Assam’s subaltern ruse
27 December 2016
Reflections on a failed revolution.
Dinanath Saura stared at me across the small room of his modest bamboo hut. “My father’s first reaction was one of incredulity. ‘How can a tea labourer become a tea planter? These are the hobbies of kings and emperors,’” he said, gently mocking his late father. “We have no business getting into them.” Saura’s face, creased by years of incessant labour under the intense Assamese sun, broke into a hesitant, questioning smile. “He would be proud today, no?”
“Indeed he would,” I replied.
More likely though, Dinanath’s father – a third generation tea labourer – would be astounded. The Sauras, like thousands of other families, were plucked by the British out of their native village in Odisha sometime in the early 19th century and brought to cultivate the fertile soil of upper Assam. Dinanath had achieved what his forebears could not have imagined even in their wildest dreams. Tea labourers do not get to be planters.
“Actually, we call ourselves ‘growers’, not planters. Small Tea Growers (STGs).” This distinction, to Saura, was more than mere semantics; it was what made him different, what marked out the new from the old. His pride is hardly misplaced. When the British began colonising the lands of Assam in the country’s Northeast, they had no intention of starting a subaltern revolution. In fact, they prescribed laws to ensure quite the opposite. One of the first was that no plantation could be less than two hundred bighas. The poor, the labourers and most of the local Assamese population were immediately out of the game. Since then, the British and their allies – the landowning class – maintained a stranglehold over tea cultivation in Assam. The beautiful tea bungalows, the memsahibs in their pretty dresses, lazy afternoon parties, tennis and Bloody Marys, were all part of a cultural production designed to keep it exclusive. For two centuries, all went according to plan.
A combination of social factors has led to nearly 29 percent of all tea produced in Assam today being grown by STGs in holdings that are, at times, less than an acre in size. Backyards have been turned into tea gardens, and families – husband and wife, son and daughter – armed with shears and dubious fertilisers, are growing tea. No inch of arable land is left uncultivated. Everywhere the eye turns, the short crop reigns supreme. Bamboo cultivation is vanishing, rice and paddy fields have been converted; tea is all consuming.
Small cars and big four-wheel bruisers race across the highways and village roads. Mud huts are being replaced with brick-and-mortar houses. The signs of prosperity in upper Assam are unmistakable. Where once poverty and government apathy bred a generation of insurgents, the tea industry has fostered a consumer revolution.
Friends and enemies
From Dinanath Saura’s dwellings in the village of Melamora in Golaghat we emerge into the muggy August heat. The afternoon is uncomfortably sticky. It rained the night before and my car gets stuck in mud. Three boys are summoned to heave and ho before I finally manage to crawl off. I am headed a short distance away, to the house of Gangadhar Saikia, the man everyone credits with having started the small tea movement in Assam and the neighbouring state of Nagaland.
Almost immediately, I manage to get lost in the area’s awkward bylanes. Asking for directions – a hazardous pursuit anywhere in India – seems to be easy enough here. Everyone, from the very young playing roadside cricket with makeshift bats, to old men sitting under the shade of trees, seems to know Saikia. “That way”, they all say as they point into the distance.
When the British began colonising the lands of Assam in the country’s Northeast, they had no intention of starting a subaltern revolution. In fact, they prescribed laws to ensure quite the opposite.
Saikia’s fame is not surprising: he was the man who took to heart the then Agricultural Minister Soneswar Bora’s 1978 nullification of a longstanding British diktat that allowed only big landowners to cultivate tea. Anyone with ten bighas of land could now plant without fear of prosecution.The announcement, though monumental, would hardly have mattered by itself. Dinanath Saura, who worked all his life with Saikia, told me, “You cannot change entrenched beliefs easily. Villagers do not know the law, nor are they interested. All they knew was that tea plantation was for the rich.”
Gangadhar Saikia led by example. As the headmaster of Melamora’s local school, he took it upon himself to change perceptions within his community by planting a tea garden on no more than an acre of his own land. As I entered the leafy, shaded lane leading towards his house, the signs that his rather meagre acre was nonetheless profitable, were evident. Four cars crowded the garage as I ambled into a traditional Assamese front yard, now converted into a waiting area with several dozen chairs. Inside the house, vitrified flooring and modern steel furniture contrasted with the mud and bamboo affairs that are prevalent here. A gaggle of voices and the occasional patter of children’s feet indicated a large joint family.
