House storm brews over Advani relief
Atal activates Mamata juniors
Quake aid to prove a point
NGO role inGujarat blueprint
Arjun, Ambika gain in reshuffle
PM push to Uday Shankar centenary
Toughtalk on mahajot
Raid on bus
Ghising security heat on CM
Pirates hold river to ransom

New Delhi, Feb. 13: 
Far from seeing the temple “technical error” as a setback to its secular campaign, the Opposition today sharpened its attack on the BJP governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, indicating Ayodhya may again overshadow proceedings when Parliament convenes for the budget session.

The Bahujan Samaj Party set the ball rolling with Mayavati alleging in Lucknow that the then state government had deliberately issued a “defective” notification for the trial of the eight accused, including L.K. Advani, to “save its skin”. She demanded that a fresh notification be issued.

The CPM joined the chorus, saying it was “totally wrong” to hold up Allahabad High Court’s order as an exoneration of the eight Babri accused. A politburo statement said the Vajpayee government could not shirk its responsibility to ensure that those “guilty” are brought to trial.

The CPM said the court order was issued purely on technical grounds because the CBI had not sought its prior permission.

“But it is incumbent upon the CBI to ensure that the case against the eight accused is pursued and brought to trial. The state government will have to remove the technical defect and get a fresh notification issued after going through the necessary formalities,” the CPM statement said.

Echoing the CPM, the Congress said that it was up to the CBI to rectify the “defect” and ensure that “truth and justice” prevails. It implied the Centre was pressuring the CBI to delay matters.

Though the opposition parties voiced similar views, the possibility of a joint assault on the Centre looked unlikely with Mayavati equating the Congress and the BJP on Ayodhya. In her Lucknow press meet, she said the parties were “hand in glove” on the notification as Uttar Pradesh was under Central rule when it was issued and Congress’ Motilal Vora was Governor.

CPM sources insisted that “directly or vicariously” the Congress could not be absolved of responsibility in the demolition case. “But the present issue involves the so-called acquittal of Advani and others, so we have to see things in perspective and not open up too many fronts simultaneously,” sources said.

But Sonia Gandhi appears to have taken the initiative to forge Opposition unity and is likely to call a meet of non-NDA leaders over the weekend.

She had not taken such steps before the winter session —- given Mulayam Singh Yadav’s and Sharad Yadav’s antipathy to her —- and had allowed the treasury benches to dominate debates and discussions seeking to censure the government.

The BJP —- uneasy about the implication of the court order after the initial euphoria —- took an academic than a political view.

Spokesman Jana Krishnamurthy said: “As far as law is concerned, every case is divided on the basis of three things: point of evidence, whether law is applicable to the particular case and whether the procedure is adopted. Yesterday’s judgment showed the proper procedure was not followed.”

He said the government had three options: respect the judgment, go in for appeal if it agrees with the judgment, or amend the chargesheet and seek the court’s nod before filing a fresh one.


New Delhi, Feb. 13: 
Concerned at the increasing restlessness of railway minister Mamata Banerjee, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is learnt to have told the two ministers of state in her department to take more interest in the ministry.

Mamata had last week sent an uncompromising message to Vajpayee on the need to present a soft budget.

But the BJP top brass suspect that after presenting in all probability a hike-free rail budget, she might put in her papers and plunge into electioneering in West Bengal.

Speculation is also rife that Vajpayee would allow a hike-free budget and, post-Bengal polls, the fares could be raised through a supplementary budget in the winter session of Parliament.

But sources close to Mamata said even if a hike-free rail budget is presented on February 26, finance minister Yashwant Sinha could nullify all gains for the Trinamul two days later as, in all likelihood, the general budget is will be a hard one.

Though a section of the BJP feels that the Trinamul Congress chief will not quit the ministry unless she is sure that she will be Bengal’s next chief minister, the Prime Minister, it appears, does not want to leave anything to chance.

Mamata is likely to meet Vajpayee tomorrow to discuss Bengal politics and the rail budget. She was supposed to discuss seat-sharing formula with Bengal BJP leaders in the first week of February.

State BJP leaders, including president Ashim Ghosh, had called on her a fortnight ago, she sent them back on the plea that she was busy with organising relief for the Gujarat victims.

The two ministers of state — Samata Party’s Digvijay Singh and BJP’s O. Rajagopal — have been keeping a low profile to ensure that they did not step on their senior’s toes. With Mamata away in Bengal for the most part of April in the run-p to the election campaign, the deputy ministers will have to answer budget-related queries from the Opposition.

