The contribution of the Adivasi people of Jharkhand in the fight against the British rule in the country is not limited to Jharkhand only. Wherever he was taken during the colonial period and also of his own volition, he raised the flag of ‘Abua Raj’ (Adivasi self-rule) and forced the British rule to leave the country. According to this history, the movement of ‘Abua Raj’ has spread from the plateaus of Jharkhand to the hills and valleys of Assam in the northeast. Today, we know very little about the Jharkhandis who were involved in the freedom struggle in the tea gardens of Assam, who led those battles and were martyred while fighting the British administration. All of them were Jharkhandis whom the British had forcibly taken there for the cultivation of tea years ago. Christison Munda of Phulbari tea garden was one such Adivasi warrior who was hanged by the British in 1916. This year marks the centenary of the martyrdom of Christison Munda. There is no detailed information about who Christison Munda was, where he lived, what was his age, etc. There is hardly any mention of him in the British documents of the time. He is only partially introduced by the report given by the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang (Assam) to the Labor Inquiry Committee. In which Christison Munda has been held responsible for instigating and leading the revolts in the tea gardens of Assam in 1915 and earlier. In the report, his relation has also been linked to the Ulgulan in 1900 under the leadership of Birsa Munda.
After the arrival of the Ahom people in 1228, the Ahom dynasty was established in Assam and they ruled Assam for about six hundred years. By defeating the then ruler, on 4 February 1826, the British took Assam (present-day Tinsukia and Dibrugarh) under their jurisdiction through the Treaty of Yanbu. Soon he started cultivating tea here and forcibly brought people by making them laborers for it. The laborers who were brought in the beginning did not know which plant they were brought for sowing. He was unaware of the tea plant and its cultivation. They were thinking of the tea plant as a wild plant and were considering the importance of this plant by the British as their madness. The workers named this plant ‘Cha’. In this way, the first tea area of Assam came into existence as ‘Chabua’. ‘Chabua’ means ‘cha’ where ‘bua’ (sow) used to go. The Assam Tea Company was established in 1840 and the commercial production of tea began on a large scale in the region. In 1842, the Assam Tea Company started steamships between Guwahati and Kolkata to bring in a large number of Adivasi laborers. The train started running in 1889 and during this time lakhs of Adivasi were taken to the tea gardens.
In 1841, for the first time, Adivasis from Jharkhand were taken to Assam for tea cultivation. But this first batch could not survive in Assam and died due to natural calamities and diseases. The second consignment reached Assam in 1858-59 consisting of 400 Adivasis. This number increased to 84,915 in 1863. As the number of tea gardens continued to increase, so did the number of Adivasis and Sadan laborers who were taken from Jharkhand. These laborers were transported in two ways. By the ‘Arkati’ method and by the ‘Sardari’ method. The Arkati were called those who lured, forced, or kidnapped the tribals, while the Sardars were the Adivasi laborers whom the tea garden owners themselves sent to their villages to get laborers through them. The British companies named Baig and Dunlop at that time paid Rs 3 per male worker from the owners of the tea gardens. and for women Rs 1. He used to charge brokerage. But later on, when there was a shortage of laborers, the British laws related to labor immigration became a little stricter, then John Henry Lawton’s gang paid 30 rupees for men. and Rs.25 for women. There was also a third class of Christian missionaries who used their influence to send a large number of Adivasis to Assam. By 1900, the number of tribal laborers in the tea gardens of Assam had reached lakhs.
The dream of better wages and a better life in the tea gardens turned into a ‘distant drum’ as soon as they reached there. Their life in the gardens was completely dependent on the mercy of the owners. In the small huts of the porter lines, they were kept like animals and used to work with them. Their life would have passed away even bonded there and the owner would have used them as personal property. The condition of women was much worse than men in this respect because apart from labor, tea garden white owners also used their bodies arbitrarily.
