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Commentary/Pritish Nandy

The Lost Children of India

Reputations are not easily built in India. Business reputations are even tougher to build. Yet the Tatas have, quietly and in their typically stodgy manner, built up an empire that is not just the biggest in India but also, in many ways, the most respected. This respect has come from the way they do business, not for the pace at which they have grown.

For years, JRD Tata or Jeh as he was affectionately called, was the face of the Group. He was the quintessential gentleman and saw the Group grow through a slew of smart new ventures led by his entrepreneurial colleagues. These ventures flowered into spectacular success stories. But, in the process, some of these colleagues became so big that the Group found it difficult to contain them. Or so goes the story.

And thus began the Ratan Tata era, which saw focus and consolidation as the key strategy. Some of the finest achievers within the Group were retired, axed or sent out to graze. Businesses were sold. Companies were put under pressure to perform. The Tatas made headlines all over again, for the wrong reasons. But a reluctant Ratan, instead of putting out his strategy in clear, bold terms, fought shy of the media. This gave his critics and business rivals the opportunity they had always yearned for. The opportunity to hit back.

Two recent cases are typical examples. The Taj imbroglio, where thanks to a series of media gaffes which projected the Tatas in extremely poor light Ajit Kerkar came out smelling like a rose. The second case is that of Tata Tea, where every attempt is being made to project the Tatas as an unethical group ready to buy peace with the ULFA terrorists in Assam by bribing them. Again, their silence has not exactly helped their case.

But, first, the crime.

Tata Tea has been accused of paying for the medical treatment of ULFA cultural secretary Pranati Deka, suspected to be suffering from leukemia, who came to Bombay to deliver a child. She was reportedly accompanied by a Tata Tea executive called Brojen Gogoi (who "surrendered" on Wednesday to the Assam police).

The Assam government alleges that Tata Tea not only paid for Deka's treatment, they also paid her hotel bills and air fare. (A charge yet to be proved.) Taking off from this, they allege that Tata Tea like many other tea companies in Assam have paid extortion money to militants and must, therefore, be punished. The evidence? Hearsay till now. And confessions by tortured terrorists. On the basis of these, charges have been framed and a senior Tata Tea officer, not exactly in the best of health, has been picked up and thrown into jail. The top brass, including managing director R Krishna Kumar, who flew down to Guwahati, have been interrogated for hours. So hostile was the grilling that a worried Krishnakumar sought anticipatory bail from the Bombay high court. He got it too. A fact that has so angered the Assam government that they are now moving the Supreme Court to revoke it.

There are, frankly, three issues here.

One, does a State that has failed to protect you from the militants have the moral right to punish you for succumbing to extortion? I say no.

If the Bombay cops were to look away when gangsters came with AK-47s and tried to extort you, can they (thereafter) punish you for paying up to save your life? Surely, every individual, every community, every corporate has the right to its own life and security and a government that cannot protect them has no right to punish them either, if they choose to make their own peace with the extortionists.

If indeed Tata Tea did, knowingly and wilfully, pay for Pranati Deka's trip to Bombay which itself is a matter of mere hypothesis as yet I see nothing wrong in it. Providing medical help to someone suspected of blood cancer and about to deliver a child is not exactly the same as bribing a terrorist outfit. In fact, if you look at contemporary history with dispassion, the Assam government has done far more to appease terrorists. In fact, if rumours are to be believed, they have often been hand in glove with the ULFA. There are some who claim that the loot is shared.

I do not know if this is true or not. Whether the Assam government shares the loot with the terrorists or not. Just as I do not know whether Tata Tea paid for Pranati Deka. But I certainly know one thing: A government that cannot protect its people and its corporates has no right to punish anyone who is protecting himself.

Secondly, what is so wrong in providing medical aid to Deka? Tata Tea has a scheme by which it helps the people of Assam to get free medical treatment. This is what governments should do. They do not. So corporates like Tata Tea, as a gesture of goodwill, assist the State by making such facilities available. Since the objective of this scheme is to help people, not collect insurgency intelligence, surely you cannot expect Tata Tea to check and verify the credentials of everyone who seeks help under the scheme. If they were to do this, many patients in search of urgent and desperate medical attention would have died by now.

Help schemes work on the basis of trust. That is the difference between the State and private bodies. Governments are sloth, bureaucratic, suspicious. Private agencies move swiftly. Both make occasional mistakes. But private agencies save many more lives because they are prompt and helpful. They do not make excuses. If a sick and aged terrorist was found in Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying, will you discredit the entire work of the Missionaries of Charity or accuse them of harbouring a criminal? Will you force Sister Nirmala to seek anticipatory bail like a common criminal? Or would you respect her more for giving shelter to the wayward, for hopefully changing a life?

Thirdly, every citizen of India has the right to medical help. Why should we deny this to Deka? This is exactly the high handed attitude of governments that almost lost us Kashmir and Punjab. It is this that brought Bengal and Andhra Pradesh to the brink of a civil war, when we stopped thinking of Naxalites as human beings. It is time we recalled the simple fact that Khudiram Bose and Bhagat Singh and Sri Aurobindo were also described as terrorists till history proved them to be patriots.

The thin dividing line between terrorism and patriotism cannot be drawn by you and me. It is drawn by history. Let us punish what the law defines as a crime but let us not treat every militant, every political activist as an enemy of the state to be hunted down and shot dead in encounters, to be denied medical treatment in their moment of need. This is not the way to stop terrorism. It is the way to exacerbate it.

I am not defending Pranati Deka. I do not know her. I do not even know what her crimes are. All I have heard is that she is suffering from blood cancer and was about to deliver a child. That is why she came to Bombay. Not to blow up Mantralaya. If indeed Tata Tea assisted her medically, unwittingly or even knowingly, is it such a crime that we should treat India's most respected corporate group as we would treat a common criminal? In our search for political scapegoats, have we lost all sense of proportion and self respect?

Luckily, the law prevails in India. I am sure the courts will treat the crimes of Tata Tea -- if any -- with greater understanding than the State has. Otherwise, I fear, we will jeopardise the very foundations of our democracy which has been built over five decades by people who had faith in India, its laws, its corporates, its institutions, and even its political dissidents. Call them terrorists if you want. I call them the lost children of India.

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Pritish Nandy

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