Disabled student fights for 30-minute exam justice
Rebels gift breather to Sonia
CBI drive on suspect evidence
BJP sniffs Water victory in Ram
Key Bills out of budget session
Centre tests waters for test ban sign-up
Surprise Morocco boost for Simla pact
Centre scoffs at Bengal excuse on immigrants
Delhi friend jolts Farooq on autonomy
Overdrive on N. Bengal board to pre-empt Bloc

 
 
DISABLED STUDENT FIGHTS FOR 30-MINUTE EXAM JUSTICE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
Seventeen-year-old Arti wants just 30 extra minutes to complete her papers for the Class X board examination beginning March 23. Severely handicapped by cerebral palsy, Arti uses both her hands to write and cannot keep pace with other students.

But the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) showed Arti the door, quoting the rulebook which usually grants the physically disabled an extra half-an-hour. Arti wants another 30 minutes as she is 65 per cent disabled: she writes with her right hand with support from the left to control the movement. Her control over her upper and lower parts of the body is poor. “Hers is a case of permanent disability. She can walk and talk but her speech is incomprehensible,” said Arti’s counsel Rekha Palli.

Four months ago, Arti had submitted an application to the board seeking extra time. The board did not reply, and with a month to go before the exams Arti and her family have been rushing around with medical certificates that showed the extent of her disability.

Frustrated by the board’s refusal, Arti turned to the Delhi High Court for justice. In response to her petition, Justice K. Ramamoorthy today issued notices to the CBSE chairperson, the board’s controller of examinations and the principal of Kendriya Vidyalaya, where Arti studies. They have been asked to file replies by next Monday.

In the court, Arti stood next to her father and counsel and broke down. “She is willing to compete with other students but all she wants is some extra time,” said Palli. Arti and her family have been battling grave odds for 10 years: an insensitive administration and an uncaring society that refused to make room for her.

Arti’s father, R.K. Sharma, quit his job in the Air Force to look after his daughter. He is now doing his own business to spend more time at home. “Even during Arti’s admission in school her parents had problems. No school was willing to admit the girl,” said Palli.

The day Arti walked into the classroom her life turned a corner. But the school was not prepared to take charge of the little girl whose face showed she was “different from others.” The school insisted that her parents sit with her right through the day.

From then on, Arti kept going, stumbling, falling but never giving up hope and determination. “They did not take a single concession from the government and Arti battled on her own with her parents by her side,” said Palli.

She made it to the 10th standard through sheer will power and the CBSE’s decision not to allow her those crucial 30 minutes was a blow to Arti.

Her father made at least 10 trips to the board and even took his daughter with him. But the CBSE refused to meet Arti and quoted the rulebook.

The chairperson pointed to the rulebook and said the rules permitted Arti to have a writer. But Arti’s speech is slurred and a writer would not be able to make out what she is saying.

“The chairperson is mechanically quoting rules, This girl has multiple disabilities,” said Palli. She said she would not give up the fight till Arti succeeds in her mission.    


 
 
REBELS GIFT BREATHER TO SONIA 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
Uncertain about their political future, Congress rebels have decided to give party president Sonia Gandhi a reprieve, shifting focus from a change of leadership to pressuring her to alter her style of functioning.

A meeting of Congress chief ministers, state party unit chiefs, Congress Legislative Party leaders and Congress Working Committee members turned out to be a damp squib as no one touched the post-Assembly polls scenario. Loyalists desisted from pushing through a resolution of faith in Sonia’s favour while dissidents kept mum or opted not to attend the meeting.

Assembly poll results will be out on Friday. Exit polls have predicted that the Congress will not fare well.

Most Congressmen, while ruling out a change of guard, conceded that there was a need to change her style of functioning. They want her to stop rewarding “palace guards” with CWC berths and Rajya Sabha nominations.

“She should become more accessible and demolish the coterie around her,” a disgruntled leader said.

In the two-hour meet, several Congressmen resented the Sangh parivar’s alleged monopoly on Hinduism. Speaker after speaker underlined the need to present the “true spirit of Hinduism”.

Party leaders said Hinduism was the best guarantor of secularism in India. Underlining the need to educate the masses against the Sangh’s “designs”, they quoted Swami Vivekananda: “India is secular primarily because of Hinduism, both as a philosophy and way of life. Ekam satyam, vipraha bahudha vadanti (truth is one, the wise pursue it variously).”

Deposed party chief Sitaram Kesri and party chief whip in the Lok Sabha Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said it was the “duty of all Congressmen to protect Sonia Gandhi against the RSS onslaught”. Das Munshi regretted that partymen did not launch a nationwide movement against the government when “supreme leader Sonia Gandhi” was arrested on January 30.

