Tea tribes

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ASSAM LANDSCAPE-teaworkerredshirt.jpg

The Tea-tribes, also called Adivasi, are the tribal people who were brought by the British colonial planters in India as indentured labourers from the Chhota Nagpur Plateau region into Assam about 150 years ago for the purpose of being employed in the tea gardens industry as labourers. They are found mainly in the districts of Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Jorhat, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Cachar, Hailakandi, Karimganj Tinsukia and almost all the districts of Assam in India. The total population of the community is estimated to be around 6 millions or about 20 percent of total population of Assam. Santhali speakers are also found in parts of Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. The population of Santali speakers is about 300,000 and Oriya speakers is about 292,000. They generally use Nagpuri or Sadri dialect as lingua franca among themselves. They have their own dance form, Jhumur dance. Within the community, Munda tribe is the largest in terms of numbers followed by Santhals, Kurukh (Oraon), Gonds, Kharia, and Saora.


An ethnic minority, the population of the community is rural in nature and estimated to be near 6 millions (60 lakhs) or 19% of Assam's total population as of 2011.

They live in almost every district of Assam but their density varies according to the number of tea plantations in different regions of Assam. They are more numerous in Upper Assam and Central Assam than Lower Assam. Some were not brought for tea garden labour. Many tribes (most notably Santhal, Kurukh and Munda people) were forcibly displaced by the British from the Chotanagpur region due to their rebellion against the British regime. They were dumped into Lower Assam regions of then undivided Goalpara and undivided Darrang districts as a punishment for their uprising against the regime (Santhal rebellion of 1850s).

They dominate the districts of Upper Assam including Sonitpur due to high density of tea gardens and plantations in this region. Darrang district, Nagaon district, Barak Valley areas and Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) areas of Assam also have significant populations of this community. They form nearly 17% and 11% of the total population in BTAD and Barak Valley region respectively.

Different political parties appeal to them during election seasons in Assam as their demographic numbers always influence politics in Assam.

They are not a single ethnic tribe but are the people of various origins, composed of more than fifty castes and tribes who have now got intermixed and are interdependent to each other and are closely knitted. Major tribes among them are the Munda tribe followed by Santhals, Kurukh (Oraon), Gonds, Kharia, Saora, Bhumij, Kui Kanda, Ho[disambiguation needed], Chik Baraik, and Gowalas. Tantis, Kurmis, Karmakar, Telis and other castes are also present among them.


Nagpuri or Sadri dialect is their first language, and this dialect works as a lingua franca among them. But the dialect is different to the tone spoken in Chotanagpur region because the tone spoken in Assam is heavily influenced by the Bengali and Assamese languages. Santhali, Oriya, Mundari, and Kurukh are also spoken by few segments of the community. With steady rise in literacy level newer generations are becoming fluent in Hindi, Assamese and English.


the majority of the population of this community follows Hinduism and Sarna forms of worship while Christianity is followed by about 15-20% of the population. This community alone forms 25% of the total Hindu population of Assam and about 70% of the total Christian population of Assam.

Hindus worship different deities during different seasons of a year. Most of the Hindus are Shakti and Shiva worshippers and consider Goddess Maa Kali and Lord Shiva as main deities and worship them in different names and forms. The ancient tribal religion Sarnaism is also deeply rooted among them. They believes in a niversal supreme God called Dharmesh and worship him/her in different names like Marangburu, Mahadeo and Singbonga. Sarhul Puja and Karam Puja are the prominent festivals of Sarnaism.

Vaishnavism is also steadily gaining footholds among the Hindu population of the community.

They are very religious-minded people and love to worship nature. Many trees are considered sacred and are worshipped. Nearly every village has religious temples and sacred ground (sthal) for community worship.

However increasing conversions into Christianity have led many of them into adopting Christianity and many churches have been built as a result. Nearly one million Adivasis are now Christians in the state. Kurukh, Santhals and Mundas are among the major tribes who have been mostly converted by the Christian missionaries. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are the major denomination among the Adivasi Christians.

Adivasi Christians are more economicaly well-off and well-organised than their majority Hindu counterparts in the state.[citation needed]


Festivals are an important part of their life and are generally deeply connected to their religion and their culture. They celebrate many festivals during different seasons. Almost every major Hindu festival is celebrated by the community, with Christians celebrating Christian festivals.

Major festivals celebrated by the community are Durga Puja, Diwali, Tusu Puja, Holi, Lakshmi Puja, Maha Shivaratri, Karam Puja, Sarhul, Bhogali Bihu, and Christmas.

Music and dances[edit]

Music is an important component of this community. Their music is usually collectively performed for a variety of occasions like weddings, festivals, arrival of seasons, ushering-in of new life, and harvests. This community is rich in a variety of music and dances. Through the folk music and dance, they try to convey their perspective on social issues and define their daily life styles and their history. In some dance forms, martial arts are displayed to convey their age-old rebellion against the British.

