Struggles of central Indian Adivasis for identity rights, livelihood, and other rights

Balaka Chattaraj

In Assam, the tea garden was first started by the British colonial govt. But after the setup of the tea garden, the realized the lack of labors. So, in order to employ people in the tea garden as labor the colonial govt. forced the Adivasi communities from the present central Indian states to migrate in Assam where they were deprived of all sorts of human rights and later after independence, their conditions did not improve rather they were denied from ST reservation which made them deprive of their identity and other sorts of rights.

History of the migration and the struggle faced by the community-

British East India company was facing competition from Chinese Kingdom in tea supply at world market during that period of time. So, to complete with China East India company decided to expand the tea production. In order to expand the tea production, they started tea garden in Assam and to take control over the land to start tea plantation in 1793 permanent settlement act was implemented. Then in 1834 British government enacted Assam land act and waste land act in order to get land for tea plantation. But after tea planation begin the people from Ahom, Konch, Bodo community denied to work in tea garden as wage labor. So, the deprived of the workers were felt by the Colonial government so, they decided to bring people from central Indian states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Telangana etc. It was the successive choice of the planters to forcefully bring the tribal people from the above-mentioned states. The tribal people who were employed as labors in tea garden were settled in tea garden which are known as Basti or collie line in local language. The owners of the tea garden did not want the labors to get in contact with the outsiders and vice versa. So, to control labors outside tea garden they organized weekly market where the labors can buy necessary household elements and for their entertainment in every two months screening of movies were arranged. The planters did not want the labors to move out of garden area because the labors were denied all sorts of human rights that one deserve like housing facility, drinking water, sanitation, holiday, health facility etc. So, the planters did not want the labors to get in touch with the outsiders because they fear that the tribal workers may become clever or the people might show them sympathy and it would create agitation and the agitation might turn into a revolution against the owners. So, even during that time despite fewer modes of communication, the Adivasi workers were united and organized series of strike as protest against the alienation and ghettoization of themselves. First strike was called out on 6th September at Hansara (Lakhimpur district) a garden owned by Doom Dooma company, where the workers refused to turn out for work as a sign of strike, as a sign of protest. The protest spread out to the neighbor garden too. On 15th September 1920 the labors struck down the work. The angry labors beat up the Sardar and attacked two European assistants. On 25th September at Pabhojan tea estate the strike broke down. As a result, 106 labors were arrested by the colonial government. But due to the rise of militant trade unionism the workers were getting mobilized slowly and steadily. One of the biggest wins for the community against the colonial government was in 1940 when one tea factory mechanic and communist sympathizer, Sanant Kumar Ahir won the by-election for Silcharlabor seat as Congress candidate by securing 3165 votes against British candidate who only secured 1,227 votes. The election was seen as inspiration was the community people that they were getting aware about their situation and were emerging as one class to fight injustice. (Borah, 2017).[1]

 After independence the ownership of the tea garden shifted from the British colonial government to the private owners. The condition of the labors in terms of social indicators like health, education, the standard of living was very poor. So, in 1951 plantation act was passed, which urged the garden owners to take responsibility for the education, health, housing of the labors in tea garden. But it only remained in pen and papers. The area where the labors still area settled known as coolie line or Basti. They are settled within tea garden. The settlement area is neither rural area nor urban area but it is industrial village where the tribal labors are kept considered to be labor colony. The labors and their family members are staying there for generation since British period but they still do not have land rights over the land. They can only settle in the land if any members of the family work in tea garden. So, denial of the land right is one of the major reasons why the tea garden workers are trapped in wage slavery in tea garden. Presently labor minister of Assam state Pallav Lochan Das who himself belongs from the community before coming to power in the campaign have promised that will provide land right to the labors over the land but after coming to power, he denied of any such promise. Due to force work in tea garden where the wage is very less the Adivasi workers in tea gardens are deprive of education, health etc. All the health centers are available in the urban area and the settlement of the labors in tea garden are in such remote areas that it is difficult for them to access the hospitals moreover if they come to public hospital in urban area, they have to take leave and if they take leave they won’t be paid for that day. So, it is difficult for them to access the hospital or sanitation centers. After SarvyaSikshaAbhyan was introduced in the sector of education the community have prospered but still lagging behind in general. Till 1994 it was documented that only 34,400 children of tea garden go to school but 89,598 of the children are employed as child labor in tea gardens.

Empirical evidences- The argument of the people from the community for the demand of ST status.

