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Laxmi Orang - heroine of the tea tribes

One Assam woman's rise from public humiliation to rights icon

Laxmi Orang - heroine of the tea tribes

Laxmi Orang

Nirmalya Banerjee, Guwahati

December 3, 2013

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It was Laxmi Orang’s first time in Guwahati, the northeast Indian city that hugs the Brahmaputra River, which boasts some of the fastest development rates in the country. There to rally for the right of Assam state’s “tea tribes” to be included in a federal list of scheduled tribes, the then 24-year-old began handing out leaflets.

Three people quickly surrounded her and, still in broad daylight, stripped her naked. She was chased through the streets before someone threw a T-shirt at her to cover herself. The demands that she and her fellow protesters made had evidently been met with anger; of course, the downtrodden adivasis of the state were no strangers to attacks, but merely another victim of the prejudices that accompany India’s gaping rich-poor divide.

That was 2007. Six years on, Laxmi has become a figurehead in the movement for equal rights for the tea tribes, who have been left behind as the state’s privileged speed forward. Unlike the stigma that often afflicts female victims of attacks in India, her close-knit adivasi community stood by her after the ordeal.

“Before the incident in November 2007, the tribals had a cause,” says Russel Kujur, president of the All Assam Adivasi Student Union (AAASU). “But after it the cause has crystallized. We are trying to take it in that spirit.” Laxmi’s role in this awakening has been crucial. “She is the adivasi [aboriginal] icon and the rallying point of the movement of the entire adivasi struggle in the state.”

Her determination to fight back in the face of adversity is now also the subject matter of a documentary film, “Laxmi Orang: Rising from the Grave.” Her chief concern however is that despite the incident six years ago, her community continues to suffer from persecution.

"The adivasis were not enlisted as scheduled tribes, nor have the perpetrators of the crime against me been brought to book,” she says, adding that three youths arrested for the attack have been released. Moreover, the cries of outrage that greet the countless incidents of rape and torture in cities like Delhi and Mumbai aren’t echoed in Assam. She feels largely forgotten. “It is maybe because I am an adivasi," she laments.

The 30-minute film documents the struggle of Laxmi and the problems faced by adivasi workers in Assam’s famous tea estates. Low wages and government apathy are all part and parcel of a tea-picker’s life. Literacy rates of the Assam community are only 30 percent, while their 90 rupee-a-day (US$1.5) salary pales in comparison to the already woeful 140 rupee minimum set by the government. Statutory benefits like medical help are also denied.

The film’s director, Parthajit Baruah, faced little opposition during the project, due to the sympathy towards Laxmi expressed by the literate sections of Assamese society.

The release of the film, which Parthajit says reflects "the courage of the woman who, instead of bowing to social stigma, fights back,” has also been well received in the English-language newspapers in Guwahati. It’s a silver lining among the clouds that continue to hover over Assam’s tea tribes, but there’s still a long way to go.

“The Assam government continues to neglect us,” says Laxmi. “Our demand for title rights to the plots of land where we have lived in tea gardens for generations has still not been met.”

The federal government could enlist adivasis as scheduled tribes only on the recommendation of Assam government. But some groups continue to oppose the idea on the grounds that the move will reduce their share of their share of reserved seats in education and government.

The documentary was screened for the first time in Guwahati on November 24, marking six years since Laxmi’s ordeal. She has moved on, but the wider fight to bring rights to her tribe has been slow and painful. The 30-year-old however won’t let up. She spends her days addressing public gatherings across different states – Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and beyond, an indefatigable spirit and an icon to her people.

"I narrate the plight that I had to undergo as well as how the tea tribes in Assam are being neglected,” she says. “I will continue to fight for their cause.” 

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