Allies’ voice for Mamata chorus
On-phone farmer fight
3 killed in Valley blasts
Joshi spares parents rod in education Bill
Minstrel couple sings for harmony
RSP leaders hacked to death
Police track Kamtapur link with Ulfa
Exiles get safety pledge
Govt locks up gas-leak plant
Lambs star in Trinamul protest

From Kay Benedict 
New Delhi, Dec. 7: After lying low for two days in the wake of her attempted resignation, Mamata Banerjee sprang back today beating her favourite drum: action against the Left Front government in Bengal, where Assembly elections are due in a few months.

While her pet target Jyoti Basu staged a sit-in at Vithalbhai Patel house here demanding funds for the flood-hit state, the Trinamul Congress chief led the counter dharna near the Gandhi statue in the Parliament compound to protest against the Marxists’ “misrule” in Bengal.

The railway minister’s sit-in, though aimed at blunting the Basu dharna, also brought back focus on the political violence and corruption in West Bengal.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, who visited the agitating MPs with NDA convenor George Fernandes, assured Mamata that the Centre is concerned at the killings.

Mahajan said that though various states witnessed caste and communal violence, political violence was something only Marxist-ruled states like Bengal and Kerala experienced. “It means the Marxists did not believe in democracy. We will take up the matter with the Prime Minister,” he added.

Fernandes focused on the “diversion” of funds meant for central schemes, citing a CAG report released in March 1999.

Barring Krishna Bose, all other MPs waved placards screaming anti-Left messages in Bengali and English: “Man-made flood caused tremendous damages to lives and property in West Bengal”; “We demand imposition of Article 356”.

As a battery of videocameras arrived to shoot, the MPs broke into slogans: “Prime Minister intervene, intervene, intervene, SC/ST, minorities killed, Prime Minister intervene, intervene.”

Though ministers Mamata and Ajit Panja did not join the sit-in, the Trinamul chief egged the MPs on. She urged Fernandes and Mahajan to address the Trinamul members.

Telugu Desam parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu and BJP spokesperson V. K. Malhotra also arrived to express solidarity.

As soon as Fernandes and Mahajan arrived, Trinamul chief whip Sudip Bandyopadhyay handed them a memorandum addressed to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to Fernandes for submission.

The memorandum demanded maximum Central assistance to flood victims and steps to stop political violence. It also focused on how the flood was “man-made” as the state government “released unlimited water from different dams and barrages without giving any prior intimation”.

George slur

Assuring he would take up the demands with Vajpayee, Fernandes said according to the CAG report of March 1999, the state diverted about Rs 1,000 crore meant for various central programmes such as the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana to other purposes. He accused the Bengal government of not furnishing utilisation certificates pertaining to various projects.

West Bengal finance minister Asim Dasgupta said that the Centre has got its facts wrong.


New Delhi, Dec. 7: 
Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu today remote-controlled an orchestrated Desam agitation against the Centre for its indifference towards the plight of Andhra Pradesh farmers.

Desam MPs stalled Lok Sabha proceedings today on the farmers’ issue and later staged a sit-in near the Gandhi statue in the Parliament compound demanding an end to farmers’ problems.

With a spate of suicides by farmers and the panchayat elections scheduled for March, thanks to a Supreme Court directive, Naidu has again taken a hard stand vis-a-vis the Centre, though he issued a cautious statement on the temple issue in Delhi.

Naidu held a teleconference with his MPs in Delhi and his ministers in Hyderabad on the problems of farmers due to the glut of paddy in godowns and the unwillingness of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to procure surplus foodgrain. The Desam chief is miffed with the Centre for being callous to the state while going out of its way to help Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh farmers.

As soon as the Lok Sabha met, the Desam MPs raced with the Opposition members to the Well of the House, creating chaos.

While the Opposition raised Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s controversial statement on the Ram temple, the Desam members were trying to raise the farmers’ issue.

As the Desam members, including film star and Rajya Sabha MP Jayaprada, sat near the Gandhi statue shouting slogans “bachao Andhra kisan ko”, rural development minister Venkaiah Naidu and food minister Shanta Kumar arrived to pacify them.

Kumar assured that he would do whatever possible to help the farmers. He asked the MPs to meet him in his office to sort out the matter. Rajya Sabha MP C. Ramachandraiah shouted at the Union minister: “You are callous. Our chief minister took up the issue with you, but nothing was done. You have compelled us to resort to extreme methods.”

Later, Kumar lashed out at the state governments for pressuring the Centre to procure foodgrain at high rates. “The state governments should be held responsible for distress sale by farmers. It is their duty to stop distress sale,” Kumar said.

