Thackeray goes to court to win freedom
Red-faced Cong looks for Mumbai villain
Oval clash over rice
Calcutta weather

Mumbai, July 25 
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray today surrendered before the police and drove over to a city court, but walked out a free man after the magistrate threw out the Maharashtra government case because it was too old to try.

Wishing to end the “agonising drama and the fear among the people”, Thackeray went over to to the metropolitan magistrate’s court in Bhoiwada around 11 am. On the way, he stopped at the Mayor’s residence, where the police made a token arrest.

The euphoria of the Congress-led state government was, however, shortlived as additional chief metropolitan magistrate B.P. Kamble cleared the Sena chief of the charge of inciting riots in 1993. The magistrate said he could not take cognizance of the case because it was too old and, therefore, “barred by time” under law.

“I am closing the case,” Kamble said, dismissing the state’s charge that Thackeray had ignited violence through inflamatory editorials in Saamna, the party’s mouthpiece, in 1992-93.

Chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh okayed Thackeray’s arrest early this morning after a night-long meeting with his deputy Chhagan Bhujbal and top officials.

Though reluctant intially to order the arrest for fear of violence and a court censure, sources said Deshmukh’s hand was virtually forced by Bhujbal who was waging a virtually lone battle against his one-time mentor.

Government counsel P.R. Vakil argued that the three-year time limit to file a chargesheet in a criminal case should be waived as the government had ordered Thackeray’s prosecution. He said the police had completed its investigation and would soon file a chargesheet. The court rejected the argument.

Thackeray’s lawyers countered that the police had failed to make out a case against their client and pointed out that Thackery himself had turned himself over to the police at the Mayor’s residence. The court also cleared Union minister Suresh Prabhu and Saamna’s executive editor Subhash Desai, against whom similar charges had been levelled.

The government said it would appeal against the verdict.

After a week’s uncertainty, the country’s financial capital finally heaved a sigh of relief, but not Thackeray had issued another veiled warning before leaving home for court. “I am ready to face the law. It’s good if I get bail, but if it is going to be a jail yatra, it will be difficult,” he told reporters at his Bandra residence.

Dressed in a starched white kurta and smoking his trademark cigar, the 74-year-old cartoonist-turned-politician, appeared unflappable as he reached the courthouse, flanked by son Uddhav and nephew Raj Thackery.

As his words spread, the city shut down in panic. Shops and markets downed shutters and vehicles disappeared from the usually bustling streets. Several schools called up parents, asking them to take their children home.

Curiously, phones — both MTNL and mobile services — went dead in many business districts, including Nariman Point, around the same time. The Sena and BJP accused the government of jamming the lines to prevent the spread of the news of Thackeray’s arrest. The authorities blamed the disruption on a technical snag.    

New Delhi, July 25 
“We wanted to tame an aging tiger. Instead, we goofed up and gave him a fresh lease of life,” said a Congress MP minutes after news arrived here that Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray had escaped the Congress-NCP trap unscathed.

Embarrassed and at a loss for words, AICC spokesman Ajit Jogi avoided the media altogether. Margaret Alva and Prithviraj Chavan put on a brave face, pointing out that the state government would take the matter to “higher courts”.

However, they were unable to explain why the Maharashtra government had raised the issue of Thackeray’s arrest to such a pitch when it was not even sure it had a water-tight case against the Sena boss.

The immediate fallout of the Thackeray episode would be further strain between the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. On the other hand, relations between the BJP and the Sena may get a boost.

The setback comes barely 24 hours after 14 NCP legislators defied the party whip and cross-voted in council polls.

Congress leaders said the “needle of suspicion” pointing at Pawar’s role in striking a deal to bail out Thackeray has put a question mark on NCP-Congress ties.

Inside Parliament, Congress members walked around with long faces, admitting the party had bungled badly and that the Thackeray issue had “boomeranged”.

Party chief Sonia Gandhi’s loyalists sought to deflect attention from the failure, claiming that there was a deal between the Centre and “others” to bail out Thackeray.

But few bought this argument. Even Congress MPs wanted to know how things could go so wrong. And if, indeed, the Centre managed the show behind the scenes, was Congress chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh also a party to it, some asked.

The MPs now expect Sonia to “fix responsibility” for the Maharashtra debacle. “After all, it is our party’s government. Someone has to be accountable for the goof-up,” a member said. If this anger gains momentum, both Deshmukh and his deputy Chhagan Bhujbal could be at the receiving end.

To the main Opposition party at the Centre, the Thackeray episode is a double blow. Besides strengthening the position of the BJP and Shiv Sena, the failure to prosecute Thackeray is a wrong signal to the minorities.

Coming on the second day of Parliament’s monsoon session, this has had a crippling effect on the party’s morale in the Lok Sabha. The gloom in the Congress camp is in sharp contrast to the upbeat mood two days ago, when the party was raring to take on the Vajpayee regime.

A senior party leader said the matter was discussed in the Congress Working Committee in the presence of Sonia.

“Nobody talked about the possibility of the Congress being led up the garden path. There was no free and frank discussion. Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasada advocated strong action,” a CWC member said, wondering why Sonia and the committee were not briefed about the political fallout if the Thackeray offensive failed.

The Sonia camp said there was little room for manoeuvre after Bhujbal went public to announce Thackeray’s prosecution. “There was no option but to back him. But all along, we remained guarded and no one from the Congress demanded Thackeray’s arrest,” said an AICC leader.

From the beginning, he added, it was clear that the whole case hinged on the court’s order to condone “time-barred FIR”.

The AICC member said the Congress could not act against Thackeray in 1994 because of Assembly polls. “We lost state elections and now reopened the case,” he said.


London, July 25 
When Sachin Tendulkar and Alec Stewart, rival captains in a fund-raising cricket match between Asia and the Rest of the World, lead their teams out at the Oval this Saturday, the players will be wearing the logo of Tilda Rice, Britain’s biggest Basmati company.

That Tilda has managed to secure the team sponsorship for the high-profile match by paying nearly £100,000 has deeply upset Moni Varma, chairman of the rival Veetee Rice.

Varma feels betrayed because he was the one who conceived the idea of holding a joint India-Pakistan versus the Rest of the World match and used his contacts and personal funds to help organise the event.

Part of Tilda’s deal with Mark McCormack’s International Management Group (IMG), which is handling the match’s TV rights on behalf of Surrey County Cricket Club, is that no other rice company should be allowed to advertise its products.

Although negotiations to hold the match were on for over a year, Varma says he did not know that the team sponsorship had been awarded by IMG to Tilda Rice “until four or five days ago”.

He discovered that his main rival in the bitter Basmati war in Britain had stolen a march on him when “my staff told me that Tilda were inviting people to their corporate hospitality boxes”.

Varma feels pained that an early request from him for the team sponsorship was ignored and that IMG, with the knowledge of Surrey, awarded the contract to Tilda behind his back.

Paul Sheldon, Surrey chief executive, acknowledged that Varma was the “instigator” of the match. “I can see the irony,” he said.

He said IMG was given the task of raising the maximum amount of money on behalf of Surrey. He had assumed that Varma had offered his good offices in an individual capacity rather than as a representative of Veetee Rice.    

Temperature: Maximum: 29.9°C (-2) Minimum: 25.4°C (-1) RAINFALL: 12.4 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 97%, Minimum: 76% Today: One or two spells of light rain. Sunset: 6.19 pm Sunrise: 5.07 am    

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