June 25, 1955 was an unusually bright day in Darjeeling hills, and the idyllic Margaret’s Hope tea estate basked in the sunshine after a long spell of monsoon rains. The otherwise quiet garden that produced the celebrated brand of Margaret’s Hope tea had been a flurry of activity since morning, and the warm air was rent with slogans of workers’ rights.

Twelve-year-old Kali Limbuni, resplendent in her red khada, or stole, printed with the sickle and hammer symbol of the Communists, joined hundreds of tea workers gathered at Control Danra, less than 50 metres from the manager’s bungalow.

She had been a worker at the garden since she was 11. “In those days, there was always a dearth of tea-pluckers, and they didn’t care much about employing children,” said Limbuni, who joined her mother and other members of the Nari Sanghathan, the women’s wing of the trade union, in their protest demonstration against the management.

Workers from the neighbouring Munda, Ringtong, Balason and Maharani tea gardens had also joined the agitation that would make Margaret’s Hope the birthplace of organised labour movement in West Bengal’s tea industry.

Kali Limbuni, a retired tea plucker, at her home. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma.

“The women were at the forefront,” remembered Limbuni. “All the women were out there, demanding our rights – [our] basic rights.” Among other things, the workers were demanding maternity benefits, a raise in wages, a bonus and the repeal of the hattabahar system – an arbitrary way in which the management terminated the services of workers for little or no fault of theirs.

A strike called by Communist Party of India and Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League across Darjeeling gardens had already been underway since June 22 and the police had arrested several leaders. Soon, reports came in that the police were forcing workers in the neighbouring Dilaram tea estate to join work, and the assembled workers then decided to proceed to Dilaram to protest police action.

Then the firing started.

“I heard the first shot from my home,” said Harkaraj Kirat. The 13-year-old school student had been told firmly by his parents not to leave home, over 200 metres down the hill. “A strike was on since the past couple of days, and the police had been camping in the garden for almost a week. My parents were anticipating trouble and wanted me to just stay out of everything.”

The entrance to the Margaret's Hope tea factory. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma.

So he watched processions of protestors march towards Control Danra (danra is the Nepali word for hilltop) from his home. But as soon as the sound of the first gunshot reached his ear, he was uncontrollable and rushed out. By the time he was halfway to Dokan Danra, the firing had ended. “There was a huge crowd there, and I could go no further,” said Kirat, who later worked as Garden Babu, overseeing the work of labourers. “Dispersed people were coming down with the injured, and narrations of what happened at the scene.” A writer, he has spoken about the day’s horror through his fiction and non-fiction.

Limbuni’s perch made for a vantage position, but her eyes were almost blinded by the tear gas. By the time she was able to see through the haze, six protestors, two of them women, were already dead and another eight injured.

Among the dead were Jitman Tamang, Padamlal Kami, Amritmaya Kamini, Kanchha Sunuwar, Moulisobha Raini, who was pregnant, and Kaaley Subba, a 14-year-old boy who was watching the action from atop a tree.

Watershed moment

Salim Subba, who was born to tea worker parents at Margaret’s Hope 26 years ago, grew up hearing about this incident from his grandmother, Lakhmoti Dewan, who was also a labourer at the garden and one of the protestors on that fateful day.

Salim Subba points at the names of martyrs inscribed on the memorial at the site of the June 1955 shootout. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma.

“My grandmother, and pretty much every village elder, was full of stories of exploitation, struggle and survival,” said Subba. “First it was the British. Then, after their leaving, it was their colonial hangover that kept exploiting the workers. Labourers worked – and they still do – in such miserable conditions that it is hard to believe that they made some of the best teas in the world.”

Subba, currently a part-time lecturer at St Joseph’s College in Darjeeling, has documented the epoch-making incident of June 25, 1955, as part of his M.Phil dissertation titled, Tea Plantation Labour Movement in Darjeeling Hills (1856-1955), its Genesis and Growth. “The 1955 movement was a watershed moment in the tea plantation labour history,” he said. “The strike was the first ever organised movement by workers in West Bengal’s tea sector and it was successful in achieving its goals.”

