Kolkata: Kamlesh Gupta, 46, manager of Menaka Tea Estate in Darranga Mela in lower Assam, was abducted from his bungalow on 13 December.
“It was an attempt by an almost written-off militant group to intimidate tea growers into paying a tax for the safety of their employees,” says Gupta, who has spent 22 years in the tea gardens of Assam. “The big players are no pushovers, but the small growers are soft targets. These are ominous signs for them.”
Bearing the brunt: Menaka Tea Estate manager Kamlesh Gupta. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
In a conversation on Thursday, a day after he was released, Gupta recounts the days he spent in captivity under a canopy of bamboo trees atop a small hill.
Edited excerpts from his first-person account:
Money alone couldn’t have saved my life, surely not, because it is impossible for small tea growers to pay the kind of ransom that they had initially demanded—Rs10 crore. Two days after they whisked me away from my bungalow, they rang up the owner of our garden, Pinaki Roy, demanding Rs10 crore.
Till then they were pretty polite with me. One of their leaders even apologized for the bullet injury that I had sustained in my bungalow on the night of 13 December.
The young boy who fired the gun was a greenhorn. He panicked when I resisted, their leader told me. He was told not use the gun at all but he must have thought I would free myself and run away. But the moment he started firing and a bullet grazed past my tummy, I gave up—I thought I was dead.
Five boys dragged me through the garden to three motorbikes that were waiting outside. With three persons on each motorbike, we set off for what turned out to be a seven-hour journey.
Bleeding profusely from the bullet wound, I was in great pain. After a point—it must have been an hour or so by then—I told them I couldn’t cope with the pain anymore. So they stopped in a village and got a pain killer for me from one of the houses.
Though young, these boys knew what to do if you are hit by a bullet. I was thirsty, but they allowed me to drink only a mouthful of water to gulp down the pill. That much and no more: they said it wasn’t advisable to drink more water in that state. After an hour or so, there was some remission.
We rode for some four hours before we arrived at a forest, where these boys handed me to their leaders. From there, we walked for at least two hours through an inviolate forest—it was full moon, but hardly any moonlight penetrated the foliage.
From their conversation, I gathered I had been abducted by a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which was opposed to the ceasefire. I had thought these people had given up arms, but no, they are still active and had allied with various other insurgent groups such as the Maoists.
As the forest disappeared behind us, I realized we were headed for a hideout on the top of a small hill. Walking barefoot through thorny shrubs, my feet were badly bruised. I could barely carry on, but didn’t give up. It must have taken us at least an hour more to climb the hill before we arrived at my abductors’ hideout.
Immediately on arrival, they nursed my wound. I could hardly see the person but from his touches I realized his were deft hands. He told me later he had nursed many such wounds before—mine was an easy one.
They laid hay and blanket on bamboo sticks and made a pretty decent bed for me for the circumstances. Though still in a state of shock, I fell asleep before long.
For two days, there was hardly any conversation with my abductors. They were nice to me and fed me each time they ate themselves. But things took a nasty turn on 15 December after they made phone calls to Kolkata demanding the ransom, only to be told it was impossible to pay Rs10 crore. They beat me that night; I could sense their aim was to intimidate me into making desperate phone calls to people at home and to the owner of our garden. I didn’t succumb to the pressure until the night of 23 December, when for the second time I thought death was staring me in my face.
Every day they would make phone calls to Kolkata. For the first couple of days, they showed no sign of budging from their demand of Rs10 crore. And every other day, immediately after hanging up the phone, they would beat me up, sometimes with a stick, initially to intimidate me and later out of frustration at my resilience.
They used to call from mobile phones and within days the police were able to locate them. They (police) knew where they hid me, but it’s a place so remote that the state doesn’t seem to exist there. It was impossible for the security forces to launch an offensive there.
Meanwhile, the Roy family, which owns our garden, used their old political contacts in Delhi to get the Assam administration to think of an alternative plan. I heard about it only after I had given up all hopes of ever meeting my people again.
Days of negotiation brought down the ransom demand to Rs1 crore, but the owners of our garden wouldn’t pay that either. It wasn’t a question of whether they could afford. The administration had told them to offer a certain amount and stick to it because they wanted to buy time.
On 23 December, things came to an ugly pass. They had lowered their demand to Rs80 lakh, and agreed to receive the amount in instalments, but it was still substantially higher than what the Roys had offered.
That night they almost killed me and out of sheer pain and fear for life I rang them (the Roys). Yet, they refused to raise their offer. They were playing to a plan, which I realized the next day after some of the militants were ordered to dig a pit to bury my body. I was to be executed on 24 December.
As I waited for the moment to arrive, I was told I could ring up anyone I liked. I chose not to. I told them I wanted my body to be handed to my family. Suddenly news arrived from their leaders that the government was to discuss a ceasefire with them again and one of their key leaders was to be released on bail within a few days if they set me free. For the second time, I survived by the skin of my teeth.
The next few days went in hectic parleys over the ransom. They were hurrying because now for them time was running out. They agreed to accept the amount offered by the Roys. On the night of 28 December, as I was being walked back to the plains news arrived that the quid pro quo arrangement had worked: their leader Ranjan Daimari had been released on bail.