VP, Mulayam to take up cudgels on shrine Bill
BJP appeals for subsidy consensus
Shanmugam elected Pondy CLP chief
Govt allays fears on personal law
Model village to serve up mock panchayat
Walk by sea in doldrums
Security-stung Agra in black balloon ‘welcome’
Bhopal vents ire on effigies

 
 
VP, MULAYAM TO TAKE UP CUDGELS ON SHRINE BILL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 19 
The controversial Uttar Pradesh Religious Places Construction and Regulation Bill has become another issue of discord between the secular parties and the ruling BJP in the state.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has threatened to launch an agitation against the legislation from April 4 and described it as a “violation of the fundamental rights of the minorities, especially the Muslims”.

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh plans to address a convention on the Bill in the Aligarh Muslim University’s alumni association on the campus on March 25. “There are attempts to destroy India’s multi-cultural character, and endorsement of RSS activities by the NDA government has generated fears among the minorities,” the association’s convener and former Rajya Sabha MP, Wasim Ahmed, said.

The Bill makes it mandatory to seek the permission of the district administration before constructing a place of worship. Chief minister Ram Prakash Gupta justified the legislation as a “measure” to curb ISI activities, and alleged that the Pakistani intelligence agency was operating from mosques and madrasas along the Indo-Nepal border, including Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich and Gorakhpur districts.

Mulayam, however, had remained silent on the Bill both before and after its passage. Muslims were upset with the Samajwadi for staging a walkout in the Assembly when the Bill was passed, arguing that had this not happened, it would have been defeated, as apart from the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party, some of the BJP’s own allies were against it.

The Samajwadi’s silence had threatened to cost the party its Muslim votes in the Kannauj Lok Sabha byelection which was fought by Mulayam’s son, Akhi-lesh Yadav. However, sources said the minorities, in a tactical move, shifted their votes at the crucial hour to the Samajwadi from the BSP, once they were convinced that the Yadavs would vote en bloc for Mulayam’s son as well as sections of the upper castes.

Not just in Kannauj, a Samajwadi Muslim leader said in the other Assembly constituencies, where bypolls were held last February, Muslims had plumped in larger numbers for Mulayam than in the Lok Sabha election, where some of them had swung towards the Congress. “They saw the Congress as a losing proposition and the BSP as not strong enough on its own to defeat the BJP. But having won back the Muslims, the Samajwadi had to show its commitment to them. That is why we have taken up the fight against the UP Bill,” the leader added.

Speakers from secular parties, including Rajesh Pilot (Congress), Sitaram Yechury (CPM) and Raj Babbar are among those likely to speak at the Aligarh convention.    


 
 
BJP APPEALS FOR SUBSIDY CONSENSUS 
 
 
OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Hyderabad, March 19 
Stung by the uproar among allies and spreading resentment within its own ranks, the BJP has appealed to all political parties to reach a consensus on subsidies and disinvestment.

BJP general secretary M. Venkaiah Naidu today urged parties not to resort to populism as it would weaken the nation in the long run. No developed nation had succeeded by implementing populist schemes, he added.

Venkaiah Naidu’s comment is being seen as a message to Telugu Desam chief and Andhra Pradesh chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu. The Desam and the Trinamul Congress are spearheading the clamour for rollback in the cut in food and fertiliser subsidies.

The BJP was peeved with the allies for voicing their protest openly and had felt that it would embolden the Congress to press ahead with its threat to move cut motions when Parliament reconvenes in mid-April after the recess.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had also tried to resist pressure from allies to roll back the increase in prices, but finance minister Yashwant Sinha had indicated last week in the Lok Sabha he would consider the allies’ opinion.

Venkaiah Naidu said a consensus was needed especially in the context of the burgeoning fiscal deficit at the Centre and the states. Some state governments were even struggling to pay salaries to their employees, he added.

However, he said in a developing country like India where more than 40 per cent live below the poverty line, subsidies could not be done away with all of a sudden and should be phased out gradually. He said there was constraint on government spending as it has to allocate funds for education, health care, housing, and infrastructure.

Venkaiah Naidu also wanted the governments, including Andhra Pradesh, to provide subsidies to the needy by “better targeting”.

On disinvestment, he said the business of the government was to govern and take care of the social aspects and not to run businesses. The government has a huge debt burden and disinvestment was one of the options to reduce it.

Asserting that reforms could not be reversed and have to continue with a human face, he blamed the previous governments for the huge debt burden. “It’s not our creation, we have inherited a legacy,” he added.

