Bihar leader shot dead in court
Cops in tape turnaround
Sonia set to walk mahajot tightrope
Subhas lobs gauntlet at CPM
Court stays panchayat polls in UP
Liaison panel blow to Sheila

Patna, April 19 
Blood smudged the thin dividing line between crime and politics in Bihar as a senior Samata Party leader in judicial custody was gunned down inside the district court premises in Purnea this morning.

Jailed Samata district president Madhusudhan Singh, better known as Bhuttan, was shot dead on the stairway leading out of the courtroom shortly after his case was heard around 8 am. The Samata leader’s wife, Leisi Singh, is the party MLA from Dhamdaha.

Bhuttan’s murder comes five days after Dhanbad labour leader and Marxist Coordination Committee MLA Gurudas Chatterjee was gunned down, allegedly by members of the coal mafia. The Samata district boss is the fourth senior leader to be shot dead in Bihar in the past two weeks.

Enraged Samata supporters went on the rampage soon after the early morning assassination, setting ablaze three cars, including those of the judicial magistrate and the additional district and sessions judge. The mob also set on fire a police picket and damaged the furniture inside the courtrooms.

Bihar director-general of police K.A. Jacob said Bhuttan Singh was a known history-sheeter and had links with several criminal gangs. “Old gang rivalry is suspected to be the motive for the killing,” Jacob added.

Police sources in Purnea said Bhuttan was wanted in at least 20 cases. The Samata leader was allegedly close to a gang responsible for the murder of CPM legislator from Purnea Ajit Sarkar in 1998.

The sources added that Pappu Deo, a gangster believed to have the blessings of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), may have masterminded Bhuttan’s murder. The Deo gang allegedly hatched the conspiracy to eliminate the Samata leader after Bhuttan closed ranks with jailed Independent MP Pappu Yadav.

According to Ramanand Prasad, Purnea police superintendent, Bhuttan was brought to court from jail on a motorcycle around 7.30 am. After the hearing, the Samata leader was coming down the stairs when six men waiting in a jeep sprayed bullets on him.

“Hit by at least six bullets, Bhuttan died instantly inside the court compound. One of his associates, who was also struck, was sent to hospital,” said local BJP legislator Rajkishore Kesri.

Infuriated Samata workers went on the offensive and fought pitched battles with rival gangs. The violence spread towards the local market where four persons were injured when a businessman’s bodyguard opened fire to scare away the marauding mob.

The district administration was forced to clamp ban orders to defuse the tension.

Thousands of Samata workers later gathered at the Kachari maidan and refused to part with Bhuttan’s body. Party leaders said Bhuttan had been battling the RJD goons in the city.

The latest in the series of political murders gave the NDA another stick to beat the Rabri Devi government with. “The chief minister has no control over law and order. She should immediately step down,” NDA leader Nitish Kumar said.

According to observers, the criminalisation of politics in Purnea, a primarily Bengali-dominated area, began with the killing of Sarkar, who had begun a reforms movement in the district.    

Mumbai, April 19 
After making startling disclosures to sections of the press that Indian bookies had talked to three senior home team members during the Titan Cup final against South Africa here, the Mumbai police have done a volte face, saying that “we are now looking to see if we have any tapes of conversations at all”.

They are denying possession of any tapes, claiming that in 1996, when the heat was not turned on match-fixing and betting in cricket, they could not have tapped phones because there was no official complaint “from any quarter”. This is contrary to its claims last week that “we jumped onto the case while investigating a local murder”.

According to several official sources, the Mumbai police which hold the key to the next phase of Hansiegate — the more significant one as it concerns the involvement of Indian players — is under pressure not to reveal any further information on the Mumbai tapes.

In fact, two sets of tapes and transcripts have emerged from Mumbai. The other set is the conversation taped by revenue intelligence officials between bookies and Indian players in Sharjah during a tournament in 1995. The transcripts of these tapes were handed over by department of revenue intelligence official Ramesh Ramachandran to then revenue secretary M.R. Shivaraman.

A piquant situation has arisen in the efforts to cover up these revelations. While Shivaraman has confirmed receipt of these transcripts, Ramesh Ramachandran — now posted here as Commissioner Central Excise IV — has feigned complete ignorance. “I don’t know a thing and I am in no position to say anything further.”