Dhol, Manjira, Madar, Kartal, Tamak, Nagara, Nishan, Bansuri are some of the musical instruments used by them.

Jhumur dance is a famous folk dance form of this community through which they are identified with in Assam. But they also possess other numerous dance forms like Santhali dance, Chhau dance, Karam naach, and Sambalpuria dance which are performed during different occasions.

Jhumur dance[edit]

Jhumur is a form of dance performed by girls and boys together, or, sometimes by the girls alone, with precision of footwork while clasping tightly each other's waist. This dance form is influenced by the Tribal dance forms prevalent in Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal.

Dhol, Mandar, and Kartal are the traditional musical instruments used during the dance for music. Usually traditional dress of Red bordered white saris are adorned by female dancers along with jewellery and ornaments before performing the dance.

Physical characteristics[edit]

Tea Tribe Dance of Assam

General physical characteristics are: medium in height, physically strong, wavy hair, round features and wide nostrils, high cheek bones.[citation needed]

Socio-economic conditions[edit]

Assamese woman.jpg

They are one of the most backward and exploited community in Assam due to decades of continuous exploitation by Tea garden managements and neglects in part of Government.[citation needed] Though newer generation are comparatively educated and now have intellectuals and professionals in various fields but their percentage is low in comparison to the size of the community.[citation needed]

The literacy rate of the community is one of the lowest in Assam particularly among the girls and women. Due to this, girls are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and child marriages are prevalent among them.[citation needed]

The Tea tribes who are now increasingly prefer to call themselves 'Adivasi', being basically labourers, live in labour lines, built inside tea-estates (established by tea planters). These estates are located in interior places and this contributes to the backwardness and exploitation of them by the tea planters. The labourers, in a way have to live with the basic facilities provided by the tea planters. The tea planters usually exploit the workers every possible way.[citation needed] Violence and agitation of labourers against the management is common, where the state machinery normally protects the tea-planters. Non-education, poverty, addiction of males to country-beer, poor standard of living, rising population and inadequate health facilities provided to them are the problems in their life. There are instances when tea-planters do not even supply the life-saving drugs when workers are dying out of epidemics.[citation needed]

This has led many labourers to leave tea garden related jobs and relocate in nearby areas outside tea gardens in search of better livelihoods. Many of them have now taken up farming and its related jobs, works in the field of construction and small businesses as livelihood to sustain themselves like any other communities of Assam. In recent times, many young men of the community, particularly from 'bastis' or villages, are migrating temporarily towards Southern India and Gujarat for better economic prospects. From there they send money back home to Assam. It also has started to bring awareness among the youths of the community which will not be possible if they remain toiling in tea gardens.

Rise of Adivasi identity movement[edit]

Tea industry is the crucial part of Indian economy. Assam produces 55% of India's total production of tea. It is a labour-intensive industry and highly dependent on a large workforce. It is the only sector where majority of the workers are female.[citation needed]

About two million labourers are dependent on Assam’s tea industry and almost all of whom are the descendants of those who were brought to Assam as slaves by East India Company, mostly from Jharkhand and Orissa.[citation needed] The descendants of those slaves are now called tea tribes. The sacrifice, toil and hard work of these labourers gave shape to the tea industry of Assam. However, the story behind the tea cultivation, plucking and processing of tea leaves in the plantations is one of exploitation and untold hardships for the tea labourers.[citation needed] These labourers are still living with the basic facilities provided by the tea planters or companies. Poor standard of living and lack of education and health facilities are main problems of tea labourers.

Literacy level among the community is one of the lowest in Assam as tea garden management and other vested interests hinders in their educational development.[citation needed] That is why many young people of the community are not choosing tea garden related jobs. This is giving rise to silent Adivasi or Tribal identity movement among the youths which is the ethnic identity of this community.[citation needed]

Demand of Scheduled Tribe status and other issues[edit]

The people of this community have been fighting for decades to receive Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which is being denied to them in Assam for political reasons,[citation needed] although in other states of India their racial counterparts fully enjoy that status.

This community is composed of many large tribes who are original inhabitants of India like Munda, Santhal, Kurukh (Oraon), Gonds, Bhumij and dozen others who are being denied Scheduled Tribe status.

Assam is the only state in India where these aborigines of India has been denied ST status. This has given rise to Adivasi identity politics in Assam and different political parties are banking on this issue to get votes of this community for decades during elections.

Now each tribe of this community has started to demand ST status individually as collectively the term 'Tea Tribe' is considered unconstitutional and vague.

According to S.D. Pando,[citation needed] one of the three members of a panel set up by the Assam government to write an ethnographic report on the Adivasis, Among the 96 ethnic groups who are listed as 'Tea tribe' in Assam, 36 are recognised as ST, 27 as Scheduled caste and the rest are OBCs in other parts of India.

Numerous agitations and movements has been organised and are ongoing demanding ST status and most infamous of them was the Beltola incident of Guwahati happened on 24 November 2007 where public rape and killings in the daylight occurred which had rocked India particularly Assam.

