“We now had history on our side”: Poet Kamal Kumar Tanti on his search for identity – From Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal to the tea gardens of Assam

Dr. Kamal Kumar Tanti
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Teesta Review: A Journal of Poetry >>

The Assamese poet Kamal Kumar Tanti won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in the year 2012 for his book of poems, Marangburu Amar Pita. The phrase “Marangburu amarpita” can be roughly translated into English as “Marangburu, my father”.

Marang Buru is the highest deity among some Adivasi communities of eastern and central India who follow their traditional animist faiths. There has been a history of migration of Adivasis from eastern and central India to India’s North-East. Under colonial rule, Adivasi men and women were taken as labourers from their villages in eastern and central India to work in the tea gardens of Assam.

Miles away from their roots, almost abandoned in an alien land amongst people whose lives and languages they did not understand, these Adivasis from eastern and central India rebuilt their own lives, growing new roots in the alien land they had been involuntarily taken to. In their new home, they imbibed elements of the new cultures they encountered and, in return, shared elements from their own. India’s Bhasha literature has some insightful prose about this intermingling of people and cultures. […]

Tanti’s poems wear their politics on their sleeves. The transcript of Tanti’s speech from the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2012 ceremony, “An Adivasi and an Assamese”, has been included in this collection. In his speech, Tanti said: “… I disagree with the current naming of our community as ‘Tea-Tribe / Ex-Tea Garden Labour Community.’ Is there any community in this world named after a commodity?

The fire one perceives in Tanti’s speech can be felt in hispoems. The collection opens appropriately with a poem that talks of “injustice and suffering” that the indigenous people are subjected to at the hands of outsiders. This poem imagines the indigenous people to be living in the depths of water and calls them “the guardians of the mermaid”, while the outsiders are those who came riding on “merchant [ships]” and “[tore] through the darkness with the treasures of the river.” Towards the end the indigenous people are determined to tell their own story by themselves as they declare:

“We, the guardians of the mermaid,
we, the watchful guardians of the mermaid’s lands,
we now had history on our side.

”The feeling among the indigenous people of being marginalised by the mainstream is a recurring theme in the first part of the collection.

“We are told that historians call us
‘other’ people

“We are the stunted black ‘sons of the soil’.
They are tall, white, flawless.”

This feeling of being marginalised is further compounded as itis achieved in the language of the colonisers, something whichthe indigenous people have almost no connection with, butcannot avoid as it has been thrust upon them:

“We are trapped
in their coils
in the damned illusion of language.

”But this poem too ends on a note of hope as the colonised vowto find their own voice:

“Calm is still our language.
Will we ever find
our language, an ‘other’ language?”

Source: “Kamal Kumar Tanti’s poems present the politics and poignance of being marginalised in a distant land: my review of Kamal Kumar Tanti’s collection of poems, “Post-Colonial Poems”, translated from the Assamese by Shalim M. Hussain and Dibyajyoti Sarma” by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Scroll, 2019)
URL: https://www.academia.edu/38611846
Date Visited: 20 July 2022

Kamal Kumar Tanti is a promising young voice in contemporary Assamese poetry. He belongs to the Adivasi Tea-Garden Labourer community in Assam. His first collection Marangburu Amar Pita (Our Father Marangburu), published in 2007, won him the prestigious Munin Barkotoki Literary Award for 2008. His poems have been included in various anthologies of Assamese poetry and featured in various journals. Tanti’s collection of prose, Nimnaborgo Somaaj Oitijya (Subaltern Society’s Legacy) comprised articles on post-colonial theory and subaltern historiography, with specific reference to colonial history and culture of Assam and was published in September 2007. He also writes fiction. His forthcoming collection is Uttar-Ouponibeshik Kabita (Postcolonial Poems) […]

The community I officially belong to (Ex-Tea Garden Labourer community) has a colloquial language called Sadri. We speak both Sadri and Assamese at home. I write in Assamese with the objective to reach out to a larger audience. Even if the minority communities speak in the majority’s language, they can be heard. My voice is for freedom, for people, against injustice, against colonialism and neo-colonialism. […]

History is the undercurrent of my poetry. By colonial conspiracy, my predecessors from the aboriginal greater adivasi clans were extirpated from the boondocks of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal and were engaged as tea garden labourers by the British in the fertile land of Assam. There is a definite lack of historiography of the events leading to our being absorbed in mainstream Assamese cultural milieu, how much of our identity remains different and so on. I believe I have not deserted my past, where I come from. Subaltern conventions and culture saturate me and they are in sync with my consciousness, ideologies embedded in my subconscious mind. Subaltern traditions and people are buried deep in my being. Pain and suffering, love and well-being, the indescribable dialectic of conflicts that constitute the flow of life and beyond are my concerns. And my poems are only attempts at the exposition of these. […]

All my poems depict my search for my own identity and are actually based on some real experiences. […]

I disagree with the naming of our community as “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 taken over by power-hungry, middle-class Assamese. […]

Source: “In sync with subaltern traditions” by Ashley Tellis, The Hindu, 31 July 2010
URL: https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/In-sync-with-subaltern-traditions/article16217067.ece
Date Visited: 29 May 2022

Usage in legal and historical records

Ādivāsi [ādibāsi] may be used in accordance with local conventions; and increasingly so for official purposes (e.g. in “Conserving Tradition and Practices of Adivasi Communities in India” published on NIDM.gov.in); Dr. Ivy Hansdak clarifies:

Adivasi – which is derived from Sanskrit – is applied to the dark-skinned or Austro-Asiatic indigenous groups of India (usually those from Eastern India). It is a commonly-used term in Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha. It is also used by the local Mongoloid tribes of North Eastern India for the migrant workers who were brought in as indentured labourers to work in tea plantations during the colonial period. ‘Tribal’ is a very broad term in the English language and includes all the different indigenous groups of India. The terms ‘indigenous’ and ‘aboriginal’ are not used often as the government claims most groups are indigenous in India. ‘Denotified Tribes’ is only used for those nomadic tribes who were notified as ‘criminal tribes’ during the British Raj [colonial rule]; later they were ‘denotified’ but still bear the stigma.” (emails dated 2020 & 2023)

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Assam accounts for over half of India’s total tea production. Tea garden workers were brought by the British from states like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal afterwards of 1860. Till today it is marked by exploitation, economic backwardness, poor health conditions and low literacy rates. […]

The community is one of most marginalised in Assam but is also a large vote bank. […]

[T]he Assam government increased the [daily] wages of tea garden workers from Rs 167 to Rs 217. Tea gardens workers’ bodies have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the hike, which they consider inadequate. […]

Source: “Explained: The political significance of Assam’s tea garden workers” by Abhishek Saha, Indian Express, 4 March 2021
URL: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-the-political-significance-of-assams-tea-workers-7212743/
Date Visited: 29 May 2022

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

It’s a long road to freedom!” – Stan Swamy (the late sociologist and activist for Adivasi rights), quoted in “I am Not a Silent Spectator: Why Truth has become so bitter, Dissent so intolerable, Justice so out of reach” | Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, 2021 | Accountability >>
In pursuit of “equality for all the citizens”: National Legal Services Authority asked to provide free legal consultations to Scheduled Tribes (ST) – Supreme Court >>

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