Plantation Capitalism and the Working People: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

An informed reader may find a few interpolations here vis a vis Behal’s published articles. A book length exposition of the subject is interspersed with certain improvisation of methods. Behal collects a couple of private papers, diaries, recollections and reportages of some planters. Cambel’s and Cotton’s reportages support the thesis of abuses of ‘coolie’, ill-treatment meted out to them and ‘discriminatory protectionism’ administered to them. Behal uses this archive to analyse world views of the planter and their graduation to the ‘coolie driver’. Planters considered the worker as ‘jungley’, inferior humankind, sub-human species, persons of low intellect and indolent animal. They regarded the provision of penal contract, below-subsistence wages and ostentatious flogging as necessary measures to deal with such native labour. #Author

Cover of Reviewed Book

Cover of the Reviewed Book

By Dhiraj Kumar Nite

Plantation Capitalism and the Working People: A Book Review

The Indian subcontinent established itself as the largest exporter of tea on the international market between 1890s and 1947. The rise and growth of tea plantations in the Brahmaputra Valley, Assam since the late-1830s, was the mainstay of this history. It was the biggest agro-industrial venture and, equally, the largest employer of workforce. The book of our discussion presents exposition ofthe plantations under ‘capitalism of its colonial variant’, its labour-management relationship, and the way the young European planter graduated to the ‘coolie driver’, and labour resistance.

Behal suggests, qua Walter Rodney (1981), the plantations developed as capitalist economy in the colonial context. Labour servitude, the dependency relationship and ‘the appallingly low’ standard of living of workers characterised the labour regime.Behal modifies the thesis that the indenture labour was ‘a new system of slavery’ (Hugh Tinker 1974). He highlights the elaborate ways, which planters devised in the midst of indenture legislation to create generational servitude of workers. They improvised newer methods of control for perpetuating the dependency relationship in the post-indenture era as well.

The plantations adopted a labour-intensive method of production. Workers were subject to legal cum extra-legal and non-market cum market methods of coercion and restrictionwith a view to securing maximum labour during the era of penal contract [Indenture] labour system (1863-1919). Planters often paid workers ‘below subsistence’ wages, provided them little medical, sanitary and educational facilities, and offered nominal maternity and sickness benefits. They asked for heavy nirik(task) that was linked with the pay. They flogged workers for attempts of absconding, non-compliance, defiance and on charges of unsatisfactory performance; at times, flogging resulted indeath of the victim. They were emboldened by the scenario: the bureaucracy and judiciary administered ‘unequal and discriminatory justice’ in their favour.The Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act (1859-1926), additionally, gave supports to labour servitude. The time-expiredand other local workers were contracted under the concerned Act. Here, planters treated the bonus of Rs 12 paid to workers as advances and,practically, adjusted it with workers’ wages.

In the era of so-called free labour since 1927, planters increased employment ofthe faltu/basti labourers (ex-garden workers settled on the government and private lands) at lower wagesthat helped depress wages in general. They continued to deploy the benefits of service tenancy, easy advances, credits and subsidised rice for creating a dependent, bonded workforce. They also devised newer ways of immobilising labourers and restraining the formation of labour market. They adopted a wage agreement among themselves in order to keep wages uncompetitive since 1929. Faced with the impending threat of trade-union movement from 1938-39, they imposed a mechanism of the conditional recognition of labour organisation,promotion of artisanal unions, and repression of agitators. They successfully allied with the new Congress government since 1946-47, and suppressed the Communist-backed agitation. They patronised the Congress-sponsored INTUC activity upon the promise of not upsetting the existing labour-management relationship (p. 308).

Such labour relation was responsible for the crisis of reproduction of humankind and extremely unequal, roughshod social milieu. Planters continuously recruited migrant labourers in the range of 30,000 to 40,000 a year, i.e., more than two million [distant] migrants during 1860s-1940s. However, it could have a workforce of approx. 400 thousands in the 1900s and over 800 thousands in 1934-1947. Women constituted about 45 percent of the workforce. The plantations witnessed high rates of mortality of the recruit in the course of transportation and in the tea gardens as well as desertion. A low birth rate, high abortion and morbidity rates, and absenteeism to the tune of 25 percent further compounded the difficulty.

Behal’s exposition debunks the revisionist historiography. The latter underplays the lack of freedom involved in indenture and gives primacy to the economic rationality of a system, which supposedly benefited employers and labourers alike(DavidW. Galenson1984; P.C. Emmer 1986).Behal highlights the practices that structured the indenture contract, dependency relationship and conditions of live and resistance. However, the history of 1840-61, the period before the indenture system when labour servitude was not a defining moment and the Katcharisworkers did strike in 1848 and others did the same in 1859 for higher wages and fair treatment, calls for a historical imagining that may not dovetail well with that of the ‘hundred years of servitude’.

