Women first in last journey
President letter lifeline to Narmada
Silent allies keep govt on toes
Opp. ‘unmasks’ Atal
Mulayam targets ‘tacit’ twins
Friday deadline for post strike end
Buddha accepts rail dacoity blame
More medical seats in Burdwan
Twin channels for arms flow
CM blueprint for better govt

 
 
WOMEN FIRST IN LAST JOURNEY 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Dec. 13: 
Death was not the end of Shantidevi Sareen’s crusade for women’s rights. It was another pioneering chapter in her struggle.

Yesterday, the small town of Farrukhabad saw a strange funeral — women bearing the pall, women performing the last rites, women doing the puja and the havan. In deference to her last wishes, men were kept out of her funeral.

Daughter-in-law Rajni Sareen, who was given the responsibility of fulfilling her last wishes, saw it as a fitting finale to the social activist’s life. “She fought for equality of women in everyday life. She was especially concerned that women have been, through the ages, kept out of funerals, left at best to cry at home. She wanted to change all that.”

Shantidevi was convinced that the only way was to set an example herself. In a signed letter addressed to her bahu, Shantidevi said her funeral pyre should be lit not by her son, but by her daughter-in-law. She also wished that she be taken on her last journey by her “sisters”.

In the letter to Rajni, she had expressed the desire to “break a tradition that is not only unfair but cruel and baseless”. “Start a new tradition, break the fetters imposed on women by centuries of irrational laws. Involve women in my funeral, let them do the last rites,” she wrote.

Shantidevi was a true reformer. While wishing that her ashes be immersed in the Ganga, she made a point that has raised the hackles of traditional Brahmins in this mofussil town. “Special care should be taken not to sprinkle my ashes over the holy river. Through centuries, the ashes of dead people have been thrown in the river. Has anyone thought how much the river has been polluted by this? All this must stop,” she wrote.

True to her wishes, the women collected her ashes in an urn and buried it on the banks of the river. Her husband, B.N. Sareen, sees sense in it all. “We respect her wishes. After all, what she says makes sense. Why should women be kept away from religious ceremonies or functions of any kind? We will deal with the pundits later.” He added that in accordance to his wife’s wishes, her death was not mourned but celebrated. “She was happy that she was giving birth to a new parampara,” the proud husband said.

The people of the small town didn’t seem to mind the break from tradition either. Vishnu Prajapati, a local journalist, said: “People from all over the town and even its outskirts came in droves to pay their last tributes. They appreciate and honour the bold decision of an extremely courageous woman.”

   

 
 
PRESIDENT LETTER LIFELINE TO NARMADA 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, Dec. 13: 
The President has written to the Prime Minister seeking the government’s advice on the Narmada issue. The move has rejuvenated the country’s best known environment movement after the October 18 verdict of the Supreme Court had it tottering.

The President’s move followed fervent pleas by the Narmada Bachao Andolan leader, Medha Patkar, and supporters of the movement.

President K.R. Narayanan’s empathy for the Narmada movement and all that it stands for was apparent earlier this month when he presented the B.R. Ambedkar Award for Social Change to Baba Amte. “The nation must take every possible care to see that the impact of dams we build is not ruinous to the lives of our tribal brothers and sisters,” Narayanan said while felicitating Baba Amte.

It now transpires that the President actually wrote to the Prime Minister seeking the opinion of the council of ministers before December 6, the day Baba Amte was presented with the award. But the issue was nearly lost in the din in Parliament over the Prime Minister’s statement on building a Ram temple at the site of the Babri masjid in Ayodhya.

“The President told me that he has written to Vajpayeeji seeking the advice of the Council of Ministers. The contents of the letter were not disclosed but it probably has to do with Schedule V (five) of the Constitution,” Baba Amte told The Telegraph today. (Baba Amte is now in New Delhi awaiting a visa for a trip to Pakistan).

“I invited the President to visit the valley. He appeared to be very keen but he did not make any commitment,” said Baba Amte.