While nobody knows Mamata’s mind, followers of the two deputy ministers have already begun lobbying for their elevation to the Cabinet rank.

The Election Commission has almost decided to hold the Assembly polls any day between mid- to end-April. Parliament reassembles on April 16 after the recess and will go on till mid-May.


New Delhi, Feb. 13: 
Samajwadi Party general-secretary Amar Singh today handed over a Rs 2.44 crore cheque to information technology minister Pramod Mahajan at a function attended by Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgan and Raveena Tandon among others.

He had earlier given Rs 1.07 crore on January 27 after his birthday dinner, which turned into a fund-raising event as the host and his guests realised the magnitude of the Gujarat earthquake. Amar Singh and his friends have so far donated over Rs 3.50 crore.

The cheque was handed over on the grounds of Ashlok Hospital in the Safdarjang area.

Amar Singh had reasons to stage the show. He had been hurt, as much from the wounds of his intestinal operation as from the pointed barbs of a columnist who had accused him and the film industry of making empty promises of a huge donation to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.

So, on the 13th day of his surgery he decided to hand over the cheque in public.

Amar Singh said from his wheel chair: “The film industry and the artistes are sensitive people and they gave generously.” After the cheque was handed over, he added: “The taste of the pudding is in the eating. These cheques show that what I say, I do. What I promise, I deliver.” Singh said he was going to bring a libel suit against the columnist.

He thanked friend Amitabh Bachchan, whom he refers to as his elder brother, for motivating everyone to donate. He thanked Ajay Devgan and Raveena Tandon. It was Tandon who helped Singh in and out of his wheel chair.


Gandhinagar, Feb. 13: 
The government today announced a package for the rehabilitation and rebuilding of flattened villages, 19 days after the killer quake struck Gujarat.

Some 219 villages in Kutch, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Surendranagar and Patan districts, which were completely devastated, will be rebuilt with the help of non-governmental agencies.

Briefing reporters after the weekly Cabinet meeting, chief minister Keshubhai Patel said these villages will have to be either relocated or rebuilt on its foundations. The decision whether to relocate or rebuild will be taken by the respective village panchayats.

The government has worked out a standard model for the villages. Each will have an approximate population of 1,000 to be accommodated in about 200 houses, which will be built at an estimated cost of Rs 3 crore — the government will foot 50 per cent of the bill while the rest will be shared by the agencies that want to adopt the village.

Low-interest loans will be provided for construction from the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC).

Patel said he will soon announce a time-bound programme for the rehabilitation of these villages.

Clarifying that the package does not include the worst-affected towns of Kutch district — Bhuj, Bachau, Rapar and Anjar — for which a separate package will be announced in a day or two, the chief minister claimed that all the villages will have pucca houses constructed before monsoon.

The government has received offers from various NGOs, chambers of industry, religious sects and corporate houses to adopt 138 villages. Of these, 78 are village-specific. The government is finalising the procedure for the adoption of the remaining villages.

The houses in these villages, which fall in seismic zone 4 and zone 5, will have to be earthquake resistant.

The government has selected a particular design for the houses. Villagers can alter it. However, they have to make sure that the design is both quake-resistant and cyclone-proof, the chief minister said.


New Delhi, Feb. 13: 
Sonia Gandhi’s A-team has walked away with the lion’s share of the goodies. The mega-shuffle in the Congress yesterday saw Arjun Singh and Ambika Soni landing a great many of the 140 posts allotted either for themselves or for their camp mates.

While Arjun and Ambika were put on the Central Election Commission —- which picks candidates at all levels —- many of their loyalists have been inducted into the 18 new departments solely on their recommendation.

Bihar’s L.P. Sahi, who made the CWC, was a state-level chief of Arjun’s breakaway Congress. Birender Singh, a CEC member, was a president of that party’s Haryana unit. M.L. Fotedar, also a CEC member, was a close aide of Arjun who quit the Congress during Narasimha Rao’s term as Prime Minister. Most of the 14 AICC secretaries named are loyal to either Arjun or Ambika.

Mukul Wasnik made the CWC on Ambika’s recommendation. Ambika is back as AICC general secretary, is heading the party’s media cell and is also in charge of the Congress president’s office. She will be looking after Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Kamal Nath’s fortunes, too, took an upswing after his posting as AICC general secretary incharge of Bengal. But the surprise damper was for Madhavrao Scindia, who failed to make it to the party’s central election commission.

