Sonia sounds stars & Vaastu to break Bangalore jinx
Keshubhai gets relief-bias summons
Vajpayee to ask CM to clear air
Cong inches closer to Assam CPM
Few stragglers in ‘cursed’ town
BCCI chief gets time on Azhar reply
High court postpones Hinduja verdict
Police inch closer to ambush brain
‘Betrayed’ Saifuddin rings party bell
Water scare for miners

 
 
SONIA SOUNDS STARS & VAASTU TO BREAK BANGALORE JINX 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Feb. 14: 
Engineers are busy in Gujarat, but Vaastu Shastra experts, soothsayers and astrologers are working overtime to make the Congress plenary in Bangalore disaster-proof.

The meet was scheduled for this week, but postponed due to the earthquake. Sonia now plans to hold it during March 17-18 — the budget session recess. The Karnataka Assembly session will also be in progress, but the Congress chief is keen to wind up the organisational polls with the plenary ratifying the amendments.

Leaving nothing to chance, the leadership is following the advice of the astrologers at every step.

Vaastu experts have been asked to point the exact spots at Bangalore’s Palace Ground where Sonia and other important leaders should be seated. The astrologers are to recommend the timing of the plenary inauguration.

Bangalore has not been an “auspicious” venue for the Congress. During the 1969 AICC session in the city, there was a vertical split in the party over the Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy vs V.V. Giri party presidential polls. The old guard rebelled against Indira Gandhi, though, in the long run, she emerged on top again.

A section of the Congress is now advising Sonia to change the venue from Bangalore to Delhi. But those in favour of Bangalore claimed that astrologers and Vaastu experts would ensure that nothing “untoward” happens during or after the plenary — the first under Sonia’s leadership.

There are no challengers to Sonia’s leadership now and her move to name the new Congress Working Committee has not drawn much flak.

She has created 18 departments to accommodate 100-odd leaders at various levels of party hierarchy.

A team of senior leaders today visited Bangalore to oversee preparations even as the party is yet to make an official announcement about the venue.

There will be four resolutions — economic, political, international and agriculture — to be vetted by 15000-odd delegates.

The economic resolution is expected to streamline the Congress thinking on disinvestment, opening of farming sector, WTO-related legislation and power-sector reforms. The economic paper is being prepared by Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh.

Arjun Singh is drafting a political resolution to formulate the Congress stand on coalitions.

So far, the Congress has been reluctant to opt for alliances but the Bangalore plenary is set to make a departure as the Congress is inclined to favour a seat-sharing formula on common programme and power-share.

   

 
 
KESHUBHAI GETS RELIEF-BIAS SUMMONS 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, Feb. 14: 
The Union rural development ministry will build one lakh houses in Gujarat for the quake-hit living below the poverty line.

On his return from Kutch and Saurashtra today, rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu assured that his ministry would take up the responsibility. The killer quake of January 26 had left over three lakh homeless.

The minister handed over a release order for Rs 100 crore to the state government for the restoration of drinking water supply in the rural areas of Kutch, which were the worst hit. He promised to divert Rs 50 lakh from his own development fund to Gujarat.

He announced an assistance of Rs 10,000 to each family living below the poverty line which has lost its livelihood because of the quake.

He suggested that the state government should explore the possibility of rehabilitating two to three villages in one place which can be developed as a township with all basic facilities. However, he said people were divided on this issue. The minister said he would relax norms to enable the quake-affected people to get maximum benefits from various schemes launched by his ministry.

The Council For Advancement of Peoples’ Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) will be activated to improve coordination between various voluntary organisations which would be involved in the rehabilitation work. The minister has sanctioned Rs 5 crore for the council.

Naidu also set up a two-member team of noted social worker from Maharashtra Anna Hazare and Anil Gajke to “guide and coordinate NGO activities’’ in the state.

Naidu suggested that each village should display details of the money pouring in to ensure transparency.

   

 
 
VAJPAYEE TO ASK CM TO CLEAR AIR 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN AND KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 14: 
Stung by reports of discrimination in relief distribution in Gujarat on the grounds of caste and religion, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has summoned chief minister Keshubhai Patel here tomorrow.

Patel will be asked to “clarify” the allegations against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal and explain if they were true or “politically motivated”.

