N. Varma: Coolies of Capitalism

Coolies of Capitalism. Assam Tea and the Making of Coolie Labour

Varma, Nitin
Work in Global and Historical Perspective 2
Oldenbourg 2016: De Gruyter Oldenbourg
Anzahl Seiten
VI, 242 S.
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Ashutosh Kumar, Modern South Asia, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi

The discovery of tea plants in Assam (India) in the 1830s presented the perfect opportunity for the businessmen of the East India Company and European planters to expand into Asia. The local labourers were found to be insufficient for the mass production of tea, and planters therefore turned to the indenture system – already employed by overseas sugar plantations since 1834 – in order to recruit an appropriate workforce. Humanitarians and Anti-Slavery Society members saw the indenture system as nothing more than a ‘new system of slavery’ and the method of recruitment in the Assam tea gardens received the same label. Since then scholars have continued to debate the nature of the colonial plantation regimes and it is this issue that Nitin Varma takes up in Coolies of Capitalism. The relationship between labour and the capitalist (plantation) economy is addressed in the context of Assam in this instance because, in his words, he finds Assam as an “exceptional” place in terms of plantation labour regimes. Varma argues that the coolie-labour dynamic in Assam has its roots in the master and servant practices of Europe and that the system in Assam was, in fact, a successful part of the broader “homogenizing” project of coerced labour under capitalism (p. 8).

Varma begins with a short introduction setting out the existing debate regarding the nature of plantation labour and finds that the Assam coolies present an example within global history of a “new kind of slavery” (p. 3). The rest of the book is divided into six chapters and a conclusion. A fascinating collection of Illustrations, including photos, sketches and graphs, are peppered throughout.

Chapter one describes the discovery of the indigenous tea plant in Assam in the early 1830s and how highly paid Chinese tea makers were invited to “civilise” the “uncivilised” Indian people by passing on their knowledge of tea production. The colonial planters considered the indigenous Assamese labourers to be “lazy” and “unsuitable”. The most obvious remedy in their eyes was to import workers under the patronage of the government from outside Assam (mostly from the same labour catchment areas as those used for overseas migrants).

In chapter two, Varma discusses the formalization of the labour contract for Assam, i.e. the Assam Labour Act 1863 and 1865 which, unusually, provided the plantation managers with the special power to privately arrest deserting coolies. According to him, the logic behind such an “exceptional” right was that the policing capability of the state in a frontier province like Assam was superficial, tenuous and weak (pp. 49–50). The protection of private arrest was also justified on the ground that coolies were “unsettling” the plantations by absconding, even if this was due to ignored complaints about the lack of facilities on the plantations and the false promises made by recruiters. In a later section Varma more closely examines the Assam contract of 1865, which initially fixed the minimum monthly wages at Rs. 5 for men and Rs. 4 for women, and defined the working day (9 hours) and working week (6 days). In addition, it set the desired standard of health of coolies on the plantations, where it was essential to have a hospital with European doctors and native attendants/compounders supplied with basic medicines and medical equipment. However, Varma observes that a subsequent Act of 1870 not only dropped the minimum wage but made the working day and working hours ambiguous.

Chapter three focuses on the general unpopularity of Assam in the nineteenth century, a source of significant anxiety among the planters. Varma posits that this unpopularity was based in the distinctive characterisation of the Assamese cha-bagaan (popular Hindi term for tea plantation) in comparison to other destinations. He finds that Assam gained negative connotations as a lost world due to the dukh (state of unhappiness) and taklif (problems) on the plantations. Assam was seen as “a point of no return”: repatriation was not granted to those who went there, there was no provision for return passage and no postal communication with labourers’ families back at home. All these features were available for overseas indentured migrants. Such obstacles created myths and rumours in the countryside regarding Assam; the rumour of mimiai ka tel (extracting oil from the heads of recruits) was prevalent. Varma also cites songs depicting dukh-taklif and deception and luring being employed in recruitment.

Varma claims that villagers within the recruitment catchment areas were afraid of “loss of caste” on the journey and on the plantations as migrant workers boarded and dined together. He argues that stories of lack of caste consciousness on cha-bagaan were common. Many adivasi (tribal) migrants, according to him, also performed rites to regain their lost status (p. 112). Varma, however, refrains from commenting whether the colonial sources cited suggest that the status being reclaimed by these tribes was purely caste related or something else. Their belief system may thus have encompassed more than caste-based definitions of status when considering the impact of the journey and the experience of living among a mixed population. Such details though would very likely have been overlooked by the colonial observers upon whom the author relies.

