What concerned me most as a Poet?

A poet's insight into the life and struggles of the Tea-tribes

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The proletariat working class people in the Tea Country – Assam, have been rechristened with different names: sometimes ‘Cha-Mazdoor’, sometimes ‘Adivasi’. In some other parts of the country, the same classes of Deoole are known as ‘Dalits.’ The age-old exploitation and deprivation has remained unchanged in spite of several welfare schemes being introduced by the Government in certain under­developed areas. Even the Constitution has miserably failed to safeguard the basic rights of these people.

Sameer Tanti

Behind the emergence of every poet and his poetic aesthetic, there are many factors that play a crucial role in the development of the right sensibility. His childhood and upbringing, parents, Nature and the environment, the socio-political condition of his native land and society work silently but powerfully in moulding his psyche to face the reality that he lives in. Amidst celebration and suffering, the poet grows and gathers his experience of life to define the time and the world as he sees through his eyes.

 

Like the primitive priest who takes up responsibility to protect his people from the evils of time, the poet reappears in modern times to rally his people on the streets in the struggle against the humiliations of time and society. As a survivor, he takes the task of emancipating his people from suffering and bondage; as one who has been entrusted to protect all living creatures on Earth and Nature from total destruction. He suffers without letting others bear the burden of suffering, while taking up the solitary exercise to bridge the chasm between infinity and the great human family.

History is witness to many instances when the poet has sacrificed his life at the altars of tyranny of rulers and states to safeguard the greater interest of mankind and human civilization. In this, the poet and his poetry are pivotal in bringing justice in an otherwise unjust world. As a poet is born and brought up in a remote tea garden of Assam, humiliation, poverty, ignorance and deprivation are not just elusive words but stark realities of a society that has been around for a very long time. Growing up as a young child in an environment such as this, these factors have been influential in shaping the person and the poet I am today. The illustrious critic and poet Oscar Milosz had once said, “Poetry must be aware of its terrible responsibilities, for it is not a purely individual game and it gives shape to the aspirations of the ‘great soul of the people'”.

It was this desire to give voice to all those unsaid things of my society that I chose to take up poetry as a tool and medium to express all that has often been left unsaid and have gone unheard – the reason why I chose to write poetry. When our country had attained its freedom, we had come to a conclusion that the roots of slavery have been totally uprooted from the subcontinent. We thought that finally our people could live in peace and prosperity, forgetting the traumas of Colonialism. But, we did not have to wait long to realize that what we had thought would be a new dawn, actually was an illusion of darkness, of ignorance and poverty which had engulfed us once again. A new regime of tyranny, force and intimidation, endless corruption and exploitation has come about in the form of new governance. Cultural values and family bonds have been eroded, with people falling prey to fanaticism and insurgency.

Neo-Colonialism, with a new face and a new order, has appeared in this country to determine our identity and status in society in an almost absurd way. The proletariat working class people in the Tea Country – Assam, have been rechristened with different names: sometimes ‘Cha-Mazdoor’, sometimes ‘Adivasi’. In some other parts of the country, the same classes of Deoole are known as ‘Dalits.’ The age-old exploitation and deprivation has remained unchanged in spite of several welfare schemes being introduced by the Government in certain under­developed areas. Even the Constitution has miserably failed to safeguard the basic rights of these people.

The growing influence of the scientific and technological revolution has hardly touched the lives or improved the lifestyle of these people. Before migration as bonded labourers to Assam, these very people “Adivasis” were the indigenous sons of their respective lands, the ‘sons of the soil’, and they had the right to determine and define their own identity. During the times of feudal landlords and the Zamindars, they revolted against the tyranny and exploitation of their so-called masters. Even the ones who were brought to Assam during colonial rule to serve in the tea plantations of Assam were simmering with discontentment and were not as timid as they now seem to be.

