Sorry Subba surprises hills
Bomb goes off on death merchants
BJP calls for interest-cut rollback
‘Exposed’ party goes behind veil
Mamata breaks silence on Cong
Govt settles for former judge
Poll dates next week
‘Safe and healthier’ upma finds no takers
Ray invites Basu to debate
Siwan lobby hits back at Laloo

 
 
SORRY SUBBA SURPRISES HILLS 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Kurseong, March 24: 
For a man who had kept the hills on tenterhooks for the past four months, militant leader Chhattray Subba looked pale and bewildered as he was led into the court of the subdivisional judicial magistrate this afternoon.

No lawyer came forward to defend Subba. The magistrate, Subrata Chaudhury, remanded the Gorkhaland Liberation Organisation (GLO) chief in police custody for 14 days.

The GLO leader, minus his trademark beard and Gorkha regiment army cap, had only a few words for the battery of reporters, lensmen and local residents present and jostling with one another for a glimpse of the so-far elusive militant.

“I have nothing to say now. I’m sorry,” was all that Subba would say before he was whisked away to the Matigara police station on the outskirts of Siliguri.

Fearing a backlash from GNLF supporters, the police had cordoned off the court.

A clean-shaven Subba was not what the hordes of GNLF supporters had expected to see. “Whether it was Chhattray Subba or someone else impersonating him is still a mystery. We had expected to see a bearded Subba. But the man we saw did not resemble Subba,” said a GNLF supporter.

A clean-shaven Subba, wearing a white T-shirt and a baseball cap, was taken away in a police jeep escorted by Rapid Action Force personnel.

Though the police claimed Subba was arrested early today, intelligence sources said he was picked up a couple of weeks ago. An officer, who reportedly “spent” the whole of last week “guarding” the GLO chief, said: “The man is cool. He usually spent his free hours meditating. He is soft-spoken and rather mild.”

As news of the arrest filtered in, hill residents heaved a sigh of as they felt that the GNLF would now call off the proposed indefinite bandh from Monday. “Now that Subba has been arrested, we can hope to conduct our business normally. The uncertainty over the indefinite bandh has affected the economy, which depends on tourism. With the peak tourist season round the corner, Subba’s arrest is good news,” a hotelier said.

The GNLF leadership, while congratulating the police, said the other conspirators must be arrested as well. “We are not satisfied with the outcome so far. Subba is number nine in the conspirators’ hierarchy. The big masterminds and the real financier are still at large,” GNLF leader I.N. Pradhan said.

   

 
 
BOMB GOES OFF ON DEATH MERCHANTS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Behrampore, March 24: 
Four persons said to be CPM activists died at Secendra village last evening while manufacturing bombs, police said.

The victims, who were identified as Ekkari Ghosh (50), Durlav Ghosh (25), Akhil Ghosh (30) and Netai Das (50), died instantaneously at Ekkari’s residence as a number of bombs that they had made exploded, officials of the Raghunathgunj police station said. Ekkari was the key person, as he had expertise in handling explosives, they added.

CPM district secretariat member Sekhar Saha, however, said the four men were party workers. “They died after a portion of the building in which they were living collapsed. Some explosives may have been stored outside their house,” Saha said.

Police have not clarified whether others were injured in the blast. Senior police officials are camping in the village since last night.

Secendra village, according to sources, was dominated by the CPM till the last panchayat elections. Trouble started after the Trinamul Congress nominee defeated the CPM candidate and took over the gram panchayat. The two parties have since clashed frequently in the village.

Congress MP from Behrampore Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury alleged that the CPM had been trying to “terrorise” the people of Murshidabad before the Assembly polls.

The Secendra violence was a pointer to that, Chowdhury added.

“The four who had died were CPM activists and were manufacturing bombs, which the party was planning to use during the coming Assembly polls. The CPM will unleash a reign of terror and the police is not doing anything about the complaints lodged by different political parties about the CPM’s plan,” Chowdhury alleged.

Police said the deceased were very close to Jangipur municipality chairman Mriganka Bhattacharjee, who is a CPM leader and has run the municipality for the past 12 years.

Trinamul leader Seikh Sultan Ali, the party’s nominee for the Jangipur constituency, alleged that Bhattacharjee used to terrorise his rivals with the help of the deceased.

