The spectre of Ulfa is back to haunt Assam’s tea gardens even as Indian armed forces have intensified vigil along the India-Myanmar border to check renewed spurt in militant activities in north-east following domestic turmoil in Myanmar.
The Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd. — the company carved out of the erstwhile Tata Tea Ltd — on Saturday (April 10) said it would seek intervention of the “appropriate authorities” to protect the interest of its employees and facilities in Assam.
The country’s second largest tea producer was threatened by the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) that its gardens in the state would be closed down if it failed to relocate all its administrative offices in Assam.
The company having multiple stakeholders including Tata Global Beverages Limited, Tata Investment Corporation Limited and International Finance Corporation, besides its employees, has 21 tea estates in Assam.
Earlier this week, the Ulfa directed its ire towards the company, accusing it of recruiting workers from outside the state instead of employing “indigenous youth” of the state.
“…it is unfortunate that you have not taken your responsibilities with the importance it deserves and frankly speaking your business management mirrors bad-old colonial exploitation,” the militant outfit alleged in a communiqué addressed to the company.
“You have your company’s head office outside Assam where no indigenous personnel from Assam are in employment. The liaison office is also not in Assam,” it said.
Asking the company to relocate all its administrative offices in Assam and recruit locals, the Ulfa warned the management against ignoring its “notice” as an “empty threat.”
The Ulfa as well as other militant organisations in Assam have always used the tea companies in the state as cash cows, regularly extorting money from them though most of these cases go unreported due to fear of retaliation.
Tata Tea itself had more than one damning controversies involving these militants. In 1993, it allegedly paid ₹1 crore to a Bodo militant outfit to secure the release of its abducted senior manager Bolin Bordoloi, son of state’s first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi. Tata Tea, however, denied paying any ransom.
Again in 1997, Tata Tea was alleged to have borne medical, lodging and other expenses of Ulfa’s then cultural secretary Pranati Deka at the Mumbai’s Jaslok hospital. Deka was allegedly taken to Mumbai by Brojen Gogoi, a senior manager of the tea company for child-birth.
The alleged clandestine deal came to the open when the Ulfa leader was arrested with her baby at Mumbai’s Santa Cruz airport along with two accomplices.
The tea company claimed it had no inkling about Deka’s identity and that the expenses were paid under a special medical aid scheme it had introduced that year for the people of the state.
Barring a few such cases, most of the time even police either did not get to know about the “deals” or preferred to look other way.
“Extortion threats are now frequently served to the tea garden managements by the Ulfa (I). But no formal complaints are lodged with the police because nobody wants any confrontation with the militant outfit armed to the teeth,” said a Tinsukia-based tea planter seeking anonymity.
Earlier this month, Ulfa (I) released two employees of Delhi-based Quippo Oil and Gas Infrastructure after keeping them hostage for over 100 days.
The outfit had demanded ₹20 crore from the company for the release of its two employees. It’s rumoured that ultimately the company had to pay ₹5 crore. But as expected, neither the police nor the company confirmed any such deal.
Ulfa (I) has its base in Myanmar’s Naga-dominated Sagaing Region. Its chief Paresh Barua, who fled Bangladesh in the wake of the Sheikh Hasina-led government’s 2008 crackdown against north-east militants based in her country, is now hiding along the Myanmar-China border.
Activities of the Indian militants, based out of Myanmar, was considerably curbed in the wake of Operation Sunrise jointly launched in 2019 by the Indian and Myanmar armies against northeast insurgents holed up in that country.
The Indian security forces now apprehend that with Myanmar’s military now busy in containing domestic ire, north-east militants could get active again.
“Assam Rifles and Arunachal Pradesh police are conducting regular operations since February along the India-Myanmar border. We are keeping a close watch on the rebel activities,” said Changlang superintendent of police Mihin Gambo.
Changlang district in Arunachal Pradesh shares its border with Sagaing region of Myanmar and it serves as one of the major transit routes for the militants criss-crossing between the two countries.
(With inputs from Avik Chakraborty in Dibrugarh, Assam)