Nurturing resistance : agency and activism of women tea plantation workers in a gendered space
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This thesis offers an analysis of labour relations and social space in the tea gardens of north-east India. Existing literature provides us with an understanding of how the plantations operate as economic spaces, but in so doing they treat workers as undifferentiated economic beings defined only by their class identity. Space, however, has to be animated to be meaningful. Through participant observation and semi-structured interviews I explore the plantations as actual lived spaces where people are bound by and resist constraints. Multiple intersecting identities play out within these social spaces making them ethnic, religious, and caste spaces in addition to being gendered. Focusing on these intersectional identities, I demonstrate how region, ethnicity, party affiliation, caste, religion are played out and how they are invoked at certain points by the women workers. The articulations of identity not only determine a sense of belonging or non-belonging to a space but also how one belongs. Within the physical sites of the plantation, I examine how the women perceive these spaces and how, in moving between ideas of home/world, public/private, these very binaries are negated. The strict sexual division of labour primarily in the workplace but also in the household and villages inscribe the physical sites with certain gendered meanings and performances. The women negotiate these in their everyday lives and shape these spaces even as they are shaped by them. Conditioned by gender norms and the resultant hierarchy their narratives can be read as stories of deprivation and misery, but looking deeper their agency can also be uncovered. The lives of my research participants show how the social spaces within which they operate are not static; in spite of spatial controls there are the many minute acts of resistance through which the women work the existing restraints to their least disadvantage. Focussing on the minute acts of insubordination, deceit and even confrontation I elucidate how the women made use of the relations of subordination to pave spaces of resistance and sometimes even of autonomy. Furthermore, not all acts of agency are minute or unspectacular. I map instances of highly visible, volatile and aggressive protests apparently challenging the accepted social codes within which they function. In expressing themselves, the women use the available political repertories of protest in forms of strikes, blockades, street plays, etc. Through these instances of activism they appropriate and become visible in the public realm and challenge the accepted ways in which social spaces and norms play out. Despite their articulate nature, these protests usually seek to address immediate demands and do not escalate into social movements. Also while volatile in action, the protests seek legitimacy within the accepted gender codes that operate in their everyday life in the plantation.