Bandh reprieve for hills
Top guns for bloodbath district
Bullets fly in gang assault
Delhi tag gives tax break to housing project
Corruption swoop on customs chief
Assertive allies shun NDA in states
RBI draws banker-flight fire
Red Cross tags Tihar blood unsafe
Chain raids on officials linked to smugglers
Windfall for Jharkhand legislators

Siliguri, March 31: 
As investigators prepared to visit Nagaland on the trail of the suspected attackers of Subash Ghising, the GNLF leadership today decided to defer its indefinite hill bandh by another week.

The GNLF branch committees of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong met in Darjeeling this afternoon to review the progress of the investigation into the February 10 ambush on Ghising and unanimously resolved to extend its ultimatum until April 8.

“The three branch committees of the GNLF today expressed their satisfaction with the progress made by Darjeeling police. The party has decided to defer the bandh till April 8 so that the investigation is not hampered. Police will have to arrest all eight key masterminds and financiers who are still at large,” GNLF leader and party legislator from Kurseong, Shanta Chhettri said.

The meeting, attended by vice-presidents of the Kurseong and Kalimpong units N.B. Khawas and Dawa Pakhrin, was presided over by the party’s Darjeeling unit chief Deepak Gurung.

The Kalimpong GNLF branch committee chief, C.K. Pradhan, whose name figured on the GNLF list of suspects, was absent.

Alleging that the conspirators had smuggled in sophisticated weapons, including nine AK rifles which the police are yet to recover, Chhettri said: “We want the police to arrest all eight masterminds along with the weapons used by the assailants during the attack on Ghising. If the weapons are not recovered, we fear they will be used in future attacks on GNLF leaders.

“We doubt whether it would be possible to hold the Assembly polls in the hills as these people are bound to try and disrupt the elections. If the police fail to arrest the masterminds by April 8, we will have no other alternative but to go ahead with the indefinite bandh from April 9.”

Reiterating that the arrested militant Gorkha leader Chhattray Subba was only number nine on its list of suspects, the GNLF legislator said: “Police have to soon arrest the remaining masterminds who, we believe are still in Darjeeling.”

An official connected with the special investigation team told The Telegraph that Subba had revealed during interrogation that militants who had ambushed Ghising had been trained by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) in Nagaland.

“A SIT team will soon leave for Nagaland to follow up on the disclosure. The team will also inquire into the direct involvement of Naga militants in the ambush. We are in touch with our Nagaland counterparts and have sought their assistance in the matter. Once the team returns from Nagaland, we will launch another ‘Operation Deer’ in Nepal,” the official said.

The SIT is still on the lookout for key conspirators, including Vijay Dewan alias Dhiren Rai, Deven Gurung alias Dipendra Rai and Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League acting president and former GNLF militant leader, Tseten Sherpa. All three are suspected to be hiding in Nepal.

The SIT visited the Himalayan kingdom at least six times to nab the conspirators.


Midnapore, March 31: 
The violence-scarred district has become the first in south Bengal to have a special force equipped with sophisticated carbines and self-loading rifles to tackle hired gangs armed with modern weapons.

The main reason behind the move was to increase the fire-power of the police force while dealing with these gangs which use arms smuggled in from Bihar.

The decision to equip the police with modern weapons was taken at a recent meeting attended by inspector-general of police (Western Range) J.R. Bhagat and police superintendents of four districts — Purulia, Bankura, Hooghly and Midnapore.

“The modernisation of arms for the police force was possible because of the availability of Central funds for the purpose,” a senior police officer said.

Police sources said the special force would mainly tackle motorcycle-borne criminals in Keshpur, Garbeta, Pingla, Moyna and Sabang — blocks that have witnessed violent conflicts between CPM and Trinamul Congress supporters. The force will also combat terrorist elements in the western part of the district.

“We have set up two platoons of the Special Combat Team, the members of which are conversant with the operation of weapons like SLRs and carbines,” said district superintendent of police A.K. Maliwal.

“They have already reported to me and are at present deployed in the Jhargram region to counter Naxalite terrorists.”

