Shaken Sangh in Sikh somersault
Armsdrop aide flies the coop
Call comes, but not from Sonia
Grim pointer to local poll
A grin and a jig to plug the crore gap
Punctuality push in districts
Talks, not force, key to peace
Art for heart’s sake
Kite festival brings colour to Burdwan
Hunger strike

New Delhi, Jan. 16: 
Rattled by the stiff warning served on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) by the Akal Takht not to distort Sikh tenets and celebrate gurupurab (birth anniversaries), the Sangh parivar today admitted before the Minorities Commission that Sikhs constituted a “separate religion and a separate identity” and were not a part of Hinduism.

The RSS’ admission goes against its accepted stand which was that Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism were “offshoots” of Hinduism and were, by implication, its sub-sects. It also stressed that faiths “alien” to India, notably Islam and Christianity, should be “Indianised” and “integrated into the mainstream”.

But after the wake-up call given by various Sikh leaders — who alleged that the RSS was out to divide Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab — the Sangh representatives did a complete U-turn at today’s meeting, which was called by Tarlochan Singh, the vice-chairman of the Minorities Commission.

Briefing reporters, RSS spokesman M.G. Vaidya — who attended the meeting along with the outfit’s Delhi president, Satya Narain Bansal, and a Sikh representative, R.P. Singh — said that when the commission members elicited their views on Sikhism, they were told that the Sangh had always regarded it as a “distinct religion”.

“The RSS never entertained any idea of diluting the identity of Sikhs,” Vaidya claimed.

Professing complete belief in the “plurality of religions”, he said: “Destroying the distinctiveness of any religion or faith is against the RSS given that we are appreciators of diversity. If we try to destroy the diversity, we shall cease to be Hindus.”

Vaidya added that the RSS had many Sikh members but they were free to pursue their own mode of dressing and other customs.

The RSS was caught on the backfoot on the issue of Sikhism after Tarlochan Singh met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recently to voice the Minorities Commission’s concern over the “an-ti-Sikh” remarks made by RSS sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan.

Earlier, Singh had written to the Prime Minister, drawing his attention to Sudarshan’s silence on the subject and his refusal to withdraw his “inflammatory” statements.

Singh’s letter to Vajpayee said an “uncalled-for” controversy had been generated by the RSS’ assertion that Sikhs were a part of Hinduism.

“The hardliners among the Sikhs were lying low after peace prevailed in Punjab. Now these groups have got an agenda and are going on organising meetings and protests in the state and have also been accusing Parkash Singh Badal (the Punjab chief minister) and Gurcharan Singh Tohra of keeping silent on the issue,” he said.

In addition to the letter to Vajpayee, the minorities’ panel had written twice to Sudarshan: once on New Year’s Day, asking him to take “immediate action” to defuse the issue, and earlier on April 11, 2000, in which the commission pointed out that his reported remark was interpreted by the community as being hostile to its religion and identity.

Sudarshan’s only response was that a “conspiracy” had been hatched to defame the RSS, first as anti-Muslim and anti-Christian and now as anti-Sikh.

But once the Akalis got into the act and started voicing concern on how the RSS was “grooming” the BJP to throw up an alternative leadership in Punjab, the party was forced to sit up and take note of events, particularly since the Akali Dal is one of its oldest and staunchest allies.

BJP sources said that although Vajpayee may not have talked to Sudarshan on the matter, by giving time to Tarlochan Singh, he “more than conveyed” his disapproval of the sarsanghachalak’s statements. The RSS’ turnaround seems to have been prompted by this move.

The Sangh has also decided to have another sitting with the Minorities Commission, this time to try and dispel the apprehensions expressed by Christians who have been targeted by the Hindu fundamentalists.


New Delhi, Jan. 16: 
Martin Konrad Schneider, alias “Hanuman”, close associate of Purulia armsdrop mastermind Kim Davy, appears to have given Indian authorities the slip.

The CBI in a tizzy over his disappearance, has issued a “lookout notice” for him across the world.

Schneider, an American national who also went by the names of Joel Broeren and Ken Sando, was arrested by the CBI after he flew into Calcutta in January 1997, slightly over a year after the December 1995 armsdrop.

The head of the Seva Dharma Mission, a wing of the Ananda Marga, Schneider admitted he met Davy in Russia in 1991 and had remained in touch with him since. Following his arrest, Schneider was charged under the Foreigners Act and under certain sections of the Indian Penal Code.

