Pak dropped from trans-Asia rail project
Sonia, rebels sharpen knives for showdown
Mahajot trial run
Gowda backs Rabri
Cong mission for plum portfolios
Silver lining in hounded honeymoon

New Delhi, April 6 
Indian Railways has decided to drop Pakistan from the Trans-Asia Railway network project connecting Singapore, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Europe and the CIS countries.

The transnational railway network covering over 30,000-40,000 km is expected to be completed by 2010. Work on this project has started in Iran and other countries.

The decision to drop Islamabad from the consortium was taken after a Pakistani railway delegation refused to accept recommendations regarding customs and security. The move could affect bilateral relations.

Railway board chairman V.K. Agarwal said: “We have decided to keep Pakistan out of the network due to technical reasons. We can bridge that gap using the sea route. Goods can be transported from Haldia or any other port to Tehran, from where they can be connected again by railway route to Europe and the CIS countries.”

Security issues were taken up at the last meeting in Tehran in December 1999. Sources in the railway ministry said: “The difference between the two countries arose over who should head the project, when India was requested to head a multi-country task force for establishing a southern corridor. This resulted in a non-cooperative attitude of the delegation from Pakistan.”

S. Suryanaraynan, additional member, planning, said: “It is a very sensitive issue and cannot be discussed. It is a serious matter and I would need to discuss it with the officials concerned before any details can be provided.”

The Trans-Asian Railway scheme is part of the Asian Land Transportation Infrastructure Development project envisaged at the 1992 Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) session in China.

The scheme conceived of three rail-land bridges between southern China and Europe, Thailand and Europe and South Asia and Europe — described as the northern, central and southern corridors.

India formed part of the southern corridor linking Singapore to Turkey via Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran. According to the plan, the route was to enter India at Tamu in Manipur, bordering Myanmar, enter Bangladesh at Mahissan or Shahbajpur and re-enter India at Gede. On the western side, it was to enter Attari in Pakistan.

In India, the route from Haldia to Calcutta has been agreed upon as a path of international significance to facilitate sea-cum-rail movement to Central Asia and Europe.

Bangladesh was keen on identifying an additional path through Abdulur-Rohanpur-Singhabad-Raxaul as a route of sub-regional significance to facilitate connection of Bangladesh ports to Nepal.

India has promised to examine this route in addition to the Haldia-Calcutta path with support from Bangladesh and Myanmar. “A team of senior officials would be soon visiting Bangladesh to discuss the issue,” Agarwal said.

Toy train

The Darjeeling toy train will be granted World Heritage status on May 20 by UNESCO. Announcing this, railway minister Mamata Banerjee said: “We will introduce new trains, but we will not do away with trains which have historical significance.”    

New Delhi, April 6 
The pro-Mamata Banerjee lobby in the West Bengal Congress wants dissident Congress Working Committee members to take up their cause at the CWC meet and queer the pitch for Sonia Gandhi.

Dissident leader Rajesh Pilot, among those approached by the Somen Mitra camp, today fired a salvo at the leadership on siding with Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, who was chargesheeted by the CBI. “If I was in the position of Rabri Devi, I would have resigned and remained out of office till I was cleared of the charges by the concerned court,” he said.

Sonia, camping in Amethi, retorted that there would be no change in the party’s stand towards the Rabri Devi government. She sought to turn the heat on Union ministers L.K. Advani Murli Manohar Joshi, asking for their resignations for being chargesheeted in the Babri masjid demolition case. “Let the Prime Minister ask Advani and Joshi to resign,” she said.

Pilot, Jitendra Prasada, Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, R.K. Dhawan, Sushil Kumar Shinde and A.K. Antony are among the CWC members who are unhappy with Sonia over the developments in Bihar and Bengal. In the CWC meeting, these leaders are likely to criticise Sonia for going back on “Panchmarhi declaration”.

For Bengal, they plan to target Sonia for picking a “wrong candidate,” failing to “read sentiments of party MLAs” and subsequently allowing the WBPCC to open negotiations with a BJP-ally. “A leadership which does not assert itself, is useless,” a rebel leader said.

But a majority of CWC members, including Arjun Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Ambika Soni, Mohsina Kidwai, Madhavrao Scindia, Motilal Vora, Natwar Singh, Narain Dutt Tiwari, Prabha Rau, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Oscar Fernandes and Ahmad Patel, are stoutly behind Sonia and laud her handling of party affairs in both Bengal and Bihar. “Under the difficult circumstances, Soniaji has handled both states very well and every right thinking Congressman will appreciate it,” a CWC member said.

Keeping an eye on Congress developments, Mamata today gave fresh impetus to the “mahajot”, renewing the call for a grand alliance. She asked the Congress not to get into the ideological debate as the tie-up would be restricted to Bengal.