That the force has been established a little over a month before the Assembly elections is also significant.

“We may use the force to tackle any violence that could take place in the run-up to the polls and on polling day as well,” the superintendent of police said. The meeting also decided on the quick despatch of the weapons, which would have to be arranged by the state government.

During the last general elections, two rifles were snatched from policemen accompanying a polling party in Bholadeva. Since then, 11 rifles have been looted from the area. Motorbike-riding hoodlums armed with sophisticated weapons were also hired by parties during the Panskura by-election.

When Maliwal took up his present posting, he had stressed the need to upgrade the fire power of the police force if peace had to be maintained in the disturbed areas of the district.

What is worrying the police is the “vote boycott call” by the Maoist Communist Centre and the People’s War Group, both Naxalite outfits.

Police are also worried about the “mysterious murders” at Chhoto Angaria village, under the Garbeta police station area, where considerable quantities of sophisticated arms are believed to have been used.

With state polls a few weeks away, police fear that political parties have started stockpiling weapons. “But we have now taken precautions,” Maliwal said. But he added that he was “confident” of tackling the problem.


Calcutta, March 31: 
Two persons were killed when police fought a pitched battle with anti-socials who took shelter in a building under construction at Raigunge in North Dinajpur early today. Two policemen were wounded in the clash.

Senior police officials camping at the site said a hunt was on to arrest those who had fled during the encounter.

Superintendent of police Akhil Kumar Saha said police had to fire 11 rounds in self-defence when the criminals started shooting indiscriminately.

Police were tipped off that a group of criminals was hiding in the building at Kanchanpalli. Within minutes, a unit of about five officials rushed towards the spot. As they neared the building, the criminals opened fire.

The officials retreated and called for reinforcements. An additional force led by inspector-in-charge Jyoti Bikash Dey reached the spot.

The police contingent surrounded the building from all sides.

“At the time, we had no idea how many were inside, so we proceeded with caution,” Dey said.

The policemen told the criminals to surrender as they had been outnumbered.

“Instead of giving up, they continued to fire at us. We had no option but to return the fire,” said an official from Raigunge police station.

In the ensuing encounter, two sub-inspectors, Bidyut Sinha and Ashutosh Saha, were wounded. Sinha was shot in the leg while Saha received bullet wounds in his left hand.

The gangsters battled for nearly half-an-hour, after which the police gained upper hand. Officials stormed into the building through the rear entrance.

Two persons, who were later identified as Shibprasad Sau (28) and Ramkrishna Shah (27), lay injured on the floor. They were taken to the Raigunge hospital, where they were declared brought dead.

A huge crowd had gathered at the spot and tension ran high in the area after the incident.

“Both criminals have long been on the most-wanted list for cases of multiple murder, possession of illegal arms and extortion,” the superintendent of police said.

“We have retrieved from the hideout six empty cartridges, five live cartridges, one 9mm pistol, two pipe guns and one chopper,” Dey added. “Hospital officials have declared both our men to be out of danger.”

Senior officials said a week-long raid has been lined up to nab criminals who have unleashed terror on villagers.

“We find to our utter dismay that criminals resort to crimes immediately after they are release on bail,” a resident of Raigunge said.

Poll vigil

The North Dinajpur district administration held a meeting with senior police officials to review pre-election arrangements. “We have intensified vigil on vehicles coming from the neighbouring districts,” an official said.


Calcutta, March 31: 
The second phase of the Anupama housing complex of Bengal Peerless Housing Development Company has become the only project of its kind in the country to be accorded a “infrastructure project” certification by the Union finance ministry under Yashwant Sinha.

The project, located on VIP Road, was inaugurated on March 29. It has 368 apartments, of which, 32 are for the high-income group (HIG). The rest of the apartments are for the lower-income group (LIG) and the middle-income group (MIG).

With the certification from the Union ministry, the owners of the apartments have become eligible for income tax benefits up to Rs 1 lakh on interest paid on house building loans.

“This facility is unique and the company, too, will get a 100 per cent tax benefit from the profits it makes,” said company managing director K.S. Bagchi.


