Ghani ready for mahajot with BJP ally
Advani sees reign of terror
BJP pins hope on Cong in Bengal
Admirer meets hero Giap
Vajpayee eyes Asean platform
Bush relief to Atal after Al’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act
Sentenced to life minus trial
School panel faces power axe
Nepal border awaits force
Buddha vows work as usual on strike day

 
 
GHANI READY FOR MAHAJOT WITH BJP ALLY 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, Jan. 9: 
Two days after Mamata Banerjee relaunched the campaign for a grand alliance with the Congress, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi called on her at her Kalighat residence.

Chowdhury even assured Mamata that her alliance with the BJP would not stand in the way of the proposed mahajot.

“The emergence of anti-CPM forces is the need of the hour to oust the communists from Bengal and for that we can overlook the BJP factor,” the former state Congress chief said. Congress MLA Paresh Pal and Trinamul general secretary Mukul Roy were present.

Expectations had run high in state Congress circles about a year ago when Mamata visited Chowdhury’s Salt Lake residence to discuss the mahajot for the first time. However, it did not materialise because of stiff opposition from the high command.

“But this time, we are firm about an alliance with you,” he told Mamata. The former PCC chief said during his visit to Delhi tomorrow, he would brief Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the outcome of the discussion with Mamata.

The meeting began on a pleasant note with Mamata asking Chowdhury if there was any progress of the concept of mahajot. The Congress veteran promised he would move around with the Trinamul leader across the state if she was serious about heading the grand alliance. He requested Mamata to undertake a tour of Malda and Murshidabad districts to ensure the consolidation of anti-CPM forces.

Mamata, in turn, asked the former PCC chief to lead the new anti-CPM combination instead of her. “Barkatda, we will be with you if you renew the call for constitution of a platform of anti-CPM forces in Bengal,” she said.

At this, Ghani Khan Chowdhury retorted: “Mamata, it is now your turn as I was unable to throw the CPM into the Bay of Bengal. I want to see the CPM out of power in my lifetime.”

The issue also figured in a one-to-one meeting between Mamata and Das Munshi. Though Das Munshi maintained he had called on the Trinamul leader to extend support to her demand for promulgation of Article 356 in Bengal, loyalists said he also discussed the prospect of mahajot.

Several Congress leaders welcomed the move saying it was a step in the right direction, with the Assembly elections round the corner. “If the mahajot takes shape before the elections, it can be a real alternative to the Left Front,” observed PCC vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya. Congress MLA Pal added he would join forces with Mamata to fight the communists.

   

 
 
ADVANI SEES REIGN OF TERROR 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 9: 
The Centre would have been satisfied had the Bengal government ordered at least a judicial inquiry into the alleged massacre at Chhoto Angaria, L.K. Advani said today.

“It is not a question of whether the probe by the state CID will be partial or impartial. If the Bengal government had ordered a judicial inquiry, it would have been another matter,” the home minister said. He alleged that the police were indifferent to developments following the incident.

Advani said the government was awaiting Bengal’s response to the Central advisory sent to chief secretary Manish Gupta. But he added the “Chhoto Angaria incident was not a minor one and the situation was bad”.

Advani said “what is disquieting is that there is a climate of terror” in the area where the “massacre” of Trinamul Congress supporters took place. “People are tongue-tied for fear of retribution from the ruling party. It is not an isolated incident. There has been a spate of such incidents and people have fled their villages. These incidents seemed to be related to the ensuing Assembly elections.”

Voicing doubts over the state government’s reports on the incident, Advani said: “We are getting reports that the Bengal government cannot controvert.”

The Union government is not likely to let the matter die down fast. Though it may not take any hasty step on imposing President’s rule, some of its allies are for invoking Article 356 in the state.

The five-member Central team led by BJP MP Vijay Goel has recommended President’s rule in its report submitted today to the home minister. But Advani was non-committal. “The government will consider every aspect in totality before deciding on whether Article 356 can be applied.

Reacting sharply chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: “What does he (Advani) mean by impartial? Is the CBI impartial? If it is, then the CID too is the same.” Bhattacharjee , who ordered the CID to probe the incident, added: “My CID is efficient enough.”

   

 
 
BJP PINS HOPE ON CONG IN BENGAL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 9: 
The BJP-Trinamul combine in Bengal is not “strong enough” to defeat the Left Front in the Assembly elections, a BJP internal assessment has said.

