Grenades whizz past fiery Farooq
Vajpayee keeps Bengal guessing
Delhi builds bridge to Beijing
Surjeet smells US plot in flare-up
Jai Hind pill for gawking babus
Mini mutiny after Samata truce
RSP on split brink
Scissors’ grip on sex-workers
Mourning Sagar to skip fire ritual

Srinagar, Jan. 14: 
Militants made an abortive attempt on Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s life this afternoon while he was inaugurating a bridge on the river Jhelum.

Police sources said militants fired two rifle grenades at the venue at Habbakadal in the interior of Srinagar city. They missed the target and the grenade exploded in a nearby locality without causing damage, provoking police to open fire.

Security guards accompanying the chief minister made Farooq cut short his speech and sprang a tight cordon around the podium from which he was addressing a small gathering.

The grenades exploded just when Farooq was telling the gathering that he “can’t be cowed down by bullets and bombs and nobody could deter him from the path to restore normality in the state”.

An official spokesman here said Farooq was unruffled by the incident and “remained cool during the whole time”.

“Abdullah did not leave the venue even as he was encircled by the security personnel,” the spokesman added. “Abdullah was himself seen restoring order and asking people to remain calm.”

The explosion and the subsequent firing triggered panic among the people who had gathered in the area, and they started running for cover.

Sources said the local residents left the tent and took shelter in the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Habbakadal. Soon, the venue was deserted.

The spokesman said policemen, who had opened fire in retaliation, were directed to stop. No one was injured in the firing. “There was commotion for a few minutes, but soon order was restored,” he said.

“Those who thought that by hurling grenades they would succeed in making him (Farooq) run away should know that they would themselves have to flee from Kashmir,” the chief minister told the frightened gathering later.

Later, paramilitary troops and the National Security Guards escorted Farooq from the venue.

Anticipating trouble, the authorities had made tight security arrangements around the venue.

From early this morning, paramilitary forces had encircled the entire Habbakadal locality, which was once dominated by Kashmiri Pandits. Passersby were frisked and the road leading to the venue was sealed.

So far, no arrests have been made, and no one has claimed responsibility for the attack.


Bali, Jan. 14: 
Keeping up the pressure on Bengal, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said he will make an assessment of the situation in the state following the alleged carnage at Chhoto Angaria on his return to Delhi.

“I am not in a position to make any assessment from here,” Vajpayee told reporters at the exotic sea resort hours before his departure for India after a week-long Vietnam-Indonesia trip. He was asked whether the alleged deterioration of law and order in the state following the Midnapore “carnage” merited President’s rule.

The Prime Minister said he was aware of the demand for Central rule, but added: “The question will be decided after I consult with my other colleagues.”

Vajpayee’s somewhat ambiguous stand on the issue, fast turning into a controversy, indicates that Delhi is going to keep up the pressure on Bengal for a while by not making a clear statement.

Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who has repeatedly asked the Vajpayee government to invoke Article 356 in the state, arrived in the capital today. She is scheduled to meet the Prime Minister and apprise him of the situation in Bengal, particularly of Chhoto Angaria.

Minister of state for external affairs and Trinamul leader Ajit Panja, who was with Vajpayee during his Southeast Asia tour, claimed that he had kept Vajpayee informed of the Bengal situation from the fax messages he received from his party colleagues.

Panja also met home minister L.K. Advani to discuss the “unabated attacks” on political opponents in the state. “When will you be convinced? When all the political Opposition in Bengal will be but-chered by the CPM hoodlums?” Panja is reported to have asked.

But despite the Trinamul demand, Delhi is reluctant to dismiss the Left Front government as the Prime Minister’s aides feel that such a move will be counter-productive and may help in rejuvenating the anti-Mamata forces in the state.

The aides are citing the BJP’s own experience a few years ago when the defeat of the NDA government in Parliament helped in earning sympathy votes for the party in the next elections.

However, keen to keep the Trinamul leadership happy and to ensure it does not desert the NDA at this juncture, the Vajpayee government has remained ambiguous. Though Advani and defence minister George Fernandes have been critical of law and order in the state, Vajpayee has not committed himself on the issue.


New Delhi, Jan. 14: 
Atal Bihari Vajpayee today recalled his decision to cut-short a visit to Beijing in 1979 as India’s foreign minister when China attacked Vietnam.

However, on the eve of his meeting with the chairman of China’s National People’s Conference, Vajpayee said past differences should be forgotten and the two sides should build a “relationship based on mutual trust and confidence”.

The remarks came as part of his up briefing on his week-long visit to Vietnam and Indonesia. “When I went to China in 1979, relations between Beijing and Hanoi were strained as the latter alleged that it had been attacked by the Chinese,” Vajpayee said.