New Delhi, March 31: 
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) today raided the office and residence of Central Board of Excise and Customs chairman B.P. Verma for allegedly accepting huge amounts in bribes.

The CBI’s anti-corruption branch swooped down on Verma’s residence at Hudco Place in south Delhi as well as his office, in a bid to unearth evidence that he had favoured a Chennai-based export firm and received illegal gratification.

Raids were also carried out at 13 other places which the CBI believes is connected to Verma. These include the office and residential premises of Sandeep Srivastava, who was officer on special duty attached to Verma, and the school run by the CBEC chairman’s wife. The investigators are being led by joint-director M.S. Bali.

This evening, the finance ministry put Verma on compulsory wait and appointed Sukumar Shankar as the new CBEC chairman.

If found guilty, Verma could be arrested and charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act and for possessing assets disproportionate to his known source of income. But he can be arrested only after the CBI gets the sanction of the finance ministry.

According to CBI spokesman S.M. Khan, the investigating agency received an intelligence input that “some money (the CBI is not sure yet whether it was Rs 2 crore or Rs 2 lakh) was expected to change hands” at a five-star hotel on March 23.

On that day, a team of anti-corruption branch officials maintained surveillance inside Hotel Le Meridien. When the money was handed over to Verma’s son, Siddharth, the sleuths moved in. But they did not immediately arrest either Siddharth or the person found giving the bribe.

Subsequent investigations revealed that Verma used to favour the Chennai-based export firm, A.K. Enterprises, by lowering customs duty on garments that were imported by the firm.

In some cases it was found that the company imported “rags” which were passed off as garments. The CBI suspects that in exchange Verma would accept “huge bribes”.

Although the total amount Verma accepted as bribe has not been ascertained yet, agency sources said it could run into several lakhs, “if not crores”. They said it was usually Siddharth who would collect the bribe on behalf of his father. Siddharth is a garment exporter who is understood to have been associated with A.K. Enterprises.

CBI sources said that besides probing his bank accounts, investigators will also inquire into properties held by Verma in and around Delhi. Sources suspect that some of the properties could be “benami”.


New Delhi, March 31: 
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is in doldrums in the states going to polls on May 10, thanks to the allies’ desire to grow out of the BJP’s shadow and increase their individual electoral strength.

Though the allies by and large have stood by the BJP at the Centre, they are in no mood to oblige it at the state level for fear that the BJP may dwarf their growth.

In Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is not a major player, the allies have problems with the DMK. Serious differences have cropped up among the NDA constituents with the Janata Dal (United) and the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress pulling out of the alliance.

MDMK chief Vaiko has also snapped ties with M. Karunanidhi, citing irreconcilable differences over seats allotted to his party.

Vaiko today said his cadre suspected a “plot” in the DMK move to slam its doors on them just before the elections. His partymen, who had been working for the DMK front’s victory for over 50 days now, felt like thrown into a furnace, he told PTI at Madurai.

Vaiko said that the snapping of ties by the DMK would not in any way weaken the NDA and he would continue to be with the alliance. “I am 100 per cent with Vajpayee. In fact, I was with Vajpayee when the BJP mooted the coalition for the first time,” he said.

Dal(U) spokesman Mohan Prakash said his party has decided to go it alone in the Assembly elections in all the five states. The Dal(U), he said, has decided to contest 30 seats each in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, 25 in Assam, 10 to 15 in Kerala and 10 in Pondicherry.

He said that since 1985, the party has been “sacrificing” its claim to adjust to coalition politics and compulsions. Consequently, party workers at the grassroots level have become restive. “So this time, we have given them the green signal to go out of the alliance,” Prakash said.

But he assured that they will see to it that NDA votes are not split in a big way.

While the Dal(U) had problems with the DMK in Tamil Nadu, it was upset with the BJP for not accommodating it in Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Pondicherry.

Samata Party spokesman Shamu Srivastava said the party has decided to contest 32 seats in Assam, 10 each in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and 15 in West Bengal. The party is yet to take a decision about Pondicherry.