When reports of upper-caste Patels denying Dalits and other backwards access to relief material in remote areas and Muslims being forced to say “Jai Shri Ram” before being served food and tea in some relief camps began to surface, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sent a senior official to verify the facts, sources said.

They claimed the charges were found to be “politically inspired by the Congress to fix the BJP”. But the fact that they were independently confirmed by the media and social workers sent alarm bells ringing in South Block.

A worried BJP also discussed the issue in a meeting of the central committee set up to coordinate relief operations. The meeting decided that a photo exhibition of the “good” work done in Gujarat not only by the BJP but the rest of the Sangh parivar, including the VHP and Bajrang Dal, would be held in the capital shortly.

In its attempt at damage-control, the VHP today blamed the English media for putting out “biased” stories. A statement prepared by Pravin Togadia, the VHP’s international general secretary, said the English press “took no note of the rescue and relief work done by the organisations. When they did, it was to allege that the two organisations discriminated against the Muslims by denying them any relief. When confronted with the fact that Muslims were indeed treated in VHP-run hospitals, fed in VHP-run langars, a new fabrication was made that Muslims were given aid and food only if they said Jai Shri Ram.”

In a press briefing, Togadia bristled: “In a Swami Narayan mandir if you do not say Swami Narayan, what else will you chant — Allah, Allah?”

The VHP leader alleged that Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel, who heads the party’s relief committee, had provoked the Muslims to demonstrate against the relief work. In a reference to Sonia, he said: “Only those born thousands of miles from this country will say Hindus discriminate in matters of relief and humanitarian work.”

Observers believe that the importance accorded to Gujarat by the Centre emanates as much from the fact that it is the only remaining BJP stronghold as the fear that like Uttar Pradesh, here too the ground is rapidly slipping from beneath its feet. The state goes to polls next year.

The home minister, the defence minister and the power minister camped in the state for days, Vajpayee cancelled his Japan and Malaysia trip and the Centre amended the rules governing the MPs’ development fund scheme to enable them to contribute the entire sum of Rs 2 crore to Gujarat. The government was also quick to levy a two per cent super surcharge on income tax and corporate tax, a measure contemplated during the Kargil war but not implemented.

Patel has been made a member of a disaster management committee set up by the Centre. While this is seen as a signal that he would continue as chief minister, many partymen said in private that he had not proved up to the job.

   

 
 
CONG INCHES CLOSER TO ASSAM CPM 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Feb. 14: 
On the eve of Sonia Gandhi’s crucial meeting with pro-mahajot MLAs from Bengal, the Congress high command has moved closer to the Assam CPM, eyeing it as a potential ally in case the Asom Gana Parishad and the BJP joined forces.

The party think-tank on the Northeastern state met yesterday to come up with a strategy for the Assembly polls.

The meeting — attended by Kamal Nath, AICC general secretary in charge of Assam and Bengal, state unit chief Tarun Gogai and Nagaland chief minister S.C. Jamir among others — ended with the leadership adopting a wait-and-watch policy.

The general assessment was that the Congress would not be able to form a government on its own if the AGP and the BJP came together. A senior leader from Assam said the party would not get more than 55 seats in the 126-member House if it fought alone. So a tie-up with the Left, which is an electoral ally of the AGP in Assam, would help the Congress’ prospects.

The Congress’ Assam strategy will have a bearing on Bengal where a majority of the MLAs favour an understanding with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress against the ruling Left Front. If the Congress does tie-up with the Left in Assam, the rifts in its Bengal unit are bound to widen.

Officially, the Congress is tight-lipped about its views on the Left in Assam. But Sonia has been in close touch with CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who is advising her on how to tackle the tricky and volatile situation in Tamil Nadu.

In the last few days, communist leader has emerged as a friend, soothing Sonia’s raw nerves in the wake of the ADMK’s alliance with the pro-LTTE PMK. Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) chief G.K. Moopanar, too, had sought Surjeet’s “guidance” before calling on Sonia a few days back.

Surjeet has a simple solution: if the Tamil Nadu Congress is uncomfortable about backing the PMK, it can put up candidates against it — and vice versa — while the Congress and the ADMK have a seat-sharing understanding.

Sources said Pranab Mukherjee would resume negotiations with Jayalalitha if the TMC decides to stay on with the ADMK-PMK combination. Much to the chagrin of Tamil Nadu Congressmen, Sonia seems inclined to buy Surjeet’s line of argument that “communal forces should be kept at bay at all costs”.

