Search for Hawking vehicle revives forgotten cause
Hurriyat wary of Delhi passport plan
Diamonds dim, Bollywood rolls
‘Package’ camps face priest punch
Advani Turkey mission to fight terror
Plea on return of rape damages
Drive to black out sleaze films
Exodus after dacoit raid
Bangla labourer languishes in prison
Strike leaves pilgrims in the lurch

New Delhi, Jan. 10: 
For the past month, a large part of Delhi has been counting the days to this Sunday: Stephen Hawking, Lucasian professor of mathematics in Cambridge University, is landing here for a lecture that day.

But the Centre for Philosophy and Foundation for Science has been at a loss on how to make travel easier for the severely-handicapped astrophysicist.

Ranjit Nair of the science foundation has been scouting desperately for a vehicle that will enable Hawking to move around freely and spare him the indignity of being lifted in and out of wheelchairs. Unable to find one, he has turned to a disabled people’s centre for help. “We were very excited about Hawking’s visit and offered help to the CPFC, his hosts,” said Rama Chari of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for the Disabled People.

“We suggested a minibus designed and manufactured by Madhur Bhandari of Akshay Pratishtha, an NGO for disabled persons,” said Chari. The minibus is equipped with a lift that takes the handicapped person to the wheelchair inside the bus.

When Hawking uses this vehicle, a disabled person will be exercising a right set down in the 1955 Disabilities Act in India for the first time. The law says: “Establishments in the transport sector shall take special measures to adapt rail compartments, buses, vessels and aircraft in such a way as to permit easy access to such persons.”

Chari said India was one of the few countries which has not paid much attention to its disabled. Most foreign countries have made travel simple for them, she added.

The centre for disabled persons has long been lobbying to make the government honour this clause in the Disabilities Act. Two years ago, centre director Javed Abidi was almost thrown off his wheelchair when he was being lifted into an Indian Airlines plane. Abidi filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, demanding special aisle chairs and an ambulance.

“The government contested the PIL on the ground that such special facilities would be too expensive,” said Chari. It was then left to the Supreme Court, and a year ago it ordered compliance with the Disabilities Act. All major airports now have aisle chairs and ambulances, facilities which came in handy for the Prime Minister after his knee operation.


New Delhi, Jan. 10: 
It is almost certain that all leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference are not expected to get travel documents for their proposed visit to Pakistan on January 15 to hold talks with militant outfits. Senior home ministry officials said “at best” three to four Hurriyat leaders will be given passports.

Sensing this, senior Hurriyat leaders, including chairman Abdul Gani Bhat and Abdul Gani Lone, who had been camping here for the past few days, have decided to return to Srinagar and continue discussions on the probable delegation members.

A decision on whether a delegation should at all visit Pakistan will be taken at tomorrow’s executive council meeting in Srinagar. On the face of it, the Hurriyat’s proposed visit has run into rough weather and there are indications that it may be cancelled or rescheduled if all seven leaders are not issued passports.

In fact, Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the Awami Action Committee chief who already possesses a passport, said in Srinagar yesterday that there was every likelihood of the visit being cancelled since home minister L.K. Advani had not agreed to issue travel documents to all the leaders. He had gone to the extent of calling the government “insincere”.

The home ministry is still making a case-by-case “assessment” of the position of all the seven leaders, each of whom represents groups and political parties under the umbrella organisation. A senior official hinted that Jamaat-e-Islami representative Syed Ahmed Shah Geelani, viewed as extremely pro-Pakistan and a pan-Islamist, as well as People’s League president Sheikh Abdul Aziz may not be given passports.

The Hurriyat suspects that the Centre would prefer to issue travel documents to “moderate” elements and deny passports to the “hardliners”. On the surface, officials deny any “kind of segregation” and say the “primary objective” is to ensure that the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir and the peace initiative is kept on the rails.

In this context, home ministry sources said the Hurriyat leaders’ visit to Pakistan is welcome as long as it achieves some “positive results”. But officials are wary of the declaration by the Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hizbul Mujahideen leadership across the border that the talks can be held only if Geelani, who was admitted to a Srinagar hospital yesterday, is part of the team. Geelani will not be able to attend tomorrow’s executive council meeting.

