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Ettuvettil Pillamar, the governors of eight powerful provinces in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore in present-day Kerala, wanted to usurp the throne and orchestrated the assassinations of the king and his successors. Forced to flee, the minor heir to the throne, Chera Marthanda Varma, befriended the Zamindar of Singampatti in Tirunelveli District, who was skilled in spear-throw and horse riding, while in hiding. With the Zamin’s help, Varma recaptured Travancore. In gratitude for the help rendered and to compensate for the death of Nallapulikutti, the heir of the Zamin, in the war, Marthanda Varma gifted 74,000 acres of forest land in the Western Ghats which were part of his kingdom.

manjolai massacre 1In 1918, in order to meet the legal expenses of his heir who was embroiled in a murder case, the then Singampatti Zamindar entered a contract to lease out 8374 acres of this land to the Parsi owned Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC) based in Maharashtra for a period of 99 years. The land changed hands in 1927 and became what we know now as the Manjolai estates.

The tea estates of Manjolai, Kakkachi, Nalumukku, Oothu and Kuthiravetti are situated in the hills of Ambasamudram in Tirunelveli District. Middlemen of the employers brought people of Scheduled Caste communities from Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi regions and the Ezhava people from various parts of Kerala to work as labourers in the estates. The labourers are overseen by the Supervisors addressed as ‘Kangani’ who in turn are answerable to field officers called as Ayya, and they work under Estate Managers respectfully called Durai. The Estate Managers are usually from other states such as Karnataka and Punjab, and the Officers are from other districts in the State.

In the year 1948, the Tamil Nadu Estates (Abolition and Conversion to Ryotwari) Act was enacted, and consequentially the Singampatti Zamin’s lands too came under the control of the Government. As a result, in the year 1952, BBTC had to renew its lease contract with the then Congress-led government in Tamil Nadu.  

More than 5000 permanent and temporary estate labourers used to work in the Manjolai estate region. The cash crops - tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper - are grown here. At various points in time, the labourers have staged protests for the problems they faced, such as the introduction of trolleys for plucking tea leaves in 1968, demanding the provision of breakfast for the morning shift workers at the factory in 1978, demanding 10 minutes’ extra time every day to reach their workplace in the mornings in 1988 and so on from the administration and have been successful in them too.   

In the year 1998, the plantation workers in Manjolai received a daily wage of just Rs.53/- which included a basic pay of Rs.33/-. In such circumstances, the leader of the Pudhiya Tamizhagam Political Party Dr. Krishnasamy, who came to Manjolai to canvass votes for the upcoming elections, learnt the problems that the labourers of the Manjolai region faced. Subsequently, after the elections, he came to Manjolai and demanded that the BBTC administration fulfil a total of 33 demands including raise in wages to Rs.150/-, Rs.5/- for every additional kilo of tea leaves plucked after the basic 16 kilos that have to be plucked per day by a labourer, doing away with the oppressive bonded labour practices that prevailed in the estates and so on and also gave an ultimatum that they should be fulfilled by 20.08.98 failing which he would urge the labourers to go on a strike that Puthiya Tamizhagam would lead.

As the BBTC administration turned a deaf ear to the demands of Puthiya Tamizhagam Party, the labourers went on a strike from 20.08.1998 at the instance of Dr. Krishnasamy. On 03.09.1998, Dr. Krishnasamy came to the Estate region and announced that the entrance to the Estate would be closed and they would be taking over the Tea Factory. The labour unions of DMK, ADMK, MDMK, PMK, CPI and CPI (M) which existed in the Manjolai were dismantled and brought under the Puthiya Tamizhakam labour union. 