Last month, Medha Patkar, too, had met the President. She returned with the impression that the President was “very concerned”. There were some indications to the NBA then, too, that the President might intervene.

However, it is not yet clear what exactly the President has asked of the Prime Minister. Informed sources said the suggestion was made to the President that the possibility of stopping the displacement of tribals in the Narmada Valley be explored by invoking provisions under the fifth schedule of the Constitution.

The schedule details provisions on the administrative control of scheduled areas and scheduled tribes. In the estimates of the NBA, 33 villages in Maharashtra (5,000 families) are almost entirely tribal. In Madhya Pradesh, 50 villages with a tribal content of 29 per cent of the total population (apart from Dalits and OBCs) and 4,500 families in Gujarat (19 villages of whom 97 per cent are tribal) could be washed out by the Sardar Sarovar.

It is possible the President has sought the advice of the council of ministers on whether or not Rashtrapati Bhavan has authority to decide on scheduled areas. It is not clear, however, why the President should seek the opinion of the council of ministers on this and not that of his own legal advisers.

Though Medha Patkar is personally known to be pitting her hopes on Presidential intervention, there are others who are not quite so optimistic. Prashant Bhushan, lawyer for the NBA, said he was not sure if the President could actually exercise any authority because the fifth Schedule will be read along with Article 74 of the Constitution which states clearly that the President shall act on the advice of the council of ministers in all matters (except if the government has been reduced to a minority).

However, the possibility that Medha Patkar has found empathy in the Rashtrapati Bhavan raises the credibility of the NBA.

The eulogy of the Narmada movement by the President during the awarding of the prize to Baba Amte was only the latest public show of empathy by K.R. Narayanan. In January this year, while presenting another award to Baba Amte — the Gandhi Peace Prize for 1999 — the President said during his speech: “Describing the Narmada satyagraha as a new battle front for youth action, he (Baba Amte) said that it was an ‘outburst of Gandhian courage and concern for antyodaya’. He (Baba Amte) stated poignantly ‘Now that the sun of life is about to set, I have set out to catch the rising sun of environmental consciousness’. In our developmental efforts, India and the world have to, willy nilly, come to terms with the ideas of Baba Amte.”

(About 200 supporters of the NBA led by Medha Patkar were rounded up by the police today after a day-long dharna in front of the Supreme Court. They were demanding that the review petition filed against the Court’s October 18 judgement be heard quickly).

   

 
 
SILENT ALLIES KEEP GOVT ON TOES 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Dec. 13: 
Key allies, including the Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam, today put the Vajpayee government in a spot by refusing to speak during the Ayodhya debate today.

Instead, the partners said, they would listen to the BJP’s speakers and make sure that the party was following the NDA agenda.

Much against the wishes of Prime Minister’s spin doctors, the Trinamul and Desam said they will speak tomorrow after “watching” the BJP members.

The MDMK and the Samata Party, however, spoke in support of the government.

Sources said parties like the Trinamul and Desam hardened their stand following reports that the Prime Minister will stick to his stand and “not be apologetic” of what he had said on the Ram temple construction.

Some agitated Desam MPs even suggested that they would abstain from voting on the censure motion tomorrow to register the party’s protest.

The allies, too, were in a tight spot with leaders such as Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Yadav trying to drive a wedge between them and the BJP.

Speaking on the motion, Mulayam taunted Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee, saying: “You have to face serious consequences by aligning with the BJP. You are paving the way for the return of the CPM because you’ve joined hands with the BJP.”

Mamata, who was not present in the House when Mulayam made the remark, rushed in after about 10 minutes, saying: “You said the CPM will win. Woh (CPM) harenge...harenge ......harenge...

Playing down the allies’ worry, a source close to Vajpayee said: “They (the allies) are perhaps thinking that by taking a hard stand, the Prime Minister may dilute his comments (while replying in the House tomorrow) and thus give them a face-saver.”

