Wanted, a jewel for Atal crown
US in Bengal bandh sermon
Bomb alarm in BJP hub
Centre denies Pak invitation
Police report confirms clash
Hindutva just a shop in Hinduism mall
Designer monkey fuels fears
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Jan. 12: 
If the gargantuan birthday garlands are looking a bit wilted and the string of sobriquets cliched, the Atal admirers’ club has set its sights on a jewel for the crown: the Bharat Ratna.

With Atal Bihari Vajpayee away in Southeast Asia, hints are being dropped in high places that the nation’s highest civilian award will be a fitting tribute to a political career spanning five decades.

The Republic Day awards are decided through consultations among the moving forces in North and South Blocks and on Raisina Hills. The Bharat Ratna list is kept a closely-guarded secret with the names finalised in closed-door discussions between the President and the Prime Minister.

The subtle lobbying is now being spearheaded by a group of self-styled fans of the Prime Minister without neither his knowledge nor approval.

Sources close to Vajpayee said he is expected to shoot down the proposal since he is too seasoned a politician to succumb to unabashed sycophancy.

But the admirers are unlikely to give up fast. They consider the current lobbying as a trial run, saying the award need not be conferred this year itself.

Former BJP president Kushabhau Thakre denied such a move was in the offing. But he said he and the rest of the nation would be proud if the Bharat Ratna was conferred on the Prime Minister. Thakre felt there could few eligible recipients more deserving than this Prime Minister.

Thakre’s denial notwithstanding, government sources confirmed that Rashtrapati Bhavan is not entirely unaware of the move.

If the lobbying crystallises into a full-fledged campaign, it becomes difficult for President K.R. Narayanan to brush the issue aside. If a Prime Minister still in office has to be nominated, it is the President who has to raise the issue.

Only two Prime Ministers have been given the award when they were holding office: Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi.

The President of the day, Rajendra Prasad, had proposed Nehru’s name in 1955. Prasad had taken the onus on himself to ensure Nehru was the recipient.

Nehru, who had come back from a successful tour of the Soviet Union, did not oppose as the President argued that the award is justifiable for a life dedicated first to the freedom struggle and then to the cause of development in independent India.

In Indira Gandhi’s case again, the then President felt she should be rewarded for the uncompromising stand she had taken during the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Government sources hastened to add that nothing has been finalised yet. Vajpayee would probably prefer that his political guru and Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder, the late Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, be given the Bharat Ratna.

Another politically significant name for a similar posthumous conferment is also doing the rounds — Chaudhury Charan Singh. At a time the BJP is trying to re-embrace the farmers’ cause with the Uttar Pradesh elections in mind, an association of this nature with Chaudhury’s name does help.

It also opens up doors for possible electoral adjustments with the inheritor of Chaudhury’s mantle, his son Ajit Singh.


Calcutta, Jan. 12: 
A representative of the world’s most influential investment source has bluntly put before chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the challenges confronting his blueprint for an industrial renaissance in Bengal.

The US ambassador to India, Richard F. Celeste, today said Bengal should shun the politics of bandhs to “catch the wave of economic development now sweeping other states in the country”.

The ambassador’s comments came barely a week after a bandh called by the Trinamul Congress and a few days after a strike by government employees affiliated to unions of the ruling Left Front.

Celeste referred to the January 5 bandh, describing how a potential American investor was greeted by the shutdown.

He added that a “reputation for calling bandhs and a less-than-robust work culture creates an unpredictable labour environment that discourages investment”.

The plainspeak touched a raw nerve in Bhattacharjee, who later said: “I don’t know what he meant by ‘unpredictable labour environment’. We have a skilled and cheap labour force which no other state can offer. Moreover, we have a stable government with transparent policies.”

The irony of the situation could not have escaped Bhattacharjee since the warts highlighted by the once-reviled superpower are the same he himself had identified for rapid excision.

Since taking charge, the chief minister had not only unveiled an ambitious plan to enforce work ethics in government but also repeatedly asked unions to behave. However, Celeste’s statement makes it clear the chief minister needs to do more to get the message across beyond the state’s borders.

Bhattacharjee’s critics may interpret the ambassador’s advice as a thumbs-down, but it camouflages an oblique acknowledgement that the chief minister was on the right track when he chose his areas of priority. Besides, the blame for bandhs must be shared by the Opposition, too.

