Guerrillas brew up a storm for the tea-growers: Tim McGirk reports from Assam on the armed rebels who are raiding estates

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The Independent Online
IT WAS supposed to be a friendly game of football: the Burra-sahib managers of some upper Assam tea gardens versus the labourers. After the boundaries were marked, the goals netted and a tent pegged up in case of a monsoon cloudburst, there remained one question in Vijay Sen's mind: where should the soldiers position their two machine-guns?

In the past six months, militant Bodo tribesmen in Assam have kidnapped five tea estate managers and are demanding huge ransoms. Mr Sen (not his real name; he wants to protect his family and job) runs a vast hill plantation whose yearly crop could supply enough Orange Pekoe to treat all of Britain to a week-long tea party, and he was an obvious target. So were his team-mates, who look after estates large enough for private airstrips. A gathering of Burra-sahibs and their families for a football match might tempt the Bodos into a raid.

While their wives watched, Mr Sen's team were thrashed 3-0. Then, with every manager and his family escorted by two armed guards, the losing side repaired to the Sens' bungalow, where icy beer was served beside a swimming pool and a lawn tennis court that would turn a Wimbledon groundsman green with envy. The guests did not linger too long after nightfall; 10 days earlier, the Bodos had ambushed a senior police officer on the country road.

For many years, the greatest danger a tea-garden manager might face was malaria, a mad elephant attack, or being swept away while crossing a torrential river with the payroll for the labourers. But since tribal insurgency first erupted in Assam, with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in the Eighties and now with the Bodos, the tea growers are plagued by kidnapping, murder and extortion.

Faced with growing security hazards, many tea companies are becoming disenchanted with Assam, probably the world's largest producer of quality tea. One British firm, Unilever, pulled its managers out of the region in 1990. Another company has been accused by the Assam government of paying protection money to the Bodos. The Indian tea giant, Tata, is threatening to sell off its plantations in the Darrang district, which is overrun by the Bodo insurgents. The militants, called the Bodo Security Force, have been holding a senior Tata manager, Bolin Bordoloi, for a pounds 3m ransom. The company has offered to spend the money building schools and hospitals for the Bodos, but the rebels want it to buy guns.

Tea directors in Calcutta and London are discussing quitting Assam for Darjeeling, Sri Lanka or East Africa (Britain now imports only 20 per cent of its tea from India), but many of the besieged garden managers are determined to stay put. Some Burra-sahibs are panicked; one manager and his wife barricaded themselves in their bungalow every night for prayer sessions. But like Mr Sen, most of the planters - men in their thirties and early forties - would rather fight than abandon their gardens to the rebel tribesmen.

The first British planters, who used elephants to clear the Assamese jungle in the late 19th century, and who seldom removed their tweed jackets and ties in front of the natives, were essentially hard-working pioneers of the middle class. After India's independence in 1947, companies replaced their British garden managers with Indian gentry, often from military backgrounds. 'We're not going to give it up,' one manager said grimly. 'These Bodo chaps aren't going to frighten me away from my golf games or drinks at the club.'

The Monday football match against the tea-pickers is an important ritual for the planters: not only does it help to close the gap between the workers and the Burra-sahib, high in his mansion on the hill; it also allows the managers' families to unwind together behind a corral of jeeps full of armed police. Over drinks and Indian hors d'oeuvres, they discuss their various companies' new allowance for Dobermans and the best gun for their wives and children to handle.

There is also a feeling of betrayal by the Bodos, whom the planters had long considered to be gentle, tolerant folk with an intriguing medical anomaly: they are immune to malaria. The Bodos make up half the workers on most Darrang district plantations. The Assam state government has neglected the hills inhabited by the Bodos, and the tea estates often made up the deficit, providing roads, hospitals, subsidised food and houses. The other tea-workers are the fifth generation of tribespeople brought in by British planters 150 years ago from elsewhere in India, and they solidly support the estate managers. Several weeks ago, two Bodo guerrillas tried to capture a tea executive from his gardens. When the pickers gave chase, the Bodos shot dead the manager and ran. The pickers caught and lynched them.

In the Fifties, American Baptist missionaries began converting the Bodos to Christianity and educating them. But the schooling did not help them to find jobs in the Assam capital, Guwahati, where corruption and nepotism are rampant. Thwarted, they vented their anger on the easiest victim: the tea-growers. One high- ranking Assam official said: 'All it takes is a gun and a motor- scooter, and one of these young militants can earn a few hundred thousand rupees in a day.'

The army claims that the Bodo Security Force, led by Ranjen Daimary, an ascetic revolutionary with an MA degree, has only 200 to 300 armed insurgents. They operate from camps across the jungle border in Bhutan, where the Indian army cannot go. The Bodos have also 'liberated' the huge Manas game sanctuary. Poaching had wiped out many of the park's rhinos, tigers and deer, said the field director, P Lahan.

The army claims, however, that because of the close tribal links among the 700,000-strong Bodo community, no one ever informs on the guerrillas. 'We can't win,' said one brigadier, who requested not to be identified. 'There aren't many Bodo militants now. But if we go into a village and start rounding people up, there will soon be 500 militants - and then 1,000.'

The Bodos are not the only tribal insurgents in India's far-flung north-eastern states, which are geographically and culturally closer to the Far East than to Delhi, 850 miles away. The new Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, is more concerned about quelling separatist movements closer to home, in Kashmir and Punjab, than in the remote north-east. There are at least six guerrilla outfits in the region.

Delhi's approach to the mess has been unorthodox and desperate. Two years ago, the then prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, contacted L K Misra, a retired MP who had taken up faith healing, and appointed him Assam's governor. Each morning, Governor Misra would dismiss his bodyguard and stroll beside the Brahmaputra river alone, waiting for the tribal insurgents to approach him. They never did. Once a week, using mantras, he treats more than 500 people afflicted with everything from snake-bites to leukaemia. One tea manager who approached Mr Misra for a gun licence was instead offered a mantra that would protect him against bullets. The Rajput planter preferred a shotgun.

The tea plantations tried to raise their own private army, but the state government refused to allow it, arguing that the planters might use the army to bully the labourers. Instead, the tea estates were told to pay for the state to train a special Home Guard-style unit of 500 men. So far, though, most of the guards sent to the plantations by the Assam government are outmanoeuvred by the Bodos.

The morning after the football game, Mr Sen went for his morning inspection of the gardens. Bodo women in mustard-coloured sarongs were fanning out through the waist-high tea bushes, as though walking through an English garden maze. Their movement startled a pair of rare emerald doves, which vanished into the canopy of trees over the garden, and Mr Sen stopped to witness their flight. 'When I think of all the work that went into this estate - from the first Englishmen who cleared out the jungle . . . They were in their early twenties, and many died of malaria . . .' his voice trailed off. 'I know it's dangerous - for me, for my family - but I just can't walk away from this garden.'

(Photograph omitted)