Workers’ Rebellion and State Aggression in Doloo: Seeds of Autocracy are hidden within Constitutional Democracy


  • May 23, 2022
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The workers (of Daloo Tea Estate) were forced to retreat in the face of a massive gathering of armed forces and coercive muscles of the state-power. But this retreat of the workers is temporary. It is temporary in the sense that if a subjective force can be developed which can theoretically construct the path of class struggle by building up class unity in face of division of the working class into different sectarian communities due to uneven capitalist development, then on the basis of a general manifesto that subjective force can grab the imagination of the working masses, and in near future the masses united as a class will be able to challenge the present system, writes Arup Baisya, a political activist from Assam.

 

 

Doloo Tea Garden of Assam’s Cachar district is now making the headlines. Once, this garden was considered the largest and best tea garden in terms of production, along with its fame due to the adjacent large water body and the natural beauty of its surroundings. The people of this region longed for several years for Doloo to become an attractive tourist spot. For a long period, this industry has witnessed several ups and downs under several owners, both from the viewpoint of both business and workers’ interests. For a few years, it was even run by constituting a co-operative, including CITU and other trade unions, under the District Deputy Commissioner. During the entire period, the condition of workers, in terms of their rights guaranteed by labour laws, has only gone down. Allegations of corruption were made even when it was run by the co-operative. Doloo was transferred to the present owner in 2012. The dispute regarding ownership of the tea estate between the old and new owner is in the tribunal under company law. The Patel family, the old owners, had appealed for a stay on the land transfer process, citing the case still lying in the tribunal and its earlier order to maintain status-quo. Whatever it is, Doloo was making profits under the new owner. The company balance sheets from 2018-19 and 2019-20 are showing an increase in profit and in value of its shares. Since then, no such changes has happened in the business environment that will make the company face losses, consumption demand of tea has not decreased in the domestic market, rather it has increased even during the covid crisis.

 

The MP from Silchar has been advocating for a Green Field Airport in the Barak Valley to the Central Aviation Ministry. Naturally, his electoral compulsions greatly influenced the choice of the site. Doloo has again come to the news headlines. They are saying that AAI has selected Doloo as a perfect site for a new Airport, however, there is no such report on the official website. A news daily of Silchar reported on 7th May that construction of an Airport was earlier proposed in Kharil, a Tea Estate abandoned long back, when Sarbananda Sonowal was the Chief Minister of Assam, however, the plan was canceled due to alleged opposition by the land mafias. Government cowered down before the land mafias, but didn’t hesitate to forcibly acquire land in Daloo despite resistance from workers. Land of the Kharil tea estate could have been acquired for free but they have to pay compensation to the owner in Doloo for the tea trees on the acquired land. As tea estate land is leased out to the owner, the government doesn’t have to pay compensation for the acquired land.

 

Role of  the Stake-Holders

 

When the government decided to construct the Airport in Doloo, the consent of the owner and workers of the tea estate was required. The owners were mysteriously over-enthusiastic in transferring the 2500 bigha of plantation land out of 9250 bigha of the total land of Doloo. But the mystery did not end there. The owners directly started dialogue with three central trade unions -BMS, INTUC and CITU – as representatives of the workers. On 7th January, 2022, the owner signed a bipartite agreement with the three unions. According to the agreement, the unions agreed to the transfer of the tea estate land for the Airport project. Later, a tripartite agreement was signed between the owner, trade unions and district administration. Nowhere in this agreement, the interest of the workers have been protected, instead, the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union had accused these trade unions of fully surrendering to the owners by totally disregarding the interests of the workers. By invoking confidentiality clauses, the agreement was kept secret for months. The workers started to fear for their livelihood as the news of transfer of 2500 bigha of land was reported in the local newspapers. Transfer of this much land under plantation would deprive nearly 2000 workers from their livelihood. Asom Mojuri Shramik Union is a familiar name in the Doloo area. They have been working on worker’s rights for several years but as other unions, especially CITU already had workers’ committees in the garden, they did not form separate committees in the garden. Workers started to organize meetings, hold rallies and protests under the leadership of the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union. They demanded social and environmental audits to be done as required under law and demanded the agreement to be brought in public domain by submitting a memorandum to both Central and State governments.

