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Assam tea estate murder: Poor management of labour unrest to blame?

Over a month after the brutal murder of tea estate owner Mridul Bhattacharjee and his wife, allegedly by labourers protesting the arrest of two colleagues, investigations have revealed that a dispute between the owners and workers on the estate had been brewing for years.

CNN-IBNs Arijit Sen travelled to the Konapathar tea estate in Assam’s Tinsukia district, where police now say that they believe the two victims were murdered before the mob moved in and set fire to their house.

On the night of the incident, a group of over 200 people entered the bungalow area and set fire to a vehicle and another group of 30 people surrounded the bungalow. They poured petrol and kerosene and set fire to it with the owner and his wife still inside.

Screengrab from an amateur video sourced by CNNIBN that shows the building being burnt. IBNLive.

Screengrab from an amateur video sourced by CNNIBN that shows the building being burnt. IBNLive.

However, workers claim that all was not well with the management of the plant. Labourers were routinely beaten up, exploited and their salaries deducted even if they did not turn up for a day's work.

The arrest of Suraj and Ajit, two estate labourers, allegedly on false charges of theft are what proved to be a flash point in the relations between the labourers and the estate owner. When labourers went to meet Bhattacharjee over the incident, he reportedly abused them.

Mura, Suraj and Ajit's mother said, ""Suraj took three days off. Then he took another three. When he went to work, the owner said vacate your house and stop working."

Her husband has also been arrested by the police in connection with this case.

But why was trouble brewing in a 200-hectare tea estate Konapathar, that was said to be one of Assam's best?

The discontent started when nearly 700 workers were provided with no proper latrines, schools and  hospitals and labourers claim it was part of severe exploitation by the estate owner.

"For 18 years I have worked. I have been punished often. I have not got my due rights or my provident fund," said a labourer, Asha Mura.

"If a labour was absent for a day, wages would be cut and sometimes he would beat them up with a cane." Hiren Goala, another labourer, said.

While the management dismissed the allegations, workers insist that Bhattarcharjee has often pulled out a gun or whipped them when they bargained for their rights.

It is not the first time that trouble has brewed in the tea gardens in Bhattarcharjee's tea estates. In 2010, Bhattacharjee had allegedly shot dead a 14-year-old boy when he was confronted by a mob after he attacked a woman for using a private road on the tea estate. Police are still investigating if the murder of the estate owner is linked with this incident as well.