Cross-country kidnap chase
Mafia spectre over Jamalpur twin killings
Poll call has cabs on run
Error in bills leaves teachers without pay
Shiva’s whirling devotees
AGP-BJP battles dissension
Mahadev presides over rebel ‘martyrdom’ site
HC quashes Tripura appointments
Revellers soak in festivities
Season of despair for Ulfa kin

 
 
CROSS-COUNTRY KIDNAP CHASE 
 
 
BY AVIJIT NANDI MAJUMDAR
 
Calcutta, April 13: 
The plan had been worked and reworked several times over. This time they couldn’t possibly go wrong.

It was with this sense of smug satisfaction that UP-Bihar gangster Ajay Singh, also an associate of heartland don Manjit Singh Mange, settled down in his Ripon Street hotel on Wednesday night.

Two previous attempts to kidnap Asansol businessman Rajesh Dharuka had proved abortive. Plotting from inside Alipore Central Jail early last year, where he had been incarcerated for his role in the kidnap of Exide chief S.B. Ganguly, Ajay Singh told his associates over a smuggled-in cellphone how to go about abducting Dharuka.

His team of hoodlums had travelled to Asansol and tracked down a car in which the industrialist was supposed to be travelling. Only, it turned out to be the general manager of Dharuka’s biscuit factory, and the chase had to be abandoned.

Singh decided to employ his girlfriend Rita Verma for the next attempt to kidnap Dharuka. Last April, once again operating from inside the jail, he instructed Rita to travel to Patna, where the industrialist was scheduled to visit, and wait at the airport for his arrival. She was then asked to use her guile to get him into a waiting car, which would deliver him to Singh’s men in the Bihar capital.

Only, Dharuka’s trip got cancelled and Singh met with his second successive failure.

Once out of jail, Singh decided to get hands-on into his business of kidnap and ransom. Early this year, the police say, he kidnapped Ashok Jalan, chairman of Hindustan Malleables, from Dhanbad. The industrialist returned home a few days later in a bus, but he says he never paid any ransom. The police, however, believe that Singh had got his target this time.

A few other kidnappings followed and, flush with this success, Singh believed that he would be third time lucky as far as Dharuka was concerned. While he was the first to check into the Ripon Street hotel along with Reeta Verma on Wednesday morning, four of his associated joined him later in the day.

The police, who scanned the hotel’s registers on Friday, said that the other four have been identified as Nadeem Akhtar, Samsur Rehman, Imran Khan and Anil Singh, all excepting Khan from Bihar. Khan, police said, is a criminal from Belgachhia and has been a local contact of Singh’s.

It was Reeta Verma who had provided the tip off to Singh, that Dharuka may be travelling to the city and that this may well provide them with the opportunity they were waiting for. It turned out that it was his business associate (name withheld to protect his identity) who had checked into a Free School Street hotel on Tuesday and there was every possibility that Dharuka would join him. In any case, Singh and his associates thought, at least he could lead them to the the Asansol businessman.

Through Wednesday and Thursday, they tracked the activities of Dharuka’s associate. But on finding that he was alone, they decided to follow him when he left in his Maruti Esteem on Thursday evening. This overnight chase led them from Park Street to the dusty village tracks of Salanpur, where, riding on motorcycles, the kidnappers were finally overpowered by the police and Dharuka rescued from their clutches. Ajay Singh, in fact, was third time unlucky.

But this time, Singh had nearly succeeded. After tailing Dharuka’s associate to Asansol, they kept watch all night outside the industrialist’s bungalow. The next morning they nearly missed him, as Dharuka left his house with his associate in the Esteem, but through a back gate.

After a brief while, the kidnappers got wise and caught up with them. Driving fast down broken roads, they managed to overtake the Maruti at Jamuria, where they forced Dharuka into their car. But his associate informed the police and they joined the chase. At Salanpur, Imran and Anil got on to motorcycles along with Dharuka. The idea was that they would escape the police with their catch through the village mud tracks. But they were soon intercepted. Singh was lucky only in one way on Friday: He managed to escape with his girlfriend in the Zen they were driving.

   

 
 
MAFIA SPECTRE OVER JAMALPUR TWIN KILLINGS 
 
 
BY PRONAB MONDAL
 
Calcutta, April 13: 
The phone rang at 11 pm on Thursday at Gautam Mukherjee’s Barrackpore residence. His father, Anadi Mukherjee, answered the call, only to hear his six-year-old grand-daughter, Sramana, stutter: “Dadu, ora amar ma, babake... amar samne... mere phelechhey. Ami... (They have murdered my parents in front of my eyes. I...).”