He was granted conditional bail by Calcutta High Court on April 24, 1997. Under the terms of the bail, Schneider was forbidden to leave Calcutta without permission. Besides providing his local address in Calcutta, he was required to appear before the investigating officer thrice every week.

During his stay in Calcutta, Schneider often visited the Ananda Marga headquarters at Tiljala in Calcutta’s suburbs.

Schneider’s lawyer submitted a petition in the high court on January 21, 1999, praying for relaxation in the bail terms so that he could visit Wisconsin in the US following the death of his father. The lawyer submitted that his mother had asked him to return to attend the funeral and perform the last rites. Moreover, his petition said, he was to take charge of the family property.

The court allowed him to visit Wisconsin on hum-anitarian ground. But Schneider had to furnish two sureties of Rs 1 lakh and the court directed him to appear before the 12th metropolitan magistrate in the Calcutta sessions court on January 4.

It was during the routine perusal of documents relating to the armsdrop case that the CBI officials in Calcutta realised, after almost a week had passed, that Schneider had not turned up. The magistrate told his lawyer that Schneider’s stay in the US could not be extended.

An arrest warrant has been issued and the CBI has “revived” the lookout notice which had been despatched through Interpol when his name first came up in the case. Officials believe that Sch-neider “will not return”. Investigators, who had earlier held that he was the key to get to Davy, maintain that Schneider “knows a lot” and but for the bail granted to him in 1997, he could have proved to be an important source of information for tracking down the Davy.

Davy has been seen in various parts of the world, including Sweden, Denmark, Latin-American countries, European nations and is at present suspected to be in hiding in the US, where authorities recently issued a federal arrest warrant against him.


New Delhi, Jan. 16: 
First it was an officer par excellence who died in tragic circumstances. Today a gentleman joined him, leaving a huge void in the Congress.

Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada had very little in common. Pilot was a born challenger, rebel and a fighter who came through the ranks to take on the high command. Prasada was an aristocrat, an adept backroom player, constantly planning and plotting. Yet, towards the end, they came together to revive inner-party democracy in the country’s oldest political party.

But destiny had other plans. First, Pilot met with a fatal accident and on January 9, Prasada suffered a brain haemorrhage that proved fatal.

“Jiti Bhai”, as Prasada was fondly called, defied tradition and surprised his friends and foes alike when he decided to take on Sonia Gandhi in the organisational polls that concluded in November. No amount of persuasion, plea, advice and allurement worked to change his mind. Prasada did the unthinkable in the Congress parivar — challenge a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

To some, it was ironical that Prasada himself became a victim of palace intrigue, an art he had mastered as an understudy of the wily Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and later as political secretary to Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. The All India Congress Committee grapevine has it that Prasada was led up the garden path by some of his contemporaries who encouraged him to file the nomination against Sonia, convincing him that the lady would invite him for a rapprochement.

The gameplan appeared good on paper, except that the call from 10, Janpath, never came. The old guard cautioned her against hosting a tea party, pointing out that it would be seen as a sign of weakness. The loyalist had no option but to turn a rebel.

Coming from a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi, Prasada’s provocation, however, rattled the Sonia camp. Leaving nothing to chance, the leadership ensured that Prasada’s threat was wiped out.

While the final tally showed Prasada getting just above 1 per cent of the votes against Rajiv’s widow, Prasada’s contribution, even by default, would always be acknowledged in the history of the Congress. He might not have been a towering person like Subhash Bose who made Mahatma Gandhi look really small in 1939, but Prasada succeeded in pricking the conscience of millions of partymen.

During his whirlwind electioneering against Sonia, Prasada was greeted with locked doors at the party offices at Jaipur, Lucknow, Patna, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Yet, he maintained a solemn and dignified posture, refraining from launching a personal attack on Sonia though he was constantly egged on by known Sonia-baiters like the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party.

Whenever, journalists asked him to comment on Sonia. He would say with a smile, “Arrey bhai, hamen Congress mein rahna hai (I intend staying in the Congress). She is our leader.”

Prasada’s chequered political career spread over four decades saw many ups and downs such as the downfall of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh in the wake of the Mandal and Ayodhya movements. Till his death, however, he was optimistic about the future of the Congress in the state. He used to say: “People are looking up towards us but we are failing to win their confidence. That is the real challenge before the Congress.”