The indentured labour system was an integral part of capitalism in the colonial context. Its essence (cheap, coerced labour) remained largely intact within the dependency relationship, which was noticeable for long even after 1947, suggests Behal (pp. 328, 335). This tension-ridden assertion provokingly lingers on. It calls for a split between the colonial/capitalist form of exploitation, on one side, and, on the other, its specific mode of power?

The policy of laissez faire maintained by the colonial state actually meant, Behal argues, that the state assisted European capital. It transformed the migrant labourer into the coerced labour through a legal framework. It offered huge acreage to capital at the throwaway prices;invested in the construction of railways and roads for capital accumulation; financed the R&D for improved productivity and a standardised product; and donated fund for the expansion of export market.It did not bother much, Behal argues, for curbing the planters who often did not pay the statutory wages to workers, forced workers to do more than nine-hour long workday and full Sunday work, and discriminatory unequal justice was a rule than exception. Behal’s findings strengthen the thesis that ‘the visible hand of the state’ was a crucial factor responsible for economic growth / underdevelopment at all historical phases (Deepak Nayyar 2013: 119-121). It would critique another revisionist argument: the British state adopted sympathetic approaches on both fronts of addressing the grievance of capital against shortage of labour and indiscipline labour and workers’ complaints of abuse and torture in the ‘coolie trade’ (TirthankarRoy 2008: 987; Peter Robb 2005).

Planters maintained handsome dividends for the investor despite the falling prices in the 1870s-1900s and fluctuating prices in the subsequent period. They deployed various means to intensify labour, suggests Behal. Workload roughly increased by 25 to 30 percent in the 1890s (p. 259). The labour productivity continually rose in the 20thc. New scientific inputs became available from the R&D activity to reduce the number of workers per acreagein the 1930s-40s. What was the connection, if at all, between those two economic phenomena, on one side, and of theirs with workers’ resistance to intensification of labour, on the other? Not explored. Behal clubstogether ‘extensification of labour’ and appropriation of absolute value with ‘intensified labour’ and appropriation of relative surplus. The reinforced supervisory efforts and ticca (additional pay for extra work) benefits helped secure, underlines Behal, continually intensified labour. Ian J. Kerr (1997) modifies the marxian understanding (1863) from his study of a similar socio-economic phenomenon: mechanisation is not a necessary vehicle of intensified labour and relative surplus; and appropriation of absolute surplus and relative surplus could be coeval.

The bookintegrates the experience of workers and labour resistance with the study of political economy. The tea gardens hosted three starkly unequal, divergent and, yet,interconnected life worlds of the European planter, the Indian worker (called ‘coolie’) and other clerical and supervisory staff. The latter group has not received sufficient attention. Workers were not gullible, ignorant and mute victims of labour servitude,highlights Behal.The ex-tea garden labourers displayed an increasing tendency to settle as tenant cultivators on the government cum private land and become service tenants on the plantation land. Behal does not read off whatsoever workers’ resistance to miserable proletarianisation and the desire for a modicum of respectable tenant life. The book shares the dominant discourse that the aboriginals and tribal represented economically and socially the most marginalised strata of the labour catchment area; they constituted 50 to 60 percent tea labourers. Other unprivileged castes constituted 30 to 40 percent. Further, 10 to15 percentlabourers belonged to the underprivileged castes. The book,unnecessarily,reproduces the planter’s pejorative terms, like ‘jungly’,‘coolie’(p. 257).They got dispossessed owing to excess revenue and indebtedness that pushed them to migration(p. 257). This minor point is not exact reference, despite Behal’s claim, to the conclusion of PrabhuMohapatra (1985: 291-97). The latter maintains that the combination of ecological condition in the shape of attacks of famine and drought on the peasants involved in expansion of the arable land, fluctuation and instability in food supply, costlier credit and little savings at the peasants’ disposal, and little investment in irrigation infrastructure undertaken by the colonial state, made emigration as an alternative.

Workers preserved their diverse caste and ethnic identities; yet, they forged solidarity to undertake regular collective protests (p. 277-8). How did they maintain diverse identities beyond the practice of endogamous marriages? What accounted for the co-existence of diverse identities and collective political actions? Oh!Not sufficient elaboration. Was the former resistance to degrading proletarianisation in terms of breaking away from the traditional community and kinship ties and adoption of an abstract individualiation in the social realm? The import of ‘new social history of labour’ seems minimal here. Consequently, the analysis of workers’ notions of indignity, income, reproduction and resentment over it surface as a synchronic entity of fixed texture, which were wrapped in time. The wage struggle simply comes out as a matter of gap between earnings and the cost of living index. The fight against sexual harassment and flogging of women and boys does not come up as a pointer to the social ethic of workers collective.