The Prime Minister pointed out that he as India’s foreign minister had decided to cut short his visit to Beijing. “This was a mark of protest against the Chinese aggression and even today the Vietnamese leadership fondly remembers the stand taken by me,” Vajpayee said.

“My visits to Vietnam and Indonesia reflect India’s abiding and enduring ties with Asia. In the same spirit, I look forward to my discussions tomorrow with Mr Li Peng....

“India and China are engaged in the process of resolving, and putting behind us, past differences and forging a new and dynamic relationship for the 21st century for the benefit of our two countries,” the Prime Minister said in a statement issued soon after his return from a week-long tour of Southeast Asia.

Before starting for Delhi, Vajpayee said in Bali that he was looking forward to his meeting with Li. “I share his view that both India and China should build a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence.”

He stressed that major steps have already been taken by the two sides to resolve the border dispute amicably. A few months ago they had also exchanged maps. “I hope we will be able to find a peaceful solution to this decade-old problem,” Vajpayee said.

Asked whether it is possible for India to normalise relations with China though the latter continues to provide Pakistan with arms and co-operate with it on its nuclear and missile programmes, Vajpayee said, “We have our differences on these issues. But we have to face them and try to find a solution to these problems”

The Prime Minister pointed out that India has raised the issue with countries supplying arms to Pakistan.

“We have told them that it is your sovereign decision to sell arms to whichever country you want. But wherever Pakistan gets its arms from it is only used against us,” he said.

Bilateral relations between India and China have gone through several ups and downs in the past. The two countries, which had fought a war in 1962 on the border issue, had strained relations further after the Indian nuclear tests.

However, over the past two years serious attempts have been made by both sides to normalise relations. Beijing and Delhi are now focusing on settling the decade-old dispute on the border.

Li Peng, the NPC chairman and the number two in the Chinese pecking order, is an important member to have on board if relations between the two Asian giants were to normalise and also to create a situation where the two can co-operate with each other closely on key political and economic issues.

The Chinese are keen to revive the Russian suggestion of a trilateral axis between Moscow, Delhi and Beijing. India, which is in the process of normalising its relations with China, is not too keen on the proposal. The reluctance stems from the excellent relations that India has been able to develop with the United States during the last year.

India is not opposed to the idea of multi-polarity, which involves many more coun- tries spread over different parts of the world. It, however, has reservations about getting into any agreement with Moscow and Beijing as this could be seen as directed against Washington.

The Chinese are keen to revive the Russian suggestion of a trilateral axis between Moscow, Delhi and Beijing. India, which is in the process of normalising its relations with China, is not too keen on the proposal. The reluctance stems from the excellent relations that India has been able to develop with the US during the last year.


New Delhi, Jan. 14: 
The CPM feels there is a great “international plot” behind the recent outbreak of violence in West Bengal.

Party general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet hummed the CPM’s favourite refrain: The United States is using the Trinamul Congress to destabilise the Left Front-ruled state. And Maoist radicals, one-time arch enemies of the CPM, are abetting Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee in her “machinations” against Left parties, Surjeet added.

In addition, there are secessionist outfits that are demanding a separate state of Kamtapur and are being supported by Mamata. “They have murdered eight of our comrades, including one district committee member,” said Surjeet.

The US has always been the CPM’s favourite flogging horse. Senior CPM MP Biplab Das Gupta recently alleged that the US is funding a “minor” political party in West Bengal. Today Surjeet took up the refrain.

“None other than Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US’ former ambassador to India, has revealed in his memoirs the plots funded by his country’s ruling dispensation to topple the elected state governments of West Bengal and Kerala,” said Surjeet.

The Left Front, he said, will organise an all-India protest on January 24 to focus attention on this “plot” hatched by a string of political players, major and minor, and to rebuff “right-wing” forces.

The CPM general secretary took a step further, alleging that yesterday’s bloody incident at the Baranagar jute mill was part of an “anti-Left conspiracy” to discredit the Left Front. “Subrata Mukherjee has said the worker concerned belonged to the INTUC. And, the managerial personnel and the worker belonged to the Trinamul Congress-BJP,” said Surjeet.

West Bengal’s bloody tussle for political supremacy has become a contest of numbers for all the parties that have a stake in the forthcoming Assembly polls. It has become a game of claiming the maximum number of “victims”. “During these two-and-a-half years, 136 of the Left Front’s comrades have been killed in these three districts, out of which 98 were put to death in Midnapore alone,” said Surjeet.

Mamata claims that her party is the most wounded and the number of “victims” in the Trinamul far outnumber the CPM’s.

The Marxist leader, however, was lenient on the Congress. For a change, the party that till a few years ago was the Left Front’s main headache in Bengal, was not lumped with the onspirators.


New Delhi, Jan. 14: 
From now on, every time a bored babu logs into his office PC for a dekko of topless women, all he will get is a slogan saying: “This site is not worth watching. Let’s do something better. Jai Hind.”