Venkaiah Naidu also defended the action of Bihar Governor V. C. Pande in inviting Nitish Kumar first to form the government. He said the Governor had acted according to the Constitution and in line with norms.

Venkaiah Naidu lambasted the Congress for changing its pre-election stand and supporting the Rabri Devi government. He said the Congress had fought against Laloo Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in the elections and even promised to institute an inquiry against the Rabri government if elected to power.    


 
 
SHANMUGAM ELECTED PONDY CLP CHIEF 
 
 
FROM T.N. GOPALAN
 
Chennai, March 19 
P. Shanmugam, septuagenarian president of the Pondicherry Congress, was today elected president of the Congress Legislature Party, and he later formally staked his claim to form the next government in the Union territory.

P.J. Kurien, the high command’s observer, told reporters Pondicherry that the election was unanimous and that former chief minister Vaithilingam had proposed Shanmugam’s name and a former minister and a chief ministerial contender N.Rangasamy seconded him.

However it was Vaithilingam’s strong opposition to Rangasamy that tilted the scales in favour of Shanmugam, some reports say. That is a bit ironical because Shanmugam and Vaithilingam themselves have been at loggerheads for long.

Possibly the latter was miffed that he was not in the reckoning at all — there is a CBI case against him in regard to a corruption charge — and would not reconcile himself to the prospect of a relatively junior politician like Rangasamy’s elevation as the chief minister.

Shanmugam,a bachelor, is an old war-horse and has held many offices in the past. He himself aggressively championed his own case and demanded some recognition of his “services” to the party for such a long period, it is said.

However, he is not a member of the Assembly and his choice would mean a by-election in the near future.

Rangasamy is a Vanniar and it was thought by making him the chief minister, the Congress would increase its influence in the region where the Vanniars are numerically large. But it was not to be.

Enraged by the high command’s decision, Rangasamy’s supporters, who had gathered in large numbers in front of the hotel where the meeting of the MLAs took place, went on a stone-pelting spree, damaging the hotel and some buildings nearby, reports reaching here say. A rather ominous start for the new coalition, but quite in keeping with the faction-ridden Congress in Pondicherry, observers note.

   


 
 
GOVT ALLAYS FEARS ON PERSONAL LAW 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, March 19 
The Centre has no plans to change the Muslim personal law without the consent of the community, Union minister of state for law, justice and parliamentary affairs O. Rajagopal said here today.

“Personal laws relate to marriages and divorces of a particular community. We cannot change them overnight without the minority’s concurrence,” he said.

The BJP favours a uniform civil code but the issue has been pushed to the backburner ever since it came to power at the head of a coalition government.

The minister told reporters that his department had been working on possible amendments to personal laws of various communities. He said the Centre had convened a meeting of Christian leaders from various churches early next month to discuss possible amendments to the Christian Marriage Act.

Rajagopal said the government has decided to go in for amendments only after it received several representations regarding anomalies in the Act.

The minister promised that views from representatives of the Christian community would be taken into account before any amendments are made.

He said the Centre would meet leaders from various political parties next month to discuss the problems of delimiting parliamentary constituencies across the country.

“There is a freeze on number of seats in Parliament. But anomalies and imbalances relating to parliamentary constituencies must be resolved through discussion,” the minister observed.

Justifying the government’s stand on setting up a Constitution review committee, Rajagopal said this was a step in the right direction. “The Constitution has to be amended to keep pace with the changing times,” he said.

Reacting to the Left’s concern over the review, the minister said: “I am pained to see that the Left is trying to make a bogey out of this.”    


 
 
MODEL VILLAGE TO SERVE UP MOCK PANCHAYAT 
 
 
FROM CHANDAN NANDY
 
Naila (Jaipur), March 19 
They are all waiting for Uncle Saab. The Meenas, the Haryanvi brahmins, the Rajputs, the nais (barbers), the chamars, the khatiks, the Muslims and, above all, the women. The morning of March 23 will turn this bustling miniature replica of Jaipur, barely 20 km from the Pink City off NH 11, into a living tableau for the man from “across the seven seas”.

The village, bounded and protected on all sides by fortress walls, is thinking up every conceivable traditional welcome ceremony for “Kilintonji”. He will descend in his “fudakta hawaijahaj” — or a helicopter — on the dusty helipad in Gilala near this village. Suddenly, this forgotten settlement has come alive since February 12 when it was decided to showcase Naila, an island of hope for women’s empowerment in the otherwise male-dominated society that is Rajasthan.

For Kilintonji, there should be village belles in their bright, colourful lehenga-cholis lining up with thalis to apply tilak and turbaned men waiting with garlands. Security permitting, there may even be a song-and-dance event.

