Gruesome tea garden incident, poor response and the aftermath
13 January 2013
On 26 December, in what was described as the most gruesome incident, an angry crowd of plantation workers burnt to death Mridul Kumar Bhattachrya, owner of the Kunapathar Tea Estate in the Borduma police station area of Tinsukia district, and his wife Rita Bhattacharya.
The 75-year-old Bhattacharya reportedly had a dispute with some workers of the 150-bigha garden that he set up two decades ago. An engineering graduate, Bhattacharya initially worked for various public sector undertakings before nocentrating on the tea plantation business. As one of his sons lives in the USA, he started exporting quality tea to that country.
According to eyewitnesses, Bhattacharya had a heated argument with nearly 1,000 agitating workers who later turned violent. The trouble started after the police arrested two labourers from the plantation colony in the morning. Other workers suspected that the police had acted on Bhattacharya’s complaint, so some of them went to his bungalow and requested him to have the arrested labourers freed.
But Bhattacharya told them to remain quiet or face dire consequences. The workers returned to their colony but after a few hours a group, including women, assembled in front of his bungalow, started shouting slogans and set two vehicles on fire. They then entered the bungalow, reportedly assaulted Bhattacharya and his wife and set fire to the place. Those outside prevented the police and fire brigade vehicles from entering the compound.
That was not the first time Bhattacharya had trouble with his workers. Two years ago, he was arrested for allegedly killing a teenager at the Rani Tea Estate on the outskirts of Guwahati. The angry mob there set his bungalow on fire but the police rescued him. Since then the tea garden has remained closed, rendering more than 300 workers jobless. Bhattacharya was given bail then and moved on to his other tea estates in Tinsukia.
Assam produces around 50 per cent of India’s annual tea production (nearly 990 million kilograms). India is the second-largest producer and consumer of tea in the world. Assam has more than 800 big tea estates, mostly in the eastern and southern parts and thousands of small tea growers.
The cumulative tea production from nearly 69,000 small tea gardens in the state is estimated at 25 per cent of Assam’s total production. Assam tea is considered the finest in the world, with an elegant flavour. It is exported to all countries in Europe and West Asia, the USA and Japan.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi termed Bhattacharya’s killing as a very unfortunate and tragic incident. He, however, said there was some labour trouble in the garden. His government has already ordered a high-level probe into the incident.
Stating that “it was rare for the tea workers to react in such a violent way”, Gogoi suspects the presence of a “third force” that indulged in the violence. He pointed fingers at the Maoists who already have a number of their sympathisers in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts.
Expressing shock, various tea gardens demanded prompt action against the culprits. Political analysts, however, feel the state government may go slow as the ruling Congress enjoys the support of tea labourers. The panchayat elections are to be held on 30 January and 6 and 12 February.
The Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangha has condemned the incident and commented that such violence will only harm the future of the state’s tea industry. Dileswar Tanti, its general secretary, said that “our organisation does not endorse violence. If the workers had any grievances they should have settled matters peacefully”.
Talking to the local media, SN Singh, inspector-general of police (law and order), said that one of the arrested workers admitted to resorting to “cannibalism” on that evening.
The police are looking for workers suspected of having hatched the conspiracy against the tea planter. Assam police chief JN Choudhury, who visited the location to take stock of the situation, confirmed that five of the attackers were the main culprits. He, however, clarified that not all the accused belonged to Bhattacharya’s garden. Citing preliminary investigations, he confirmed that ‘there were a few workers from outside the tea estate (of Bhattacharya)”, who took a convincing role in instigating violence.
While condemning the violence, Assam tea tribe welfare minister Prithivi Majhi said that in most tea gardens the workers were “deprived of their dues for long”. Majhi, who belongs to the tea tribe, added, “I have appealed to all tea garden owners to provide their labourers basic facilities with access to education and health care, so that they do not feel deprived.”
The condition of tea plantation workers in Assam is pathetic, though there are many laws — including the 1951 Plantation Labour Act — to protect them. Tea pluckers, mostly women, in Assam earn, on an average, Rs 60 per day, whereas the minimum wage is Rs 100.
The writer is The Statesman’s Guwahati-based special correspondent