Jagir loses bail cover after murder charge
Sonia plays first fiddle in Jharkhand
Birth-eve tremors in BJP
Festive Ranchi turns fortress
Pathak papers with President
Opec lengthens Mamata wait
Ananth trapped in ‘monumental’ tug-of-war
Basu focus on third front
Training camp exists: Buddha
Cross-border search for ill-fated chopper

Chandigarh, Nov. 13: 
The decks were cleared today for the arrest of SGPC chief Jagir Kaur after she was charged with murdering her daughter.

The Patiala sessions judge rejected Kaur’s bail plea when the CBI said it had charged Kaur under Section 302 (murder). Police and SGPC sources said Kaur was neither in the city nor in her native village Begowal nor in the SGPC office in Amritsar.

Kaur was earlier charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304.

Along with six others, Kaur had been accused of criminal conspiracy to detain daughter Harpreet illegally and cause her miscarriage with the knowledge that it could lead to death. The court had granted the SGPC chief bail till today.

Harpreet died under mysterious circumstances on April 20 night while being taken from Phagwara, where she was staying with a family friend, to a hospital in Ludhiana. No post-mortem was conducted but Kaur claimed that Harpreet’s death was due to fever and dehydration. The police had corroborated her account.

Harpreet was being treated for fever, according to Kaur, her brother Nirmal Singh and SGPC secretary Gurbachan Singh Bachan. But they could not name the hospital to which she was admitted or the doctor treating her.

Harpreet’s death would have gone down as “natural”, had not Kamaljit Singh, a man who claimed to be her husband, alleged that Harpreet was tortured so that she stayed away from him.

He claimed that Harpreet had been forced to undergo an abortion at Kaur’s behest. He said his “wife” would also be beaten up by Nishan Singh, personal security officer of the SGPC chief, who surrendered to the CBI earlier this month.

Apart from Nishan Singh and Kaur, the CBI has arrested the remaining five persons charged in the death. The arrested have been identified as Dalvinder Kaur, a British national, Harminder Kumar, Satya Kumari, Paramjit Singh and Sanjeev Kumar.

Harpreet’s cremation took place at her village Begowal in Kapurthala hours after she died. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, acting Akal Takht Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti, Golden Temple head priest Giani Mohan Singh, Akal Takht head granthi Giani Bhagwan Singh and a number of Punjab ministers attended the cremation.

A close aide revealed that the CBI decision to charge Kaur with the murder of her daughter had “shocked” her and she was likely to appeal the decision. The decision of sessions judge S.N. Agarwal to reject Kaur’s bail petition is being seen as a major setback for the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal.

Some feel Badal should have removed her as SGPC president immediately after the CBI had charged her with being involved in her daughter’s case.    

New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
A day after the party polls, Sonia Gandhi took a step towards implementing the Panchmarhi declaration by refusing to play second fiddle to the “unpredictable” Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM).

The Congress Working Committee’s (CWC) stand has cleared the decks for a BJP-led government in the state that will come into being at midnight tomorrow.

The CWC settled for a “hands off” policy after two hours of deliberation. Speakers were unanimous that a “Nitish-type experiment” will be futile and counter-productive. CWC members felt that the party will be better off as the Opposition instead of being part of a shaky coalition. Some CWC members said the Congress should be careful in aligning with parties led by “tainted” leaders.

The meeting was held at the party chief’s 10 Janpath residence where AICC general secretary Mohsina Kidwai submitted a report on Jharkhand. Based on the feedback from 11 Congress MLAs and party leaders, Kidwai’s report said most leaders were against joining hands with the JMM. Many state leaders were bitter about the way the JMM had treated them in the past.

However, a section of party MLAs was keen to take a shot at government formation. The Congress legislative party will meet in Ranchi tomorrow morning to endorse the CWC directive.

“In view of the fact that no stable government can be constituted in the state with the number of MLAs equally divided, the CWC is of the opinion that we should not support any group to form the government in Jharkhand,” the CWC said in a statement. The Congress has 11 members in a House of 81 where the BJP is the largest single party with 32 members.

Fifteen CWC members were present in the meeting that was convened at short notice. But Sonia’s challenger Jitendra Prasada, A.K. Antony, Ahmad Patel, Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, K. Karunakaran, Motamma, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury were not present.

Sources close to Sonia said today’s stand should be seen in the context of the Panchmarhi declaration adopted two years ago that debarred the party from sharing power with smaller groups without ideological compatibility.