The Congress will hold a rally on March 6 in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan to protest against the alleged RSS influence on the Vajpayee government. Party leaders of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Rajasthan promised to bring over 50,000 supporters each, making Congress leaders predict a five-lakh gathering.

The Congress also extended a hand of friendship to non-BJP parties, soliciting support for its adjournment motion under rule 184 to be moved in the Lok Sabha tomorrow against “saffronisation” and the “cult of intolerance”.    


 
 
CBI DRIVE ON SUSPECT EVIDENCE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
The CBI is pressing hard to get statements made by suspects before the police recognised as admissible evidence in courts of law, director R.K. Raghavan said today.

According to Section 25 of the Indian Evidence Act, confessions made before the police are not counted as evidence in a court of law.

Describing this as “traditional distrust of the police”, CBI additional-director M.L. Sharma said that while statements made before Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel and Customs were admissible in court, there is no such facility for the police, including the CBI.

“This lacuna often results in prosecution cases not being taken to their logical conclusion,” Sharma said. He added that in the sixties, even the Law Commission had recommended that statements made before a “designated police officer” — a superintendent of police, for instance — may be admissible as evidence in courts.

Sharma said that the CBI will ask the home ministry if the system of “plea bargaining”, in vogue in the US, could be introduced in India.

The system, as it operates in the US, allows the accused to “cooperate” with law enforcement agencies who, for successful prosecution, often do not press for strengthening charges against the accused and plead for reduced punishment.

Talking to reporters at the end of the two-day conference on crime, Raghavan said the agency will send a set of recommendations, involving legal issues, to the home ministry.

“The home secretary has asked me to send an action-oriented paper on some of the issues discussed at the conference,” Raghavan said. “Some suggestions will be sent, though I do not know how long the ministry will deliberate on the recommendations and accept them,” he added.

Pointing out that it was not the CBI alone which wanted amendments in several outdated laws pertaining to criminal cases, Raghavan said: “Even delegates from state police forces recognise the urgent need for changes so that the police could perform more efficiently.”

He informed that a “working group” of officials drawn from the agency, the home ministry and state police forces, has been set up to draft a plan for the proposed Federal Law Enforcement Agency (FLEA). The idea of the new agency was first mooted by home secretary Kamal Pande in early January.    


 
 
BJP SNIFFS WATER VICTORY IN RAM 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Feb. 23 
The BJP today pounced on the opportunity provided by the Congress to return the fire over Water, asking its MPs to target the main Opposition for its violent protests against Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram.

In Calcutta, activists of the Chhatra Parishad — the Congress’ student arm — defied the high command and ransacked another cinema hall screening the film. The party leadership had yesterday ordered the students’ outfit not to target the movie.

The BJP, pilloried for the attacks on Deepa Mehta’s Water, said it would expose the Opposition’s duplicity on the issue of banning films that hurt public sentiment. At a parliamentary party meeting in Delhi this afternoon, the MPs were told to take the battle to the Opposition if they raised the Water attacks in Parliament. Spokesman Venkaiah Naidu said the Hey Ram attacks were proof of the Congress’ double standards.

However, at the meeting, former tourism minister Uma Bharati was asked whether she had threatened to stone Mehta. Sources said a defensive Uma claimed she had been misquoted and had only warned Mehta against shooting in Madhya Pradesh.

The BJP has prepared a list of films and books which were banned following violent protests. The list includes Nine Days to Rama, Last Temptation of Christ, La Nuit Bengali, Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoey and The Satanic Verses.

Rebuffing the high command, the Chhatra Parishad went on the rampage for the third consecutive day today. Its activists, who had attacked Mitra and Priya theatres, ransacked Ellora cinema in Behala this afternoon.

Forcing their way into the theatre on Diamond Harbour Road, the protesters tore posters, smashed window panes and torched hoardings of the film, which, they claimed, “denigrate Mahatma Gandhi”. Soumitra Mukherjee, an accountant, said the screening of Hey Ram was suspended after the attack. The latest round of attack comes a day before chief minister Jyoti Basu is to meet Mehta on the Water shoot. The state BJP’s women’s wing has decided to torch copies of the film’s script at Esplanade tomorrow.

Stung by the Chhatra Parishad action, the Congress leadership tonight asked the state unit for an explanation from those involved. Pradesh Congress vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya yesterday asked Chhatra Parishad members to suspend the “agitation forthwith”.

When the seige on Ellora cinema began this morning, the skeleton staff found themselves at a loss. “Before we realised anything, Chhatra Parishad members went on the rampage smashing window panes and torching the banner atop the hall,” said Dipak Mukherjee, a booking clerk.