Born on November 12, 1938, in an aristocratic family in Lucknow, “Baba sahib” entered politics in 1970 as a Member of the Legislative Council in Uttar Pradesh. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1971 and repeated the feat in the 1980, 1984 and 1999 elections from Shahjahanpur.


Patna, Jan. 16: 
The Samastipur killings yesterday could be a forewarning to violent panchayat polls two months later.

Seven persons were gunned down at a campaign-related meeting at Rosera in Samastipur last evening. The last time panchayat elections were held in the state in 1978, about 400 people had died.

Contractors controlling the levers of power in the villages in the absence of local polls for 22 years were threatened by the change in political equations, sources said.

National Democratic Alliance constituents, led by the newly-formed Lok Janashakti of Ram Vilas Paswan, have been working overtime to wean away a chunk of backward votes. Regular meetings were being held in the districts to start an early campaign.

The Rosera Kshetriya Vikas Samity _ led by Murari Prasad Singh, district president of Lok Shakti’s youth wing — was emerging as a force to reckon with and its members had planned to contest the panchayat polls. The effort was spearheaded by local MP Ram Chandra Paswan, brother of Ram Vilas. But a group headed by Kundan Singh, known to be close to the local RJD, was resisting the move, police sources said.

Unidentified gunmen, who came on two-wheelers, stormed the house-cum-office of Murari Prasad around 8 pm yesterday when a meeting was on. They whipped out AK-47 rifles and sprayed bullets on the group, killing seven and injuring 15.

SP, Samastipur, Paresh Saxena said the killers could not be identified but they appeared to be professionals. Paramilitary forces patrolled Samstipur today and Opposition leaders Sushil Modi and Nitish Kumar visited the site.

Preliminary inquiries by police revealed that a dispute over the control of a bus stand has been raging in the area. Kundan Singh, a local strongman, was one of the claimants to the contract for the bus stand for which a bidding was to be held. The Rokera Samity was also eyeing the bus stand.

“But this will be one of the disputes which have been creating bad blood between the two groups and there was fear that Murari Prasad’s group would take possession of the major avenues of business,” said one of the investigating officers.


Mumbai, Jan. 16: 
Chhote Mian will come on air when Bade Mian goes off it.

Govinda’s Jeeto Chhappar Phaad Ke aims to fill the Friday-Monday void on television when Amitabh Bachchan’s KBC is not telecast.

With his trademark ear-to-ear grin and a jig, last night Govinda announced Sony Entertainment Television’s “much awaited, most anticipated and widely talked about” clone of STAR TV’s most successful money-spinning programme till date.

With loads of money and goodies for winners, Govinda will try his hand — and luck — the small screen for the first time on January 26, a Friday, when the Big B is not around with his grey-streaked goatee and his “lock kiya jaye” mantra.

“Ours is not a working day programme running from Monday to Thursday, when you are hardly in a mood to relax and enjoy because you will have to leave for work the next morning,” Sony CEO Kunal Dasgupta said, referring to the KBC schedules.

“You can watch Jeeto Chhappar Phaad Ke while chilling out on the weekend. Our concept is different. More than anything, we want people to have fun,” he said.

The Sony show, scheduled at 8 in the evening, is to last as long as STAR’s — one full hour. But that is where similarities end. While Bachchan — his language and humour measured — is a suave host, Govinda is likely to crack jokes, break into popular numbers and even shake a leg with winners.

Sony wants Govinda to repeat on the small screen what he does best on the big — make people laugh with his antics. “That is our whole objective. Entertainment is what we want to give to people,” Dasgupta said.

STAR offers up to Rs 1 crore to KBC winners, but Sony said its prizes are “unlimited”. Besides cash, winners will take home goodies ranging from fridges and computers to compact cars.

Sony would not disclose the maximum amount a participant could win till the show got rolling.

To attract viewers, Sony will organise regular contests for them and winners and their families will be sent on a world cruise.

Dasgupta would not say how much the company was ready to put into the show, which he said might run up to two years if it took off. He also refused to disclose Govinda’s fees.

The Sony chief said the company was not counting on the show to turn its fortune. “Sony is not in the position STAR was. We are doing reasonably well and it is one of the several programmes we have planned for the next two years.”

The channel conceived the show soon after KBC became a hit almost on its launch last August. But Sony tweaked its programme after Zee’s Sawal Das Crore Ka bombed and anchors Anupam Kher and Manisha Koirala were fired.