A functionary conceded there was every chance of the Left getting re-elected unless a mahajot is forged with the Congress either through a tacit and a tactical understanding or a chunk of the Congress is weaned away.

He said Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee’s dilemma was evident in her “walking a tightrope” and trying to keep both the BJP and the Congress on her side.

“If the Congress does not become part of the mahajot, minority votes will split between the Trinamul, the Congress and the CPM. This will partially ensure the Left Front’s return to power,” he said.

He said BJP president Bangaru Laxman welcoming a mahajot in Bhubaneswar last week, if only as a “one-time exception”, went a “long way in clearing the air as far as Mamata is concerned”.

“Otherwise she was not sure where the BJP stood vis-ŕ-vis an understanding with the Congress. Now she is assured that there will be no objection from our side,” the BJP general secretary said.

The BJP reading is that if the Congress rejects the mahajot offer, Mamata will split the party. “She will try and wean away a section of the state leaders and legislators. This will buttress her claim that in Bengal the Trinamul is the real Congress and the Congress rump that remains is finished for all purposes,” he said.

   

 
 
ADMIRER MEETS HERO GIAP 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
Hanoi, Jan. 9: 
The request from the Prime Minister surprised his Vietnamese hosts and, perhaps, caused worries in some quarters. But in the end it was honoured: Atal Bihari Vajpayee did get to meet Vietnam’s living legend, General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose military strategies shaped many a victory, primarily the triumph at Dien Bien Phu, against the French and the Americans.

For Vajpayee, who has said he belongs to a generation “consumed by the cause of Vietnam”, the 30-minute meeting this morning was momentous. The general, too, did not disappoint his guest: he walked into the International Convention Centre dressed in full-army regalia.

Gen. Giap (pronounced Zap in Vietnamese), a close associate of Ho Chi Minh, led the troops during the war against the French and won a decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.

Despite his five-foot nothing height, Gen. Giap is arguably the tallest political figure in the country today. But that, perhaps, is also his problem. The current leadership in Hanoi, which has opened its doors to foreign capital and is keen to normalise relations with the US, is a little nervous about veterans like Gen. Giap. Though his views are not known officially, Vietnam-watchers claim he does not approve of the policies being pursued by the current dispensation in Hanoi.

Vajpayee visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh — the body lies embalmed— and paid rich tributes to the architect of Vietnam’s independence.

Hours later, he was praising the Vietnamese leadership for its “Doi Moi”, or open-door economic policy, which, he said, “brought high growth, investment, expanding trade and a better standard of living for the Vietnamese people”.

“History has willed that we become strategic partners in the new century to promote peace, stability, security and sustainable cooperation among countries in Asia,” the Prime Minister said.

Vajpayee was only matching the pragmatism of his Vietnamese hosts. Both sides agree that historical ties between the nations, which flourished during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, should be used to build closer cooperation on key economic and political issues,” he said.

   

 
 
VAJPAYEE EYES ASEAN PLATFORM 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Hanoi, Jan. 9: 
At the end of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s “successful” visit to Vietnam and on the eve of his trip to Indonesia, India remained optimistic that perhaps a consensus is building up among the Southeast Asian nations for Delhi to play a more meaningful role in the region.

The government is hopeful of a India plus Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit, an honour extended so far to only three non-Asean powers — China, Japan and South Korea.

Vajpayee’s visit to Vietnam and Indonesia and his proposal to tour Malaysia next month — all three are key Asean members — is being seen in the context of Delhi’s desire to play a significant role in Southeast Asia-— a crucial region in its immediate neighbourhood.

Vajpayee has made it clear that Vietnam “is a critical element” in India’s plans to forge stronger ties with Asean. “It is pivotal to our Look East policy,” he said during his visit.

India, which embarked on its “Look East Policy” in 1991 during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime, has become more active in the region. In 1996, it was allowed to become a full-dialogue partner of the elite security grouping, the Asean Regional Forum, which is represented by all major world players.

India now wants to deepen this partnership and an Asean plus one summit could go a long way in that direction.

Asean is important for India not only because most of its members are cash-rich and together they comprise one of the biggest trade blocs in the region. The individual members have technology in infrastructure and provide a ready market for Indian entrepreneurs, particularly those in the information technology sector.

Moreover, keeping the vast sea-lanes of the Asean countries free and peaceful is in India’s interests.

National security adviser Brajesh Mishra, while explaining these issues, said India and Vietnam have had excellent ties dating back to centuries but the time had come to “lay the groundwork for a modern relationship between the two sides”.