The state governments had the legal power to prevent distress sale, he said, adding mill owners were forcing distress sale by buying foodgrain at lower prices. “Mill owners are indulging in it as they are allowed to do so by the state governments. They have the power to cancel the licences of mill owners but they rarely exercise it,” he said. State governments often put pressure on the Centre to fix high procurement rates by the FCI, he said.


Srinagar, Dec. 7: 
On the tenth day of the unilateral ceasefire announced by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, three police personnel were killed and 44 wounded in two hand-grenade explosions in the Valley.

Late this afternoon, unidentified militants hurled a hand-grenade at the main bus stand in Kupwara injuring 26 civilians and eight police personnel.

The injured were rushed to hospital where three special police personnel succumbed to injuries. Five of the injured were stated to be critical.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blast. The police and security forces have rushed to the spot.

A hand-grenade was also lobbed at the Central Reserve Police Force picket in the main bus stand at Kishtawar, this afternoon. Three CRPF jawans and seven civilians were injured in the explosion. The police and local residents rushed them to the local hospital.

Incidents of militant violence were reported from the Valley yesterday as well.

In a fierce encounter at Dalwar village two foreign militants were killed. The police said a team had gone to the village to investigate a murder. Militants attacked the police, who were forced to retaliate.

In the gun battle, a police spokesman said, two militants, Abu Abdullah and Abu Samnani, of the Lashkar-e-Toiba were killed. Two AK-47 rifles and ammunition were recovered.

Late yesterday, militants abducted Mohammad Ayub, a released Hizb ul Mujahideen militant, from his house at Ashmuji in Anantnag.

A grenade exploded at Muslim Peer in Sopore in Baramullah district yesterday. Eight civilians were injured in the blast. One of them died in hospital.


New Delhi, Dec. 7: 
The Centre has no intention of penalising defaulting parents, who, due to circumstantial compulsions, are not able to send their children to school.

“The idea of free and compulsory education is not to use the stick against parents,” said human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi.

There has been widespread apprehension that the 83rd Constitution Amendment Bill, to make education a fundamental right, has a clause that threatens to penalise parents for not sending their children to school.

In his informal interaction with the media today, Joshi informed the Bill will not be tabled in the current Parliament session.

“There is another meeting of a group of ministers for finalising the Bill. We hope to place it in the Budget session of Parliament,” he said.

Joshi said there was no need for the Bill to contain a clause to penalise parents because as many as 14 states are armed with a law to ensure that all children go to school. States like Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan have slapped fines on parents of out-of-school child labourers.

“But our aim is to bring all sections into the educational stream to trigger a thirst for education,” explained Joshi.

He was, however, unsure about who should be held responsible for ensuring that all children in the age group of 6-14 go to school. “It can be the community, the state, the parents,” said the minister.

He indicated that there should be a collective effort from the government, the community and the schools.

Joshi was flooded with letters from many parties urging the Centre not to punish the parents.

Recently, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had written to the Centre on the issue.

Trinamul Congress leader and Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee had said she would protest against any clause in the Bill that seeks to hold parents guilty.

The National Alliance for Fundamental Right to Education, which has been critical of some aspects of the Bill, has been lobbying with Opposition parties and some National Democratic Alliance partners for a rethink on thrusting the responsibility of schooling children on par- ents.

Joshi said the Centre’s first priority is to create an environment where the demand for education will force the government’s and the community’s hand.

“It is true that parents are now keen to send their children to school,” stressed Joshi — a point that has been highlighted by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

The Centre is planning to back the Constitution Amendment Bill with its Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan, a programme, high on the priority for achieving universal elementary education.

The programme, being cleared by the Cabinet, is expected to come into effect next month.


Ahmedabad, Dec. 7: 
He’s an IIM graduate. She’s an architect. They offer professional advice to make a living and sing to live.

When Vinay Mahajan and his wife Charul Bharwada are not in the field studying problems, the roving minstrels can be spotted in some small town, singing their hearts out. Their songs are about contemporary social problems — violence and communal tension “that stir people’s collective conscience”.

For some they are harbingers of a new dawn when there will be peace and people will not be known only by their religion.

For Vinay and Charul, neither of whom are formally trained in music, singing is not just a medium of communication. It is also an effective tool to “take the findings of our studies, field experiences and our social realities to people”.

In 1985, Vinay landed in riot-hit Ahmedabad from Punjab to join the IIM. The scenes of horror he witnessed then inspired him to write Mandir-Masjid which soon became India’s secular anthem.

In 1991, the couple formed a people’s expression forum, Loknaad, to provide a platform for people to express their agony and strength, a forum to become sensitive to the realities. “It is an effort towards collective reflection, an appeal to reflect on what is happening around us,” said Charul.

