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Producing labour : en-gendering plantation politics in colonial Assam Valley, 1826-1910 Choudhury, Geeta Das

Abstract

The processes and practices that produced labour in the tea plantations of Assam Valley, India, from 1826-1910 are explored. The production of labour in Assam Valley is understood within the context of British Imperial politics that brought colonial capitalism into Assam Valley in the form of the tea industry. The establishment of tea plantations in Assam was also governed by the geographical and social conditions of the region at the time of its incorporation into the British Indian Empire in 1826. By 1910 the labour force in the plantations of Assam Valley comprised almost wholly of an immigrant labour force of men, women and children, the latter two together outnumbering the male labourers. Relying on documents produced by the colonial government pertaining to the tea industry like immigration records and correspondences between government officials, the demand for labour is understood within the context of immigration that was regulated by indenture laws. An exploration of both discourses and practices of colonial officials provide an understanding of the logic that accompanied the regulation of immigration as well as the politics of producing a labour force for the plantations. The memoirs of white planters and the writings of nationalist Indians are also analyzed and provide insight into their logic and practices. While planters' demands to a large extent pressured the colonial government to create an immigrant indentured labour force, the Indian nationalists criticized the extremely low wages and harsh treatment of the labour force. Colonial officials, planters and nationalists who were embroiled over the question of indentured labour force in contradictory ways were none the less agreed on the tea industry's role in Assam Valley as progressive. This belief in the 'modernizing' role of the tea industry saw the creation of the hegemonic demand for labour for the plantations during the period of the study. The politics of class, race, gender, caste and sexuality of these groups caused poverty stricken populations - men, women and children - from other parts of the British Indian Empire that had already undergone colonial restructuring to immigrate under indentured contracts to the plantations of Assam Valley. An analysis of oral traditions practised by the tea labour community of Assam Valley in conjunction with the written documents of colonial officials, planters and nationalists provide a picture of the harsh working and living conditions that prevailed on the plantations of Assam Valley from 1863 to 1910 - the period of regulated indentured immigration. The survival strategies and resistances of the female workers are tracked and contradict any assumption of passivity on their part and clearly bring out their active role even under the harsh circumstance of indenture. The analysis of the oral traditions also brings out the politics of class, caste, gender, race and sexuality that produced labour in the early years of the tea industry. At the same time these traditions also emphasize the role of historical memory of the period studied in reconstituting the tea labour community of Assam Valley.

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