Asked if the Desam would abstain from voting in view of reports that Vajpayee will stick to his remarks, party leader in the Lok Sabha Yerran Naidu said: “We have not taken any decision. The allies are meeting again tomorrow morning to take a common stand.”

Apart from Mamata and Naidu, others who attended the allies’ meeting were T.R. Baalu (DMK), D.P. Yadav (Janata Dal-United), Abdul Rashid (National Conference), Prasanna Acharya (Biju Janata Dal) and Prabhunath Singh (Samata Party). Observers said Prabhunath was sent by George Fernandes to keep tabs on the allies’ moves.

   

 
 
OPP. ‘UNMASKS’ ATAL 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, Dec. 13: 
The Opposition today ripped off Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s liberal mask and charged him with renewing a controversy that could once more split the nation down the middle.

The government quickly hit back at the Opposition, accusing it of raking up communal tension eight years after the Ayodhya outrage. Law minister Arun Jaitley ruled out the resignation of the Ayodhya trio, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, saying it was “constitutionally improper” of the Opposition to interfere with the Prime Minister’s prerogative.

He said Jaipal Reddy’s motion under rule 184, which entailed voting, was “untenable” as it sought to discuss individual culpability in violation of the sub judice rule. “An attempt is being made to lay down new legal principles and new jurisprudence to nail the accused even before the trial has commenced in court,” the law minister said. Jaitley defended former minister of state for defence Harin Pathak, the lynchpin of the Opposition’s argument on the ministers’ resignation, describing him as a “victim” of political vendetta.

The day-long heated discussion on the resignations, however, centred around the Prime Minister, who had set off waves of anger by saying that the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya was a manifestation of nationalist sentiments.

The Opposition tarred not only the BJP, but also its sole icon and most effective vote-catcher, Atal Behari Vajpayee. For the first time, Vajpayee was not described as an “oddity” among his colleagues. He was, as the Opposition said, very much one of them.

“You are representing only a minuscule section of the Hindu community and not the whole. What about Muslims and Christians?” asked CPM legislator Somnath Chatterjee. “What prompted you to make such a statement if it were not just rank communal politics? I have known the Prime Minister for 30 years, and he never speaks loosely,” he added.

Jaitley stoutly defended Vajpayee, claiming that the Prime Minister had made it clear time and again that the government would adhere to the NDA’s national agenda for governance. Much to the Congress’ chagrin, Jaitley read out from its 1991 manifesto and claimed that Vajpayee had only reiterated that the dispute could be settled through negotiations between the contending parties or through the court’s verdict as spelt out in the Congress document.

The day-long debate in the Lok Sabha lacked spirit. The fireworks that used to fly during 1992-93 were missing. Today’s high points were easily the one-liners reeled off by the quick-witted Jaipal Reddy.

Moving the motion, Jaipal said: “Vajpayee’s remark that the Ram temple was an expression of nationalist feeling was not a slip of tongue but a slip of masks.” Claiming that Vajpayee had lost the moral right to rule after mounting the “chauvinist Hindutva tiger”, Jaipal said the Prime Minister had completed his pilgrimage from “hypocrisy to theocracy”.

Quoting extensively from the CBI’s Ayodhya chargesheet, he said Advani was involved in the criminal conspiracy hatched in BJP parliamentarian Vinay Katiyar’s house in Ayodhya a day before the demolition.

While the Congress spared the NDA allies, Somnath took a swipe at two of the most prominent partners — the Telugu Desam Party and the Trinamul Congress. “Even the allies are shocked at the Prime Minister’s statement. Leaders of two parties went and met Vajpayee, but now they seem satisfied,” he said, adding to their discomfiture.

   

 
 
MULAYAM TARGETS ‘TACIT’ TWINS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Dec. 13: 
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav stayed true to form, blasting both the Congress and the BJP for having a “tacit” understanding on economic issues.

Participating in the Opposition-sponsored censure motion, he tore into the Congress, blaming the “wrong Congress policies” for the BJP’s rise to power. He said the Congress was forced to field a person like Jaipal Reddy to initiate the (Lok Sabha) debate today as they did not have any leader of consequence. “In fact, Jaipal is not your leader. He was borrowed. He was United Front spokesman. I have good ties with him. He may even join us,” said Yadav.

