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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Cost of Doing Business

Tata Tea is accused of paying off militants

By Arjuna Ranawana / New Delhi


IF A COMPANY WANTS to operate in India's insurgency-plagued northeast, it seems hard to avoid doing business with the militants. Paying off the well-armed, and poorly disciplined, secessionists is a matter of survival for many. And, until recently, a matter of some secrecy too. But now police in Assam, one of these troubled states, are investigating charges that corporate executives and government officials may have been bankrolling the guerrillas.

Among those facing the most serious charges is India's largest and most prestigious conglomerate, the Tata group. It owns Tata Tea Ltd., one of the biggest tea companies in the world. Tea is one of India's most important agricultural products, and in Assam TTL is responsible for 21 of the 54 plantations. The Assam police have arrested three senior TTL executives and accused the company of giving money to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), which has been fighting for a separate state since 1979.

Police have accused S.S. Dogra, TTL's general manager, of paying for the travel, hotel and hospital expenses of a top ULFA militant, Pranati Deka. She was arrested by police in August after checking into an exclusive Bombay hospital (under an assumed name) to give birth. TTL says Deka took advantage of a program the company runs for Assamese who need specialized medical care, and that no one was aware of her true identity. Assam police believe Dogra knew who she was. The police also allege that Brojen Gogoi, a TTL manager who is from Assam, is a ULFA sympathizer. Gogoi and a colleague have been charged with "aiding, abetting and assisting persons waging war against the state."

Ratan Tata, CEO of the Tata group, has said that TTL has "done nothing wrong," and that his officers are being harassed by the Assam government. TTL does not deny meeting ULFA representatives. But the company maintains that it informed India's main Intelligence Bureau of all its contacts with the extremists, and even acted under the Bureau's advice. Meanwhile, the government announced on October 14 that it was investigating a former Bureau chief's role in this matter.

In a widely published statement, TTL claimed that its officials had met the militants "only to communicate its firm position. Tata Tea withstood all threats, did not pay, and will never pay."

Certainly the security situation in Assam is serious. "It is every man for himself," a senior plantation manager based in Calcutta told Asiaweek. "We have to look after ourselves as the state cannot provide security." Telephoned threats to company officials are common, as are the abduction and killing of staff. Indeed, one TTL executive was shot in January and another kidnapped in 1993. "Almost without exception every business, and even some of the government agencies, has to pay protection money to one or more militant outfit," said the plantation manager.

Many find that easy to believe. What may be more surprising is the revelation that followed. In early October, a national English-language daily, the Indian Express, published transcripts of telephone conversations between Tata, Nusli Wadia, an industrialist and a director in the company, Keshub Mahindra, another tycoon, and former Indian army commander Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. An investigation into who might have recorded their conversations is under way. In India a few official agencies are permitted to tap phones, but all those authorized to do so have said they did not in this case.

None of the four men involved has denied that these conversations took place. In a chat with Mahindra, Wadia says: "You know the guy who has been wanted, Gogoi? He has been in Calcutta since the eighth of September. He is in the Tata guest house." Gogoi was supposed to have left India to study at Harvard University. Tata officials say they informed the police of Gogoi's departure, and return.

The tapes also may show that Tata and Wadia called politicians, including former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and opposition leader Lal Krishna Advani, apparently to help persuade the government to go easy on the company. Tata also had meetings with the chief minister of Assam, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, and Home Minister Indrajit Gupta. Tata has said that he is "entitled to contact such friends [who] will be able to make the Assam government desist from a very unfair course of action."

The troubles may stem from the recent dismissal of longtime manager Ajit Kerkar, who once headed TTL, for allegedly violating currency regulations. Still, TTL is not the only company named by the police. Authorities contend that the state's biggest plantation owner, Williamson Magor Ltd., paid $850,000 to the extremists. TTL supposedly gave them $140,000. Five other smaller tea companies, and three government departments, have also been accused of making "contributions" to the militants.

Many executives seem more worried about the evidence of phone-tapping than allegations about making pay-offs or seeking political protection. Says Bombay investment analyst Imran Contractor: "The Assam government failed to provide security. What can corporations do when they have to carry on in that kind of environment?" That is just what the police -- and the public -- want to know.


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