Deputy commissioner of police, crime, Pradip Sawant, who, in his earlier stint as ACP, crime, had cracked the direct connection between the Karachi-based Chota Shakeel gang and Indian bookies, said: “I am not aware of the existence of any tapes.”

It is surprising that investigations are being carried out by Delhi and Bangalore police teams here into several calls made by Hansie Cronje, Sanjeev Chawla and Rajesh Kalra, while the Mumbai police remain in the dark.

A probe team from the Bangalore crime branch arrived to compare the transcripts of calls made by Cronje to Chawla in London during the Bangalore Test and calls made by the South African captain from the Taj Mahal Hotel during the first Test in February.    

New Delhi, April 19 
On the eve of West Bengal Congress chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s arrival, the Congress today tried to set its house in order by finalising terms and conditions for the mahajot, including narrowing differences with the Trinamul Congress, encouraging Left rebels but maintaining distance with the BJP.

Sonia Gandhi’s tight-rope on Bengal is influenced by national-level politics. Today, she heard out Ghulam Nabi Azad, Pranab Mukherjee, Prabha Rau, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and others who — while favouring a tie-up with Mamata Banerjee — vehemently opposed the idea of having any truck with the BJP.

The leaders also worked over-time to pacify Das Munshi who is opposing seat-adjustments with the Trinamul during next month’s civic polls.

Sonia made it clear that she was keen on banding together of all anti-Left forces, but minus the BJP in the coming Assembly polls. She said she was prepared to consider any formula to end the “CPM misrule” as long as the BJP was kept out of it.

Expressing “faith” in Chowdhury, Sonia said she would first interact with the WBPCC chief to find out about the progress on the mahajot before arriving at any decision.

Azad, who was handling party affairs in Bengal before Prabha Rau took over, suggested a more cautious approach, saying the Congress must continue efforts to persuade Mamata to leave the NDA. He also stressed that the Congress must keep an eye on Left rebels like Saifuddin Chowdhury, who could cause damage to the CPM-led coalition.

The Congress, he said, should also keep tabs on parties like the Forward Bloc and the RSP which were unhappy with the CPM. “There can be a mahajot of these forces without the help of the BJP,” Azad pointed out.

Das Munshi, however, cautioned against jumping the mahajot bandwagon. Saying that he was for a grand alliance, the MP from Raigunj said the Congress must remain focused on secularism.

“We cannot be playing 184 at the national level and 193 in Bengal,” he said, referring to the Congress motion against the RSS on the Gujarat circular issue which saw the BJP beating a retreat. According to Lok Sabha rules, a motion under Rule 184 provides for voting, while Rule 193 entails only a discussion.

Das Munshi said the Congress high command should not take the BJP issue lightly in the context of former chief minister Sidharatha Shankar Ray’s theory that it was not a major force in the state. “In the eighties, there used to be 84 shakhas. Now the number has gone up to 826,” he said, emphasising that the BJP and its allied organisations were gaining ground in Bengal.    

Calcutta, April 19 
In an open challenge to the CPM leadership, transport minister Subhas Chakraborty today dared his party to expel him for praising Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee publicly at a function organised by the railways last week.

The minister’s defiance came in the wake of criticism from CPM state secretary Anil Biswas who said his party did not approve of the way Chakraborty glorified the railway minister’s contribution to West Bengal.

According to Biswas, his party’s assessment was Mamata had not done anything so far which could be lauded.

When asked about his presence at the function, Chakraborty stood his ground. “I was officially invited by the railways as the state transport minister. Mamata was there as railway minister and not as Trinamul chief,” he said, emphasising that his presence could not encourage anti-Left forces.

“I have attended such programmes and shared the dais with Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan. But no questions were asked then. Any person with a minimum sense would understand the difference between an official programme and a political one,’’ he said.

Denying that he had praised Mamata, Chakraborty said: “I have only praised her as a railway minister for increasing allotment of funds for West Bengal projects from 2.5 per cent to over 8 per cent in this year’s rail budget.”

Chakraborty pointed out that the Left Front government had been demanding early completion of these projects since the past 20 years, but in vain. “Should we not say a few good words to Mamata for doing justice to our longstanding demands?’’ he asked. “If the CPM leadership feels that I have done harm to the party then why is it not taking action against me?’’

