Maniram Dewan’s story is a resilient tale of assertion, silence and paradox, stringing a polyphony of voices that must be heard.
“I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley”
—Huw Morgan, How Green Was My Valley
Nearer home, the tea valleys of Assam also narrate similar stories of pain, suffering, confrontation and fortitude. More than 50 percent of India’s tea production and one-sixth of the world’s production emerge from the state of Assam. Tea, we assume, has the potential to transform and rejuvenate. However, the fecundity of the harvest is inversely proportional to the conditions of tea workers in the plantations. Tea workers in Assam today are descendants of Indigenous communities from Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhatisgarh who had been forcibly removed and transplanted from their ancestral lands to work on the plantations almost hundred and fifty years ago. Sobhita Jain notes:
Problems related to their differences in origin made it difficult for them to achieve some kind of consensus for a new social order in terms of their traditional social relationships. The web of caste relationships as existing in the typical setting of an Indian village or town never came into being. The reconstitution of a new community took place in terms of the paternalistic relationships between the higher and lower participants in the plantation social system itself.
Tea workers constitute 20 percent of Assam’s population and number more than 4.5 million. NGOs, media, researchers have reported on the dismal conditions of the workers and the fact that their initial displacement led to the eradication of cultural identity and moorings. In an article on tea workers of Assam on the website of Action Aid explains, “The Plantation Labour Act 1951 (PLA), which regulates the wages of tea-garden workers, their duty hours and the amenities that the management is supposed to provide such as housing, drinking water, education, health care, child care facilities like crèche, accident cover and protective equipment, has not been implemented. Amenities, where provided, are of very poor quality.”
Tea workers constitute 20 percent of Assam’s population and number more than 4.5 million. NGOs, media, researchers have reported on the dismal conditions of the workers and the fact that their initial displacement led to the eradication of cultural identity and moorings.
In 1937, Mulk Raj Anand had portrayed the dreary life of the tea workers of Assam in his symbolic novel Two Leaves and A Bud within the structural compulsions of plantation production in British India. Anand’s narrative of suffering, exploitation and also protest find a resonance in contemporary times as well. Colonial histories impinge upon the neo-imperial global processes of the plantations today. Cultural and political economies of the tea plantations may also be connected to regional, textured stories which cross seemingly impermeable borders—in quest for “a paradise to be gained, new fields of edenic cultivation.”
Tea—its leaf and the liquid—has in fact been emblematic of imperial conquest and global expansion. In A Time for Tea, Piya Chatterjee writes, “With all its accoutrements of porcelain jars and delicate cups, bamboo whisks and brocade, the culture around tea drinking would come to signify the consuming pleasures of discovery.” Annadashankar Ray’s rhyme in Bangla, ‘Obaak Cha Paan’ (literally, Amazing Tea Drinking) speaks of a tea party which involves all from the cats and the dogs to Baba Babu, partaking the limpid liquid in earthen and porcelain cups, and even in saucers every evening. It’s a regimented ritual integral to the imperialist ambitions of an empire. In fact, the “discovery” of the tea plant in Assam in the early 1820s facilitated the East India Company to embark on a flourishing trade that had hitherto been monopolized by China.
Ironically, the “discovery” has been appropriated as a pioneer tale of Scottish cultivators and brothers, Robert Bruce and Charles Bruce. Indeed, it was Charles Bruce (since Robert Bruce died early in 1824) who collected the tea plants and sent them to be tested at the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta, where the superintendent, Dr Nathaniel Wallich declared that the species was different from the ones in China. Dr Wallich would visit Assam in 1834 and in the following year, he would submit his report. In 1839, the Assam Company would be formed in England with a capital of five lakh rupees, with his headquarters in Nazira and the oldest extant commercial tea company of Assam. This would be followed by the Jorhat Tea Company in 1859.
What is often bypassed in this seamless trajectory of the flourishing tea trade in Assam is the story of a certain Maniram Dutta Baruah or a Maniram Dewan.
What is often bypassed in this seamless trajectory of the flourishing tea trade in Assam is the story of a certain Maniram Dutta Baruah or a Maniram Dewan. Popularly known as Kalita Raja, Maniram Dewan (1806–58), was one of the last ministers of the Ahom court. Maniram’s family had sought political asylum in British East India Company controlled Bengal, after the Burmese invasions of Assam (1817–26). The family would eventually return to Assam under British protection and as staunch British loyalists during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26) and the Treaty of Yandabo (1826) would ensure British supremacy in Assam.