The furore in tea gardens spilled outside. A day after the incident, more than 20,000 tea workers and common people marched to Darjeeling town and laid siege of the district headquarters. Police made random arrests. Agam Singh Giri, the renowned poet from Darjeeling, was also arrested for expressing his support to the workers. “By June 27, the management had no choice but to meet all the demands of the workers,” said Subba.

Abhijit Mazumdar, the political activist and joint convenor of the United Forum of Tea Garden Workers, described the uprising of 1955 as historical. “For the first time in the history of tea gardens, workers were given bonuses,” he said. “There used to be a provision of bonus under the Bonus Act, but no garden had implemented it till then.”

Margaret's Hope tea garden on a recent monsoon day. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma.

Tea-pluckers’ wage was raised from six annas (about 38 paise) to eight annas (50 paise).

A major contribution of the 1955 uprising, according to Subba, is that it prepared the base for further labour activism in the hills, and also the state. “Beyond the trade union movement, it influenced the politics of the day. The Communist Party of India was able to consolidate its position in the hills and also the Dooars [Himalayan foothills towards the east, another tea-growing region in Bengal],” Subba added.

Since 2004, the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists, a Darjeeling-based breakaway faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxists), has been observing this day as Shramik Diwas, or Labour Day.

Revolutionary doctor

The seeds of revolution had been sown a few years earlier by Dr Abaniranjan Talapatra. He was the doctor at the tea estate and is fondly remembered as Talapatray Daaktar by workers even today. They said he was the “kindest soul”, who prepared an iodine solution every day for the workers to dip their feet in after work. In those times, workers, like Limbuni, were not allowed to wear shoes, or even full-length pants. He called on workers in their homes, inquired after their health; and along with medicines also gave them ideas.

Talapatra, who came from Jalpaiguri in the plains, some 100 kilometres away, was an active member of the Communist Party. “Earlier, he was very actively involved in the Tebhaga movement of 1946-’47,” said Mazumdar, who is the son of Charu Mazumdar, one of the founders of the Naxalbari movement. Tebhaga movement was in demand for a greater share (two-thirds, instead of half) of crop produce for the share-croppers. It was a major precursor to the Naxalbari agitation, the armed peasant uprising that broke out from Naxalbari in the plains of Darjeeling district, some 45 kilometres away from Margaret’s Hope, in 1967.

With the old memorial (right) in a dilapidated state, a new memorial (left) has been erected by the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists at the site of the June 1955 police firing in memory of the six people killed in the incident. Photo credit: Anuradha Sharma

Though the 1955 uprising had no direct impact on the Naxalbari movement, which was about peasants and not workers, the leaders were greatly inspired by it. Mazumdar said the development had a big influence over the founder leaders – Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal.

Talapatra used to stealthily organise meetings with workers in their homes, or in the forest at nights. He even went to the extent of ostensibly organising a tonsuring ceremony for his son at his home, under the pretext of which he met workers. But the garden management got a whiff of his designs and he was thrown out – under the hattabahar system – along with his followers “to safeguard the garden from communist ideology”.

The doctor went away, leaving behind his patients who had by that time already become an organised labour force.

Not much change

Margaret’s Hope’s workers wear shoes now. They are even given umbrellas by the management. But even after all these years, their struggle is far from over. It is the same story for workers in all 87 tea gardens of Darjeeling. The makers of the best teas in the world are still as exploited as ever, earning very low wages, with shrinking fringe benefits. “The wage has now risen to Rs 150, but for an entire day’s hard work it is too less,” said Ratan Dewan, a worker at Margaret’s Hope. “With rising expenses of everything, how do we manage?”

For the past few years, workers have been demanding wages under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. On June 19, seven hill-based tea unions came together to jointly campaign for safeguarding of workers’ wages through the Minimum Wages Act. This is historic in itself in that even rival unions have come together for a common cause.

Dewan has heard that in Kerala, they make “more than Rs 350 a day” – the minimum wage in the southern state is fixed at Rs 600. “We can only hope,” he said, squatting beside a pair of shoes.