The ambassador, who met the chief minister at Writers’ Buildings, shed light on the discussions while addressing a meeting later. “I reminded him that two trade delegations from the US have visited Calcutta in the past six weeks. Just last week, the Indian head of the US energy company, Unocal, was here. His firm is eager to do business in Bengal. But on the day of his visit, Calcutta came to a standstill as a result of the bandh.

“It is only when Bengal can provide improved infrastructure, along with stable labour conditions, supported by government policies that are consistent, transparent and evenly applied, that this trade can begin to catch the wave of development...,” he added.

However, Bhattacharjee said: “I told Celeste one bandh called by the Trinamul cannot be described as a sign of poor work culture. We have received positive responses from the Japanese and the British. If the US can improve trade relations with China, why not with the Marxist-ruled Bengal?”


New Delhi, Jan. 12: 
Weeks after the Lashkar-e-Toiba threat to storm the Prime Minister’s Office, the alarm went off in the BJP headquarters this afternoon after police received an anonymous call saying that a “fidayeen (suicide) squad” will blow up the party’s office before the clock struck five.

This is the first time that the BJP’s head-office, housed at 11 Ashoka Road, has been served a threat. Even at the height of the Ayodhya dispute and the communal tension that followed, the party’s headquarters was never made a target of militant strikes.

Ashen-faced office-bearers moved around with trepidation as police bosses rushed to 11 Ashoka Road late this afternoon and cordoned off the road.

The party office was sounded the red alert only around 4 pm, when reporters were chatting up the general secretary (organisation), Narendra Modi. An agitated peon burst into Modi’s room and informed him that a bomb attack may be carried out soon. He asked the journalists to have their vehicles checked by the police.

Most senior functionaries, including party president Bangaru Laxman and spokesman Jana Krishnamurthy were away. Those who were present promptly started leaving the place.

The police took over even before those present could realise what was happening. “This is the price we have to pay for being in power, but we hope it will be a small one,” remarked a staffer, who, it appeared, had for a split second savoured all the attention that was bestowed on his party office.

Cars were checked and chauffeurs frisked. The police were particularly worked up over a battered Maruti van which no one came forward to claim. They put the BJP staffers on the job to identify its owner and the driver.

Senior BJP leader J.P. Mathur said the threat could be a hoax call made by someone who had taken advantage of the atmosphere of insecurity after the Red Fort attack and the threat to strike the PMO in South Block.

“There can be two reasons: either it was a hoax call or some terrorist outfit has floated a trial balloon to see how fast the police act. We are sure the police will unearth the truth,” Mathur said.

Police sources said with two weeks to go for Republic Day, security around vital installations in Delhi has been beefed up. Militants, mainly those belonging to the Pakistan-based Lashkar have threatened to carry out suicide attacks on vital installations.


Bali, Jan. 12: 
India today categorically ruled out the possibility of a summit between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf and made it clear that no invitation has been extended to the general to visit Delhi.

As the All-Party Hurriyat Conference reiterated its demand that all five leaders selected to go to Pakistan should be issued passports, the government said a final decision would be taken once Vajpayee returns from his tour of Southeast Asia on Sunday.

While clarifying its position, India managed to put the pressure back on Pakistan, asking it to rein-in militant groups which attacked the Red Fort.


Calcutta, Jan. 12: 
A week after the alleged mayhem in Chhoto Angaria exploded on Bengal’s political landscape, the CID today confirmed there was a clash at Abdur Rahman Mondal’s house on the night of January 4.

“CID officials have found bloodstains on the floor of the mud house. Investigators dug up the courtyard and surrounding areas with shovels to find patches of blood,” director-general of police Dipak Sanyal, quoting from the CID report, told The Telegraph.

However, the report, which was submitted by deputy inspector-general, CID, Chayan Mukherjee to the government today, is silent on whether anyone was killed. “Police are conducting searches in adjoining villages and jungles,” the director-general said.

The report is also vague on Mondal’s political affiliation as well as that of his associates. Investigators had questioned several villagers of the area who said that Mondal had switched loyalties to the Trinamul Congress from the People’s War Group but still maintained links with PWG leader Asit Sarkar.

