Gender and Migration in Labor History: as Replicated in the Folk Song of Purulia

Dr. Abhijit Sarkar, Associate Professor of History in WBES & OIC, Govt. General Degree College at Manbazar-II, Susunia, Purulia,W.B. Mobile: 9434112544/ Email:


Present paper seeks to understand the analytical component of gender and migration in labor history of colonial phase through the lenses of folk songs of Purulia, a district of West Bengal. How to connect gender with the study of labor history, would also to be discussed. Simultaneously, it is aiming to the study on oral tradition vis a vis folk song as a source of history. In a row the local history of a Bengal region with a sharp focus on socio-economic history, is to be judged through this multidisciplinary study.


Labor History, Migration, Purulia, Gender, Chotanagpur, Santhal Pargana, Manbhum, Bhumij Kol, Hill Collies, Chatichuti, Depoghar, Arkathi.

Research Objectives:

a. To understand the analytical component of gender and migration in labor history of colonial phase through the lenses of folk songs of Purulia, W.B.

b. To valued the oral tradition as an alternate source of history.

c. To evaluate local socio-cultural history of Purulia with a sharp bias to understand the colonial economic tyranny.


Labor history as a sub discipline of social history conceptualizes the history of working class and labor movement. On the other hand Gender history is sub field of history and gender study, which look upon the past from the viewpoint of gender, hence touched the feet of women’s history altogether. General trend of historiography seldom recognized the gender in labor history as analytical ingredient of higher interest. On theother hand Migration is a well known natural phenomenon of civilization, though primarily it had no connection with the labor or industrialization, plantation etc. Contrary, the process of migration which was unfurled during colonial rule was a calculated process of the British govt. motivated by the business entrepreneurs and sometime by the rulers. Hence, all these together formed the hardship of the path of the research on labor history. As an arena of study it is vast and complicated. In order to comprehend its enormity to understand the role of migration and gender in labor history, I have examined here some of the folk songs, (collected through field study); which aptly would connect our destination by unveiling the new episode on labor history of this region. Simultaneously it would enhance the scope of understanding of feasibility of oral tradition vis.a.vis. folk song as commanding source of history.

Labor and Gender in History:

As I have stated earlier, the labor history is sub discipline of social history, which conceptualizes the history of working class and labor movement. In this connection, it includes industrial relations, forms of labor protest, rise of socialism and the socio-cultural history of industrial working class. In an advance stage of academic development this labor history extended its thrust areas by incorporating the experiences of workers, women and minorities. Similarly, Gender history is sub field of history and gender study, which look upon the past from the viewpoint of gender, hence touched the feet of women’s history altogether. From mid 1980’s gender continues to stimulate the researches on labor history by advancing the position of women in reference to their male counterpart and throws light on the aspects of social construction of masculinity and femininity in relation to the community of labors.

General trend of historiography seldom recognized the gender in labor history as analytical ingredient of higher interest. Hence, the labor history altogether became a history of economics, and contrary have outcaste the scope of research on gender issues in academics of labor history. The labor historical research in India following the line of historian E.P. Thompson and later on observing the subaltern line; the women does not get their proper share of contribution. Therefore, a separate feminist history may needed; though the path is obscure, as the working ladies of colonial India was not capable to write and preserve their memoirs in this regard. Their status of illiteracy, hardship of livelihood and their family position etc. pushed them in further obscurity; therefore, the task of positioning them in proper position of labor history still lying pending. Some indirect sources may have throws lights on it, but with utter limitations; the folk song might be one of them. In this context, it should recall that, most of the songs in this connection are creation of females; and the storyline uninterruptedly sayings the untold stories of women in plantation or other work sites or the background which pulled them to the works of plantation. 1  

Migration in History:

On the other hand Migration is a well known natural phenomenon of civilization, though primarily it had no connection with the labor or industrialization, plantation etc. and characteristically, from primitive time it only took the lead of civilization, by expanding the hand of culture or geographical horizon etc. In fact, the word ‘Migration’ is derivation of a Latin word ‘migration’, “a removal, change of abode.” 2 The migration generally used to happen from one country to other country, often over long distances. Contrary, there are trends of internal migration; which denotes migration within one geopolitical entity, usually within a nation state.

