Maoist influx in Assam tea estates feared

Guwahati : There are fears that tea plantations across northeastern India's Assam state may have been infiltrated by Maoist rebels with trade union leaders sounding the alarm and asking state authorities to focus their attention on the threat.

"Such a possibility of penetration by Maoist elements is not unlikely, considering the fact that the situation in the tea garden areas is very fluid now," Madhusudan Khandait, general secretary of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), told IANS Wednesday.

The Sangha is the apex trade union body representing about one million tea garden workers in Assam. The state accounts for nearly 55 percent of India's total tea production of 900 million kg a year.

The workers in Assam's 800-odd tea plantations are tribals who had migrated to the state nearly 200 years ago from what are now Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh states.

Tea community leaders from the ruling Congress' Tea Cell and the ACMS called on Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi this week and told him of their apprehension.

"The state government should address various grievances of the tea communities immediately so as to nip such threats in the bud," Khandait said.

Tea garden areas across the state are restive with the tribal immigrants intensifying their demand for inclusion in the list of Scheduled Tribes (ST).

The Assam government favours the move and is already considering setting up a development council for the tea tribes independent of whether or not the communities are included in the ST list.

The possibility of Maoist rebels infiltrating into tea garden areas in Assam has increased with the emergence of a shadowy tribal insurgent group in Assam with definite links with some of northeastern India's frontline separatist groups and a possible nexus with the Maoists.

The All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA), formed in 2004 to push the interest of the tribal or tea plantation workers' community across the state, has shot into the limelight after the group claimed responsibility for the Dec 13, 2007 bomb attack on a New Delhi-bound Rajdhani Express in eastern Assam that killed five passengers and injured nine others.

"The AANLA has a written agreement with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) for possible joint operations against the security forces and of not carrying out extortion in each others' areas of influence without prior notice," an Assam Police official told IANS.

The AANLA is trying to capitalise on the tribal sentiments after the community's agitation for ST status has gained momentum after the rally in state capital Guwahati Nov 24 last year that turned violent after protesters clashed with local residents.