He said that India sees Vietnam as a strategic partner which can play a key role in maintaining peace and security in the region.

Vajpayee held a series of meetings with Vietnamese leaders, including President Tran Duc Loung, Prime Minister Phan Khai and the general secretary of the ruling communist party, Le Kha Phieu.

Stressing that the economic content will play a crucial role in this new relationship, the Prime Minister invited businessmen from India and Vietnam to help in this endeavour.

“If the traditional spiritual bond between our two nations is the heart of our bilateral relationship and our common geo-political perception is its mind, then stronger economic ties will have to be its flesh and bones,” Vajpayee said at a Joint Business Council meeting here this afternoon.

   

 
 
BUSH RELIEF TO ATAL AFTER AL’S JEKYLL-AND-HYDE ACT 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, Jan. 9: 
A quiet sigh of relief! That was how Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his close aides, who were packing their bags to leave for Vietnam, received the news that the elevation of George W. Bush to the US presidency was final.

It is one of the untold stories of Vajpayee’s visit to the US in September that the Prime Minister’s only meeting in Washington which did not go off well was with vice-president Al Gore who came within a hair’s breadth of occupying the White House.

The ill-starred meeting between Vajpayee and Gore was also the biggest surprise of the prime ministerial trip. As Vajpayee’s itinerary in Washington was being finalised, Gore’s office proposed a lunch hosted by the vice-president for the Prime Minister on the second day of his official visit here.

The Indians were delighted because Gore was in the thick of campaigning for the White House and was taking time off to meet the Indian leader. The result of the closely-fought presidential poll was then anybody’s guess.

The lunch at the US state department, in fact, went off better than anybody expected. Gore was unstinting in his praise for Vajpayee, describing him as the embodiment of John F. Kennedy’s ideas, the highest tribute any American of the Clinton-Gore generation can pay a foreign leader.

Gore said in his toast to Vajpayee: “President John Kennedy once said, ‘if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live.’ Mr Prime Minister, you embody President Kennedy’s words. You know both poetry and politics, and through your inspired leadership, you are indeed making the world a better place to live.”

Gore also quoted from Vajpayee’s poetry about humility and being in touch with humanity and said: “You have dedicated your life to this noble ambition.”

But early morning on the day of the luncheon, Gore’s aides requested a private meeting with the Prime Minister after the lunch. The Indians were even more delighted.

Actually, Gore’s request for such a private meeting was what resulted in the cancellation of a joint media appearance at the White House by Vajpayee and President Bill Clinton. The vice-president’s office had told the Prime Minister’s aides that the post-lunch meeting could take anything between 30 to 45 minutes.

Vajpayee’s doctors felt the ailing Prime Minister’s day was stretching out too long and that he should not go through the exercise of being on his feet at the White House, taking questions from the media after day-long engagements right from early morning.

However, what happened at the private meeting took Vajpayee’s breath away. Gore, who was solicitous to his guest in public to the point of being sentimental, was a completely different person behind closed doors.

As soon as the Prime Minister and the vice-president were closeted together, Gore came straight to the point without any preliminaries. He bluntly told Vajpayee that the very first thing he intended to do if elected President was to send the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification once again.

Gore told the Prime Minister that his White House would then be under intense pressure to do something against countries like India, which were dragging their feet on global test ban. The presidential aspirant darkly hinted to Vajpayee that unless New Delhi acted quickly on CTBT, India would have to face the music.

Although the Prime Minister was initially taken aback by Gore’s Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour, he had by then regained his composure. Resisting the temptation to return the vice-president’s non-proliferation lecture word-for-word, the Prime Minister calmly explained that his government was trying for a national consensus on the test ban treaty.

But Gore would not give up. After all, one of his pet beliefs was non-proliferation and Leon Feurth, his presumptive National Security Adviser as President was known as a hardliner on the issue. Gore harangued Vajpayee on CTBT during most of the meeting.

Finally, Vajpayee told Gore that he had been in office only for two years and that India had a history of rejection of CTBT that went as far back as three Prime Ministers before him. There was national agreement on the issue.

Had Gore been elected President, there would have been other issues as well over which India and the US would have clashed: environment, labour standards, world trade and so on.

Vajpayee went back to India and talked about the meeting with very senior party colleagues. Inimitably, he said of Gore, “Woh gora hai”, indicating that the vice-president’s attitude was typically white or colonial.