But even as the sparks flew, chief minister Jyoti Basu — at a meeting of the CPM’s North 24-Parganas unit — denied a report which said he had rebuked the transport minister for praising Mamata.

“It’s all rubbish . What you have printed in your papers are nothing but lies,’’ Basu told reporters.

Biswas, however, played safe when contacted later. “I have no comments on Chakraborty’s statement,’’ he said.    

New Delhi, April 19 
The Supreme Court today stayed the panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh scheduled to be held by the Election Commission between April 30 and May 11.

The stay came on the last day of filing nominations to about 59,000 gram panchayats, 904 kshetra panchayats and 83 zila panchayats in the state.

A three-judge bench of Justice G.B. Patnaik, Justice Doraiswamy Raju and Justice S.N. Variava gave the stay order on a special leave petition by the UP government against a verdict of the Allahabad High Court which had quashed a state government ordinance postponing the elections to October.

The high court order came on a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging the Ordinance postponing the elections as ultra virus of the Constitution. Immediately following the high court order, the Election Commission stepped into fixing the dates for the elections to the grass root bodies.

The apex court, while issuing a stay, asked the state government to file a draft of the election schedule in court by May 11.

The state was also directed to complete the delimitation process for the panchayats by May 7.

Senior counsel Fali Nariman, appearing for the state government, contended that the complex de-limitation process going on in UP now made the state government postpone the polls and the high court, without even hearing arguments on behalf of the government, quashed the ordinance postponing the polls.

The ‘de-limitation political tussle’ in UP had started during the tenure of Mulayam Singh Yadav as chief minister. Yadav was accused of de-limiting the grass root constituencies in such a manner that his caste group dominates in majority constituencies. Mayawati, his successor, and the BJP chief ministers ordered fresh de-limitations.

Nariman contended that the delimitation process for the panchayats have not been completed and the creation of 12 new districts have resulted in further delays in the process as new delimitation exercise to demarcate panchayats in the new districts had to be undertaken.

Nariman told the court that the terms of gram and zila panchayats will end by May 11, and the term of the kshetra panchayats will end by next January.

The brief interim order directed that the “Uttar Pradesh government is directed to complete the process of delimitation by May 7 and an affidavit be placed before us with the schedule for elections to the three-tier panchayat bodies by May 11”.


New Delhi, April 19 
Sonia Gandhi today turned the heat on Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit by constituting a panel to coordinate between the party and the state government and examine all aspects of governance, including the leadership issue.

Congress MLAs gunning for Sheila termed the development as a “major victory” and predicted a change of guard. AICC general secretary in charge of Delhi Prabha Rau, too, did not rule out a change in leadership when she said that the coordination panel will look into “all aspects” on how to tone-up the functioning of the Delhi government. Besides Rau, Madhavrao Scindia, Subash Chopra, Jag Parvesh Chandra, Deep Chand Sharma and Sheila Dixit are on the panel.

Though the Congress has a solid majority — 54 out of 70 MLAs — in the Delhi Assembly, about 24 MLAs have openly revolted against Sheila. They have made it clear to Sonia that if the chief minister is not replaced, they would resign en masse. Sheila’s graph has been dipping since the seven-nil drubbing in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, when stalwarts like Manmohan Singh, R.K. Dhawan, Meira Kumar and Jagdish Tytler lost.

The conduct of party MLAs has often embarrassed the Congress on the floor of the House. It suffered a jolt when official nominees for three House committees were defeated by rebels. The chief minister’s unprecedented move to remove the deputy Speaker, belonging to the party, also boomeranged.

Sonia, too, is unhappy with Sheila’s handling of Delhi affairs. The AICC observers have admitted to Sonia that unless “some action” is taken, the situation could go out of hand. They have suggested that the chief minister be asked to change her style of functioning and become more accessible to party MLAs. The customary Congress legislature party meetings have not been summoned for many months, causing heartburn.

Rau said similar coordination panels will be set up in all Congress-ruled states. The Congress is in the government in nine states — Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Nagaland, Bihar, Maharashtra and Pondicherry — but Sonia is besieged by the perennial problem of factionalism and dissidence in almost all states. The concept of the coordination panel is aimed at checking disquiet in the party.    


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