Azhar contests Naidu claim with iftar invite
Sangh chief’s Babri bomb bubble bursts
Laloo stones shatter 10-year record
Jaipal inches closer home
Relic-find shovels fuel into Buddha boyhood row
Maneka in race for Sanjay house
Ex-MLA’s son shot dead in barber shop
CPI offers to mediate in North Bengal
Probe into marathon music gala
Govt banks on sun to power poll run

Hyderabad, Dec. 25: 
Mohammed Azharuddin, who refused to make any public statement at the peak of the match-fixing scandal, broke his silence today to contest suggestions that he gatecrashed an iftar hosted by Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

“Every other day, there is one story or the other on me. People are taking advantage of my silence. It is high time I speak out. I went to the iftar on invitation. I don’t know why my name is being dragged into the controversy so much,” Azharuddin told PTI over phone.

Naidu, taking note of protests from the state BJP for shaking hands with the banned cricketer, had yesterday denied inviting him. “I didn’t invite him. But if somebody greets you at a function, you just can’t brush him aside,” Naidu had said.

However, Azharuddin said he had received the invitation a day before the iftar. “I went to the iftar hosted by the chief minister on December 22 on an invitation sent by the General Administration Department (Gad) and my name figures against serial number 17,” he added.

Azharuddin also issued a rejoinder to a local daily, attaching a photostat copy of the invitation. The copy, according to a UNI report, has Azharuddin’s name as the 17th on the list of invitees, as stated by the former captain. The department’s officials were not available for comment.

Azharuddin said it was unfortunate that the chief minister had been put in an embarrassing situation by the unwarranted questions. “Such reports would embarrass people. It may be the handiwork of some vested interests to malign my image,” he added.

Azharuddin and Naidu had come face to face at a number of iftars last week. The two shared a table at an iftar hosted by Sultan Salauddin Owaisi, chief of the Majlis Itthehadul Muslameen (MIM).

They met again at Raj Bhavan and at the Jubilee Hall during the state government’s iftar. The chief minister’s iftar came three days after Owaisi’s, which was attended by prominent Muslims.

The cricketer was also spotted at a party thrown in honour of Miss Asia-Pacific Diya Mirza at a hotel even as his employers — the State Bank of India — announced that he had reported “sick” to a notice to return to work.

Azharuddin’s sudden public appearances after a self-imposed exile had fuelled speculation that the MIM was trying to groom him for a political role. Owaisi, who has had six Lok Sabha terms so far, is reportedly in poor health.

The state unit of the BJP took strong exception to Azhar being invited to iftars by the MIM and the chief minister and demanded that the state government withdraw all “rewards” given to him, including land.

The Karnataka government had announced it would withdraw the allotment of a plot to him in Bangalore. On similar allotments to Azharuddin in Banjara Hills in Hyderabad, Naidu said the plot was given by the Congress regime. The allocation of three to five acres of land near the city for the Azhar’s cricket academy is hanging fire.


New Delhi, Dec. 25: 
After Gandhian leader Nirmala Deshpande denied having told RSS sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan that the Babri masjid was brought down by a bomb, more embarrassment was in store for him.

Today, Aslam Javed of Massouri village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district outrightly rejected Sudarshan’s claim that his father, Anis Ahmad Gahlaut, had blown up the mosque by planting “three brick-shaped bombs with Shri Ram inscribed on them”.

In his deposition before the Liberhan Commission on December 20, the RSS chief had stated that Gahlaut entered the Ayodhya mosque in the guise of a kar sevak on December 6, 1992, and destroyed it because of his belief that Babar had built it “against Quranic laws”.

Sudarshan sourced his testimony to Kunwar Dharam Veer Singh Rawal, the national president of the Federation of Sabhas. In a letter, Rawal had purportedly said that Gahlaut, a Congress activist, had always “boasted” of having blown up the Babri mosque.

