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October 6, 1997


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Govt orders inquiry into Tata Tapes controversy

George Iype in New Delhi

Union Home Secretary K Padmanabhaiah on Monday directed the telecom secretary to inquire into the alleged tapping of the telephones of Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata and Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw in connection with the Tata Tea-ULFA affair.

"None of the government agencies, both at the Centre and the states, is involved in the telephone tapping," Padmanabhaiah said in response to the reports which appeared in The Indian Express on Sunday and Monday.

The telecommunications department deals directly with complaints or allegations of telephone tapping.

Following the publication of the transcripts of the conversation of some of India's leading businessmen, the stand-off between the Assam government and Tata Tea on the latter's alleged funding to the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom is snowballing into a major embarrassment for the United Front government.

For the past two days, The Indian Express has published transcripts of tapped telephone conversations involving Bombay Dyeing chairman Nusli Wadia, Ratan Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra chairman Keshub Mahindra, Rajya Sabha member of Parliament Jayant Malhoutra, and Field Marshal Maneckshaw.

The transcripts details efforts of the Tata Group, India's most prominent industrial house, to contain the damage done by the allegations that the company had paid money to ULFA in Assam.

It also discloses that Brojen Gogoi, a Tata Tea welfare and community development officer and a key figure in the Assam government's case, was living in a Tata guesthouse in Calcutta at the time when the company claimed to be oblivious of his whereabouts.

According to the Tata-Wadia-Mahindra telephonic conversations, the transcript proves that Gogoi was in India since September 8 though both Ratan Tata and Tata Tea Managing Director R K Krishna Kumar had told Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta that Gogoi was in the United States.

The Tatas also used senior government officials including Home Secretary Padmanabhaiah, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda, and Assam Governor Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha through Field Marshal Maneckshaw and Malhoutra, to help their case.

There is, however, much ire at the tapping of private telephones by the government intelligence agencies.

Malhoutra, an influential industrialist and MP, on Monday wrote to Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Krishna Kant and Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, demanding a high-level enquiry into the incident.

"Yes, I talked to Ratan Tata and Nusli Wadia and discussed the Tata Tea controversy with them. But how dare anyone tap our private telephone conversations?" asked Malhoutra, while speaking to Rediff On The NeT. The MP, reputed to be close to politicians across the political spectrum, said tapping telephones is a criminal and illegal act.

"As an MP and public servant, I meet and talk to lots of friends every day," he said. "I have a duty to help others when they need it. Therefore, I have done absolutely nothing wrong." Malhoutra said he would take appropriate action against those involved. "Tapping telephones involves three key issues -- national security, corruption, and breach of the Indian Telegraph Act."

"Today, my telephones are being tapped. Tomorrow, it could be the telephones of the President, the prime minister and other ministers in the country," he said.

Malhoutra feels the order to tap the phones must have come from "the upper echelons of power." "I am sure it is the handiwork of some intelligence agency in connivance with the telephone department," he said.

While Padmanabhaiah announced the probe, sources said Home Minister Indrajit Gupta is apparently not happy over the manner in which Padmanabhaiah reportedly tried to stop the Assam government's investigation into the Tata Tea case. The home secretary is reported to have rang up Assam Director General of Police H Hrishikesan last month and asked him to slow down the case against Tata officials.

Padmanabhaiah is to retire by October 31 and it is unlikely that the government will give him an extension.

The Assam government's case against Tata Tea has received a boost with the publication of the transcripts, and the arrest of some more Tata Tea officials cannot be ruled out. R K Krishna Kumar was summoned on Monday by the Assam police for questioning again.

In the past, tapping of politicians's phones has created major difficulties for the ruling parties. But this is the first incident of businessmen's phones being tapped by intelligence agencies.

Prime Minister Gujral is abroad. His return and reaction to the fresh crisis is keenly awaited.

Tatas refuse to comment
Who's who in the imbroglio
Assam govt expresses concern

Tata Tea executive Gogoi arrested
Assam govt alleges Tata Tea had tacit deal with ULFA
Mahanta vows tough action against cos backing ULFA
Gujral did not meet Ratan Tata; Dogra remanded to 14 days judicial custody
Assam police arrest Tata Tea GM Dogra for nexus with ULFA
Union home ministry denies interfering in Tata Tea case
Tata Tea denies charges of nexus with ULFA
Tata Tea officials probed on alleged nexus with ULFA

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