The president-elect, George W. Bush, has made clear his intention not to pursue ratification of CTBT. But Gore and the Democrats will not give up, as retired General John Shalikashvili’s report on the issue last week to Clinton suggests. The outgoing Clinton administration is doing all it can to persuade Bush to change his mind on CTBT.

   

 
 
SENTENCED TO LIFE MINUS TRIAL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Patna, Jan. 9: 
Eighty-five-year-old Nirmal Paswan moved a Patna court for bail 12 times since he was picked up by Jehanabad police years ago on bride-burning charges. The last time his plea was rejected and he was dumped back in Beur jail was last June.

A month later, Paswan died.

A Unicef survey on Bihar jails has put the spotlight back on the several hundred such prisoners —- both elderly and minors —- languishing in prisons for years without trial. The survey has also mounted pressure on the Rabri Devi government to free the prisoners as soon as possible by trying their cases in a lok adalat to be held in Beur jail itself.

Bihar jail minister Ashoke Chowdhury today said the state had already kickstarted a drive to single out such prisoners and was mulling using the Governor’s powers under Section 141 of the Criminal Procedure Code to free them.

“We have identified over 100 undertrials from jails in 20 districts who are so old and infirm that they cannot take care of themselves. They will be released in the first phase after cases pending against them are scrutinised,” he said.

Chowdhury added an exercise was also under way to identify minors —- booked for petty offences —- whose ages have been deliberately increased by their parents so that they could be sent to jail instead of reform homes. Jails are considered safer and less chaotic than reform homes in Bihar.

“After the exercise is over, we will send the minors to reform homes and then get their cases speedily disposed of through lok adalats,” Chowdhury said. There are about 4,000 such minors biding time in Bihar jails along with hardened criminals.

A Beur jail officer said the longest term a minor would have to serve out, even if convicted for a petty offence, was three months. “But some have been in jail for between five and 10 years.”

According to survey figures, at least a hundred minors are to be found in every jail in Bihar. In Hajipur jail alone, there are 50 young children charged with stealing railway property or not buying train tickets.

A worker from Atma Bodh, an NGO involved with the survey, said railway magistrates held court very erratically. “For the last nine months railway magistrates have not been holding sessions to try the cases. And the minors have been continuing to rot in jail,” he said.

Chowdhury said though jails in the state could accommodate about 55,000 prisoners, the beginnings of a space crunch was showing up given the spiralling crime rate. “If I go out and set up additional wards in each jail every year, it will not be enough,” the minister said.

The survey also held up the appaling condition of women undertrials, who make up 10 per cent of the prisoners.

In a large number of cases, they are put behind bars along with their menfolk and have to leave their children behind. They are also not allowed to meet their children for years on end. The survey said provision had to be made for the upbringing of convicts’ children.

   

 
 
SCHOOL PANEL FACES POWER AXE 
 
 
BY MITA MUKHERJEE
 
Calcutta, Jan. 9: 
With an eye on the Assembly elections, the government is planning to amend the School Service Commission Act to take away from the panel the power to appoint headmasters in state-funded schools in West Bengal.

The move has sparked fears that the CPM-led government will use the opportunity to fill up the posts with party faithfuls.

School teachers make up the bulk of election employees and a headmaster will be in a position to influence an election employee, who serves under him at the school, on behalf of his party.

“The commission was set up after formulating an Act only two years ago to ensure unbiased appointment of teachers and headmasters. How can the government afford to amend the Act in such a short time?” asked Ratan Laskar, general secretary of the Secondary School Teachers’ and Employees’ Association, a non-CPM teachers’ body. “There is a political motive for bringing such a proposal,” he added.

The government dismissed the charge, saying the proposed amendment is aimed at facilitating the process of filling up 2,500 headmasters’ posts lying vacant for long.

The commission was set up to recruit teachers, including headmasters, in secondary schools. But it has so far held only one test for recruiting headmasters.

“Recruitment of headmasters should be kept out of the commission’s purview as the government is facing a lot problems to fill up the posts through this process. We can’t afford to run the schools without headmasters for a long time,” said Kanti Biswas, school education minister.

Instead of the commission, the government now plans to empower the managing committees of schools to prepare a panel of three suitable candidates from whom one will be selected. This, observers pointed out, may help schools with a majority of sympathisers of any party on their managing committees to have a candidate affiliated to their party.