   

 
 
BJP CALLS FOR INTEREST-CUT ROLLBACK 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 24: 
Newly-elected BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi has asked the Vajpayee government to rethink its budget decision to reduce the interest rate on small savings by 1.5 per cent.

Krishnamurthi, whose appointment as Bangaru Laxman’s successor was endorsed by the BJP’s national executive here, noted that though the decision was taken to encourage investment by a lower lending rate, it was resented by small depositors.

Newly-elected BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi has asked the Vajpayee government to rethink its budget decision to reduce the interest rate on small savings by 1.5 per cent.

Krishnamurthi, whose appointment as Bangaru Laxman’s successor was endorsed by the BJP’s national executive here, noted that though the decision was taken to encourage investment by a lower lending rate, it was resented by small depositors.

“In a democracy it becomes necessary for the government to carry as large sections of people as possible with it. Hence, our request to the government is to see whether the affected sections can in any manner be made to feel at ease with the budget proposals of the government,” said Krishnamurthi in his opening remarks on the first day of the executive two-day session.

The BJP president’s suggestion comes in the wake of another proposal by the Centre to cut the interest rate on employees’ provident fund by 0.75 per cent. Both these moves are likely to hit the BJP’s urban-based, middle-class constituency — who form its backbone along with small traders.

This constituency has been pleading for amendments in the budget to redress the lot of small depositors and salaried employees in various fora, including the parliamentary party meetings attended by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

Likening the BJP president’s post to Vikramaditya’s legendary “singhasana”, which was once occupied by a cowherd, Krishnamurthi remarked: “It is said that life is unpredictable. It is much more so in politics. By a strange twist of circumstances the smooth-sailing ship of ours has been visited by a storm and I find myself entrusted with the responsibility of captaining the ship out of the storm and steer it safely to the port.”

Before Laxman was chosen as the president, BJP quarters were more or less convinced that, as the senior-most vice-president, Krishnamurthy would be the “logical” successor of Kushabhau Thakre. He missed the post by a whisker after Vajpayee pitched for Laxman, ostensibly to enlarge the BJP’s social base by projecting a dalit as its president.

“Being the senior-most vice-president of the party I had to accept it, for the party cannot afford to be headless,” Krishnamurthi said of his appointment. He went on to virtually justify his ascendancy saying, “At BJP this seat has been adorned by such illustrious leaders as Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Shri Lal Krishna Advani and their successors. Although it may look bit incongruous that I, an ordinary karyakarta (worker) of our party, has been brought up to this level, it goes to strengthen the reputation that this party has acquired since its inception that this is a party of karyakartas or, to put it in political terminology, a cadre-based party.”

The BJP president stressed that he had “absolutely no hesitation” in saying he would feel “quite at home with my new responsibility as I have grown with Shri Atalji, Shri Advaniji, Shri Kushabhau and been groomed by them for the past 35 years and more”.

   

 
 
‘EXPOSED’ PARTY GOES BEHIND VEIL 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 24: 
The Tehelka expose has apparently made the BJP paranoid about the press, if its attitude towards correspondents during the ongoing national executive is any indication.

The Parliament Annexe, where the two-day session is being held, is virtually out of bounds for the press. Only cameramen were allowed a peek inside the fortified premises of the annexe for precisely 10 minutes this morning before the meeting commenced.

Security guards brusquely told reporters that the official briefings would be held at the BJP headquarters on 11, Ashoka Road, and they had no business to be around — not even if they had their PIB and Parliament passes, which, in normal circumstances, allow free access to the annexe.

In the past, whenever the BJP hosted its national executive in the capital, the venue was always the annexe but its attitude was more friendly. Accredited correspondents were at liberty to access the place whenever they wished to — before, after or during press briefings — and meet whoever they wanted.

By shifting the centre of the briefing to the party headquarters — which is some distance away from the annexe — the BJP’s media managers have ensured that barring the official version of the proceedings, nothing else is seen, heard or reported.

The explanation for not holding the briefings in the annexe was that no proper room was available at the desired time — an explanation which found few takers. Late-evening briefings were ruled out “because we do not want to keep the parliamentary staff waiting after office hours”.

Again this explanation failed to cut ice, because the party has hosted a dinner for the national executive members at the annexe which would necessitate the staff’s presence beyond 9 pm.

