Jaya jail term triggers suicide
Congress sets terms for statute support
Meira keeps BJP option open
RSS jibe at President on Constitution
Sangh overdrive to revive tame Hindutva
Bihar unity show aborted
Cong workers attack ministers
Homework keeps actress busy

Chennai, Feb. 3 
Overcome with grief at Jayalalitha’s conviction, an ADMK sympathiser committed suicide by setting himself on fire while a student in Coimbatore tried to immolate himself to protest against the deaths of the three girls burnt alive yesterday by alleged amma supporters outraged by the verdict.

Police sources said Velayutham, a 30-year-old porter in Villupuram, was so upset at the thought of his leader going to jail that he set himself afire early today.

At a condolence meeting for the three girls in Coimbatore’s Government Arts College, second-year student Madesh doused himself with kerosene. But he was overpowered by his college-mates before he could light the fire.

The three girls — Hemalatha of Chennai, Gayathri of Vridhachalam and Kokilavani of Namakkal, all second-year students at the Agriculture University in Coimbatore — were charred to death after three men on a motor-cycle hurled petrol bombs into a bus in Dharmapuri, 300 km from the state capital. The students were returning to Coimbatore in two university buses and were stranded following an ADMK demonstration in Dharmapuri.

Enraged students took to the streets and clashed with the police and heckled the district collector. The protests continued today across the state, with the DMK student’s wing taking the lead.

Realising it could use the incident against Jayalalitha, who was sentenced to a year in jail in a hotel corruption case yesterday, the Karunanidhi government declared a holiday for all educational institutions tomorrow to mourn the deaths of the three girls.

The DMK has also announced a massive peace rally tomorrow. Posters and newspaper insertions placed by the ruling party held Jayalalitha personally responsible for the havoc wrought.

SUN TV, owned by the family of DMK Union minister Murasoli Maran, kept screening tragic scenes throughout the day: the bus swallowed by the flames, the charred remains, the distraught parents and the agitating students. Anchors repeatedly reminded viewers that the outrageous act was the handiwork of ‘‘barbaric ADMK volunteers’’.

Jaya TV could only respond feebly by showing pictures as ‘‘evidence’’ that ADMK volunteers were not involved in the killings.

Jayalalitha alleged that DMK thugs had thrown the bombs to tarnish her party’s image. She demanded a CBI inquiry.

Jayalalitha vowed to avenge the ‘‘persecution’’ by the DMK. ‘‘We’ll retaliate in kind when we come to power,’’ she warned.

The ADMK’s allies condemned the incident but were careful not to pin the blame on Jayalalitha’s supporters. The ADMK leader’s new-found friend, G.K. Moopanar, attended the condolence meeting last night to pay respects to V.R. Nedunchezhian, the nominal no. 2.    

New Delhi, Feb. 3 
In a change of stance, the Congress today said it was willing to consider the Vajpayee government’s move to review the Constitution, provided it clarified the “real intentions” and marked areas within which the exercise would be conducted.

The CWC met for three hours to discuss the appointment of a Constitution review panel. The CWC members unanimously expressed grave apprehensions about the “true intentions” of the BJP and its allies. The key issues which emerged at the meeting were:

The commission’s terms of reference should be spelt out.

Specific areas for the exercise should be delineated.

The Constitution being a “social document”, the review panel should include political personalities.

The Congress has serious concerns. The Sangh parivar is trying to push through its “hidden agenda”.

No purpose will be served by taking up V.P. Singh’s suggestion for the Opposition forming its own panel.

The government is trying to tinker with a document prepared by the great Dalit leader and visionary, B.R. Ambedkar.

Three Constitution experts — P. Shiv Shankar, Kapil Sibal and Hansraj Bhardwaj — were invited to the CWC to brief the members. Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh were two main speakers who advocated resistance to the review.

The CWC stand taken today is in sharp contrast to its earlier “complete rejection” of the statute review. The party today said it was willing to respond provided the government included its representative in the commission.

Members frequently referred to observations made by President K.R. Narayanan, who has publicly opposed the move.

