Cho helps Jaya rebuild Delhi bridges
Citu rolls back bandh call
Kashmir truce beyond Ramzan
Fire scars shopping landmark
Ulfa boss shoots army story
Calcutta Weather

Madrass & New Delhi, Dec. 18: 
Behind the clamour over Ayodhya, the BJP has launched hush-hush preliminaries of what could be a notorious rapprochement with its pet Dravidian hate, ADMK chief Jayalalitha.

Though the BJP has no immediate plans to switch horses in Tamil Nadu, party interlocutors have begun moves to effect a political realignment, keeping an eye on the post-Assembly election scenario in the state.

The BJP believes that its current state ally and chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, is set to lose the Assembly polls slated for March-April next year. Their conclusion: rebuild bridges with the lady they have loved to lambast all this while.

A section of party leaders, especially the Brahmins, wants Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to dump Karunanidhi, who, they feel, has “outlived” his utility. These leaders, through the good offices of former President R. Venkataraman and Rajya Sabha MP Cho Ramaswamy —both Brahmins — have been in touch with Jayalalitha for a possible tie-up.

Speculation is rife that Cho, scheduled to reach Delhi today, will sound the BJP leadership on the issue.

Both sides are, of course, acting coy at the moment. The BJP officially feigns ignorance of any kiss-and-make-up bid. Jayalalitha, on her part, has denied that her recent appointments have had anything to do with a return to the National Democratic Alliance.

On Saturday, the once-imperious lady brought herself to call on Cho, an uncompromising critic when she was chief minister, at his office. The two were closeted together for nearly an hour. Twice in the recent past, the acerbic editor of the Tamil weekly, Thuglaq, had met her at her Poes Garden residence at her instance.

Denying that there was any political significance to her recent meeting with Cho, Jayalalitha said: “Ramaswamy is an old friend.” However, she admitted that they discussed politics as well. “It would be untruthful to say that we did not talk of politics,” the ADMK leader said in Chennai yesterday.

Apart from these leaders, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) chief S. Ramadoss and a leading Mumbai-based industrial house are also making behind-the-scenes moves to bring Jayalalitha back to the BJP fold.

Ramadoss’ relationship with Karunanidhi has reached its nadir with the PMK chief calling on the Prime Minister twice in the recent past to complain against the chief minister. A few days ago, Ramadoss even alleged that Karunanidhi had hatched a conspiracy to kill him.

Ramadoss’ backward Vanniyar caste is considered crucial for any alliance to secure a comfortable majority in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. In the 1998 elections, both the PMK and Vaiko’s MDMK were part of Jayalalitha’s alliance. They left her only when she began planning to dump the BJP. In the event of a realignment, the MDMK and the PMK may not have any problem coming back to the Jayalalitha fold.

According to intelligence inputs with the Centre, Jayalalitha is set to become chief minister after the Assembly elections and she may split the DMK’s 11-member parliamentary party to augment her 10-member team in the Lok Sabha. BJP leaders believe that Jayalalitha has a longer political life than the old — though wily — Karunanidhi and are prepared to find political excuses to bring her back.

The BJP had a bitter parting with Jayalalitha last year and ended up chastising her as one of the most corrupt and unreliable politicians in the country. However, its future plans may dictate changes in the adjectives the party has been using to describe the ADMK boss.

The assessment of a section of the BJP leadership is that Karunanidhi is not only getting on in years, but also facing an anti-incumbency vote and bitter family feuds.

There is a section of the party, though, that is still opposing any truck with Jayalalitha. They say Vajpayee has no reason to embrace this “deadly woman” who had once “insulted” him.

A source close to Karunanidhi said the moment the BJP dumps the DMK, there will be a “reverse realignment”.

Aware that something may be cooking between the BJP and the ADMK, the DMK is warning of jumping back into the nascent third front’s fold along with the Left parties.

They are also letting it be known that once the BJP decides to ditch the DMK, it may also have to lose the support of the Telugu Desam. Chandrababu Naidu is a close friend and ally of Karunanidhi, who is banking on the Desam leader’s support in the event of Jayalalitha turning the tables on him in the state.

“If at all the BJP is planning to ditch Karunanidhi, it is a dangerous game they are playing. The DMK chief is very close to Chandrababu Naidu and the Desam chief is unlikely to tolerate the BJP’s rank opportunism,” sources in the DMK said.


Calcutta, Dec. 18: 
Seizing on a Central decision to set up a natural calamity contingency fund, a divided Citu and associate trade unions today called off Wednesday’s 24-hour Bengal bandh.

A Calcutta High Court division bench of Chief Justice A.K. Mathur and Justice R.K. Mitra also disposed of the case filed by BJP vice-president Muzaffar Khan challenging the validity of the state-sponsored strike. The verdict came after advocate-general Nara Narayan Gooptu informed the bench that the strike was being deferred.