With a compatible mode, the process of migration in India was also not an unknown phenomenon; rather Indian migration having a cordial hereditary root. The migrations thus happened that days, were a mere activities of human races for food and for places of cattle rearing; sometimes it accompanied the process of eviction of tribes of a particular locality by another mighty tribe.

Contrary, the process of migration which was unfurled during colonial rule was a calculated process of the British govt. motivated by the business entrepreneurs and sometime by the rulers. A part of it was the consequences of colonial process of Industrialization, forest policy and obviously the burdensome land revenue system. On the other hand, British policy of forest conservation to combat the deforestation have posed new threat to the inhabitants, as they were deprived from forest food or consumable wealth like fruits, leaves or wood sticks for fuel etc. On the other hand, the private owned forests were destructed by the local lords and surprisingly the British had not taken any measure to protect those forests from manmade destruction; even though, they had the Indian Forest Act of 1865. Moreover, overpopulation, poverty and low employments were some of the main causes of migration. It again acquired impetus from the sporadic natural disaster like drought and other consequences generated through environmental disruption or manmade catastrophe.

Colonial Migration and Purulia:

Migrations from Purulia (Westernmost district of W.B., mostly bordering the state of Jharkhand) during colonial days were mostly directed to the tea plantation areas of Assam and North Bengal. As the tea grown areas were the remotest of the locality, covered with dense forest, estranged from locality, prone of diseases like malaria or else. Local labor force being informed of the situation could not be exploited so easily. Hence, the entrepreneurs look forward to the poverty-stricken tribal regions of the country. Consequently, the Chotanagpur and Santhal Pargana of Bengal presidency became the hinterland of this supply. The migrated labors from Chotanagpur were popularly known as ‘hill coolies’. 3 A statistics shows, between 1870 to 1900, the plantations have attracted at least 700,000 and 8, 50,000 recruits.4 In reference to Manbhum Bradley Birt observed, …‘Manbhum is the land of cultivators, coolie, and the Bhumij Kol—the cultivator pursuing the dull round of daily life and fighting with each recurring session the battle of existence’.5 The local reporters of the district pointed out the wretched condition of villages in and around Purulia , hunger altogether paved the way of migration of those starved people .6  In fact, the colonial migration from Purulia had witnessed a significant gender dimension. A statistics shows that, in the year 1891, 5,500 men and 12,000 women were emigrated from Manbhum.7 The emigration of female not only motivated by the economic distress or the inducement of money; but this episode had a strong connection with the traditional struggle of women within the family against the patriarchy.8  Whenever a male member of a particular family have opted for the contract as emigrant labor, consequently his wife and the children emerged as natural corollary that to be deported. Sometime the lady in distress was duped and lure through other ways; such as, false promises for good jobs or fraudulent marriages etc.

Folk Song and Forced Migration of Women Labor, Purulia:

To substantiate the proposed hypothesis, I have taken five of the folk songs composed by the people from Purulia, all of which bears clear tone of forced migration from the region under study, to the tea plantation areas and a gender discriminating attitude in the process of migration. :

  1. হাসি হাসি প্রেম ফাঁসী , মহাজনে পরালো / পাতা তুলার নাম নিঞে, আসামেতে চালালো ।।
  2. চাটিচুটি দিয়ে মোরে / সাম করালো ডিপুঘরে / লিখল্য হামার সাত পুরুষের নাম / হায় রে লম্পটা শাম / ফাঁকি দিঞে বধু চালালি আসাম।।
  3. হামরা দুটি মা বিটি, দিনে রাতে চা কুটি / কুট্যে-কুট্যে বহে ঘাম / অধম দীননাথ ভনে / যে যাবে আসাম বনে / আর না ফিরিবে নিজ ধামে ।।
  4.  মনে করি আসাম যাবো / সনার পাঙ্খা দলাইব / সাহেব দিলো কদালেরি কাম / রে যদুরাম, ফাঁকি দিঞে পাঠালি আসাম ।।
  5. চল্‌ মিনি আসাম যাবো / দেশে বড় ভখ্‌ রে / আসাম দেশে মিনি চা বাগান হরিয়াল / কদাল মারা যেমন তেমন / পাতা তুলা কাম গ / রে যদুরাম ফাঁকি দিঞে পাঠালি আসাম । … / ছেলা কাঁদে টিহিক টিহিক গাগরীয়ে জল নাই … / সর্দার বলে কাম্‌ কাম্‌ / বাবু বলে ধরে আন / সাহেব বলে লিব পিঠের চাম, রে যদুরাম ।।