 

After a lot of dilly-dallying and several meetings with the district administration, the agreement copy was finally handed to Asom Mojuri Shramik Union representatives after a bipartite meeting on 25th April. On the next day i.e. 26th April, the district administration also put the agreement on Facebook. The administration asked Asom Mojuri Shramik Union to submit in writing its opinion regarding the clauses of the agreement within 24 hrs. In reply, the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union stated that not depositing the PF (Provident Fund) of workers in the PF fund in case of a profit-making company is a punishable offense according to several sections of PF Act and Tea plantation Act. The company has not deposited even the worker’s contributions deducted from their wages in the PF fund account. Instead the company has stated in the agreement that PF money will be refunded to the workers from the money it will receive as compensation from the administration for transferring the land for the Airport project. Company is promising that no worker will be retrenched from the payroll, however, there is no clear indication of what will happen to the casual workers and there is no legal guarantee of the promises made by the company in the agreement. At the same time, there is no clear guideline regarding what will be done with the surplus workers when 2,500 bighas will be transferred for the Airport. The agreement includes provisions on what rules and regulations the workers must abide by, even though there already exists a standing-order on factory rules regarding workers’ conduct. In fact, the agreement is like an election manifesto, with promises but no legal provisions to protect workers interests. Interestingly, the three unions signed the agreement keeping the workers in the dark.

 

 

The Agreement and Asom Mojuri Shramik Union

 

The NTUI affiliated Asom Mojuri Shramik Union translated the agreement into Bengali, distributed it among the workers and held detailed discussions with the workers of Doloo, Mainagarh and Lalbagh divisions. Those who had been kept on the margins for so long began to talk overnight, demolishing the logic of the administration, union leaders, brokers and management. The center does not exist without margins; the strategy of the oppressed is to strike at the center which is controlled by the ruling class and its parties. The Asom Mojuri Shramik Union demanded that the agreement be scrapped and that a public hearing be held to get the opinion of the workers. Under pressure, the administration complied with the demand for a public hearing, and at two public hearings in Mainagarh and Lalbagh in Doloo, thousands of workers unanimously rejected the proposal to hand over the land for the Airport, and submitted written statements signed by 2,326 workers as sought by the administration for record of the opinions in public hearing. The workers also said that the land owner and the administration have to show where 2500 bighas of new land is in the Doloo garden for plantation of new saplings. They also demanded patta land rights for the families of the workers residing in the tea estate to assuage the workers’ apprehension of eviction from their dwelling houses in future by giving an alibi of security for the Airport. Representatives of the ruling class parties called the protesters “Maoists” and falsely accused them as supporters of “armed struggle from the beginning”. These atrocious charges were labelled to clear the way for the administration to bring state terrorism on the protesting workers and Asom Mojuri Shramik Union leadership. But under the pressure of mass movement, the police superintendent declared that there was no “Maoist” connection to this agitation. The leadership of the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union knew that the systematic nexus of state-power, capital, market forces and the ruling class would not tolerate this daring of the margin for long. Hence, the only way to counter the reaction of the ruling class is to build working-class unity cutting across caste-religion-nationalities. The ruling class also knew that the union would proceed on that path, so if they are unable to control the workers they would have to make a quick repressive blow on the movement and compel the workers to submit. The ruling class has been relatively successful in achieving that.

 

Changes in Labour process

 

The trade union movement is a mediating institutional system in the relation of labour and capital. It creates pressure upon capital to achieve workers’ demands related to wage and social security based upon the existing power equation in social relations by strengthening workers’ power through struggle. This pressure is created within the structure controlled by capital. This structure controlled by capital is not just involved with the maintenance of balance of market forces but is also a reality in which state power and market forces are intertwined with each other. And the presence of state power in the history of capitalism is evidence of the fact that the intensity of exploitation of the population is related to the process of exploitation of labour based on identity as the state needs to ensure the supply of cheap labour. But in a revolt against the dominance of capital, the identity based communities are not the driving force because it does not challenge the fundamental rule of exploitation of capital. The state and capital can accommodate the community dimension of the revolt within the system to maintain the status quo. Marx described the working class as the agent for the struggle against the domination of capital to transcend the system. But during the neoliberal restructuring of the production and labour process and dismantling of organized industrial labour, an attempt has been made to replace the working class with the agency of identity. Marx saw the organized industrial working class and wrote Communist Manifesto based on that; he did not have the chance to see the present form of the working class. But, he had written about the workers in general, not just a specific form of organized industrial workers, in contradiction with the capital in generalized theoretical constructions elsewhere. But there was an upsurge of identity politics world-wide within the new reality constructed by the noeliberal restructuring of labour and production process. A section of the Left and revolutionaries attempted to make theoretical constructions for drawing the working-class leadership from the very womb of identity politics. But most of the leaders in the identity politics movement got immersed in ethnic or community sectarianism, and in the process the capital and state could assimilate them into the present system. On the contrary, a universal category of workers is formed transcending the boundaries of caste, religion and caste. In view of this overall reality, let’s evaluate the position of the tea workers in Doloo garden.