   

 
 
FEW STRAGGLERS IN ‘CURSED’ TOWN 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Bhachau, Feb. 14: 
The earth still shakes in Bhachau. But no one gets rattled anymore. They know there is nothing more to lose in their town which now lies dead and buried.

The earthquake has left Bhachau a lonely, empty place. Most of the few that survived have deserted the town, the rest are waiting to leave, swearing they will never set foot on the “cursed” land again. Local residents say soon there will be no one left in the town that only 20 days ago buzzed with nearly 60,000 people.

Pointing to the hum of activity in the heart of the town, Hussain Bachu Siddhi says: “Don’t go by the noise and the number of people who are waiting for food here. Those who are feeding belong to NGOs. The ones being fed have come from villages outside Bhachau. There are not more than 300 of Bhachau’s residents here today. More than 30,000 have died here. Those lucky to survive have already left.”

Siddhi’s statement, which startles in the beginning, soon takes on a semblance of credibility as one meets more of Bhachau’s survivors.

“See there,” says Adam Allah Rakha, a shopkeeper who lost his shop, two houses and nine family members, pointing to a heap of debris. “Two bodies were pulled out there today. It’s been 20 days since the earthquake but the jawans and volunteers continue to drag out rotting, mangled bodies. Tell me, who will have the nerve to stay in a town that’s full of corpses?” Adam, who now lives under an oblong polythene sheet with only a bed sheet and a half-burnt candle, says he, too, will leave as soon as he gets the Rs 2,000 promised by the government.

The whole trader community has left Bhachau for places like Rajkot, Jamnagar, Surendranagar and Ahmedabad. The only ones left behind are masons, carpenters, farm hands and other manual labourers, who are managing to find little work here and there. But they also want to leave once they receive some money which can be used as bus fare.”

“There is too much fear in the hearts of people. There were 10,000 people in Jalaram Society, the colony I used to live in. Today there is no one there. The earth here shakes all the time, what can one do in a place like this,” explains Jaan Mohammad.

Karsanbhai Motabhai Patel, perhaps the last of the traders still camping in Bhachau, is all set to leave and join his relatives in Rajkot. Looking ruefully at a wooden bed, which he extracted from the rubble of his house, Patel says: “This is all I have now.” Asked where he would be heading, he replies sharply: “Anywhere, there is nothing left for me here. Eighty-five per cent of Bhachau is dead and the rest have fled.” After deep thought he adds: “Everyone should go away from here. Things can never be the same anymore.”

Locals say without traders there will be no trade and without trade there will be no Bhachau. Bhachau will only remain as a deserted and ravaged reminder of an earthquake no one can forget.

Right now they are scared of what will happen to them once the bachaokaris (relief workers) leave. “Bachaokaris are feeding us and looking after us now, but one day they will have to leave. Then what will happen to us?” asks Abdul Jamal, a carpenter. “It is better to leave now when the tragedy is fresh in people’s minds. It would still be easier to find some who are sympathetic to us. Later it will be too late.”

For the penniless few who want to leave Bhachau, there is another problem they have to deal with before they set sail for brighter, luckier shores — an unpliable set of government officials who insist on seeing ration cards before handing out the measly dole of Rs 2,000.

“I couldn’t even save my sons, how do they expect me to save a ration card?” weeps Siddhi. “If they don’t give me the money soon I will be stuck here. Everyone will leave me behind.”

As Siddhi pulls out a small piece of soiled cloth to wipe his tears, a strong waft that brings the stench of rotting flesh forces him to hold the cloth over his nose. “Babuji,” he says, jostling for a place in the queue for dinner, “I always used to tell people that the sweet water of Bhachau doesn’t let anyone forget the town and those who leave Bhachau always come back. But I was wrong. This time no one will return.”

   

 
 
BCCI CHIEF GETS TIME ON AZHAR REPLY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Hyderabad, Feb. 14: 
A court here today gave the cricket board’s president and its vigilance commissioner 12 days to file replies to Mohammed Azharuddin’s petition against his life ban.

The second additional chief judge, J. Shyamsundar Rao, set the next hearing for February 26 and asked the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president, A.C. Muthiah, and its vigilance commissioner K. Madhavan to file responses by then.

