As I started writing this piece, I remembered a Jhumur song very popular in our childhood days: “Chal re mini Assam jabo/deshe aro dukh re/Assam deshere mini/cha bagan harial (O girl, let’s go to Assam/ there is sadness in this country/ Assam is full of greenery with tea gardens”). This song explores the complex psyche of the migrated labourers that come to the tea estates of Assam from different parts of East and South India. In the song, we find Adivasi people repining over their loss as they walk up to Assam and also at the same time, people are evidently willing to go to Assam because their land is plunged into distress.

As a young representative of the Adivasis of Assam, I always felt that we need to understand the underlying meaning and essence of the current struggle and crisis of identities among the Adivasis in Assam. I will try to signify the importance and at the same time, try to differentiate the current political movements from the past movements among the Adivasis in Assam. I will also try to relate this ongoing struggle for the making of a new identity among the Adivasis in Assam along with the much talked about the formation of greater Assamese Identity, as that will help us to understand the complexity and compositeness of the new identity of Adivasis of Assam.

I disagree with the naming of my community as “tea-garden labour community/ex-tea garden labour community/tea-tribe.” Is there any community in this world named after a commodity? It is the best example of the colonial domination of British, and later the internal colonialism exercised by the State.

What I believe is that we have a duality regarding the nature of identity. I understand that we are an integral part of the greater Adivasi nationality of India and at the same time, we are also actively involved in the formation of the greater Assamese identity. People who are progressive, liberal in thought, democratic in attitude and have put a firm stand against communalism, have recognised the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis as one of the most significant communities contributing to the formation of the greater Assamese society. It is equally true that the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis of Assam are a branch of the greater Adivasi society of the country.

So, I prefer being called an Adivasi. I also prefer to put a duality into the identity of Tea Tribes and Adivasis of Assam – first, we should be called (only) “Adivasi” and second, an Assamese – rather than “Adivasi Assamese”. Henceforth, in this article, I will identify all the ethnic groups who were brought to Assam primarily as indentured labourers to work in the tea plantations from various parts of India during the colonial period – as “Adivasi Assamese”.

By writing the history of the Adivasis, a good number of prominent and less known Adivasi and mainstream historians have clearly shown that the place of the Adivasis in the history and society of the country has always been at the bottom. From the start of the modern era in Indian history, the Adivasis have been moving through a distinct independent route different from the one taken up by the other communities of the country.

In fact, out of the orbit of the caste-dominated society of the Hindus, the Adivasis had been guided by their independent cultural sense, where they never felt inferior to others. Rather, there had always been a sort of self-admiration inextricably associated with their culture.

In my opinion, the history of the Adivasis is a history of constant struggle – a struggle to carry on their independent cultural identity and their backgrounds against the everlasting contempt of the high cast people. Due to this inherent contempt towards the Adivasis, it is not possible for the upper-caste people to realise the total historical backdrop of the Adivasis, irrespective of whether he is a historian, social scientist, writer, poet, artist, sculptor or an art-critic.

I believe the history of the Adivasis is a history of resistance against colonial exploitation, communalism and casteism. History says the Adivasis were the pioneer in igniting Indians’ minds against British colonialism. They were on the forefront in revolting against British rule. Many historians claim the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 as the first Independent Struggle. But it is not right. If we look at the revolts of the Chaurs, the Mundas (led by Birsa Munda), Kols (led by Buddho Bhagat in Chota Nagpur region), Santhals (led by Sidhu and Kanhu in Rajmahal Hills in Bihar) etc, it can be said beyond doubt that the Adivasis were the first to revolt and organize mass movement against British colonialism in India. Historical documents show the Adivasis fighting against two forces – against colonialism of the West and cultural domination of the upper caste Hindus.

Although the Adivasis are an essential element in the process of formation of the greater Assamese society, they have an independent history and cultural sense along with a history of refraining from a complete assimilation with the culture of the high-caste people. In the formation of the greater Assamese society, the Tea-Tribes or the Adivasis will coexist with the mainstream Assamese people rather than assimilating themselves entirely, as the latter is not possible for any community bearing a distinct identity. I think, describing the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis as Assamese does not mean that they have become Assamese. Rather, the Assamese will have to recognise and respect their distinct identity.

Besides their identity, the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis have also been identifying themselves as Assamese after a process of adoption of the Assamese language and culture since the beginning of the 20th century. It is my request to the Assamese people to recognise the two identities of the Adivasis. We, the Tea Tribes or the Adivasis are willing to introduce ourselves with our identity (as Tea Tribes or Adivasis) before being introduced as Assamese. We hope the mainstream Assamese people will shun their dismissive attitude and try to respect the Adivasis and feel that the latter is an inextricable part of the greater Assamese society.

The Tea Tribes or the Adivasis have come forward willingly for a peaceful coexistence with the mainstream Assamese people. The mainstream Assamese should also come forward to maintain the peaceful coexistence. Willingness for the formation of a greater Assamese society both by the mainstream Assamese and the Tea Tribes or Adivasis is the call of the time.

Our ancestors came to Assam from different parts of the country. While coming to Assam, they brought with them their culture like dance forms, songs, festivals, folktales, etc., kept these elements among themselves and passed them down from generation to generation. Their languages were different. In the course of time, excellent communication and unity came to be developed among them. And, a smooth blend of those diverse elements gradually developed a rich mass culture in the state which can well be termed as Adivasi mass-culture.

From the 60s or 70s, the rich and variegated culture of the mainstream Assamese people started mingling with the Adivasi culture. The Adivasis started studying in Assamese medium schools, participate in various cultural programmes, which brought the two cultures close to each other. There have been instances of setting up matrimonial alliances between the two communities. Literary activities started among the Adivasis in the Assamese language. The educated Adivasis started reflecting the suffering of the community and the injustices done to them through short stories, poems, novel, etc. Similarly, the mainstream Assamese writers also began reflecting the community through their writings which is indeed an excellent sign despite the fact that such writing is less in number.

There have not been adequate serious studies in the state on the rich, diverse culture of the Adivasis. Similarly, there have not been enough studies how the two cultures came closer in the course of time, and contributed to each other. I think we should find out the elements of the respective contribution of the two cultures. Besides, I believe that the culture of the state can be further enriched by the contribution of the cultural elements of the Adivasis.