 

Class relationship in Doloo tea-garden

 

INTUC was the main union in the tea gardens in Assam in the post-independence period. The main driving force of INTUC in the gardens were workers from the Sardar community who were close to the garden management because they had the responsibility to maintain discipline in the workers. As a result, in the event of a labor-owner dispute, the Congress-affiliated union would always prioritize the interests of the employer. Doloo garden has a history of labour movement in the post-independence period. The Left, revolutionary Left leaders and even a few honest leaders belonging to Congress have contributed to that movement. As the Left revolutionaries followed a principle of not forming trade unions, CITU benefited most from the workers’ struggle to emerge as the largest union in the Doloo garden. But the CITU Union did not follow the process of lessening the dominance of the old Sardars from the union structure, but the new leadership was made accustomed to old-fashioned functioning of the union, relying less on the workers’ to assume the leadership role in struggle. The women workers, who constitute the largest number of the total workforce in the garden, their role in the struggle and bringing them into union leadership was particularly neglected. By abandoning the path of class struggle, the new union leadership’s financial dependence on workers’ contribution and on management grants demonstrates their social and psychological isolation from ordinary workers. There was also a clan character to the CITU union leadership. Different groups of workers in Doloo garden fall under the parameters considered for recognition of SC, ST and OBC categories, however, the Union leadership generally consisted of people from socio-economically advanced sections. As a result, unions like CITU, which had established their dominance in the Doloo garden through class struggle, in course of time, they also acquired the character of Congress-BJP controlled unions by abandoning the path of class struggle to enhance workers’ power. However, the dominance of those unions has so far been maintained by a secret understanding with the management and by tempting the workers with token doles in order to keep the union afloat in the interest of the owners. Keeping the union afloat to keep the workers disciplined and under control is also an institutional measure of garden management. Those who run unions outside this management-union leader nexus are the real workers’ unions struggling to safeguard workers’ interests. In that sense revolutionary workers’ union is a misnomer.

 

But the impact of the overall restructuring of the neo-liberal labor process and the lack of new investment has naturally affected even the organized industries such as tea gardens. As labor demand decreases and austerity measures on the expenditure on employees’ heads are imposed, the number of Sardars, various supervisor-level employees, Babu-staff, etc., in the garden is reduced, the benefits they used to get from management and their overall dominance over the general workers in the garden are also reduced. As a result, this layer of workers between the management and ordinary workers, who used to enjoy extra privileges and power, has been dismantled and brought to the level of ordinary workers. Like in every garden, many workers in the Doloo Garden are working outside the garden at extremely low wages, many even go to other states. There, the workers come in contact with different communities. At one time, except for the Hindi-speaking leadership, the entry of the Bengali-origin people assuming the role of workers’ leadership in the gardens was blocked because of the conflict of labour with the Bengali babu-staff. That antagonism with the Bengalis has now considerably waned due to the non-existent power of the erstwhile Bengali babu-staffs. The aspirations of the workers have become contingent to the interests of the workers in general. But CITU’s long practice of indulging in secret negotiations with the owner and keeping the class struggle under obscurity, has made them incapable of leading the interests of the workers.

 

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar have tried to fill this void by assimilating the community’s cultural symbols under Hindutva and spreading a wide net of government beneficiary schemes. But in the midst of a severe economic crisis and paucity of funds, these schemes are being curtailed and in most cases do not reach the actual beneficiaries. To challenge this cultural dominance of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, a group of Marxists have fallen in the trap of Culturalism, creating a fictitious reality of confrontation with the Sangh Parivar politics, by engaging in a battle of identity and diversity, when the community-based-organisations are submitting to the nexus of capital and state. An organization called Chaa Janajati Chhatra Sangstha has been working in Doloo Bagan for a long time. It was initially involved in some dramatic opposition to the land transfer, but now has been sold out to the ruling class and has become completely silent and non-existent during the workers’ resistance movement. On the other hand, due to the change in the strata of the workers, the control of CITU and Sangh Parivar over the workers is now based on a very weak foundation. They discovered their weakness when the conflict between the capitalist owner-state nexus and the workers suddenly broke all barriers and fetishes and stood face to face. Leftists and Culturalists discovered the Sagina Mahatos’ created by them.