Srivastava said that the party has decided to go with the BJP and others in Bengal and Kerala.

The party is all set to work out a poll deal with the Asom Gana Parishad and efforts are on to rope in the BJP into the alliance as it could then become formidable. However, BJP sources said that, as of now, a tie-up with the AGP-Samata appeared dim.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Trinamul Congress have quit the NDA at the Centre. Even though the BJP was trying to work out some arrangement with Trinamul at the state level, its efforts so far have come to naught.


Ahmedabad, March 31: 
Chintan Mehta was looking forward to a hassle-free life after taking voluntary retirement from the Indian Bank. But today, he is, perhaps, one of the most “unhappy and disturbed” men in the city, ruing the day he opted for VRS.

Mehta had deposited Rs 15 lakh in the Madhavpura Mercantile Co-operative Bank (MMCB). The bank is now on the verge of liquidation and facing charges that its chairman Ramesh Parikh — who has disappeared — siphoned off crores of rupees and gave guarantee to stock broker Ketan Parekh, who is now behind bars.

Mehta doesn’t know whether he will get his money back, but he is not the only one who has been left stranded. Thousands like him can now withdraw only Rs 1,000 from the bank’s 22 branches.

Vishnu Prasad Trivedi, who deposited Rs 1.2 lakh last May, was told by the bank authorities to submit an application. “Though we have submitted applications, we don’t know if we will ever be able to withdraw money,” he says.

Even the dozen-odd rural-based co-operative banks, which had deposited money in MMCB, fear losing their deposits.

Depositors feel Parikh, who who was sacked as the bank’s chairman last fortnight, was allowed to escape. They wonder why the Reserve Bank of India could not take action the day it was known that MMCB had defaulted on its commitments following the losses it suffered trying to fund the stock broker.

Legal experts say the RBI should have first filed a case with the police instead of taking any other step which gave Parikh time to disappear. With Parikh “untraceable”, neither the RBI nor the police could summon him even three weeks after the scam came to light.

Asked how he was allowed to escape, a senior police officer said: “There is no case against him. Police cannot arrest the former MMCB chairman unless the RBI registers a case against him.” He, however, added that the Central Bureau of Investigation could arrest him.

Parikh’s office at Madhur Food, a company run by the former MMCB chairman, says it is clueless about his whereabouts. He was last seen leaving his bungalow on the outskirts of Bhopal on Thursday morning. His family members have disappeared, too.

The MMCB crisis and Parikh’s disappearance have led to a cascading effect on other cooperative banks, where depositors are now queuing up to withdraw their money. His alleged efforts to bail out the now fallen Big Bull has also had an impact in Mumbai.

Sources in the RBI said the central bank was considering the option of recovering the borrowings and a possible merger with some other co-operative bank to pay back the depositors. However, the RBI has not yet received any proposal from banks willing to merge with the MMCB.

But, as an employee of the Navrangpura branch of the MMCB said, there was no other option except merger.


New Delhi, March 31: 
The Indian Red Cross Society’s refusal to accept blood donations from inmates of Tihar Central Jail for Gujarat quake victims has raised the issue of human rights violation of prisoners versus safety of patients.

Ajay Agarwal, director-general of prisons, sees the refusal as discrimination against inmates. But the Red Cross blood bank director, S.K. Choudhury, disagrees. “This is not an act of discrimination. We are looking at the safety of all our patients. We have also stopped taking blood from commercial donors since January 1, 1998, because it was considered risky,” he said.

“Since it is known that prisoners are high-risk donors, why should we take blood from them?” he asked. “It is a known fact that sodomy and drug addiction are high in prison cells. Inmates are also known to have multiple sex partners. Therefore, they are at a higher risk of being HIV carriers than the general masses.”

Choudhury added that all blood banks have to follow the Drug and Cosmetic Act which says that blood should not be taken from prisoners.

The Act states that “the donor shall be in good health, mentally alert and physically fit and shall not be inmates of jail, persons having multiple sex partners and drug addicts”. All licensed blood banks have to follow this manual.

