The poisonous labor relations in the tea business in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam have spawned a horrific incident in which hundreds of uncontrollable workers descended on a tea estate, murdered the owner and his wife, burned his home and cannibalized the bodies.
The story is depressingly emblematic of a situation in which laborers are often paid half of the minimum wage, are denied the most rudimentary human needs, and which Maoist and other insurrectionist forces are seeking to exploit to the fullest against employers whose management relations are redolent of a long-departed colonial regime.
In the latest case, police found two lumps of scorched flesh in the debris which were later identified as those of Mridul Kumar Bhattacharya and his wife Rita at the Konapathar Tea Estate in a district bordering Arunachal Pradesh in the last week of December.
The 365 hectare tea garden, which is nearly 575 km from the state capital, was owned by the Bhattacharya-led MKB (Asia) Pvt Ltd., which exported quality tea to the United States.
Assam produces around 50 percent of India's annual tea production of nearly 990 million kg and is considered to harvest some of the world's finest teas in conditions that have changed little in the past century and a half. British colonials discovered tea in Assam and started farming it, making it famous across the world. Today the state has more than 800 big tea estates and thousands of small growers. The industry employs more than 2.2 million people, directly or indirectly. Cumulative tea production from nearly 69,000 small gardens in the state is estimated at 25 percent of Assam's total production.
The 75-year-old Bhattacharya was no stranger to disputes with his workers, having been arrested two years ago for killing a teenager at the Rani Tea Estate on the outskirt of Guwahati. The planter allegedly opened fire on protesting workers with a revolver, killing the youth and wounding several others. The mob set fire to his bungalow but he was rescued by the police. Since then the tea estate has remained closed, rendering more than 300 workers jobless. Bhattacharya spent two months in a Guwahati jail and later was bailed to move on to his other tea estates in eastern Assam.
Labor violence in the tea gardens of Assam is hardly rare, with some of the trouble allegedly fanned by Maoist and other radical interests.
Seven years ago, for instance, Rupak Gogoi, a young tea planter, was hacked to death and his body was burned by a group of violent laborers at Govindapur tea estate in Golaghat district. Gerala Kalita, the owner of Socklating tea estate in Jorhat district, was also killed by agitated workers in 1990. Similarly, militants have killed a number of tea planters and their managerial employees since the early 1970s. Surrendra Paul, promoter of Apeejay Surendra Group was killed by a banned militant group in 1990.
The latest assassination was of Adilur Rahman from the Mahalaxmi tea estate in Sonitpur district who was murdered by suspected Bodo militants last November.
The Bhattacharya assault, however, appears to have gone well beyond the earlier violence in dreadfulness. Various organizations have expressed utter shock at the ghastly killing and demanded appropriate action against the culprits without delay. The Assam Tea Planters' Association, the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association and the Northeast Tea Association unanimously said that "such a horrific incident has never taken place in the 180-year history of the Assam tea industry."
Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the largest tea workers union in Assam, also condemned the incident and commented that such violence would only damage the future of the industry.
"It is very unfortunate and our organization does not endorse violence," he said. "If the workers had any grievances because of his rude behavior towards the laborers, that could have been settled in different ways," said Dileswar Tanti, the ACMS general secretary.
The Assam Tea Tribes Students' Association had, however, charged that police ineffectiveness led to the killing of the couple.
Prahlad Gowala, the president of the students' association alleged that the agitated workers targeted Bhattacharya and his wife in front of police officials who failed miserably in their duty.
In any case, according to eyewitnesses, Bhattacharya had a heated argument with nearly 1,000 workers which began after two were picked up by the police from the tea plantation colony in the morning. The workers believed that the police acted following a complaint lodged by Bhattacharya. So a small group of workers arrived in the campus of Bhattacharya and requested him to get the detained laborers freed.
But Bhattacharya responded angrily, witnesses said, telling them to remain quiet or face dire consequences. His behavior outraged the group, who returned to their colony only to return a few hours later. Soon a huge mob, including women, assembled in front of the bungalow, first setting two vehicles alight inside the compound, then proceeded towards Bhattacharya, who was then inside with his wife.
The police suspect that the angry workers first physically assaulted both of them and then set the bungalow ablaze. The issue got sensationalized as a senior police officer revealed that some of the angry workers had assaulted Bhattacharya's charred body and that a few had even eaten his burnt flesh. SN Singh, an inspector general of police, told local media that Santosh Dhanowar, reportedly a prime suspect, confessed during interrogation that some of the angry workers had resorted to cannibalism. Tinsukia district police chief PP Singh confirmed the report, saying that at least three workers vomited after consuming portions of Bhattacharya's flesh.
The incident reportedly took place by 4 pm but the angry mob maintained their presence around the burning bungalow until the evening, forming a ring to prevent police officials and the fire brigade vehicles to approach the site.
The incident sent instant shockwaves across Assam, whose chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, termed the gruesome killing a tragic incident, ordering a high-level probe.
Stating that "it was rare for the tea workers to react in such a violent way," Gogoi said he suspected a 'third force' which committed the violence. He is said to suspect the Maoists, who have already grown sympathizers in the Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts of the state.
The police suspect that it was not a mob killing but a well-planned conspiracy. They arrested eight workers and have been looking for more who are suspected to be involved in hatching the conspiracy. Assam police chief JN Choudhury, who visited the location to take stock of the situation, clarified that not all those accused belonged to Bhattachary's tea garden.
Citing preliminary investigations, Choudhury confirmed that 'there were a few workers from outside the tea estate (of Bhattacharya)', who took a convincing role in mobilizing the crowd for the violence.
Assam tea tribe welfare minister Prithivi Majhi, while condemning the violence, pointed out that in most of the tea gardens the workers have been 'deprived of their dues for long.' Majhi, a soft-spoken politician and who belongs to the tea tribe, added that "I continue appealing to all tea garden owners to provide them basic facilities with access to education and health care, such that they do not feel deprived."
The condition of tea plantation workers in Assam remains pathetic despite many relevant laws (including India's 1951 Plantation Labour Act) to support them, many of which are ignored. The management of tea gardens have the responsibility to pay the minimum wage to the laborers in addition to providing basic medical facilities, clean drinking water and sanitation. But none of these conditions are enforced fully in the gardens, where a tea leaf plucker (mostly women) an average of Rs55 (around US$1) per day, despite the fact that the minimum wage in Assam is fixed at Rs100.