Book excerpt: The ULFA tea estate extortion that led to Operation Bajrang in 1990
Anil Yadav’s memoir about his journeys across the Northeast is a fascinating account that puts into perspective the history and politics of the region.Updated: Aug 30, 2017 11:08 IST
It is said that in 1990, when the ULFA was at its peak strength, it was considered to be an extension of government itself. Not a leaf could quiver in any village in Assam without the express wish of the ULFA. That year the ULFA wrote a letter to all the major tea-producing companies; Tata Tea, McLeod Russel, Unilever and Macneill Magor, and summoned them to Dibrugarh to discuss ways to ensure the economic development of Assam. These officials reached Dibrugarh on 29 June after having secured written undertakings from their respective employers that the establishment would take care of their families in the event of any mishap during the meeting.
There, their chauffeurs were dismissed, the officers were ordered to take the wheels of their respective cars and to follow a boy riding a scooter. The boy piloted the officials through the evening gloom to a tea garden where the driveway from the main gate to the manager’s bungalow was lined with ULFA cadres, all bearing arms. Tapan Datta, the chief of the ULFA Dibrugarh unit, and the man who would initiate the discussion on development, was sitting inside the manager’s bungalow. Two vice-presidents serving with McLeod Russel, Ravi Rikhe and Gautam Barua, were first taken inside. Tapan Datta asked them, ‘You have been looting Assam for ages. Aren’t you people ashamed of yourselves?’
When Ravi Rikhe tried to explain the schemes his company had implemented to boost local development, Tapan Datta became angry. ‘Stop your lecturing! We want one crore from your company next month.’ In three-anda-half hours he fixed the amount of money that was to be extorted from the executives of the most wealthy tea estates of Assam.
The apex body of the tea industry, the Tea Planters’ Association, had met the chief minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, for help before sending their executives to the meeting with the ULFA. The chief minister had told them that they must help themselves. Escorting the managers back from the tea estate, Tapan Datta warned them that if they went to the chief minister again, their local managers would be killed and the tea gardens left to run wild.
Most companies paid up before the deadline.
Unilever, the multinational, owns seven gardens in Dum Duma, and Brooke Bond and Lipton are its two big companies which buy up to 60 per cent of the tea auctioned in Guwahati annually. This group was ordered to pay three-and-a-half crore in all to the War Fund. This was a dead loss. The company decided to shut down operations in Assam instead of paying the ULFA. But this was their ultimate option; they were to first knock on the doors of the Centre. The Indian arm of Unilever, Hindustan Lever, sent an SOS to its London office. The head office got in touch with Kuldip Nayar, then the Indian high commissioner, who advised the government to take stern action against the ULFA and prevent the situation in Assam from spiralling out of control.
On 26 November, thirty thousand soldiers from across India were pulled in and stationed in ULFA strongholds.
After a brief hesitation the Centre agreed to suspend the government headed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta because it had proved to be ineffectual. Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the intelligence agencies of the Indian Army prepared a joint plan to quickly evacuate the employees of Unilever from the seven tea gardens. A control room was set up in Delhi to ensure coordination between London, Kolkata and Dum Duma. The initial plan was to bring the employees to Guwahati and Kolkata in an Indian Airlines plane. This was later changed and it was decided that on 8 November, the date of the secret operation, a Boeing 737 would be sent to an old airstrip near Dum Duma. The executives were woken at midnight on 7 November, told to prepare themselves and their families for flight, and reach the airstrip within two hours. From there they were flown safely to Kolkata. Lieutenant General Ajai Singh had been transferred to the eastern zone, Tezpur, from the western command on the Indo-Pak border in the month of September. He was to be the Corps Commander of the front. The chief of Army staff, Sunith Francis Rodrigues, had tasked him with keeping an eye on the law and order situation in Assam. On 18 November, the Commanding Officer of all the Army units serving in the east, J.S. Brar, called Ajai Singh to Kolkata and informed him that the Army was to be deployed in Assam. He was also told that the security agencies in the state were defunct and Singh would have to build his own secret network. It was also vital, Brar said, that the local police be kept completely out of the loop because a large section of the force was in cahoots with the ULFA.
On 26 November, thirty thousand soldiers from across India were pulled in and stationed in ULFA strongholds. That midnight, President R. Venkataraman signed an order suspending the Asom Gana Parishad government; the ULFA had already been declared a terrorist organization. The state government became void on 28 November. When Assam awoke the following morning, olive green uniforms had fanned out across villages, houses were being searched and ULFA sympathizers were being arrested and taken away to secret locations. Operation Bajrang had begun. On 4 December a mass grave was discovered in Lakhipathar, near Tinsukia, with fifteen bodies rotting in it. Many among the dead were officers and executives working in the tea gardens who had been kidnapped. The date of operation had leaked in spite of all the secrecy and the precautions. All the prominent leaders of ULFA, along with chief Paresh Baruah, had slipped into Bangladesh.
Is That Even a Country, Sir! Journeys in Northeast India by Train, Bus and Tractor
By Anil Yadav
Translated from the Hindi by Anurag Basnet
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 350