Azharuddin was banned by the BCCI after he and four players were named by the CBI in its report on match-fixing last year.

The player challenged the decision in court on January 30.

His petition named the BCCI, Muthiah and Madhavan as respondents and contested the “irregularities” in the match-fixing inquiry conducted by Madhavan.

The BCCI defended its decision to ban Azharuddin in its reply to the court when the player’s case came up for hearing today. “We have filed our counter-affidavit wherein the BCCI has defended the ban imposed on Azharuddin,” board counsel Radha Rangaswamy said outside the courtroom.

The BCCI filed its counter-affidavit through its counsel Narotham Reddy of New Delhi along with Radha Ranganathan and Ashok, assistant of Madhavan.

The Hyderabad Cricket Association has informally withdrawn its support to Azharuddin’s proposal to start a cricket academy.

   

 
 
HIGH COURT POSTPONES HINDUJA VERDICT 
 
 
FROM R.VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 14: 
Delhi High Court today put off till February 26 any decision on the Hinduja brothers’ appeal for permission to leave the country.

London-based Gopichand P. Hinduja and Srichand P. Hinduja and Geneva-based Prakashchand P. Hinduja, who are facing trial in the Bofors case, cannot leave till their application is decided by the high court.

The trial court had earlier rejected their application, upholding the CBI’s contention that they “may not come back for further investigations and trial once they are allowed to go abroad”. The Hindujas have moved the high court against the trial court order.

A single-judge bench of Justice S.K. Agarwal adjourned the matter to February 26 despite an appeal for an early hearing by the brothers’ counsel.

The Hindujas’ lawyers argued that the fear that the brothers would run away from trial was unfounded. “The CBI apprehension is an idle apprehension that they will run away from trial. They are finding only an excuse,” senior counsel and Congress MP Kapil Sibal, a new entrant to the Hindujas’ legal battery, said in hour-long arguments.

Sibal, along with another senior counsel Rajinder Singh, assisted by several juniors, contended that the CBI’s “so-called” apprehension had no basis considering the fact that the brothers chose to appear before the trial court “voluntarily without receiving any summons”.

They pleaded that the Hinduja brothers had cooperated with the investigations, presenting themselves to the CBI sleuths as well as the trial court. This was evidence that the brothers would cooperate in future, the counsel claimed.

The lawyers said the trial court had fixed March 19 for the scrutiny of documents in the Bofors case and the Hindujas would be present on that day. If they were not allowed to go abroad, there would be insufferable personal loss to their business and property.

The counsel also pointed out that the trial in this case might not start for years as the CBI has yet to extradite other accused Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Malaysia-based Italian businessman close to the Gandhis, and the former boss of the A/B Bofors company Martin Ardbo.

   

 
 
POLICE INCH CLOSER TO AMBUSH BRAIN 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Feb. 14: 
Investigators claim they are closing the net on the mastermind of Saturday’s ambush on Subash Ghising with the arrest of three more alleged conspirators last evening.

An official connected with the case, which is being probed by the newly set-up special investigating team, told The Telegraph: “We have arrested three more conspirators — Kumar Chhettri, Shyam Bahadur Thapa and Vijay Chhettri, all residents of Dalli area on the outskirts of Kalimpong town. They had been picked for interrogation earlier and were formally arrested last evening. They have been charged with conspiring against the state.”

The arrests have strengthened suspicion about a mole inside the Gorkhaland leader’s camp. “We are now close to discovering who the mastermind is. The arrests and clues unearthed during the last few days of investigation have made the insider-angle plausible. Some big names could tumble out of the woodwork,” the official said.

On Sunday, a 32-year-old housewife, Dimple Dewan, and a car-hijacker-cum-drug dealer, O.R. Kothwal, were arrested for allegedly having had a hand in the conspiracy. Dimple and Kothwal have been remanded in police custody by the sub-divisional judicial magistrate of Kurseong. The three people arrested yesterday will be produced in court tomorrow.

Investigators are now reconstructing the sequence of events from the time Ghising’s convoy left the Pintail village resort, 6 km from here, until the time of the ambush on Pankhabari Road.

Investigators suspect that the assailants had initially planned to strike at the village resort as Ghising was scheduled to have spent the night there. However, the GNLF leader’s travel plans were changed at the last-minute as he wanted to visit the under-construction Rohini park.

