At first hearing, the story of ULFA’s secret treasure hidden inside a tea estate, and then spirited away by unknown persons sounds like crude pulp fiction. But the highest court of the land is presently seized with this bizarre story. After hearing a petition filed by a retired army intelligence officer about the disappearance of a huge stash of Rs 300 crore in cash and 300 kg of gold, an intrigued Supreme Court has asked for a report from the Assam government. In his PIL, the petitioner has alleged that the booty was squirelled away under a Kali temple in Rani tea estate on the outskirts of Guwahati. By June 2014 when the army was tipped off about the booty hidden in a cellar underneath the idol, its team arrived on the spot to find that others had beaten it to the draw. A tunnel had been dug under the temple, through which the booty was suspected to have been taken away. It is believed that the money was collected from tea estates to be handed over to ULFA as ‘protection money’. But with ULFA leaders on the run due to intensive army operations, the money was said to have been stashed away for years. It has been alleged that the owner of Rani Tea Estate Mridul Bhattacharya was entrusted with the collection and hiding of the loot, as he was then president of the Tea Garden Association of Assam. After Bhattacharya and his wife were killed at their Bordumsa tea estate in December 2012 under mysterious circumstances, a race supposedly began among some quarters to find and get to the booty he had hidden away.
The former army intelligence officer in his petition to the Supreme Court is learnt to have med 13 persons who knew of the army team’s plan to bust the ULFA booty — and in turn allegedly ‘connived’ with some State police officials to get their hands on the booty just a day earlier. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has cast doubts on the story, pointing out that the army could have invoked AFSPA provisions and searched the place immediately after receiving specific inputs. So why did the army wait until June 1 in 2014 to send its search team, despite its former intelligence operative getting tipped off three weeks earlier on May 10 — as stated in the PIL? Overall, the entire matter raises some other disturbing questions, even if the controversy blows over and the story comes to a dead end. The pro-talk ULFA faction has denied the story outright, with general secretary Anup Chetia terming it a ‘conspiracy’ to derail the peace process. But several questions are doing the rounds. Does the story of ULFA’s purported booty lift the veil ever so slightly on what goes on beneath extortion drives by militants and counter-insurgency operations by security forces? After militants extort the money, do corrupt sections of law enforcers muscle in to stch away the loot — with the government conveniently looking the other way? There is much speculation that former militants are roped in to play this dangerous game of double cross. The reported involvement of some surrendered ULFA militants in the murky goings-on at Rani tea estate in 2014 lends credence to such a belief. If true, it gives a rare glimpse of some law breakers and law enforcers striking up shady deals to keep the pot of militancy boiling. There may be more to the story of ULFA’s secret booty than meets the eye.