Eight years later, Gahlaut’ s son sought to clarify the picture on behalf of his father who passed away in 1998. In a printed statement to the press — copies of which have also been sent to President K.R. Narayanan, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Justice M.S. Liberhan — Javed said his father was not in Ayodhya on the day the mosque was demolished and had never visited the place.

“On the contrary, I can produce hundreds of witnesses to the effect (sic) that my father was at home on 6th December, 1992,” he maintained.

Describing Sudarshan’s deposition as “false, bogus, concocted and motivated” and “part of a political conspiracy”, Javed denied that the so-called source, Rawal, was not known to either his father or the family.

Javed pointed out that it was rather strange that for six years after the demolition, till his father was alive, no such allegation was levelled. “How is it that all of a sudden, after eight years of the demolition, his name has come in the picture and that too without any basis?” asked Javed.

He demanded an unconditional apology from both Sudarshan and Rawal for their statements which, he stressed, had caused “serious injury to me and my family”. If they did not, he threatened to take legal action against them.

Earlier, the RSS chief was left crimson-faced when Deshpande belied his bomb theory, which he attributed to her and instead told a section of the press that she was not an expert who could tell whether explosives were used inside the mosque or not.

Deshpande also contradicted Sudarshan’s claim of having given a clean chit to the three chargesheeted ministers, L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti.

She stressed that they were appealing to the kar sevaks to descend from the domes not to prevent the masjid’s demolition but to save themselves from being killed under the debris of their own destruction.


Patna, Dec. 25: 
Hit with stones by his own party workers in Madhubani yesterday, Rashtriya Janata Dal working president Ranjan Yadav today said no one can stop him on his “mission”.

Ranjan, a Rajya Sabha member, was stoned in Madhubani last evening by Laloo Prasad Yadav loyalists for holding a parallel rally when the party chief himself was addressing one in Champaran. The rally was called to address development issues in the post-bifurcation scenario.

Ranjan said the incident was uncalled for and unfortunate. “It should not have happened for it is not a sin to talk of development,” he told reporters in Darbhanga.

He did not give any excuse for not joining Laloo in Champaran.

Anger mounted since the word went round that Ranjan and his loyalists led by Nagmoni, Kum Kum Yadav and Ramdeo Bhandari were to assemble in Joynagar.

Though officially the meeting was to address development, it sent wrong signals to the RJD since most of the leaders were hardcore Ranjan supporters and critical of Laloo.

The meeting began by blaming the RJD for the bifurcation. The crowd broke loose when Nagmoni, MP from Chatra, said no power could stop Ranjan on his “mission”. This enraged the crowd who thought the “mission” was offering an alternative leadership to the RJD.

To control the crowd from going berserk, the rebel leader had to bite the dust by raising the slogan: “Laloo Yadav zindabad” and clarifying that he had no rivalry with the party chief.

From a simmering cold war between the two leaders, the infighting has now spilled on to the streets — the first time in the 10-year reign of the party.

Development has remained a fad with Ranjan. The former professor who had been a think-tank member for the RJD chief had expressed his disillusionment with Laloo privately for the latter’s narrowing down his scale to some castes.

Ranjan has given his theme of development a new spin after the state’s division. He made it clear that his own party was as much responsible for the partition as others — a hint of something going wrong with Laloo’s leadership.

Observers feel that the stand-off has not helped Ranjan to establish solid ground. His call for a more development-oriented leadership, which appealed only to the educated middle-class, failed to make inroads at the grassroots level.

The stepped-up activity against Laloo is perceived to be a result of the fast-advancing D-day in the trial of disproportionate assets case. A verdict against Laloo may trigger a struggle for power in the party.

But senior party leaders feel any move against Laloo now would prove to be a counter-offensive against the rebels.

“Even after trial and a verdict, Laloo’s votebank is not going to be less. On the other hand, it would swell because of sympathy factor. It is Laloo’s say which will decide his replacement,” said a former minister.

The RJD chief is probably aware of this himself. Dismissing the Madhubani episode as a family affair, he asked: “Does anybody go public on family issues?”