While a briefing was held today, the BJP has dispensed with one tomorrow on the ground that everybody would be away attending an NDA rally.

   

 
 
MAMATA BREAKS SILENCE ON CONG 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, March 24: 
Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee today renewed her appeal to the state BJP and the Congress to join hands with her under the banner of the “Bangla Bachao front” to ensure straight contests against Left Front nominees in the coming Assembly polls.

Breaking her silence on the progress of her party’s talks with the Congress for seat adjustments after a week, Mamata said the “picture will be clear within three to four days.” She said she had held talks with a “senior AICC leader” during the past few days.

Indicating that she has not shut her party’s door on the state BJP even after quitting the National Democratic Alliance, the Trinamul chief said, “I am still in favour of one-to-one contests against the Left Front.”

The statement is being seen as an attempt to put pressure on the Congress during the seat adjustment talks.

Mamata said her offer of 39 seats to the BJP still stands, but rejected the party’s demand for 16 “secure seats.” “We are not aware of any fresh demand from the party,” she said.

State BJP vice-president Muzaffar Khan iterated his party’s claim over 16 “safe seats”, while appreciating the need for straight contests against the Left Front.

Asked whether she was in favour of a realignment with the Congress or would take along the BJP, Mamata quipped: “I cannot interfere with the political agenda of other parties. It is for them to take a decision. Any political party willing to fight the CPM is welcome to join our Bangla Bachao front.

The Trinamul leader felt the main criterion for the selection of candidates to the Bangla Bachao front should be their “acceptability to the people.”

State Congress chief Pranab Mukherjee, who arrived in the city from Delhi this afternoon, hoped the nitty-gritties of a seat-sharing deal with Trinamul Congress would be worked out within a few days.

“I am optimistic about seat adjustments with Trinamul as senior AICC leaders, including party general secretary Kamal Nath, are in constant touch with Mamata,” he said.

“There has been a good deal of progress in our talks with Mamata since I had a meeting with her on March 2. We are sure about a pact with Trinamul since Mamata has quit the NDA. We hope the discussion will reach its logical conclusion within a short period,” Mukherjee observed.

Asked whether seat adjustments with Trinamul would alienate possible aspirants in the state Congress, Mukherjee said: “These problems will be sorted out. The fact is that Mamata’s decision has given rise to new hope among the anti-Left people in Bengal.”

Former state Congress president Somen Mitra said he was ready “for any kind of sacrifice” in the interest of the alliance.

“I am ready to withdraw from the fray if it accelerates the formation of an electoral pact with Trinamul,” Mitra told a party workers’ rally at Rajarhat in North 24-Parganas during the day following reports that Mamata is unwilling to withdraw her party’s nominee from Sealdah where Mitra is the sitting MLA.

The CPM stepped up its attack on the Congress with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee describing the party as “politically bankrupt.”

“This kind of opportunistic move by the Congress to enter into an electoral pact with an one-time BJP ally like Trinamul Congress will not succeed in the battle of ballots,” Bhattacharjee said in an interview with party mouthpiece Ganashakti.

   

 
 
GOVT SETTLES FOR FORMER JUDGE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 24: 
A retired Supreme Court judge from Andhra Pradesh, whose stint in the apex court was without controversies, will head the commission of inquiry set up by the Vajpayee government to probe the Tehelka expose.

A notification stating Justice K. Venkataswami’s name as the head of the one-man commission was officially issued by the government today.

The government had to agree to a retired judge heading the commission after the Supreme Court made it clear that they could not spare a sitting judge for the inquiry. Initially, to lend greater significance and credibility to the commission, the government had proposed that a sitting judge of the apex court conduct the investigation. However, a meeting of judges chaired by Chief Justice A.S. Anand said the apex court could not spare any judge.

The government has already laid down the terms of reference, which was reiterated in the notification today. The probe will have to be completed by four months.

The government is definitely in a hurry because it wants to return George Fernandes his defence minister’s job if it is established by the probe that he had done no wrong.

However, some Opposition members who are against the probe have insisted that the first two terms of reference mean little.

The commission will have to inquire whether the transactions relating to defence and other procurements referred to in the videotape and transcripts have been carried out according to norms and imperatives of national security. It will have to probe whether persons in public office, individuals, or organisations have made illicit gains in any of the transactions as alleged and, if so, to what extent.

