top of page

1955 Margaret's Hope Shootout : Its Historical Background and Lessons

by Sumendra Tamang

Memorial built in the memory of six workers who were shot and murdered, Control Dara, Margaret's Hope tea garden

On June 25th 1955,  69 years ago, a terrible and violent shoot out had taken place at Margaret’s Hope, Control Dara where 6 workers namely Jitman Tamang ( 48 years) Kaley Limbu ( 14 years ), Iccha Sunwar , Amrit Kamini ( 18 yrs), MauliShova Raini ( 22 yrs) and Padam Lal Kami ( 24 yrs) had been openly shot and murdered in broad daylight by the newly “ Independent Indian state” directly under the whims of the Maliks ( owners of tea gardens). An arrested worker named Guptimaya Raini also lost her toddler girl in prison due to a lack of proper medical facilities. Eight workers were seriously injured. More than 240 workers were arrested for this act of rebellion against the tea garden owners and the exploitation they carried. What most Indians regarded as independence was yet another 'emotional mischief' for the tea garden workers of Darjeeling. They were betrayed their freedom, and when they retaliated by fighting for their immediate demands (such as the end of the Hattabahar system where the manager can throw anyone out of the garden, a bonus equivalent to 3 months' wages/salaries, wage increases for workers and staff, compensation to the workers of closed gardens between 1952-53, etc.), they were suppressed using the same repressive state apparatus. This violence perpetuated by the Maliks was intended to crush the movement, but instead, more than 30 thousand people showed up in the final procession. The same day, the police fired upon a rally procession at Birpara garden too, but no one was hurt. On 29th June, a strike was called in Terai and Dooars gardens as well. In the end, under the pressure of the tea garden workers' movement, the ruling class had to bend down, and important rights such as bonus, monthly holidays, and maternity leave for women were won by the workers. This was a result of an organized, conscious, and militant class movement. This movement had an important impact on the political arena of Darjeeling, and in order to realize this political transition, we must understand its historical evolution and its objective realities. After all, such acts of accumulated rebellion happen once in a lifetime.


The beginning of tea plantation in Darjeeling:

Puttabong Tea Estate, formerly known as Tukvar Tea Estate, against the backdrop of the Sikkim hills and the Khangchendzonga Range. early 1990s. / © M. Sain/ TCC Photo Archive

The entire terrain of Darjeeling had been a subject of relentless disputes between the then independent Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal. Regular disputes and forced evictions were rampant. Even before 1835 when Darjeeling was finally merged under the jurisdiction of the British East India Company, many indigenous local tribals and communities such as Lepchas and others lived in these dense and difficult areas. They were mostly tribes who survived through hunting, agriculture, and animal husbandry. General Captain Harbert Resident Grant and Captain Lloyd surveyed the area, and plans of clearing the dense forest into a haven or a sanatorium were slowly being imagined by the East India Company. Hence, after 1835, lands from Bada Rangit south to Balasan and Chota Rangit to Mahanadi east were finally handed over by the then king of Sikkim. The British started to clear the entire lands, both habitable and non-habitable, of indigenous people living there. Trees were cut, ponds filled, water springs destroyed, indigenous varieties of biodiversity destroyed. Big bungalows for the British soldiers and their wives were constructed. Governor-General of India William Bentinck personally went to China and bought back some tea seedlings to start tea plantations in different parts of India. Here was the advent of tea experimentation in India. Already, tea bushes were grown in Assam, Kumaon, Garhwal, etc. In 1839, Dr. Campbell arrived in Darjeeling, and tea bushes were first grown in the hills of Alubari, but the plants turned out to be feeble. Then, in the forests of Aleybung, many tea bushes grew healthy. This was the first ray of hope for the British, and later, tea plantations started at Makaibari, Alubari, Tukvar, Dhotrey, Margaret's Hope, etc. In 1856, tea plantation in Darjeeling had kicked off, and it created madness in the international market. The British intentionally showed less population in this terrain, and most probably, it was just town-centric calculations. The intention behind this was to prove to the King of Sikkim that Darjeeling was a wasteland and hence giving it away would not mean much to the Sikkimese. Also, Darjeeling was the kernel of war and disputes between Sikkim and Nepal, and regular fistfights happened once in a while. But there was one problem: there were not enough workers for this newly formed industry. Hence, the British spread a rumor saying "plants which yielded gold" were found in the tea gardens of Darjeeling. In 1854, the monarchs in Nepal had passed the 'Muluki Ain,' which aimed at the systematic suppression of poor Dalits and women of then Nepal. This was also a factor for the migration of these poor people from Nepal to Darjeeling (Mughlan). In the plains too, tribals from the Chotanagpur plateau were brought in to work in those tea gardens. Darjeeling turned into a cultural conglomeration of different tribal identities where many languages coexisted. Limbu, Gurung, Bhujel, Tamang, Mangar, Kami, Damai, Chettri, Bahun all worked in these tea gardens. In the next forty years, about 186 tea gardens opened. Baidars were entrusted with the task of bringing more workers from different places. The British had started tea gardens using extensive slavery and bonded labor with no rights of any kind. The rules were dictated by the British. The workers had to treat those British babus with salutes. The workers were not allowed to look into their eyes or wear slippers, hats, or good clothes in front of these British babus. A practice of evicting workers from plantations called Hattabahar was rampant. Anything which had a sense of empowerment was not allowed by the British. The British wanted to rule, and hence they ruled with iron fists. After Bhutan tried to attack the British with the intention of capturing Darjeeling in 1862, a battle was fought at Dalim fort (now located at Ambiyok tea garden), and then in 1865, a treaty was signed at Sinchula, and as a result, Kalimpong would now become part of Darjeeling. It is to be noted, Kalimpong was demarcated as part of Bhutan from Sikkim during 1750-1760 and was actually a part of Sikkim itself. And now finally, Darjeeling became whole. During the 1920s and 1930s, some small protests were happening in tea gardens of Darjeeling like Som and Chungthung. In 1949, the pro-workers' doctor of Margaret's Hope tea garden, Dr. Abhiniranjan Tapalatra, and five others were thrown out of the garden for their involvement in trade union activities. This was followed by many other incidents of Hattabahar.


