Tea: 21st century science for crops. 19th century treatment for workers

Pembilla Orumai demonstrators in Munnar, September 2015. The poster of MM Mani in the background was torn down minutes later. Image: Sabita Banerji 2015

Breaking news…scientists have decoded the genetic building blocks of the tea plant! This, according to the BBC, “could lead to ways to improve the quality and price of tea”! Hoorah for the wonders of 21st century technology…!

Meanwhile, in the same week, the primitive horrors of the early 20th century are being replayed on an Indian tea plantation, where 19th century working conditions have largely been preserved; The Hindu depicts a woman on hunger strike calling for political change being forcibly hospitalised, her hair dishevelled, what looks like blood on her legs, humiliatingly exposed when her sari rides up during her unceremonious manhandling.

Thus Gomathy, one of the original leaders of the 2015 protest by Pembilla Orumai against poor pay and working conditions in Munnar, Kerala, relives the treatment of suffragettes like Marion Wallace Dunlop in 1909. Originally an informal, grassroots organisation, Pembilla Orumai (meaning Unity of Women) was established last year as a formal trade union and aligned with the centrist Aam Admi party.

Gomathy, along with Kasualya and Rajeswary , was fasting to demand the resignation of M.M. Mani, a minister in the Kerala State government for implying that during the 2015 strike there had been improper goings on in the forests. A silly, childish accusation, but one designed to trivialise an historic – and heroic – act by a group of women workers standing up against patriarchy. Not only the patriarchy of their employers, but also of male-dominated trade unions and of politicians like Mani whose billboard poster I witnessed being torn down during the protest. The Wire, reporting on the incident last week suggests that “For the misogynistic male audience of Kerala, Mani had the perfect words to enthral the masses.”

Although universal suffrage may seem a greater or more important cause to fast for than an apology for a schoolboy insult, in effect Gomathy and her colleagues too were protesting the contemptuous dismissal of women as a political force. The hunger striking suffragettes were demanding to be treated as political prisoners rather than petty criminals when imprisoned for acts of politically motivated “vandalism”. Gomathy and her fellow hunger strikers were also demanding to be treated with respect and dignity. To be taken seriously.

The most famous of hunger strikers was of course Mahatma Gandhi. Although in later years he fasted for great causes like opposition to the proposed separate political representation for dalit castes, interestingly his first politically motivated fast was in 1918 in support of textile workers in Ahmedabad striking for a pay rise.

The Munnar authorities claim that the forcible hospitalisation of Gomathy and her fellow hunger strikers was necessary because of the deteriorating health of the strikers, just as in 1909, forcible feeding of hungers striking suffragettes was justified as “ordinary hospital treatment” to save the women’s lives. Let us hope that this slide back into the bad old days does not go that far.

Let us also hope that they do not have to wait as long as we have for the genetic decoding of the tea plant before human ingenuity discovers a way of improving not just the quality and price of the comodity, but the quality of life of the women who tend and pluck it.

Like Marion Wallace, Gomathy, Kasualya and Rajeswary could each say her hunger strike was “a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me” (Guardian).  Let us hope that the daughters of these courageous women never have to suffer the indignities that their mothers have gone through, and that they can live and work in dignity and with the respect that any of us would expect for ourselves and our children in the 21st century.


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