He then swung his gun on the BJP and demanded an apology and resignation from Prime Minister A. B.Vajpayee for the controversial statements on the Ram temple. Yadav said Vajpayee had raised the Ayodhya issue to divert attention from problems facing farmers and the common man.

Accusing the BJP of dividing the country on communal lines, he said his party stood for the unity of the country. He defended his order to open fire on kar sevaks on the way to Ayodhya as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

He added that the Congress was the root cause of the Ayodhya problem. Squarely blaming the Congress and the BJP for all the ills dogging the country, he said it was because of them that a eunuch recently won in the civic elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Opposing the motion, MDMK chief Vaiko asked the Opposition to cite any instance when the NDA had deviated from the national agenda for governance which was “committed to secularism”.

He said the Congress was at the Centre when Babri masjid was demolished. Admitting he did not agree with the Ayodhya movement, he accused the Congress of inaction. “What were the then Prime Minister and home minister doing? Why did they not come forward with their resignations?” Vaiko asked. Defending home minister L.K. Advani as a man of “principles and convictions”, he asked what had prevented the Opposition from demanding his resignation during the past two years.

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati said her party would abstain from voting tomorrow on the motion, since both the BJP and the Congress were equally responsible for the demolition.

“We demand that those holding key positions in the Congress government when Babri masjid was demolished in 1992 and the three chargesheeted ministers should be taken to task,” she said speaking during the debate.

   

 
 
FRIDAY DEADLINE FOR POST STRIKE END 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, Dec. 13: 
Delhi High Court today set December 15 as the deadline for the Centre to end the nine-day postal strike and said the government was free to “invoke the Essential Services Maintenance Act (Esma) against the striking employees”.

Following the court directive, the communications ministry today began consultations with the law ministry to end the deadlock.

Communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan said the Centre could recommend Esma, but it would have to be implemented by the states. “The striking employees will have to join back their duties or we will have to take action to follow court directives,” Paswan said.

Pulling up the Centre for not making any “serious efforts” to resolve the issue, a division bench said: “Even after more than a week postal services remain paralysed throughout the country. It will be open to the government to take whatever action it deems fit to end the strike including invoking of Esma.

“We are surprised that the respondent (ministry of communications) has not taken any serious steps to resolve the demand raised by the employees.”

Revenue stamp waiver

Any person entitled to receive any money from the treasury will receive the amount without being required to affix revenue stamp in view of the ongoing country-wide postal strike. A direction to this effect was given by Orissa High Court today.    

 
 
BUDDHA ACCEPTS RAIL DACOITY BLAME 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIALCORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Dec. 13: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today admitted responsibility for his government’s failure to prevent the back-to-back train dacoities near Farakka.

“The Government Railway Police (GRP) under the state government is primarily responsible for the security of railway passengers. GRP contingents were posted inside the two trains. But they could not prevent the crime. This is a very serious matter and requires stern action,” Bhattacharjee said.

The chief minister’s statement comes a day after railway minister Mamata Banerjee had accused the GRP of negligence. In her missive to Bhattacharjee, the first since he took over the reins of the state, Mamata said: “...considering the fact that law and order is a state subject, you may kindly oversee that the safety and security of the railway passengers are adequately ensured by the state government railway police”.

Bhattacharjee denied that he had received any letter from the railway minister.

The dacoits first struck sometime after midnight on Sunday. A gang of about 25 criminals had stormed the Kanchankanya Express and robbed the passengers of close to Rs 90,000 in cash and jewellery. Four persons were injured when they resisted the dacoits.

The second incident occurred around 11 pm on Monday when four men, in the guise of passengers, boarded the general compartment of the Gour Express in Farakka. They whipped out revolvers and daggers and forced the passengers to part with ornaments and cash worth Rs 70 lakh.

