Atal steam for Ram temple
Jadeja loses in players’ court
Statehood cry at huge Kamtapur rally
Former first ladies on house hit list
Pick ’em young to pick pockets
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Dec. 6: 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today justified the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya by describing the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid agitation as a “manifestation of nationalist feelings”. He also said the agenda of constructing the temple has remained “unfulfilled”.

“The construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was an example of the manifestation of nationalist feelings. That task is not yet over,” Vajpayee told reporters after a book-release function in Parliament.

Unexpected as it was, the statement seemed out of tune with his efforts to project himself as the BJP’s “moderate and liberal face”. It was also a suo motu response, because the queries were not on whether the temple was on the government’s scheme of things. So far, officially, both Vajpayee and the BJP have maintained that the Ram temple and other Hindutva-related issues had been put on the backburner as they were pledged to pursuing the national agenda of governance.

BJP sources said Vajpayee’s pro-temple turn was a “message” to voters in Uttar Pradesh. They said a “hard” assessment of the recent civic polls in the state had revealed that “half the traditional urban bastion had crumbled”. So “something drastic” had to be done before the Assembly polls to regain lost ground.

Quick to take the cue, BJP hardliners demanded that the Centre bring in a legislation immediately to “facilitate” the construction of the temple. “The courts and people have fulfilled their responsibility, but not Parliament. Only a law can solve this problem,” Swami Chinmayanand, MP from Jaunpur, said at a press briefing.

Chinmayanand, who made it clear that he was speaking both as a BJP MP and VHP member, asserted that only the BJP could resolve the Ayodhya issue. “When Muslims have accepted the fact that there is no mosque on the site, why should we await the court verdict?” he said.

“In any case, from time to time, the courts have indicated that there was a temple on the spot and not a mosque,” Chinmayanand said.

BJP general secretary Pyarelal Khandelwal welcomed Vajpayee’s statement as a “very good one”. At a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party, most members felt the party should take an aggressive stand to counter the Opposition’s offensive. Only party chief Bangaru Laxman seemed out of sync with the new scenario, maintaining that “the BJP is firm in its belief that this issue should be resolved by all parties accepting the apex court’s verdict”.

Vajpayee, however, said that he did not support the destruction of the mosque. “Mandir kis tarah banaya jaye yah mahatvapoorna hai. Masjid girney ko mainey samarthan nahin kiya. (What is of significance is how the temple should be constructed. I have not supported the demolition of the mosque),” he told reporters after a function in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Sources also explained his statement as a “response” to a “request” from the RSS and party hardliners. They referred to a dinner meeting between the Prime Minister and RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan — where home minister L.K. Advani and former party president Kushabhau Thakre were also present.

The sources said that it was apparently agreed that while the RSS would not make any statement to jeopardise the Kashmir ceasefire, Vajpayee would send a “strong” signal to the rank and file that despite coalition politics, his “heart was in the right place”. Sudarshan has justified the ceasefire as a “well-thought out strategy”.

Vajpayee also gave a clean chit to his chargesheeted colleagues, Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti. “The Ayodhya case is different from the other cases and the entire background of the issue will have to be gone into,” he said, terming the Opposition’s clamour for their resignation as “baseless”.

“To charge them with demolishing the structure is a travesty of the truth because they tried to tell the crowds that they had congregated there to give vent to their protests and not bring down the structure.” He dismissed comparisons with the Harin Pathak case, saying: “The Gujarat minister stepped down to establish certain propriety and norms.”


Mumbai, Dec. 6: 
Ajay Jadeja, admittedly most affected by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) action on match- fixing and/or nexus with bookies, has vowed to appeal the five- year ban.

That will be directed at the BCCI. However, should Jadeja consider appealing in a “players’ court”, he will be wasting time.

This morning, for instance, The Telegraph spoke to three India players here, when the team was in transit (en route to Jodhpur), and all welcomed the action.

This suggests they had an inkling of unethical dealings but, for whatever reason, chose not to blow the whistle. Now, of course, it’s mandatory to inform the powers-that-be of even a hint of mischief.