At a news conference in Shramik Bhavan, Citu general secretary Chittabrata Majumdar said the decision to defer the bandh was in response to the Centre’s “positive move” on setting up the fund. “But we may have to go for it again if the Centre does not keep its promise,” he warned.

A week ago, transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, a Citu vice-president, had publicly criticised the strike call, saying that instead of solving any problem, it would only affect the poor and daily-wage earners. A day later, RSP leader and public works minister Kshiti Goswami echoed a similar view.

Former chief minister Jyoti Basu also appeared critical of the bandh when he said today that Union agriculture minister Nitish Kumar had promised to table a Bill during the winter session to create a contingency fund from which the Centre could provide funds to the state for post-flood restoration work.

“I feel we should have waited for more time before calling the bandh,” Basu said. He added that the government had received a letter from the Centre three days back on setting up of the fund.

Another reason why the bandh may have been called off is the ongoing Ramzan.

The Centre’s move came at a time when the trade unions were looking for a way to call off the strike.

Sources say the prompt move left them without any reason for going ahead with the bandh.

During Saturday’s meeting of Front constituents, finance minister Asim Dasgupta had argued that the Centre was serious about the fund.

He also read out from the letter his counterpart in the Union Cabinet, Yashwant Sinha, had written to him regarding setting up of the facility.

Most of the Front leaders present at the meeting were convinced about the Centre’s “sincerity” and decided to reconsider the bandh call.

Majumdar said Sinha has assured that the Centre will give Rs 500 crore initially to set up the fund.


New Delhi, Dec. 18: 
Nine days ahead of the end of Ramzan — and of the Centre’s unilateral ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir — an unscheduled meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, today decided to extend the truce by another month.

The essential reason behind the decision is that the Centre believes there has been a definite de-escalation of violence in the Valley and a drop in infiltration since the truce came into effect last month.

The decision of the All Party Hurriyat Conference to welcome the ceasefire yesterday is also a factor: the Centre believes this will encourage the process of dialogue if the ceasefire were to be extended.

Another key reason behind the decision is Delhi’s desire to be a step ahead of Islamabad in trying to project flexibility in finding a peaceful settlement to the Kashmir problem.

With the George W. Bush administration poised to take charge in Washington, Delhi is keen to impress the West that it is willing to pull out all stops in a bid to resolve the dispute.

Besides Vajpayee, the meeting was attended by L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes and Yashwant Sinha.

Government sources said the Prime Minister is expected to make an announcement shortly.

Before the security meeting, Vajpayee and Advani were closeted for nearly 30 minutes and also met army chief Gen. S. Padmanabhan. The army chief expressed satisfaction at the reduced shelling from across the border and the drop in infiltration.

There was no decision, however, on the request of some Hurriyat leaders to travel to Pakistan for talks with Kashmiri leadership.


Calcutta, Dec. 18: 
The overnight fire at Humayun Court severely damaged the 60-year-old department store Nu York and scalded the festive spirit around the city’s best-loved shoppers’ stop.

The blaze — the second on Sunday which started around 10.15 pm — stretched to Monday dawn, leaving its mark on the offices and godown of India Book House on the first floor, Lysa, a shop selling cards and toys, and a Dey’s Medical office.

It took at least 15 fire engines — some of them having been put to service in the bigger blaze on Canning Street — more than six hours to bring the fire under control. The chief minister has ordered an inquiry into the spate of weekend fires.

With just a week to go for Christmas, the normally bustling New Market had a deserted look. Most approach roads were cordoned off by the police to enable the firefighters battle the blaze.

Shopkeepers sat silently, waiting for the odd customer to stray in. “At least one lakh people usually visit every day this time of the year. Today, less than 10,000 shoppers, who managed to come in from Free School Street, turned up,” said Pradip Chakraborty, secretary of the New Market Shopkeepers’ Association.

Christmas and Id shoppers had a tough time entering the shopping area as police sealed off parts of Lindsay Street and Bertram Street surrounding Humayun Court. Most went back disappointed, while the die-hard ones took the road in front of Lighthouse cinema, leading to traffic congestion throughout the day.

Till late evening, dense smoke billowed out of Humayun Court, hampering recovery and damage assessment operations.

The first three floors of the six-storey building are occupied by several shops, showrooms, offices and a godown. The remaining floors are residential. The residents were evacuated within half-an-hour of the fire being detected.

“It will take some time before the extent of the damage is clear,” said director of fire services B.B. Pathak. “The fire seems to have started from a short circuit.”

It was around 10.15 pm when Ramesh Shaw, a resident of the building, found smoke coming out from the first and ground floors. He raised an alarm and everyone vacated the building using the stairs, as the electricity supply to the lift had been disconnected.

“By this time, the fire brigade and the police had been informed. They may have come soon, but the source of the fire could not be detected,” Shaw said.

L. Daswani, Nu York’s managing director, said: “I got the information around 10.15 pm and immediately rushed to the shop with my men. We put off the main switches but could not save the huge quantity of garments and dress material. My entire stock has been reduced to ashes.”