Compounding the Centre’s worries, the Lashkar-e-Toiba warned the Hurriyat not to bring an “Indian agenda” with them. “We will not hold talks if they bring an Indian agenda to ask for cessation of operations by mujahideen in response to a so-called Indian ceasefire,” Lashkar chief Hafez Mohammad Saeed said in PoK.


Mumbai, Jan. 10: 
Merchants shut down the country’s biggest diamond market today to protest the arrest of Bharat Shah. However, it was business as usual in Bollywood despite the absence of one of its biggest backers.

Markets on Churni Road, Dahisar and Malad wore a deserted look as more than 11,000 diamond traders, cutters and exporters stayed away in response to a call by the Indian Diamond Industry, an organisation of jewel traders.

The organisation also brought out advertisements in newspapers expressing solidarity with Shah and dismissing the charges against him as baseless. The advertisements also gave details of the awards he has won in the last 15 years as a merchant.

Police subjected Shah to another round of interrogation after he was returned to the crime branch lockup from J.J. Hospital where he had been admitted yesterday with chest pain.

Bollywood, however, has not yet come out in support of the financier, who reportedly has kept the film industry bankrolling for the past two decades.

An industry source said shooting of films, including a few funded by Shah, went on as usual. “There was an initial shock, but now things have returned to normal and almost all the shoots are taking place as scheduled.”

The source said the industry is wary of rubbing police the wrong way by pledging open support for Shah as the Bollywood-underworld nexus is “too deep to be denied”.

The producers’ association declared yesterday that it wanted the police to carry out their investigation unhindered. It said Shah, however, should not be pronounced guilty till the court rules against him.

A spokesman for the B4U channel, where Shah has a stake, said the police had not raided its office on Monday night, but had “visited” it to make inquiries. He alleged that the media was carrying out an unsubstantiated campaign against the music-cum-entertainment channel.

Consortium contract

Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi said his government will review the contract with the B. Vijay Kumar consortium in which Shah is a partner and financier.

A Mumbai police team is in Raipur to examine the deal. The consortium had bagged the diamond exploration project in the Dev Bhog region, believed to be the biggest diamond reservoir. Jogi said a review of the contract was on the cards as the deal was struck with the Madhya Pradesh govenment before Chhattisgarh was formed.


Kumbhnagar, Allahabad, Jan. 10: 
Sadhus at the Maha Kumbh mela have forced the administration to ask two hoteliers to wind up their camps because “they are packaging Oriental exotica for the West”.

Tour operators Cox & Kings and “Kumbh Village”, run by Anil Agarwal are likely to be asked to quit Kumbhnagar after mela officer Jiwesh Nandan today said he has the authority to cancel their permits. Kumbhnagar is a township of tents for pilgrims.

Nandan’s assertion comes after the Akhara Parishad, the apex body of all 13 orders of Hindu sages represented at the Kumbh mela, complained that the tour operators were making a mockery of the spiritual significance of the Kumbh by hosting tourists and visitors and treating them lavishly in a secluded corner of Kumbhnagar’s sector 9.

The Akhara Parishad’s demand comes after the Prayag Wal Sabha, an organisation of Allahabad priests, went to court against the permits given to commercial tour operators. The sadhus have alleged that the operators were entertaining their guests by hosting “mujras” — liberal dance performances by local artistes inside the camps.

A spokesman for Cox & Kings has denied it. He said the initiative for a Cox & Kings camp was taken by veteran “Kumbhaites” who were well aware of the traditions and heritage of the Kumbh mela.

Among the guests at the Cox & Kings camp are a 34-member crew from Channel 4, a team from National Geographic and other foreign media.

Conditions in camps inside Kumbhnagar are rudimentary but seem to satisfy most pilgrims who have found accommodation.

Room heaters are not allowed inside the tents, neither is cooking of non-vegetarian food. The only allowance that Cox & Kings claims to have made to its guests is supply of hot water for two hours a day.


New Delhi, Jan. 10: 
In an effort to fight terrorism and strengthen internal security, home minister L.K. Advani will visit Turkey and Germany from February 7-14. Before leaving for his state visit to Vietnam and Indonesia, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had approved the home minister’s tour. While Advani will be in Istanbul from February 7-9, he will be in Bonn from February 10-14.

He will be accompanied by home ministry officials but the team is yet to be finalised. This will be Advani’s second visit abroad. In June last year, he went on a three-nation tour to Israel, France and the United Kingdom. He had then convinced Tel Aviv and Paris to set up joint working groups to fight terrorism.