Asked why the party made an exception in the case of the Rabri Devi regime in Bihar, a CWC member said: “Don’t forget that the Congress extended support to Laloo’s RJD after thrashing out a common minimum programme. We got RJD’s commitment for land reforms, drive against corruption and setting up of three commissions to kick off reforms.” He, however, conceded that experience with the RJD was not “entirely up to satisfaction”.    

Ranchi, Nov. 13: 
Alarm bells started ringing in the BJP on the eve of Jharkhand’s birth with supporters of party vice-president Karia Munda, who was denied the chief minister’s post, threatening to rock Babulal Marandi’s boat on the floor of the House.

Ritlal Verma, one of Munda’s closest associates, today shared a platform with Shibu Soren and alleged that a “contractor-mafia nexus having links with BJP leaders” was out to grab power in the new state.

Verma, a six-time former MP, appeared to have taken Soren’s side following the JMM leader’s claim yesterday that he would forgo the chief minister’s chair to Munda if the latter quit the BJP.

Munda, who is in Delhi, said he was “amused” by Soren’s offer, but the JMM leader should have raised the issue earlier. The senior BJP leader is still sulking at being passed over for the top job which is set to go to Marandi.

At a news conference today, Verma said he was fighting Munda’s cause in the BJP and the party’s MLAs are in touch with him. “There are many in the BJP who feel slighted at Munda’s marginalisation in the party,” he said.

Although the BJP top brass in Ranchi dismissed Verma’s outburst as the “unfounded reaction from a spent force”, the JMM-RJD combine termed it the beginning of a “recoil in the BJP which will ultimately help in overthrowing a government installed by vested interests”. JMM sources said Verma could help wean away BJP legislators during the vote of confidence. “We are looking beyond oath-taking,” Soren said.

Soren, who received a jolt after the Congress said it was ready to sit in the Opposition, still maintains that state party leaders have assured him of “outside support” in case he gets the numbers that would bring him close to a majority.    

Ranchi, Nov. 13: 
The festive mood has turned into fear with Jharkhand’s would-be capital turning into a “high-risk” zone. Ranchi is overrun with security forces to ensure that the new state’s first chief minister is sworn in safely tomorrow.

The atmosphere is tense. All vehicles on the arterial roads leading to Ranchi are being checked thoroughly for the last two days. Raids have been conducted to flush out antisocials.

The latest Naxalite killing has added to the fear. The MCC had struck again two days ago, gunning down the wife of the Hazaribagh district magistrate in Gaya district.

“We have been watching the police callousness and the MCC’s ability to even raid the urban areas. What could we feel except trepidation about the big event tomorrow? It will be a swearing in under the shadow of guns,” said Ratan Lal Mishra who teaches at Ranchi University.

The fact that at least 12 Union ministers, including home minister L.K. Advani and George Fernandes, will be present during the swearing-in, is also causing anticipation. A total of 47 paramilitary units will be deployed for the safety of the VIPs.

“The interim administration is fully prepared for any eventuality. We are not leaving anything to chance,” said Rameswar Oraon, Bihar additional director-general of police. Policemen are checking the nooks and corners to ensure complete safety.    

New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has forwarded the resignation of the minister of state for defence Harin Pathak to President K.R. Narayanan.

The President today returned from Singapore. Pathak put in his papers last Saturday after he was chargesheeted for inciting a mob responsible for the killing of a constable in the 1985 anti-reservation agitation in Gujarat.

Although the BJP felt Pathak should not relent because the charge against him was a “political” one and did not involve corruption and immorality, Vajpayee and some NDA constituents were in favour of his stepping down. Some of Vajpayee’s confidants changed their minds once the BJP threw its weight behind Pathak.

They went along with the argument that Pathak had actually taken up cudgels on behalf of the victims of police atrocities as a municipal councillor and therefore, his political career should not be jeopardised.

But BJP sources said the Prime Minister was firm that it was “untenable” for the chargesheeted minister to continue in his Cabinet.    

New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
Mamata Banerjee’s wait for an oil price rollback is likely to be prolonged further with petroleum minister Ram Naik saying he will explain to the Prime Minister why a cut is not feasible now.

The minister’s assertion coincided with the 11-member Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec)’s decision against a price-easing increase in oil production. Naik, who said he would brief Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee soon on why a rollback should not be announced, argued that international prices were far from satisfactory and he feared another incre-ase.

Mamata has been awaiting an announcement of a rollback for the past one-and-a-half months. On October 6, before leaving for Mumbai for his knee surgery, Vajpayee had assured her that he would take a relook at the price increase once he recovers.

But no decision was taken though three Cabinet meetings were held since his recovery. Mamata even reminded Vajpayee in writing about his promise, but in vain. She left for Calcutta last week without attending the meeting.