The Centre — suddenly realising that not only adolescents, but government employees also require to be kept away from online sex — has installed a software in office computers which denies access to porn sites.

A secret report has found porn-surfers thrive in every major government building — Shastri Bhavan, Nirman Bhavan, Krishi Bhavan, North Block, South Block, Rail Bhawan, or even offices in Parliament. Checking out porn sites is one way of spending afternoons away from the glare of senior babus.

“After the report, a battery of computer engineers was pressed into service to make the slogan appear when ever you log on to erotic sites,” said an official.

Work at government offices has shrunk a lot after computerisation.

But after questions as to why inputs were coming in at a snail’s pace in this e-age, the secret scrutiny found that employees spent most of their time watching porn sites.

“After it was reported to home minister L.K. Advani, a meeting in the ministerial think-tank came to the conclusion that software engineers should prevent access to all such sites through the main server for the government National Informatics Centre (NIC),” said the official. Information and broadcasting minister, Sushma Swaraj had to be involved in the exercise.

All these government establishments are linked by LAN (local area network) and are in turn connected to the NIC hub. The designed software has been installed at NIC-LAN link, thereby preventing these sites from appearing on the monitor.

However, the really enterprising ones can develop their own superior software and do away with this slogan.

This is the first step towards totally eradicating the “porn site menace” throughout the country, an official said.

“Our cultural conscience keepers have already demanded that Swaraj should stem this alarming trend and the minister has also taken the initiative to deny access to sex sites throughout the country,” he added.

Swaraj, during her earl- ier tenure in the ministry, took action against phone sex and vowed to ban sex chats also on the Net.


New Delhi, Jan. 14: 
George Fernandes is grappling with a mini mutiny in Bihar despite the temporary ceasefire in the Samata Party.

Though the party’s national council in Mysore last week reelected the defence minister’s protégé, Jaya Jaitley, as president and downplayed the merger ruckus between the Samata and the Janata Dal (United), the Bihar chief issue is likely to dog him.

Fernandes has convened a meeting of the six rebel party MPs on January 15 to thrash out the problem. The rebels — Raghunath Jha, Prabhunath Singh, Brahmandand Mandal, Arun Kumar, Manjay Lal and Mahindra Baitha — elected Jha last week as Bihar president to sabotage Nitish Kumar’s bid to instal his nominee.

The meeting will also discuss the proposed merger. Fernandes skirted the issue at the party’s national council meeting but said options would be kept open to widen the party base. While the rebels are opposed to the merger, Nitish said eventually the parties would have to do so.

The party’s Bihar unit had authorised Nitish to hold talks on the merger, name a president for the state unit and also nominate members to the councils of the Bihar and Jharkhand units. It will, therefore, not be easy for Fernandes to ignore the political interests of Nitish.

While the rebels elected Jha Bihar chief in a parallel meeting in Patna last week, the official Samata meet had authorised Nitish to nominate a president. Nitish is yet to do so. Party sources hoped Fernandes’ meeting with the rebels next week will throw up a solution as Jha may be asked to retire in favour of Nitish’s nominee.

The rival camp had reluctantly agreed to support Jaitley as chief on condition that the Bihar president will be Nitish’s choice. The Bihar unit, the mainstay of the Samata, is controlled by Nitish.

Fearing that Nitish may upstage the national leadership, the rebel MPs alleged that he was planning to capture the party with a bogus membership list.

They alleged that he had doctored voters’ lists of several districts.


Calcutta, Jan. 14: 
The Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), a major constituent of the Left Front in Bengal, is on the verge of a split.

RSP leaders today said the development is an embarrassment for the party as elections are only months away. “We are worried over the growing problems in some districts, but steps are being taken to stem the rot,” said PWD minister Kshiti Goswami.

Goswami, an RSP secretariat member, said the party central committee discussed the issue in its two-day meeting in Delhi last week.

According to sources, the organisation has been“shattered” in Murshidabad after district secretary Asish Roychowdhury resigned three months ago over differences with irrigation minister Debrabatra Bandopadhayay, also a state unit secretary.

The trouble has now spread to North 24 Parganas, Midnapore, Nadia and Howrah. In North 24 Parganas, district secretary Chandanmani Roy was replaced overnight by Ratan Sengupta, under mounting pressure from the dissidents.


Forbesgunge, Jan. 14: 
During day, 24-year-old Hasma sometimes dreams of the baby she can’t have. At night, she can do business 30 days a month without interruption for the same reason: she can’t have babies.

A sex-worker by profession, the tribal girl’s uterus and ovaries were removed in a crude operation by a local quack a couple of years ago.

Owners of the brothel here in north Bihar on the border with Nepal convinced her that without reproductive organs she would not contract sexually-transmitted diseases.