After working for a corporate firm for three years, Vinay quit the job and decided to tread a different path. “The job was hampering our cultural activities which we wanted to continue. So I had to make a choice. Instead of selling soaps for some multinational company, I decided to devote my time to carry out independent research and cultural activities,” said Vinay, who feels that it is his professional responsibility to go to people to study their problems.

Vinay and Charul studied socially relevant issues like water scarcity in Kutch, problems of shepherds of Gujarat and that of fisherfolk whom, they feel, Gujarat seems to have disowned.

“We only know about the much-talked about entrepreneurial skills of Gujaratis, but many of us do not know that there are about 40 lakh fisherfolk and about the same number of pastoralists who have to take their cattle to Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and West Bengal for grazing,” Charul said.

Vinay and Charul have also formed Abhigam, an organisation that offers academic advice on social issues. They have come out with a music album, Insaan Hain Hum, to promote social harmony and peace.

The songs, written and composed by Vinay, are based on incidents of violence in Gujarat and elsewhere in the country. Other themes are the Kandla cyclone tragedy, demolition of the Babri Masjid, the murder of Graham Staines and his children in Orissa and religious fundamentalism.

Songs that question whether we can dream of better days at all.


Calcutta, Dec. 7: 
Two RSP youth leaders were hacked to death, allegedly by BJP supporters, last night at Chhotomollakhali in Gosaba, South 24-Parganas.

Police sources said the killings could be the fallout of the political shakeup in the area. The RSP secured majority in the panchayat after a BJP-supported Independent switched sides a few days ago.

Subdivisional police officer Dilip Adak said the duo — Kamal Naskar and Tarun Mondal — was returning home from a meeting around 10 pm when they were confronted by a group of BJP supporters.

“They were mercilessly beaten up and then hacked to death with choppers and bhojalis. The assailants fled under the cover of darkness,” Adak said, adding that raids were on to trace the culprits.

Gunasindhu Mondal, assistant secretary of the state RSP’s youth wing and a local resident, said the two leaders were killed in front of local BJP leader Parul Baidya’s house. “She did not try to stop the killers and stayed behind closed doors,” Mondal alleged.

RSP sources said that the members of the BJP-dominated board were on the lookout for an opportunity to strike back ever since the Left party got a majority in the Chhotomollakhali panchayat.

BJP leaders denied the allegation and, instead, charged the slain duo with trying to abduct the sister of one of its leaders, Prabhat Jotedar.

“Kamal and Tarun raided the house of Prabhat Jotedar and tried to kidnap his married sister, Juthika Mondal. When family members raised an alarm, local residents rushed to the house and caught them red handed, beating them to death. The BJP has got nothing to do with it,” said Prabhat Mondal, a local BJP leader.

Tension gripped Chhotomollakhali following the double murder. BJP workers feared that there could be a revenge strike by the RSP as the Left party wields considerable influence in the area which falls under the constituency of minister of state for irrigation Ganesh Mondal.

A bandh was called in Chhotomollakhali by the RSP today, Gunasindhu Mondal said, adding that they will decide their future course of action once their leaders, who are in Delhi to participate in the dharna, return.


Alipurduar (Jalpaiguri), Dec. 7: 
Interrogation of an arrested Ulfa militant has established the group’s links with north Bengal separatists even as intelligence reports pointed to a possible spillover of the war in the Northeast with the growing influence of the Bengali Tiger Force (BTF), which has its roots in Tripura.

Rameshwar Rava, the Ulfa operative who was arrested from a Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) hideout in Dhupguri on Saturday night, has disclosed during interrogation the north Bengal separatists’ links with the Northeast insurgents.

“Rava has revealed that the KLO’s self-styled commander-in-chief, Tushar Roy alias Tamir Das alias Jeevan Singh, was among the first batch of Kamtapuris to undergo arms training at the Ulfa’s camp in the jungles of Bhutan, north of Nalbari district in Assam, last year,” Jalpaiguri superintendent of police Ranvir Kumar said.

“According to Rava’s revelations, each KLO and Ulfa cadre is assigned a ‘technical’ code name. ‘Tech names’ give a local touch to the insurgents operating in each other’s territory. While Rava’s ‘tech name’ happens to be Pankaj Roy, Tushar is known to the Ulfa as Jeevan Singh. We had information that Tushar, along with the KLO’s self-styled field marshal, Mrinal Roy alias Samir Das, attended a meeting with Rava on Saturday night. Though Tushar and Mrinal gave us the slip, Rava’s arrest has thrown up concrete leads into the Ulfa’s operations in North Bengal. We believe Rava was hired to execute a particular operation. But our failure to recover any arms is the worrying point,” Kumar added.

The district police chief said Rava was in the area since November 27. He entered Dhupguri a day after the police crackdown on Kamtapur activists.