In first song, the poet expressed the imagery of transportation of the coolies in Assam. The story line has narrates that, the money lender have deprived the debtor; probably the debtors were given advance rent to the peasants and while non-payment of the debts they were deported to Assam as coolies for tea plantation. The second song too has an imagery of forced migration. In this connection the term ‘Chatichuti’ wants a special mention; local dialect ‘Chatichuti’ denotes something like ‘defraud’ anybody. So, once again, the facts of forced migration through cheating have been priories here. The mention of entering at the ‘Depoghar’ suggests that, the lady was brought at the office of the local agent for signing the agreement and it was certainly against her will or by blackmailing her emotionally. Noteworthy, this song has portrayed an indication of love affair between the lady and the agent or ‘arkathi’ or ‘Push Push’. In fact, till days in India there are ample examples of cheating the women by trapping them in relationship. It is one of the common tricks used by the agent of the rackets of women trafficking for sex trade in India. Song number three of the above cluster is story of both mother and daughter who used to be busy with the work of thrashing tea leaves round the clock and became tried with the practices.  In fact, severe discipline had toughened the work condition of the laborers in tea plantation. A Women worker of Baloma Tea Estate, Assam; namely, Kadamoni before the Royal Commission of Labor in India, firmly stated that, she had to go for plant at 6 to 7 am. in the morning and scheduled to be returned mostly on 5 pm; this routine even remained intact during her illness.9 The labors were strictly monitored all around the duty periods and also when they stayed in home at night, whether they are there or fled from the plantation. The same Kadamoni once again before the Royal Commission has unveiled the truth saying that, “he [chowkidar] comes round at night to see if we are at home. He flings the door open even if we are not properly dressed” 10 In North Bengal, the planters have maintained a private militia, called North Bengal Rifles to monitor the activities of the labourers,11 in order to futile the chances of their evacuation from the plantation site.  The fact lies that, this migrated people by no means were allowed to return by the authority or had to be able to return by their own.

Fourth song narrating the intention of a man; who as exaggerated by the agent have dreamt of to go to Assam. This was also a kind of tricks to motivate the simple and ignorant people of this locality by narrating the facilities one would get at Assam, the money, the comfort etc. Fifth song contained a statement of a tribal village woman, who addressing her daughter Mini for a trip to Assam, because the country they lived is being starved. The reference of person, called Jaduram, the agent for labor deportation, have signified the trait of cheating by the agents or arkathi, which at last bounded the people to go Assam for plantation works. Sometime the women were lured with false promise of good jobs, or fraudulent marriages etc. At least two songs are bearing such testimony of fraudulent promise of marriage after a courtship etc.; again in this context we can recall the specific lines of those songs which testify the proposition. 1) হাসি হাসি প্রেম ফাঁসী, মহাজনে পরালো (Hansi Hansi Prem Phansi/Mohajone Poralo) or 2) চাটিচুটি দিয়ে মোরে / সাম করালো ডিপুঘরে … হায় রে লম্পটা শাম (Chatichuti Diye More/Sham Koralo Dipughare/. . . Hai Re Lampotya Shayam). In first instances the term ‘Prem Phansi’ and in second song the references of ‘Chatichuti’ and the name ‘Shayam’ referred lord Krishna; are indicating that both the lady were primarily lured by the love and assurance of marriage. They relied their lover and consequently the agent in disguise of lover duped and compelled them to sign contract.

