Hurriyat decision after PM’s return
Pranab for mahajot minus BJP
Clue to Bengal’s hooded political battalions
Sonia to retain old guard
Hand frozen in time on Kumbh shop window
CPM sees Trinamul plot in murder
Rage over land chars infant
Kumbh cloud on Sagar dip
Science city for children
Trinamul leader’s wife held over killing

Bali, Jan. 12: 
Ending days of speculation, 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 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 carried out the attack on Red Fort and continue to issue threats of launching similar strikes across India, including the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

“No invitation has been extended to General Musharraf to visit India,” the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, said. “There has been no such invitation to the best of my knowledge. And I should know.”

India’s reluctance to respond to speculative reports in the Pakistani media about Musharraf’s visit to Delhi stemmed from the fact that any reaction would, perhaps, have shifted the focus from Vajpayee’s successful Southeast Asian tour.

But the Prime Minister’s camp later decided that rather than allowing such speculation to continue and create another controversy on the sensitive issue, it will be better to clear the air.

Even if Mishra was prepared with the official response, the reaction came at a news briefing essentially held to round-up the Prime Minister’s Indonesian visit.

The official part of Vajpayee’s visit is over as he has set aside the next two days for holidaying in this scenic sea resort.

Replying to questions on passports being issued to Hurriyat leaders, Mishra said: “A decision on issuing passports to them will be taken after the Prime Minister returns to Delhi.” Asked how many of them would be allowed to visit Pakistan, the national security adviser explained: “Whether some or a few will be allowed to go, all these decisions will be taken after the Prime Minister returns.”

Mishra also did not want to enter into any discussion on what made the government change its stand on the Hurriyat as it now appears that some of the leaders will travel to Pakistan to discuss the Kashmir issue with leaders there.

Mishra expressed Delhi’s strong reservations about Musharraf’s attempt to distance himself from militant strikes in India despite the ceasefire. The Pakistani ruler was quoted as saying after the Red Fort attack that he would not like to comment on it since it was “an internal matter of India”.

Mishra scoffed at Musharraf’s argument: “It’s a strange logic. The threat to attack Red Fort was made from Pakistani soil. Even after that, terrorist groups based there continued to issue threats that similar attacks will be carried out at the Prime Minister’s Office and elsewhere in India. How can Pakistan not be held responsible for this?”

“The number of attacks on civilians during the ceasefire period has gone up. This is very bad,” the security adviser added, though he pointed out that Delhi was still reviewing the situation along the LoC on the Indian side to find out whether cross-border terrorism and infiltration have reduced.

Having initiated the peace process in Kashmir, India knows it has earned enough diplomatic brownie points. Unless Pakistan stops all militant activities from its soil, Delhi will not be in a hurry to return to the negotiations table.

Mishra’s remarks, therefore, is a message to Pakistan and the outside world that until a conducive atmosphere is created, talks between the estranged neighbours will not begin. Delhi has taken note of the steps taken by the Pakistani leadership, but wants it to do much more before resuming the dialogue.


Calcutta, Jan. 12: 
State Congress president Pranab Mukherjee today categorically rejected the possibility of a mahajot with the Trinamul Congress if Mamata Banerjee does not dissociate herself from the BJP.

“We are ready to join forces with Mamata against the ruling communists if she dumps the Sangh parivar and the NDA,” Mukherjee said this afternoon before leaving for Birbhum.

He criticised the communists for unleashing “terror” in the districts but stopped short of mounting a joint campaign with Mamata, despite former Pradesh Congress Committee chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s attempts to revive a mahajot with Mamata. “Ours is an all-India party and as such we cannot have any truck with those having a poll alliance with the BJP,” he observed.

Mukherjee had called on Mamata at her Kalighat residence last night, apparently to enquire about her injured leg.

Expectations naturally ran high in Congress circles in the wake of Mukherjee’s one-to one meeting with Mamata.

The mahajot theory also gained currency as both Chowdhury and Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi had called on the Trinamul leader only two days ago.

Congress sources said unofficial adjustments with the Trinamul cannot be ruled out in the run-up to the Assembly elections, though key party functionaries are opposed to this.

“We will have to tie up with Mamata ignoring her BJP connections to ensure the defeat of ruling communists here,” said a PCC leader, preferring anonymity. “If this is not done, the party will face another split in the coming days,” he warned.

