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Anger, anxiety at tea estate Son identifies Reeta’s body

Konapathar tea estate, Dec. 27: The smell of charred flesh hung heavy in the air and smoke from dying embers continued to billow out from one of the two bungalows set ablaze by workers of this garden yesterday afternoon.

The two charred bodies found in the director’s bungalow were removed late last night, but a limb was recovered this morning.

Those at the garden know that the charred bodies were those of owner Mridul Kumar Bhattacharjee, 76, director of Shreejaya Tea Industries (P) Ltd and MKB (Asia) P Ltd, and his wife Reeta, 72.

One of their sons, Autri, who arrived from Calcutta, could identify only his mother. DNA profiling will have to be done to establish whether the other body is that of his father. Their second son, Rishi, stays in Canada while his daughter, Sreejaya Grass, is settled in Florida in the US.

Garden workers milled around in groups discussing what fate had in store for them. Would the garden be shut down like Rani tea estate, the company’s other garden near Guwahati, which has remained closed since owner Bhattacharjee shot dead a minor on March 22, 2010?

Anger remained the overriding emotion a day after the grisly death of the couple who chose to remain inside the burning bungalow rather than face the mob of workers waiting outside with menacing bows, arrows and machetes. There was anxiety, too, about what would happen to the workers if the garden was closed. An emotion ominously missing was remorse. Admitting to having attacked the bungalow, the workers said the police should not arrest only a few of them, as they were all collectively responsible for the act, a manifestation of their pent-up anger.

Complaints against the owner flowed thick and fast. “Enough is enough. The workers’ patience has been tested for too long. Sooner or later, this kind of outburst was bound to happen,” said Monashar Mura, 53, a former worker of the garden, whose services have been terminated. He said his wife and two sons, Ajit and Suraj, had been dismissed by the owner last year for “no reason”.

The trigger for the incident was the arrest of Ajit Mura and Suraj Mura from their house on the basis of an arrest warrant reportedly issued by the court on a complaint of theft lodged by Bhattacharjee.

Sanju Mura, Mansit Bagh, Pansuram Sansi, Jyotsna Hasna, Birsa Mura, Jehon Hasa, Raju Kachua Jogesh Gowala, Sanju Mura speak of being tortured and cheated on wages. The workers earn Rs 84 per day for an eight-hour shift every day for six days a week. They pluck, prune, spray insecticides, work at the factory and clean the garden.

The workers alleged the owner used to beat them up in his office and threatened to kill them if they tread on the path in front of the two bungalows.

The Rani tea estate fiasco had also started after Bhattacharjee allegedly struck a woman for trespassing.

Some workers sacked from the garden have bought land outside the estate in adjoining villages. The family members of some workers go out to work as unskilled labourers.

Very few children go to the LP school about 4km from the garden and the worker community of the garden has produced no matriculate.

In Guwahati, Bhattacharjee’s accounts manager, P. Barman, denied the labourers’ allegations of torture and harassment. “Sir’s conflict was not with all labourers but with a few who had threatened others and stopped them from working in our garden. In 2006, we had problems with the two persons arrested yesterday and we had lodged an FIR then at Bordumsa police station. On December 8, Sir lodged another FIR against four persons, including the two, and the police arrested the duo yesterday. This angered the other two, who instigated labourers to attack the bungalow.”

“I have been working under Sir for the last 20 years and I know it well that he does not misbehave with the labourers. His voice is loud and he is always strict and disciplined in work,” he said.

As the couple’s death was confirmed (by assistant manager T. Ahmed from Bordumsa), employees, relatives and former staff visited their house at Geetanagar in Guwahati since morning. They lit incense sticks in front of the couple’s photographs while relatives waited for his sons and daughter to arrive for the last rites.

“Sir and Madam left for Tinsukia bungalow on December 21. I was in constant touch with then over phone for work. Yesterday, around 12.45pm, Ahmed informed me about the tension as soon as Sir returned to the bungalow for lunch. As the labourers had already gheraoed the bungalow and were about to attack, Ahmed, a bachelor, rushed to the local police station and called up Tinsukia superintendent of police seeking security. Sir and Madam were stuck inside but no police came to their rescue,” Barman told The Telegraph. Barman has been working under Bhattacharjee for the past 19 years.

The staff at Bhattacharjee’s Guwahati office said the garden’s manager, R.H. Goodwin, whose bungalow is at quite a distance from the director’s bungalow, was at work at the time of the incident. He is in Tinsukia town with his family and under police protection, they added.

The assistant manager could not be traced initially but late tonight Tinsukia deputy commissioner S.S. Meenakshi Sundaram said he was in Tinsukia town and also under police protection.

Sundaram also said the police had today found evidence that petrol had been used to set fire to the bungalow.

Tinsukia additional deputy commissioner Jogesh Baruah said as the son could not identify the male body, samples from both him and the deceased had been taken for DNA testing.

Assam inspector-general of police (law and order) S.N. Singh and deputy inspector-general (eastern range) P.C. Saikia went to the garden this afternoon.


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