Chapter four, titled ‘Drink and Work’, explores the connections between rum and labour. Varma argues that rum distribution was part of a novel strategy to organise work and life on tea gardens. Coolies called it bakshish (reward). Planters provided rum on occasions of extra labour, in place of praise for a job well done, and on religio-cultural holidays such as Kanan puja and Holi. Rum gained a cultural value on the gardens, and was drunk to celebrate important events, such as marriages and childbirth.

In the next chapter, Varma turns his attention to the dastoor of the plantations. He defines this as an unwritten contract between workers and managers that became a site of bargaining. Whenever dastoor was negotiated tensions grew on the gardens, often resulting in violence. In turn, violence became the dastoor of the gardens when plantation authorities tried to enforce extra discipline. The geographical pattern of the coolie lines helped workers to experience solidarity, festivity and social drinking. It also enabled workers to collectively protest in the face of grievances such as wage cuts, non-payment, assault and threats to honour (izzat). Varma argues that there were at least three kinds of protest: violence against authority, non-violent protest and collective strikes.

Chapter six considers the impact of the Gandhian movement on the coolies of Assam. Gandhi’s political activities against the colonial government and widespread rumours of his supernatural powers soon made him a mahatma (saint) and a cult leader among villagers, workers and peasants. “Gandhi talk” spread among the Assam coolies through the newer recruits from areas such as Basti and Gorakhpur. During the non-cooperation movement, the name of Gandhi was used by the coolies of Assam to legitimise their grievances. For instance, when workers organised mass strikes in protest against managers’ behaviour, they defined it as Gandhi Ka Hookum (order of Gandhi). As Shahid Amin in his path-breaking article ‘Gandhi as Mahatma’ has explained, beliefs about the extra-ordinary powers of Gandhi proliferated, and it seems that they extended into the plantations of Assam.[1] As wage hikes were implemented in some gardens, coolies in other gardens claimed that Gandhi Maharaj (Lord Gandhi) was behind it. Annoyed by these claims, Gandhi himself made a public statement contending that if his name was used to cause men to dessert their employers, it should be recognised as labour trouble alone.

Coolies of Capitalism presents no shortage of compelling material and hence, offers a useful narrative of tea (plantation) capitalism in colonial Assam. However it has its weaknesses. One of these is that the actual terms and conditions of the Assam indenture contract are not provided, despite extended discussion about the agreement. In cases of overseas indentured migration, these terms and conditions were written in many local Indian languages. For example, in north India the terms were written in Bangla, Urdu and Hindi.[2] Furthermore, Varma rightfully considers the problems of misrepresentation by recruiters but fails to turn the same analytical gaze on the crucial role of intermediaries and returned migrants in the recruitment process. As elsewhere in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, many recruits used subaltern networks to reach the plantations, and much of the recruitment was done by the gao-bhai (village brothers) of the migrants themselves, who competed for the opportunity to return home as recruiters after they had completed their contracts.

Regarding his methodology, it could be said that Varma relies too heavily on colonial sources, partly as a result of the way he has crafted his narrative within a Tinkerian (a new system of slavery) framework. He thus presents the migrants as a largely homogenous class of victims, when in fact they came from highly varied backgrounds, some tribal and some non-tribal, and included within their ranks many who went on to become foremen (sardars), clerks, and recruiters. At the outset it was claimed that this study aims to see coolie labourers as the subjects of their own history, rather than objects (p. 8). The lack of alternative sources and any sense of diversity among the migrants renders this claim unfulfilled. Finally, it is surprising that Varma avoids addressing the disjuncture between his argument that the Assam system of labour stood out as being exceptionally unpopular and the fact that those Indian nationalists (Arya Samajists and others) campaigning against the overseas indenture system paid little attention to it. It may be the case that notwithstanding the engaging arguments and scope of this book, its dominant framework has inhibited a recognition of the messier, greyer areas in the story of the indenture system in Assam.

[1] Shahid Amin, Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern U.P. 1921-2, Subaltern Studies 3, Delhi 1984.
[2] Ashutosh Kumar, Coolies of the Empire: Indentured Indians in the Sugar Colonies, 1830-1920, Delhi 2017.

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