While refusing to comment on the growth of the Bengali Tiger Force, Kumar said: “We are aware that some posters ascribed to the BTF had recently appeared in some areas of Samuktala, Barobisa and Kumargramduar areas on the Bengal-Assam border.”

Top intelligence sources in Alipurduar, however, said the BTF’s activities had increased in recent months. “The BTF is being financed by a section of businessmen across the Assam-Bengal border to counter the National Democratic Front of Boroland. The BTF has support from the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF). We apprehend the spillover of the BLTF-NDFB rivalry into the Kumargram-Barobisa-Alipurduar area,” an intelligence official said.

KPP threat

Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP) president Atul Roy has threatened to disrupt the proposed CPM rally at Shiv Mandir, a KPP stronghold on the outskirts of Siliguri, on December 11.

The rally is scheduled to be addressed by Jyoti Basu.


Calcutta, Dec. 7: 
A day after promising peace in the killing fields of Midnapore, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today asked the villagers who had fled to return to their homes without fear.

“We want everyone, cutting across political affiliation, to remain in their own villages and houses. We don’t want a person to be ousted from his village because of his political affiliation,” Bhattacharjee said at Writers’ Buildings.

The chief minister said he had repeatedly urged the in-exile supporters of all political parties to return to their homes. He added that nearly 99 per cent of the exiles in Keshpur had returned to their villages.

“Democracy prevails here. Everyone has his or her right to support or be involved with any political party. We want peace restored in the trouble-prone areas,” Bhattacharjee said.

He said he had instructed the administration to take all steps to maintain peace and prevent political clashes. Police are carrying on raids to track and seize illegal arms. The chief minister and the CPM are focusing on Keshpur as the Trinamul Congress has already made it an election issue.

Apart from taking administrative steps, the CPM leadership has asked the Midnapore unit to tell party workers to maintain restraint.

According to CPM insiders, Bhattacharjee has taken a soft line on Keshpur as he does not want to give Mamata Banerjee the chance to allege that the CPM has ousted all supporters of the Opposition party from the village. Rather, the CPM has been asserting that it is the Trinamul which is creating disturbances and sparking clashes.

Soon after taking over as chief minister last month, Bhattacharjee had announced that he would give priority to rehabilitation work in flood-affected areas and restoration of peace in the violence-scarred districts.

Instead of entering into a confrontation with Trinamul supporters in Midnapore, Bhattacharjee is in favour of keeping the CPM’s doors open to them.

During his visit to Keshpur yesterday — the first by a chief minister since the clashes erupted — Bhattacharjee had exhorted Trinamul supporters to return to the CPM fold.


Calcutta, Dec. 7: 
The government has closed down Frigerio Conserva Allana Limited, a meat processing factory in Mourigram, Howrah, two days after terrified residents stormed the plant following leakage of ammonia gas.

Environment minister Manab Mukherjee said a team of officials from the Pollution Control Board and the inspector of factories conducted a probe into the leak and recommended steps to avoid future toxic emissions. “We have asked the factory authorities to keep the plant closed till they implement the recommendations,’’ he said.

Mukherjee added that the refrigeration unit of the factory has not been closed down as 300 tonnes of buffalo meat is still under process. “There will be a major pollution and health hazard if such a huge quantity of raw meat rots,’’ he said.

S.J. Padrikar, general manager of the unit, however claimed that the factory had already implemented the measures recommended by the environment minister ever since they started trial production.

According to local residents, a similar incident of toxic emission occurred on October 28. Of the four factory workers injured, one died at the West Bank hospital where he was being treated. Another worker lost his right eye. “We have promised to look after the family of our deceased staff,” Padrikar said.

The residents today observed a 12-hour bandh in the area. They also squatted on railway tracks, disrupting rail traffic for over an hour. The Mourigram Paribesh Suraksha Committee, a forum floated by the residents in protest against the “illegal factory”, took out a procession and demonstrated in front of the factory gates.

Mukherjee said the preliminary enquiry report reveals that ammonia condensate in the vapour line was misjudged and that the isolation valves might have malfunctioned. The report also did not rule out failure of the refrigeration system. At a press conference in Writers’ Buildings today, the minister said the leakage was an accident.

The recommendations suggested are installation of an ammonia detection and monitoring system and a self-contained compressed air breather.


Durgapur, Dec. 7: 
Trust the Trinamul Congress to stage a show and not feel sheepish about it.

The party today held a three-hour demonstration in front of the Durgapur Municipal Corporation. The stars of the show: eight lambs on whose backs were inscribed the names of the mayor and the seven members of his council.

The Trinamul was protesting against the municipal corpo- ration’s “failure” to carry out development work in the steel city.


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