Tea Workers Day, a day commemorating massacre of tea workers 98 years ago, will be observed today in a befitting manner.
On May 20 in 1921, around 30,000 tea labourers left their workplace in Sylhet region and started walking towards Meghna Ghat in Chandpur. When they reached there, the then Assamese police opened fire on the protesters. Many of the workers were killed, and their bodies were thrown into the river. The rest fled.
It was a protest march they called “Mulluke Cholo” (Let’s go back home). The protest was against the inhumane working conditions and torture at the hands of British owners.
Now the British are gone, but the plight of the tea workers has not changed much. Furthermore, around seven lakh indigenous tea workers, paid only Tk 102 a day, are on the verge of losing their language and cultural identity.
The government has yet to recognise Tea Workers Day at the national level and take effective steps to preserve different spoken languages as well as distinct cultural practices of different communities spread out in 158 tea gardens of Sylhet division.
The use of their mother tongues is diminishing day by day as Bhojpuri or Bangla are the two most commonly used languages among all communities in the region, according to Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union.
Besides, local schools not having any curriculum in their mother tongues is adding to the problem.
British Munda, 45, a tea worker at Mirtinga Tea Garden in Moulvibazar’s Kamalganj upazila, said their children lost interest in learning their mother tongue Mundari because Bangla is the common language of everyone outside their homes.
Without knowing the mother tongue, the community lost touch with its culture and heritage, he added.
Echoing the sentiment, his neighbour Dipali Kanda, 34, said she does not know the language of her ancestors, nor does she know much about her cultural identity.
Arjun Orang, 28, a member of Urao community and a worker at Deorachhara Tea Garden in the same upazila, said only recently he realised that he has been spelling his last name wrong for all his life. But he cannot do anything about it now as the spelling has already been included in official records.
He could have averted the error if proper education in his mother tongue was provided to him in his childhood, Arjun lamented.
“With the daily wage of Tk 102, it’s already difficult to make ends meet. How would we afford to seek knowledge or education?” said Satyajit Mahali of the same tea garden.
Mamata from Santal community, also in the same garden, said, “There’s no scope for us to learn about our heritage. I know a bit of Santali dance. But I cannot speak the language.”
Contacted, Jyoti Sinha, Moulvibazar cultural officer, said the government is taking steps to preserve different languages and cultures of tea workers through various interactive programmes.
Mesbah Kamal, professor of history department at Dhaka University, said the indigenous tea workers living in poverty are losing their culture and heritage.
Their cultural identity is now under threat due to socio-economic circumstances, he added.
AFM Zakaria, head of anthropology department at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST), said the government will have to come forward and protect the small indigenous communities and their culture.
Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union Vice President Pankaj Kanda said 98 years have gone by since the workers lost lives demanding a better life, but no significant steps were taken to recognise Tea Workers Day.