Date with Castro after Clinton call
Lawyers and lawkeepers slug it out
Repoll flare-up in Bihar
Spies who slept through sneak-in
Liquor brews liquid cash in Naiduland
Delhi pays heavy price to keep Naidu happy
Silicon city stage for Gates challenger
Child star flees home in fear of father
Historian blasts council
BJP puts Cong on mat over cotton suicides

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
A fortnight after welcoming President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his foreign minister Jaswant Singh will shake hands with the US’ bete noire, Cuba’s communist dictator Fidel Castro.

The Indian leaders are scheduled to visit Havana from April 10 to attend the first summit-level meeting of the Group of 77.

By joining the meet, the government will not only get the opportunity to take charge of the developing nations, it will also send the message that India is not willing to give up traditional friends like Cuba while building up ties with the US.

Though it is almost certain that Singh will attend the G-77 meet, it is not yet clear whether Vajpayee will also be able to participate in the biggest summit of developing countries. But indications are that he may ultimately join the meet to be attended by heads of government of several emerging nations.

The Indians are also expected to hold discussions with Castro on the sidelines of the summit. This will be the first time that BJP leaders will hold a bilateral meeting with the communist leader.

The visit by the Indian leaders will be the first high-level delegation to Cuba in 15 years. In 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the country on a bilateral trip. Leaders of the two nations have regularly met at various international fora.

While India has opposed any move to isolate Cuba on the human rights issue, Havana has backed Delhi’s candidature for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

But apart from political homilies of solidarity, bilateral relations, especially on trade and economic cooperation, have not taken off. Indian businessmen have not shown much interest in investing in the communist country. The April meeting between the Indian leaders and Castro could help overcome these hurdles.

Before reaching Havana, Singh will be in the Colombian capital Bogota to take part in the Non-Aligned Movement foreign ministers’ meet slated for April 8-9. Castro has announced grand plans of flying down foreign ministers of Nam nations, most of which are also members of G-77, to Havana on special aircraft from Bogota.

Cuba, which has been under American sanctions since 1958, has been going through a rough patch since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of Nam.

Though it has tried to integrate itself with regional groupings like Caricom and tried to improve business links with the European Union, the erosion of Moscow’s clout on world affairs has hit Cuba hard. The communist regime has also found it difficult marketing its two main export items, sugar and tobacco, because of Washington’s restrictions.

Castro, who has shown signs of softening by allowing the Pope and a delegation of US Congressmen to visit Cuba, has not given up his anti-Americanism completely.

The summit of the G-77, which, with 133 members, is the largest grouping after the United Nations General Assembly, will give him a platform to tell Washington that his communist regime continues to enjoy world support.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
Protesting lawyers today fought pitched battles with the police who prevented them from marching towards Parliament. At least 80 lawyers and 25 policemen were injured.

The incident triggered bedlam in the Rajya Sabha. Union law minister Ram Jethmalani assured the members the government would order an inquiry into the assault on lawyers who were demonstrating against the decision to amend the Civil Procedure Code and allowing the entry of foreign law firms.

The lawyers, who had taken out a “march to storm Parliament”, were stopped near the police station less than 500 metres from Parliament House and told to go back. The lawyers refused and broke the barricades, prompting the police to use water cannons and fire teargas shells. In retaliation, the lawyers started pelting stones, resulting in a lathicharge by the police.

A bleeding Rajiv Khosla, secretary of the Delhi bar association, was hospitalised as was assistant commissioner of police T.S. Bhalla, who was struck on the chest with stones.

Delhi High Court bar association president A.S. Chandioke said the lawyers, who were on a day’s strike today, will not work tomorrow as well. “The situation will be reviewed and a resolution for an indefinite strike, if need be, passed,” he said.

The Supreme Court bar association, which ceased work today, condemned the police attack and said its members would wear a white band tomorrow while attending court.

The Bar Council of India has given a call to the legal community to observe tomorrow as a black day in protest against “the ruthless manner in which the Delhi Police unleashed an attack on a peaceful protest organised by the entire bar of the country”. It asked lawyers to stay away from courts.

Describing the clashes as “unfortunate and regrettable”, Jethmalani said in a statement that the stand-off could be ended by an “intelligent dialogue” as the “ugly consequences of the strike are there for all to see”.

“The Centre will be prepared to have any inquiry instituted forthwith, at whatever level responsible leaders of the bar want. Law will be enforced against whoever is found guilty of violating it,” he added. The assurances followed a furore in the Rajya Sabha in the post-lunch session. Members lashed out at the police and demanded an apology from the government.