“Initially, we planned to continue the show till Monday, but we dropped the idea later and planned to make it a weekend show,” Dasgupta said.

With 15 episodes of Jeeto already been shot, the show has acquired its share of problems. There are reports that Govinda has often appeared late during the shoots in the last two months.

“Govinda is not a former star, but one of the top reigning stars. So there is a huge demand on his time,” Dasgupta said. “Still, he agreed to do the show. It is a challenge to work with a present star and we have accepted it.”


Calcutta, Jan. 16: 
The government today decided to form a task force in each district to further the drive to induce punctuality in the state’s work culture.

The decision was taken at a meeting convened in Writers’ Buildings by chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Finance minister Asim Dasgupta, chief secretary Manish Gupta, all district magistrates and Zilla Parishad chairmen were present at the meeting.

Dasgupta told reporters that timely attendance was on the rise in government offices in the state and stood on an average at about 90 per cent.

The task forces, comprising the Zilla Parishad chairman, the district magistrate concerned and all departmental heads, will also begin paying surprise visits to state-run and state-sponsored schools, both secondary and primary.

Dasgupta said he would sit with higher education minister Satya Sadhan Chakraborty on Friday to chalk out a way to introduce punctuality in the colleges and the universities run by the state.

Voters’ list released: The revised voters’ list for West Bengal was officially released by the chief electoral officer in Calcutta.

There has been a 1.16 per cent rise in the number of persons in the list over the one published in 1999. The total number of voters in the state now stands at a little over 40.8 million.

Chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen said that out of the 1.9 million applications received for inclusion in the voters’ list, about 700,000 were rejected.

Stating that he had no communication from the Election Commission about the polling date for the ensuing Assembly polls in the state, Sen said that his department had ordered for 56,000 new electronic voting machines.

For the 62,000 polling booths in the state, there are only 12,000 voting machines in the state. The state requires 71,000 machines to conduct the polls. Sen said that if there was a shortfall, he would requisition machines from Orissa.


Siliguri, Jan. 16: 
The Left Front government continues its onslaught to contain the separatist Kamtapur movement, but intelligence sources believe the problem should be solved through talks.

In his report after a fact-finding mission to north Bengal districts last week, the state director-general, IB, Debabrata Banerjee, has suggested “dialogue” — rather than the use of force — with the Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP) as the method of achieving peace.

Disregarding intelligence reports, the state government is persisting with “Operation Kamtapur” launched towards the end of November last year. The district police authorities in Darjeeling, Malda, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar have so far rounded up over 172 top-level and middle-level Kamtapuri leaders.

Barring the party’s central committee president, Atul Roy, his deputy Nikhil Roy, women’s leader Mitali Roy and Kamtapur Women’s Rights Forum president Bharati Das, all other front-ranking leaders are behind bars. So are hardliners of the All Kamtapur Students’ Union (Aksu).

Aksu, which the district police suspect to have links with the elusive militant Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), has been the hardest hit by Operation Kamtapur. The organisation is leaderless following the arrest of president Srinivas Das, vice-president Kedarnath Singha and general secretary Bishumoni Patwari.

Most of them were arrested during the night-long police sweep in north Bengal on November 29. The majority were picked up from Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar.

Last month alone, over 30 other middle-ranking KPP and Aksu leaders were arrested on charges varying from murder to sedition.

During his three-day trip, the IB chief assessed the situation after the mass arrests of Kamtapuri leaders. District police officials told him that mere arrest of top Kamtapuri leaders would not end or contain militancy.

Banerjee, who extensively toured the Kamtapuri hub in Jalpaiguri district’s Kumargram Duar under Alipurduar sub-division, was told by district police officials that the government should try to get Kamtapur leaders to sit across the table.

Senior police officials expressed reservations about the continuing police action.

“The Kamtapuri leadership is willing to hold dialogue with the state government provided ongoing operations are aborted and innocent Rajbonshi people are not harassed by the government and the CPM leadership,” a senior police officer said.

“To regain the confidence of the Rajbonshi community and the Kamtapur activists, most arrested KPP leaders and activists be released. Only those with suspected links with the militant outfit be kept behind bars,” the officer said.

Sources said the IB chief expressed his unhappiness with the increasing number of complaints of police high-handedness while carrying out arrests.

Initially, the Jalpaiguri police had restrained themselves from arresting most frontline Kamtapur leaders. But several arrests were made under “pressure” from the state government.