“It was here that the mole within Ghising’s coterie came into play. This spotter must have informed the assailants of the change in plan. It was the same spotter who alerted the militants that the convoy would take the Pankhabari Road instead of the usual Hill Cart route via the Rohini bypass,” the official said.

Investigators are also looking into the possibility of a conspirator within the GNLF chief’s security set-up. “We are covering all possible angles into the planning and execution of the ambush. The entire conspiracy was hatched at a high level. We have definite clues that we are following. More arrests are expected in the coming days. We are interrogating several persons from Siliguri, Kurseong and Kalimpong. Another person was picked up for interrogation from a local hotel in Siliguri this afternoon for interrogation,” the official said.

   

 
 
‘BETRAYED’ SAIFUDDIN RINGS PARTY BELL 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Malda, Feb. 14: 
Axed by the CPM and betrayed by Samir Putatunda, Saifuddin Chowdhury will wait no longer. He will float his party in Calcutta on February 21.

Saifuddin sounded angry and hurt when he told reporters here that he had waited so long for Putatunda, secretary of the South 24-Parganas CPM unit, to join him. But Putatunda, who had openly criticised the CPM on several occasions and egged Saifuddin to float a new party, had a sudden change of heart and decided not to break ranks with the CPM.

When reminded that Putatunda was to have become the general-secretary of his party, Saifuddin said: “Samir is not joining my party because he will be made a general-secretary of the CPM.”

A number of local CPM workers and Left party leaders and functionaries of the Jana Chetana Manch attended the press meet. Local CPM leader Gautam Das and Surya Roy, a former CPI leader of Malda, were among those present.

Chowdhury said his outfit was most likely to be called Party for Democratic Socialism. “But I will formally announce the name of the party at a political convention at the University Institute Hall in Calcutta on February 21.”

He was not sorry, he said, that Putatunda or Subhas Chakraborty, another CPM rebel, had not joined his party. “If Samir and Subhasda can remain in the CPM with full honour and prestige, I have nothing to say. I don’t want to do them any harm. Maybe they did not want to join a small party like mine,” he said.

“But one could say that things got a lot delayed. My endeavour is not to break people away from their parties. I am also not angry with those who backed out at the last moment. Even if I don’t have front-ranking leaders with me, people at the grassroots level will be the main strength of the secular party I have in mind,” Chowdhury said.

Asked whether he would consider returning to the CPM if there was such a proposal, Chowdhury said the policies of the CPM-led Left Front were not in tune with the times. “If the CPM ever considers deviating from its stand, then only will I consider such a proposal. But I know it will not,” he said.

Chowdhury predicted a hung Assembly in the state after the polls. “The mahajot will not materialise and no single party will get an absolute majority. So, chances are high that the CPM-led Left Front will again come to power,” he added.

The former CPM central committee member said he had held discussions about his proposed secular-democratic party with others and would hold talks with other national political leaders after February 21.

Chowdhury will undertake a tour of the North Bengal districts from February 25 and, if needed, he will also hold discussions with the Kamtapuri People’s Party.

   

 
 
WATER SCARE FOR MINERS 
 
 
FROM UTPAL BANERJEE
 
Durgapur, Feb. 14: 
Tension gripped Madhujore coal mine in the Kajora area of Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) yesterday following heavy water spillage.

The incident comes close on the heels of the mishap in Bagdigi colliery in Dhanbad, that claimed many lives.

Nearly 135 miners were immediately evacuated after the leakage was detected at the 12th seam of the mine. Mining in the colliery has been stopped till further orders.

Official sources said water gushed in from an abandoned open cast project. Personnel of the Directorate General of Mine Safety, who were rushed to the site, found out that the thickness of the wall had come down to 30 metres.

Safety norms, however, stipulate the thickness to be at least 60 metres.

Intuc leader Sukumar Banerjee, in a message to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee expressed serious concern over the condition of mines. He added that at least 50 mines in West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand were “no longer safe for mining”. He sought the Prime Minister’s immediate intervention into the matter.

Haradhan Roy, president of the Citu-affiliated Colliery Mazdoor Sabha of India, yesterday left for the Coal Mine Planning and Design Institute at Ranchi with a delegation. He feared a recurrence of the Bagdigi incident at ECL mines any day.

Jaidev Banerjee, president of the Coal Mine Officers’ Association also expressed similar views.

   
 

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