“But nothing is final yet,” said Kalu Ram, the village sarpanch overseeing all repair work within the haveli below the hillock, atop which sits pretty the fort built by Fateh Singh Rathore, prime minister of Jaipur, after he was granted the jagirdari of Naila around 1819. The palace, with its intricate decorations that survived the test of time, now functions as a primary health training centre. The fort, in ruins till a few years back, is now a private property of the Oberoi Group after it was sold for a song by one of Fateh Singh’s descendants.

Kilintonji ka naam to kuchh padhe-likhe log jaante thei. Par dehat ke log ab jaane hain (Some educated villagers knew of him, but the backward have come to know him now),” smiled an ageing Hari Singh Rathore, a scion of the royal family, and a former sarpanch. His house opposite the primary health training centre is the focus of all activity as generator sets and powerful lamps are brought in from the state capital.

Naila began to make great strides since the Sixties of the last century. On March 23, it will become Kilintonji’s window to rural India. He will witness a mock panchayat in session with Kalu Ram presiding. A host of issues will figure before the 16-member panchayat.

With women’s empowerment as the focus, the five women members in the panchayat will “propose” development work and the rest will deliberate on the merits and demerits of the proposals. After giving a patient hearing to all sides, Kalu Ram will then rule what is best for the village. “We will demonstrate how decisions are taken and judgment delivered,” the sarpanch beamed.

The women in this village of about 8,500 are a force to reckon with. There are about 200 women activists and another 135 are divided into several self-help groups. “Hum computer bhi chala lete hain,” quips Sathin (voluntary social worker) Mohini Devi who “learnt the alphabet through experience”, though she had no formal education.

Says a woman and child department officer: “Today almost 70 per cent of the population is literate. There is one senior and nine primary schools, including one for girls, in the village. You can gauge the level of success that has been achieved.”

There will also be a computerised demonstration by women on the cooperative milk dairy that was launched in the mid-Sixties. “We will show him that even women in villages know what computers are and how we operate them,” said Tarabai Rajput, designated as field officer to work among village women.

The women are prepared to shed their inhibitions and remove their ghungats to look Kilintonji in his eyes and the men will not mind. But they will steadfastly prevent any move to rename Naila.    


 
 
WALK BY SEA IN DOLDRUMS 
 
 
FROM SUJAY GUPTA
 
Mumbai, March 19 
President Bill Clinton’s visit here is unlikely to be quite the party that was promised. And it’s not just the hosts — the Maharashtra government — who feel that they have lost out. The celebrity guest too, has been asked by the Secret Service to proceed with caution.

Clinton’s wish to walk down the promenade in front of the hotel and soak in the sea was turned down by his securitymen. His desire to meet the press in front of the Gateway of India was also denied.

It is reliably learnt that despite Clinton’s penchant for Indian food made by Indian chefs, his “flying kitchen” and his own chef will do the cooking. Those at The Oberoi aren’t pleased either. “Imagine a housewife having to allow another woman to use her kitchen for a party at her own house,” one celebrity chef remarked.

No one at the hotel is quite sure now of what the President will eat. After issuing a press release on what is in store for Clinton, the hotel staff has now changed tack. Tricia D’Souza, executive, public relations and advertising, said: “We are completely in the dark about what the menu is. Our chefs are ready to serve but Clinton’s chefs might take over leaving us to help only with the communication set up and looking after him while he is in his suite.”

Clinton’s stay for one night will cost close to Rs 10,00,000 excluding the cost for his 600-strong entourage.

On his schedule is a visit to the Cafe Royal Hotel opposite Regal theatre in Colaba. There is a discotheque on the mezzanine floor called “HQ” that has been reserved by the American consulate. A part of the discotheque has been taken over by Clinton’s sleuths. A hot line to Washington has been fixed so that he can attend to urgent business if needed. However, the deputy commissioner of police, in charge of the security in the area, said this programme was tentative.

Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said: “I know I will be receiving him and seeing him off. I will be present when he meets a Ficci delegation. Beyond this, I do not know anything.” The government plans to make a presentation on investment opportunities in the state but will probably have to present a compact disc of the presentation to the media accompanying the President. Deshmukh’s secretary Praveen Pardesi said the government was trying to get Ficci to allow the presentation during its programme. However, it is unlikely that Ficci would cut a slice of their time.

If the President does not stir out of his hotel it will be as good as staying back in the White House. His work areas look like a replica of the White House. His doctors, chefs and if rumours are to be believed, even his favourite sink is being flown in. Apart from touching down on Indian soil, his Mumbai visit will probably be an all American one.    