Party chief Sonia Gandhi herself came briefed with copies of the presidential address and the Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament on January 27.

Shiv Shankar said the Congress should be careful about the BJP’s intentions on reservations, minorities’ rights, uniform civil code, Article 370 and minority educational institutions. “These are the areas which may come under review,” he said. The leader warned that the government was trying to “fire from someone else’s shoulders”.

The BJP’s strategy was two-pronged, Shiv Shankar alleged: first, it wants the commission to somehow endorse its agenda and then, the government will use the mandate to push it through in the Lok Sabha.

Party veterans tried to bring in Ambedkar’s legacy, accusing the government with trying to dilute the provisions prepared by Ambedkar and other stalwarts.    

New Delhi, Feb. 3 
The last-ditch effort to woo back rebel leader Meira Kumar failed today even as a jittery Congress claimed that her exit would not be a “factor in Dalit politics”.

Party sources said Sonia Gandhi spoke to Meira over phone last night, while former Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal tried to persuade her throughout the day to withdraw her resignation letter. He even offered to accommodate several of her nominees for the Haryana elections and promised her a plum party post.

According to Congress assessment, Meira will join the BJP-Samata combine and campaign against the party in the Assembly polls in Bihar and Haryana.

Meira, however, kept everyone guessing, but gave a clean chit to the BJP saying: “In politics, no political party is untouchable.”

Postponing her scheduled press conference till tomorrow, she made it clear that there was no going back. “I have already taken a step. How do you expect me to take (the letter) back,” she said. The general mood at Meira’s 6, Krishna Menon Marg was anti-Sonia and anti-Congress, sources said.

Describing the Congress as a “rudderless, directionless party”, Meira accused the leadership of neglecting Dalits. But party leaders belonging to the weaker sections reacted sharply to her diatribe.

Describing her as “Manuwadi, Bhajpai (pro-BJP) leader”, they alleged that Meira had done nothing for the Dalit cause and that she had never acknowledged B.R. Ambedkar’s contribution.

Meira Kumar’s resignation figured in the talks when the Congress Working Committee met today to discuss the Centre’s move to set up a Constitution review panel. But the general view in the CWC was, since she had already made up her mind to quit, chances of a rapprochement were slim.

Congress leaders, however, admitted that her exit was a blow to the party. Meira, being Jagjivan Ram’s daughter, had become a well-known figure and her resignation would “confuse” voters in Bihar and Haryana.

Though the BJP has officially denied wooing Meira, insiders said she would be an “asset” on the eve of the Bihar polls. Senior BJP leaders pointed out that, along with Ram Vilas Paswan, her presence would consolidate the Dalit-Chamar votebank.    

New Delhi, Feb. 3 
The RSS has lambasted President K.R. Narayanan for disagreeing with the government’s decision to review the Constitution and assailing the judiciary “publicly”.

An article in the February 6 issue of the Sangh mouthpiece, Organiser, written by regular contributor Arabinda Ghose, begins on an acerbic note: “Ever since the Vajpayee-led government came to power on March 19, 1998, President K.R. Narayanan has probably been fulfilling his vow that he would be a ‘working President’ of the Republic of India.

“Unfortunately for him, the Constitution of India, as it exists today, does not permit him to ‘work’ much, Article 74 (1) binding him to act according to the advice of the council of ministers. Is that why he is ‘working’ frantically whenever he is free from the restrictions imposed on him by Article 74 (1)?”

The author said the President’s address at the Vajpayee government’s first Lok Sabha session had reiterated its resolve for a review. Therefore, “he is bound by this decision of the government of which he is the constitutional head”.

Accusing Narayanan of “publicly humiliating” the Chief Justice and the “entire judicial community”, Ghose warned that Indira Gandhi met with her Waterloo when she began to tinker with the judiciary, superseding three Supreme Court judges and appointing Justice A.N. Ray, who became so unpopular that he did not get a farewell after retirement.    

New Delhi, Feb. 3 
Stung by the alleged dilution of Hindutva in the BJP’s Chennai declaration, the Sangh parivar has decided to go the whole hog with its agenda in an “aggressive manner”, even if it causes embarrassment to the Vajpayee government.