For the first time, Sonia commented on the Bengal crisis. In Amethi, Sonia asserted that the rules of the game would have to be followed while aligning with the Trinamul Congress and her party will have nothing to do with the BJP. “The Congress is interested in strengthening secular forces. There is no question of compromising on the issue of secularism.”

She, however, avoided a categorical answer if action would be taken against party MLAs who indulged in cross-voting. “This problem of cross-voting has been there in all the parties. The parties should sit together and try to find a way out,” she said.

In a related development, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi called on A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury. In his attempt to bury differences with Chowdhury, Das Munshi accepted his supremacy but challenged Somen to prove the allegation that he got the latter’s name cancelled for Rajya Sabha polls. “It had happened in front of everyone — Ghani Khan, Pranab Mukherjee, Prabha Rau, Pawan Bansal,” he said.

Favouring the mahajot, Das Munshi asked Chowdhury to include him in negotiations with the Trinamul as he was the working president of the WBPCC. He said while supporting the anti-Left alliance, he was totally opposed to the idea of inclusion of the BJP in the “grand alliance”. Such a move, he said, “would finish off the Congress. The very basis of the Congress, its relevance and past track record will all be demolished,” he cautioned.    

Calcutta, April 6 
Enthused by talks of a Mahajot (grand alliance) against the state CPM, the Youth Congress today announced a Mahamichhil (grand procession) on April 12, which could bring the city to a halt.

Youth Congress president Paresh Pal said that efforts were on to rope in Trinamul chief and railway minister Mamata Banerjee and state Congress president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury for the rally.

“If for some reason they cannot be present, we will carry their pictures in our procession because they have revived the anti-Left forces in Bengal,” said Pal, who is scheduled to hold a meeting of the Youth Congress on Saturday to chalk out details of the rally.

As Congressmen geared up for the grand alliance, some MLAs — including Tapas Roy, who had campaigned for the party’s official candidate D.P. Roy in the Rajya Sabha elections — questioned the rationale of the friction that had estranged relations between Mamata and the Congress.

“This Mahajot could have been organised in 1997 and Mamata need not have been expelled from the party at all,” he said.

The much-touted Mahajot between the Congress and the Trinamul have buoyed leaders of both parties, especially after Sonia Gandhi’s nod to the alliance. Sonia, however, has clearly said that there could be no direct or indirect truck with the BJP.

“We know nothing about the BJP. Our alliance will be with the Trinamul to oust the CPM-led Left Front from Bengal,” said Congress MLA Sultan Ahmed.

Pal — who submitted a memorandum to Union minister of state for finance Dhananjoy Kumar demanding a probe into chief minister Jyoti Basu’s son Chandan’s “assets” — described the CPM as “more communal than the BJP. The BJP is no factor. It is our only chance to take on the CPM,” he said.

With the grand alliance struck between Chowdhury and Mamata in New Delhi, a semblance of cohesion is also fast returning to the Congress.

The party leadership has already started talks regarding seat adjustments with the Trinamul in the coming municipal and civic polls.

But even as the two parties prepared for a combined assault on the Left’s 23-year unbroken reign, state CPM secretary Anil Biswas refused to attach much importance to the alliance.

The CPM, he asserted, would re-assert the concept of a third front at the national level. “This will be feasible as there are at least 100 MPs who belong neither to the Congress nor the BJP,” he said.    

New Delhi, April 6 
Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda today sprang to the defence of beleaguered Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife and Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi saying the CBI’s bid to slap a non-bailable warrant on Rabri was the result of the worst kind of political vendetta.

If such unabashed misuse of the CBI continues, the people will take to the streets, Gowda said. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was unwilling to unleash the CBI on Rabri and Laloo but was bullied by two of his Cabinet ministers, he added.

If an honest exercise is undertaken to scrutinise the IT returns filed by politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and industrialists and the property acquired by them, more than 50 per cent would be behind bars, Gowda told a group of reporters.

Questioning the credibility of the CBI, the former Prime Minister suggested that full control of the investigating and prosecuting agencies should be brought directly under the control of the President, as in the case of the auditor general and the advocate general, to prevent their misuse by the executive. The CBI’s move has greatly sullied the image of Vajpayee. He has over 50 years of experience as a good parliamentarian and statesman and people never expected him to succumb to the pressure of some his Cabinet colleagues, whose game-plan in Bihar was defeated.

Asked if defence minister George Fernandes was one of them, the former Prime Minister said: “Those who backed Morarji Desai in the morning and betrayed him in the evening will see to it that Vajpayee’s image is ruined at the fag end of his career.”    

Patna, April 6 
As the Opposition decided to open a new legal flank against chief minister Rabri Devi, her allies seized on her isolation from the jailed Laloo Prasad Yadav and stepped up pressure for plum portfolios.