Several peaceful protests and movements are now ongoing in demand of ST status and as a result, present central government (NDA) has formed a task force to accord ST status to at least 26 tribes of this community.

Increase in wage issue[edit]

Issue of wage is another issue gripping the majority members of this community. They are demanding increase in daily wages of tea garden workers of the state from existing daily wage of mere ₹94 to ₹330.

As cited, ₹94 as daily wage for tea garden workers did not fulfil the provisions of the Minimum Wage Act, 1948, as it is below the Assam government's prescribed minimum wage (₹169). Wages in tea gardens of Barak Valley is even meagre ( ₹78 per day). And also according to the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, and Minimum Wage Act, 1948, costs associated with housing, medical and electricity could not be included as part of minimum wages.

Southern states of India has been successful in increasing daily wages of tea garden workers while maintaining the Industry profitable. Daily Wage is ₹254 in Kerala.

It is estimated that 20 lakhs (2 million) labourers working in over 850 tea gardens are deprived of their right of minimum wages in Assam.[citation needed]

According to the KMSS, an influential peasant union active in Assam, tea garden management spends only ₹3.6 every day as ration cost for the workers in place of ₹75 (minimum wage minus existing wage or ₹169-₹94) because they procure it in subsidised rate from Central Government funded Food Corporation of India.

It means that garden managements are collecting an additional amount of ₹71.30 each day from the workers which turns out to be ₹1713.60 a month.

It has been estimated that by not providing minimum wage, Tea garden managements loots ₹15 crores per day from tea garden workers that comes as $900 millions or ₹5400 crores per year as a whole.


Persecution of the Adivasi community of Assam is mainly political and ethnic in nature. They are increasingly becoming the victims of volatile social and political situation in Assam. The violence upon the community has risen following the rise of ethnic nationalism and related militancy across the state and violent arising out of border disputes of Assam with other states. Hundred of innocent Adivasis has lost their life and thousands rendered homeless in the Bodoland Territorial Area District of Assam due to armed attacks by pro-Bodo militants starting from 1990s who are in a bid of ethnic cleansing the region to create a Bodo majority Bodoland.[citation needed] Thus it makes the community one of the most vulnerable to frequent violent attacks upon them in Assam.

  • In 1996, at least 200 Adivasi lost their life due to attacks by pro-Bodo NDFB[disambiguation needed] militants which led to Bodo-Adivasi clashes in the districts of Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar at the height of violent Bodoland movement. Nearly 0.4 million (4 lakhs) people were internally displaced due to the attacks and clashes. Ethnic cleansing of Adivasis by the NDFB militants for the creation of Bodoland is cited as a reason for the attacks.[citation needed]
  • In 1998, at least 100 Adivasi again lost their lives in repeated attacks during the months of May–September by NDFB militants in the district of Kokrajhar which again led to Bodo-Adivasi clashes. About 0.2 million people got displaced due to the clashes this time.[citation needed]
  • In July 2002, NDFB militants massacred 9 Adivasis and injured 5 others in Kokrajhar district.[citation needed]
  • In November 2007, five Adivasi lost their lives and at least 250 injured when a rally in demand of Scheduled Tribe status turned violent between the participants and locals in the city of Guwahati, state capital of Assam. A teenage Adivasi girl and a woman was molested in the daylight during the violence.[citation needed]
  • Many Adivasi living in the border areas of Sonitpur and Lakhimpur districts has lost their lives during violence arising out of Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border dispute from 1992 to 2014 due to attacks by armed miscreants from the Arunachal Pradesh side.[citation needed]
  • In October–November 2010, thousands of Adivasis, including women and children, were forcefully evicted by Forest Department without prior notice from Lungsung forest area under Haltugaon Forest division in Kokrajhar district of Assam. The Forest department burnt down hundred of houses in 59 villages in Lungsung forest area during the eviction drive and perpetrated various atrocities on the villagers. About 1200 to 1400 families comprising over 7000 persons were rendered homeless.[citation needed]
  • In August 2014, at least 10 Adivasi villagers lost their lives and several injured near Uriamghat in the district of Golaghat due to alleged attacks by armed Naga miscreants supported by NSCN militants. At least 10,000 people were displaced mostly Adivasis following the attacks in Golaghat district. Border dispute between Assam and Nagaland is cited as one of the reason for the attack.[citation needed]
  • In 23 December 2014, at least 75 Adivasi villagers lost their lives in the simultaneous attacks by NDFB(S)[disambiguation needed] militants armed with AK 47/56 series weapons in the three districts of Sonitpur, Kokrajhar and Chirang in one of the worst massacre in the history of Northeast India. Among the dead were 18 children and 21 women. Nearly 0.3 million people got internally displaced due to retaliatory violence after the attacks. It led to widespread public protests across different parts of Assam in which again three Adivasi protesters lost their lives in police firing in Dhekiajuli. Widespread condemnation happened across the nation against the massacre. As a result, Indian Army launched Operation All Out" to hunt down the NDFB(S) militants.

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