At the same time, sources stressed, the sudden pro-activism would be “calibrated carefully” so as not to plunge the ruling coalition into a crisis.

The RSS first got into the act in Gujarat, when in January the Keshubhai Patel government lifted a ban on government employees hobnobbing with the Sangh.

Despite protests from the Congress, which took the battle to the streets on January 30, the BJP sounded blasé about the move. “There is nothing new in the order. This option was always available to government employees except during the periods when the RSS itself was officially banned,” said a party leader.

The BJP’s coalition government in Uttar Pradesh picked on a different strand of the Hindutva theme. It introduced a Bill that would make the government’s permission necessary for constructing places of worship.

The Bill caused much anxiety to Muslims, who saw it as an exercise to prevent them from building mosques and madrasas.

Chief minister R.P. Gupta said the legislation was a means to curb “ISI-sponsored activities” along the India-Nepal border — an explanation which Muslim leaders said confirmed their fears.

In both cases, the Centre, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, chose not to react. An RSS source said: “Why should he unnecessarily retaliate when the moves have not created any law and order problems?”

Sources close to Vajpayee said he did not wish to clash with the RSS as long as it did not “directly interfere” in the business of governing. It was pointed out that Sangh offshoots like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, which attacked the economic reforms, had been “successfully neutralised”.

The RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, in its latest issue, approvingly quoted finance minister Yashwant Sinha as saying that the “economic reforms were a step towards generating employment and building infrastructure” and the new measures would not eat into jobs.

Other examples of Sangh-inspired activities were the growing conflict between the Bajrang Dal and the Madhya Pradesh government over the alleged ban on a convention in Bhopal and the violent protests in Varanasi over Deepa Mehta’s film Water.

The Uttar Pradesh BJP’s drive against Water, coupled with Gupta’s assertion that he would not stop the Ram temple construction (which he later denied), were seen by the RSS sources as covert ways of resurrecting Hindutva.

The sources claimed that Vajpayee had taken an “indulgent” view on the matter. “Gupta, after all, is his choice. The fact that a Vajpayee loyalist like Lalji Tandon (a senior state minister) defended those who had pulled down Water sets are proof of his reluctance to take on the Sangh,” they said.    

New Delhi, Feb. 3 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee will hit the campaign trail for the Assembly elections with a public meeting in Bihar next Wednesday.

Vajpayee’s rally, the venue for which has not been decided, will be preceded by public meetings to be addressed by senior BJP leaders, including L.K Advani and M.M. Joshi, BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu said today.

But the BJP’s plans to organise joint rallies with its Bihar allies — the Samata Party, Janata Dal (United) and Bihar People’s Party —- have run into trouble. The BJP was keen on these meetings to dispel the impression that the alliance was splintering because of initial seat-sharing glitches.

Naidu, however, maintained that the modalities for the meetings were being worked out, and that they were likely to be held when Vajpayee was in the state.

But BJP sources conceded that the Bihar organisers were having a tough time getting the alliance leaders to stage a unity show. The difficulties, they said, were not so much because of their unwillingness as due to “practical problems like dates and venue”.

“If all the leaders concentrate only on joint meetings, they feel they will not be able to cover the maximum number of constituencies,” sources said.

Apart from the Vajpayee-Advani-Joshi trio, the BJP has also roped in other campaigners, including Pramod Mahajan, Uma Bharti, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, and filmstars Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna.

Even if joint campaigns are kept to a minimum, Naidu said the BJP and its allies would canvass for each other “as much as possible” in Bihar, Haryana, Orissa and Manipur.

The saffron party got a fillip in Bellary when the JD(U) agreed to pull out its nominee and leave the field open for BJP candidate Veerbhadrappa, a former Congressman.

Naidu denied moves were afoot to induct Congress leader Meira Kumar into the BJP.    

Ranchi, Feb. 3 
Two Union ministers were roughed up today by Youth Congress workers on the Ranchi airport tarmac when they were boarding a helicopter to campaign in Jharkhand areas.

