Kolkata: Fringe political outfits have, after a gap of at least five years, again begun extorting money from owners of tea estates in Assam. In a little over a month, at least three persons have been abducted from various tea gardens in Assam, the last one on Monday from Menoka Tea Estate in the Darranga Mela area near India’s border with Bhutan.
Kamlesh Gupta, the manager of the estate, who was whisked away by armed gunmen from his bungalow on Monday evening, is still missing. Gupta, 50, is no greenhorn: he has worked at least 15 years in tea gardens, according to Pinaki Roy, director of Menoka Tea Estate Pvt. Ltd. “He never mentioned receiving any extortion note,” Roy said.
At least two other persons were kidnapped from tea estates in Assam in the past few weeks, but they did not want to be named because their firms paid ransom for their release. One of them was an estate owner, the other a manager.
In June-July, armed militants suspected to be members of a separatist group attacked and vandalized properties on two tea estates in Upper Assam, or the eastern part of the state. Several employees were assaulted and the owners of the estates later confirmed they had received “extortion notes” from the group.
“The situation is suddenly beginning to get concerning again,” said one of the biggest tea growers in Assam, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Unless nipped in the bud, these things can very quickly escalate into a niggling problem.”
Though militancy has abated, security guards at Assam’s tea gardens are still routinely armed. At Menoka Tea Estate, Gupta’s personal security guard carried a self-loading rifle, according to Roy. He was locked up in a room.
“For years, we haven’t faced any extortion,” said Roy. “The industry was in a shambles, and even if they hacked us to death we couldn’t pay them (the separatists).”
Over the past few years, things have looked up, tea prices have remained strong and tea growers are again making money.
“Though the notorious separatist groups such as the Ulfa (United Liberation Front of Assam) and BLT (Bodoland Tigers) aren’t as active as they were earlier, we are again feeling threatened,” he added.
Gupta’s abduction brought back to the tea estate memories of a similar incident that took place in 1997. After 23 days and “extensive discussion”, militants had released Menoka Tea Estate’s manager.
The tea industry had much worse experiences in the 1980s and the 1990s. In 1988, Ulfa militants were suspected to have killed at least a dozen tea garden officials and abducted many for ransom.
Things came to a head in 1990, when in May, Ulfa militants killed Surrendra Paul, chairman of the Apeejay Surrendra Group—one of the biggest tea growers in Assam—and in November, laid siege to erstwhile Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL)’s Doom Dooma tea estate, forcing the company to secretly airlift its officials. HLL is now known as Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL).
Though militancy has declined in the past decade, attacks have been carried out against companies such as HLL. In November 2003, explosives were set off at the company’s personal care products factory in Tinsukia district of Assam.
Back then, local people wouldn’t protest, but now it’s different. Locals have got together to protest the abduction at Menoka Tea Estate, which has some 300 permanent workers and employs as many more temporary workers. “Over the last few days, our workers have led protest rallies of local people, blocked roads and even the nearest police station,” said Roy.
The state administration has launched “a massive search operation”, said an official at the Darranga Mela police outpost. He did not identify himself in the phone conversation. “We suspect some insiders could be involved. The estate had sacked some of its workers. It could be a case of these guys retaliating.”