Fear replanted in tea estates

For six years, Assam's Rs 6,000-crore tea industry had seen a break from violence, after 16 terrifying years when a gun was literally hovering over almost every planter and executive's head. Extortion demands continue even today, the industry says, but no tea executive had been killed since 2006.

Now the violence has returned, with militants killing a Guwahati-based planter and leaving the industry blaming the state government for failing to rein in various groups, anti-talk or pro-talk, despite all its claims about most of the outfits having joined the peace process.

Adilur Rahman, planter and hotelier, was gunned down on Tuesday near his tea estate, located close to the Arunachal Pradesh border in Sonitpur district, about 280 km from Guwahati.

"They (the rebels) have chosen a soft target, as all tea planters and tea executives are anyway. There is also an intention of terrorising and crippling the tea industry that had looked up only recently after a series of adversities in the recent years. It is definitely a failure on the part of the government," Dhiraj Kakati, secretary of the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA), told The Indian Express.

The tea industry has remained the backbone of Assam's economy since Maniram Dewan, an Assamese nobleman, took British trader Robert Bruce for his first cup of Assam tea at Singpho chief Beesa Gam's village in 1823, a milestone event that led to the industry being established.

The industry says it remains under pressure from various armed groups. "Planters continue to get extortion notes and phone calls from various outfits, and this is most common in Tinsukia district. We always keep the police abreast of such developments," says Kakati, whose ABITA represents most of the planters in Assam.

While there have been incidents of abduction mostly of smaller entrepreneurs who have taken to plantation the victims have managed to come back. Rahman's killing was the first since the brutal murder of Haridhan Das, manager of Holong-habi tea estate near Digboi in 2006.

"Twenty-one planters and executives have fallen to militants' bullets since 1990," said Kakati, questioning why the government has not been able to wipe out militancy.

The first killing of a top tea executive in Assam happened on April 9, 1990. The executive was Surrendra Paul, younger brother of Lord Swarj Paul and managing director of Assam Frontier Tea Ltd, a subsidiary of the Apeejay Group. He was killed near Dibrugarh; the group responsible was the ULFA.

"Planters and tea executives are in a peculiar situation. They are working in areas far from urban centres and police stations. It is like being caught between the devil and the deep sea. If he doesn't pay up, then he gets killed, and if he pays, the government blames him of hobnobbing with the militants," said Deepanjal Deka, secretary of the Tea Association of India (TAI), which represents another section of the industry.

For the killing of Rahman, who was the proprietor of two estates, Mahaluxmi and Tejalpatti, the police have blamed the anti-talk faction of the NDFB, or National Democratic Front of Bodoland. The outfit, whose founder and chairman Ranjan Daimari, currently lodged in the Guwahati central jail, has been named prime accused in the October 2008 serial blasts, has promptly denied involvement in the murder.

Tuesday's killing was also a reminder of the high-profile killings that had rocked the state when militancy was at its peak. Victims of militants' bullets in in the past two decades or so have included social activist Sanjay Ghose, Russian mining engineer Sergei Gritchenko, minister Nagen Sarma, veteran journalist Kamala Saikia, FCI executive director P C Ram, and IPS officers Daulat Singh Negi and R K Singh.

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