Political extremists have one thing in common with gangsters; both thrive on a cynical faith in the power of terror. The extortion notice served by the United Liberation Front of Asom on Hindustan Lever Limited once again shows the militant group for what it is ó a terror machine masquerading as a political outfit. It is not the amount of money that is the real issue; nor is the real threat to HLL alone. Obviously, the ULFA hopes that if it can force a big company to submit to its diktat, others will fall in line without a protest. But the real threat is not to a particular company or to Assamís business community in general, but to the rule of law. The extortion notice should, therefore, be seen as an affront to the authority of the state and a challenge to the administration to stand up to it. The fact that the ULFA has issued such threats before and to other entrepreneurs makes it critically important for the government to foil the rebelsí strategy. Any sign of indecision or inaction on the governmentís part would further embolden not only the ULFA, but also other militant groups to try and hold Assam to ransom.
The HLL has shown the way by refusing to surrender to the threat, as it had done in 1990 when it closed down its operations in Assam in the face of another extortion notice. It takes courage to defy gun-wielding militants in some areas in the Northeast where the governmentís writ does not always run. It is no secret that businessmen have sometimes paid up and bought peace with militants. The HLLís refusal to submit to the threat should be a lesson for those who delude themselves into thinking that they can strike deals with extortionists. Tea being the only major industry in Assam, any dislocations arising out of the threat can be hugely unsettling for the stateís economy. The ULFAís notice has come in a particularly bad season for Assamís tea industry when it is plagued by disputes over bonus and other payments. The rebels may have a stake in causing unrest and even chaos in the tea gardens, but the real losers will be not just the tea workers and their employers but also a larger section of the Assamese people whose livelihoods are closely linked to the health of the tea industry. There is no denying that the rebelsí bases in Bhutan make it difficult for the state government to tackle the problem. But it is not enough to cry for help from New Delhi; the Assam government must show that it has the political will to stamp out the evil.