The Rediff Special
Tea and Terror
What were the links between Tata Tea and ULFA? The inside story
of the tea companies and the terrorists.
They caught her, with a baby in her arms, moments before the big
jet engines roared. On August 23, Pranati Deka, a young Assamese
woman, was about to board a plane to Delhi from Bombay's Santa
Cruz airport when the police quietly led her away. Deka, a central
committee member of the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom,
that is waging a secessionist war in Assam, was on her
way back to her hideout in the foothills of Bhutan. But on that
sultry day in August, she found herself in a police lock-up as
did her two escorts. With her arrest, a time bomb started ticking
And as it happened, it exploded a fortnight later, in Guwahati,
when Assam's Director-General of Police K Hrishikeshan
told a packed press conference on September 7 that Deka's trip
to Bombay had been funded by Tata Tea Limited. He accused
the tea major of paying the ULFA militant's hospital and hotel
bills, besides footing the two way air fare of Deka and her escorts.
Deka had been admitted to Bombay's Jaslok Hospital for delivery
and the entire expenditure, said Hrishkeshan, had been borne by
"This is the first time we are in possession of documentary evidence
of any tea company directly providing funds to ULFA. This is indeed
a criminal offence, " Hrishikeshan told the stunned gathering
and accused TTL, India's largest tea company, of waging war against
At first, TTL denied the charge outright. The company's executive
director, S M Kidwai, said the company had no knowledge of
any ULFA militant being funded for treatment in Bombay. In a press
conference held shortly after the Assam DGP burst the bombshell,
Kidwai explained that they may have availed of the non-discretionary
medical scheme offered by the company without disclosing their
'We were told that a certain Ms Barua was suffering from chronic
blood disorder along with pregnancy and required special attention
from a Bombay hospital where such treatment was available,' Kidwai
said in a statement. 'We have never paid any extortion money,
not even in the case of Bolin Bordoloi,' Kidwai emphasised. Bordoloi,
TTL regional manager in Guwahati, had been abducted by Bodo militants
in 1993 and was held hostage for 11 months. Many believe that
he was released only after the company shelled out a hefty sum.
But the police arranged a list of evidence that appeared to weaken
TTL's defence. The scheme, initiated by the company in September
last year, was for treating heart, cancer and eye disorders at
B.M. Birla Hospital, Calcutta, Tata Memorial Hospital, Bombay,
and Shankar Netralaya, Madras. There was no provision for delivery
cases and Jaslok Hospital was not included in its panel.
More damaging, however, was the very special treatment that was
meted out to Deka. When she had gone to Jaslok Hospital for a check
up earlier in May/June, she was escorted by Dr Brojen Gogoi, community
development and welfare manager of the company's north India plantation
division, while TTL's Bombay office manager K Sridhar wrote to
Jaslok Hospital, requesting a Class-I cabin for her. The bill
on that occasion amounted to Rs 19,134. And, in August, Deka was
put up at the Shalimar Hotel in Bombay before she was
admitted to the hospital.
Eight days later, on September 15, following the interrogation
of several top-notch TTL officials including managing director
R K Krishna Kumar, the police arrested S S Dogra, general manager,
north India plantation division, and Brojen Gogoi of the same
department. The police had concluded on the basis of its findings
that Dogra and Gogoi were the only persons who knew that Deka
was the cultural secretary of ULFA and that her escort, Phanindra
Medhi, was a wanted ULFA activist.
Meanwhile, even as the police and the Assam government tried to
pin TTL down, the industry as a whole reacted with considerable
disbelief. No one had expected Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar
Mahanta to take on the tea giant that has 22 of its 46 Indian
gardens in Assam.
The industry's initial response was to pooh-pooh the allegations.
But when the government levelled similar charges against Williamson
Magor, another tea behemoth, the industry decided to seek a dialogue.
On September 28, the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations,
led by Vinay Goenka, vice-president of the Indian Tea Association, held a high-level meeting with the Assam government in
Following the meeting, Goenka disclosed that two things were broadly
agreed upon, Immediately after Deka's arrest, Mahatma had branded
the tea companies as anti-national for funding banned militant
outfits. The chief minister has agreed to move away from such
a hardline and withdraw the statement.
The tea industry, on its part, pledged its full support to the
state in combating militancy. After the meeting, Goenka described
the talks as fruitful.
The revelations so far have not only been stunning but are full
of disquieting implications as well. It is for the first time
that the government has officially endorsed the decade-old belief
that tea companies pay hefty sums to ULFA and Bodo militants
in Assam in order to buy peace. This, in other words, amounts
to Indian industries and businessmen -- more than the ISI of Pakistan
-- actively sponsoring secessionism and terrorist activities in
Assam, and perhaps the whole of North-East India.
Although the police haven't been able to produce any shred of
evidence of TTL actually paying cash to Deka or any other ULFA
or Bodo activist, tea industry insiders say that almost every
company has been paying off the militants since the early nineties.
The amount of money coughed up depends on the size of the company
and the number of gardens it owns. ''Tata Tea is perhaps the only
company that doesn't pay money,'' says a senior Tea executive who
prefers not to be named. ''But every other company has been buying
peace, with the bigger ones paying nothing less than Rs 10 million each
TTL's claim that it has not been, as a matter of course, paying
the militants either in cash or kind appears to be borne out by
the fact that its officers have been repeatedly targeted. One
of its managers was shot dead, three were abducted, of whom, Bolin
Bordoloi, was held in captivity for 11 months by Bodo militants,
and the other two rescued after 48 hours.
It is also worth recalling that in 1990, TTL personnel stationed
in upper Assam had to be airlifted to safety when militants posed
a threat to their lives. This incident led to the dismissal of
the previous Mahanta government.
It is difficult for public limited companies to account for money
paid to militants. The books of accounts usually show such sums
as security expenses. But there is a limit to which expenses can
be showed under this head, as the books are open to audit.
But it is relatively easier for closely held companies to make
such payments. In recent times, it has been found that more and
more extremist groups are using small and medium-sized businessmen
as bankers and custodians of funds. ULFA as well as the Bodos
are also believed to be banking with such businessmen.
Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine
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