The issue was raised by the ADMK’s R. Margabandhu, who said he participated in the “peaceful” demonstration and witnessed the “brutal” lathicharge. “Does the Centre approve of the way the lawyers were lathicharged?” asked Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPI.

Congress MP Kapil Sibal, himself a lawyer, said: “Some aspects of the CPC Act need to be looked into and the demonstration was staged for this purpose because there was obviously no cooperation. Therefore, in this extreme situation lawyers went on a one-day strike. But instead of having a dialogue, the lawyers were lathicharged. What happened to the consensual approach we have been talking about all these years?”

Even the BJP associated itself with the Opposition with spokesman Venkaiah Naidu urging a dialogue with the lawyers.

Deputy chairperson Najma Heptullah directed Jethmalani to “find out the facts and come back to the House”. The minister assured that if there was any “mishandling”, those responsible would be “taken to task”.

If the CPC is amended, litigants will not be allowed to appeal before a high court division bench once defeated before a single bench. Such an order can be challenged only in the Supreme Court.

The government claims the changes will ensure speedy justice. But the lawyers say the amended code will create difficulty for the litigants.    

Patna, Feb. 24 
Repoll was held today in 829 booths in north Bihar amid sporadic violence that claimed the life of one Rashtriya Janata Dal worker in Saran district while state finance minister Shankarlal Tekriwal survived an attempt on his life at Saharsha.

State poll officials said despite the disturbances, 60 to 65 per cent voters turned out for the repoll.

In Gopalgunge, chief minister Rabri Devi’s brother Sadhu Yadav was placed in preventive detention as the officer-in-charge feared that he may cause breach of peace. Yadav had allegedly stormed the police station on Tuesday and snatched seven persons from police custody. He was arrested, but later was released on bail. Director-general of police K.A. Jacob said there were no fresh incidents of violence at Gopalgunge.

Armed BJP and RJD supporters clashed at Purvezbag near Sonepur in Saran district in the morning over false voting. Shyambabu Rai, an RJD worker, was shot dead in the exchange of fire. In Saharsha, the finance minister was fired upon by miscreants when he was going to Purushattam Manhar village to sort out a dispute.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
The Subrahmanyam Committee has ripped apart the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the army for their “critical failure” to provide advance information on Pakistani designs.

However, the committee report credits the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and its director Shyamal Dutta for collecting “certain inputs” regarding Pakistani activity in the Forward Command Northern Area (FCNA).

In a signed “Unofficial” (UO) note dated June 28, 1998, Dutta had sent the inputs to the Prime Minister, with copies to the home minister, the Cabinet secretary, the home secretary and the director-general of military operations.

But the report found Dutta guilty of not addressing his note to RAW, which had the resources to follow up the leads, the Joint Intelligence Committee and the director-general of military intelligence (DGMI). It quotes him as having told the committee that he “expected the information to filter down to these officials”.

“Such lapses illustrate a number of deficiencies in the system,” the report noted.

Beginning with RAW’s poor intelligence network in the Kargil sector, the report says: “The RAW facility did not receive adequate attention in terms of staff or technological capability. The station was under Srinagar but reported to Leh which was not focussed on Kargil but elsewhere (China). Hence, intelligence collection, coordination and follow-up were weak.”

According to the report, there were only “bits and pieces” of information, “few of which could be considered actionable intelligence. Most of them tended to indicate that Kargil was becoming a growing focus of Pakistani attention, demonstrated by the marked increase in cross-LoC shelling in 1998.”

Apparently, there were reports of ammunition dumping, induction of additional guns and construction of bunkers and helipads which “fitted into the assessment of likely large-scale militant infiltration. The enhanced threat perception of Brig. Surinder Singh also related to increased infiltration”, the report said.

The committee even found that RAW did not take its own information seriously. According to it, “RAW assessed the possibility of a limited, swift-offensive threat with possible support of alliance partners” in its half-yearly assessment ending September 1998. But “no indicators substantiating this assessment” were provided. In fact, its March 1999 report emphasised the financial constraints that would inhibit Pakistan from launching any such adventure,” the committee noted.

According to the committee, none of the intelligence agencies reported “specific indicators of a likely major attack in Kargil such as significant improvement in (Pakistani) logistics and communications or a substantial force build-up or forward deployment of forces”.

The report said that some units of the Pakistani Northern Light Infantry (NLI), which formed part of the intruders, “did not figure in the Order of Battle (ORBAT) supplied by RAW to the DGMI in April 1998”.

