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Bangladesh tea workers mark centenary of massacre

Tea Workers Day commemorates the slaughter of hundreds of protesting workers in the British colonial era

Bangladesh tea workers mark centenary of massacre

Workers on Bangladesh’s 161 tea estates observed Tea Workers Day on May 20 to commemorate the brutal killing of hundreds of tea workers in 1921. (Photo supplied)

Thousands of tea workers in Bangladesh have paid tribute to their ancestors who became victims of a massacre for waging a rebellion in defiance of exploitation and discrimination a century ago.

Workers on Bangladesh’s 161 tea estates observed Tea Workers Day on May 20 to commemorate the brutal killing of hundreds of tea workers during the British colonial era on the Indian subcontinent in 1921.

The day was marked with special prayers, candles, rallies and discussions.

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The event commemorated the Mulluke Chalo (Let’s Go Home) movement of tea workers. On May 20, 1921, about 30,000 tea workers in the present-day Sylhet region of Bangladesh left their workplaces and headed to the Meghna River port to board steamers to return to their homes in Indian states including Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.

As they reached the riverbank, police fired at them, killing hundreds and injuring many more. The bodies of the dead were dumped in the river and the rest fled to their workplaces.

Radhanath Tanti, 33 a Hindu and casual worker from Barma Chherra tea estate village in Srimangal of Moulviabzar district, joined a program to mark the day.

Tea workers’ lives are as miserable as they were in those days

He said that though he knows little about the sacrifice of his ancestors 100 years ago, he has great respect for them.

“Tea workers’ lives are as miserable as they were in those days,” the member of the ethnic Tanti community told UCA News.

Tanti is the head of an 11-member family and despite working for years he has not become a permanent worker.

“I am only the eighth grade and now I am working in the garden casually. We are living a miserable life. We can only hope that one day we will get our rights and have freedom,” he said.

Surendra Hasdak, 60, an ethnic Santal Catholic and worker from Luayni Tea Estate in Moulvibazar district, said his grandfather was among those who joined the protests and fled when police shot workers in 1921.

He lamented that the massacre was never recognized by Bangladesh’s government and no significant efforts were made to improve the lives of tea workers.

“We are still being deprived in many ways in the form of extremely low wages, poor living conditions, health care support and education. We continue to live an inhuman life,” Hasdak told UCA News.

Bangladesh is the world’s ninth-largest tea producer and the industry employs about 100,000 permanent workers and about 30,000 casual workers. The tea community including families is estimated to be about 700,000.

The workers get a daily wage of only 120 taka (US$1.65), the lowest in the world, and miserly fringe benefits such as minimal weekly food rations and free housing in mostly dilapidated quarters.

Despite living on the estates for generations, tea workers have no land rights and are not allowed to live in quarters if families don’t have a permanent worker. The workers are also denied basic rights such as education and health care.

It is a matter of great sadness that the great sacrifice didn’t have any impact as the lives of tea workers have not improved

Tea workers are mostly lower-caste Hindus and ethnic indigenous people brought in from Indian states by British tea planters when commercial tea plantations started in the 1850s.

Sylhet Catholic Diocese covers Bangladesh’s tea plantation hub — Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Habiganj districts. About half of the 20,000 Catholics in Sylhet are from tea worker communities.

Holy Cross Father Nicholas Baroi, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Sylhet Diocese, termed the conditions of tea workers as “modern-day slavery.”

“Hundreds of people lost their lives to return to their homeland 100 years ago because they wanted to escape slave-like conditions, but they failed. It is a matter of great sadness that the great sacrifice didn’t have any impact as the lives of tea workers have not improved. As human beings, we cannot avoid this liability,” Father Baroi told UCA News.

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