His Israel visit was particularly fruitful as he received assured cooperation from Israeli security agencies on sharing intelligence on terrorism and transfer of technology for border management.

Yet again, Advani will be visiting a crucial country like Turkey, which is waging a war against Kurdish militants, ahead of external affairs minister Jaswant Singh.

He had visited Israel ahead of Singh and his visit signalled a transformation in relations with a nation that views fundamentalism with suspicion. Singh is scheduled to go to Turkey, perceived to be secular and a key player in Europe, later this year.

Sources said the focus of Advani’s tour will be on exchanging ideas to strengthen internal security. India is likely to set up a joint working group with Germany on terrorism as it has already instituted with the UK and France.

It was during his last trip abroad that Advani had set the ball rolling for joint working groups. The process was formalised by Jaswant’s subsequent trips to the two countries.

Advani will also try to garner support for the ongoing peace initiative in Kashmir. Significance is therefore, being attached to his trip to Turkey, which has a majority Muslim population.


New Delhi, Jan. 10: 
The Supreme Court has taken cognizance of a public interest litigation demanding that compensation paid to the victim of the Howrah Yatri Nivas rape case be returned to the exchequer as the accused persons had been acquitted by the trial court.

The division bench of Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justice Ruma Pal directed the litigant, Deepak Kumar Prahladka, to file an affidavit within four weeks to vouchsafe that no appeal in the matter has been filed by the state government. The bench listed the petition for arguments after six weeks.

On the midnight of February 27, 1998, Calcutta police officials found a Bangladeshi woman, later identified as Hanufa Khatoon, who made a statement to the police that she was gangraped at the guest house.

The Calcutta High Court, while remanding the case to the trial court, ordered the Eastern Railway to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh as interim relief to the victim since the alleged crime had taken place in the railway’s premises.

Five Eastern Railway employees and two touts were charged in the case.

But on July 12 last year, the trial court acquitted the seven accused persons, saying there was no evidence that they had raped the woman.

The high court subsequently rejected a petition from Prahladka, who had sought a direction that the compensation sum should be returned to the government since the accused persons had been acquitted.

Prahladka’s petition in the apex court contends that the compensation paid to Khatoon should be returned because the trial court, while acquitting all the seven accused persons, had said that the alleged victim had engaged in consensual sex for a consideration and had panicked once she saw the police at the doorstep.

The trial court held that Khatoon cooked up the gangrape story to avoid the legal net under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act.


Calcutta, Jan. 10: 
Howrah police have decided to launch a massive drive against illegal screening of obscene films in a number of cinema halls of the district.

“We have decided to take steps against cinema halls which are violating rules by screening sleazy films,” Pradip Sanyal, additional superintendent of police (town), said.

District police sources admitted that pornographic films were regularly screened in some of these theatres. “We will soon showcause these halls,” Sanyal added.

A cinema hall in Central Howrah under the Shibpur police station also had to face the wrath of a large number of Chhatra Parishad activists who ransacked it claiming that it showed pornographic stuff.

The agitators alleged that the hall authorities, despite several reminders, had made no effort to stop the regular screening of sleazy films during noon shows. Four of the activists were arrested.

“We will continue our agitation till all the cinema halls stop screening sleazy films,” Shyamal Mitra, Chhatra Parishad leader, said.


Diamond Harbour, Jan. 10: 
Panic-stricken residents of Chowsha village have begun fleeing their homes after yesterday’s looting spree by dacoits even as two persons were arrested today for the raid.

At least 300 families have already left the village, 20 km from Diamond Harbour police station. Adding fuel to the fire was the rumour this morning that gangsters had struck in the neighbouring Hotugunge hamlet.

Chowsha remained tense today. Most shops were closed as traders feared another attack by the dacoits as they had threatened to come back if the villagers informed the police.

A contingent led by the subdivisional police officer and the officer-in-charge of Diamond Harbour police station visited the village and tried to calm the people.

A gang of about 70 armed-to-the-teeth dacoits, led by Matel Jamadar, swooped down on Chowsa last morning and went on a three-hour looting spree. They broke into four houses, robbing cash and ornaments worth Rs 1 lakh.

The dacoits also brutally murdered one of the villagers, Kshitish Mondal, who tried to resist them and managed to grab one of the criminals. But a bomb landed at his feet and, as he lay bleeding, a gangster fired from point-blank range. Another split open Kshitish’s skull with a chopper.