Opposition members insist that the government’s argument will be to belittle the Tehelka investigations in its arguments before the judge. They would focus on the relatively paltry amounts that have exchanged hands.

They added that there would be emphasis that George Fernandes had not taken money at all. Morever, even if a few persons holding important offices in party hierarchies have taken money they had not done so for personal gains.

In the third term of reference, however, the judge will have to suggest actions that may be taken against those who found responsible by the commission for their acts of commission or omission in respect of transactions referred to in terms of reference.

Justice Venkataswami will also have to inquire into all aspects relating to the making and publication of these allegations and any other matter that arises from this.

Prasad threat

Union minister for consumer affairs and public distribution Sreenivasa Prasad today threatened to file a defamation suit against Tehelka for “unnecessarily dragging” his name into its exposé, said a report from Bangalore.

“Nobody approached me. No money was paid to me,” Prasad, a senior Samata Party leader, said, rebutting the Tehelka claim that Rs 2 lakh was handed over to him reportedly at the residence of George Fernandes.

   

 
 
POLL DATES NEXT WEEK 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 24: 
The Election Commission is yet to decide on the date for the Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Pondicherry.

Sources in Nirvachan Sadan could only reiterate today that the polls would be held in the first week of May and the schedule would be made public next week.

The commission wants to draw up the poll schedule in such a manner that the new governments have enough time to settle down before expiry of the terms of the outgoing governments. Sources said that if the polls are held in the first week of May, no such constitutional crisis would arise. Chief election commissioner M.S. Gill was aware of the situation and would accordingly decide on the date, the sources insisted.

There is every likelihood of the commission rejecting the Assam government’s plea that the polls be held over two days, given the special security requirements of the extremist-ridden state. The other four states prefer polls be held on a single day and the commission will prefer to abide by the majority decision on the issue.

Gill is scheduled to tour Tamil Nadu early next week as part of his inspection of poll-preparedness and the election date will be announced soon after his return. Gill has been meeting state government officials to gauge their security requirements and has also been in touch with home ministry officials for deployment of paramilitary forces.

Sources pointed out that there was no cause for concern over holding of peaceful polls in the three southern states. Assam, with its peculiar militancy scenario, did provide some headache.

In Bengal, the situation was different with clashes reported during the run-up to the polls, they added. Gill has already reviewed the Bengal scenario. The commission is also aware of the National Human Rights Commission differing with its state counterpart on the scale of violence that had gripped parts of the state.

   

 
 
‘SAFE AND HEALTHIER’ UPMA FINDS NO TAKERS 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA
 
Mumbai, March 24: 
At the country’s premier nuclear research establishment, they tested it on themselves for the last two years and were convinced the foodstuff laced with regulated radiation was “not just safe, but healthier”.

But when scientists at Bhaba Atomic Research Centre’s food technology division tried to convince journalists today with plates of irradiated upma, they got a taste of the uphill task ahead: convincing people of the safety of the foodstuff exposed to different doses of radiation.

While almost all reporters attending the Barc-organised “tutorial for the media” ate the snack, few appeared convinced.

Some joined issues with the scientists, who asked them to tell the irradiated upma from the non-irradiated one on their plates. Since the irradiated upma appeared to have been cooked with superior ingredients and tasted better, they openly called the verdict rigged.

They refused to fill out a form they were handed, asking them to distinguish the two types of upma from their “appearance, colour, taste, odour and texture”.

“But we are not giving up. We will have to keep trying to convince the media and the people,” A.K. Samuel, director of Barc’s bio-medical division, said.

“Irradiated foodstuff is not just 100 per cent safe, but is healthier. We should use the technology being used all over the world,” D.R. Bongirwar, head of Barc’s food technology division, said.

The Indian government allowed irradiation of vegetables, spices, fruit and poultry within “prescribed doses” in 1996 by amending the prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1954.

In 1988, an expert committee formed by three UN agencies — World Health Organisation, Food and Agricultural Organisation and International Atomic Energy Agency — certified irradiated stuff as safe.

But it has still not caught on. There is widespread fear of radiation that persists for the lack of an effective campaign for use of the technology which scientists said could increase not only the shelf-life of produce and poultry, but disinfect them.

