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Voicing the Silenced: The Marginalised ‘Other’ of the Brahmaputra Valley

Ms Alakananda Ghatak, Postgraduate Student, Department of English, Cotton University, Guwahati, Assam, India

Abstract: Assam’s socio-economic retardation and the Assamese peasantry’s aversion to the British Workforce led to a migration of labourers from the vicinal states to toil in the commercial tea gardens of Assam. The independence only brought a shift in hegemony as the socio-economic exploitation of the aborigines of the Brahmaputra Valley subsisted. Assam’s tea-tribe unlike their counterparts across the nation is deprived of the status of ‘Scheduled Tribes’ under the federal law on the basis that they are not the original inhabitants of the land. On 24th November, 2007, Laxmi Orang, an ‘adivasi’ woman of Assam’s tea-community was chased through the streets of Guwahati and stripped naked in broad daylight by some male members of the crowds thronging the state’s state capital, Dispur, for rallying in her tribe’s protest against their social condition and the denial of ‘tribal’ privileges. While contemporary Assam features a multi ethnic and multi caste population, the adivasis, owing to their ‘non-status’ are still subjected to extractive and economic exploitations. The marginalisation of ‘indigenous subalterns’ (Byrd and Rothberg,2011) persists on two levels: the community in general and women in particular.Despite the ‘Plantation Labour Act, 1951’, there is a lack of proper housing, education and sanitation among the state’s tea-workers. While the idea of labour in tea-plantations is feminized as the nimble and tender fingers of women are considered suitable for the delicate task of plucking leaves (Samar Singh, 1993), the reality is much darker. Even though the women constitute half the workforce in the tea estates, they are paid lesser wage than their male counterparts. According to the latest study conducted by Nazdeek (a legal empowerment Organization), lack of proper nutrition and sanitation affects the health of the women workers in the tea-estates. Anemia and maternal mortality is disproportionally high among women in Assam’s tea estates while the tea-tribe constitutes 69 percent of the state’s total mortality rate. The silenced voices of Assam’s ‘indigenous subalterns’ however find a representation through the cultural medium of literature. Arupa Patangia Kalita’s protagonist ‘Durgi Bhoomji’ (Josnar Jhitas) symbolizes the voice of the women of the state’s tea-gardens and their struggle with identity and recognition. Through the medium of poetry, tea-garden poets like Sananta Tanty, Sameer Tanti and Kamal Kumar Tanti uphold the rebellious angst of the silenced voices of the tea-community of Assam in general and women of the tribe in particular. I argue that while the ‘adivasis’ cannot be placed within the ‘Hindu-caste hierarchy’, there, however, exists a parallel in the casteist exploitation of ‘dalits’ by a caste-inflicted Hindu society of the mainland peninsula and the ‘anti-casteist caste’ exploitation of the tea-aborigines of the Brahmaputra Valley by the mainstream Assamese community as there exists an unresolved conflict between the original inhabitants of the area, primarily indigenous tribes and the more recent ‘sons-of-the-soil’ settlers (Myron Weiner, 1978). I argue that this gendered life of tea-garden women renders them marginal and is not separate from the operative postcolonial state of the “other” even as the suppressed community struggles to find a voice and escape the stranglehold of yet another ‘caste’ and exclusion.

Keywords: Aborigines, anti-casteism, dalit, marginalisation, post-colonialism, subaltern, ‘other’.

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