Several pro-mahajot leaders were also disheartened at the way the high command snubbed Chowdhury by rejecting the grand alliance proposal. Though the veteran leader had said he would prevail on Congress president Sonia Gandhi to approve of a mahajot with Mamata, he reportedly did not insist on it during his meeting with Sonia.


Garbeta, Jan. 12: 
The Chhoto Angaria incident has given police in Midnapore, Hooghly and Bankura a clue to the riddle of hooded warriors in the region.

Gourav Dutta, Midnapore superintendent of police, and SP (Hooghly) N. Ramesh Babu said that so far they were mistaken as dacoit gangs helping the Trinamul Congress in its village-capturing campaigns. But that night’s incident changed all that as police awoke to the possible involvement of the People’s War Group.

It’s the same story throughout. Armed men, faces wrapped in black cloth, leading Trinamul workers from Keshpur, Garbeta, Chamkaitala, Sandhipur, Saltora in Midnapore to Arambagh, Goghat, Khanakul, Pursura in Hooghly and Kotalpur and Badangaj in Bankura.

In Sorui, Balpai, Keotapara, Langol Dihi and Rameswerchawk, during the 1998 panchayat polls, these men were found in the thick of Trinamul-CPM clashes.

According to a BJP leader in Garbeta, the PWG began setting up camps in forests bordering these districts soon after Andhra Pradesh banned the outfit.

But till the emergence of the Trinamul, the Naxalites did not venture beyond the villages near the jungles of Midnapore. It was the collusion between landlords and the Trinamul in Hooghly and Bankura that gave them the scope to expand their base, the leader said. “The BJP is at daggers drawn with the PWG. They have killed our men,” he added.

He said that CPM minister Sushanta Ghosh had once made a secret deal with the PWG to drive out the BJP from its strongholds.

The agreement was that while the PWG would help the CPM capture villages which voted for the Trinamul-BJP, the CPM in Garbeta would allow the Naxalites to carry on their ideological work in several village areas. Chhoto Angaria was included in the list.

Now, both Trinamul and CPM leaders deny that they ever entered into a pact with the PWG.

Chanchal Roy, Garbeta Trinamul block president, said it was Ghosh and another CPM leader, Tapan Ghosh, who had let the PWG activists loose on villagers who voted for his party.

But Ghosh and Aurobindo Banerjee of Chandrakona Road zonal committee said: “Anarchist Trinamul leaders are hiring dacoits and extremist factions for war against the peace loving villagers who are Left-minded.”


New Delhi, Jan. 12: 
There will be no drastic changes in the Congress Working Committee to be announced on Monday as AICC chief Sonia Gandhi is set to give weightage to “experience”.

About 70 per cent of the outgoing CWC members will be retained.

Sonia has shortlisted Kamal Nath, Mani Shankar Aiyar, R. Prabhu, Salman Khurshid, Santosh Mohan Deb, Renuka Chowdhury, Mukul Wasnik, Vilas Muttemwar and others for four berths earmarked for “fresh blood”.

The younger lot will be joining the elite club with Madhavrao Scindia, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni, Ahmad Patel to project a new, vibrant CWC. Sonia plans to keep four places vacant for any political exigency such as the return of G.K. Moopanar and Mamata Banerjee.

The axe is likely to fall on Vijay Bhaskara Reddy, N.D. Tiwari, K. Natwar Singh, R.K. Dhawan, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Motamma. Natwar and Tiwari may get berths in the CWC as a special invitee, sources said.

Azad and Patel are among a select band of leaders who have served for over 10 years in the apex decision making body. Others include Pranab Mukherjee (11 years, four months), A.K. Antony (11 years, eight months), Arjun Singh (12 years, four months) and K. Karunakaran (16 years), who are set to retain their places.

Scindia, Manmohan Singh, Motilal Vora, Mohsina Kidwai and Oscar Fernandes are among those who have been given a “green signal” to stay on in Sonia’s team.

Former Union minister Balram Jakhar is expected to return to the CWC after four years. His induction is aimed at consolidating the party’s support-base among the farming community. In fact, the Congress leadership plans to draft a separate paper on agriculture in the Bangalore plenary scheduled from February 14-16.

