PM scramble to repair Ayodhya damage
Stunned VHP defiant
Ball set rolling for Bleach release
Business scare in kingdom of bandhs
Calcutta steps into new year as Kolkata
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Jan. 1: 
Claiming that his recent comments on Ayodhya had been misunderstood, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today warned against disturbing the status quo.

In doing so, the Prime Minister set a precedent by deciding to make this statement of public import through an “article” given to handpicked newspapers. Never before has a Prime Minister chosen to talk to the people of this country selectively.

Excerpts from his article — My musings from Kumarakom-I — released to news agencies quoted Vajpayee as saying: “I wish to make it absolutely clear that the law will take its own course should any organisation attempt to disturb the status quo. The government will not remain a silent spectator and adopt delaying tactics, as happened eight years ago.”

The statement goes beyond simply cautioning outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and commits the government to an active role in upholding the law while taking a sideswipe at the Narasimha Rao government during whose tenure the Babri demolition took place.

It also appears to stand in stark contrast to what he had said early last month while defending L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, facing charges in the demolition case.

Vajpayee seemed keen to repair the damage to his image as a moderate after he said that the “Ram temple movement was an expression of nationalist feelings. That task is not yet over.”

After the Opposition and some of the allies raised a hue and cry, Vajpayee told Parliament that the dispute was best left to the courts to decide. Today’s “article” goes quite a distance down that road of moderation.

Vajpayee insisted that the “wrongs of a medieval past cannot be righted by a similar wrong in modern times”.

What is baffling is the restrictive method of spreading this message. No reason — other than that it was after all an article and not a statement — was cited for the decision to release it through certain newspapers, chosen arbitrarily. Prime Ministers are known to address the people through public pronouncements and not by penning articles exclusively for the eyes of a few.

“It is very unfortunate, uncalled for and discriminatory,” Congress leader Prithviraj Chauhan. It was without precedence and indeed surprising, he added.

In the “article” — it seems there will be at least one sequel — Vajpayee made an attempt to explain the context of his statement that the temple movement was an expression of nationalist feelings.

“What is overlooked is the past tense I had consciously used in my statement. In my reply to the debate in the Rajya Sabha, I had clearly stated that although the movement for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya was an expression of our national sentiment, this sentiment became narrow, and its inclusive character became restrictive, because of the unfortunate demolition of the disputed mosque structure on December 6, 1992.”

The question he does not answer is why he added: “That task is not yet over.” This read like an open invitation to the VHP to go and build the temple.

The Prime Minister said: “The status quo at Kashi, Mathura and other disputed places of worship must remain undisturbed. Far from indicating Hindu society’s weakness, this will show the strength of our national ethos of tolerance.”

As he had done in the recent past, Vajpayee emphasised the need to resolve the Ayodhya dispute as early as possible and in one of two ways: through court verdict or a negotiated settlement. He said: “It is a challenge to the collective wisdom of our society that we find a peaceful and amicable solution to this problem, sooner rather than later.”

The Prime Minister said he felt saddened that “my comments were twisted and turned for no other reason but to gain political advantage”.

He added: “I must confess that I am pained by some of the comments, observations and speculations in the aftermath of the recent developments in Parliament. My political adversaries are entitled to disagree with me, but they will not be able to see any inconsistency in my views on the Ayodhya issue, all of which are well recorded.”

He deplored the fact that “overnight” he was transformed from a “moderate” to a “hardliner”.

“Vajpayee unmasked, they said, conveniently masking the fact that my long stint in public life is an open book. Worse still, a campaign was launched to create misgivings about me in the minds of our minority brethren.”


New Delhi, Jan. 1: 
After winning over the Sangh parivar with his pro-Ram temple statements on December 6, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee risks losing its goodwill by turning around.

The BJP and other RSS constituents were stunned by the Prime Minister’s article.

The VHP alone went on the frontfoot and declared it would construct the Ram temple if the sadhus and sants decreed, irrespective of the Prime Minister’s stiff warning. VHP joint general secretary Onkar Bhave said: “We need not take our orders from the government because we only obey the sadhus and sants.”