Congress sources said Sonia opted for status quo in states going to the polls, ignoring the claims of Santosh Mohan Deb and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

In Bengal and Kerala, she retained disgruntled leaders A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury and K. Karunakaran, and made an exception by retaining Pranab Mukherjee in the CWC. Pranab’s continuation is indication that he will be discharged from organisational duties after the polls.

Nath got in touch with Congress MLAs from Bengal soon after his return from Nairobi last night. He will hold a mahajot meeting on February 16 instead of Thursday as he will be away in Chhindwara for the opening of an Adivasi temple. The ceremony could not be put off because the Shankaracharyas have refused to change their schedule.

Nath today chaired a Congress meeting on Assam poll preparedness. Tarun Gogoi and S.C. Jamir, the chairman of the Congress group on north-eastern states, attended the meeting.


New Delhi, Feb. 13: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has directed the tourism and culture ministry to celebrate legendary dancer Uday Shankar’s birth centenary in a big way.

Following Vajpayee’s personal interest and intervention in Uday Shankar’s hundredth birth anniversary — which fell on December 8, 2000 — the Centre has decided to work in concert with the Uday Shankar Centenary Celebration Committee.

The government has chalked out a year-long agenda, which includes holding dance festivals not only in the Indian metros but also international cultural hubs like London, Paris and New York.

The Centre may even rename the Science City Auditorium in Calcutta and Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi after him.

The legend’s wife Amala Shankar and daughter-in-law Tanushree Shankar, the widow of his late son Ananda Shankar, met Vajpayee and culture and tourism minister Ananth Kumar yesterday.

In December, Amala Shankar had written to the Prime Minister expressing her wish to conclude the centenary celebrations by staging their company’s shadow-play, Lord Buddha, in Delhi. She said Vajpayee himself had referred to the play in a recent meeting with her in Calcutta’s Raj Bhavan. “I seek your help, advice, as well as cooperation from the Government of India in this regard,” Amala Shankar had written.

Amala Shankar is the chairperson of the Centenary Celebration Committee while Uday Shankar’s brother and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar is the advisory board chairman. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is the chief patron. Other cultural luminaries on the advisory board include Mrinal Sen, Zohra Sehgal, Debendra Shankar, Shyam Benegal, Prabhat Ganguly, Bhola Nath Chakraborty and Bhupen Hazarika. The coordinators are Tanushree Shankar and Chandrodoy Ghosh.

Uday Shankar was the pioneer of the fusion dance form in India and incorporated elements of Indian classical dance with the Western ballet form. He was referred to as the ‘Father of Indian ballet’ and was credited with putting India on the international dance map.

He choreographed dances for the legendary Anna Pavlova in the 1920s. Apart from stage, he ventured into films and fusion shows which combined dance, music, drama, magic and film.

As part of the elaborate celebrations, the committee has suggested an interactive programme between international troupes which could perform in India and Indian troupes, which could go abroad, screening Uday Shankar’s film Kalpana in all the centres.

The panel has also suggested a mobile exhibition of Uday Shankar’s photos, costumes and other memorabilia besides releasing a commemorative stamp.

The committee has also lined up an array of artistes likely to participate in the celebrations. They include Amala Shankar, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Astad Deboo.


Burnpur, Feb. 13: 
State Congress president Pranab Mukherjee today ruled out the possibility of a mahajot with Mamata Banerjee as long as she remained with the BJP and said that his party was hoping to sew up an alliance with defectors from the Left parties.

Mukherjee, who held talks with expelled CPM leader Saifuddin Chowdhury yesterday, said he expects a secular democratic front to be forged before the Assembly elections.

On the Congress’ chances of getting dissident CPM leader Subhas Chakraborty into its fold, Mukherjee said: “He is a vacillating personality. Let him first decide what he is going to do.”


Diamond Harbour, Feb. 13: 
Dacoits looted passengers at Hatuganj in Diamond Harbour sub division in South 24-Parganas on Tuesday. The passengers were travelling in a surface transport corporation bus coming to Calcutta. Police said that the dacoits stopped the bus at gun point and took away everything from them. They left after bursting bombs so that no one could chase them. No one has been arrested so far.    

Siliguri, Feb. 13: 
Recovering from Saturday’s shock, Subash Ghising today said he would visit Calcutta shortly to discuss with the chief minister security for his councillors and the deteriorating law and order situation in the Darjeeling hills.

“The home secretary and the director-general of police met me last evening and said the state government had decided to give me Z-plus category security cover. I told them it was up to them to do so. But I will personally discuss the issue of law and order and security of my councillors with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as soon as I am able to make a trip to Calcutta.