“Since then, and until Indian troops came into contact with the NLI battalions in May-June 1999, there was no information of their presence in the area. Another ORBAT of June 1, 1999, also did not show any changes in the area.”

According to the committee, the army, which often blames civilian intelligence agencies for not taking it into confidence, committed the blunder of not sharing “information about the intensity and effect of its past firing (at Pakistani posts) with others. In the absence of this information, RAW could not correctly assess the significance of enemy activity”.

“This provides another illustration of lack of inter-agency coordination as well as lack of coordination between the army and the agencies,” the report noted.    

Hyderabad, Feb. 24 
When Chandrababu Naidu logs into his laptop on March 31, the figures flashing on the screen will throw up a sobering fact: his cyberabad drinks like a fish.

Andhra Pradesh is set to close this financial year with a head-spinning Rs 2000 crore as tax from liquor sales.

Naidu’s administration won’t put it on record, but it has managed to turn the vision of his mentor and father-in-law, the late N.T. Rama Rao, on its head.

For 39 months Andhra remained dry after NTR issued prohibition in 1994. It worked wonders as a poll-plank. Women were happy that their husbands were not drowning their salaries at local bars.

But prohibition left a hangover: diminishing revenues. When Naidu succeeded NTR, he inherited empty coffers. Which he knew could be filled up a bit with liquor sale.

Prohibition had also not worked on principle. It had stopped the supply, but not the demand for liquor. Illicit liquor flowed freely from neighbouring states. An illegal bar shot up behind every liquor shop.

There was also pressure on the CEO of from prospective investors. Lifting prohibition was a prerequisite for attracting investment, particularly in his favourite information technology sector.

Naidu, for whom wine was more important than women, started lifting the ban bit by bit from 1997, one year after NTR’s death.

NTR’s poison turned out to be elixir for cash-strapped Andhra. Official liquor consumption shot up, raking in the moolah.

This year, almost a 100 million cases of beer have been guzzled and a record turnover of over Rs 15,000 crore registered by the liquor industry.

“Even the steep increase in sales tax (up to 25 per cent for liquor and 20 per cent for beer) did not deter guzzlers,” says a deputy excise commissioner.

Though liquor had started rising after the ban on a superior quality of IMFL (Indian-Made Foreign Liquor) was lifted, the floodgates were opened later when cheap liquor sales were allowed.

Naidu lifted the ban on cheap liquor, too, mainly because of two reasons: the brew was being smuggled in anyway and the IMFL companies were sidelining local liquor manufacturers.

Naidu also reduced the tax on rectified spirit sold for manufacture of cheap liquor from Rs 50 to Rs 35 as well.

Heady with the tax collection, the government is thinking of lifting the ban on liquor licences in restaurants as well.

It has no choice really. Almost all liquor shops — there are 29,000 of them, 6,000 more than the number of villages — run illegal bars behind. Toddy retail points double as bars.

Naidu is only waiting for the municipal and panchayat elections to get over. After which it will issue bar licences.

The excise department, along with the liquor industry, is looking forward to the day.

“We are ready to give even 100 to 200 per cent more as licence fees (it was Rs. 2.5 lakh for bar licence earlier) to revive the trade,” says president of the AP Hotels Association Raja Rao. He adds that five star hotels have bar licences already.

“We can net almost Rs 5,000 crore if bars and clubs are revived,” says Gurulingam, former president of the AP Distilleries and Wineries Association.

That should set the coffers on a high.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
The Centre’s decision to defer the proposed price hike of LPG and kerosene till mid-March is likely to leave it poorer by Rs 1,200 crore, according to a senior Cabinet minister.

Government sources confirmed that the price hike had been deferred mainly to oblige the Telugu Desam Party chief N. Chandrababu Naidu. They added that the decision had been taken last Tuesday when Naidu had a one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Naidu conveyed to Vajpayee that since civic polls in 200 municipalities were being held in his state in early March, increasing the LPG price would not go down well with the electorate.

The BJP has an alliance with the Desam and while its stake in the outcome may not be as high as the latter’s, it would certainly be an index of its base in the urban areas, said party sources.

“Naidu told the Prime Minister that the lower-middle class, who have started using LPG in a big way, would primarily determine the outcome of the polls and nothing should be done to alienate them,” said government sources.

Naidu also made it clear that once the elections are over and done with, the Centre will be “at liberty” to go ahead with the hike.