New Delhi, Dec. 25: 
Defying tradition, “newcomer” Jaipal Reddy is breaking into the Sonia Gandhi camp, emerging as an effective voice of the party as well as the Congress chief’s emissary to the Samajwadi Party.

Jaipal joined the Congress last year on the eve of the general elections along with Renuka Chowdhury, Air Marshall (Retd) N.C. Suri, Wasim Ahmad, M. Arunachalam, Satpal Malik, Amitabh Adhar and Srikant Jena.

A year and six months after, except for Renuka, these leaders have almost lost their identity in the Congress, with the main Opposition party treating the newcomers with the disdain and suspicion it is known for.

This attitude kept Sharad Pawar from getting a foothold in the Congress and contributed to his exit from the party.

Jaipal is, however, proving to be an exception much to the discomfort of many in the Congress.

A battery of Congress spokespersons are wary of him being appointed the party’s “authorised” voice.

Others fear that he may bag the all-important nomination to the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

With the CWC polls and nominations round the corner, a whisper-campaign has begun in Congress circles dubbing the MP from Mahboobnagar (Andhra Pradesh) an “outsider” dyed in “Janata Dal culture”.

Sources close to Jaipal do not agree, pointing out that he was head of the Youth Congress when Narain Dutt Tiwari and Pawar held the same post in their states.

Jaipal remained committed to Congress ideology as he was on the left-of-Centre and “secular” side and always considered communalism to be more lethal than corruption, they said.

Sonia appears to be unaware of the behind-the-scenes politicking against Jaipal and is glad to have discovered a link with Mulayam Singh Yadav and other non-NDA allies.

Congress sources said the leadership has got feelers from the Samajwadi Party for rapprochement with an eye on post-poll tie-up in Uttar Pradesh in case of a hung House.

The Congress chief was also seen encouraging Jaipal to play an active role in shaping the Congress strategy in Parliament. During the winter session, she had made a habit of looking for Jaipal each time party-managers gathered to chalk out floor-strategy.

The Congress Ayodhya strategy was largely formulated by “outsider” Jaipal when Sonia asked him to play host to a strategy session.


Patna, Dec. 25: 
India and Nepal are locked in a tussle over Gautam Buddha’s legacy with Kathmandu asserting that contrary to Indian claims, young Siddhartha grew up in a village in the Himalayan kingdom.

This long-standing dispute between Indian and Nepali archaeologists may soon be settled if the findings at Tilaurakot in Nepal are accepted by international scholars over the claims of Indian specialists.

Indian archaeologists, led by K.M. Srivastava, hold that Gautam was born in Lumbini Park but brought up in Pipprahawa village, known during Buddha’s time as Kapilavastu.

Indian archaeologists, who excavated the village in the Seventies, found inscriptions and remains of stupas of Kapilavastu. The Indian theory, though accepted by Sri Lanka, did not get much intellectual support from Nepal.

Relying on Buddhist scriptures gathered from China, Nepal’s archaeologists teamed up with Robin Coningham of Bradford University, Britain, to reopen the mounds of history in Tilaurakot a few months ago.

They claim to have stumbled on interesting revelations on the early life of Gautam spent there. They argue that the earlier Indian theory was not based on facts.

Fragments of painted bowls, believed to date back to Gautam’s time, crucibles in terracotta, furnaces and pottery beads have been recovered from Tilaurakot.

The team has also spotted Hellenistic-style grid layout and remains of huge brick structures, described as belonging to the first and second centuries AD. The archaeologists are optimistic about finding remains of the first-ever monastery, the foundation stone of which might have been laid by Buddha himself. With these findings, Tilaurakot, about 10 km from Pipprahawa, has attracted the interest of specialists.

Some members of the team visited Gaya, Patna and Pipprahawa in September to make a comparative assessment of the new findings, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) sources said.

Coningham has recently submitted a tentative report on the findings to Nepal’s archaeology department headed by Kosh Acharya.