But three students from Malda challenged the dacoits and during the scuffle, one of the gangsters shot Arindam Mukherjee in his right leg and slashed Srikanta Das and Joydeb Dey with daggers.

Arindam and Srikanta were brought to B.R. Singh hospital in Sealdah.

Bhattacharjee visited the two students and spoke to their family members. He also met the medical director of B.R. Singh hospital, Dr Ashok Sen, and enquired about the treatment being provided to the students.

The railway authorities have announced an ex gratia of Rs 50,000 each to the injured students and promised to provide all medical expenses for their treatment.

Inspector-general of police, railways, Rajat Majumdar, has left for Farakka to carry out an investigation into the two dacoities.

“We have already started cases against the criminals and sought assistance from the Jharkhand police to nab them,” Majumdar said.

The chief minister said an action plan would be drawn up after Majumdar submits his report.

Eastern Railways general manager I.I.M.S. Rana, in a separate letter to chief secretary Manish Gupta, alleged that there was no GRP personnel on board the Kanchankanya Express that night. “This is a clear case of dereliction of duty and the guilty personnel should be punished,” he said.

Rana also pointed out that most of these incidents were reported in trains in the Malda-Sainthia-Azimganj-Katwa section.

   

 
 
MORE MEDICAL SEATS IN BURDWAN 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Burdwan, Dec. 13: 
The Medical Council of India has allowed Burdwan Medical College to increase its seat capacity to 100 students from the current academic session.

The number of seats has been stagnant at 50 since the college’s inception 30 years ago.

After repeatedly inspecting the college infrastructure, which was upgraded, the council gave the go-ahead.

The academic year 2000-2001 has begun with the number of students doubled.

Dr Chittaranjan Maity, principal of Burdwan Medical College and dean of the faculty of medicine, Burdwan University, said the students had been demanding an increase in seats for a long time. “The medical council representatives visited our college and hospital several times. We upgraded our infrastructure as per their guidelines and suggestions. Council representatives will visit the premises again next year,” he said.

Medical colleges in the districts do not, however, as yet offer specialised post-graduate courses in cardiology and neurology, two very important disciplines. Biochemistry, anatomy, ophthalmology and gynaecology are the only disciplines taught as post-graduate courses at Burdwan Medical College.

Cardiology and neurology are taught as part of general medicine at the undergraduate level.

   

 
 
TWIN CHANNELS FOR ARMS FLOW 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Toofangunj (Cooch Behar), Dec. 13: 
With the separatist movement in north Bengal gaining ground, the restive region has become a channel for clandestine arms transport from Nepal and Bangladesh to militant bases in Assam and Bhutan and to the camps of Kamtapur separatists.

Alarmed by the growing militancy in north Bengal and the separatists’ stockpile of sophisticated weapons, director-general of police Deepak Sanyal had alleged during a recent visit that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was running a camp just inside the Bangladesh side of the border at Nilmonihat and Rangpur districts.

Top police officials are unwilling to acknowledge the rampant gun-running in the region. However, intelligence sources admitted that arms smuggling has assumed threatening proportions, the Siliguri corridor, or the Siliguri chicken neck, being the most vulnerable to international gun-runners covertly funded by the ISI.

“Earlier, the ISI operatives used the Siliguri corridor to supply arms to Northeast insurgents. An organised group of gun-runners, employed by Pakistani agents and operating from the eastern parts of Bihar and the neighbouring Terai region of Nepal, is helping the separatist outfits in north Bengal stockpile sophisticated arms. The ISI, along with the Ulfa, is operating another channel which enters from Bangladesh through several points in Cooch Behar,” said an intelligence officer in Cooch Behar.

Sources said the ISI has in its payrolls an influential group of politicians with criminal background for overseeing the Bihar-Siliguri leg of the operation. This mafia-politician nexus has its roots along the Indo-Nepal border in the Terai region.

The operation from the Bangladesh side is being directly controlled by ISI operatives based in that country.