Nearly 80 years old, Saikia suffers from Parkinsons disease and his hands shake uncontrollably as he talks. It is difficult to understand him at first, and I have to lean closer. I realise to my embarrassment that the man is speaking in perfect English, though garbled by his physical condition. After about an hour, when his son insists that his father must rest, I have four pages of notes and many more questions.
Mrinal, the second son of Gangadhar Saikia agrees not only to answer them, but also to show me the family garden which lies on the outskirts of the village. I am intrigued by a particular statement of his father: “Land is both our friend and enemy.”
The story of a tea labourer turned planter/grower was an anomaly. The STG ‘revolution’ belongs to the Assamese middle class.
“It is obvious,” Mrinal says. “This is a land which is so fertile that it grows anything. There is no shortage of food; no one dies hungry here. That is why we have so many foreigners residing here illegally. Assam should be for the Assamese.”
I was jolted out of my happy subaltern reverie. This was a conversation I was familiar with, this parochialism, this ‘son of the soil’ argument. Growing up here in the late 1970s, I had been the regular recipient of abuse and blows for being a Bengali, the perennial ‘outsider’ in Assam. “Leave”, I was told every day. “You do not belong here.”
Mrinal parked the car outside a few mud huts opposite a tea garden. “These belong to my labourers,” he said, as an elderly man came from one to greet us. “How much today?” Mrinal asked as they both stepped onto the garden.
In a makeshift bamboo hut at the entrance, a pile of tea leaves had been gathered. The vehicle that was supposed to have arrived earlier to collect the daily pickings was delayed. Mrinal and I sat in two chairs while the old man gave him a run-down of the day’s troubles. It was a language I almost understood, but couldn’t quite grasp – a mixture of Bengali, Hindi and Assamese that the tea labourers had developed over two centuries in upper Assam.
The heat was stifling, and I desperately wanted to join a throng of kids who had jumped into a pond across the field and were now thrashing about, yelling to each other. I tried to keep my focus on Mrinal and saw that he was infuriated. Later, after the man was dismissed, he told me that the tea industry was facing a crisis of labour.
“The problem is you never know how many will turn up each day. Today I asked for twenty extra hands, only six came. Tea leaves have to be plucked at an interval of seven to ten days. Nearly 25 percent of my garden area does not get tended because these damned labourers never show up. They just get drunk at night and cannot get up in the morning. That is the main problem, you see – alcoholism. Yesterday was payday and today they are drunk. This happens each week, a day after they are paid.”
Over the course of that afternoon and for several weeks subsequently, as I started to understand and investigate the many myths, truths and lies that addle the story of tea in Assam, I realised I had celebrated Dinanath Saura’s ‘subaltern revolution’ prematurely. The story of a tea labourer turned planter/grower was an anomaly. The STG ‘revolution’ belongs to the Assamese middle class. It is driven by landowners and is a continuation of the identity politics that condemned this state to half a century of insurgency and violence and, albeit with less frequency, continues to persuade young men, and a few women, to mobilise.
Identity politics in Assam revolves around the core premise that Assam is for the Assamese; its resources, land, oil, coal, culture and language belong to the native Assamese. Its intellectual and moral drive derives from two separate positions: the first is the perceived Bengali dominance over the locals, initiated by the British; the second is the influx of poor Bangladeshi migrants since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The perceived injustice of being culturally dominated and economically squeezed gave rise to the anti-foreigners movement; the new-found affluence of tea was a declaration of independence for the locals – different from the brutality of the separatist movement, but a declaration nonetheless.
The Superintendent of Police, Rafiqul Lashkar, says that Golaghat and most parts of upper Assam are now peaceful. “Look, when people are well-fed and contented, they don’t want a revolution. They want peace and quiet. The middle-class Assamese, those that provided the intellectual argument for a revolution, they now send their sons to private schools in Delhi and even abroad. The mainstream becomes all-encompassing. Yes, the poor still go off to the forests in Bhutan and Bangladesh but without the middle-class drive, there is no energy in the movement anymore.”