Talking to The Telegraph, a Nepal government spokesman said: “The new excavations have offered us a chance to settle a dispute on which exactly was the town where Buddha grew up. We are excited by the findings.”

The findings may fuel renewed international interest in the cultural, religious, social and economic forces that moulded Gautam Buddha’s philosophy of non-violence and simple living.

But Indian archaeologists are sceptical. K.K. Mohammad, superintendent of ASI’s Patna circle, said: “We are not sure. Let the new research come up with clinching evidence. We are not bothered either. India has to look after so much of the great prophet’s legacy. History is already by our side.”

Interestingly, the first excavations in this direction in the mid-Sixties were at Tilaurakot under the supervision of former ASI director-general Devala Mitra. But she reportedly abandoned the project for lack of evidence.

“Our excavations in Pipprahawa, on the other hand, showed promise from the beginning. It earned good response from a section of experts too,” recalled D.P. Sinha, who had participated in the project and is now with the Patna circle of the ASI.

Emboldened by the findings, the archaeologists across the border have stepped up a campaign to establish that Buddha grew up in Tilaurakot and not in Pipprahawa.

They say further research can reveal the exact time when Gautam lived. Till now, it is believed that Buddha might have lived somewhere between the fifth and seventh century BC.

If Nepal can establish that Buddha was brought up there, it could be a blow to the proposed circuit of places of interest for Buddhists in India that was being planned to boost tourism. Nepal may take away a chunk of foreign tourists who visit India annually.


New Delhi, Dec. 25: 
Controversy and Maneka Gandhi seem to go hand-in-hand. The firebrand social welfare minister is now at loggerheads with minister of state for petroleum E. Ponnuswamy over possession of the house at 12 Willingdon Crescent that was once occupied by Sanjay Gandhi.

Maneka, who stays in her personal Maharani Bagh residence, has not taken her official accommodation, but now she wants the house on “sentimental” grounds.

After Sanjay’s death 20 years ago, the premises housed the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Trust. This year in October, the trust was asked to vacate the premises by urban development minister Jagmohan, who had shot to fame during Sanjay’s time as Delhi Developmental Authority’s demolition man.

The trust subsequently shifted to Amethi.

Sources close to Ponnuswamy said Maneka was pressuring him to vacate the house so that she could move in.

The Congress has also alleged that she is planning to launch son Feroze Varun in politics from Willingdon Crescent as it was supposedly “auspicious” for political purposes. After all, Indira Gandhi did manage to stage a comeback from that house after her 1977 defeat.

Ponnuswamy moved in on December 6 and he has developed a liking for the house that played a crucial role in shaping the nation’s political scene.

Indira, Rajiv, Sanjay, Maneka, Rahul, Priyanka and their dogs had lived in the Type VII bungalow for months. During the winter session of Parliament, each time Ponnuswamy crossed Maneka, she politely asked him to shift. Now that the session has ended, Ponnuswamy is more confident of retaining the house.

Trust secretary Captain Parveen Davar is unimpressed with Maneka’s “sentimental” reason. Davar, associated with the trust since 1980, spoke to The Telegraph without hiding his bitterness.

“If Manekaji had any sentiment, she would not have allowed the trust to be thrown out of Delhi to 600 km away in Amethi. I do not know what sentiment she is talking about. After all, she is a minister in the Vajpayee government and she could have intervened,” he said.

When The Telegraph contacted Maneka, she refused to comment, but said: “It would have been nice if the government had allotted that house to me. After all, Sanjay stayed in that house.” She said sentimental issues should be not politicised.

The trust is now headed by Sonia Gandhi. The two bahus of Indira are not even on talking terms. Relations within the Gandhi family have further deteriorated in view of the Samajwadi Party’s bid to field Feroze Varun to counter Priyanka in the coming Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh.

Among other trustees are Priyanka, Narain Dutt Tiwari, Murli Deora, Rameshwar Thakur and Kamal Nath, all staunch Congressmen.