 
 
SECURITY-STUNG AGRA IN BLACK BALLOON ‘WELCOME’ 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, March 19 
“Who is he? He is not even an Indian Maharaja.”

That’s Makhanlal Chaturvedi, a primary school teacher in Agra, on the world’s most powerful man. Chaturvedi is not too impressed with Bill Clinton because the near-maniacal security arrangements for the President, due in the city of the Taj on Wednesday, has turned his life upside down.

The old city has been decked up lavishly, like a bride, with the Taj Mahal never looking so beautiful. The local administration has even clipped branches which strayed into the now clean-as-slates streets.

So far so good. But the residents feel that the security agencies have been overbearing in their zeal and the entire security drill has been humiliating.

On the day Clinton arrives, residents, especially those whose houses and shops fall on the President’s route to the Taj Khema, the Uttar Pradesh tourism department hotel where he would be putting up, have been ordered not to step out of their houses.

They have also been prohibited from opening their doors and windows which face the route. Even taking a peek at Clinton from terraces and rooftops is prohibited.

Smarting, Agra residents want to treat Clinton to a different kind of mehman nawazi: by greeting him with black balloons with “Clinton go back” written on them and blacker flags.

Says Ram Dhiraj of the Azadi Bachao Andolan, which popped up overnight to protest against the “imperialist, new czar” of the Western world: “There is an atmosphere of terror in Agra today. The police and the Provincial Armed Constabulary are harassing citizens who are yet to come to terms with a curfew-like situation. It is all being done at the express orders of the US security agencies.”

Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh shares Ram Dhiraj’s sentiment. He feels that “the air in Agra is suffocating right now”. Agnivesh said it was humiliating and shameful for the residents that their own administration was putting them through such harassment.

Activists of the Arya Samaj and Bandhua Mukti Morcha from today burned effigies of the US president. Other organisations and parties like the National Alliance of People’s Movement, the Loktantrik Samajwadi Party, the CPI and the CPM have planned a series of protests.

The police, however, on their most important security drill in decades, are taking no chances. “We will not let anything happen. We are clear about that,” said a senior police official in Agra. “We can’t take any chances. There will be people out to disrupt the peace and give India a bad name. We will be on a look out for those elements.”

US television crew

For the first time, a foreign television camera is likely to record proceedings inside the Central Hall of Parliament when Clinton addresses a joint sitting of both Houses on March 22, reports PTI.

The American pool camera will be placed along with that of Doordarshan, the only channel which so far has been allowed to shoot proceedings within Parliament. The request for the American pool camera was made by the US ambassador to record Clinton’s address to the joint sitting of both Houses, sources said.    


 
 
BHOPAL VENTS IRE ON EFFIGIES 
 
 
FROM SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Bhopal, March 19 
Victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy today burnt two effigies of President Bill Clinton and held demonstrations and protest marches here even as New Delhi was preparing for his arrival.

The protesters shouted anti-US slogans “Clinton go back, send us Warren Anderson”. Anderson, the then chairman of US multinational Union Carbide Corporation, is the main accused in the gas leak case.

Clinton’s effigy was torched by a gas victim’s association, Gas Peedit Nirashrit Morcha. Three other associations and NGOs with a 2000-strong victims’ crowd are going to New Delhi and Mumbai to hold demonstrations on Parliament street and Azad Maidan on Thursday.

“We feel betrayed and let down by the Central and state governments,” said Rashida Bai, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh. “We have already sent a memorandum to the Prime Minister and discussed with chief minister Digvijay Singh that the issue should be raised when the state’s representatives meet Clinton for 10 minutes. We have also sent a letter to Clinton through the US embassy in New Delhi but no one has bothered to send us a reply.”

A fourth letter has been sent to 10, Janpath asking Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to take up the issue. “But madam is yet to respond to our call,” Rashida said.

Speaking to The Telegraph, representatives of the gas leak pressure groups said “since Bhopal’s suffering” has been buried “beneath the Clinton carnival” by both the BJP-led Centre and the Congress government in the state, the only option left for them is to approach the Communist parties opposing the visit.

“We will immediately get in touch with the CPM-CPI affiliated pressure groups,” said Abdul Jabbar, the convenor of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan. “Someone has to have the courage to tell the US that since they bully every nation in the name of human rights, sometimes the need arises when they ought to exercise the same on themselves.”

Jabbar said the US had threatened to attack Libya after two Libyans were held responsible for the PanAm crash in 1988 which killed 160 persons on board.    

 

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