There are several glaring instances of these people’s bravery and heroic deeds in the history of revolts, especially during the British Raj. They had their own economic setup, own political system and their own rich cultural heritage which is still a subject to be glorified. Their cultural richness was their only strength and source of inspiration to retaliate against any effort of domination and deliberated attempt of subjugation. But surprisingly enough in Assam, the people belonging to working class in the tea gardens have been kept isolated intentionally and forbidden to mix-up with the local people. Though they seem to be free from colonial bondage, in reality they still remain subjugated to their new masters, the National Bourgeoisie, that has allowed them to form Trade Unions to assert their rights and to determine their own identity as per their own way.The New Plantation Labour Act has been enacted in order to show off that their basic needs would be fulfilled and there would no longer be any hurdle to their way to all-round progress.

From the times of India’s first election, the people in the Tea Country have been given the right to franchise their vote and select their own leaders, in order to lead their life in a new and better direction of development and fulfillment. But, every time, all they have been given are high promises and time and again been betrayed by the ruling class, although they may emerge at any time as a deciding factor in the political arena of Assam. The Ministers, Trade Unionist and the local leaders who once embodied the aspirations of the people for the new dawn, now instead of keeping their promises, try to play the same tricks to baffle their own people.

The greed of today’s leaders has no limit and any attempt to unmask it is soon gets termed as either ‘Maoist’ or ‘the involvement of foreign hands.’ As a result, the people today serving in the tea gardens of Assam, remain one of the most undeveloped and exploited communities in India. It is shameful that nowhere else except in these tea gardens, people are so low paid and so ignorant. When the Union Education Minister made an announcement about the standard of Higher Education in our country, far from New Delhi in a remote corner of the North East, children in tea gardens were still languishing for the want of basic primary education. It is rather pathetic to notice that in the twenty-first century, the growth rate of education amongst the Tea Garden Community people is less than 20%. Many new schemes have been introduced in the education system in our State, but the Government’s continues to be apathetic towards the Tea Garden community. Even the Tea corporations have done precious little to ensure proper education or a healthy way of life and that leads toward all-round development. Even the national media, highly patronized by the powerful business world, never has tried to focus on and report the suffering of these most neglected of India’s agricultural working class.

Not to speak about the economic condition of these people who have been paid the lowest wages compared to their counterparts across other sectors in the country. The daily wages of both male and female workers’ in the tea gardens is not more than Rs. 98.00 only. With such meager amount, how it is possible for them to provide proper education to their children’. Further, in spite of there being a Health Centre in every tea garden, the facilities are so pcor that even for minor ailments, people have to go outside or to cities for treatment. It is also been found frequently that for serious cases like cancer, diabetes, stroke or even for eye operation they have to go either to the Assam Medical College Hospital, or to the Gauhati Medical College Hospital for better treatment, which again is too steep and beyond their reach. In cases such as these, nursing homes or private hospitals are a far cry. Though child mortality rates in the country have gradually reduced, mothers in these tea gardens are still trying to compensating their grief and loss of their young.

The surrounding atmosphere of the ‘Labour Line’ or the housing colonies of these workers is so unhealthy that most of the inhabitants get infected everyday by chronic diseases mainly due to unclean surroundings, impure water supply and the unavailability of nutritious food. Owing to their poor financial condition and lack of proper health education, they are unable to do much about their situation. Since the social status of these people is very low, they have very often been looked down upon by the upper caste people. Neither has the educated sections of the Tea Garden Community been given the due respect in society, nor have they been given their due share in other sectors. Furthermore, from the inception of the Tea Industry they have been referred to as Coolie, Bongal, Bagonia, etc and have been refused in marriage to upper castes. All attempts at the portrayal of tea garden life and culture in cinema or literature is actually quite fictitious and far from reality. It is really pathetic that this sort of social discrimination or segregation still exists in the social life of Assam.

Probably, they are the only group of people in the world who have been identified outside by the name of an Agricultural Product they are engaged with. This is nothing but a slap on the face of modern civilized society. But the question arises – who are to be blamed – the timidity of the intellectuals or their lack of interest or the lack of decisiveness among the radicals and the so-called revolutionaries? That is perhaps the reason why no reformist character of their struggle is seen even after a long hundred and fifty years of labour migration to Assam. Generation after generation has suffered, and now the time has come to answer. It is time to get together and to the differences on a certain reasonable basis so as to resist the advancement of the Neo Colonialism into our life and culture.

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