“Worst was the fact that they locked us from outside by putting a new padlock on the collapsible gates,” said Jogirdar Roy, a guard. A Congress official said: “We will take action against those involved in the vandalism.”    


 
 
KEY BILLS OUT OF BUDGET SESSION 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
The budget session is unlikely to have any serious legislative business as most of the crucial Bills are expected to come up during the monsoon session in July.

Though the Centre had assured that it would expedite Bills dealing with women’s reservation, creation of small states, Lok Pal, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Prasar Bharati and the CrPC amendment, official sources said they were unlikely to come up during the budget session.

There are about 130 Bills awaiting legislation, of which about 49 have been classified as “A” category, meaning high priority. Most of them are before various parliamentary committees for scrutiny and are expected to be cleared by July.

While Bills, including the WTO and patent bills, have been put in category “A”, those dealing with information-technology, the National Judicial Commission, the CrPC amendment and statehood have been placed in “B” category. The CVC, the Prasar Bharati and the Lok Pal Bills fall in category “C”.

Sources said the women’s reservation Bill may not be adopted in its present form as it is facing stiff opposition from several parties.

The salient feature of the current session will be the railway budget on February 25 and the general budget which will be presented in Lok Sabha at 2 pm on February 29.

The decision to present the general budget on Tuesday was taken at an all-party meeting convened by Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi. The meeting was attended by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi.

Breaking with the colonial tradition of presenting the budget on the last working day of February, the budget was presented at 11 am for the first time last year on February 29, which was a Saturday.    


 
 
CENTRE TESTS WATERS FOR TEST BAN SIGN-UP 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
As part of its campaign to build a consensus on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the government today assured the Opposition that global nuclear disarmament continues to be its goal and inking the pact will not be at the cost of national and strategic interests.

Stating this in the presidential address to the joint sitting of Parliament, the Centre also made it clear that talks with Pakistan cannot resume unless it jettisoned its policy of hatred towards India and stopped terror export to Kashmir.

“India reaffirms her commitment to global nuclear disarmament in a time-bound manner on a comprehensive and non-discriminatory basis. While addressing multilateral disarmament initiatives and treaties, the government will continue to abide by the imperative of preserving India’s strategic autonomy,” the President said in his statement kicking off the budget session.

By reaffirming India’s commitment towards nuclear disarmament, the government wants to assure the Opposition — especially the Congress — there will be no shift in its stand on the issue. At the same time, it is also trying to send the message that if India signs the test ban treaty, it will do so keeping the national and strategic interests in mind.

Though the government has not spelt out whether or not it will ink the pact, it has cleverly pushed the issue for debate in the budget session. In the winter session, there were indications that the government will initiate a debate on the issue. But the matter was postponed in the absence of any categorical statement from the Congress.

A final decision was further deferred with the US confirming President Bill Clinton’s visit to the country in March.

Smarting under the humiliation of the Kandahar militant-for-hostage swap, the BJP-led regime is keen on reasserting its tough image and would not like to be seen as signing the treaty under US pressure. The government, therefore, will not sign the pact either immediately before or after Clinton’s trip. But by introducing the subject for discussion, it has ensured that a debate is started on the issue.

Indications are that the government will clarify by the end of the session whether it intends to initial the treaty. Signing the pact will not only help improve ties with the US, it will also pave the way for access to sophisticated and dual-use technology from the West. It will also ensure that post-Pokhran sanctions are lifted.

With the West increasingly demanding that the nuclear neighbours resume dialogue, the government sought to clarify its stand. In the presidential speech, the government argues that while it is keen on expanding relations with its neighbours not only in South Asia but also in Central Asian republics and Israel, it cannot do so with Pakistan.

“Pakistan has shown no inclination to end its policy of aiding and abetting cross-border terrorism and its hostile anti-India propaganda. Pakistan’s role in acts of terror has been recently underscored by the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight,” the President said.

“Irrefutable evidence has been provided by the government about the Pakistani origins of the hijackers as well as the role of Pakistani officials posted in Kathmandu,” he added.

Urging Islamabad to change its policy, he said: “We sincerely hope that Pakistan will reverse this policy of hostility towards India so that normal relations can be restored.”    


 
 
SURPRISE MOROCCO BOOST FOR SIMLA PACT 
 
 
FROM OUR DIPLOMATIC EDITOR
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
After continuous setbacks during the last three decades in dealing with the 53-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), India today scored a spectacular diplomatic triumph when one of OIC’s most prominent members publicly spoke out in support of the Simla Agreement as the basis for settling disputes between India and Pakistan.