“Mausi boli ki bachchadani nikal lene se mujhe koi prakar ki bimari nahi hogi (Mausi said if I remove my reproductive organs, I will not have any disease),” said Hasma.

She is among scores of women in brothels in this town and adjoining areas who have undergone hysterectomy. Most are from the backward Nat community, which traditionally initiates their women into the flesh trade.

A study by two non-government organisations — Bhoomika and Manjari — in 17 brothels in the region reveals that hysterectomy is being used, ostensibly to protect sex-workers from AIDS.

Unlike Hasma, 23-year-old Chhaya does not yet feel the pain of losing the ability to bear children. Also a Nat girl, her parents were more than happy when the frail, dusky girl was sold to a brothel four years ago.

“My reproductive organs were removed after I conceived a couple of years ago,” she said.

While terminating her pregnancy, the doctor removed her uterus and ovaries. “Now I don’t have to suffer the trauma of conception and abortion. Moreover, I will never have AIDS,” Chhaya added, as if visited by a miracle.

What she does not know is that she can still contract AIDS.

The study has found at least seven Nat women who have been put through hysterectomy.

Human rights groups are decrying the practice as one of the worst violations of basic human rights, drawing attention to the fact that this is the year of women’s empowerment.

“This is the most barbaric way of fighting AIDS. Brothel-owners are going for a short-cut instead of promoting awareness among sex-workers,” said Kishori Das, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.

Sex-workers who undergo the surgery are unaware of the implications. They are led to believe that the removal of reproductive organs will rid them of several encumbrances and enhance their earning ability.

“These women are like the living dead, working in automation without their soul,” says Aroon Kumar of Bhoomika. He is pressing for a thorough medical examination of the victims.

The brothel in Forbesgunge is close to a hospital. Local social workers alleged a nexus between brothel-owners and private doctors.

According to the study, caste plays a role since most of the victims belong to the backward Nat community, which is dogged by abject poverty and ignorance.

After the revelation, the local chapter of the Unicef has started inquiring into the cases. Women’s rights activists have launched a campaign demanding a comprehensive survey by the Bihar government.

A delegation of women activists led by Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Manch president Suman Lal will visit the area shortly. Lal said she would move the National Women’s Commission.


Sagar Islands (South 24-Parganas), Jan. 14: 
Nearly 3 lakh pilgrims took the holy dip on Makar Sankranti at the millennium’s first Ganga Sagar mela that will come to an end tomorrow without the ritual closing ceremony after two tragic deaths.

On Sunday, Belmati Saha, 80, a resident of Taltala Street in Calcutta, succumbed to her burns in a fire that broke out in a multi-tiered tent serving as a dharamshala run by Calcutta Vastra Byabosayee Samiti.

Riddhi Mishra, two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of a Gorakhpur city court judge, drowned after falling into the water from his father’s lap.

As soon as news of the fire spread, volunteers from organisations such as Bharat Sevashram Sangha, Lokenath Mission and Royal Life Saving Society joined fire-fighters in rescuing people trapped in the burning house.

“We despatched four fire tenders to the spot the moment the flames and the smoke were noticed. The firemen fought for nearly an hour and brought the blaze under control. Her death is most unfortunate,” said South 24 Parganas district magistrate Alapan Bandopadhyay.

The dharamshala, a three-tier tent, accommodated more than a thousand pilgrims. The ground and first floors were completely gutted. Many pilgrims had jumped out of the first-floor windows to escape being burnt alive.

The district superintendent of police, A.K. Maliwal, ordered an inquiry into the fire, which he said could have been caused by one of the many ovens the pilgrims on the ground floor had been using for cooking or by cigarette or bidi stubs. Four people have been detained for interrogation.

Fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee said the administration would not allow setting up of such tents in the future. “We have learnt a lesson. Next year we will allow only tents made of fire-proof material,” he said.

Three others died during the mela through natural causes. Three more were killed on their way back from the mela when their car collided with a bus near Kulpi on Diamond Harbour Road this evening.

In a gesture to the dead, the district administration decided to close the mela this year without the ritual camp fire.

As organisers mourned the dead, their fears that the Mahakumbh in Allahabad would pull the crowds away from here proved unfounded. Pilgrims came from as far away as Nepal. The Hrithik Roshan controversy did not deter the large number of Nepalese who made the trip.

“For us, far more important than Hrithik is to be able to offer puja to Kapil Muni. The Hrithik tamasha is for the two governments to sort out. We are concerned with the holy dip,” said P.R. Giri who has led a group of 70 Nepalese to the mela.

Sunday’s holy dip began around 3 am and continued through the day. The rush peaked around 8 am which, according to the almanac, was the most auspicious time to take the dip.

The sunny weather was a bonus. The mood was neatly captured by Baba Uttam of Haryana. “What I experienced at this confluence of the Ganga and the sea was something divine,” he said.


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