With Opec hardening its stand, a reduction in prices is unlikely. The exporters, who met in Vienna yesterday, rejected calls from consumer nations for extra crude supplies to ease the steep oil prices. Opec ministers argued that production quotas had already been raised four times this year without any effect. A review is possible in January when the ministers are slated to meet again.

Saudi Arabia’s oil minister Ali Naimi, a lone dissenter, however, said he did not rule out an increase in oil production by Opec.

Cabinet shuffle planned

Prime Minister A.B.Vajpayee is likely to effect another minor Cabinet expansion by the weekend to fill up the vacancy caused by resignations of environment and forests minister Babu Lal Marandi and minister of state for defence Harin Pathak, reports our special correspondent.    

New Delhi, Nov. 13: 
It’s been said before but this is probably as stark as it can get: The government’s left hand doesn’t know what its right is doing.

The Centre’s tourism and culture ministries are at loggerheads over the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) massive hike in prices of tickets for entry to national monuments. The funny thing is both the tourism and culture portfolios are held by Ananth Kumar.

The secretary, tourism, M.P. Bezbaruah, and the director-general, tourism, Atul Sinha, have written to their counterparts in the culture department. They are yet to receive replies.

The Indian Association of Tour Operators had sought a court directive to the government to reverse its decision. But the Delhi court did not accept its case and ruled that this was a decision for the government to take. The association has now decided to go to court again — this time in Calcutta — seeking its intervention. The case is likely to be heard next week.

The hike is not only applicable to foreign tourists (who have to pay in dollars) but also to Indians. This has complicated matters so much in Agra — where local people also offer prayers at a mosque that is within the precincts of a national monument — that it threatens to snowball into a political issue.

Since the ASI hiked the rates — by a whopping 427 per cent in the case of the golden triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) — Indian tour operators overseas, particularly in Europe and the US, have practically stopped accepting bookings.

In most countries from where tourists book their trips to India, strong consumer protection laws do not allow the operators to effect an increase in the cost of tour packages once bookings have been accepted. The upshot is that most major tour operators are set to lose heavily just as the tourist season begins to peak.

Travel and tour industry leaders have been pleading with tourism and culture ministry officers to rollback the hike, but to little effect.

“One tour operator who brings tourists from Italy to Agra complained to me that his charges have gone up by as much as $ 70. He cannot pass it on to the consumers. We are surprised that the culture department did not consult us before taking the decision,” Bezbaruah told The Telegraph.

The ASI announced the decision to hike the rates through an official notification in the Government of India gazette on October 18. The hikes were effected from October 28. Foreign visitors to the Taj Mahal, for instance, now have to fork out $21 instead of the Rs 500 they were paying earlier. The hikes have also been effected for the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and all category A national monuments across the country.

Kapil Batra, who runs Interglobe, a foreign airlines service company, says tourist arrivals have begun to dwindle.

The president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, Subhash Goyal, who was leaving today for the World Travel Mart in London, said the Indian contingent at the international show was an embarrassed lot because it did not know how to make an effective pitch when the Indian government was talking at cross purposes.

Goyal said that already about 20 per cent of the bookings have been cancelled and this is only the beginning of the season.

He said that soon after the decision to hike entry prices, a delegation of travel industry leaders tried meeting Ananth Kumar. “We did manage to meet him once and he said he will do something about it. When nothing happened, we almost sat on a dharna at his residence. But he is hardly here. Maybe Veerappan in Bangalore is more demanding of his time.”    

Calcutta, Nov. 13: 
Jyoti Basu today said he would take the initiative, if required, to organise a conclave of political parties to explore possibilities of reorganising the third front.

The CPM politburo member told newspersons at the party headquarters on Alimuddin Street that the formation of the front had become imperative as the BJP-led government at the Centre was trying to “divide the nation” on the basis of religion.

“Leaders of the United Front like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad Yadav are coming to Calcutta soon. We will discuss the issue with them and might call a conclave if necessary,” Basu said.

The two leaders are expected in Calcutta either on November 29 or 30 when the Left Front will again felicitate Basu at the Salt Lake stadium. Preliminary discussions on reorganising the third front are likely during the Yadavs’ visit.

Asked if he had held any discussion with Mulayam regarding the front, Basu said: “No, Surjeet had a discussion with him. But he is not in India. I will talk to Surjeet after he returns.”

However, Basu is not keen to talk with Chandrababu Naidu on the third front. Asked whether he spoke to Naidu, Basu said: “No, he is busy meeting World Bank executives.”

