Tea tribes: How Assam’s chaiwalas may spoil Modi’s cuppa

Illustration by Prathap Ravishankar

On a balmy afternoon in early February, as a bunch of middle-aged men engaged in a discussion about the coming elections and the foreigners’ issue in Assam at a roadside tea stall in Guwahati, the conversation suddenly veered to the “badly made” cup of saah (Assamese for tea). One said it was too sugary. Another complained it was totally xereka (too much water, very little milk).

If Assam is known for its obsession and pride with tea, the community that grows it lives a world away from the kettle of political discourse. It was only after 160 people, most of them tea garden workers, died drinking toxic ‘sulai’ (country liquor) on the evening of February 21 that their impoverished lives started making national headlines.

The BJP and Narendra Modi had promised a new life for them. And the tea tribes — a mix of tribals whose ancestors were brought by the British from the Chotta Nagpur division of present-day Jharkhand to work in the tea gardens of Assam — who can play a decisive role in one-third of Assam’s Lok Sabha seats are known to have switched to the BJP. But those promises remain unkept and the hooch tragedy only accentuated their bleak situation.

The bitter reality of tribal life

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