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Battling it out: Ratan Tata and Krishna Kumar are determined to defend the Tata reputation

Last Tuesday, the south Mumbai flat of lawyer Ram Jethmalani was the scene of flurried activity. The first to arrive was Jethmalani’s son Mahesh, an eminent city lawyer in his own right, followed by two middle aged men. Krishna Kumar, the taciturn managing director of Tata Tea. Kumar had barely taken off his jacket when in marched a purposeful Nusli Wadia, the chairman of Bombay Dyeing, a man described by a close friend as a “crisis junkie”. Accompanying him was his childhood friend and the head of India’s largest industrial group with a combined net turnover of Rs 31,000 crore, Ratan Tata.

It was the Tata crisis management group in session. Palkar of the Mumbai High Court to extend the scope of the anticipatory bail for Kumar to include the entire gamut of charges of aiding and abetting the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The order meant that the Tata Tea boss could assume charge of his new responsibility as head of Indian Hotels Ltd, a Tata company that is in the thick of controversy over the acrimonious removal of its long standing managing director, Ajit Kerkar.

Central player: Tata depends on Wadia’s expertise in fighting larger political battles

The danger to Kumar followed a thriller script. Last week, The Indian Express published transcripts of illegal taps of telephone conversations Wadia had with industrialist Keshub Mahindra, Rajya Sabha member Jayant Malhoutra, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw and Ratan Tata regarding Tata Tea’s problems with the Assam Government. Apart from titillating insights into Wadia’s pugnaciousness, the transcripts, according to The Indian Express, “indicate. to overawe the lawfully established Government in association with the activists of the banned ULFA”.

Earlier, Gogoi had accompanied Pranati Deka, the nowjailed culture secretary of ULFA, to Mumbai for medical treatment whose costs were met by Tata Tea. According to IGP (special branch) N. Ramachandran, “Gogoi is an active member of ULFA.” Read along with Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta’s allegations of Tata Tea being hand in glove with ULFA, the transcripts sought to strengthen charges of anti national conduct against India’s most famous corporate house.

There is an additional twist to the phone tapping saga. Till his acrimonious parting of ways in 1994, Wadia was a director of The Indian Express and intimately involved with present chairman Vivek Goenka’s battle for his grandfather’s empire.

In fact, all the lawyers fighting to salvage the honour of the Tatas are veterans of Ramnath Goenka’s fierce battles with Rajiv Gandhi on the one hand and Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance Group on the other. Goenka denies suggestions of targeting anyone. He says that the purpose of the reports was to make “people sit up and notice” the collapse of governance in Assam.

Other tea companies are known to have paid militants. But the question remains: why were three of Wadia’s phones in Neville House tapped? Either the target was Wadia and the Tatas became unintended victims of a dirty war. Or was someone interested in unearthing inside information about Ratan Tata through his “corporate samurai” Wadia? Is the fuss over Tata Tea linked to the ULFA menace or an extension of boardroom battles in Bombay House, the Tata Group headquarters?

Categorical answers are impossible, but there is a grain of truth behind Ratan Tata’s pained assertion that the Assam Government has prejudged Tata Tea. In the matter of harbouring Gogoi, for example, it is clear that the company’s conduct is far from dishonourable, although there are loose ends.

Gogoi arrived in Calcutta from a study trip to Harvard on September 6 and checked into a company guest house. In a state of nervousness, he checked into Hotel Rutt Deen in his own name on September 11. Two days later, Tata officials learnt of an Interpol alert against Gogoi. Jafa’s insistence that Gogoi was in Chicago. In fact,
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Mahanta told the press that he had asked the Tatas to secure Gogoi’s return in 14 days. Mahanta seized on Gogoi’s links to the ULFA to embarass the Tatas

On September 18, Gogoi contacted the Tata Tea office from the nursing home. That was apparently the first indication the company had of his whereabouts. within the next four days”. Tata Tea replied that Gogoi would present himself on September 24. It lived up to that commitment.