Basu added that he held discussions with Laloo and Asom Gana Parishad leaders in Kerala during the CPM plenum last month. Basu said the Leftists in the country were still strong, but other partners of the United Front had become weak and isolated. “We have to take the leaders in reorganising the third front,” he said.

Apart from initiating the move to resurrect the third front, Basu will also supervise rehabilitation work being carried out by the state government in the flood-hit districts. He will go to Murshidabad on November 26 and stay on the next day. He will then go to North Bengal in the middle of December to “assess the political situation” there.

“Anil (Biswas) is going to North Bengal tomorrow. I will also visit the region and my programme will be fixed after he returns,” Basu said. Party secretary Anil Biswas will return to Calcutta on Saturday.

Basu met newspersons for the first time today after he was allotted a separate chamber at the party headquarters. Taking Biswas by his side, Basu said: “Anil asked me to say hello to you. I have come to meet you for that.”

Referring to his retirement, Basu said a chief minister’s job was a gigantic one and it had been becoming difficult for him to carry on due to his indisposition.

Basu said he was now watching news on television and reading detective novels and prize-winning writings.

The former chief minister also lashed out at the Trinamul Congress and the BJP who were disturbing law and order in the name of organising protests against the bus fare hike.

“It is their government who have increased the price of petroleum products and we are forced to revise the bus fares. I think the Trinamul Congress should protest against the BJP’s decision of increasing the price of petroleum products,” he added.    

Calcutta, Nov. 13: 
The state government urged the Centre today to intensify vigil along the Bhutan and Nepal borders in the wake of a spurt in extremist activities in north Bengal.

The appeal came after a group of suspected Naga insurgents crossed over to north Bengal for the first time and fought with police in the Jaldhaka jungles. One policeman and two extremists were killed in the encounter.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee held a meeting with chief secretary Manish Gupta and director general of police Dipak Sanyal to take stock of the situation.

He also sought a report from north Bengal inspector general of police N.R. Das about the incident.

Urban development minister Ashok Bhattacharya, who is in charge of north Bengal affairs, also held a meeting with home secretary Sourin Roy to chalk out a strategy to tackle the extremists sneaking into the state.

Later in the evening, the chief minister admitted there were confirmed reports of extremists being trained in the area.

“There were about 15 to 20 people there. I am not going to reveal who was training whom right now,” Bhattacharjee said.

Bhattacharjee said the four-hour shoot-out was not a “stray incident”. “We have had intelligence reports that north-eastern rebels were training extremist outfits in north Bengal. This is the first time that the training camp was being held,” the chief minister said. “We are unable to track down the extremists as they flee either to Bhutan or Nepal after committing crimes in our land. We are helpless because our officials cannot cross the border,” he said.

The urban development minister urged the Centre to immediately deploy Border Security Force (BSF) personnel or the army along the borders to prevent the extremists from crossing over. He said the chief minister has already taken up the matter with the Central government.    

New Delhi & Calcutta, Nov. 13: 
The wreckage of an Indian Air Force helicopter with five bodies and as many survivors was found today, ending a tense search by choppers, soldiers on camels and the Pakistan army near the inflammable western border.

The Russian-made MI8 helicopter carrying 12 people, including a DIG and an intelligence officer of the Border Security Force, had crashed near the international border in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat.

No information was available on the unaccounted two. A Reuters report said another person has survived.

Eight BSF personnel and a four-member air force crew were on board the helicopter, which crashed within Indian territory. The survivors have been brought to a military hospital in Bhuj.

Rescue helicopters could not land on the marshy terrain and the bodies would have to be winched up, an air force spokesman said. “At the moment, there is no evidence to suspect anything,” defence minister George Fernandes said in Delhi, asked whether the possibility of a cross-border strike was being probed. Investigations are on to ascertain the cause of the crash. The chopper went missing yesterday while returning from Koteshwar, near the border, to the Naliya base after a recce mission in the Khori creek.

The news sent the air force into a tizzy since it is easy for patrol craft to stray across the border and the security installations on both sides are known for hair-trigger reaction.

In August last year, a Pakistani naval reconnaissance plane was shot down by India in the area, killing all 16 service men on board. India had charged the flight with violating air space. The Rann of Kutch region was also the scene of fierce fighting during the 1965 war. As Indian helicopters searched through the night for the missing helicopter and troops on camels scoured the marshland, India alerted Pakistan.

The Pakistani army said it, too, had joined the search after the request from India. “They (India) have asked the Pakistan armed forces to look for the helicopter,” an army spokesman in Islamabad told Reuters.

Major General Rashid Qureshi said Pakistan only knew about the helicopter when India informed it of its disappearance.

An officer in Karachi said the military had received an Indian request at the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi.    


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