Morocco’s Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi told a group of Indian journalists at a meeting in Rashtrapati Bhavan that his country would like India and Pakistan to discuss their disputes, but favoured the Simla Agreement as the basis for resolving them.

The OIC has consistently backed Pakistan against India and regards Kashmir as an Islamic struggle. But individual OIC states, in their bilateral dealings with India, have supported the idea of direct talks between New Delhi and Islamabad.

However, this is the first time that a leading member of the OIC has openly advocated the Simla Agreement as the basis for settling disputes between India and Pakistan.

Morocco is immediate past chairman of the OIC. But Rabat’s importance in the Islamic world also stems from the role of the Moroccan king as “defender of the faith”, a religious position only second to the Saudi monarch, who is known as “guardian of the Holy shrines” in Mecca and Medina.

For South Block, Youssoufi’s statement was also a sweet revenge of sorts. It was at the OIC’s first summit in Rabat 33 years ago that India was roundly snubbed for its attempt to join the organisation. The late Fakkhruddin Ali Ahmed, who was sent by New Delhi as the Indian delegate, was sent back without being allowed to attend the meeting.

Youssoufi’s visit, the first by a Moroccan Prime Minister, also attracted attention for what amounted to a practical reversal of roles between India’s ruling party and the Opposition.

Protocol officials and others in South Block found the visiting Prime Minister wooing Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Opposition, as if she was Prime Minister even as his discussions with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee were matter-of-fact, but cordial.

The reason was not far to seek.

Morocco wants India to withdraw recognition to the phantom Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and Vajpayee told Youssoufi that his government was willing to do so provided there was a political consensus in India on this issue, according to officials accompanying the Moroccan Prime Minister.

Following this, there was a long meeting between Youssoufi and the Congress president at which she agreed to take up the issue with the government once her party took a decision in the matter, said Moroccan officials.

Indian officials said Vajpayee’s talks with Youssoufi were matter-of-fact because the two Prime Ministers had met in Morocco only a few months ago when they had given a new direction to ties between Rabat and New Delhi. Besides, there are no political problems between India and Morocco, barring the SADR dispute.

Youssoufi said Morocco would like democracy to be restored in all countries where the army had taken over, but said his country was opposed to interfering in the internal affairs of others.    


 
 
CENTRE SCOFFS AT BENGAL EXCUSE ON IMMIGRANTS 
 
 
FROM R. VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 23 
Opening a new flank in its battle with West Bengal on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, the Centre today ridiculed the state government for stating that it is “humanly impossible” to deport those staying without permission.

Presenting its case before the Supreme Court, the Centre also lashed out at Bengal for saying in its affidavit that “unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats” accounted for the problem. The illegal immigrants have obtained ration cards and many of them figure in the voters’ list.

In its affidavit in the apex court, the Union government countered Bengal’s argument that deportation was possible only through a court order. “The contention of the state government is not correct.... In accordance with the powers entrusted under the Foreigners’ Act, state government, foreigners’ regional registration officers and superintendents of police of the districts concerned are competent to issue deportation orders,” the Centre said.

Responding to a public interest litigation filed by the All-India Lawyers’ Forum for Civil Liberties seeking to deport all illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, the Supreme Court ordered fresh details and a status report from the Central government.

In its status report, a copy of which is available with The Telegraph, the Centre argues the problem of illegal immigrants is a matter of serious concern. “This problem is the most serious in West Bengal which shares the longest border with Bangladesh and also on account of linguistic, ethnic and cultural similarities between the people on the two sides of the border,” the government says.

Officials in charge of the case in the Centre said of the 180 lakh immigrants detected so far, over 150 lakh stay in Bengal and the state accommodates even those evicted and deported from Maharashtra.

Responding to the apex court notices, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura besides Bengal have filed affidavits.

The Centre added that it was considering Assam’s request for repealing the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act.

The government is looking into Bengal’s demand that Section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act be amended. In its status report, the Centre says the provisions will be amended to ensure classification of offences and its penal provisions would be more stringent.

Bengal has also demanded amendments to the Passport Act and Citizenship Act to make it mandatory for foreigners to register themselves on arrival.

The Centre said a report has been sought from the Law Commission on the demand for setting up designated courts to deal with cases of illegal immigrants.

On Bengal’s request that deportation transit homes be set up, the status report says that work has begun on a “transfer facilitation centre” in the state.

“This centre will handle 200 deportees at a time. The government of West Bengal has identified the location of the proposed centre near the Petrapole border in North 24-Parganas. An amount of Rs 23 lakh is being released to the government of West Bengal,” the Central report says.    


