The Lost Children of India
Reputations are not easily built in India. Business reputations are even tougher to build. Yet the Tatas
have, quietly and in their typically stodgy manner, built up an empire that is not just the biggest in
India but also, in many ways, the most respected. This respect has come from the way they do
business, not for the pace at which they have grown.
For years, JRD Tata or Jeh as he was affectionately called, was the face of the Group. He was the
quintessential gentleman and saw the Group grow through a slew of smart new ventures led by his
entrepreneurial colleagues. These ventures flowered into spectacular success stories. But, in the
process, some of these colleagues became so big that the Group found it difficult to contain them. Or
so goes the story.
And thus began the Ratan Tata era, which saw focus and consolidation as the key strategy. Some of
the finest achievers within the Group were retired, axed or sent out to graze. Businesses were sold.
Companies were put under pressure to perform. The Tatas made headlines all over again, for the
wrong reasons. But a reluctant Ratan, instead of putting out his strategy in clear, bold terms, fought
shy of the media. This gave his critics and business rivals the opportunity they had always yearned
for. The opportunity to hit back.
Two recent cases are typical examples. The Taj imbroglio, where thanks to a series of media gaffes
which projected the Tatas in extremely poor light Ajit Kerkar came out smelling like a rose. The
second case is that of Tata Tea, where every attempt is being made to project the Tatas as an
unethical group ready to buy peace with the ULFA terrorists in Assam by bribing them. Again, their
silence has not exactly helped their case.
But, first, the crime.
Tata Tea has been accused of paying for the medical treatment of ULFA cultural secretary Pranati
Deka, suspected to be suffering from leukemia, who came to Bombay to deliver a child. She was
reportedly accompanied by a Tata Tea executive called Brojen Gogoi (who "surrendered" on Wednesday to the Assam police).
The Assam government alleges that Tata Tea not only paid for Deka's treatment, they also paid her
hotel bills and air fare. (A charge yet to be proved.) Taking off from this, they allege that Tata Tea
like many other tea companies in Assam have paid extortion money to militants and must, therefore,
be punished. The evidence? Hearsay till now. And confessions by tortured terrorists. On the basis of
these, charges have been framed and a senior Tata Tea officer, not exactly in the best of health, has
been picked up and thrown into jail. The top brass, including managing director R Krishna Kumar,
who flew down to Guwahati, have been interrogated for hours. So hostile was the grilling that a
worried Krishnakumar sought anticipatory bail from the Bombay high court. He got it too. A fact
that has so angered the Assam government that they are now moving the Supreme Court to revoke
There are, frankly, three issues here.
One, does a State that has failed to protect you from the militants have the moral right to punish you
for succumbing to extortion? I say no.
If the Bombay cops were to look away when gangsters came with AK-47s and tried to extort you,
can they (thereafter) punish you for paying up to save your life? Surely, every individual, every
community, every corporate has the right to its own life and security and a government that cannot
protect them has no right to punish them either, if they choose to make their own peace with the
If indeed Tata Tea did, knowingly and wilfully, pay for Pranati Deka's trip to Bombay
which itself is
a matter of mere hypothesis as yet I see nothing wrong in it. Providing medical help to someone
suspected of blood cancer and about to deliver a child is not exactly the same as bribing a terrorist
outfit. In fact, if you look at contemporary history with dispassion, the Assam government has done
far more to appease terrorists. In fact, if rumours are to be believed, they have often been hand in
glove with the ULFA. There are some who claim that the loot is shared.
I do not know if this is true or not. Whether the Assam government shares the loot with the
terrorists or not. Just as I do not know whether Tata Tea paid for Pranati Deka. But I certainly
know one thing: A government that cannot protect its people and its corporates has no right to
punish anyone who is protecting himself.
Secondly, what is so wrong in providing medical aid to Deka? Tata Tea has a scheme by which it
helps the people of Assam to get free medical treatment. This is what governments should do. They
do not. So corporates like Tata Tea, as a gesture of goodwill, assist the State by making such
facilities available. Since the objective of this scheme is to help people, not collect insurgency
intelligence, surely you cannot expect Tata Tea to check and verify the credentials of everyone who
seeks help under the scheme. If they were to do this, many patients in search of urgent and
desperate medical attention would have died by now.
Help schemes work on the basis of trust. That is the difference between the State and private
bodies. Governments are sloth, bureaucratic, suspicious. Private agencies move swiftly. Both make
occasional mistakes. But private agencies save many more lives because they are prompt and
helpful. They do not make excuses. If a sick and aged terrorist was found in Mother Teresa's Home
for the Dying, will you discredit the entire work of the Missionaries of Charity or accuse them of
harbouring a criminal? Will you force Sister Nirmala to seek anticipatory bail like a common
criminal? Or would you respect her more for giving shelter to the wayward, for hopefully changing a
Thirdly, every citizen of India has the right to medical help. Why should we deny this to Deka? This
is exactly the high handed attitude of governments that almost lost us Kashmir and Punjab. It is this
that brought Bengal and Andhra Pradesh to the brink of a civil war, when we stopped thinking of
Naxalites as human beings. It is time we recalled the simple fact that Khudiram Bose and Bhagat
Singh and Sri Aurobindo were also described as terrorists till history proved them to be patriots.
The thin dividing line between terrorism and patriotism cannot be drawn by you and me. It is drawn
by history. Let us punish what the law defines as a crime but let us not treat every militant, every
political activist as an enemy of the state to be hunted down and shot dead in encounters, to be
denied medical treatment in their moment of need. This is not the way to stop terrorism. It is the way
to exacerbate it.
I am not defending Pranati Deka. I do not know her. I do not even know what her crimes are. All I
have heard is that she is suffering from blood cancer and was about to deliver a child. That is why
she came to Bombay. Not to blow up Mantralaya. If indeed Tata Tea assisted her medically,
unwittingly or even knowingly, is it such a crime that we should treat India's most respected
corporate group as we would treat a common criminal? In our search for political scapegoats, have
we lost all sense of proportion and self respect?
Luckily, the law prevails in India. I am sure the courts will treat the crimes of Tata Tea -- if any -- with
greater understanding than the State has. Otherwise, I fear, we will jeopardise the very foundations
of our democracy which has been built over five decades by people who had faith in India, its laws,
its corporates, its institutions, and even its political dissidents. Call them terrorists if you want. I call
them the lost children of India.
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