The outfit will hold a three-day “Dharam Sansad” in Allahabad from January 19 to finalise its schedule for temple construction. Sources said the programme would not be deferred because of Vajpayee’s volte-face.

On the Prime Minister’s assertion of the law dealing firmly with those who violate the court orders on the disputed site, Bhave said: “When has the law not taken its course? Gandhi had to face the law when he went on his andolan. Ours is a much bigger andolan than Gandhi’s, so naturally we will also face the law.”

On Vajpayee’s remark that the wrongs from the past cannot be straightened out by similar deeds now, Bhave said: “This is his imagination at work. If I throw out a trespasser from my abode, how does it violate the law? Thousands of our temples were broken, so can we not legitimately seek their reconstruction? After all, it happened in Somnath.”

The BJP hardliners — who were quick to react when the Prime Minister described the Ram temple as an “expression of nationalist sentiments” — were guarded. “No comments please,” said the MP from Uttar Pradesh, Swami Chinmayanand, a former VHP activist. On the day Vajpayee had revived the temple agenda, Chinmayanand held a news conference to announce that the Centre should not wait for the court verdict but go ahead and enact a law to facilitate the building of the temple.

RSS sources seemed hesitant to comment. “He is the Prime Minister after all and has to maintain a certain stature,” a source said. The Sangh’s mouthpieces, Organiser and Panchajanya, had gone to town with his remarks and challenged all parties to place their views on the mandir-masjid dispute on record.

BJP sources linked the shift to three factors. One, pressure from allies like the Trinamul Congress, Telugu Desam and the DMK. The chinks in the ruling coalition were exposed during the Parliament debate on the censure motion on Ayodhya.

Two, the party’s feedback from Uttar Pradesh was that the revival of the “temple card” was not received too positively.

Last, there were apprehensions that the temple issue was threatening to derail the peace process in Kashmir, robbing Vajpayee of the chance of emerging a “statesman”.


New Delhi, Jan. 1: 
The ground is slowly being prepared for the release of Peter Bleach, the British national convicted to life imprisonment for his involvement in the sensational December 1995 Purulia armsdrop case.

A Union home ministry statement today said a formal request for remission of Bleach’s sentence was “under examination”.

Bleach was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Calcutta sessions court for waging war against the state and for committing related offences under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including the Arms Act, the Explosives Substances Act and the Aircraft Act. He was sentenced along with five Latvians who formed the crew of the AN-26 aircraft, which dropped a huge consignment of weapons over Purulia on the night of December 17/18, 1995.

In July this year, President K.R. Narayanan remitted the sentence handed out to the Latvians — Alexander Klichine, Igor Moskvitine, Oleg Gaidach, Evgeni Antimenko and Igor Timmerman — just before the state visit of Russian President Vladmir Putin.

The incarceration of the Latvians in Presidency Jail, Calcutta had become a major issue in Russia where the Putin administration took the initiative of securing their freedom.

In Bleach’s case, the Centre has received a formal request from the British government, to which the home ministry responded today by hinting at his release. Expectations were high last week that Bleach’s pardon would be announced before Christmas as a gesture of goodwill, but some last-minute hitch appeared to have put paid to that.

Bleach had moved Calcutta High Court after the sessions court verdict. His case was taken up by British home secretary Jack Straw during his visit here in September. At that time, home minister L.K. Advani had promised Straw that the government would try to hasten the judicial process in Calcutta High Court.

It was only around November-end that the British foreign office formally sent the request for remission of Bleach’s sentence to the foreign ministry. A Conservative MP, Teddy Taylor, has been trying to persuade the Labour government to get Bleach released.

The government is said to be divided on the issue. While the home ministry does not appear to be too keen on releasing Bleach, considering the seriousness of the crimes committed by him, the external affairs ministry has pleaded for an early favourable decision and wants the Briton to be pardoned by the President before the visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair early February.