Ratul Gogoi is one such middle-class, erstwhile revolutionary. Our first meeting is cancelled due to an unfortunate – albeit darkly comical – incident. Ratul, who spent six years as a bomb maker for the most prominent separatist outfit in the region – the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) – had managed to chop off the forefinger on his right hand while fixing the chain of his motorcycle. He alludes to it when we finally meet. “I was taken during Operation All Clear which the Indian army launched in 2003 in Bhutan. I was on the run for four days before I was finally caught. I must have made thousands of bombs in those years. No incident ever. And now this,” he smiled ruefully, showing me the bandaged finger.
Ratul lives in a village about 12 kilometres from Golaghat town. Though his house is modest, as he takes me around the neighbourhood he shows me his tea plantation and the new brick residence he is building. Over four days of conversation, I prompt him intermittently to reveal whether his previous fervour has died; if this new money in tea has tapered his discontent with ‘India’. Ratul denies it, saying that it is not the minor comforts – a TV, motorcycle, a new house – that distance him from his old ideals, but the leadership’s betrayal. “They sold us out, our commanders. You are so indoctrinated when you are in the field, you do not think. But once you are out, you see what they are doing, what they have done and how they live. You realise you have been had, your youth is over and you are just another man with a long police record.”
Ratul Gogoi was a self-described foot soldier. He obeyed commands and made bombs. Over the years, a mind numbed by the routine chores of sifting nails and glass shards, mixing gunpowder and setting up detonating devices, has begun asking questions of the men who sent him to war. One of them, whom I seek out, is Romesh Saikia.
You are so indoctrinated when you are in the field, you do not think. But once you are out, you see what they are doing, what they have done and how they live. You realise you have been had, your youth is over and you are just another man with a long police record.
I had heard the man mentioned in whispers and hushed undertones; always with fear and trepidation mixed with awe and revulsion. He had been the commander of the ULFA in Golaghat and Jorhat districts in the early 1990s, and was also one of the first to surrender. For this, his former comrades ambushed him. He survived the attack and his legend grew. In the tale that is now told of him, he is both Robin Hood and Bill Gates; the priest of high capitalism and also the archetypal rebel. After his surrender and recovery from the ULFA attack in which he took bullets to the leg, the former leader embarked on a mission of enterprise and philanthropy. To this end he bankrolled a new school and college in his village, and freed up much of the land the villagers owed to debtors, while also investing heavily in tea cultivation. Today he owns a thousand acres of land dedicated to tea growing in one of the most remote and beautiful parts of upper Assam. The irony is that he is also the eldest son of Gangadhar Saikia – the man who started the STG movement.
Romesh Saikia now keeps himself behind high gates and security fences. I go to meet him one afternoon, a day after I visited his latest venture, Bor Gos, a monstrous construction passed off as a resort in the now denuded forests of Kaziranga. My feelings towards him are, understandably, less than charitable. The bespectacled and balding man I meet fitted none of the images I had conjured of him. Clad in Bermuda shorts and a worn T-shirt, he looked neither the tough commander of battle-hardened insurgents, nor the boorish, small-town nouveau riche I was meeting all too frequently.
Instead, I found a cautious man of deliberation and reflection. Soft-spoken, Romesh had little time for arguments. I sat with him for over three hours, holding guarded conversations about his days in the ULFA, his rise in business, his uneasy relationship with his brothers, and, unsurprisingly, a lot about Assam’s tea industry. “The tea story is over. We will realise this in about 10 or 15 years. But the growth is done with. Now there is more supply than demand, prices are falling and I am getting out of it and diversifying.” “Tourism,” he says (as I cringe), “is just one of the things I am venturing into.”
I was taken aback at tea cultivation being referred to as a boom and bust industry. Given my Assamese childhood, I had associated it with an old-world, pre-globalisation stability. That world, along with my Enid Blyton’s and Richmal Crompton’s, had quietly vanished.
