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Tea Planters Flee as Militants Attack

REUTERS

Planters are fleeing India’s finest tea farms to escape kidnapings and killings by left-wing guerrillas who cultivate a Robin Hood image.

Indian intelligence reports acknowledge that the 10-year-old United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) is winning villagers’ protection with welfare projects while killing what it calls Indian colonialists in the northeast tea-exporting region.

“All tea gardens have been served notice to pay astronomical sums by the ULFA terrorists,” said Kalyan Basu of the Tea Assn. of India.

“The planters demanded police protection and failed to get it, so many of them fled the gardens.”

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The association had expected India’s tea production to reach 326 million pounds this year from 309 million in 1989.

But association officials now say the violence may hurt output in Assam, which produces 65% of India’s tea exports, and could drive the country’s total exports down from last year’s 90 million pounds.

Intelligence sources said planters’ fear grew to panic in April when the ULFA shot dead one of India’s best-known entrepreneurs, Surendra Paul, in his family’s tea garden.

His brother, Swaraj Paul, runs one of the biggest Indian expatriate business groups, London-based Caparo.

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The ULFA has killed 90 people this year, charging them with “crimes” including “exploiting the financially downtrodden people,” promoting India’s national language, Hindi, and “propagating the flesh trade.”

The ULFA, demanding “a sovereign, socialist Assam,” says it wants to turn the tea gardens into co-operatives.

It accuses businessmen of exploiting Assam’s natural resources and levies “taxes” of up to $650,000 a time on the tea gardens. Some pay up, others flee.

“All business tycoons have been served notices to obey the orders and pay taxes to the agents of the ULFA,” a government intelligence report acknowledged. It said the ULFA “is virtually running a parallel government in some parts of Assam.”

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Planters are infuriated that the state government, itself elected on a radical anti-foreigner platform, has yet to ban the ULFA or to call in Indian troops and paramilitary for the sort of battle waged against separatists in Punjab and Kashmir.

The state’s chief minister, Prafulla Mohanta, said: “We are ready to solve the problem on a political level rather than by force. We cannot let Assam be destroyed by a fratricidal feud.”

After 10 years of sporadic killings that won it little publicity, the ULFA’s middle-class leaders set up a “civil wing” that went into Assam’s impoverished villages armed with free food and practical advice on developing schools and roads.

“We have seen politicians. They only make empty promises,” said villager Rambilas Birich.

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“The ULFA may be killers, but they kill only the wrongdoers and care for us who are oppressed through the ages.”

The ULFA’s “army wing,” estimated by intelligence sources at 1,000 guerrillas, totes Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles.

Satyen Borbora, a scientist at an Assam tea research center, said: “Unless Indian paramilitary forces fan out all over Assam and start extensive operations against the ULFA, many of the garden-owners and their managerial staff will not return.

“Much of the produce in these gardens may be wasted.”

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