Lush green tea gardens meet the eye on both sides of the National Highway 37. Providing both succor to the onlooker and livelihood to the lakhs of people dependent on the tea industry, these estates are the lifeline of upper Assam. The Panitola Tea Estate in the Tinsukia district is one of the oldest tea gardens of this region.
Among the many Adivasi families (also known as tea garden workers) living in the labour lines of Panitola, is the family of 43-year-old Gangaram Koul, a popular leader of the All Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (AATTSA). A breakaway from the norm where tea tribe children follow their fathers to work in the gardens, Koul passed his Higher Secondary with first division. Graduating from the Dibrugarh University, Koul had taken on the mantle of fighting for the rights of tea tribes in his garden and surrounding areas. A fight that was to cost Koul his life.
On the evening of 25 March, on his way back home, Koul was attacked by a group of people wielding machetes and iron rods, who first beat him up and then hacked him to death. The gruesome murder has left the entire tea tribe community shocked. Koul was not only a popular leader among the tea garden workers, he was also their crusader who stood up to the corrupt practices in the region. Koul had been fighting against the corruption in the Public Distribution System (PDS) meant for the tea labourers in Tinsukia and neighbouring Dibrugarh district.
The Tarun Gogoi administration ordered a CID probe into Koul’s murder. Under severe criticism from the media and protests by AATTSA activists over allegations of local Congress leaders’ hand behind the killing, on 2 April, the government had to approach the CBI to take over the investigation.
“We feel that the same forces involved in the corrupt activities my husband was trying to expose is behind his murder,” says Koul’s wife Sakhila Munda, who teaches in a primary school in nearby Digboi town. “He had been instrumental in creating awareness among our community on how they were being exploited and their foodgrain looted.” Sakhila is having a hard time explaining to her shocked son Bishal, 14, and daughter Meghali, 9, on why their father was killed for doing the right thing.
Koul’s tryst with politics began during his college days, when he was attracted to communist ideals and joined the CPI(ML). He raised the Sangrami Chah Shramik Sangha (SCSS) to counter the “monopoly” exercised by the Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the largest tea labourers’ union in the state, also known to be close to the ruling Congress.
Following his death, the CPI(ML) called for a statewide bandh, and the police was forced to file an FIR against local Congress MLA Raju Sahu, two panchayat leaders of the Congress, two local office-bearers of the ACMS in Panitola and Purushuttom Singh, a PDS licencee as accused in plotting the gruesome murder.
Koul had reportedly found that 29 of some 50 Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards from a fair price shop owned by a Sudha Devi Singh in the Panitola Tea Estate were bogus, and the rice drawn on these cards were sold in the black market. Sudha Devi Singh is the sister-in-law of one of the accused, Purushuttom Singh. With the help of his colleague Subrajyoti Bardhan, Koul raised the alarm and soon the tea tribe community joined the movement that led to the suspension of Sudha Singh’s PDS licence. A case on this issue is still pending at the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Tinsukia district.
Koul found that Purushuttom Singh, a PDS licencee himself, was operating along similar lines. Local people found that he had lifted two quintals of wheat from the Laipuli GPSS but did not distribute it, and had also shown a huge number of bogus consumers in the population list of 2004-06. But the Office of the Deputy Director of Food and Supply of Consumer Affairs reinstated his licence.
“The Food and Civil Supplies Department allowed Singh to lift PDS items from the Laipuli GPSS on 26 December last year when Singh had no valid licence,” alleges Bardhan, also a state committee member of the CPI(ML). “It proves how corrupt officials are involved in this loot and plunder of the PDS.”
Koul had alleged that district officials were openly violating norms of transparency in the sub-allotment of PDS items. PDS items are sub-allotted by the deputy commissioner’s office and the list of the items must be uploaded on the National Informative Centre’s website. In Tinsukia district, all these ground rules were violated. “Koul found that all mandatory norms were violated and how the PDS mafia makes a separate sub-allotment list that shows much less than the actual quantity sub-allotted by the deputy commissioner,” says a tea garden worker on condition of anonymity.
Koul’s stand against corruption added to his popularity. He even contested the Assembly polls in 2006 and 2011. In 2006, he contested from Chabua and finished fourth, with 3,042 votes. Again, in the 2011 Assembly polls, Koul secured more than 7,000 votes, a clear indication of his increasing popularity. In 2009, he had also contested for the Lok Sabha from the Dibrugarh constituency. He fought elections every time as a CPI(ML) candidate. However, more than his growing political clout, it is his crusade against the irregularities in the PDS that has forced the government to ask for a CBI probe. What it throws up could well decide the Congress’ fortunes among the tea tribes of Assam.
With inputs from Avik Chakraborty in Tinsukia