After independence Assam’s top political positions were dominated by the upper caste Assamese people. They realized that the Adivasi community makes 20% of total Assam’s population. If they are given schedule tribe status, they will dominate the government sectors and if they get economically and socially developed then there will be no labor to work in tea garden. Tea garden and the total production of tea from Assam’s tea garden contribute 40% of state’s total income. So, the fear and anxiety of getting dominated by the migrant tribes and the development of the community will lead to the downfall of state’s economy the top-class political people who were mostly upper-caste Assamese people and also they were the same people who had a stronghold in Congress party (the then ruling party both in center and state) decided not to provide ST status to the Adivasi community. They were granted OBC status (other backward class) in 1979 when Mandal commission came into existence. (Kujur,2019)[2]. The Adivasi community who were forced to migrate in Assam tea garden to work as labor in the garden were heterogeneous communities. The Adivasi community consists of a lot of Central Indian tribal people like Kharia, Oroan, Santhal, Munda, etc. and among the tribal community there were lot of so-called lower caste Hindu people were also there who were brought from Odisha to Assam. So, due to the heterogeneous and complex nature of the community, the then Congress government have labelled them as ‘tea tribe’. In 1990 ATTSA (All Assam Adivasi Student’s Association) was formed and to took firm stand to pressurize government to provide ST status but it never has challenged the socio-political scenario of Assam for e.g. they never have demanded the society to abolish the term tea tribe and to identify the community as ATTSA. Many in the community belief that ATTSA is dominated the Tanti (lower caste Hindu community) originally from Odisha. So, the leaders of the community knew that they don’t come under Adivasi community and even if ST status granted to the Adivasi community, they might not be the beneficiary of it. So, the role of ATTSA in challenging the socio-political culture and to demand for identity rights is limited. (Toppo,2019)[3].

In 1996 the ethnic conflict broke between Bodo and Adivasi community. Resultant of it was death of more than thousands of people mostly Adivasi and displacement of 2,50,000 people. Even the militancy among Bodo community reaches into peak during this time. The so-called militant groups like Bodoland Liberation Tigers, National Democratic Front of Bodoland used gun power to scare the Adivasi population to remove them from Bodoland. (Dowerah,2012)[4]. Adivasi people in general have horrible memory out of the incident. Mr. SalfonseKujur shared an incident where one Adivasi woman who was breastfeeding her child was killed by the Bodo gunman in an ethnic clash that happened over land. The horrific incident of ethnic cleansing has brought the Adivasi people closer and more united. The people within the community also blamed that AATSA did not full fill their responsibility towards the community. Also, AATSA was supported by one section of the Congress party. Congress party was in power in both state and centre denied ST status. So, people weren’t trusting AATSA enough. In 1999 ASSA (All Adivasi Student’s Association was formed. The organization have fiercely moved against the term ‘tea tribe’ according to the first president of ASSA Mr. Justin Lakhra the term ‘tea tribe’ is colonial as this term was enforced upon them by the then Congress government who are not Adivasi neither tribe. Second the organization argued that no community’s ethnic identity should be attached with the work that they do specially when the work too was enforced upon them. (Lakhra,1999)[5]. The organization urged the all Adivasi community to come together and fight for the demand of ST status. After Stephen Lakhra, Bosco Charmika became the second president of ASSA. During his time ASSA organised march to Guwahati in order to create pressure on government to grant ST status. In that march on 24th November 2007 the local Assamese mob stripped the Adivasi woman naked in public place. Later she was rescued by the other people in the protest march. None of the accused were punished. (Sangha,2019).[6]

Post the incident of harassment the people of the community were more agitated and angrier. The organization president urged the community people to channelize their anger into energy and be united and put more pressure on the government to demand ST status.

 People of the community demand ST status because they are Adivasi people of their original homeland (Central India), they were forcefully brought to Assam by the Colonial government. Even if the Colonial government brought them in during 1800’s period still that made them one of the early settlers of the land. Third many of the elderly people from Adivasi community in Assam also claim that when Britishers first brought the Adivasi people to made them work in tea garden first Colonial government cleared the forest and settled them. Not every worker during that time were settled in tea garden. The people who were settled outside garden area they were having land right under their family name. But the people of Adivasi community are more tend to be addicted to alcohol. So, the British government bribed them with Haria (local alcohol) and also provided them local alcohol in debt. When the person came under the pressure of debt and the debt was so high that he couldn’t repay his land was to be undertaken by the British colonial government. In Panbari village which is near to Dheckiajhuli tea garden many Adivasis families claimed that their forefathers were having land under their name but colonial government tricked and undertook the land from them and forced them to settle in the lines of tea garden which today is known as Basti-line (settlement line). (Minz,2019)[7].

