| A charred body being taken away from the house. Picture by Biplab Basak
Jalpaiguri, Nov. 6: A mob of several hundred tea garden workers attacked the house of a union leader in north Bengal this morning and burnt to death 19 people in a chilling turn to a dispute over jobs.
Tarakeshwar Lohar, a leader of the union affiliated to the ruling CPM’s labour arm, Citu, and the target of the attack, was unharmed and was later taken into police custody. His family of wife, daughter and son-in-law were reported missing and it was not clear if they were among the dead.
“Charred bodies of 19 persons, including two women, were found from Tarakeswar Lohar’s house. Preliminary inquiry reveals that the incident took place over a dispute regarding filling up of three clerical posts,” Chayan Mukherjee, the inspector-general in charge of law and order, said in Calcutta.
A group of 50 people descended on Lohar’s single-storey house in Dalgaon tea estate, 70 km from the district headquarters, Jalpaiguri, just before 8 am, ransacking the approach and chopping down trees on the way. They were fired on from inside the house and one of them, a garden labourer, suffered an injury, which incensed the mob.
Swelling all the time, the mob had grown to several hundred. Witnesses later said 800 to 1,000 people had gathered. Provoked by the firing, they stormed the house and attacked the inhabitants, described as Lohar’s security guards, with sharp weapons, finally torching the house. The gas cylinder and a couple of motorbikes inside the house blew up.
“We came to know that the labourers, about a thousand in number, have torched the house of Lohar. We immediately informed the police who rushed to the spot and brought the situation under control,” said S. Ojha, the senior assistant manager of the garden of RNT Plantations Ltd.
Earlier in the morning, while managers were getting ready to go to work and the siren had sounded, they received information that labourers were gathering in a football field for a meeting.
“I was in office when I came to know of the meeting. We took it casually as meetings are held regularly,” R.S. Lodha, the senior manager of the garden, said.
Police said after the meeting, the mob headed towards Lohar’s house. Garden sources said Lohar was a formidable force who used to have full control over labourers. “He was a known leader. We are still puzzled how this incident happened,” Ojha said.
The sources traced the root of the trouble to an incident before Diwali when Lohar, a leader of the Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union, used his influence to have three outsiders employed as clerks — or garden babus, as they are known in the tea industry.
Enraged that candidates from inside the garden had been denied, the labourers accused Lohar of taking bribes.
“While the management of the tea estate and local people wanted that locals get the jobs, Lohar wanted people from outside to be employed,” Chayan Mukherjee said.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee described the incident as “terrible” and, in reply to a question, said it did not appear to be political.
Reports were, however, coming in that the massacre was a result of feuding within Citu, which will put the chief minister and his party in an awkward position. Even the CPM’s allies in the Left Front are pointing fingers at Citu.
Agriculture minister Kamal Guha, of the Forward Bloc, said: “The incident possibly took place because of the Citu’s internal strife. Today’s incident indicates the delicate situation prevailing in the tea estates of north Bengal. The chief minister must immediately discuss the matter with those associated with tea gardens.”
Over 100 people, including 25 women, have been arrested.
Although garden managers said they did not know what caused the incident, it was clear that Lohar had been expecting trouble. “He had hired some local goons who used to guard him,” said Bhupinder Singh, the IG of police (north).
This would explain why there were so many people in the house this morning. After Diwali, as the resentment among the workers over the hiring of outsiders flared, Lohar was removed from his leadership position and replaced by Robin Rai, who, incidentally, was missing today.
Tempers flared at the meeting in the football field this morning — it is not clear who had called it — over the same subject as the younger labourers, some said to be drunk, got so worked up as to launch the vicious attack.
“Some labourers used to work as his (Lohar’s) sycophants and bully others. This had infuriated the labourers,” Singh said.