Two months back, when I had arrived with little planning and a pregnant wife in tow, I had no clue of where to stay and whom to meet. A newspaper report about the newly opened Gymkhana Club had guided me to Deboshyam Barua, the owner. And it was in this old, high-ceilinged wooden mansion with swimming pool, gym and landscaped gardens, that the first clues to this changing world were to be found.
Barua belongs to a different class of tea garden owners, the ones known as planters. His father and grandfather were tea planters. He inherited the gardens and knows of no other life. But over a frosty beer on a Sunday afternoon at his residence, Barua says that he was forced into opening the club. “That was my home. I grew up there, played in those rooms now opened up to strangers. But we knew that lifestyle was unsustainable. Those old ways which my father was so fond of, I could not carry on; the economics of maintenance doesn’t allow such luxuries.”
According to Barua, it was the coming of the International Monetary Fund and structural adjustment in the early 1990s that changed the tea economy. “Earlier, tea was not this massive money-making industry. You made 25 paisa a kilogram, maybe 30. You had modest lifestyles. Nothing really happened. And suddenly, trade opened up, the economy went through the roof and everyone bet on tea. The downturn is coming and we have to adjust accordingly if I am to keep the gardens.”
Both the old-time planters and the new growers are anxious. The last 20 years of high growth has changed the age-old economic mantra of survival and caution. Houses have been built, cars purchased, loans taken. Now, as the debtors come calling, not only is there more tea than can be consumed, there are also associated problems of unregulated plantation. The costs of environmental degradation will be paid by future generations.
The indiscriminate use of pesticide is the most visible and dangerous by-product of sudden growth in the industry. As Rajib Das, the general secretary of the STG Association tells me, its use threatens to devalue Assam Tea as a brand. “You find it difficult to convince the small tea grower that the pesticide which cures your plant of bugs is not a magic medicine. Every time he sprays it, problems disappear. The government, though it likes to tax us heavily, refuses to spend money on educating these growers. And the problem grows bigger by the day.”
Increased pesticide use as a result of the industry’s growth has implications that go beyond tea, however. It also affects livestock. Many lament that much of the region’s meat quality is now dubious while fresh milk, once thought of as nutritious, is making children unwell. Tea has wiped out rice cultivation, creating severe grain shortages. The lack of bamboo has resulted in house prices soaring, meaning that villagers are having to turn to brick- and-mortar constructions that are not only less eco-friendly, but also demand unsustainable lifestyle changes. Mud and bamboo houses kept interiors cool for the summers; now households are investing in fans and finding that the erratic power supply is of little use. Electrical appliances are far more effective when run on generators than on the trickling mercy of the Assam Electricity Board.
Back to the future
Matters are at a crossroad. In the complex matrix of a global economy, the basic laws of supply and demand retain their stubborn constancy. And human beings have short memories. Just two decades before tea became the elixir of good fortune, sugarcane plantation had promised the same in upper Assam. It was Gangadhar Saikia, now the champion of the STG movement, who had exhorted fellow villagers in Melamora to take over fallow tea garden land and plant sugarcane. Despite the backbreaking labour, there was reward. Sugarcane factories were built, orders were placed. Though more land was captured, the inevitable soon happened: one season, there was too much sugarcane and processing factories refused the excess. Plants started to decay and then a disease called red rot vanquished the local industry. In 1982, nearly 25 years after it had started, sugarcane was finally abandoned as a cash crop in Melamora and surrounding villages of upper Assam. Tea cultivation, thankfully, was waiting around the corner and turned out to be a more profitable enterprise.
While the future of Assam’s economy is uncertain, I am, however, convinced of one thing: my initial euphoria for Assam’s subaltern STG ‘revolution’ was misplaced. As industries come and go and identity politics retains its currency, the fate of the labourers whose lives depend on the mercy of their masters is unchanging. Uneducated, underpaid, and with nowhere else to go, they have retained a stability as permanent as hell and as unforgiving. When the next boom industry comes, its legitimacy as a revolution will be measured by their sweat.
~Somnath Batabyal is a lecturer in media and development at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His first novel, The Price You Pay, was published in 2013.