“The PWG has a strong presence in the area. Of late, they have turned into a bunch of mercenaries who are extorting money from the villagers,” Sanyal said.

Sources in the state police said that some PWG leaders could have been involved in the clash. Sanyal said PWG activists organised arms training camps in the forests of Bankura and supplied arms and ammunition to local members. “We are trying to find out the brain behind the training camps and sources of arms,” he said.

The CID report says CPM activists had raided Mondal’s house but “in self-defence to thwart a murderous attack on their supporters”. Though the investigators confirmed that the raiders had set fire to the roof, they were silent on the number of persons inside the house at that time.

According to the investigators, Chhoto Angaria had been a Trinamul stronghold till last year. But in a well-planned move, the CPM had driven out all “those villagers opposed to the party” and re-captured it. Without naming anybody, the report indicated that local CPM leaders led the armed confrontation.

Mondal and the others managed to escape, but had to take shelter with the Trinamul as the PWG could not give them protection.

Ever since, the report says, Mondal and his associates were on the lookout for an opportunity to take revenge. That opportunity came on January 3. There was information that some key CPM leaders would be meeting at the village. Mondal and his associates decided to go back and “finish off the CPM men and take revenge”.

Armed with rifles and explosives they gathered at the mud house on January 4. But a mole let out word to their rivals, says the report. This helped CPM supporters from neighbouring villages take Mondal and others by surprise. While an armed group surrounded the house, a large number barged inside firing indiscriminately.


Kumbhnagar, Jan. 12: 
Ponytailed Robert Brengham rings his girlfriend Brenda in Mississippi from a public call office here “deep in the heart of India” and, after the usual expressions of mutual love (“kiss you baby”), he utters these words with deliberate emphasis: “The largest gathering of humanity on earth.”

A kilometre away in the tent city, a secretary tapping softly and swiftly on the keyboard of a Compaq Pentium III in the camp of Shreeji Baba barely has time to look up and say: “Maharaj is at rest.”

In other words, his holiness ought not to be disturbed with such inanities as building a temple in Ayodhya and he is not available for interviews. Around the secretary, fair-skinned Europeans in saffron robes and tonsured heads, some with video cameras in hand, pad across the carpeted floor of the office and into the inner courtyard of the “ashram”.

“Please come for meditation and discourse.” End of conversation.

A few tents ahead, on Kumbhnagar’s Shankaracharya Marg, Sri Sri 1008 Sri Peetham Peethadeeswara Yogiraj Sri Rameshji Maharaj, a tantrik, is also busy with his disciples. But he grants an audience graciously.

“I practise tantra, a science of healing through meditation. What do I give or take for such big issues as the Ram temple? I have patients from all over, even Muslims.”

Religion is keeping pace with industry in marketing its USPs. The Mahakumbh Mela marks the

coming of age of Hinduism as trade-able, as an FMCG. And trade rises above the minute concerns of outfits like the VHP. In deed, trade coopts them.

The sheer diversity of the Kumbh Mela boggles the tourist. There are yogis and tantriks and ascetics and, of course, the Naga Sanyasis who mystify with their belief that they are dead and are leading the afterlife.

Move on, and there is the Ramakrishna Mission complex, its camps crowded with pilgrims, mostly Bengalis. Further on, Iskcon beats every sect hollow to the prize of tallest and handsomest holy men. Its Hare Krishna propagandists distribute pamphlets at nearly every crossing in Kumbhnagar.

Move on, and there is the Ramakrishna Mission complex, its camps crowded with pilgrims, mostly Bengalis. Further on, Iskcon beats every sect hollow to the prize of tallest and handsomest holy men. Its Hare Krishna propagandists distribute pamphlets at nearly every crossing in Kumbhnagar.

A couple of kilometres east of the VHP camp, a charmer of a godman from Vrindavan, who runs an ashram of 910 virgins, claims to synthesise the best of Vaishnavism and Shaivism.

Hinduism has always had almost as many gods as practitioners of the faith. At the Kumbh Mela, half that number are its vendors. Solace and salvation is on sale for the rupee and the dollar.

Hotels in the city are full and charge a premium. Nobody is willing to name any figures. The Kumbh mela will last 42 days and it is too early for that.