 

The aggression of capital 

 

In Assam’s turbulent economy, the disoriented ruling party has become desperate to attract private capital investment. In order to attract individual owners of capital, they want to hand over prime-lands to the capitalists to make Assam a corridor for commercial transactions and trade. Capitalists are reluctant to invest in production due to lack of demand and shrinking purchasing power, rather they are interested in investing in infrastructure in a remote province like Assam to plunder land and natural resources of Assam. To that end, inhuman evictions are being carried out in different parts of Assam, and the working and poor people are being targeted and losing everything in these operations. The predominance of capital’s choice in identification of land to be acquired is hurting the toiling masses of all the communities of Assam. Capital guided by its profit maximization motive is going beyond the game plan of the current rulers to target particular oppressed identities especially the religious minority to fan communalism. The message that the toiling masses of no community will be spared and no concessions will be made to the poor and toiling masses of Assam to facilitate seizure of prime-land and ensure supply of cheap labor with diverse skills is evident in the present eviction drive. Doloo Garden is a symbol of the barbarism of the “primitive accumulation” of the present form of capital. Why was the Doloo garden chosen? It’s all a game of capital. The middlemen no longer live within the hierarchy of the tea-garden workers, but as the brokers of the existing corporate big capital they are among the influential leaders of all parties and their subordinate community leaders. Local brokers are keen to acquire productive land with the aim of getting a small share of government funds. This incentive is associated with the interest in investment of big capital. An organized industry like the tea industry is being weakened to build an infrastructural project and this reveals the character of neoliberal policy drive. This change in the form of capital and the internal structure of the workers is conducive to the awakening of class struggle. As a result, when the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union explained the futility of the agreement and when the workers found out that the unions had signed such an agreement without their consent, a massive awakening of the workers was observed. They formed the garden committee of the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union. Thousands of workers are protesting every day, ignoring the intimidating flag-march of the armed police force amassed inside the garden and the threat of the garden-owner to declare lock-out, the workers staged demonstrations inside the Doloo Tea Garden and the office premises of the district administration.

 

But then why the temporary retreat of the workers?

 

The reason for this has to be found in the overall socio-political reality of Assam and in the role of the Left. The anger of various sections of the workers of Assam has been sporadically expressed through their isolated mass protests. But instead of advancing the politics of class struggle through workers’ unity, the Left has created an ambience of fake struggle and supported sectarian divisions; ruling class political parties in the opposition camp have also failed to provide any alternative politics. Starting from the Congress, the UDF and other nationalist parties practically blunted their oppositional political role by submitting to the rhetoric of the so-called development model and entered into deals to enjoy the residue left by capital. The opportunist and compromising role we saw them take during the issue of Citizenship, we are even now seeing the repetition of the same every day. A section of Left revolutionaries are not able to get out of the culturalist distortion that is born from the womb of neoliberalism. As a result, there is a lack of conscious organizational preparation to carry forward the spark that the workers’ protest at Doloo has rekindled. The role of CITU, and a section of the Left who tried to give a cultural twist to the class struggle, is a testament to how long term disassociation from the class struggle  has stagnated and fossilized the brain and mind of the Left. When the Doloo workers rose up and protested, with thousands of workers unanimously voicing their disagreement at the public hearings, it was hoped that CITU might come out of the agreement by giving importance to the workers’ sentiment and opinion. But CITU did not follow that path, instead, even before the tea estate owner had issued a notification threatening lock-out in the garden within 48 hours, a prominent CITU leader had announced in the newspaper that the owner would announce lock-out in the garden if the workers protests continue and the workers would be in danger of losing their livelihood. The Asom Mojuri Shramik Union foiled the owner’s attempt to declare a lock-out by filing a complaint with the administration, alerting it to a possible conspiracy by the owner in creating a law and order situation and using it as an alibi to declare lockout, when workers are doing routine work and protesting peacefully and democratically. The workers were forced to retreat in the face of a massive gathering of armed forces and coercive muscles of the state-power. But this retreat of the workers is temporary. It is temporary in the sense that if a subjective force can be developed which can theoretically construct the path of class struggle by building up class unity in face of division of the working class into different sectarian communities due to uneven capitalist development, then on the basis of a general manifesto that subjective force can grab the imagination of the working masses, and in near future the masses united as a class will be able to challenge the present system.  On the very night, the administration issued the notice of acquisition of plantation land and assembled armed forces to implement it, on the same day it also held talks with four trade unions, including the Asom Mojuri Shramik Union in the morning. The talks yielded no solution and the discussion remained incomplete as the union leading the workers’ protest demanded fulfillment of the proposals of the workers during public hearings prior to any move for land acquisition. Those two opposite processes, consultation with unions on one hand and on the other amassing armed forces to carry out forcible eviction, show that the seeds of authoritarianism are hidden within constitutional democracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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