The Women Who Set Fire to Their Boss

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 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 mention 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 single 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 his article. Like the cause of the dispute (Bhattacharya’s non-payment of wages) and Bhattacharya’s arrest two years ago on another estate after he opened fire on workers protesting his alleged sexual abuse of one of the women. He was arrested for murder for shooting and killing a fifteen year old protestor.

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 them when they refused to leave.The police in Assam state are known for their eagerness (based on bribery?) 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 Weren’t Tea Pluckers at the MKB 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 reports the workers at MKB tea plantation weren’t unionized, though most tea workers are. I found the comment puzzling and felt it also deserved further 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 their back pay dispute.

The 2009 book Trade Union Movement in the Tea Workers of Assam (page 105) reveals that ACMS workers are required to pay 12% of their gross wages to a union provident fund (to cover unemployed workers). For women trying to feed their children on erratically paid starvation wages, I can see why this could be a stumbling block.

Moreover a recent article for the Asia Monitor Resource Center by feminist political scientist Sujata Gothoskar paints an extremely bleak picture of trade union effectiveness in Assam state. Despite strong union penetration, Assam’s tea plantations still operate under a system that amounts to slave labor. All the most difficult work — including carrying more than 40 kgs of green leaf on their backs every day – is performed by women. In addition over 90 per cent of the tea workers are either Scheduled Tribes or Scheduled Castes – the lowest in the caste hierarchy. They are Untouchables, in other words, who in many regions of India are still denied many basic human rights.

According to Gothoskar, many of the workers families were forcibly or fraudulently brought to the tea gardens several generations ago. Injuries are common, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases. There is often exposure to pesticides and insecticides, which the International Labor Organization (ILO) cites as one of the major health and safety hazards tea workers face.

Although India’s 1951 Plantation Labour Act 1951 requires owners to pay minimum wage and to provide basic medical care, clean drinking water, sanitation (toilets) and a “provident fund” for workers who become unemployed, none of these conditions are enforced despite decades of unionization. At present, the average wage of the majority of tea pluckers is less than 55 rupees a day (US$2), as against Assam’s minimum wage of 100 rupees per day.

As Gothoskar explains in her article, most unions in India, including those representing the tea estates, are affiliated with and controlled by political parties. Even though women workers constitute the majority of the tea plantation workforce, the top union leadership that sets policy and participates in collective bargaining consists almost entirely of non-tea worker, middle class men. She also notes that although physical and sexual violence against women are extremely common on tea plantations, union leaders refuse to recognize it as a union issue.

A Virtual Death Sentence

Reports from UNICEF and other human rights organizations document the routine malnutrition and starvation-related deaths that occur on the Assam tea plantations. It’s no stretch to see how two months non-payment of sub-subsistence wages could amount to a virtual death sentence for many of the MKB tea workers and their children.

It’s impossible to justify what the women did – either morally or strategically. Killing the plantation owner will most certainly cost them their jobs (as well as landing some of them in prison). Fire setting and other extreme labor unrest has already led to the closure of several Assam tea estates, including Rani Tea Estate where Bhattacharya shot and killed the 15 year old. At the same time, there is no question that the women’s desperate actions arose from a sense of absolute powerless in the face of virtual serfdom, as well as the bribery, corruption, sexism and racism that plagues the Assam police, government authorities and even union officials.

It’s a pity the corporate media doesn’t tell us any of this. We frequently read and hear about similar “senseless” violence in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq – where desperate people who have exhausted all their options blow themselves up to strike a blow against the people who oppress them. The psychological profiles of gunmen involved in recent rage massacres suggest that here, too, we are dealing with profoundly desperate people who believe they have no other alternative — and, more importantly, that they have nothing left to lose.

Society’s Pathological Response to Violence

In a rational world, community and political leaders would be more mindful of the lethal effect of desperation on human behavior. We would also be far less cavalier about ignoring human exploitation and oppression to fulfill corporate demands for ever increasing profit. Sadly with the global economic downturn and growing income inequality, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. As the corporate elite rushes to dismantle all the federal and state regulations that used to soften the brutality of raw corporate capitalism, you get the sense they are pursuing some misguided scorched earth strategy to squeeze every last ounce of wealth out of the global economy before the whole house of cards collapses.

Meanwhile the corporate media prefers to sweep the industrial dispute at the Assam tea plantation under the rug, unlike Newtown and the other rage massacres they cover ad nauseam. With American union membership at an all time low, heaven forbid increasingly desperate US workers should get any ideas.

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.