However, petroleum minister Ram Naik has told senior ministers that even this three-week deferment — from February 24 to March 15 — would cost the exchequer an estimated Rs 1,200 crore.

“It is the Centre’s subsidy for the Andhra Pradesh civic polls,” government sources added. The government was originally scheduled to announce the hike today.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, too, had opposed the proposal for the same reason as Naidu and expressed her views in the NDA meeting last night. “She harped on the fact that she had to please her constituency of the urban poor and had the CPM to reckon with,” said sources.

Independent MP Maneka Gandhi, too, was against the proposal and backed Mamata, but for an entirely different reason. “Her argument was purely ecological. She said if LPG was made more costly, people would turn to firewood and start felling trees in a big way,” said government sources.

Maneka was reminded that LPG is the favourite cooking medium of urbanites who are unlikely to access woods and forests for alternative means of domestic fuel.    

Bangalore, Feb. 24 
The Silicon Valley of India is gearing up to join forces with the “Linux-based” world-wide effort to usher in a revolution in software development which could give Bill Gates a run for his money.

Bangalore is abuzz as over 2,500 computer buffs and programmers eagerly look forward to a unique two-day conference beginning on Saturday on the Linux operating system, which is growing at a “scorching pace” as a freely usable software.

The conference, appropriately named “Bang! Linux”, will have interactive sessions with Linux gurus from the world over for both beginners and professionals.

John Franklin, director of Wrox Press, United Kingdom, a publishing house which is organising the event, said Linux was growing in popularity as the system, developed by Finnish scientist Linus Torvalds, was downloadable free of cost, unlike Microsoft Windows or Sun Solaris.

Franklin said in a paradoxical situation where computer prices were dropping but software licence fee going up due to Microsoft’s monopoly, Linux had begun to eat into Gates’ profits, having captured 7 per cent of the market.

He said Linux had the same power as the other servers like Unix, WindowsNT or Novell and had about 17 million users at present. “The beauty of the system is that since the code is freely available, the programmers are improving it all the time and all the improvements are available for anyone else to view, use or alter.”

Franklin believes that in a vast but poor country like India, Linux could power the development of computer education. He said the Mexican government, which began a project in 1998 to equip 140,000 schools with computers, used Linux and saved $ 124 million in proposed Microsoft licences.

Since Linux could be run on any “cheap” machine and there was no “per seat” licence fee to be paid, Franklin said it opened up “huge opportunities for Indian students to experiment with server development and compete with any entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley of the US”.

Vijay Tase, director of Wrox India, said the beginners’ track was designed to address the lay person’s interest in Linux software.    

Hyderabad, Feb. 24 
A star on the silver screen, she doesn’t have a home to return to.

Harassed by her stepfather after the death of actress-mother Girija Rani, Baby Priya, the 10-year-old cute face who sparkled in the 25-odd films she acted in — including a Hindi movie Mere Sapno Ki Rani — is an inmate of a hostel for destitutes.

Priya is terrified, the scars permanently etched on her impressionable mind. She is scared of men, who she says are all like Shankar, her stepfather who beat and tortured her and handicapped elder sister Poorna, demanding that they go out and earn.

“Priya is comfortable with women. But when she meets any man, she just shrinks away,” says Sumitra, director of Ankur, an NGO which gave shelter to the child.

Priya trembles as she relives the night four months ago she decided to flee her horror home along with her sister. The two little girls sought help from the police who turned them over to the Juvenile Child Forum, which, along with Ankur, runs the home for the homeless. Shankar followed the girls to the hostel, forcing the authorities to file a police complaint.

Priya curses her star status for her fate. “My real life is totally different from the kind of roles I have played on screen,” she says.

The baby star, who has acted in around 25 Telugu films, including ones opposite Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh and Kamal Haasan, and has been the voiceover in another 19, says her troubles multiplied as she brought in more and more money. Her stepfather, who managed her career after her mother died last year, signed more films than she could handle. The pressure was so intense that she would often have to work all three shifts.

Priya says that her stepfather spent most of the money she earned on himself. He stopped paying the rent and after defaulting two months, he was told to leave the house on New Year’s-eve. Shankar left without a trace.

Penniless, Priya approached the Movie Artistes’ Association which gave some compensation and offered work. “Girija Rani’s brothers came once or twice but both were not ready to take responsibility for the children,” says Sumitra.

Priya is keen on resuming her acting career to pay for her sister’s medical bills. But with the Telugu film industry going through a nightmare run, producers have virtually stopped launching new projects.