Government sources said consultations were on at an inter-ministerial level and legal opinion was being sought on whether he can be treated in the same way as the Latvians and set free. However, indications are that the government will relent and request the President to consider pardoning Bleach.

The CBI will have no say as all the accused in the case have been convicted. “The CBI’s role ended with the conviction of Bleach and the five Latvians. It is now up to the government what stand it takes,” an official said. “The question of contesting his release does not arise.”


Kathmandu, Jan. 1: 
As the Hrithik Roshan controversy lurched from street brawls to a political scrimmage, Nepalis of Indian origin — the backbone of the kingdom’s business — warned that the biggest losers would be the economy and domestic investors.

Many businessmen, some of whose establishments were picked out for attacks last week, fear they will now find themselves more at the receiving end of the growing anti-India feeling here.

Captains of industry feel that the sluggish Nepali economy, which had showed signs of a recovery in the past two years, could slip back into the rut if the unending stream of strikes was allowed a free run. The concern coincided with the start of a two-day shutdown demanding the dismissal of the G.P. Koirala government.

“Frequent bandhs accompanied by violence will further damage the image of the country in the international arena. Nepal is already struggling hard to refurbish the image tarnished by Maoist insurgency in the north-western parts of the kingdom,” said a leading industrialist.

“Nepal has a modest economic base, but business activities face a host of impediments. It is the local partners of joint ventures who are the hardest hit by such encumbrances,” said Mohan Man Sainju, former vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission of Nepal. “All channels of distribution will be disrupted and hence the effects of the bandh will be more felt by local entrepreneurs of joint ventures than the parent company,” pointed out a director of a multinational.

“Investors tend to lose confidence when violence and frequent bandhs affect business activities. Confidence once lost is hard to rebuild,” added a director of a multinational based in Kathmandu. “The major setback of such undesirable agitation is that it destroys Nepali image. Nepal used to be identified as a safe haven for investments and tourism in the past, but no more,” rued an economist.

An Indian investor said if the violence is not checked, existing businesses, too, would be forced to redraw their plans. “Forget potential investors. If the frequency of violence and bandhs go up, even existing businessmen will think twice before pumping more capital into Nepal.”

The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries has expressed concern over the recurring general strikes. “Not only Nepalese industries, even the Indian joint ventures have large chunks of Nepali shareholdings. They have been set in accordance with the Nepal Company Act and are generating employment for thousands of Nepalis,” said federation vice-president Rajendra Kumar Khetan.

“They have their own organisations within the namghar, but are hardly represented in the general bodies which manage these institutions,” says Archana Sarmah, director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre.

“One should not make a general assumption from the contents of the report, but depriving women of the right to be part of the decision-making process is not a good sign,” she adds.

Sarmah says women are allowed to collect funds for namghars, but not given the opportunity to say how these should be utilised. The Women’s Studies Research Centre of Gauhati University is sponsored by the University Grants Commission.


Calcutta, Jan. 1: 
The Bengal government has issued a notification officially changing the way Calcutta is written in English to Kolkata.

“From today, we have started writing Kolkata in all government documents instead of Calcutta. All the formalities in this regard have been completed and a notification has been issued,’’ chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said today at Writers’ Buildings.

When he was deputy under Jyoti Basu, Bhattacharjee had set the ball rolling for the change.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta said he had not yet calculated the financial implication of making the change in all official stationery.

Various government agencies like the CMDA, CIT, CMC, Calcutta Telephones, CSTC and the Calcutta Tramways Company will also have to change the way they write their name.

Officials said no separate notification or order is required to make the change. The authorities of these agencies have been asked to adopt Kolkata from today.

Finance department officials said the burden on agencies such as the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, which will have to print afresh letterheads, vouchers, receipts and each piece of stationery, will be more than on government departments.

Central public sector undertakings, such as the Calcutta Port Trust, are also expected to fall in line.

A senior home department official said though it is not mandatory to change the names of private companies, shops, establishments and educational institutions, they have been asked to do so if it is not too much of an inconvenience.




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