Tea and Terror
The Nation
November 11, 1997
While the Indian state government of Karnatka is finding it difficult to fight just one dacoit Virrappan—who has been challenging the state authority for nearly a decade—the country’s north-eastern state Asam is in the grip of a crisis that brings to fore the inherent weakness of the Indian structure: Tata Tea Limited (TTL) is India’s largest and most prestigious tea company and, like the rest of business concerns in the state, it has to buy peace for itself by paying or giving favours to the militant organization fighting for independence.

There are many national liberation movements in Asam: National Front of Bodoland is one, which controls a part of the state under Bodoland Autonomous Council. But the freedom fighting organization that is in the limelight now is the United Liberation Front of Asam (ULFA).

In the last 18 years, after its creation in 1979, it has emerged as the strongest. The police in Bombay caught last August its cultural secretary, Pranati Deka, while she was about to board a plane to Delhi. Soon after her arrest, the Asam police made a startling revelation that Deka’s trip to Bombay’s most expensive hospital was funded by the TTL.

Initially, the tea company—with a workforce of nearly 10 lakh in 844 tea gardens and with an annual turnover of Rs 2,000 crore— the TTL initially denied the charges. But later investigations proved that the police charges were true. Since then, the businesses paying to militants for buying peace for themselves have turned out to be a national issue in India.

In July this year, the Indian army had come out with documentary evidence about how much the militant organizations in Asam were annually taxing all sections of its society, including heavy industries, medium-scale industries, small industries, shops and hotels, contractors and public sector, doctors, teachers, and even labourers.

The figures cited for the various tea companies are worth-reading: William Magor, Rs 3 crore; Tata Tea, 50 lakh; Bhergaon Tea Estate, Rs 25 lakh; Chandana Tea Estate, Rs 9 lakh; Nandan Nayer Tea Estate, Rs 10 lakh and Ambika Tea Estate Rs 3 lakh. In addition, the Motor Vehicles Inspector in Kokrajhar (Asam) had to pay Rs 4.5 lakh, Sales Tax Department, Rs 3 lakh, and the Forest Department, Rs 4 lakh.

In the last over three weeks, Indian media is full of exclusive tales about the Tata Tea affair with the ULFA. The Sunday of October 5-11, for instance, commented: “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 (Asam) government has officially endorsed the decades-old belief that tea companies pay heft sums to ULFA ad BODO militants in Asam in order to buy peace. That, in other words, amounts to Indian industries and businessmen—more than the ISI of Pakistan—actively sponsoring secessionism and terrorist activities in Asam, and perhaps the whole of north-east India”.

The magazine further wrote: “ULFA is believed to collect, through extortion, between Rs 30 crore to Rs 40 crore each year from the 1,500 big and small tea gardens and business houses in Asam. The money is put away in banks in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Thailand, Switzerland and France. (Indian) Home Ministry officials estimate that ULFA has accumulated around Rs 1,500 crore so far. After the Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina came to power, Bangladesh alone is reported to have frozen Rs 200 crore kept by ULFA in the company’s Sonali Bank”.

The Bodo militants, too, have been raising large sums of money, though the amount isn’t anywhere near what ULFA collects. In September, the Indian newspaper, The Economic Times had scooped details from the account books of the National front of Bodoland showing a progressive increase in the amount of ‘tax’ collected by the Bodo militants. The amount, according to the paper, was Rs 1,35,61,500 in 1994-95, Rs 1,82,30,450 in 1995-96 and Rs 4,43,21,995 in 1996-97.

Comments M Vinayak in The Hindu: “The TTL-Asam Government confrontation has turned the spotlight on a major menace, threatening civilized society. The menace of extortion or protection money is not confirmed to Asam and other north-eastern states. It is a national problem now…In Bombay, underworld dons have made it a big, organized business. The law enforcement agencies seem helpless in curbing the extortion rackets. In some cases, the thugs act in collusion with the police. Kidnapping businessmen and their kin has now become a flourishing business in parts of the country. Often, children are held in captivity for ransom.

Extortion has now grown into a big time activity with wider ramifications. Bureaucrats and petty officials extort money in their own way. If you are a small-scale entrepreneur, demands for money are made by a variety of officials, including policemen and the ‘babus’ of regulatory agencies. The inescapable conclusion is that thugs thrive by collecting money as they enjoy the overt and covert support of politicians. It is basically a law and order issue.”

What Vinayak wishes from the Asam government in the said article is that it should “altogether nab the anti-socialists” if it wants to eliminate extortion. How could it do so, when that chief minister of this government Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had come to power last year with the assistance of ULFA. By helping Mahanta to come to power with a massive majority in the last Assembly elections, the ULFA had hoped that his party, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), once in power, would withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gave the army sweeping powers to fight the insurgency. But relations between them soured, quickly, as that AGP government formed a united command of security forces comprising the army, police and the paramilitary to check ULFA and Bodo violence.

Writes The Week of October 5: “It is said that Mahanta’s government came to power with the tacit support of the militants who intimidated citizens into voting for a government of their ‘choice’. The chief minister was also seen as going soft on the ultras till the Centre, mainly the Left parties, turned the heat on him.” “So, is the state withering away in Asam? Asks The Tribune editorial, continuing, “no mass movement can sustain itself for long without the people’s active support. Insurgent movements also need huge funds to acquire arms and men who would challenge the might of the state.

From small Naxal groups in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar to ‘national’ and ‘volunteer’ forces in Nagaland and Tripura, almost every militant and secessionist organization has relied on extortion to raise funds. Mahanta who organized the All-Asam Students Union (AASU) and conducted a prolonged movement for ethnic Asamese rule before the 1986 Asam Accord paved the way for the first AGP ministry, cannot be unaware of this. Indeed the then powerful AASU too collection ‘donations’ from a people caught in a clef stick. Nobody parts with his hard-earned or ill-gotten money willingly.