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Old link in tea rebel payoff

Guwahati, May 3: Assam inspector-general of police (special branch) Khagen Sarmah today dropped hints that the tea majors found paying “protection money” to Bodo militants following investigations into the alleged “Tata Tea-Ulfa nexus” had provided financial aid to the two National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) militants arrested in Calcutta on Wednesday.

However, Calcutta police have so far remained tight-lipped about the identity of the four Calcutta-headquartered tea majors that handed over money to militants of the NDFB in exchange for security.

In reply to a question about the identity of the tea majors — kept a closely-guarded secret by Lalbazar — Sarmah told The Telegraph: “The reports of tea companies funding militants were true at that time (that is 1997, when the alleged Tata Tea-militant links came to the fore) and now also.… Maybe the companies which were involved then are also involved now.” There was no link between the Ulfa and the NDFB in 1997.

A police source said: “A common thread running through all the four involved tea majors is that they all have business interests in the areas dominated by the NDFB or Ulfa.”

He said there were reports about Ulfa and NDFB pooling in their resources to fight the security forces and “surviving on inter-dependence”.

Sarmah, who was guarded in his replies, said the Assam government may throw “more light on the issue” after the police team that had gone to Calcutta to interrogate the arrested NDFB men returned.

Tea circles here are “perturbed” about the developments in Calcutta but say they have “no regrets on being called anti-national for subscribing to the militants’ coffers”.

An industry captain said: “Even after the 1997 (Tata Tea fiasco), the tea industry is still paying the underground to buy peace. This only goes to show how successive governments in Delhi and Dispur have failed to instil any confidence among the garden owners and their workforce about their security.”

He went on to ask: “If anyone had paid he must have not done of his own volition. It must have been done under duress. Now the question which arises is: What is the state doing to stop this trend' Will only harassing a few executives help solve the problem'”

Flaying the authorities for targeting the management to hide their inefficiency, another senior official rued, “It is sad that everyone from militants, government, police and sundry organisations are out to fleece the industry on one pretext or the other instead of helping it tide over the downturn in business.”

Following increasing threats from militants, the state government had set up the three-tier Unified Command in 1997. Its primary objective was to contain militancy by, among others, blocking the free flow of funds to the coffers of the militant groups.

A harried Dispur had set up the Assam Tea Plantation Security Force (ATPSF) to protect the tea estates. However, the cost to each estate for hiring a unit of the security force is over Rs 6 lakh per year, something most gardens are unable to sustain giving the downturn in business.

The security force, with a total strength of 650 jawans, was raised in 1995 specially for the protection of tea garden executives and employees in the wake of militants targeting them. Nearly 100 of the 800 tea gardens engaged its services. In the recently-concluded Assembly session, the government said it will engage the security force in the oil sector.

Sources in the Assam police headquarters here said efforts were on to bring the two arrested NDFB militants, identified as Sunil Brahma and David Waris, to Guwahati once their police remand in Calcutta ends.

“We can get more (information) out of them. The arrest of the duo has a lot to do with infighting among the NDFB leadership. NDFB chairman Ranjan Daimary was the one who tipped off the Calcutta police about Sunil Brahma and B. Buthang’s ‘extortion mission’ to Calcutta,” one of them said.

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