For understandable reasons, the players didn’t wish to be identified, but what they said is significant.

In any case, as has been pointed out in these columns, no teammate came to the defence of either Mohammed Azharuddin (banned for life) or Jadeja during and after the CBI probe.

Belatedly, the BCCI did take note and some reading between-the-lines is called for should one recall president A.C. Muthiah’s remark that the action taken “is in the best interests” of Indian cricket. Also, that the “future” of cricket in India was kept in mind.

“Frankly, even now, I was never quite comfortable playing with Jadeja... Don’t think I’m excited about possibly having to again play with him after five years,” is how one of the three current India players reacted.

The other two, too, had Jadeja (more than Azhar) in mind when they spoke. Apparently, it was taken for granted Azhar would be punished for life.

“The BCCI couldn’t have delayed any more... I agree what’s been done is in the best interests of Indian cricket,” maintained one of the other two players.

“Good decision,” is how the third player responded before himself posing a question doing the rounds elsewhere as well: “However, shouldn’t even Jadeja have got a life ban?”

Left to Ram Prasad, vice-president from South and one of three disciplinary committee members, Jadeja would have.

One understands Prasad arrived at yesterday’s committee meeting, in Chennai, armed with a note listing punishment for specific players. For Jadeja, it was a life ban.

What saved Jadeja (besides high-profile lobbying) is BCCI commissioner K. Madhavan’s report which didn’t directly comment on his role in match-fixing.

Even though Jadeja hasn’t been banned for life, a five-year sentence is as good as one as he already is only weeks away from his 30th birthday.


Cooch Behar, Dec. 6: 
Throwing caution to the wind, Kamtapur Peoples’ Party (KPP) leaders today called for a concerted movement for a separate state of Kamtapur.

Despite the administration’s best efforts to thwart what the KPP leaders had billed as their first “Mahasamabesh”, Kamtapur activists descended in thousands on the Nilmoni airport ground in Cooch Behar town.

KPP leaders complained that permission to hold the rally was granted around 9 pm last evening. The permission was sent to the rally reception committee chairman, Nubash Burman, who is lodged in Cooch Behar jail.

Burman, KPP’s central committee assistant general secretary, was one of 200 party leaders arrested in the police crackdown last month.

The meeting, scheduled for this morning, was delayed as hundreds of Kamtapur supporters streamed in from all over the six North Bengal districts of Malda, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. The rally finally began around 3 pm.

KPP chief Atul Roy, who reached around 5 pm, alleged that the police tried to delay party workers from reaching Cooch Behar by putting up checkposts at every entry point to the district.

Addressing the rally in fading light, Roy dared the CPM-led government to try and crush the democratic movement of the Kamtapuri people. “If the CPM or police try to crush our democratic and constitutional movement by state terrorism, then, we the sons of the soil of North Bengal, are prepared to give them a befitting reply,” Roy said amid thunderous applause.

“Enough is enough. We will no longer sit back and let them smash our houses, arrest our sisters and abuse our mothers. I challenge the police administration toeing the CPM line to crush our movement. The Kamtapuris have been economically, socially and politically deprived for the past 53 years since Independence by successive Congress and CPM governments in Bengal. Is it wrong, then, to raise the demand for a separate state of Kamtapur and recognition of the Kamtapuri language?” Roy thundered.

The KPP chief declared that the statehood movement was the second “fight” for independence of the Kamtapuri people. “I appeal to all able-bodied Kamtapuri young men to join this freedom struggle against the oppressive CPM rulers,” Roy added.

Leaders of the KPP and its frontal organisations — All-Kamtapur Students’ Organisation, Kamtapur Women’s Rights Forum and the Kamtapur Bhasya Sammelan — denounced the “state-sponsored terrorism” unleashed on innocent Rajbanshis of North Bengal.

Student leader Nirmal Roy said: “By arresting frontline leaders of the KPP and AKSO, the government is trying to brand the Kamtapur movement anti-national.”