New Delhi & Calcutta, Dec. 18: 
Ulfa “commander-in-chief” Paresh Baruah today emerged “unscathed” from the maze of reports on the supposed attack on him in Bangladesh to announce that both he and long-time aide Raju Baruah were “safe and in fine fettle”.

However, in the absence of any official denial by the Ulfa, authorities discounted the statement and raised doubts about its authenticity.

In Bangladesh, the Sheikh Hasina government denied that Paresh Baruah was injured in a “group clash” and admitted to a Dhaka hospital. “We have no such information,” foreign secretary Shafi Sami told newspersons in the Bangladesh capital.

Home minister Mohammad Nasim, too, issued a statement in this regard. “There is no Ulfa activity in Bangladesh,” he was quoted as saying by Jugantar, a Dhaka-based newspaper.

However, the Assam Rifles, whose statement was the basis of all the media reports on the Bangladesh incident, stuck to its guns and refused to issue a fresh release on the denials by both Paresh Baruah and Bangladesh.

In a statement issued in Agartala last evening, the Assam Rifles had claimed that Paresh Baruah was injured and his deputy, sharpshooter Raju Baruah, killed in a “group clash” at Khagracherri in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh on Saturday.

Maj. A. Bhargav, who had signed the release, initially refused to entertain any queries about the “group clash”. However, after repeated efforts and a lot of persuasion, he told The Telegraph: “A person identifying himself as (Paresh) Baruah called up newspersons and said they (he and Raju Baruah) were fine. But this cannot be viewed as an official denial by the Ulfa. And since there is no official denial by the Ulfa, the Assam Rifles will not issue any statement today.”

Maj. Bhargav also said that yesterday’s press statement was “based on information from sources”.

Another Assam Rifles official said it was “Paresh Baruah” who spoke to the media and not Raju Baruah, implying that there was truth in the claims about the latter being dead. “If Raju is alive, why didn’t he speak as well? His voice would have lent more credibility to the Ulfa’s claim. After all, we did not say that Paresh Baruah was dead,” he said.

Joint secretary (Northeast) in the Union home ministry, G.K. Pillai, earlier said from New Delhi that the Centre was yet to confirm the Bangladesh incident. “We still have no confirmation about the incident. We are trying to ascertain facts from the Bangladesh authorities,” he said.

However, Pillai claimed that “Paresh Baruah is in Dhaka”.

The state was thrown into confusion after a person identifying himself as Paresh Baruah today called up newspaper offices and broadcasting agencies from an undisclosed location to rubbish the Assam Rifles’ claims as mere “propaganda of the Indian government against our movement”.

Stating that there was no shootout and that “nothing has happened to Raju Baruah”, the Ulfa “commander-in-chief” said, “The security forces are damaging their own credibility, something that will help us.”

Denying that he was in Bangladesh, Baruah said he was making the call from a place at a “height of 14,000 feet”. He said the Ulfa did not have any camps in the neighbouring country.

“We have no base in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government is hostile towards the Ulfa, which is unfortunate because in 1971, Bangladesh fought for independence and won it. We are fighting for self-determination,” he said.

The person claiming to be Paresh Baruah ridiculed the Assam Rifles’ knowledge about Bangladesh’s geography. “Dhaka is far away from Khagracherri,” he said.

According to the Assam Rifles release, an injured Paresh Barua was airlifted to Dhaka from the hideout in the Khagracherri area where the supposed group clash took place.

The Ulfa chief, who answered queries on many subjects, said his one-time comrade-in-arms Lohit Deuri left the outfit and surrendered after he failed to defend himself on charges of “embezzlement of funds and moral turpitude”.

Paresh Barua said Deuri left because he “lost face in the organisation”. However, he said the senior Ulfa militant’s departure was not a setback for the outfit.

“We have gained in strength after getting rid of doubtful and morally weak characters,” the Ulfa chief said.

Deuri was the “G2” in the Ulfa’s general headquarters in Bhutan before surrendering in August. He had accused the Ulfa leadership, including Barua, of deviating from its ideology and selling itself to the ISI.

Paresh Barua reiterated his claim that the Ulfa was not involved in the series of mass killings in the state. “The Ulfa is fighting for Assam and not for the Assamese people,” he said.

He alleged that the attacks on non-Assamese people were being carried out by the state government to discredit the outfit.

The Ulfa leader once again threatened to target members of the ruling Asom Gana Parishad “from the grassroots-level to the rank of ministers” if the attacks on relatives of Ulfa activists did not stop.

“I will be forced to issue a directive to attack AGP workers if the killings do not stop. Assam will witness unprecedented bloodshed,” he said.




Maximum: 27.3°C (0)
Minimum: 14.7°C (+1)



Relative humidity

Max: 93%
Min: 46%


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 15°C
Sunrise: 6.18 am
Sunset: 4.51 pm

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