By Sunil Sarma
The beginning of trade union movement in Assam was perhaps dated back to 1939 when the workers of the Assam Oil Company, Digboi put forward a charter of demands to the magement of the company. While the collective bargaining was in progress, 31 employees had been dismissed from the services and to protest against that dismissal, the union decided to strike work with effect from 1st of April,1939. The support and the gaining momentum of the workforce had become a headache for the magement, resulted in worryingly ordered firing on a gathering on 8th April 1939. In that firing three workers lost their lives. Despite that domiting incident, the union continued their movement and its effect began to spread to the neighbouring plantations. Around that period the 2nd world war broke out, with the pretext of the war the then British government declared Digboi and Tinsukia as protected zones and expelled some leading workers from Digboi. Subsequently the movement got fizzled out.
When the Digboi incident gained publicity in other areas through limited printing media available then,the workers in plantations began to realise how insecured they were and intended to get united. During those days in tea plantations “British Planter’s Raj” was prevalent. There was no service rules/ job security, the British magers were all in one in their estates, at their discretion could dismiss an employee on petty ground. The employees were paid monthly salary between Rs.25 to 60 with annual increment of Rs.3 to 5 depending on their grades till the Indian Tea Association vide their circular no.20 dated 24th February 1947 recommended salary scales for the first time retrospective from January 1947.
In the general elections of 1945-46, the congress party came to power in Assam. Meanwhile, when the Labour Party formed government in the UK, some people in India began to think that the independence from the British rule was forthcoming. The possibility brightened up further when the government in UK sent a “cabinet mission” to India to discuss matters pertaining to independence. At that time Assam Congress party established a labour wing under the leadership of late Bijoy Chandra Bhagabati ( who later became a central minister in Pandit Nehru’s cabinet). Late Robin Kakati (MP) was elected its secretary. Despite initial fund constraints, Assam Pradesh congress had organised the activities of the newly formed labour wing quite effectively.
Most workers in plantations were looking forward to a protective umbrella and when the opportunity was in sight, they readily availed it. Jorhat district ACKS and ACMS were formed in June 1946 at Mariani, Jorhat. That time around late Mohendra th Sarmah made his appearance in union activities and in due course became one of the tallest leaders of intertiol repute.
Mohendra th Sarmah’s father owned a tea estate of about 750 acres during 1920s near Sapekhati in the Sibsagar district med Ghaneshyam Tea Estate. At that time only a handful of Indians had tea estates of their own, most gardens were under large British companies. Then banking facilities,unlike present day coverage, were almost absent in remote areas. Due to British domince and their vindictive attitude, necessary fince for maging business had increasingly become difficult and that being one of the reasons, the estate could not be retained for long. Mohendra th Sarmah wanted to become an expert in Tea, to achieve that he went to South Africa in 1936,worked there for sometime but uble to tolerate the racial apartheid, returned to India under compelling circumstances. On return,he worked in Tocklai Tea Experimental station and thereafter in the Jorehat Tea Company Ltd. He felt that the oppression on the working class was somewhat similar to that prevailed in South Africa and wanted to do something to improve the quality of life of the oppressed section of the society. Therefore, when he was approached by the eminent leaders like late Bijoy Chandra Bhagabati, late Robin Kakoti and some others, he relinquished the comfortable and well paid company’s job for taking up the responsibilities in the ACKS, late Bijoy Chandra Bhagaboti was elected its President. That time around he was also elected General Secretary of the INTUC and ACMS. Little later he got actively associated with the ICFTU( Intertiol Confederation of Free Trade Union) head quartered in Brussels, became a member of the Tea Board of India and the Wage Board. He held those posts till his death at the young age of 51 years.
In his remarkable speech in the 6th World Congress of the ICFTU on 9th December,1959 in Brussels, he said “how fluctuations in the prices of tea were adversely affecting the already poor wages and living conditions of workers on the plantations. Foreign investors creating competitions between the tea industries of different countries by threatening to withdraw their investments from countries where they contend labour cost are too high and to reinvest them where labour is cheap. This kept wages low and reacted on the economics of industrially advanced countries by limiting the purchasing power of the primary producing countries”. His views were commended and its relevance established when the Britishers began to repatriate from the country from late 60s.
He was also elected to the Executive Committee of the PWIF( Plantation Workers Interantiol Federation), Geneva. In that capacity he visited African countries. In PWIF’s observations it was quoted that “In 1957 M.N.Sarmah,member of our executive committee toured Africa, studying conditions in Kenya, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. On 14th September1957 he submitted a report, which served as a basis for subsequent investigation in the African continent, and which gave a clear idea of the campaign which needed to be undertaken in this vast territory”.
He also led Indian delegations to erstwhile USSR, couple of times to the ILO Geneva, west European and south east Asian countries. Pandit Nehru had persolly asked him to contest parliamentary elections on congress ticket from Dibrugarh constituency thrice to join his cabinet but he declined those offers. The then Chief Minister of Assam late Bimala Prasad Chaliha while adopting the condolence resolution on his death on 22nd August,1963 stated in the Assam Assembly, Shillong “he as a trade union leader stuck to his post and refused political overtures in 1952, 1957 and 1962 when he was offered seat for the parliament. In his death Assam loses one of the greatest sons and the working class one of their greatest friends”. His contributions to the working class are still considered to be unparallel but the disconsolating fact is that the present day leaders seem to have forgotten his selfless services,despite several commitments to do something in the memory of this noble son ,nothing as yet is visible.
(Published on the occasion of late Mohendra th Sarmah’s 52nd death anniversary to-day)
(Sources PWIF,ICFTU bulletins and “Bat Bandhi Jau”)