by Soma Chaudhuri
What connection does tea and women being raped, stripped, tortured and killed in the name of witch hunts have? The book Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India: Tempest in a Tea Pot, explores the connections between tea production and village level conflicts among the plantation workers that lead to women being targeted and persecuted in the name of witches. The setting of the book is in the tea plantations of Jalpaiguri, India where adivasis (tribal) were brought over from neighboring states to work as plantation laborers. It is within this labor community that witchcraft accusations take place where the primary targets are adivasi women.
The witches (dain) are adivasi women workers in the tea plantations, who are caught up in the complex world of plantation worker-management conflict, where everyday life is characterized by politics and rigidity of power, patronage, and social distance between the two classes. Typically a witchcraft accusation could be made against any adivasi woman in the worker community, and within hours, days or weeks a seemingly petty household tiff could escalate into a carefully organized witch hunt against the accused woman. Often the entire community participates in the witch hunt as active participants or as supportive bystanders and family members of the accused woman are kept under vigil throughout the witch hunts, to prevent them from escaping and contacting the police. The tea plantation management prefers a policy of non interference in witchcraft accusations and often the cases do not make it to the police records.
However the story of Jalpaiguri witch hunts is not just a story of gender conflict where the main culprits are adivasi men. Rather it is the story of a gender conflict that is taking place within the backdrop of the tea plantation economy, where workers are exploited, oppressed, and marginalized in the name of tea production and competition in the international markets. The central argument of the book rests on the premise that witchcraft accusations among the adivasi worker communities in Jalpaiguri, India, are manifestations of protests against the plantation management, and not a performance of “exotic and primitive rituals of a backward” community during times of stress. Using a typological analysis, witch hunts in the plantations are categorized into two types: surprise (sudden attacks on targets) and calculated hunts (planned, carefully conducted hunts), where women are always found to be the target. So this begs the question that if witchcraft accusations are a manifestation of protests against the plantation conditions, then why is it that the targets are always adivasi women and not adivasi men or the real culprits, the plantation managers?
To answer this question, the book takes a closer look at the status of plantation workers in the industry. The typical avenues of social protest are often unavailable to adivasi workers due to lack of resources, organizational and political representation, a situation that is similar across plantation workers globally. In addition though a carefully planned out conspiracy of power and control tracing back to the colonial times by the planters, the prejudice of mainstream Hindu population to employ adivasis, and the scarcity of the much coveted permanent jobs on the plantations, the workers today remain dependent on the plantation economy for their very existence. As a result, protests against the planters and management seem to be detrimental to the survival of the workers. In such a situation, it is the adivasi women who become scapegoats of everyday frustrations, a credible target of anger and frustrations in plantation life.
Adivasi women have long been exploited both by adivasi men and outsiders due to their lower social and economic status. Within the plantation industry, these women are engaged primarily as tea leaf pluckers in the tea gardens (a job that is considered to be less prestigious) and are paid much lower than their male counterparts. In addition adivasi women in the tea plantations experience a wide array of social and political discrimination and violence against them. Rape against adivasi women by non adivasis, high rates of domestic violence, low literacy rates, maternal malnutrition, and lack of political representation in the trade unions and political parties, further creates a social category of women who are extremely vulnerable and oppressed compared to the male adivasi workers. This further complicates the ability of women to retaliate against the accusations.
The book illuminates how witchcraft accusations should be interpreted within the backdrop of labor-planters relationship, where a complex network of relationships—ties of friendship, family, politics, and gender—provide the necessary legitimacy for the witch hunt to take place. At the height of the conflict, the exploitative relationship between the plantation management and the adivasi migrant workers often gets hidden, and the dain becomes a scapegoat for the malice of the plantation economy.
Soma Chaudhuri is assistant professor in sociology and the school of criminal justice at Michigan State University. For more information on her recently published book, Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India: Tempest in a Tea Pot, click here.