“The state police are neither equipped to tackle militants nor can they handle the situation. I will discuss all this with Buddhababu,” he said.

Ghising added that he would like to go to Calcutta in a day or two but will wait for the go-ahead from the doctors.

Ghising, his trademark dhakai topi sitting firmly on his head, appeared to be recovering from the assassination attempt.

“I have always been happy and I am happy now. There is nothing to worry about. I have been meeting my supporters and well-wishers. I have assured them that the bullet that would kill Subash Ghising is yet to be made,” the GNLF leader said.

State urban development and municipal affairs minister Ashoke Bhattacharya said the government will request the Centre to grant Z-plus security to Ghising. “We will pursue the matter of granting Z-plus category security for Ghising and provide him with a bullet-proof car. Until such arrangements are made, the state government will provide similar category security to the GNLF chief on its own,” Bhattacharya, who looks after north Bengal affairs, said.

Ghising, who enjoys the rank of a state Cabinet minister by virtue of being the chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, gets a security car. Since November, when his threat perception was reviewed, the Darjeeling district police have provided him with crack Greyhound commandos.

For the first time since the attack, the GNLF leadership today accused the state of failing to give adequate protection to Ghising. The GNLF’s Kurseong branch chief, Indra Narayan Pradhan, alleged that it was the state government’s “wilful negligence” that gave the Chhattray Subba-led militant Gorkhaland Liberation Organisation (GLO) a chance to regroup after the Tinkhataria encounter between suspected Naga militants hired by the GLO chief and the police last November.

“The state government has wilfully neglected the investigation into the Tinkhataria incident. They gave the GLO militants and the hired terrorists a chance to regroup and stockpile arms in the hills,” Pradhan said.

Ruling out any chance of the indefinite bandh being withdrawn until at least one of the attackers is apprehended, Pradhan said: “There is no question of us withdrawing the bandh until the authorities arrest at least one of the assailants. By doing so, the government will prove they are serious in tackling the militants.”

After yesterday’s violence burst in Kalimpong, the hills remained calm today. Ghising said the situation will improve with time. “It is a case of peoples’ sentiments. We cannot try to control the situation by force lest it becomes more volatile. It will peter out on its own once people come to know that I am fine and well.”

The hill Opposition parties, which had been at the receiving end of the GNLF fury, have demanded an independent inquiry to “expose” those behind the ambush. The All-Gorkha Students’ Union president, Roshan Giri, whose house was damaged by rampaging Ghising supporters, said: “We strongly condemn the murderous attack on Subash Ghising’s life. We demand an independent CBI inquiry into the matter.”


Kultali (South 24-Parganas), Feb. 13: 
River pirates from the Sundarbans and Bangladesh attacked fishermen in Kultali yesterday and took seven of them hostage.

The criminals looted fish and fishing accessories worth lakhs of rupees. They are demanding Rs 1 lakh as ransom for setting free the captive fishermen.

The raids come days after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee promised fishermen, who earn a living from the riverine delta of Kultali, that all efforts were being made to thwart pirates in the region.

Police said that 15 fishermen started from Kultali in two boats yesterday. As soon as they reached Fotor Island on the Moni river, a group of 20 armed men arrived in motorboats and surrounded them. They ordered the fishermen to hand over their cache of fish and the nets.

After negotiations, the pirates allowed one of the boats with eight fishermen on board to return to Kultali. On returning, these fishermen raised an alarm and informed the fishermen’s association — Matsyajibi Unnayan Samity.

Gobinda Pradhan, a member of the association, said: “We immediately informed the police at Kultali to rush to Fotor Island to rescue the fishermen and the boat.”

Dilip Adak, subdivisional police officer of Canning, said a large contingent has been sent to rescue the fishermen.

Pradhan said that during the past 48 hours, pirates, both from the Sunderbans and Bangladesh, have attacked at least three places in Kultali.

On Sunday, pirates looted fish worth about Rs 60,000 and accessories worth more than Rs 1.5 lakh from two trawlers and four boats which were roaming the river near the Beneferi, Kendu and Chhaimati islands.

Pradhan said that on Saturday, about a dozen pirates from Bangladesh looted fish and nets worth about Rs 12 lakh from five boats at Raimuni Chak.

“The Bangladeshi pirates are equipped with sophisticated weapons. Some of them even carry wireless sets to keep in touch with fellow criminals operating at other points,” he added.


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