation.

In the beginning itself we have mentioned that since the beginning of our work we have had been facing lockouts, suspension, dismissals, arrests etc. At the moment we are not strong enough to resist the enemy offensive, as our work is confined to a limited sphere. In addition to that our association is an unrecognised one and thus we cannot effectively raise the workers issues before the management. Management refuses to accept our memorandum and only after a serious battle we could force them to accept it. Often we have to approach labour inspector and labour commissioner. But these officers are nothing more than show-pieces and are better used by the management.

Secondly, with our limited strength, we find it quite complex to face arrests, police repressions, suspension and dismissals etc. At grassroots we undertake mass mobilisations to tackle the combined offensive of the management, police and ACMS while at the same time we engage in legal battles. But for the legal struggles neither do we have able lawyers nor do we have experience. Moreover, the legal struggles give rise to a kind of 'legalism' in the organisation. This manifests itself in over-reliance on labour office and less stress on political mobilisation of workers. This in turn leads to stagnation and stops expansion. At present in almost all tea gardens suspensions are going on in one pretext or the other. But association leaders have failed to activise the union to take on these repressive measures.

The other major problem that we face is the tendency of running behind spontaneity. Hundreds of complaints are there in every tea garden and the moment a new trade union branch is opened all these problems come over to us. Some workers see these as the pre-condition for union's expansion. Some workers do feel that in the name of politicisation if we refuse to take up all these immediate issues of workers, we shall be pushing workers back to ACMS. Therefore, we shall take up all such complaints and in some way or other should solve them. Well, there can be no dispute on taking up workers' complaints but we shall nurture no illusion that we shall solve them in any short period. The fact of the matter is that even for resolving the primary demands we have to go for protracted struggles and in the course of such struggles new problems of suspension and dismissals only get added up. If we don't tell these hard facts to the workers and prepare them for protracted struggles, the whole thing will only boomerang on us. And this is what has been happening in our practical experience.

At present, spontaneous movements have become a common feature in tea gardens. In many a case, police has resorted to firings. There is no leadership of the left or any other trade union. All these movements are spontaneous and due to their unorganised and non-political character management has been able to crush them. This demands an organised intervention from our side. We lack in building capable cadres from tea garden workers themselves. Efforts have indeed been there but often we go in search for some 'pure' elements and in the process neglect those who are already close to us. There is no point in tracing some readymade cadres and leaders rather we have to build them up from the raw materials that we posses.

(Translated from Vikalp, the CPI(ML) State Organ in Assamese)

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