Biswas recently held a meeting with several registered bodies of school teachers where the CPM-controlled All-Bengal Teachers’ Association urged the necessity of proper measures by the state to fill up the numerous headmasters’ posts. But non-CPM teachers’ bodies opposed the proposal.

“The vacant headmasters’ posts need to be filled up immediately. It is up to the government how to do it. We have not suggested any amendment to the Act,” said Adhikram Sanyal, general secretary, ABTA.

There are nearly 12,000 state-funded schools in the state, of which 3,000 are located in the city and its adjoining areas.

The teachers opposing the government’s move pointed out that the “unexpectedly poor” success rate in the test held by the commission to recruit headmasters had prompted the government to amend the Act. Less than 10 per cent candidates had qualified in the tests.

The teachers alleged that since a small number of candidates had qualified, the government found it difficult to accommodate party sympathisers in those schools where the managing committees were dominated by the ruling party.

   

 
 
NEPAL BORDER AWAITS FORCE 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Jan. 9: 
The Indo-Nepal Border Task Force, a separate police wing to be formed by the state government with Central assistance, is yet to see the light of day even a year and half after its office was set up at Mirik in the Darjeeling hills with much fanfare.

The state government decided to constitute the force in view of the possibility of separatists and militants taking advantage of the porous border where the Border Security Force cannot be deployed because of the 1950 Indo-Nepal Friendship Treaty.

Article VII of the treaty allows free movement of Indian and Nepali nationals between the two countries.

The West Bengal government asked for more help from the Centre to tighten security along the border with Nepal after the Indian Airlines hijack.

On March 31 last year, CBI personnel arrested Dilip Kumar Bhujel, a resident of Kalimpong, for his alleged links with the hijackers. The officials said a CBI team came to the hill town again recently to interrogate more people in connection with Bhujel’s case.

A controversy is still raging between the neighbours about the alleged use of Nepal by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence for its anti-India operations. The recent anti-India flare-up in Nepal over the Hrithik Roshan episode, too, has fuelled the need for the early setting up of the force.

Senior police officers working in Darjeeling district are worried about the delay in raising the force. “It’s embarrassing for us to have only an empty office of the proposed force for about a year. There’s not even a signboard of the force at the Mirik office. This, despite reports of growing ISI activities in the neighbouring country,” said a police official.

“There’s an urgent need for setting up the border task force given the porous nature of the 150-km border West Bengal shares with Nepal, mostly along hilly terrain. Moreover, the recent seizure of arms, explosives, drugs and fake Indian currency, not to mention contrabands, on both sides means that it’s imperative that the task force is set up,” the officer added.

Officials maintained that security along the border had to be intensified now because of threats from Gorkhaland and Kamtapur separatists.

Sources here said officials of the Union home ministry and the state government met in New Delhi last week to give a “concrete shape” to the border force.

“The tough hilly terrain makes it a full-time job to keep an eye on both human and vehicular movement. The idea is not to seal the porous border but to monitor it. Thousands of people from both sides cross the international border daily,” said an official “manning” the office in Mirik.

On December 22, the Darjeeling police arrested two suspected ISI agents from a “hideout” at Matigara on the outskirts of Siliguri. The two agents, one of them a 40-year-old former soldier Hari Gurung, were reportedly “controlled” by the Pakistani embassy in Kathmandu.

   

 
 
BUDDHA VOWS WORK AS USUAL ON STRIKE DAY 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Jan. 9: 
State government employees will go on a nationwide strike tomorrow to protest against the Centre’s “anti-people” policies.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said employees had the democratic right to organise a strike, but made it clear that the government will function. “The government will definitely function. We will take measures under the rules for those who do not report for duty,” Bhattacharjee said.

While the strike has been called by the Left-affiliated employees’ associations, those unwilling to join will not be able to report for work.

Barring Writers’ Buildings, all other state government offices, including the New Secretariat, Bikash Bhavan, are likely to be under lock and key. “The caretakers, who are the custodians of the keys to these offices, will join the strike. If the offices cannot be opened, we cannot be at fault. However, we have requested officials not to come to work in support of our cause,” said Smarajit Roy Chowdhury, secretary of the state coordination committee.

With pickets in front of all the offices, employees belonging to associations other than the Left ones will also be bound to apply for a day’s leave.

There will, however, be no pickets around Writers’ Buildings as it is a protected area under Section 144 of the CrPC. According to the public works department, an effort will be made to open the rooms of the ministers and the secretaries in the main block of the state secretariat.

   
 

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