ULFA Extortion Drive in Tea Belt

Long known to target the tea industry for their financial requirements, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has, in a sudden upsurge, issued extortion notices to at least two major tea companies in the state. Close on the heels of the notice reportedly issued to Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL) last month, a second tea major, Warren Tea Limited in the Tinsukia district of Upper Assam, has said that it received a Rs 25 lakh demand notice from the outfit recently. With the law and order situation worsening, the state government has decided to press into service three superintendents of police in the district, home to some of the biggest tea gardens in the state. According to the additional superintendent of police (headquarters), Bedanta Madhab Rajkhowa, security had been increased in all 13 of Warren's gardens in Upper Assam.

The army, too has increased its patrolling in the district, especially in the Doom Dooma area. “We have informed our head officer at Kolkata and they are in touch with the authorities concerned,” said Uddhab Sarmah, Warren's general manager in charge of its estates in Upper Assam. The company has filed a complaint with the Pengeri police station regarding the notice. There are, however, no reports yet of HLL having taken up the matter with the police.

According to reports, the killing of five persons in the Dighaltarang Tea Estate in the district early this month, while, incidentally, Union Defence Minister George Fernandes was on a visit to the state, is now believed to be have been extortion related as well. According to sources, the victims, all local businessmen, were killed by suspected ULFA militants after they failed to pay the money the militants had demanded.

The ULFA's latest funds drive in Upper Assam comes in the midst of reports of the outfit facing a financial crisis in its camps in Bhutan, following increased vigilance by security forces in the border areas. As reported earlier, government forces, in the wake of India's recent agreement with Bhutan, with the neighbouring country pledging to remove ULFA bases from its soil, decided to choke the outfit's supply lines, in a move that is believed to be logical first step before an armed offensive, expected to come from the Bhutanese side.