N. Janardhan Reddy and H. Hanumanthappa are two other “new entries” likely to make it to the CWC. Reddy is set to edge out fellow Andhra stalwart Vijay Bhaskara Reddy while Hanumanthappa hails from weaker sections. Sonia is toying with the idea of dumping Sushil Kumar Shinde and replacing him with Mukul Wasnik, Santosh Chowdhury or Yongendra Makwana from Gujarat. From Bihar, Sonia has shortlisted Nagendra Jha and Shyama Sinha. Bengal will be represented by Pranab with Ghani Khan Chowdhury as special invitee.

Sonia has committed herself to giving 33 per cent quota to women. Apart from her, the other seven candidates for the CWC are likely to be Ambika Soni, Mohsina Kidwai, Prabha Rau, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Chandresh Kumari, Shyama Sinha and Renuka Chowdhury.

From the Northeast, Nagaland chief minister S.C. Jamir is a front runner with Lalthanwala closely following him. Manipur’s Rishang Keishing may be a surprise entry.


Kumbhnagar (Allahabad), Jan. 12: 
A spindly hand sticks out like a perch on which a crow might sit. Beyond the heads of the naked Naga sanyasis the hand is a beacon, attracting audiences in numbers that the best of performers would envy.

The fingers are rolled up in a fist, the palm is hidden, the nails long and look like they melt into the wrist, a fading tattoo on the forearm.

The hand belongs to Baba Amar Bharti Urdh Bahu (Urdh Bahu, as in raised arm), a frail sadhu sitting in the far corner of the Panch Agni Juna Akhada. A crowd, as usual, has gathered around him.

Carlo D’ Huez, an itinerant Spanish photographer, is drawn to the curious sight. The baba is happy — the facial hair parts to reveal a grin — and prepares to pose yet again.

Namaste,” says Carlo. The baba acknowledges.

Carlo kneels, the heavy 120mm Hasselblad camera resting between his left hand and shoulder, and sizes up the man — rather his hand.

It is frozen stiff but the freeze does not go past the right shoulder blade. A sidey of the sadhu nudges Carlo and whispers: “27 years.”

The sadhu has been like this, hand raised, for 27 years.

Carlo is disbelieving. He wants to cross check. So he points at the hand and asks the sidey to ask the sadhu: “How long?”

Baba crosses his legs, sips tea from an earthen cup and says to the interpreter: “Tell him I am illiterate and cannot count.”

Carlo nods.

“But I can tell you how many years my people — my disciples — have counted.”

Carlo hangs on to every word. “How many?” he asks in a rush.

“Two thousand,” the sadhu shoots back.

“Two?” asks Carlo.

“Thousand,” adds the baba.

Carlo looks around him, wonders if he has heard right. No one in the crowd sniggers. He gives up, brings the camera to his eyes, focuses and clicks away.

Fooled he might have been, but that will not show in his pictures. He leaves behind a note of $ 10.

Kumbh, as commerce, means wowing with the weird. But really, it’s not the sadhus who are making the money — not all of them anyway, for their needs are meagre: some milk, some millets and, most of all, marijuana.

The money is made by the government, the hoteliers, the tour operators, the guides, the television channels.

As the Kumbh draws close to the first of its major Shahi Snans (holy baths) on January 14 — Makar Sankranti — Hinduism turns into showbiz: sadhus with hairstyles that funky youth will give their left hand for, fat sadhus in red satin robes atop elephants, whose mahouts demand money for exhibiting the godmen, sadhus who know all the expletives in the English language and sadhus who weave fantastic visions with rhetoric.

The weird wows the most in the Panch Agni Juna Akhada, a monastic order of ascetics.

Stripping themselves bare, they sit cross-legged and smoke pot in front of each tent. One — aptly calling himself Digambar (with only the sky for clothes) — is an old man with an enormous paunch.

But that does not come in the way when he holds a baton between his hands, brings it to play in the area of the groin and performs impossible contortions.

Jai Siya Ram,” shouts a spectator.

Jai Siya Ram,” comes the reply. “Har, har Mahadev.”

It is a wish that also serves as a chilling reminder: that the Mahakumbh is where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is holding the dharam sansad of sadhus that will decide when to build the temple at Ayodhya.

“The image of our holy men is not what it should be,” laments Vima Prakash, the VHP spokesman.

“This is because the world around us is turning too materialistic. We need to re-infuse spiritualism into the Indian conscience.”

What a venue, what time — the 21st Century — and what people claim the right to shape the destiny of a nation!


Calcutta, Jan. 12: 
The CPM state leadership today held the Trinamul Congress responsible for last night’s murder of their leader in South 24-Parganas, Kalipada Haldar.