Women performed household chores and wage work. They were also subject to sexual demands of planters; the latter at times forced women to share a polyandrous relation in the service of labour stability. Placed in a subhuman existence they negotiated the reproduction burden through abortion (p. 260). Behal does not take any issue with Samita Sen’s (2005) finding that women at times saw an opportunity in sexual liaison with the garden sirdar. Needless to say, we are still waiting for a more focused examination of women’s experiences on the plantations.

Workers showed a great deal of awareness of their rights, lodged complaints and increasingly undertook subterranean as well as organised resistance, underscores Behal. Weapons of the weak included the actions, such as Jhumar folksong, which expressed workers’ critique of abuses in labour recruitment, daily drudgery, coercion, and their feeling of disappointment. It accompanied other individual and collective forms of protest. Workers’ attempts of desertion shot up in the 1880s; assaults on the manager frequented in the 1890s onwards. The mass exodus in the 1920s and strikes and trade-union movement in the 1930s on joined the repertoire of protest. Behal suggests that workers articulated grievances and demands in a clearer language by the late 1930s; their demand now became economic-in-nature. Workers’ awareness of the rights, notions objectionable issues and resolutions to the problem did emerge and develop, it could be said, in a sequential manner that unfolded with own historical specificity. Damn! We still wait for this history to come. A notion of dastur(customary practice)and its violation prompting workers’ protest also seems to have been at work.

The history of workers’ awareness and resistance should have been, it could be said, interwoven with the earlier discussion, where the planters looked as despotic ruler and workers as servile, reflexive persons.Such split, as it is, in the narrative structure conveys an impression that workers’ resistance had little impact over the planters’ behaviour pattern – excepting the fact that the abolition of the penal contract labour system in 1908 and Workmen’s Breach of Contract Act in 1926 partly owed to labour resistance. For instance, following brawls and riots between workers and managers, complaints were brought to the magistrate by labourers and planters in the 1890s on (p. 282). After 1908, the manager abused labourers; he apprehended retaliatory assaults and sought prosecution by lodging legal case against the labourers (p. 285).Therefore, a slippage like this occurs: ‘The planters enjoyed unquestioned control over the labour force’ (134). An analytical framework is needed, where the social struggle is the vehicle of development.

No unified labour organisation developed across the gardens. Behal explains it: Planters succeeded in immobilising workers, restricting and regulating access of outsiders, and securedsilence/apathy of the Assamese nationalist towards garden labourers. Nationalist leaders enjoyed links with native planters and maintained social and cultural distance with garden workers (p. 310).

An informed reader may find a few interpolations here vis a visBehal’s published articles. A book length exposition of the subject is interspersed with certain improvisation of methods. Behal collects a couple of private papers, diaries, recollections and reportages of some planters. Cambel’s and Cotton’s reportages support the thesis of abuses of ‘coolie’, ill-treatment meted out to them and ‘discriminatory protectionism’ administered to them. Behal uses this archive to analyse world views of the planter and their graduation to the ‘coolie driver’. Planters considered the worker as ‘jungley’, inferior humankind, sub-human species, persons of low intellect and indolent animal. They regarded the provision of penal contract, below-subsistence wages and ostentatious flogging as necessary measures to deal with such native labour. Jean Breman (1989) and Michel Taussig (1985) have studied the effect of ‘estrangement’ shared by planters on their brutal cum cruel attitude towards workers. DipeshChakrabarty (1989) has underlined the co-existence of modern/capitalist arrangement of production, on one side, and precapitalist/premodern form of power, on the other. The latter explains, argues Chakrabarty, the fact that the manager conducted public violent punishment to discipline and control the labourer. Behal shuns such distinction; instead, Behal’s findings reveal the cultural locus of ‘mode of power’, which planters wielded.

Behal suggests that the language of sources distorts our view. His narrativeundertakes in-itself a judicious assessment of divergent view-points and roles of the different actors available in archive; which juxtaposes various types of source; underscores fudging of figures. This is par excellence over the history of wage and wellbeing. It discovers substantial underreporting of those of workers’ attempts of desertion that got caught up and punished in the garden. Such cases were not reported to the police and labour inspector (p. 231). The imperfect [i.e., low] official statistics of desertion cum prosecution, as it were, led T. Roy (2008: 988) to conclude that neither wages nor the quality of life were actually worse on the plantations; that historians have exaggerated reports of the involuntary nature of migration. Behal’s narrative applies ‘a close reading of conventional sources’, including a better-known Jhumar(folksong of the teagarden) for especially writing about the notion and perception shared by workers and their self-activity.

Behal, Rana P, One Hundred Years of Servitude: Political Economy of Tea Plantations in Colonial Assam, Delhi: Tulika Books, 2014.ISBN-10: 9382381430.

Dhiraj k Nite Dhiraj Kumar Nite, A Social Scientist, University of Johannesburg, Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi. You can    contact him through dhirajnite@gmail.com

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One thought on “Plantation Capitalism and the Working People: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

  1. debojyoti das on said:

    brillinat analysis.

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