When the constitution was formed and in constitution around 8% seats in every government job, the educational institution was granted to the notified tribal community and they were known as schedule tribe. 8% seats were reserved because due to historical injustice the tribal communities were marginalized. So, to uplift the tribal community from the marginalization and to protect the representation of the tribal community the notified tribal communities were granted ST status. On other hand, the Adivasi people were forced to migrate from their own land. Due to migration, they lost their own land in their home state and they were employed in tea garden where they were only paid 1 paisa for daily 12 hours of day. (Toppo,2019)[8]. So, the low wage and migration have marginalized the Adivasi community in Assam doubly. They suffer from poverty, illiteracy, landlessness, epidemic etc. But after independence, they were denied from the ST status because of the ethnic-caste based politics.

So, now the Adivasi community for more than decades have been fighting for the ST status. But till now they have been the victim of political conspiracy sometime within their own community and sometime outside the community. Two such political conspiracies where the community people were betrayed were after Bosco Charmika (dates unknown) RafelKujur became the president of AASAA. RafelKujur was given ticket by government to fight for the seat in parliament in Lok Sabha election. So, that in parliament RafelKujur can fight for the issue for ST status in parliament and the person from Adivasi community in Assam can get the representation in parliament. But another member from AASAA Pradeep Nag was negotiated by B.J.P, supported by Bodo people’s front and contested for the same constituency seat in Lok Sabha election against RafelKujur. The result of the election was RafelKujur lost the election and Pradeep Nag won. The result of the election not only collapsed the movement led by the Adivasi people for ST status but also divided AASSA. Now, AASAA is divided into two parts. One is headed by RafelKujur and another is headed by Pradeep Nag. The division of the organization also weakened the whole movement lead by the people. (Kujur,2019)[9]. Second the Adivasi people in tea garden had unitedly took decision to boycott the then Assam Vidhan Sabha election. The community people felt that as for decades all most every political parties have been using the ST status as a tool to drive vote from community but after formation of government they forget about the promise. So, the community unitedly decided to boycott the election and the movement of the people were supported and mobilized by AASA and ACMS. They have named their movement as “no ST status no vote”. But the whole movement was collapsed when the political cadres from B.J.P bribed the poor Adivasi people in the tea garden with local alcohol and one mobile phone. The people were bribed with the accessories and they not only contested in an election but also voted for B.J.P.

The struggle of the Adivasis for ST status is the struggle for identity, truth, and justice.


Borah, D. P. (2017). Tea Graden labour situation in Assam. Scholars Journal of Arts, Humanities and social science, 985-989.

Chakroborty, A. (13th March 2019). Talk of the status for Assam’s ‘tea tribemay give BJP filip in election year, but real benefit miles away at ground zero.

(2017). Change in the criteria of schedule tribe, press release by Rajya sabha .

(1950). constitution of India.

Choudhari, K. (October 1998). Bloodshed in Assam. Indians’s National Magazine.

Deepak.K Guha, V. U. (october 2008). Crisis in the Tea sector, A study of Assam tea gardens. The India economic journal: the quaterly journal of the Indian Economic Association .

(3rd November 2015). Government of Assam labour and employment department :labour branch.

Karmakar, R. (April 08 2019). Where the tribes of an aliling tea industry hold key. The Hindu.

Saikia, B. (March 2009.). Development of tea garden community and Adivasi identity politics in Assam . Dialogue January.

Saikia, S. (n.d.). Tea Garden Labours and their living conditions : A study on Sarusarai tea gadren of Jorhat District of Assam. Anthropological Perspective.

[1] Tea garden labour situation in Assam. Putul Borah. 2017.

[2]SalfonseKujur (name changed). Social worker in Assam tea garden. Interview with him regarding the political conspiracy behind the denial of ST status. 1st September 2019.

[3]FilkushTopnno (name changed), Law graduate and local social worker. Interview with him regarding the role of ATTSA in the movement for ST status of the Adivasi community in Assam. 5th September 2019.

[4]SimantikDowerah. Assam riots: What leaves Bodos angry and frustrated? Published in Firstpost on 2nd Aug 2012.

[5] Stephen Lakhra. Speech in Guwahati for the demand of ST status. 1999.

[6]Mokhi Sangha (name changed). Masters student of Sociology, resident of Dibrugah tea garden and woman right activist. Interview with her about the protest march lead the Adivasi people in Assam. 1st December 2019.

[7]Joseph Minz. Principle of St. Don Bosco school, Dheckiajhuli. Interview with him about the land rights of the Adivasi people and demand for ST status. 30th August 2019.

[8]Manueal Toppo (name changed). Worker in Assam tea garden. Interview with him regarding the reasons for the plight of the workers in Assam tea garden and its root cause. 19th December 2019.

Balaka Chattaraj is a post-graduate student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.