That night the management engaged a private truck to transport the already manufactured tea from the tea factory in the Oothu Estate for sales. Labourers who got to know of this staged a sit-in protest in front of the gates of the Tea Factory. The next day, i.e. on 04.09.1998, talks were held between the estate management and the labourers and they dispersed. After that, the management called in the Police. The Police led by the Superintendent of Police, apprehended, beat up and arrested 127 labourers who were at home or walking on the roadsides and took them to Trichy Prison. The Protest caught up steam after this incident. 

manjolai massacre 2The talks that ensued did not bear any fruit. When the five and a half months long strike did not bring about a solution, the labour unions decided to return to work, and from January 1999 all the labourers resumed work. The same month the management issued memos to the temporary workers asking them why they shouldn’t be removed from their job for having involved in an illegal strike. The labourers also had to face a lot of other problems from the management’s side. Therefore, a majority of the permanent labourers went on half-day strike in support of the temporary workers. The wages of these labourers were reduced in half by the management.

Following this the labourers of the tea estate gheraoed the residence of the District Collector of Tirunelveli on 07 and 08.06.1999, demanding full wages and action against the estate management for its vengeful acts against the permanent labourers who went on strike in support of the temporary workers. As a result, 653 persons, including 198 women, were arrested and sent to Trichy Prison.

On 23.07.1999, Puthiya Tamizhagam, Tamil Nadu State Congress, Aikkiya Jamaat, CPI, CPI (M) and various organizations along with people from various areas went as a procession on the banks of Thamirabarani to submit a petition to the District Collector of Tirunelveli, demanding the release of the 653 labourers who had been in jail for 47 days and reiterating other demands like wage hike. The State machinery was irked by the audacity of the oppressed scheduled caste people who garnered the courage to take out a rally in support of the labourers and decided that this should not be allowed and in a planned move, the then DMK led Government unleashed its police force on the unsuspecting protestors. The Police prevented the entry of the political party leaders into the Collector’s Office and opened fire on the protestors and also began to chase and beat up the thousands of people gathered for the rally including the leaders of the various political parties that led the rally in order to disrupt the procession. 

The people, who were taken unawares by the sudden, brutal assault of the Police, scattered and started fleeing. On one side was the walled District Collector’s office and on the other side of the road were slopes leading into River Thamirabarani. Most of the protestors rolled down the slopes and jumped into the river in a bid to escape the police assault. But the intention of the Police was not just to scatter the people gathered there to demand justice and win their rights but also to terrorize them and their supporters. The Police went in pursuit of the people who jumped into the river too and assaulted them. Govt. Officials and media personnel were also among those who were injured. Horrifyingly, 17 persons including a one and a half-year-old boy Vignesh, who belonged to various castes, religions and sections of the society, were beaten to death by the Police. 

It was after all these atrocities, after 52 days that the 653 labourers who were arrested and imprisoned were released. When the people concerned refused to accept the bodies of the 17 murdered protestors until justice was served, the Govt. instead of ensuring justice, unceremoniously buried the bodies in different places. Following this, when many sections demanded a post mortem of the bodies of the murdered persons by doctors from other states, in order to prevent a judicial enquiry or entry of international human rights groups, the DMK Govt. constituted a one-man Enquiry Commission under retired Supreme Court Justice Mohan and put an end to such demands.

manjolai massacre 3After a gap of 11 months, Justice Mohan in his report released on 27.06.2000 recommended the dismissal of two Deputy Commissioners and a Tahsildar from their posts but had also shockingly stated in his report that the people fell upon one another and accidentally fell into the river and that the deaths were due to accidental drowning in the river and some had died due to injuries that they had already sustained on the road during the procession and that it cannot be said that the Police had acted with an intent of causing death to the protestors. 

Failed by all sections in getting their demands met, the hapless labourers of Manjolai went back to work for BBTC. The management started to treat the labourers with even more stringency. Owing to this many labourers went to various other parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in search of other jobs for their livelihood. The sons of the soil had sadly become nomads in their own land.

Even though decades have passed, many of the demands raised by the labourers still remain unfulfilled. In painful contrast to the fresh leaves of tea that they pluck in the scenic hills up in Manjolai, the lives of the Tea Estate labourers remain as barren as a desert.


Written by Robert Chandra Kumar

Translated by Sabitha

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