 
 
DELHI FRIEND JOLTS FAROOQ ON AUTONOMY 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Jammu, Feb. 23 
The BJP, which is sharing power with Farooq Abdullah’s party in Delhi, today turned tormentor on his hometurf, setting off an uproar against Kashmir’s autonomy demands.

Protesting against Abdullah’s proposal to the Centre for greater autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir — which already enjoys special status under Article 370 — the BJP today disrupted Governor G.C. Saxena’s address in the Assembly and fought a pitched battle with the police outside.

BJP leaders demanded the dismissal of the Abdullah government for raising the “bogey of autonomy” to blackmail the Centre and its failure to check militancy in the state.

The chief minister’s son, Omar Abdullah, is a Union minister.

Addressing a joint session of the legislature on the first day of the budget session, Saxena described the autonomy report as a major initiative of the ruling National Conference government.

Saxena said that “my government has taken steps to publicise its recommendation and has constituted a committee of ministers to further the dialogue with the Government of India on the recommendations of the State Autonomy Committee”.

But BJP members immediately staged a walk-out, along with the Awami League, Congress and the Panthers’ Party. One BJP member, Ashok Khajuria, even tore up copies of the report.

Saxena also commented on the exodus of the minority community and said it was the tragic off-shoot of militant violence in the state.

He said his government will “continue its endeavours to bring home to the Central government the pressing necessity of a special dispensation for this state for long-term financial stability”.

“The government is able to do little beyond disbursing salaries, pay for the power purchased from the Northern Grid and pay for security and maintenance expenditure,” he said.

“Despite the annual plan size of Rs 1,750 crore, resources are lacking to achieve this level of expenditure on development and the bulk of funds transferred from the Centre go to meet the deficit on non-plan account,” he added.

He also referred to the spurt in militancy after the Kargil incursions and said that the worst sufferers were the common people who bore the brunt of the misery.

“Kargil signifies a desperate attempt to wreak vengeance on the peace-loving residents of this state who have, time and again, rebuffed the machinations of the votaries of violence and hatred,” he said.    


 
 
OVERDRIVE ON N. BENGAL BOARD TO PRE-EMPT BLOC 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Feb. 23 
The Left Front government today announced that the proposed North Bengal Development Board for five districts will begin functioning from next month.

The decision was taken to pre-empt the proposed Forward Bloc rally in Siliguri on Friday, called to protest the inordinate delay in setting up the board.

Deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and state finance minister Asim Dasgupta said Jyoti Basu has convened a meeting at his residence on March 1 to finalise the appointment of the board chairman. Other administrative steps will also be discussed.

The meeting will be attended by all elected MPs, MLAs and ministers from North Bengal. Bhattacharya and Dasgupta will also take part.

The government had earlier promised to set up the board during the current financial year. But no positive measures were taken.

Alarmed by the Forward Bloc’s proposed agitation programme, Jyoti Basu today hurriedly convened a meeting at Writers’ Buildings to discuss the composition of the board. He also spoke to Ashok Ghosh, Forward Bloc’s state secretary, and requested him to defer the rally as the government was committed to forming the board.

This will be the third such zonal development board. The other two are the Sunderbans Development Board and the Jhargram Development Board.

Risking opposition from other front members, the Forward Bloc will press ahead with its agitation on Friday, a day before Bhattacharya’s visit to Siliguri.

The party has announced that it will block seven key intersections for four hours from 11 am, disrupting traffic to and from the Northeast, Sikkim, Darjeeling Hills and Bhutan.

A war of words has been raging between the Forward Bloc and the CPM since December after Bhattacharya claimed that the state had already constituted a development council for North Bengal.

While announcing the Forward Bloc’s agitation, Debabrata Biswas, general-secretary, and Kamal Guha, convener of the Uttar Banga Unnayan Sangram Samity recently formed to fight for autonomy, described Bhattacharya’s claim as “false”. They also dared him and Dasgupta to prove how and when the council functioned.

Returning fire, senior CPM leaders, including Biman Bose, charged Guha with misleading people on the autonomy issue.

Guha has also come under flak from the Sayatta Shasan Mancha, a front of eight Naxalite, Adivasi and Rajbanshi organisations fighting for autonomy.

Along with Guha, some of these outfits had together fought for an autonomous council before he returned to the Forward Bloc last year.

Guha is also at loggerheads with the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which has a strong base in the tea belt and villages. He has described the RSP’s proposal to form a council under the divisional commissioner (Jalpaiguri) as a move initiated by “people without self respect”.    

 

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