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Autonomy calls boost rights awareness

Tribal workers in northeastern tea gardens gain courage to speak out

Autonomy calls boost rights awareness
A group of tea plantation tribal girls celebrating a liturgy
Julian Das, Bagdogra

February 28, 2011

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Calls for autonomy in northeastern India’s tea plantations have encouraged Christian tribal people to organize and assert themselves more, a senior Church official says. Demands for a separate state in the Darjeeling Hills have prompted tribal people in the plains to become more politically aware and given them the confidence to demand their rights, Bishop Thomas D’Souza of Bagdogra said. Although the Church is sympathetic to their demands, it does not support a call for a new state, the prelate said. Bagdogra diocese in West Bengal state has around 53,000 Catholics, mostly tribal people employed in tea gardens. Back in the 1980s, certain elements in the Darjeeling Hills used violence to press for self-rule, Bishop D’Souza said. This gradually not only united them but has given them a sense of identity, the prelate explained. Most plains people are migrants from neighboring Jharkhand state who came to work in tea plantations in the early 20th century. These people now believe asserting their identity will boost their development. However, Bishop D’Souza lamented that some movements, such as unions have tried to divide tribal Christians along political lines. “The Church has tried to bridge that gap between these factions,” he said. Father Edward Kerketta, a pastor in Bagdogra, said around 90 per cent of his parishioners work in seven tea gardens, and 60 per cent of them are members of the Adivasi Vikas Parishad (tribal development council). Our people know their “rights as workers in the tea garden” and demand them, the priest said. Vijay Kumar Tirkey, a lay leader, says his people do not have a political agenda, but have formed a secular movement to demand fair pay and to preserve tribal culture. IE13450.1643
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