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October 17, 1997


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Assam police deny bias in targetting Tatas; question others

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay

The Assam police deny allegations of a bias in its investigation against the Tatas, while sparing other tea companies.

Speaking to Rediff On The NeT over the telephone from Guwahati, Assam Inspector General of Police N Ramachandran, who is heading the team probing the charge of Tata Tea having paid militants, said, "We have documentary evidence against Tata Tea where we can prove that company officials knew about the payments being made to extremist organisations. However, in the case of the other tea companies, while we posses the information, we lack direct evidence against them."

Ever since the incidents of Assam-based tea companies funding militants such as the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, became public, the Tatas have claimed they are being singled out by the state aadministration. Little investigation has been carried out against other tea companies, they charged.

Some of the other tea companies named by the Assam police which had allegedly financed extremists are Goodricke and Williamson Magor (formerly MacNeill & Magor). The controversy has caused a furore in the Rs 22 billion tea industry in Assam.

Reiterating his contention, Ramachandran added, "We have nothing against the Tatas. In the case of the other tea companies, we are following investigation procedures. The difference is that in the latter case, the investigation process is progressing slowly because these firms have now started covering up their accounts, causing us difficulties."

Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata, who met various political leaders in connection with the case such as Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda, and Congress chief Sitaram Kesri, has complained that Tata Tea was judged guilty even before the case has been heard.

After the arrest of ULFA activist Pranati Deka in Bombay on August 23, the Tatas declared that they were not aware of her links with the outlawed organisation, and that she was treated through the welfare scheme for the Assamese people which was introduced by Tata Tea last year.

Ramachandran refuted the Tatas's claims. "The medical welfare scheme introduced by the Tatas to send patients out was because North-East India lacks facilities for the treatment of cancer, ophthalmic and heart ailments," he said. "Accordingly, the Tatas selected three specific institutions -- the Tata Memorial Hospital in Bombay for cancer, the Sankara Nethralaya in Madras for ophthalmic ailments, and the BM Birla Heart Research Centre in Calcutta for heart ailments to send patients.

"Pranati Deka did not suffer from any of these diseases. She was admitted for pregnancy. And moreover, she was at the Jaslok Hospital and not at the Tata hospital in Bombay."

The Assam IGP said the police had more evidence. "During the interrogation of Tata Tea general manager S S Dogra, we got evidence that Tata officials were aware of the fact that Deka was the ULFA's cultural secretary."

Ramachandran denied any interference in the investigation from the central government. "There was no interference in the investigation from any quarters. We have the evidence against the Tatas and I hope we will be able to prove it in court," he said.

Meanwhile, a United News of India report from Guwahati states that the Assam police has stepped up investigations against other tea companies. Williamson Magor general manager Parimal Barkakoty was interrogated late on Thursday night in connection with the tea corporates-terrorists nexus.

According to official sources, more senior Williamson Magor and Goodricke groups executives were expected in Guwahati next week for questioning for allegedly funding NDFB and ULFA. The state police may also summon R L Rikhye, retired director of Williamson Magor, in this regard.

A top police source confirmed that the Williamson Magor group had provided the maximum funding to the outlawed groups. He, however, added that although some of the money was given under compulsion, a sizeable amount was given voluntarily to buy peace.

Williamson Magor has 50 tea estates in the Brahmaputra valley alone, producing 50 million kilogrammes of tea per year.

Police sources informed that payments to the militants -- both as ransom as well as regular quarterly payments -- were finalised by the company's top management. The police may summon the head of the Williamson Magor group to unearth the "clandestine" deals.

"We are going ahead systematically, leaving no loopholes. We have enough evidence against Williamson Magor and it is a watertight case," the sources said.

"We can understand the compulsion of ransom paid to secure the release of abducted executives, but what about the Rs 1.3 million to Rs 1.4 million being paid quarterly to the militants? There were no immediate compulsions to Magor and they are paid rather voluntarily to buy peace," the sources added.

The sources claimed that Rs 13.5 million were brought in four large canvas bags from Calcutta in 1994 in a private plane. The aircraft landed at the Pratapgarh tea estate near Biswanath Charali which has a private airstrip. The money was then handed over to a NDFB militant for the release of senior executive Subir Roy. Williamson Magor then transferred all the executives involved in the deal.

Regarding the NDFB's audited account, which was handed over to the police by the army and subsequent filing of a first information report early this year, the source said a majority of the statements were independently corroborated and the audited account would be "solid evidence" in court.

Regarding the heavy rush of officials from the state transport, tax and forest departments to obtain anticipatory bail from the Guwahati high court, the source said these people were only exposing themselves.

"We should be thankful to them. They are helping us by securing anticipatory bail. Now those who were not even on our list will be called for interrogation," said the source.

So far, 30 senior state officials have secured anticipatory bail.

The police has also arrested 16 officials who served on the infamous Srirampur check gate, in connection with the funding of militants. The check gate, a den of corruption, provided a huge amount of money to both ULFA and NDFB militants. Money was collected illegally from thousands of trucks that passed through the check gate daily.

EARLIER REPORTS: The Tata Tea Controversy

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