Four villagers were seriously wounded. One of them had his right palm blown away by a bomb.

Mukul Roy, the officer-in-charge of Diamond Harbour police station, said today: “We have conducted intensive search in the area and arrested two persons named in the FIR. However, we are still looking for Matel, the gangleader, and others who were involved in the incident.”

Subdivisional police officer D.S. Rudra said some villagers spread rumours about a fresh attack by dacoits in Chowsha and Hatugunge when the police went there to conduct raids. Some of the villagers were seen running away from the police.

“But the officer-in-charge of Usti police station, Arindam Acharya pacified the villagers. The policemen told the villagers that they were there only to arrest the dacoits,” Rudra said.

Additional superintendent of police, South 24-Parganas, Sanjib Bose, spoke to the families who had borne the brunt of the dacoit raid. He also visited the house of Maneka Mondal, mother of Khitish.

“Preliminary investigation indicates that the dacoits had come from Lakshmipur and Bamanpur villages. Most of them had criminal records. We hope to make a breakthrough soon,” Bose said.

Pradip Sarder, a local doctor, however, alleged that the police had never taken action against the criminals despite several complaints. “Only a month ago, a housewife was raped and murdered. But no arrests have been made. Before that, the same gang had struck in Chowsha and they are now freely moving around in the area,” Sarder said.

Santi Halder, another villager, charged the police with being hand-in-glove with the gangsters. “Chowsha is on the border of Diamond Harbour and Usti. The criminals take shelter in the areas under Usti police station after committing crimes here,” he said.


Burdwan, Jan. 10: 
A Bangladeshi national arrested from Durgapur for travelling without valid papers has been languishing in jail since October 1999, while his 20-year-old daughter, whom he brought along with him, is lodged at the Liluah Home for the destitute.

Shajahan Haoladar, a poor man in search of a job, had crossed over through the Bongaon border with the help of a dalal.

Haoladar, who is in his mid-40s, completed his sentence at Burdwan Jail in mid-April. But despite repeated requests from jail authorities to the state administration, he could not be sent back to Bangladesh as ordered by the sub-divisional judicial magistrate of Durgapur. “We have repeatedly asked the home department to arrange for a push-back of Haoladar. But Writers’ Buildings is strangely quiet,” said jailer P.K. Mitra.

Jail authorities said chief judicial magistrate B.K. Chakraborty and district judge G.C. Mitra have informed Calcutta High Court about Haoladar’s plight.

They said the Durgapur police had arrested Haoladar, his daughter Nargis and three other Bangladeshis on charges of travelling without a passport or any valid documents. The five were produced before the sub-divisional judicial magistrate’s court, which ordered their imprisonment in Burdwan Jail till April 2000. As Nargis was young and the lone woman among those arrested, she was sent to the Liluah Home.

After they completed their sentence last April, the district administration organised the push-back of three Bangladeshis. But Haoladar’s name was not on the list. As a result, Nargis, too, was left stranded.

“I am a poor labourer. I had pleaded with the jail authorities and requested them to send me home. I came here in search of a better job and now I have to spend sleepless nights in jail. I don’t even know how my daughter is. I have heard that my daughter is in some kind of a home,” Haoladar said.

Two weeks ago, the day Id was celebrated in the jail, Haoladar broke down before additional district magistrate Nurul Absar. “We are trying our best to get you over to your country,” Absar had told him.


Malda, Jan. 10: 
Over a hundred Haj pilgrims arrived here today for inoculation only to find the medical office locked because of the state government employees’ strike.

The 132 pilgrims who had come from north Bengal, marched to district magistrate Ajit Ranjan Bardhan’s office and lodged a complaint. Bardhan tried to contact health employees and officers but failed.

“We have hired vehicles and come with our family. We don’t even know where we will spend the night,” said Mohammad Yusuf from Darjeeling.

Bardhan apologised to the pilgrims on behalf of health officials and requested them to come tomorrow. “I will ensure tomorrow that all the pilgrims are properly inoculated,” he said.

“Because of the strike we could not take the vaccine. We entered the deputy CMO’s office but some employees drove us out and locked the room from outside,” Yusuf said.

For the last two years the state government has been organising camps in Malda to inoculate Haj pilgrims of north Bengal.


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