After researching for more than a decade and setting up a plant to irradiate spices, Barc today called the media to “have a taste of it” in its quest to popularise the technology and engage the private sector in its use.

“The reason we called you people is to allay the fear in the public’s mind. That is the sole purpose,” A.P. Jayaram, a Barc scientist handling the media, said.

“The food exposed to restricted doses of radiation is absolutely safe for human consumption and is being applied widely in the West to preserve the perishable,” Arun Kumar Sharma of the food technology division said.

Scientists stressed that irradiated food should not be equated with the foodstuff contaminated with radioactivity since the dividing line was clearly drawn.

“There is no radioactivity in irradiated food,” Samuel said. Sudha Rao, a scientist, said they started offering irradiated vegetable, especially potatoes and onions, at five Barc canteens two years ago, where 3,000 to 4,000 staff ate regularly.

But they had a choice: if they wanted they could have the same dishes made of non-irradiated vegetables. But an increasing number of Barc staff started opting for irradiated vegetable because “they tasted better”, Rao said, adding that as a result, the choice was withdrawn.

“We have eaten the irradiated foodstuff ourselves, so there is no question over its safety,” she said.

Irradiation in small and medium doses stops the sprouting and dehydration of tubers, including potatoes and onions, increasing their shelf-life and slashing storage losses. It delays the ripening of fruit, extending the shelf-life of mangoes and bananas by two weeks.

Besides, scientists said, the technology helps disinfect grains and preserve poultry and sea foods.

   

 
 
RAY INVITES BASU TO DEBATE 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, March 24: 
Former chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray today challenged Jyoti Basu to a public debate to substantiate the allegation that attempts had been made on Basu’s life during his tenure (1972-77).

He was reacting to CPM state secretary Anil Biswas’ allegation yesterday that several attempts were made on Basu’s life when Ray was chief minister of Bengal.

Ray said Basu, too, often mentioned the mass killings “during my tenure in order to malign me”. “This can’t go on.... Let there be a one-to-one public debate so that the picture can be cleared.”

   

 
 
SIWAN LOBBY HITS BACK AT LALOO 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Patna, March 24: 
A minister in the Rabri Devi government, who is related to MP Mohammad Shahbuddin, resigned today to protest against the state’s “funny stand” on the Siwan firing. However, Ejazul Haque’s resignation was not accepted till late evening.

After putting in his papers, Haque remained in his house and refused to meet anyone. Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav mounted a salvage operation to try get the welfare minister to withdraw his resignation.

He first sent a team of MLAs to Haque’s house to reason with the minister. When this did not work, Laloo got Haque, who is in touch with Shahbuddin in Delhi over phone, to agree to visit him. The two began talking around 5 pm, indicating that Haque might take his resignation back. But he made it clear he was unhappy with the way the Siwan situation was being handled.

Sources said Shahbuddin will keep up pressure on Rabri till his demands are met. He wants all police officers involved in the “fake encounter” at Siwan to be “punished”. He also wants the next of kin of those killed in police firing to be adequately compensated. Earlier, it was agreed that they would be paid Rs 2.5 lakh, but the Assembly was told yesterday that the compensation was fixed at Rs 1 lakh.

Shahbuddin is unhappy over the state government’s decision to order a judicial probe into the incident, giving the “rebel” policemen a chance to record their statements against him.

On March 16, policemen raided Shahbuddin’s village in Siwan to arrest the MP but were attacked by his supporters. In the firing that followed, 14 people died. Most of them were Shahbuddin’s supporters

Haque is upset with the government for not taking action against Patna police which questioned one Sultan Mian yesterday to expose the minister’s criminal links. Mian said he used to take shelter in Haque’s house every time he committed a dacoity, to give police a slip. The police made the statement public.

Haque said he was under “tremendous pressure” from the people he represented to resign. “After all, I am here because of them. I cannot be in power if they feel humiliated,” he said before being taken away to a room in the Assembly to meet Laloo.

After an hour’s talks, the RJD chief said the resignation was the “outcome of a difference of perception due to communication gap”. “There is no question of accepting the resignation. The government is alert to the police atrocities in Siwan which are comparable to the Jallianwalabagh massacre. Action will definitely be taken against the police,” Laloo said.

   
 

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