On Children’s Day last year, the jail administration wrote to the Red Cross, asking if a blood donation camp could be organised. The request was turned down. Another letter was sent to the Indian Medical Association, but there was no response.

During the Kargil conflict, Tihar inmates donated Rs 3.21 lakh to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and about 1,000 prisoners volunteered to donate blood. But the authorities said they had enough donors.

The prisoners gave away a day’s ration to the victims of the Orissa cyclone. They also donated Rs 5.11 lakh to those affected by the Gujarat earthquake.

Unlike the Blood Bank manual, the Delhi Jail Manual encourages prison inmates to donate blood twice a year and get a remission of 15 days on their sentence each time.

However, Agarwal dismissed the claim that blood donation camps were used as a ploy to ease prisoners out of the overcrowded jail. “Only convicts are eligible for such remission. Undertrials receive no benefits. Only 20 per cent of the inmates are convicts and 80 per cent are undertrials... Besides, they can get a maximum remission of 30 days if they donate twice a year. This hardly cuts down the period of their stay” Agarwal said.

The police officer wants the Blood Bank manual to be amended. “The prisoners are a part of society and they should not be clubbed in to what is called a high risk group,” he said.


New Delhi, March 31: 
In a massive countrywide operation, the CBI today carried out raids on 48 customs officials suspected to have links to a chain of transnational Afghan smugglers.

Raids and extensive search operations were conducted at 35 residential and 15 office premises in Delhi, six establishments in Mumbai, four in Haryana and one each in Kerala and Calcutta.

Officers whose house and office were raided include additional commissioners, joint commissioners and deputy commissioners.

The searches followed registration of a regular case against two Afghan nationals — identified as Del Agha and Mamoor Khan — who were the kingpin of a “huge smuggling racket” that was being run with the active connivance of senior customs officers posted at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The Afghan nationals are reportedly absconding.

The smuggling racket involved the use of Uzbek women to bring in contraband goods like Chinese silk textiles. One such “carrier”, identified as Olga Kozireva, was arrested on August 28 last year at the airport by customs officials.

During interrogation, she revealed that carriers like her would land in Delhi with excess baggage containing several thousand yards of Chinese silk and pay off some of the customs officials in dollars.

Kozireva had travelled to India 87 times between 1997 and 2000. The CBI said customs officers would be paid $700 to $800 for every large baggage containing smuggled goods. They would demand $400 for small baggage.

During a hearing on Kozireva’s bail petition last year at the sessions court, the judge had made adverse comments on the nexus between customs officers and smugglers. The case was handed over to the CBI by Delhi High Court since it involved transnational smuggling.

Cases under Sections 120B and 420 of the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Corruption Act were registered against customs officials, four foreign nationals and other unidentified persons and public servants today.

About 400 CBI officials took part in today’s nation-wide raids which are still continuing.


Ranchi, March 31: 
The Jharkhand government today hiked the salaries, perks and allowances of legislators by passing a new Bill in the Assembly amid protests from the Opposition.

The “bounty” will burden the exchequer by Rs 224.31 lakh on a recurring basis and impose an additional non-recurring burden of Rs 310. 50 lakh. According to the provisions of the new Bill, every MLA will now be entitled to a monthly salary of Rs 3,000, conveyance allowance of Rs 300, regional allowance of Rs 4,000 and a medical allowance of Rs 2,000.

In addition, increased perks will now include Rs 2,000 per month as office expenses, an increase in free phone calls from the existing Rs 40,000 per annum to Rs 50,000 per annum, free railway and air coupons amounting to Rs 1,50,000 per annum and free personal computers not exceeding Rs 75,000 in value.

Two new perks introduced by the Assembly include a car loan of Rs 5 lakh and a personal assistant on a salary of Rs 3,500 to be borne by the state government. In addition, every MLA will be entitled to two official tours in the state and three official visits outside.

However, leaders of the Opposition parties — the JMM, Congress, CPI, CPI(M-L) and the RJD — continued their boycott of Assembly proceedings in protest against the partisan role of the Speaker, whose ruling prevented the collapse of the Babulal Marandi government on March 29.


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