The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A Jalpaiguri leader in the early 20th century, Upenendranath Burman, wrote of the entire region between the Barind uplands and the Himalaya foothills — what is known as the Dooars and Terai — as a cornucopia of milk and honey. Great herds of cattle roamed the low-lying tracts from the Mahananda to the Raidak and the Torsa; in thick forests; pastoralists had an excess of food from herds and apiaries. The people were dominantly Rajbangshi aborigines ruled by petty landlords such as the Raikats, subordinate to the Narayan Bhup Bahadur, princes of Cooch Behar. Scattered among them were settlements of primitive tribes: Rabhas, Totos and Meches. Resident for half a century were also families of tribal labour uprooted from Chota Nagpur and the Nepal lower Terai, Santals, Hos and Mundas, and Modeshias.

The pristine symbiosis of people with their habitat had not been disrupted as a result of the scattered tea plantations by means of which the British established semi-feudal indirect rule over the sub-Himalayan tracts. That came in the last century, as plantations buckled under the growth of world tea production, lessening the overall feudal control of the planters certainly, but making them alienated, in wealth and lifestyle, from local simple folk, who became a proletariat of an economy dominated from Calcutta.

The managing agency system lacked the dynamism which could give stable growth to the region. As British colonialism crumbled in the war years and broke down, the plantations became distant from the interest of the new indigenous elites in Calcutta. Marwaris and Punjabis began management of the unviable tea estates, over-producing in the season and starving them of resources at other times, stripping them of assets for transfer to other enterprises in different parts of India. Their collaborators were migrants from the southeastern districts now known as Bangladesh. Local Rajbangshis called them Bhatia (people deserting the Khari-Bhanti delta of the Padma and the Meghna). Hindu and Muslim alike, the Bhatias worked in the interstices of cash-cropping commercialization and asset-stripping, becoming richer at the cost of the indigenous labour force.

Swaraj for northern West Bengal meant that the sola topees of the raj were blown off, but the sports shirts and short pants of a baton-wielding planter managerial class remained, aloof from the masses in their luxurious clubs at Binnaguri, Hasimara or Bengdubi. This was aggravated after the India-China war of 1962 by massive troop and air concentrations scattered around tea estates south of the northern border region.

Some development did take place. A tenuous rail track linked the rest of India with Assam. Highways snaked up into Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan. A commercialized consumer class spread over the countryside with Siliguri as its hub. A university was set up west of Siliguri, catering to the interest of plains classes. Some devoted teachers did try to understand the particular problems of the local economy, integrating the hills with the sub-Himalayan tract, but they have been gradually marginalized by a political system run from Calcutta. This is resented by Nepalis, Bhutias and Lepchas in the hills, and the Rajbangshi and Modeshia-Ho-Santal lower classes and proletariat. More specificity is required in the curriculum for problem-solving and professional training to manage the north Bengal social economy and decentralized local government, which can stop their feeling of being marginalized or subordinated. Only a new approach of locally-relevant entrepreneurial education would create a public opinion to combat the Kamtapuri resentment against the national culture. An increasingly inert mass has to be empowered economically and educationally to compete with a pushy elite. This is not the job of law and order authorities. They have enough on their hands.

The crises of the tea economy accelerated in the Sixties. The managing agency system collapsed, angry Modeshia and Santhal labour vented their grievances and ire through Naxalism, hitting back at planters. State repression and the use of force to maintain authority overlaid the semi-feudal order: culture was further fragmented. The Naxalite movement had no transformative revolutionary significance. Nor did the repression of the Congress, representing the Indian tea interest, or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), representing the provincial Bengali commercial interest. The march of globalization leaves peripheral segments immiserized. Marwari capitalism, to which the political system of democracy has in effect sold out in eastern India, is the agency for this, in the name of socialism, democracy or whatever. A periphery is not just a space, a tabula rasa, it has people with their hopes and their fears, their desires and their agonies, who suffer as their social space gets marginalized.

This is the milieu in which a film like Sagina Mahato ends in frustration and tragedy. Novels like Debesh Roy’s Manus Khoon Karay Keno and Mofussili Brittanta or Samaresh Majumdar’s Uttaradhikaar have evoked it. Talk to any sensitive person in north Bengal, they say that the tea plantations are falling apart; large capital is leaving; small traders and merchants are buying themselves plots in fragments; carrying on unviable competition strapped for cash flow; resorting to “rationalization” of labour, job cuts and introduction of blacklegs to keep the labour subservient, while the society around the tea economy loses its immunity from the viruses that attack a sick carcass of a dying system.

As dusk falls on the 20th century system of tea cropping in Bengal, ghoulishness grows within the shadows of marginalized settlement hamlets. Locals fear outsiders, sardars terrorize communities, trade unions hoodwink constituents and ethnic groups turn against each other. Whether it be revenge on a gangman, patronized by even more shadowy politicians, such as Tarakeshwar Lohar, or it be extremist Kamtapur liberationist incitement of impoverished labourers, fearful of their future, systematic heartlessness prevails. It is not enough to carve Darjeeling district into Gorkhaland and Siliguri, to see gang murders in Kalimpong as isolated breakdown of law and order, to increase tourism in Lava or the nature reserves, and to swig burra pegs in idyllic clubs. The north, Rajiv Gandhi once said in the Eighties to a minute audience in Darjeeling, needs not just a package deal, but an integrated sub-Himalayan planning system across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal Terai and the trans-Brahmaputra tracts.

It is not enough to blame political affiliations or gang supporters of this or that union. A national consensus for a specific and viable plan has to be evolved, clearly stating a platform of action. History can explain why tragedies, as much as happy endings, occur in the drama of life. It does not train one to work out remedial measures by which tragedies can be averted after they have been explained. Social scientists and management experts are supposed to be trained to use history and psychology to formulate what particular measures need to be taken to reform the specific circumstances that led to tragedy. It is for them now to advise on the governance of this region, so that Modeshia or Santal, Bhatia or Rajbangshi, Marwari or Punjabi, the people who labour and create enterprise can work in greater harmony to reclaim milk and honey for north Bengal.

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