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Reviewed by:
  • Passage to Bondage: Labor in the Assam Tea Plantations ed. by Samita Sen
  • Rana P. Behal
Passage to Bondage: Labor in the Assam Tea Plantations
Samita Sen, ed., Suhit Kumar Sen, trans.
Kolkata, India: Samya, 2016
lxiii + 220 pp., $ 77.50 (cloth)

The tea plantations were the earliest commercial enterprise established by private British capital in the Assam Valley during the nineteenth century. They grew spectacularly during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and by the end of colonial rule, Assam employed nearly half a million laborers on more than three hundred thousand acres under the monopolistic control of the tea companies. By the 1870s tens of thousands of acres of jungle and wastelands had been converted into private estates, inhabited by laborers, Indian clerical staff, and British managers.

This impressive expansion of the tea industry in Assam was made possible by the mobilization of labor from among the lower-caste, aboriginal, and tribal agrarian communities from Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa who were employed under the indenture system set up under state legislation. The process of labor mobilization for the Assam tea plantations came to be known, in both official and nonofficial circles, as the "coolie trade." It was instigated by the actions of speculators; it flourished as a result of the work of recruiters and contractors in Calcutta; and it resulted in the misery, illness, and death of countless migrant laborers, both during transit and in the tea districts. The journey to Assam alone (via Calcutta by river transport) often took more than a month.

The characteristic features of the indentured system included physical and sexual coercion, low wages, lack of freedom, high mortality, and use of extralegal methods of control and discipline. European managers established an omnipotent authority over the labor force with the help of the colonial state, which granted extraordinary power of private arrest of runaways. Stories of fraudulent and brutal recruitment practices in the catchment areas were circulating in Bengal by the 1860s.

The volume under review is the English translation of two plays and one memoir about these issues, written in the Bangla language in the late nineteenth century. The plays, Cha-Kar Darpan (The Mirror of a Tea Planter) and Arkati Natak (Arkati: A Play), were written by Dakshinacharan Chattopadhyay and Harilal Bandopadhyay in 1874–75 and 1897, respectively. Cha-Kulir Atmakahini (The Autobiography of a Tea Garden Coolie, Based on a True Story) was written by Jogendranath Chattopadhyay and published in 1901.

These three writers belonged to the contemporary urban educated intelligentsia in Bengal who articulated their concerns about labor from the late nineteenth century onward. The British social reform tradition influenced some of the early Indian reformers like Sasipada Banerji in Bengal and Narayan Meghaji Lokhande in Bombay. Early nationalists and Brahmo reformers like Ram Kumar Vidyaratna and Dwarknath Ganguli published a series of articles in nationalist papers like Sanjibani and Bengalee from Calcutta between 1883 and 1887, about the ugly side of the coolie trade. Through their [End Page 121] writings, the nationalists and reformers criticized and exposed the terrible working and living conditions, economic and sexual exploitation, physical coercion and ill treatment as well as the high mortality of workers in the Assam tea plantations.

Cha-Kar Darpan depicts agrarian distress in the villages of the catchment area, showing why migration may have appealed to local peasant families. Their distress, in turn, offered opportunities to the unscrupulous recruitment agents who lured men and women to Assam with promises of lucrative salaries and dreams of returning home with enough savings to overcome their misery. The play then moves to a scene in the plantations demonstrating the sexual coercion of women laborers by the managers.

Arkati Natak depicts the intricacies of village bigwigs and middle-level personnel who connived and conspired to push men and women into the clutches of a European Arkati (labor recruiter) and his assistant. The play depicts the journey by train and steamer to Assam, where the Arkati uses his influence with the station master for "trouble free" movement of human cargo who have been recruited fraudulently from their villages to Dhubri. There they are bonded for five years under penal contract and then...


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