The bottomline is clear, though: in Kumbhnagar, Hinduism overshadows Hindutva. Despite the VHPs efforts to meld the Hindu ways of life into a single, cohesive, militant force, the vastness unfolded by the religion’s followers on the banks of the Sangam simply refuses to be packaged in sectarianism.

North of the VHP camp, on the city side of the Ganga, is Swami Adhyakshanand’s ashram.

“The VHP is polluting the atmosphere of the Mahakumbh,” he thunders.

“Such outfits will bring disaster to this country. They should have no place here. It is time we took the pants off the half-pantwallahs...” he gets carried away.

A murmur of discontent against the VHP is palpable. It is probably in the minority but it is making itself heard.

“You see,” pontificates the tantrik, Ramesh, who runs an ashram in Allahabad and can’t recall offhand how many Kumbh melas he has attended, “the mela is really, really big now. The shops of the sages have become bigger. This is like a market. And do you know what wares these seers and sadhus have to sell? They sell confusion and lies and fear. So this time I thought why should I not advertise when I have been practising for 20 years? So I put up some banners and buntings and posters and did some publicity. It is getting me disciples.”

In the superbazar on the Sangam, trade has harnessed faith in a way that fundamentalism cannot. And Hindutva is just another shop in the departmental store of Hinduism. Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be glad to know.


Washington, Jan. 12: 
When television pictures of South Block with its hordes of monkeys were beamed into American homes on prime time news last night, viewers assumed it was yet another bit of bad news from New Delhi: maybe another nuclear test or a flare-up with Pakistan.

But no, it was only tidings which had the potential of being bad, even dangerous. The real news was that scientists in the US had created the first genetically engineered monkey, fertilising monkey eggs injected with genes from jellyfish and transferring them into wombs of surrogate mother monkeys.

Shots of South Block were only used to focus on the monkey menace which had become synomous with the seat of the Indian government. But the potential bad news was that if this experiment in Portland, Oregon, was to succeed, designer monkeys could one day be made to run South Block. Much worse, a logical corollary of the landmar k experiment would be to genetically manipulate human beings, creating babies of the kind that parents desire.

For this reason, news of the Oregon experiment, a full account of which is published in today’s issue of the journal Science was met with a chorus of disapproval.

Prof. Lori B. Andrews of the Chicago-Kent College of Law was quoted in The New York Times as saying “once you start attempting genetic engineering in monkeys, humans can’t be far behind”.

She warned that the Oregon experiment cracked open the door to a future world where genetic enhancement was sold by fertility clinics. In a recent poll in the US, 43 per cent of couples were asked if they would use an opportunity to enhance their babies genetically. A whopping 42 per cent replied in the affirmative, seeking to upgrade their child’s mental faculties.

Already, fertility clinics in the US offer tests which allow parents to select embryos which carry traits of their choice or those without preferred characteristics.

Eric Kleiman, research director of defence of animals, a global group for protection of animals in California was quoted in the Washington Post: “Before it was mice. Now monkeys — both cloned and gene-altered.” Kleiman warned: “It is pretty clear who is next. And it will be just as reprehensible when people are manufactured to suit experimenters”.

Gerald Schatten, who with Anthony W.S. Chan, led the research at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Centre, defended the experiment.

“There is nothing we have done that accelerates genetic modification in people. Let us say you want your kid on the basketball team. You can’t take him to the coach and say: ‘He has this growth gene in there but it is not expressed and he is not growing.’”

The Oregon scientists said the objective of their experiment was to create monkeys with genes known to cause disease in humans. They hoped to produce monkeys with Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, hereditary blindness and the like so that new vaccines could be tested against such ailments.

Mice are already used for testing such vaccines: the first gene-altered mouse was created 25 years ago. But unlike monkeys, mice and other such animals are not close enough to humans to show optimum results of the vaccines.

Schatten said: “Animals that don’t have monthly cycles don’t suffer from breast cancer like women. That is why we think a limited number of specially bred monkeys could help us eliminate cancers”.

Research by his team has not been easy. Of the 222 gene-altered eggs on which fertilisation was attempted, only 40 became embryos that could be tranferred to wombs. Of these, only five caused pregnancies. Three of the six foetuses — including one twin — were still born. And of the other three, only one actually showed the presence of jellyfish gene.




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