The tea tribe community of Assam forms a distinct population in the state. Historically, they migrated to the mainland of Assam prior to Indian independence. Their migration can be traced back to British Raj, when the colonialists started to exploit the economic potential of the region through tea plantations in the early 1820s.
Similarly, connections must be drawn to the colonial interest in practical agriculture, as a means for developing the colonies through the study of botany, and the constant search for new plants which were consigned back to Britain’s botanical institutions for study and propagation.
If we look into the history of the community, the erstwhile Adivasis were brought for the first time to Assam as plantation labourers by the British in 1821. Assam was known for its tea industries, but plantation work needed significant human power. For this, the tea tribes were brought in as indentured labour from various provinces of India. During their tenure at the plantation work, the communities began to be identified as tea tribes.
Today, the tribes are mainly found in the districts of Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Jorhat, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Cachar, Hailakandi, Karimganj, Tinsukia and other districts of Assam.
There are communities of tea tribes known as the “ex-tea garden tribes,” to refer to the members of the tea tribes who have settled down close to the tea estates in the state after the end of their contract and occasionally provide their services as casual labourers. The ex-tea garden tribes are mainly present in Khokrajhar in western Assam; Marigaon, Nagaon, Sonitpur, and Darrang in middle Assam; Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh, and Tinsukia in upper Assam; North Cachar and Karbi Anglong in southern Assam; as well as the Barak Valley.
The population of the community is primarily rural in nature and estimated to be around 7 million or nearly 2 percent of Assam's total population. They live in almost every district of Assam but their density varies according to the number of tea plantations in different regions of Assam. They are more numerous in upper Assam and central Assam than lower Assam.
They are neither a single ethnic tribe nor a single caste but are the people of various ethno-linguistic origins, from different regions of eastern India composed of dozens of tribes and castes. The list of tribes and castes among them are Asur, Aryamala, Baiga, Bania, Banjara, Bedia, Bhumij, Bhuinya, Bhil, Binjhia, Birhor, Basphor, Birijia, Chamar, Chero, Chik Baraik, Deswali Goala Bagal, Dhanwar, Dandari, Dhobi, Dushad, Dandasi, Dhandari, Dom, Gour, Ghansi, Ganda, Gorait, Ghatowar, Gonds, Gossain, Ganjhu, Gowala, Hari, Holra, Julaha, Karmakar, Koiri, Kharia, Kalahandi, Lodhi, Lodha, Mahli, Malar, Mal Paharia, Mirdha, Modi, Munda, Manki, Madgi, Majwar, Patnaik, Nunia, Oraon, Parja, Pradhan, Rajwar, Rajwal, Reily, Reddy, Rajbonshi, Rout, Rautia, Santhal, Sonar, Savar, Saora, Tanti, Tantubai, Turi, Tassa, Telenga, Teli to name a few.
People of the community speak Sadri, Odia, Saora, Kurmali, Kurukh, Gondi, Kui, Kharia, Santhali, and Mundari. Sadri is the predominantly spoken as first language and serve as lingua franca among them. With steady rise in literacy level newer generations are becoming fluent in standard Hindi, Assamese and English.
Music, dance and festivals are an important component of the community. Their music is usually collectively performed for a variety of occasions like weddings, festivals, the arrival of seasons, ushering-in of new life and harvests. The community is rich in a variety of music and dances. Through the folk music and dance, they try to convey their perspective on social issues and define their daily lifestyles and their history.
Dhols, Manjiras, Madars, Kartals, Tamaks, Nagaras, Nishans, and Bansuris are some of the musical instruments used by them.
'Jhumair' is a famous folk dance form among the community. This dance is a folk dance prevalent in Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. Karam dance is an important dance form that is performed during the Karam festival by boys and girls alike. Other folk dances are Chhau dance, Sambalpuri Dalkhai dance, Santal, Kurukh dance of Oraon tribe and Kharia dance of Kharia tribe which are performed during different occasions.
Dhols, Mandars, and Kartals are the traditional musical instruments used during the dance for music. Usually, the traditional dress of red-bordered white saris is adorned by female dancers along with jewellery and ornaments before performing the dance. Male dancers wear dhotis and kurtas with white turbans on their heads.
Major festivals celebrated by the community are Fagua, Karam (festival), Jitia, Sohrai, Mage Parab, Baha parab, Tusu Puja, Sarhul, Nowakhai, Lakhi puja, Manasa Puja, Durga puja, Diwali, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas.
Notably, the tea tribe community has been fighting for decades to receive Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, which is being denied to them in Assam although in other states of India their counterparts fully enjoy that status. The community is composed of many large tribes like Munda, Santhal, Kurukh (Oraon), Gonds, Bhumij and dozen others who are being denied Scheduled Tribe status. This has given rise to identity politics among these people and different political parties are banking on this issue to get votes for decades during elections. Now some of the tribes have started to demand ST status separately in order to fulfill the Constitutional criteria designating "Scheduled Tribe".
The issue of wage is another important aspect gripping the majority members of this community. They are demanding an increase in daily wages of tea garden workers of the state from the existing daily wage of Rs 167 to Rs 350.
The All Assam Tea Students Association (AATSA) frequently conduct protest rallies in upper Assam in demand of the fulfillment of the basic amenities of the tea garden workers.
The tea tribes in Assam have been experiencing a sense of deprivation, suppression and exploitation, arising out of their identity and plantation work. The combination of deprivation and lack of a tribal identity has led to a situation of identity crisis. In the present day, the tea tribes of Assam are promoting their ethnic distinctiveness and as such stressing on their “tribal” identity. The identity struggle of the tea tribes of Assam is significant in contemporary times and need the attention of competent authorities.