By the 1900s, tensions began to rise between the tea garden owners and the tribal workers. This tension flared up like fire as soon as Birsa Munda’s movement got wind of Ulgulan and Jatra Bhagat’s Tana movement. From 1905 to 1940, there were protests in the tea gardens, strikes, attacks on British owners and their servants, attacks on the tea garden markets, and murderous crackdowns on tyrants. Historian Amalendu Guha in his book “Planter Raj to Swaraj” has given authentic details of these struggles. He remarks that the nationalist historians have taken these movements of Swaraj carried out by the Adivasi laborers of the tea gardens out of history by summarizing these movements of ‘national movement’. Well-known folklore collector and scholar Devendra Satyarthi has described this intention of the nationalists in a very interesting way in his story ‘Chai Ka Rang’.
Adivasi writer and human rights activist Wilfred Topno, in his article ‘Struggles of Adivasi of Assam’, which is the mainstay of this article, has pointed out that the first tremendous upsurge of organized resistance in tea gardens occurred in 1915. The hero of this struggle was Christison Munda. Christison Munda was a pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Fulbari Tea Garden. He probably belonged to some village in Khunti (Jharkhand) who had gone to the tea gardens of Assam to propagate Christianity.
The deputy commissioner of Darang (Assam) wrote to the Labor Inquiry Committee about Christison – ‘There is no doubt that the education of the Lutheran clergy has had some form of influence in fueling the rebellion. Most of the tribal laborers in the tea garden are illiterate and depend on the ‘padris’ and ‘pundits’ of their own community for religious activities. A few days before the riot, the head priest of his community, ‘Christison’, had gone to his country (Khunti) and returned before the riots broke out. It was only after his return that there was an increase of terrible discontent among the workers which later led to riots. Christison Munda is the link between the ongoing movement (Ulgulan) in the country and the Munda tribesmen of the tea garden. He had also done the work of providing financial help to the tribal laborers by collecting donations for the ongoing movement in the country. There is no doubt that Christison Munda and his associates have a big role in organizing and instigating the workers in the tea garden.’
This report of the deputy commissioner states that Christison was actively associated with the Ulgulan led by Dharti Aaba Birsa Munda and was involved in providing all kinds of help to the Munda warriors from the tea gardens of Assam. He started the struggle for ‘Swaraj’ in 1915 by organizing the tea garden workers on a large scale. The target of this struggle became not only the tyrannical owners of tea gardens, their managers and jamadars, but also the hat-bazars in the tea gardens, which were the center of the moneylender exploitation of the Adivasis.
The Hat-Bazar in the tea garden was started by the British. These hat-Bazars were centers of exploitation of tribal laborers where tribals used to lose even their little saved money in the clutches of moneylenders. In this way, along with being the slave of the tea garden owners, the Adivasi laborers were also forced into the slavery of the moneylenders. Christison Munda and his associates targeted tea garden owners, managers as well as hat-bazars and moneylenders. The tea gardens like Sonajuli, Helem, Kacharigaon, Kathony, etc., where Lutheran Munda Adivasis were in majority, were most affected by the movement. There were strikes, protests and hat-bazars were demolished in these tea gardens. In this movement Kharia, Oraon, Santal, Mahto, Badaik, Ghasi, Tanti, Karmakar-Lohar etc. communities who were taken to the tea gardens along with Munda tribesmen, Muslims and local farmers also participated.
For all these ‘crimes’, the British had publicly hanged Christison Munda in the Phulbari tea garden in 1916. Christison was not only a supporter of Ulgulan but also a strong fighter. It was Ulgulan’s consciousness that gave him the consciousness of the struggle against the atrocities on the Adivasis in the tea gardens of Assam. He reconciled the broken ties with Disum (Jharkhand) to the Adivasis who were forcibly taken to the tea gardens of Assam, disregarding British rule and the Church. The historical consciousness of the ancestral battles removed their fear and inspired them to achieve Abua Raj i.e. Swaraj. Tribute to this Jharkhandi warrior on the 100th anniversary of his martyrdom, Hul Johar.
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