“The Trinamul Congress had engaged hired killers to eliminate Haldar as he was gradually becoming a threat to the anti-socials and criminals backed by the party in the area,” CPM state secretary Anil Biswas alleged today.

Haldar was a member of the party’s South 24-Parganas district committee and was gunned down near Chapala Bazar in Raidighi. His killers, after shooting him, chopped off his head to ensure that he was dead.

The superintendent of police, South 24-Parganas, A.K. Maliwal, said that three persons named in the FIR had been detained in connection with Haldar’s murder. Police are expecting some tip-off from Amulya Gayen, who was accompanying Haldar last night and escaped the attack.

Haldar and Gayen were returning home on a cycle-rickshaw from their party office after attending a meeting there. A group of assailants stopped them near a burning ghat and shot Haldar from point-blank range.

After he fell down from the rickshaw, the men decapitated Haldar’s head in front of Gayen. The rickshaw-puller fled the spot.

Describing the killing as “ghastly”, Biswas alleged that preliminary investigations indicated that the Trinamul had masterminded the killing and hired professional killers to eliminate Haldar.

The CPM has called a 12-hour bandh in Raidighi tomorrow in protest against the murder. Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, district leaders such as Kanti Ganguly, the party’s district secretary, Samir Putatunda, and Anuradha Putatunda are camping in the area.

A spontaneous bandh was observed in Raidighi today with all shops, business establishments and schools remaining closed.

The area is a CPM stronghold and the murder of the party leader indicates that the killers were outsiders and fled the spot after committing the crime with help from some local people who, the Left party alleged, are Trinamul supporters.

Biswas said that another party leader from Diamond Harbour, Nandulal Sardar, is missing for the past few days. Biswas hinted that Trinamul activists might have kidnapped Sardar in order to kill him. He said the CPM will organise a statewide demonstration on Tuesday to oppose the Trinamul’s efforts to “destabilise law and order in the state in the name of organising political movements”. The party will organise a huge gathering at Rani Rashmoni Avenue in the city on that day.


Calcutta, Jan. 12: 
A two-year-old was burnt to death as a cluster of 11 huts belonging to CPM supporters was set on fire by a group of local residents at Nikarihata village in South 24-Parganas district.

The child was identified as Sariful, the son of local CPM leader Anzed Gaji. One person received burn injuries.

Though no one has been arrested for the blaze, the attack is said to be the fallout of the long-standing rivalry between two groups of local CPM activists over a land dispute case.

CPM state secretary Anil Biswas denied that intra-party rivalry was behind the violent attack.

As soon as news of the fire spread, a large contingent of police, led by the sub-divisional police officer of Canning, Dipak Adak, rushed to the site. The police, aided by villagers, cleared the charred remains of the huts and recovered the baby’s body.

The superintendent of police, South 24-Parganas, A.K. Maliwal, said that all seven members of Gaji’s family had gone to sleep around 10 pm on Thursday.

Gaji returned late in the night and he, too, went to bed. He woke up with a start around dawn when he felt a burning sensation a heat-wave inside.

As soon as he opened the window, Gaji saw that his house was in flames.

The CPM leader raised the alarm and rushed out of the house along with his family members. Residents of 10 adjoining houses, which were set ablaze at the same time, too came out as they realised that they had been attacked.

After some time, when the leaping flames had devoured his house, Gaji remembered that he had left behind his two-year-old son. But it was too late. Gaji saw the hut crumbling like a house of paper, his child inside.

The villagers, who had begun collecting water from a nearby pond, managed to control the blaze after a three-hour fight and managed to save the remaining houses. Preliminary investigation revealed that two groups of villagers, all CPM activists, have been fighting each other to grab a five bigha land in the area. The groups had a heated argument yesterday.


Sagar Islands (South 24 Parganas), Jan. 12: 
About 40,000 pilgrims have reached the millennium’s first Ganga Sagar festival for the holy dip on Sunday.

The temple of Kapil Muni, one of the attractions of the mela, has been illuminated with multicoloured lights.

Announcements are being made on the public address system to guide the surging crowds of pilgrims on the sprawling mela ground.

The pilgrims are pouring in from all over the country, especially, Vrindavan, Mathura and Varanasi. Many like Bhagwan Das of Mathura and his family have come via the Mahakumbh Mela with plans to go back to Allahabad.

