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'Tata Tea are difficult customers'

Paresh Barua 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 treated.

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 with them.

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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