A 22-year-old Maniram would be deputed as tehsildar and sheristadar of Rangpur in Sivsagar district of Assam. He would also be designated as borbhandhar or Prime Minister of the titular Ahom king, Purandar Singha. He would resign from his posts of tehsildar and sheristadar once the British deposed the king. However, it was Maniram who had drawn the attention of Robert Bruce to the tea leaves, grown by the Singhpos. Moreover, he had facilitated the meeting between Bruce and the Singhpo chief, Bessa Gam. Maniram’s position of prestige within the local community facilitated the permission for the Bruce brothers to collect samples of the tea and send them to Calcutta. He became a member of the board of the Assam Company and its Dewan at Nazir.
As one of the nine Indian shareholders of the Assam Company, Maniram Dewan held seven percent of the Company’s stock and drew a higher salary than most of the Company’s European staff. By the time he left the company in the mid- 1840s, Maniram had himself acquired tea plantations at Cheimora at Jorhat and Selung at Sibsagar. By exhibiting a versatile indigenous entrepreneurship and being part of the Assam zamindari system, Maniram posed a threat to the hegemony of British elite plantation owners, by creating a shadow plantocracy. On one hand, an ‘outsider’ (the colonised subject), Maniram had been an important ally/ broker for the sahibs. On the other, his indigenous position of feudal prestige and lineage involved social allegiances to plantations and village communities, which functioned beyond the epistemological framework of colonial rule.
By exhibiting a versatile indigenous entrepreneurship and being part of the Assam zamindari system, Maniram posed a threat to the hegemony of British elite plantation owners, by creating a shadow plantocracy.
In fact, by the 1850s, Maniram would be antagonistic towards British rule. In 1852, he filed a petition with the then Sudder Court judge in Calcutta, AG Moffat Mills, lamenting the exploitation of local economy in Assam, unjust taxations, desecration of Ahom royal tombs and the discontinuation of puja at the Kamakhya temple. He advocated the restoration of Ahom rule, which was summarily dismissed by Judge Mills. Chatterjee writes, “[Maniram’s] his allegiances and alliances were layered and subterranean and in the end, more faithful to the political and cultural web of his ‘native’ Assamese elite class and the communities through which this class conducted its terms of rule.”
In April 1857, Maniram would arrive in Calcutta, the then British capital, to garner support for Ahom rule and when in May 1857, the “Sepoy Mutiny” broke out, Maniram felt this to be an opportunity to wage a “war of independence”. He planned to start an armed insurrection to overthrow British rule and to restore Kandarpeswar Singha as the Ahom king. Messengers in the guise of fakirs and bhats were sent to Peali Barua, the chief advisor to Kandarpeswar Singha in the absence of Maniram. Ammunition and support from local sepoys and influential Assamese were collected and a march was planned to Jorhat on the day of Durga Puja when Kandarpeswar would be crowned king.
However, Maniram’s letters had been intercepted by the Deputy Commissioner Charles Holroyd through the devious offices of the daroga of Sivsagar thana, Haranath Parbatia Barua. Maniram was arrested in Calcutta and sent to Assam for trial. On 26 February, 1858, both Peali Barua and Maniram Dewan would be publicly hanged in Jorhat. Maniram’s death invoked widespread protest in Assam and George Williamson Inc., the British proprietors of Maniram’s estates consequently faced great labour unrest. Decades after his death, Maniram would be enshrined as a martyr in bihu songs and become the stuff that legends are made of. The 1964 movie on Maniram Dewan with Bhupen Hazraika’s Buku Hum Hum Kare would rekindle interest in the man. Maniram by then had transformed into the rebel who tried to dismantle the power nexus of the British in Assam.
What would be forgotten in the story would be Maniram’s contribution towards making that first cup of tea, which led to the burgeoning of one of Assam’s largest industries.
What would be forgotten in the story would be Maniram’s contribution towards making that first cup of tea, which led to the burgeoning of one of Assam’s largest industries. He would be the one to brew a cup with a whiff of an anticolonial and nationalist flavour.
As one travels today through the lush green foothills, the narratives of the tea workers and Maniram Dewan spin a resilient tale of assertion, silence and paradox. A cup of tea offers visions of an empire, derides quaint nostalgia, etches corporeal memories and strings a polyphony of voices that must be heard.
Perhaps, it’s time to brew another cup, unraveling cartographies of memory and power?
 Jain, Sobhita. ‘Acculturation Process on an Assam Tea Garden’, The Eastern Anthropologist, 44:1, Jan.-March, 1991, p. 37.
 http://nazdeek.org/where-we-work/india/ Accessed 18 May, 2016
 http://www.actionaid.org/india/what-we-do/assam/rights-tea-garden-workers-assam Accessed 18 May, 2016
 Chatterjee, Piya. A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2003. 21
 Quoted in Chatterjee 2003: 97
 Sharma, Suresh K. Documents on North-East India: Assam (1664-1935). New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2006. pp. 95–99
 Chatterjee 2003: 104
 Sharma, Anil Kumar. Quit India Movement in Assam. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2007. pp. 9-10