Canning (South 24-Parganas), Dec. 25: 
Hooded assailants today shot dead in daylight a CPM youth leader and son of a former party legislator, stoking the embers of political rivalry and gang war in the sensitive district.

In a replay of the Chicago mob murders of the fifties, about half-a-dozen masked men walked into Sahadeb barber shop in the Canning market and shot Deepak Mridha who was having a shave.

The 37-year-old Deepak was the son of Chittaranjan Mridha, a CPM legislator from the area in the eighties.

Witnesses said Deepak, a building contractor, was shot in quick succession in the shoulders, neck and the temple. The assailants also stabbed him with long knives after he tumbled out of the chair. The killers then walked out and melted into the crowd.

Deepak, who had lately earned himself some wealth, was taken to the state-run Canning hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. Police have registered a case, but are finding it difficult to make a breakthrough as the eyewitnesses are believed to be balking at coming forward to help the investigation.

According to one witness, the assailants had walked casually into the barber’s shop, giving the impression that they were customers. The barber had tried to raise an alarm when they began taking aim with their crude revolvers, but he stopped half way after one of the killers hit him.

The Canning market, which was teeming with vehicles and people, resembled a ghost town soon after the murder. All the shops in the market were hurriedly shuttered down while vehicles went off the road fearing an eruption of violence.

The area is the gateway to several picnic spots. Many Calcuttans had gone to Canning and elsewhere in the district to celebrate Christmas.

Deepak, who was a zilla parishad member, is believed to have had been questioned in connection with the recent murders of a CPM leader and an RSP member.

According to local political circles, intra-CPM strife in Canning and gang war over securing the contract for operating the money-spinning local water transport system were at the root of today’s murder. As soon as news of the murder spread, the CPM’s South 24-Parganas district secretary, Samir Putatunda, reached Canning from Calcutta.

Local party MLA Bimal Mistri said Deepak’s murder was the handiwork of some antisocials with whom he had no connection.

The police, however, said a preliminary inquiry revealed that there could have been more than one motive behind the murder.

Goutam Seal, officer-in-charge of the Canning police station, said Deepak had recently earned a considerable amount from his business. This could have created a rift between Deepak and rival contractors.


Siliguri, Dec. 25: 
The CPI today said it was ready to act as a “negotiator” between the state government and the Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP) if the outfit dropped its demand for a separate state.

Minister of state for civil defence and CPI leader Sreekumar Mukherjee told reporters here that the party was ready to “arrange” talks between the CPM-led government and the KPP, provided the latter accepted certain terms and conditions.

Mukherjee, here to attend the three-day state conference of the party’s youth wing, said: “The CPI is ready to arrange talks between the KPP and the state government, provided the KPP accepts certain conditions. The KPP must drop its demands for a separate state and recognition of the Kamtapuri language. The KPP will also have to desist from claiming that the entire north Bengal belonged only to a particular (read Rajbonshi) community.”

The announcement comes close on the heels of senior CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta’s statement expressing reservations over the manner in which the ruling CPM-led front was handling the separatist movements in north Bengal. “We cannot stop the Kamtapur separatist movement by the use of brute police and administrative force. No one should dream of deterring separatists by sheer threats and brutality,” Dasgupta told the conference yesterday.

Commenting on the possibility of talks, Mukherjee said: “The Left front was always ready to sit for any discussion with any party relating to development. Let KPP president Atul Roy prepare a charter of demands accepting the CPI’s terms and I will personally take up the responsibility to open a dialogue between chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the KPP president.”

However, Roy was not available for comment. Earlier, during his visit to Siliguri, Bhattacharjee had ruled out any negotiation with the KPP, unless it formally requested for one.

The CPI leaders’ criticism of the way the government was handling the separatists in north Bengal, after the resurgence of the armed movement for Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling hills and the demand for Kamtapur in the plains of north Bengal, made it clear that the party did not support the movements.

