The Rediff Special
'Tata Tea are difficult customers'
Tata Tea staunchly refused to be squeezed for money, says United Liberation Front of Asom commander-in-chief Paresh Barua.
As the controversy over the nexus between tea companies and insurgents
in Assam intensifies, Barua, commander-in-chief of the
outlawed ULFA, provides his version
of his organisation's links with Tata Tea. The interview was conducted in Bengali.
When did you first contact Tata Tea? Who were the people in
your organisation who first established the contact?
In 1990, for the first time, we asked them for money. We said
we are fighting for the people of Assam and if they have to stay
and do business in the state, they better pay up. But Tata kept
insisting that they would never pay anybody -- political parties
or rebel groups.
They said they will put a lot of money into improving the quality
of life of the people of Assam. They promised to make hospitals,
schools and that kind of things. They asked us not to disturb
the big projects they wanted to implement by asking for money.
We decided to give them a chance. And we could see they were not
fooling us. They indeed started undertaking projects that would
do good to the people. Look at the Referral hospital they built
in a remote place like Chabua. I am from upper Assam and I know
how much this hospital means for our people up there. Having seen
that they were indeed doing a lot of work for the people, we thought
it wise not to ask for money because that would affect our image
amongst the people.
But did you not renew your demand for money in 1995?
Yes, that is true. In 1993, Tata Tea's regional manager Bolin
Bordoloi was abducted by the Bodo Security Force (now the National
Democratic Front of Bodoland) and our information suggested that
the Tatas indeed paid around one crore of rupees (Rs 10 million) to the BSF.
When we came to know this, we got in touch with Tata Tea and said
if they could pay the Bodos, why not us? To which Bolin Bordoloi
himself said, 'Please get in touch with our head office. We cannot
decide on these matters here. We are small fries.'
On Bordoloi's advice, I spoke to their managing director in Calcutta,
not once but several times. I also wrote a letter dated December 12,
1995, making a formal demand for money. The managing director
suggested that I should meet senior Tata Tea officials and discuss
the whole matter.
He said the money paid to the BSF was because of the threat
to Bordoloi's life, but ULFA, if it had the good of Assam at heart,
should not ask for big money and disrupt Tata Tea projects
in the state -- projects that would benefit the people. We then
decided to meet -- and Bangkok was where we met in early 1996.
S S Dogra, Bordoloi, one south Indian gentleman, whose name I
have forgotten, and Bora were there.
What kind of demand did you make at the Bangkok meeting?
We said you must pay us, and if you can't or don't want to
for some reason, you will have to give us 100 pairs of walkie-talkie
sets. They bargained very hard. They said they would be hard put
to give us either money or war material.
Then we said they would have to give us some facility since we
were fighting for Assam. It was then decided that we could avail
of a medical scheme open to the people of Assam, under which the
needy people of the state could go and get medical treatment in
specialist hospitals outside the state at Tata Tea's cost.They
said this scheme is open to all residents of Assam. And it is
this scheme that we availed of when we wanted to get Pranati Deka
Did the Tata Tea people know that they were paying for the
treatment of an ULFA leader?
No, we concealed her identity to get this benefit. She needed
special care, which was not available in our remote bases. And
we obviously had to conceal her identity because if someone in
Tata Tea knew who she was, there was always a possibility of the
information being leaked.
But reports suggest that Brajen Gogoi of Tata Tea is a close
supporter of yours and took Pranati Deka to Bombay.
We have no special relations with Dr Gogoi. He is an employee
of a capitalist company like the Tatas, and while dealing with
the Tatas, we have come into contact with him. But he has done
us no special favours. Now, it is small people like Gogoi who
are getting the flak.
The decision to keep contact with us is a decision that was taken
at the highest level of the Tata management. I have spoken to
so many of their senior officials -- I have spoken to their managing
director several times. If the Tatas, or anybody else, has to
do business in Assam they will have to, and I emphasise, have
to deal with us. Contact hobei hobo, Samparko hobei hobo (Contact
has to be there. Relations have to be there). And why single
out Tata Tea? There are other tea companies that keep contact
with us at various levels. They will have to.
Do they pay you?
Yes, many of them do. But Tata Tea is the only one who has
not. They are difficult customers. We did not touch them after
they said no to our request for payments. We realised that though
the Tatas are capitalists, they were better than most others.
They were doing some work for Assam. We knew their work made them
popular in Assam. So though they are capitalists, we have some
appreciation for their work.
Why do you think the Assam government is singling out the Tatas
for having a nexus with your organisation?
Ask that question to Prafulla Mahanta. As far as I know, the
Tatas refused payment to the AGP before the last assembly election
and Mahanta was upset. Now he has got a chance to settle scores
Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine
Tea & Terror
Mahanta vows tough action against cos backing ULFA
'If they don't meet and talk, in about 15 years the North-East will be in darkness'
Other Assam reports
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