“We never miss the Ganga Sagar mela which we have been attending for the last 45 years,” Das said.

The Sagar mela is a great leveller of caste, creed, religious and linguistic differences as evident from the presence of the large number of pilgrims from other communities.

For example, Gulam Rasul, along with 27 family members and relatives, has come from Canning to take part in the festival.

“It (the event) is great, because Kapil Muni’s temple is a source of inspiration for me. We have had a dip and are waiting for the big one (holy dip) on makar sankranti,” Rasul said.

The shop-keepers who have put up stalls at the mela ground, hoping to make a killing, are almost heart-broken because the turnout of pilgrims is less than previous years, presumably because of the Kumbh mela.

“Unlike in the previous years, I don’t expect to make a profit this time. To be honest, none of us bargained for this kind of a turnout,” says Sachin Naskar, owner of a makeshift restaurant.

According to a few old mela hands, the relatively high transport fare is another deterrent. Private transport operators are unhappy as they are not allowed to ply their vehicles.

But South 24-Parganas district magistrate Alapan Bandopadhyay is unfazed as he pointed out that for the first time in the mela’s history, the pilgrims were able to come to Kakdwip by train direct from Sealdah — a facility which enabled the administration to ban the movement of local buses and all other forms of land transport in the vicinity of the mela ground.

“We are going to run special trains on mela days,” said Barun Roy, the additional district magistrate.

Superintendent of police A.K. Maliwal reckoned that the number of pilgrims will increase substantially in the next 48 hours because of, among other things, the sunny weather.

Over a dozen people have been arrested from the mela ground for nefarious activities, he added.


Durgapur, Jan. 12: 
The first “child city” will be inaugurated at the Children’s Academy of Culture here on February 4.

Jiban Roy, the vice-president of the academy, said the child city has been conceived as a “composite complex combining scientific moulding of the mind, physical training and the performing arts”.

The child city is being built in joint collaboration with the Union department of culture.

Actress Shabana Azmi and her poet-husband Javed Akhtar along with the creator of Calcutta’s Science City, Saroj Ghosh, will be present at the inauguration.

Construction of the “city within a city” is in progress on a 19-acre plot belonging to the academy. An auditorium with a seating capacity of 2,500, a mini science complex and a museum equipped with a hi-tech audio-visual system are being built. Roy said the museum will have two projection halls.

An observatory system connected with a high-powered camera for reflection on a big screen, a small planetarium and a centre for practical experiments to give children a “scope to play with science” will be part of the complex.

Buddha in Malda

Legal wrangles will prevent Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee from giving Chanchol the status of a subdivision when he arrives in Malda tomorrow. District magistrate Ajit Bardhan said a litigation is pending at the high court since 1994 and petitions are pending before the court that adjacent Shamshi be accorded the status.    

Durgapur, Jan. 12: 
Asansol police today arrested the wife of a Trinamul Congress leader, Shyam Kedia, on charges of kidnapping and murder of a businessman from Madhupur in Bihar. Kedia and his three sons are absconding.

According to the police, the businessman, Sushil Biswal, had gone to Kedia’s house on January 1. Before leaving, Biswal had told his family that from Asansol he would go to Nepal with the Trinamul leader on a business tour. But when his wife, Bina, contacted Kedia’s wife, Bimala, she was told that her husband did not come to Asansol at all.

Worried about her husband, Bina came to Asansol straightaway and reached the house where the Kedias live. Her suspicions were aroused after she talked with Kedia’s wife. She then lodged a complaint with the Asansol South police station.

Police then raided Kedia’s house. Since yesterday, police have been cleaning a well inside the residential complex where the Kedias live, suspecting that the businessman’s body might be hidden there.

Bimala has confessed during interrogation that she found her husband involved in a heated exchange with the businessman on the night of January 1.

She also said that her husband with the help of their three sons had filled up the well with bricks and refuse which had been brought in a truck. The well was filled up overnight. By next morning, the four had disappeared.

Police suspect that both Kedia, who contested as a Congress candidate in the last Asansol Municipal Corporation elections, and Biswal were engaged in some kind of illegal trade.

Undertrial flees: An undertrial from Manipur arrested on charges of drug smuggling escaped from Behrampore Central jail last night, reports our correspondent.

Tasken Singh scaled the 30-foot-high wall around the prison around 3.30 am. The jail authorities came to know about the incident this morning.


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