Accusing the Centre of attempting to attack democracy and the Constitution, Sonia said: “The Congress and I will fight tooth and nail the anti-society policies of the BJP.”
The Congress chief led a march of Congress Working Committee members and other party leaders in the capital, to be detained and released subsequently — her first brush with the police.
She then flew to Sabarmati in Gujarat, launching a broadside against the Centre over its proposal to review the Constitution.
Sonia urged the Prime Minister to direct the Gujarat government to withdraw a circular which allows state employees to participate in RSS activities. Senior Congress leaders said they would continue to protest till the Keshubhai government withdrew the order.
“It is just the beginning,” an AICC functionary said. He added that the Constitution review and the Gujarat ruling would be the party’s planks in the Assembly polls in Haryana, Orissa, Bihar and Manipur.
In Delhi, Sonia marched from the AICC headquarters via Birla House where Gandhi was shot dead this day 52 years ago. Flanked by party leaders and SPG guards, she was detained under Section 65 by Delhi police while walking towards Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s residence.
There was chaos as she broke the police barricade at Tuglaq Marg. But there was confusion over whether she was arrested or not. Congressmen asserted that Sonia was arrested, while a sheepish police official said: “She was barely detained for a minute.” Soon, the SPG guards whisked Sonia away.
The protest was then led by senior Congress leaders Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Madhavrao Scindia, N.D. Tiwari, Ambika Soni and P.R. Das Munshi, who courted arrest.
The leaders refused the tea and samosas offered by overawed police constables, saying they would not accept anything from the government till the “offensive Gujarat circular” was withdrawn.
Congress leaders were elated over “Madam’s roadshow”. A CWC member gushed: “If she decides to lead us from the front, there is no reason why the party rank and file cannot be enthused.”
This was the first time Sonia hit the roads since her famous long march in July 1998 against rising onion prices. In the Assembly polls that followed, the Congress had ousted the BJP in Rajasthan and Delhi and retained Madhya Pradesh.
This time, however, the Congress’ chances of retaining Orissa or winning Haryana, Bihar and Manipur appear slim. Fence-sitters and dissidents within the Congress look set to raise a revolt against Sonia if the party fails to do well.
In her hard-hitting speech in Gujarat to mark the conclusion of the party’s countrywide “Sankalp yatras”, Sonia said the Congress would keep up pressure on the BJP until it takes steps to rectify its “mistakes”. She took a pledge along with senior Congress leaders and partymen at the rally to “protect and respect the Constitution”.
Ban threat on Bajrang
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh said his government could ban the Bajrang Dal and the outfit would not be granted permission to hold a conference in Bhopal next month, adds UNI.
“We will impose a ban on them. Let them do whatever they want to here in Gujarat,” Singh said in Ahmedabad. He described the Bajrang Dal as an organisation of “lumpen elements”.
First, those livid at K.R. Narayanan have been asked to abide by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s guideline that the President’s office should not be targeted, whosoever be the incumbent.
Second, the hawks have been told that patience would pay and they should give a long rope to the Congress and the Left to expose their Achilles’ heel.
The moderates in the party and the government argued that the real battle was not with the President, but with political opponents.
The damage-control move was set rolling a day after the President’s speech, but it initially focused more on the people than the hardliners. Ram Jethmalani’s press conference on Friday to clarify that there was no friction between South Block and Rashtrapati Bhavan was part of this exercise. But the BJP-led government is now preparing for a protracted political tussle and is brushing up its debating points on the Constitution review.
Careful not to alarm any of the wary allies, the BJP had originally planned to activate the Constitution debate gradually. But Narayanan’s bombshell has forced the party to redraw the plan.
Republic Day messages are not vetted by the government and it had no inkling of what was coming. All the government had braced for was a speech on a critical vein, given the fact that Narayanan had frowned on liberalisation less than 48 hours ago.
However, stirring out of the shock, the government has tried to tilt the scales in its favour and promptly announced that a review committee would be set up within 10 days.
It was an issue the government was searching for after the humiliation during the hijack. The BJP believes that a debate will not only help demolish the arguments of the Congress and the Left, but also expose the stumbling blocks before its stated agenda.
For instance, the government wants the “stability” factor to be pitted against the significance attached to “parliamentary democracy”. A debate will offer the government a chance to ask opinion-makers to choose between a fixed five-year term for the Lok Sabha and the risk of repeated elections.
The government feels that the people have seen enough of elections from 1996 and an open house on this issue would be ticklish for the Congress, which had monopolised the stability plank till the mid-nineties.
Another issue where the BJP hopes to score is the ties between the Centre and states. It can attack the Congress for not acting on the Sarkaria Commission report and for neglecting the sensitive question for a number of years.
The Left, whose state governments had consistently cried foul at erstwhile Congress regimes at the Centre, will also find it difficult to defend the main Opposition party on this count.
Even issues like socialism and secularism, which Jethmalani harped upon and have been reduced to ornamental phrases, could catch the Left and the Congress on the wrong foot.
The surrender, the details of which are likely to be finalised in the next “two or three days”, is expected to set at rest speculation about Ghose’s “death” which has so far been shrouded in mystery because of “contradictory” statements issued by the United Liberation Front of Asom.