New Delhi, Dec. 6: 
Faced with an acute space crunch, the Cabinet Committee on Accommodation may decide at tomorrow’s meeting to evict three former first ladies from the prime Type-VIII bungalows they have been occupying in violation of rules.

The three on the hit-list are Begum Abida Ahmed, widow of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Vimla Sharma, widow of Shankar Dayal Sharma and the widow of Giani Zail Singh.

Only former Presidents, former Prime Ministers and senior Cabinet ministers are entitled to Type-VIII bungalows.

The accommodation crisis has meant that many ministers of A.B. Vajpayee’s Cabinet are still waiting for allotment of proper bungalows.

Sources in the department of estates say that according to rules, the surviving spouse of a deceased former President is only entitled to a Type-VII accommodation.

But the former first ladies seem to be in no mood to move out of their spacious homes. Vimla Sharma has spent a fortune renovating the bungalow where she continued to stay after her husband’s death.

Sharma had initially thought of going back to his hometown, Bhopal, after retirement. But in early 1997, when his tenure was about to end, he decided to stay on in Delhi.

The committee now has to decide whether to allow the former first ladies to stay on till they are accommodated in a Type-VII bungalow or evict them forthwith.


Calcutta, Dec. 6: 
They appear innocent, they need the money and they cannot be prosecuted in a court of law. Till today, they also seemed to be the perfect foil to the perfect cop.

But somewhere along the way, a Mumbai gang training children between the ages of five and seven to steal and snatch for a commission made a vital mistake. They had not factored in other little boys of local gangs sneaking on them.

For the last two months, a gang of criminals drawn from Mumbai, Pune and Thane had been teaching little children the fine art of picking pockets, snatching bags and escaping from crowded places.

They were then let loose in and around Howrah station, parts of the Burrabazar area as well as on some local and long-distance trains, mostly in the unreserved compartments.

Then, every evening, the children would gather in batches on one of the platforms of Howrah station, hand over their loot, collect their commission and receive their assignments for the next day.

But, for a while at least, the children from slums of Barrackpore, Titagarh and Howrah, will be out of work.

While the members of the gang are still at large and details about their antecedents sketchy — save for the fact that they spoke Marathi — most of the children are now in a welfare home.

Acting on a tip-off from a rival gang, police picked up a bunch of kids from Howrah station this morning and pieced together their story of poverty and crime.

Five-year-old Geeta Sau met a strange but apparently friendly lady one afternoon six weeks ago while scrounging for food on the platform of Barrackpore station. Daughter of an alcoholic rickshaw-puller, Geeta, like her three other brothers and sisters, used to go hungry most days after her mother decided to leave them for another man last year.

“We were spending our time in misery,” Geeta said at the office of the superintendent of police, railways this afternoon. “So, when this woman told me she could offer me a better existence if I ran some errands for her, I agreed.”

Geeta, as with all other children recruited by the Maharashtra gang, was first taken to a house in Sheoraphuli where five men explained in Hindi what their “task” would be. For the next 10 days she was kept there, eating and sleeping in the house while receiving training during the day.

All the while, the woman, a Bengali who Geeta later came to know was called Mamata, kept telling them how life would change for the better. “It was a carrot-and-stick policy,” said rail police superintendent D.P. Tarenia.

“On the one hand, a very rosy picture would be painted for them about how much they would soon be making (each earned about Rs 20 a day). On the other, they were threatened with dire consequences and beaten if they failed to return with the loot every evening.”

Tarenia said one reason they chose children mostly between five and seven was that they cannot be prosecuted in a court of law. “To bring a child even before the juvenile court, the boy or girl has to be over seven years,” he said. “But one has to admit the gang members are skilled trainers.”

Phulu Sammadar, recruited by Mamata from Titagarh station, explained how they were trained. “They made us sit while they play-acted how such crimes are committed. Then they showed us how to slit open bags, quickly unzip purses and pretend to beg, then distract people and snatch their wallets and run.”

After 10 days, they were given their “roster” and put on the job from six in the morning to nine at night. “It was a tough job but at least we got food to eat and some pocket money,” Phulu said.




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