The (Female) Tea Workers Who Set Fire to Their Boss – Part I
(This is the first of two posts regarding the recent industrial dispute on a tea plantation in India in which 1,000 tea workers set fire to their employer’s bungalow, killing both him and his wife.)
“We all came and attacked the bungalow and set it on fire. They deserved to be killed as the planter has exploited us for a long time and tortured us for petty things.” Unidentified tea estate worker on News Live local TV.
Two days ago 1,000 tea workers (mainly women and children) in Assam state in India surrounded the bungalow where their employer, Midral Bhattacharya, and his wife were staying and set fire to it, resulting in their deaths. There has been pitiful little US coverage of this industrial dispute. What little there has been is disjointed and devoid of context. The event is portrayed as yet another (ho-hum) senseless act of violence. Whatever is the world coming to?
A few (British) corporate media outlets mention that Assam tea plantations have been plagued by recent labor disputes. Most neglect to mention that the vast majority of “tea pluckers” are women and children. They also fail to describe the cause of the women’s grievances. Although local Indian papers specify that the women hadn’t been paid in two months, the western media only makes vague references to “cruelty and abuse.”
In a World Have Your Say broadcast the following day, the BBC World Service gives a bit more background on this tragic event. Calcutta journalist Subir Bhaumik, the author of the singe article on the BBC website, is featured, as well as the general secretary of India’s largest tea workers union. Interestingly Bhaumik mentions a number of details about the labor dispute that have been edited out of the website article. Like the cause of the dispute (Bhattacharya’s non-payment of wages and overall brutal treatment of tea workers) and the fact he was arrested two years ago on another tea plantation after opening fire on workers protesting his alleged sexual abuse of one of his workers. He was arrested for murder after a fifteen year old protestor died.
An anarchist website Libcom.org provides the most complete coverage of this event, based primarily on local coverage. They describe how a delegation of workers went to Bhattacharya two weeks ago demanding their back pay. In response, he ordered ten of them evicted from plantation premises (with their families) and had local police arrest three of the women for refusing to leave. The police in Assam state are known for their eagerness (presumably based on bribes) to support plantation owners in enforcing labor discipline.
This version of events is confirmed by at least three on-line Indian news sites Tea estate MD and wife burnt to death by workers, Guwahati/Tinsukia tea estate MD burnt to death, and Tea estate MD burnt to death.
According to a statement an angry woman made to local reporters:
“Some workers met Bhattacharya Wednesday morning and requested him to get the arrested labourers released. He, however, did not pay any heed to the request and threatened the workers of dire consequences. This angered the labourers and they took the extreme step.”
Libcom.org also mentions Bhattacharya was released on bail after his arrest for murdering the fifteen-year-old. Despite the elapse of more than two years, the case has never gone to trial.
Why Aren’t Tea Pluckers at the M.K.B Estate in the Union?
Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) is the largest tea workers union. Their general secretary Dileshwar Tanti also appeared briefly on the BBC World Have Your Say broadcast. He indicated that the workers at the M.K.B. tea plantation aren’t unionized, though most tea workers are. I feel the comment, which is puzzling, also deserves more scrutiny. Most of the reader commentary on the BBC Facebook site and elsewhere strongly condemns the women for resorting to violence, rather than going to the union or the authorities to resolve the back pay dispute.
To be continued.