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|September 16, 1997||
Tata Tea controversy: We are not going to leave anybody scot-free says MahantaGeorge Iype in New Delhi
Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta met Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral on Monday and complained that Union Home Secretary K Padmanabhaiah was interfering in the state government's investigation into the alleged funding of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom by Tata Tea.
Briefing Gujral on the Tata Tea-ULFA controversy, Mahanta is believed to have conveyed the state government's determination to complete the investigation involving large tea companies.
The chief minister also asked the Union home ministry why Padmanabhaiah had called Assam Director General of Police Hrishikeshan and told him to stop the interrogation of the Tata Tea executives.
Soon after his meeting with the prime minister, Mahanta told Rediff On The NeT that the funding of extremists by business houses is ''an anti-national act.''
''My government is ready to provide protection to any person or organisation threatened by the militants. If company executives are threatened, they should approach the government for help instead of succumbing to extortion," the chief minister said.
"It is the moral responsibility of companies," Mahanta said, "to inform the government, the police or intelligence agencies about extortion by militants."
Mahanta took a hard line on the interrogation of Tata Tea officials, saying ''we are not going to leave anybody scot-free.'' He said his government has been aware that militants in Assam have been amassing millions of rupees through sustained extortion. 'It is in the national interest to stop the inflow of money to the extremists. If people are found guilty, action will be taken.''
The chief minister denounced Padmanabhiah's alleged meddling in the affair and asked how the state could be run smoothly if "the home secretary orders what we should do and what we should not."
''I have appraised the prime minister about the progress of the investigation into the funding of ultras by the tea companies,'' Mahanta said.
Home ministry officials, however, said the Assam CM's charges against Padmanabhaiah does not have merit for two reasons. One, the Centre feels the police and paramilitary forces in Assam have been unable to provide adequate security to tea gardens in the state. Second, central officials believe the state government's charges against Tata Tea will open a Pandora's Box.
Assam's tea industry is the state's single largest employer. The biggest segment of the Assam government's revenues comes from taxes imposed on the tea industry.
A senior home ministry official said Mahanta's Asom Gana Parishad has ignored ULFA's extortion for many years. In fact, he pointed out, that it was the home ministry which informed the Assam government that ULFA's cultural secretary Pranati Deka had delivered a child in Bombay's Jaslok hospital. After Deka was arrested at Santacruz airport by the Bombay police, Assam police investigations revealed that Tata Tea funds had allegedly been used to pay for the delivery.
State officials, who accompanied Mahanta to the capital, disclosed that the chief minister had also discussed with the prime minister the possibility of constituting a special task force for the tea industry's protection in Assam.
Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata and Tata Tea Managing Drector R K Krishna Kumar met Mahanta and Chief Secretary V S Jafa in New Delhi on Monday evening. Krishna Kumar was interrogated by senior Assam police officers for several hours on Sunday.
In a statement issued late on Monday night, Bombay House said Tata also met the home minister, home secretary and other home ministry officials to clarify Tata Tea's position on the controversy. Tata reiterated that Tata Tea had not and would not succumb to extremist extortion.
Tata and Krishna Kumar told Mahanta that despite immense pressure Tata Tea had not made any payments to ULFA. Tata Tea had, on the other hand, made substantial investments in the development of the communities around tea estates in Assam through establishment of hospitals, training institutes and various other welfare services.
In this context, Tata pointed out, "it is unfortunate that the medical aid scheme implemented in early 1997 had become the issue of a controversy resulting from one of the beneficiaries being found to be an ULFA activist and that at the local level attention to this patient went beyond the scope of the scheme."
Tata, the Bombay House statement said, had expressed his "deep concern" that this isolated case had led Assam government officials to allege that Tata Tea had funded anti-national organisations in the state, thus causing serious damage to the company's reputation.
Jafa clarified that his own statement had mentioned that he had no evidence of Tata Tea's involvement in the case. He, however, conveyed to Ratan Tata that there was evidence against certain company managers, which indicated that they had connections with ULFA.
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