According to sources, Bhaskar Baruah alias Mridul Hazarika, son of the late Khageswar Baruah of Ratanpur village in Majuli, met a senior police official in the city on January 27 to negotiate terms for his surrender.
However, nothing concrete emerged out of the meeting except that the police promised him the “best possible deal”.
On the same day, the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is probing the Ghose case, announced a reward of Rs 50,000 to any person providing information facilitating the arrest of Bhaskar Baruah.
Similar rewards were also announced for information on five other accused, including Ulfa commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah.
Official sources denied the surrender meeting initially, but confirmed it on Sunday. The negotiations have made some progress but another two or three days would be needed to hammer out the details, they said.
“Only after that, we can make it public,” a source said. He added that as of today only Baruah has approached the government to surrender.
The sources also said Baruah’s surrender would resolve the Ghose mystery. Ghose, who was the general secretary of Avard-NE, an NGO working in the world’s largest riverine island, was picked up by Ulfa activists on July 4, 1997. He has remained untraced ever since.
Subsequently, a press statement, “apparently issued by the Ulfa”, claimed that he had been executed. However, in the face of widespread outrage, the militant outfit washed its hands of the statement.
It said Ghose was “still alive” in its custody and set four conditions for his release. One of the conditions was that Ghose’s Avard-NE should quit Assam. On July 30, the NGO vacated its office at Kamalabari in Majuli.
Though the Ulfa promised to hand over Ghose to a team of the Red Cross officials, Paresh Baruah announced on August 6 that the social worker had died after falling off a cliff while trying to escape.
Despite widespread appeals for information about the place where Ghose had reportedly died, the Ulfa remained silent.
An Ulfa activist reportedly involved in the crime, Amrit Dutta, was arrested by the police. He is said to have confessed that Ghose had been killed the very day he was abducted. He was shot, put into a gunny bag and thrown into the Brahmaputra, he reportedly said.
On the other hand, Ghose’s wife Sumita has refused to accept that he is dead. “I still believe he is alive,” she had said.
The Uttar Pradesh government has ordered the shooting to be stopped following the rampage.
Around 9 am today, a procession of about 2,000 people broke into a house at the Tulsi ghat where a set had been built, threw out the props on the streets and set fire to them.
The procession was taken out by the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangh, an umbrella organisation of various Sangh parivar outfits.
BJP leaders Jyotsna Srivastava, wife of Uttar Pradesh finance minister Ashok Dhawan, treasurer of the state party unit, and Shamdev Roychowduri, an MLA, were heading the procession.
The first scene of the film was about to be shot when the protesters descended. During the scene, Shabana Azmi, who plays the in-charge of a widows’ home and Nandita Das, a widow — both actresses have shaved off their heads — would take a bath in the Ganga.
The mob dismantled the sets and threw its parts into the river. A thatched house, also part of the set, was broken and burnt. The set at the adjoining Assi ghat was also smashed.
Later the protesters jammed the streets leading to the ghats and held a two-hour long meeting, burning Mehta’s effigies.
Varanasi is growing tense over the incidents. Principal secretary, home, V. K. Mittal said the case had been referred to the ministry of information and broadcasting in view of the disturbed law and order situation. The shooting was stopped on the basis of the report sent by the district magistrate of Varanasi, he said.
Earlier, the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangh printed and pasted posters all over the city against the film. The posters state that the film depicts Varanasi as a “bhog nagri” (pleasure city) and not a “moksh nagri” (a city of salvation).
A furious Mehta, whose Fire had seen angry protests over the depiction of a lesbian relationship, refused to meet anyone.
The director remained at closed-door meetings all day with production manager Deepa Motwani and officials of the Canadian film company “Flagship International” under whose banner the film is being made.
Water, the next in Mehta’s “element” series after Fire and Earth, centres around the relationship of a young widow, Das, and a young Gandhian idealist Akshay Kumar. The film also features Kulbhushan Kharbanda.
The protesters feel Water depicts Indian widows in a bad light. The Kashi Vidwat Parishad, an organisation of city intellectuals, condemned the film for implying “the widows of Kashi are all prostitutes and lead immoral lives.”
Following the initial protests, the Union information and broadcasting ministry had appointed Krishna Murari, an employee of the local All India Radio station, to monitor the shooting, leaving Mehta’s crew aghast.
Murari has requested permission to study the script of the film, both in Hindi and English, over 14 days. “This is ridiculous. An All India Radio employee with no film background is supposed to be our chastity uncle,” fumed a unit member.
But the real bone of contention was the granting of permission to shoot. State ministers came up with strong reservations. State finance minister Harish Srivastava, whose wife was steering the protests, had warned: “The director will have to get the script cleared with us. If she does not, we will not allow shooting, come what may.”
Mehta, however, had said she did not need the state government’s permission as the Union information and broadcasting ministry had already given a clearance. “The ministry has already given clearance to the film. I don’t need to discuss the script with anyone after that,” she had said.
But district magistrate of Varanasi Alok Kumar had contested Mehta’s claim that she had got a clean chit. Principal secretary to the chief minister Naresh Dayal also suggested that the government was in no mood to relent.
He added that neither Mehta nor the production manager had sought any official clearance from the state government for shooting the film.