The case against Gogoi seems to be at the heart of the Assam Government’s anger against Tata Tea. An employee of Tata Tea since 1975, Gogoi was known to ULFA chief Paresh Barua who still refers to him as an elder brother. These contacts came in handy for Tata Tea when it was confronted with the ULFA threat from the early ’90s. From being a mere doctor with Assamese nationalist leanings, Gogoi was catapulted to the role of a point man in Tata Tea’s attempt to cope with extremism. It was a daunting role.

With interests spread over 21 estates that employed 170 managers and 20,000 workers, the largest tea company in Assam was the prime target of militant extortionists. Most tea companies coped with the problem by simply paying up. Tata Tea’s approach was different. “For 10 years,” says Kumar, “we have tried to grapple with the issue of saving lives and yet not paying up. We used to break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of ULFA.”

Key to the tapping: The exchange box outside Wadia’s Neville House office

In June 1990, ULFA summoned representatives of seven tea companies to a garden outside Dibrugarh town. A few weeks later, Doom Dooma airlifted its managers out of Assam, an event that precipitated the dismissal of the Mahanta government in 1991.

Three years later, Tata Tea deputy general manager Bolin Bordoloi was kidnapped by the Bodo Security Force. The company was served with a ransom demand for $15 million (Rs 54 crore). Undeterred, it chose to stick to its policy of not paying. This angered Hiteswar Saikia who was under pressure from Bordoloi’s mother, the widow of Assam’s first chief minister Gopinath Bordoloi, to secure her son’s release.

It was during the Bordoloi incident that Gogoi’s non medical talents were put to use by Tata Tea. He is understood to have established links with the Bodo group through his contacts in the ULFA. He kept up communication with the kidnappers that resulted in the group finally lowering the ransom demand to Rs 5 lakh the costs incurred in maintaining Bordoloi in captivity! Even that demand was refused.

However, it is significant that a decision was also taken to construct a 65 bed hospital and research centre at Chubwa tea estate in Upper Assam at a cost of Rs 7 crore. The kidnapping of Bordoloi had, it seems, a spin off benefit for the Bodos. Tata officials are tight lipped, but intelligence sources maintain that the company was offered guidance on coping with extremists.

On December 15, 1995, Tata Tea received a letter from ULFA chief Barua demanding the immediate supply of 100 walkie talkies. This was followed by persistent phone calls to the company head office in Calcutta. In a crafty response, Tata Tea praised “your movement which we sincerely believe is motivated by your desire to help Assam and its people achieve prosperity” but firmly stated its inability to either supply the walkie talkies or pay cash.

On January 9, 1996, the company informed the home secretary of Assam of the ULFA threat and its response: “In the hope that we can persuade them to accept our . decision, we are requesting . B. Bordoloi and B. Gogoi . to keep open the dialogue in the interests of security . (B)oth are acting on the instructions of the company.”

Refusing to take no for an answer, ULFA insisted on a meeting. It took place on May 25 in a Bangkok hotel. Ganapathy met Barua and were presented with additional demands, including an annual tax. The minutes of this meeting was submitted to Kumar. It was in response to that threat that the Medical Aid scheme was evolved whereby the company would pick up the tab for hospital costs of people recommended by ULFA. Gogoi was selected to sell the package to the ULFA chief at a meeting in Dhaka in early July.

The first case under this scheme was referred by ULFA in November when a patient was treated in Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai. Thereafter, in June this year, a lady whose name was given as Bonti Baruah was recommended for treatment in a pregnancy related blood disorder. She was subsequently found to be ULFA’s culture secretary. Although company officials are silent,
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a senior intelligence source has indicated that top Tata Tea officials met a senior officer in the IB on at least three occasions and cleared the schemes. “There is formal communication between the IB and Tata Tea on the Bangkok and Dhaka visits.