Tea garden workers on their way to Ringtong Tea Garden, Kurseong . / Photo by Ruchi Dyeksang

On May 8th, 1955, a fourteen-point charter of demands was placed to the tea garden maliks. Seeing no such reaction from the tea garden owners on June 5th, 1955, a meeting was called at the GDNS hall, Darjeeling. In this meeting attended by many trade union leaders and workers, it was decided that if the tea garden owners did not comply with the workers' demands from June 22nd, 1955, a strike would be called on behalf of both the trade unions of Majdur Union and Majdur Sangh. The strike started and spread like wildfire. But on June 25th, the workers of Maharani and Dilaram tea gardens were forced to work, and upon hearing this, workers from Munda tea garden rallied towards the garden. Along the way, workers from Ringtong and Margaret's Hope also joined in. The management of Margaret's Hope ordered to shoot at the workers to stop the procession. Five workers died at the spot, and one succumbed to injuries at Kurseong hospital. This was probably the first organized workers' movement after independence. This united call for strikes by different trade unions was a result of a conscious and militant workers' trade union movement. This was a golden period of the tea garden workers' movement. This is the legacy that the 1955 Margaret's Hope shooting holds. This movement proved to the Indian state that not only could Gorkhas fight for others, but they could fight for themselves too if they had to. This was the political significance of 1955. As a result of this, finally, the Plantation Labor Act of 1951 was made into rules in 1956.


What must be learned from the 1955 tea workers' movement today?

Tea garden worker plucking fresh tea leaves at Ringtong Tea Garden, Kurseong / Photo by Ruchi Dyeksang

It is often campaigned today that tea garden workers have been abandoned by the trade unions and the local leaders of Darjeeling. They have been cheated, cornered, turned into voting machines, and means of labor power. Although this is not totally false. The current situation where the tea garden workers stand today has been mainly due to the growing hegemony of capitalism in our country. It is also because of the decreasing class consciousness in the tea garden workers. Right now, attacks on the working class of India are multi-directional in nature. The new labor codes, which have replaced previously existing 44 labor laws, were achieved through workers' movements throughout India. These four labor codes, namely, the Code on wages, Code on industrial relations, Code on Social Security, and Code on occupational safety, hazard, and working conditions, are aimed at totally paralyzing trade union activity of the workers, increasing contractualization of work, implementing 'hire and fire system,' and ending the permanent nature of work with social securities. These new labor codes are a product of this unhealthy marriage between the Indian ruling class and global capitalism. In the name of 'ease of doing business,' the same old anti-worker laws are being rewritten through the hands of globalization, capital accumulation, and capitalism. These new labor laws will push back the workers' movement back in history, and what has history taught us? It has taught us that only through an organized working-class movement can we stop this. 15%of tea garden land can be used for tourism purposes. This notification in 2019 amidst the Corona crisis has put the workers at grave risk. The risk of eviction and penetration of corporate capital. The workers till now do not have any land rights, Parjapatta. The point being that if the West Bengal state government can provide land to the corporate for the hospitality business, why can’t it provide land documents to the workers whose great-great-grandfather once cleared these lands and planted these tea bushes?



Tea garden workers protest in Kolkata and hold a deputation program at the Governor's office in 2023 / Photo by Sumendra Tamang

Workers protest demanding fair minimum wage and land documents at Margaret's Hope tea garden in Kurseong, 2023 / Photoby Sumendra Tamang


Again and again, workers have been deprived of their rights and turned into parts of machines. They are treated as a reserve for votes. Most of the trade unions play it safe and profitable for them. The point being unless and until tea garden workers are organized, and a class-conscious movement is ignited such anti-workers' policies will and can be taken. After all, this capitalist system profits from the labor power of workers, and these labor codes guarantee easy, cheap, and de-unionized workers. Neither was the 1955 workers' movement a lucky strike, nor was it just a spontaneous one. It was an organized workers movement, and it had generated a political ripple in the hills and the plains of West Bengal. Likewise, only an organized uprising of the working class can save itself from the ruins of capitalism and its growing hegemony. The future lies in the hope that the tea garden workers understand this collective power they hold and yield in their arms. Meanwhile, the hope and struggle for the better future and dignified livelihood of tea garden workers continue…



 

Sumendra Tamang is a dedicated political activist hailing from Kurseong. Over the past decade, he has tirelessly advocated for the rights of tea garden workers in Darjeeling Terai and Dooars.


 

This article was prepared by the authors in their personal capacities and was received as an open submission for publication on the TCC blog. The opinions expressed in the article are the authors' own.


The Confluence Collective is accepting blog submissions. Original works are encouraged, and topics can include private and personal experiences to social, political, and cultural realities. The blog aims to use each person's unique experiences to create a narrative about the Sikkim-Darjeeling Himalayas. To submit, please get in touch with us at mail@theconfluencecollective.com.

Comments


bottom of page