“Despite the success of family films, child roles are on the way out,” says filmmaker-MP D. Rama Naidu, who has offered Priya a job in his studio.

Priya, however, is undecided on whether she wants to return to movies. “I want to concentrate on studies,” she says.

Ankur has decided to let the girl take her time to recover from the trauma she has gone through. “We are not pressing her to do anything. We want her to continue with her studies which she had discontinued after the fifth standard in Chennai,” said Sumitra.    

Chennai, Feb. 24 
Historian K.N. Panikkar today charged that the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), acting in tandem with the human resources ministry, was frustrating the publication of the two volumes he edited as they proved that neither the RSS nor the Hindu Mahasabha had any positive role in the freedom struggle.

If anything, they had collaborated with the British in 1940, he added.

Panikkar also objected to the composition of the independent review committee before which the council wants him to submit the volumes.

“The review committee set up now has no member with any form of expertise on modern Indian history. It consists of a retired bureaucrat, an archaeologist and a historian of ancient India,” he said.

At a press conference on the controversy surrounding the council’s attempt to retract the manuscripts edited by him and Sumit Sarkar from the Oxford University Press, Panikkar demanded that council chairman B.R. Grover apologise to him for questioning his integrity as a scholar.

He also challenged his detractors to prove that he or any of the other editors involved in the Towards Freedom project had made money out of it.

Pointing out that they were entitled to a honorarium of Rs 25,000 after the volume was published, Panikkar said that most of the amount spent was directly disbursed by the council to the research assistants.

Panikkar said that he has written to the Oxford University Press that, as editor, he had to be consulted before the manuscript was returned to the council. “It is not the ICHR’s personal property,” Panikkar said.

Disclosing that he had offers from a couple of foreign publishers to publish the volume he edited, Panikkar said the entire controversy was aimed at maligning secular historians to impress upon the outside world the weight of Hindutva forces.

He also charged the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for trying to communalise the history syllabus and infringe upon academic freedom.

Pointing out that in history text books of Rajasthan, RSS leaders like Hedgewar were being lionised as national heroes, Panikkar warned that acquiescing with the Sangh Parivar would imperil the country’s secular fabric.


Mumbai, Feb. 24 
Suicides by seven cotton farmers in the state’s Vidarbha region has come as a major embarrassment for the Democratic Front government of Vilasrao Deshmukh despite denials that the deaths had nothing to do with the non-payment of dues to farmers.

Seizing the opportunity, the BJP has sent leader of the Opposition in the state Council Nitin Gadkari to the Vidarbha belt, bordering Nagpur, to visit the farmers’ families and give them interim relief of Rs 10,000 each.

While the Deshmukh government has been issuing denials, the BJP has got signed affidavits from the families that the farmers committed suicide after dues from the government under the state’s cotton purchase monopoly scheme failed to reach them.

Of the seven, four are from Yevatmal district, including Vilas Gunvantrao Hote of Vadgaon village in the Ranthegaon taluka. Hote’s suicide in the first week of February triggered the controversy with the BJP releasing a videotape of statements issued by the villagers.

Interestingly, the BJP did not react to the first suicide — that of Srichand Pawar of Washim district in early January.

Cotton Federation officials said a bumper harvest compounded the controversy over non-payment of dues. Also, unlike in the past, cotton was brought to the state’s 534 procurement centres “in one go” between November and January-end. Chairman of the Maharashtra Cotton Growers’ Federation Sunil Porwal said: “We received 150 lakh quintals of cotton in that period. We had received the same amount over the whole of last year. We were in no position to pay the farmers that fast.”

Porwal added that of the Rs 3,340 crores due to the farmers, the government has paid Rs 2,212 crores. “The rest can be paid only after financial institutions with whom we are negotiating give us loans.”

The issue has come as a godsend for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. The BJP played up the suicides during campaigning for the upmarket Colaba Assembly byelections, results for which are expected tomorrow.

Former deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde told The Telegraph: “Will a widow give a false affidavit about her husband’s death? The government’s claims are totally false. No payments have reached farmers.”

Amravati divisional commissioner Sumit Mallik, however, said: “I have checked each of the cases. None of them was because of non-payment of cotton dues. Three were natural deaths while four were due to other reasons.” He added that Sadhu Kumbhalkar, who committed suicide on January 28, received Rs 40,000 of the Rs 50,000 due to him on January 21. “There was no reason for him to commit suicide.”

However, the affidavits and the fact that all seven suicides were reported from Vidarbha, the largest cotton growing belt, has weakened the state’s stand.    


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