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Tea and Terror

What were the links between Tata Tea and ULFA? The inside story of the tea companies and the terrorists.

Pranati Deka 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 away.

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 the company.

"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 the State.

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 identity.

'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 Guwahati.

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 year.''

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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Tea and Terror, continued

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