Dasgupta said: “North Bengal was definitely under-developed but not neglected as being projected by the Opposition parties. Neglect and deprivation breed separatist movements. The need is to alleviate the down-trodden and separatist movements are not the right path. A separate Kamtapur or Gorkhaland will not solve the development problems of the Kamtapuris or the Gorkhas. Concerted poverty alleviation movement is the need of the hour.”

The CPI leaders accused the Opposition of hatching a conspiracy to wean away the Left votes in the region and destabilising it.

“The Congress and the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine have not condemned the violence perpetrated by the Kamtapur militants. These parties are even encouraging the Kamtapuris to spew fire in the region to retard development,” a CPI leader alleged.


Durgapur, Dec. 25: 
Police have launched an investigation into the violation of Calcutta High Court’s Green Bench ban on the use of loud speaker after 11 pm by the organisers of Sonu Nigam Nite on Saturday.

District magistrate Swami Singh has asked sub-divisional officer D.D. Goswami to make his assessment and submit a report to him by tomorrow.

Singh has also demanded to know what the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) authorities were doing during the night-long extravaganza.

Durgapur is the headquarters of the WBPCB’s six south Bengal district offices. District authorities said they were “puzzled” how such an illegal act could be allowed when senior board officials, including the regional chief engineer, were in town.

Singh said he will talk to dignitaries who attended the programme, which includes state power and science and technology minister Mrinal Banerjee, industry minister Bangsa Gopal Chowdhury, mayor of Durgapur Municipal Corporation Ratan Roy, managing director of Durgapur Steel Plant S.B. Singh and WBIDC director B.K. Chakraborty.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has asked superintendent of police Manoj Malvia to find out whether the function had flouted the high court’s guidelines.

Bhattacharjee was in Burdwan on Saturday, the day the function was held.

The power minister said he had been there for hardly 15 minutes. Members of Amra Kajan, the club that had organised the show, were not available for comment.


Calcutta, Dec. 25: 
With the Assembly elections round the corner, the state government has identified more than 1,000 moujas located in remote rural belts where it will provide electricity generated from an unconventional source — solar energy.

Approximately 10,000 families have been earmarked under this scheme. The completion of the scheme is slated for March 31, 2001.

The government’s hurried decision and announcement of the scheme before the elections is significant as it is aimed at helping the ruling CPM woo voters.

According to observers, what prompted the Left Front government to make this move is the fear that failure to supply power to hundreds of villages even after 23 years of its rule may be used by the Trinamul Congress and other parties during campaigning for the polls.

Sujan Chakraborty, chairman of Rural Energy Development Corporation (REDC) — the organisation which is implementing the scheme — dismissed the allegation, saying that the government had chalked out the plan for this project nearly four years ago.

“We did not lay much emphasis on this kind of a scheme earlier because electricity was not the number one demand of villagers then. The demand for electricity has arisen over the last few years with the gradual development of the economic conditions of the villagers, which is why we are so keen to provide this facility to them now,” he said.

However, sources maintained that the government is believed to have taken this step as it feels that it is not worth spending the huge amount that would be required to set up the infrastructure for supplying conventional electricity.

Many of these moujas are sparsely populated with some of the villages having even less than 100 families. Some of these villages are so farflung that crores of rupees — Rs 6 crore approximately — will have to be spent for the installation of electric poles and other infrastructure.

The sources said users will have to spend Rs 2,500, even though the actual cost is Rs 14,500. The state government will also provide Rs 6,000 as subsidy to each user. The Centre has agreed to sponsor another Rs 6,000 for every family, the sources added.

The users will have their own system installed in their houses. The Rs 14,500 package for each family will include five points — three for lamps and two for a portable television and a fan.

However, users can opt for a system with higher capacity. They will have to spend more for which the government will not provide subsidy.

Chakraborty said the government had chosen solar power not just to avoid spending huge amounts. The villages are situated in remote areas and there is a huge distance between each village. This would make it difficult to connect them by poles. Power thefts and maintenance might also pose problems.


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