Disclosing the rift between the intelligence branch and Writers’ Buildings, a police officer said: “The entire Operation Kamtapur was remote-controlled from Calcutta. We were only asked to execute and were not included in its conception stage.”

Political observers here believe the government is trying to distance the Kamtapuri hardliners from the central leadership. “There are signs of the CPM softening towards KPP president Atul Roy while vice-president Nikhil Roy, known for his hardline stance, is being kept on the run,” they said.

The district police have not been able to pin down the elusive KLO. Several arrests have been made of suspected KLO activists, but no substantial evidence has been produced against most of the so-called militant cadre arrested in north Bengal in the past few months, the observers said.


Calcutta, Jan. 16: 
Years ago, Rabindranath Tagore had to be brought to Calcutta when he fell seriously ill in Santiniketan. More recently, a well-known exponent of his songs, Kanika Bandopadhyay too had to be brought to the city after she had a severe heart problem.

A lack of specialised health facilities in Tagore’s abode of peace has been a long-time concern for the growing Bolpur-Sriniketan-Santiniketan population. An effort to erase part of that concern has been taken up by Goodwill Mission, a voluntary organisation devoted to matters of health, more so heart health.

With an aim to extend facilities to rural areas, it had approached the land reforms department for a place to set up a cardiac centre. They were given a 2.5 bigha plot in Santiniketan, the mission’s founder-director Ashis Dutta Choudhury said.

A Rs 10-crore project was then initiated, which would ultimately yield a 100-bed cardiac care centre at Bolpur.

The cause had support from various quarters, including a host of well-meaning city cardiologists. Several ministers, too, including the then cooperatives minister Bhakti Bhusan Mondal were in favour of the project.

In order to raise funds, the mission thought of a novel idea. It approached artists and urged them to take part in an “Art for Heart” camp.

As many as 32 artists responded, including Paritosh Sen, Prakash Karmakar, Jogen Chowdhury, Ramananda Bandopadhyay, Chitrabhanu Majumdar, Robin Mondal and Bijan Chowdhury. The camp began in September and the fruits were put on display today at the Asutosh Centenary Building in the Indian Museum premises.

At the inauguration of the Art for Heart exhibition were Biren Moitra, agri-marketing minister and Shibnarayan Roy, historian. Like Amita Sen, mother of Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen, they lauded the effort. She had welcomed the idea when the mission director had gone to Santiniketan for a survey of the land.

“I requested her to open the centre when it was completed,” recalled Ashis Dutta Chowdhury. She had jokingly replied, “Of course I will...I’ll be the first person to be treated there!”

A seminar on the “Necessity of heart centres in rural Bengal” was also organised at today’s inauguration.


Burdwan, Jan. 16: 
Following a tradition introduced 400 years ago, members of Burdwan’s royal family flew kites from the palace terrace to observe Pous Sankranti.

The town reverberated with shouts of “Bho katta” as people cut each other’s kites during the festival which began on Sunday. The sky was dotted with colourful kites for three days.

“It is the day of the chandial, mukh poda and the pet kata. We have been waiting for this festival , preparing our own manja (the special thread dipped in a mixture of dye, siris gum and glass powder),” said Aloke Modak of Mithapukur in Burdwan town.

For bank employee Probir Bhattacharya and his wife Srabani, the kite festival is like Durga Puja. “It is an age-old festival in Burdwan town and we buy new clothes as we do during the Pujas,” said Probir, whose wife prepared special dishes for her family.

“About 250 workers make about 10 lakh kites for the occasion. Prices range from Rs 3 to Rs 15,” says Sheikh Ilias, who has been making kites for the last 40 years.

The district administration had made elaborate arrangements for the festival. “We deployed mobile patrols in the town to keep an eye on the fields and playgrounds from where kites were flown,” a senior police official said.


Burdwan, Jan.16: 
Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (CLW) apprentices have begun an indefinite relay hunger strike to demand permanent jobs.

About 423 apprentices will join the protest which has the support of residents of neighbouring areas. Local MP Bikash Choudhury has reached Chittaranjan to back the strike.

The matter will be taken up with railways minister Mamata Banerjee

Citu-affiliated trade union leader Nirmal Mukherjee claimed that CLW has 550 registered vacancies and the authorities could absorb the unemployed apprentices.

There is a training institute in CLW. Till the nineties, youths were trained as apprentices and then offered jobs.


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