“To escape detection, the arms are sent in small consignments via a circuitous route. The arms are first delivered to safe-houses in Siliguri from where they are despatched in small numbers through local ‘carriers’ who travel by road and trains. Consignments are loaded on Dooars-bound buses heading towards Jaigoan on the Indo-Bhutan border. Gun-runners also use the metre-gauge railway between Siliguri to Alipurduar via Hashimara and Birpara. Once at Hashimara, the consignments are transferred to hideouts in the Jayanti hills in the north or Alipurduar in the south,” an official said.

Alipurduar is the main transit point. The arms are collected by the “buyers” at predesignated spots and shifted to different hideouts. From there, the weapons find their way to the Northeast and Bhutan.

Police sources said they had intercepted several consignments of sophisticated arms being smuggled into the region through the porous Bangladesh border.

“The rampant gun-running is a matter of serious concern,” admitted Cooch Behar superintendent of police Kailash Chandra Meena.

Tracing the gun-running route, a senior intelligence source in Toofangunj said: “Runners use the porous river tri-junction in the Char-Balabhut area of Toofangunj. The consignments are ferried in by country-boats at night. They are then transported in small numbers by local carriers to Islamabad near Madarihat and Falakata in Jalpaiguri district. The entire operation is controlled by a powerful politician with ISI links. Several other political leaders are also actively involved in the arms racket,” the source said.

Officials believe that arms smuggled in from Bangladesh are making their way to Kamtapur Liberation Organisation and Ulfa operatives based in the Fifshu forest of Bhutan.

“We had specific information that the KLO militants had stockpiled arms at several hideouts throughout north Bengal. Police raiding parties during the November 27-28 crackdown were resisted from entering such hideouts where arms were stored. The Tarbandha area under Phasidewa in Darjeeling district is one such place where the police team was resisted by villagers, leading to firing in which two people died. The KLO has managed to procure sophisticated arms and ammunition through the Bangladesh route,” a police official said.

   

 
 
CM BLUEPRINT FOR BETTER GOVT 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Dec. 13: 
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has kept his promise to improve efficiency in the administration with the government today issuing official orders asking its staff to be punctual in attending office and disposing files. The government also announced stringent measures to cut costs.

A separate circular is expected to be issued soon, listing measures to ensure accountability of state employees and punishments in cases of dereliction of duty.

Today’s order says: “All officers and employees in government offices, undertakings and civic bodies should sign attendance registers sharp at 10 am, noting time of arrival and departure. Reporting for duty after 10-15 am would be marked late. No employees would be allowed to leave office before closing hour without prior sanction of the superior officer.

“A diary should be kept to record performance of employees daily in all secretariat departments. Employees should now compulsorily write in the diary what they have done before leaving office each day. It is now mandatory for superiors to check the daily performance report of their department employees.”

The government says its aim is to ensure efficiency in the administration. However, most employees’ unions pointed out that there was nothing new in the government order. Similar orders were issued several times earlier with no result.

Detailing the cost-cut measures, the order says no new telephone connection would be given to any officer. All telephones given to officers without prior approval of the finance department would be taken back.

A complete ban has been slapped on use of cellphones and pagers at government cost.

The government also imposed a ban on buying of new cars and use of official or hired cars on holidays by officers. All overtime and tiffin allowances have been reduced to a bare minimum.

The order also prohibits serving of snacks in official meetings. Only tea or coffee may be served. The order asks officers not to convene any official meeting on holidays or at lunch time to avoid unnecessary expenditure on overtime and food packets.

Foreign trips by government officers have been banned except in cases where any other agency has agreed to bear the expenditure. All visits outside the state, except meetings convened by the Centre, are also banned. Officers will have to take prior permission of the chief secretary for attending meetings convened by the Centre outside the state.

No homeguard or police personnel can be posted in any officer’s residence without prior order of the chief secretary. All such previous posting of securitymen in residences will now have to be cleared by him.

The government also decided to increase charges of all its lodges and circuit houses in the districts.

   
 

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