So discrimination on women inside the family; their position in the labor market, particularly the rate of wages were comparative lower than the male, pushed them high in labor markets. On the other hand, lack of skill and their search for better living ultimately have placed them in the grab of traffickers. This was not only true for the colonial women, but modern Indian women too had witnessed such experience, till date. Surprisingly, one important feature of the emigration of tea plantation of Assam was its higher percentage of employment of women laborers and children.12

Findings, Conclusion and Suggestions:

In fact, the songs I have cited, clearly elaborate the radical nature of women labor recruitment at tea garden. As I have stated earlier that, the arkathi or the agents duped them by various tricks; such as, the good prospect in job, better marriage prospect. Sometime they were trapped in the disguise of love affairs; even sometime they were being simply kidnapped or abducted by force. Contemporary Bengali literature like the ‘Kulikahini’ by Ramkumar Vidyaratna (1888), ‘Arkathi Natak’ by Harilal Bandopadyay (1901) have nicely sketched the real happening with the tribal and poor women of Bengal aspired to be engaged in tea plantation at Assam.13 This was only a part of entire process of women labor recruitment on tea plantation. In fact, the entrepreneurs motivated the govt. to ensure the supply of women labors to the plantation site. Under the pressure of the planters, the govt. had enacted a number of legislation time to time. Such was happened in 1863, in this year the govt. had enacted a new regulation called, Transport of Native Labors Act (III) of 1863. The act provided the superintendent of emigration to ensure the supply of women laborers. It was decided that, the superintendent would declined any envoy of the labors which does not composed with at least one women to every four male labors of the group.14 Outside the orbits of those regulations the calculative muscle power and tricks from the planter raj have been worked randomly upon the contract laborers irrespective of gender or age etc; and the women due to their natural obstacles was exploited larger than their male counterpart. They even were tactfully assaulted, molested and even rapped by the various officials and other dominant groups inside the plantation areas.15 Above discussion shows how the migrant women were treated as the sexual commodity and exploited accordingly by the planters and their Indian cadres. In fact, the songs cited above in almost every occasion of discussion helps us to understand the history, process, means and methods of migration of labors in one side; similarly on the other side it elaborated the process of depression on the labors on the basis of gender. Hence a new trait of research on gender in labor history, the understanding of colonial women history, can be prompt up from the study of such folk songs.

 Notes and References :


  1. Dutta, Priyanka, ‘Locating the Historical Past of the Women in Tea Workers of North Bengal’, Working Paper-341, The Institute for Social and Economic Changes, Bangalore, 2015, p.6-8/ Date accessed: 26/06/2020
  2. Online Etymological Dictionary, Date accessed: 22/06/2020
  3.  Saha, Panchanan, Emigration of Indian Labor, 1834-1919; Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi, 1970, p.29
  4. Chakraborty, Subhas Ranjan, ‘Colonialism, Resource Crisis and Forced Migration’, p.11/  Date accessed: 25/06/2020 & 24/11/2020
  5. Bradley Birt, F.B., Chotanagpur A little Known Province of the Empire, London, Smith Elder & Co., 1910, p.159
  6. Mukti, 1929, Year: 4th Issue No.28, p.34/quoted Mahato, Nirmal Kumar, ‘Environment and Migration, Purulia, West Bengal’, MCRG Research Paper Series, Policies and Practices, Kolkata, 2010, p.4, Date accessed: 18/11/2020
  7. Coupland, H., District Gazetteer, Manbhum, Calcutta, 1911, p.70
  8. Sinha, S.S., 2005, Restless Mothers Turbulent Daughters: Situating Tribes in Gender Studies, Stree, Kolkata, p.110/quoted- Mahato Nirmal Kumar, Ibid. p.5 Date accessed: 18/11/2020
  9. RCLI, 1931:115/quoted, Dutta, Priyanka, Ibid. p: 16 /  Date accessed: 26/06/2020
  10. RCLI, 1931:115/quoted, Dutta, Priyanka, Ibid. p. 17/ Date Accessed: 26/6/2020
  11. Dutta, Priyanka, Ibid. p. 17 / Date Accessed: 26/6/2020
  12. GOI, 1891/Behal, Rana, P., ‘Indian Migrant Labourers in South-East Asian and Assam Plantations under the British Imperial System’ p.4/ Default/files/127-2017  Date accessed: 25/06/2020 & 26/06/2020
  13. Dutta, Priyanka, Ibid. p.12-13/ Date accessed: 26/06/2020
  14. Dutta, Priyanka, Ibid. p.14/ /Date accessed: 26/06/2020
  15. Sen, Samita, ‘Honour and Resistance: Gender, Community and Class in Bengal, 1920-40’. In Sekhar Bandhopadhyay, Abhijit Dasgupta and Willem van Schendel [ed.], Bengal: Communities, Development and States, New Delhi, Manohar, 1994, pp.209-54