Five workers, including president of the Jharkhand Regional Youth Congress Manishankar Tiwary, were arrested. The incident comes a day before Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s visit here to kick off her party’s campaign for the Assembly polls.

About 25 Youth Congress workers forced their way into the airport’s high-security zone around 10.45 am and attacked Union minister of state for food processing Syed Shahnawaz Hussein and minister of state for forests Babulal Marandi. The ministers were waiting for the fog to clear so that they could take off in their chopper for Basia to attend a poll meeting.

The security forces leapt to the rescue of Hussein, who bore the brunt of the attack, and lathicharged the mob. The fleeing Congress workers then turned their attention to Marandi. The BJP workers accompanying the ministers joined the police and beat back the attackers.

The five arrested leaders were released in the evening after they furnished personal bonds.

Tiwary, who led the attack, said he had gone to the airport on an invitation from the ministers. Denying an attack, he said the Youth Congress workers had waved black flags to protest against communal forces like the BJP. He, in turn, alleged that the police and the ministers’ guards had beaten them up.

When contacted, Marandi said he had never heard of Tiwary and, hence, the question of inviting him did not arise.

Later talking to reporters, he said the attack was planned as the Congress workers had tried to intercept Hussein while he was on his way to the airport. Marandi alleged that the workers were incensed by Hussein’s remarks on the growing insecurity of the minorities in Bihar.

The incident also exposed the security loopholes at the airport, where security was tightened and trespassing banned since early this year following intelligence alerts on possible hijack attempts by Pakistani extremists.    

Varanasi, Feb. 3 
Climb down two flights of stairs from the lobby of Hotel Clark Towers, and it is 1930, the year in which Deepa Mehta’s Water is set.

The cavernous basement of the hotel is doubling as the storehouse of the film’s props. Aradhana Seth, the production designer, is boss here.

Seth — sister of Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy — hovers over rows of period furniture, old paintings, trishuls and utensils used by sadhus for worship.

With an injured back, she works frantically, while the artists potter about in the hotel lobby and “talk, talk and talk”, according to producer David Hamilton.

Seth has also “printed” copies of the most important newspaper of the period, Aaj, exploring various archives.

Rows and rows of blue and white cloth are spread over the floor to dry after being dipped in buckets of tea. This is to fade the colours of the cloth, a process known as “ageing”. The widows’ saris will be made out of the cloth.

Says Seth: “While the director and producer are doing the negotiating, we have to be ever ready to deliver. Once shooting is cleared, we have to be ready with the sets in double quick time. We have put on blinders and are not thinking beyond the script and set design.” The shooting was stopped after violent protests by BJP activists. The Sangh parivar felt that the script denigrated Hindu widows.

At the main gates of the hotel about 20 trucks wait ready to roll to the location once the shooting signal is given by the state government.

The trucks are carrying equipment: a giant camera and loads of props.

The checklist for one of the trucks is quaint. Extra fire wood, copper pots, walking sticks, 10 kg dal, 50 kg rice, 10 sets of rope, lanterns, haldi, two bags of salt, big lathis and small lathis.

Even as Seth carries on at frenetic pace, little Urvi Gokani, the seven-year-old widow in Water who brings “laughter and cheer” into the widows’ home, gets busy with her homework.

Urvi, a stage artist from Thane was getting “jumpy and irritated” and wanted to get back to her friends in Saraswati Vidyalaya school. Her parents Abhay and Vasanti, who are with her, asked her teachers to fax them notes of the class lessons, to which Urvi has fallen back with zeal while waiting for her first shot.

Urvi’s mother, a stage artist herself, gives her some more occupation with Bharat Natyam lessons in the afternoon.

Mehta, who returned from Delhi after deleting five sentences in her script and armed with a fresh permission, has only one desire. “We all want a good night’s sleep. I know we are not through yet because there is still local resentment but we are confident that it is matter of time,” she says..

She is seconded emphatically by her stars: Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.

As Shabana and Nandita spend time giving interviews, Urvi has found another use for her spare time. She is visiting museums and temples in the holy city.

That is because nobody knows her, says dad Abhay Gokani. Which should change, after Water is released. Hopefully.    


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