Hoping to turn Laloo’s disadvantage into their gain, seven Congress ministers — Chandra Sekhar Dubey, Vijayshankar Dubey, Shakil Ahmed, Ashoke Kumar Singh, Vishwamohan Sharma, Bina Shahi and Bagan Sumrai — left for New Delhi with resignation letters in their pockets. The last two have already faxed theirs.

In the face of this incipient threat, RJD sources admitted that more than the NDA, it was the Congress ministers who posed a greater danger to the three-week-old coalition government.

“They are difficult people to understand,” said an RJD minister. “Yesterday they came smiling to Laloo Yadav in jail. Today they went to the high command to exert pressure for portfolios.”

But Bihar Congress chief Chandan Bagchi said the ministers had gone to the high command with a copy of the chargesheet.

However, Congress sources said Chandra Sekhar Dubey went to Delhi yesterday to put pressure on Sonia Gandhi. Before leaving for Delhi, Dubey — who is the state tourism minister — said: “We are going to meet our high command and talk about portfolio distribution. If we don’t get honourable portfolios, we will leave our resignation letters with the high command.”

The Congress threat came in the wake of a renewed NDA drive to corner the RJD chief legally.

Unfazed by the special court’s granting of bail to Rabri, the NDA — which has called a statewide bandh tomorrow — decided to file a fresh petition in the Supreme Court to stop her from attending hearings in her capacity as a chief minister.

“It is not just an ethical question. The frequent visit of the head of the state to the court in her official capacity as a chargesheeted accused is violative of the oath in which she was sworn in,” said Nitish Kumar.

BJP general secretary Sarau Rai said: “If as the judge said she is under the influence of her husband, she might lie in the court as chief minister to save her accused husband.”

The NDA alleged that the chargesheet had forced a shift in the state headquarters — from the secretariat to the Beur jail, where Laloo is meeting not only bureaucrats but other heads of state like Speaker Sadanand Singh.

“We are not going to grab power in Laloo Yadav’s absence, but the party should find an alternative and save the state from humiliation,” Nitish said.

But RJD spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari dismissed demands for Rabri Devi’s resignation. “She will resign only if L.K. Advani shows the way by stepping down,” he said.    

Lucknow, April 6 
“Every dark night has a dawn,” says Shweta Ahmed wistfully, but unsure if she is entitled to one.

Shweta, hounded for three months by the police and her own family for marrying the “wrong man”, has reasons to be afraid, though she got a breather today.

Shweta was allowed to say something that neither the police nor her parents — who charged her legally-wedded husband Faizan with abducting her — wanted to hear. A shaken but cheerful Shweta told the additional chief judicial magistrate, IV, that she married Faizan of her own free will on January 4 and that the charge of abduction against him and his family was baseless. Faizan is a Muslim. Shweta comes from a well-to-do Hindu family. Faizan’s religion has not gone down well with Shweta’s family.

Shweta also said the three-month harassment by the police, still brandishing an arrest warrant for Faizan, his mother, father and brother, should stop.

There were other things to clarify. “I am not mentally unstable,” she said, teary-eyed. “And I should be allowed to live with my husband and freed from the protective custody forced on me”.

As Shweta came out from the court, a cry of relief came out from the nearly 50 well-wishers who had gathered outside. Her cramped jeep proceeded to Kanpur where Faizan and his family are still holed in, wanted by the police for “kidnapping”. A posse of armed guards would accompany her to the outskirts of Lucknow.

Legally, the decks have been cleared for Shweta and Faizan, childhood sweethearts, to live happily ever after, but Shweta, an MBA, is sceptical after her three-month nightmare during which she had to change shelter 22 times, she says. Shweta’s statement that she was an adult, that she had not been kidnapped and that there was no criminal conspiracy was not recorded by the police.

“Today I am going back to my husband,” Shweta said. “But the legal formalities have to be completed before the charges are dropped and the warrants dismissed.”

She is still unsure of that happening. On March 29 when she was supposed to give her statement before the additional chief judicial magistrate, U.C. Tripathi, he had deferred it to April 6, saying: “she does not seem to be in proper mental condition”.

However, though he sought to put her under observation at the government’s protection home for women, the move was defeated as her lawyer Vinayjit Verma passed a revision within an hour on the magistrate’s order before the district judge.

The “good district judge” as Shweta says, came to her rescue. He noted in his order: “As Shweta has not been involved in a criminal act I see no reason why she should be sent to the women’s home. Also, she seems to be in perfect mental condition. But for her own safety she may stay with Association for Advocacy of Legal Initiatives as she has requested.”

Her statement under Section 161 and 164 — deposition of the person who is alleged to be abducted — will now go to the investigating officer who will then put it in his report and forward it to the court concerned.

“She can now be with her husband,” says a relieved Verma, her lawyer. But he is taking no chances. “Though legally the hurdles have been removed, as a precautionary measure we will move another application to the investigating officer who will submit it to the additional chief judicial magistrate,” he said.    


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