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Assam Elections 2016: Has the RSS found a base in the state’s tea gardens?

Guwahati,AMRITA MADHUKALYA: In his last poll press interaction, at a hotel in Jorhat on Saturday, chief minister Tarun Gogoi told reporters that the tea gardens in Upper Assam have seen an increasing presence of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “In the tea gardens of Upper Assam, and in nearby Majuli, the RSS has been trying to make a base for quite a while. And all their work is directed towards a singular agenda — the push for Hindutva. This will have a damaging effect, it is polluting the Assamese culture. The Assamese culture promotes communal and social harmony, not what the RSS promotes,” said Gogoi.

Gogoi’s tirade at the RSS on Saturday was not the first one, a day before in Majuli he spoke of how the RSS is trying to make inroads and why they should be made unsuccessful. His rally was attended by people from the Mishing community in large numbers, some of whom have embraced Christianity over the years in a place which houses the Hindu Vaishnavite monasteries.
The tea gardens, inhabited by Assam’s poor and hardworking tea tribes, may have been a fertile ground for the RSS to enter. In 2000, the yearly bonus that the tea garden labourers were entitled to get was cut down, and the then state government did not do much. This led to an agitation amongst the workers, and in 2003, three workers were shot dead by the police polarising the community in large parts.
The tea belt has also been wooing Christian missionaries, and some of the tea workers community are Christians. The RSS’s entry into the tea gardens in the last Vajpayee-led NDA government seems to be bearing fruit now.
In the last elections, two of BJP candidates have won seats in the Jorhat and Dibrugarh constituencies, Kamakhya P Tasa and Rameshwar Teli, respectively.
There are 755 organised tea gardens in Assam, and over 1,20,000 small tea growers. There are over 20 lakh permanent workers, and despite the mandatory facilities like electricity, drinking water, medical and education facilities they are entitled to under the 1951 Tea Plantation Labour Act, there are practically no facilities. “The oil industry with 34,000 employees has a ministry, and so does the coal workers with a number of 28,000. Yet, despite the numbers and the ecological balance that they lend to the environment, unlike coal and oil workers, there is no tea ministry,” says Sanjay Krishna Tanti of the Chai Shramik Mukti Sangram Samiti. Even though he said that he did not know of any RSS activity, Tanti said that divisive communal forces like the RSS has no place in Assam.
RSS pracharak Ranjib Sharma says that the Sangh has been carrying out work here for over two decades. And that theirs is a “silent movement”. “We have been working to oppose the inhuman working conditions of the tea workers. And, of course, to help increase the BJP voter base,” he says.
In the tea gardens, the RSS runs the Ekal Vidyalayas, weekend classes run by men below 30, who give free tuitions to the children of the tea community. And in far-flung areas, Sanskar Kendras for women who are taught basic health and hygiene lessons. In the 2014 Assembly elections, in Bokohula tea estate, the RSS had actively campaigned through the night for the BJP. “They have been working hard for the last go few years, and it will bear fruit now,” says a local journalist with a national daily. Will it bear fruit? Only time will tell.

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