On Friday, the 70-year-old man brought his son Gautam and daughter-in-law Piyali back home in coffins from Jamalpur, in Munger district of Bihar, where they had been shot dead on Thursday night. Sramana, who survived the attack on the senior railway officer of Malda division at the Eastern Railway quarters in Jamalpur, was still in a daze. She had heard the two gunshots that claimed the lives of her parents, and their last screams.

As a stunned crowd gathered outside the Mukherjee house in Barrackpore’s Anandapuri area, the six-year-old was whisked away to a neighbour’s place, where she was kept busy, surrounded by toys and dolls. But she would pause suddenly, as if looking around the unfamiliar room, and recalling the horror of the previous night.

On Thursday, Gautam had returned from office around 7.45 pm. He then went out shopping with Sramana for some time. One of their neighbours in the railway quarter recalled: “Suddenly, we heard sounds of an altercation from their ground-floor flat. Minutes later, we heard gunshots. As we rushed down, we found Sramana standing alone at the closed front door.” The child told the assembled neighbours that on returning from the market, when her father had knocked on the door, a stranger dragged him into the house, leaving her standing outside.

“We first bolted the door to try and trap the criminals. But then, we heard Gautam crying for help, and we opened the door,” said the neighbour. Gautam was bleeding profusely from 12 stab wounds on his back and a bullet wound in his stomach. Piyali lay dead, shot by a revolver shoved inside her mouth. The assailants had fled through the back door.

Gautam was rushed to Jamalpur railway hospital, where he died two hours later. “Piyali kaisi hai? Meri beti Sramana ko dekhna (How is Piyali? Please look after Sramana),” were his last words.

After Anadi Mukherjee learnt about the tragedy on Thursday night, he informed friends and family. Nine people left Calcutta for Jamalpur to bring Sramana and her slain parents back.

According to one of Gautam’s friends in the railway, the Thursday night attack was definitely not a case of dacoity. “There was something going on at Jamalpur, which is notorious for its mafia,” said the officer. “Gautam, as section engineer of the material stores department, was in a critical position. Last week, when he came to Calcutta, Gautam had told me that he was unhappy with the nature of his job. He had hinted that something very wrong was going on there. The intra-departmental feud and the involvement of the local mafia may be responsible for the brutal murder.”

   

 
 
POLL CALL HAS CABS ON RUN 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 13: 
The police and the regional transport authority (RTA) are on the prowl to book vehicles for poll duty. And cabs are on the run. About 30,000 taxis ply every day in the city and its suburbs. The number is dropping by the day, as cabbies prefer steering clear of the streets than risk being requisitioned for Assembly election duty.

Taxi-owners have also written to chief election officer Sabyasachi Sen, urging him to clear their poll-duty dues pending since the 1996 Assembly elections. They have also demanded that the fee for hiring vehicles be hiked.

Nitya Chakraborty, office secretary of Bengal Taxi Association, claimed that several taxi-owners whose vehicles had been requisitioned for the 1996 Assembly poll duty were yet to be paid their dues. “We have urged the chief election officer to clear the dues without further delay. In 1996, the government paid us Rs 288 a day for hiring a taxi. We are now demanding Rs 350, as maintenance costs have gone up by 20 per cent in five years,” added Chakraborty.

The Association has also made it clear that vehicles will only ply on permitted routes. In 1996, several taxis which were supposed to remain within city limits were forced to hit the district trail. “Many taxi-owners have complained that after their vehicles met with accidents outside Calcutta, their insurance claims were rejected. So, we have informed the chief election officer that city taxis must not be taken to the districts,” declared Chakraborty.

Madan Mitra, leader of the Progressive Taximens’ Association, alleged that the cab-owners’ dues were not being cleared as there was “no coordination” between the state election department and the regional transport authority.

Sabyasachi Sen, while admitting that several taxi-owners had not been paid their 1996 dues, said the regional transport authority had been instructed to “to take all possible measures” to clear their bills as soon as possible.

   

 
 
ERROR IN BILLS LEAVES TEACHERS WITHOUT PAY 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 13: 
The sheen is off Poila Boisakh celebrations for teachers of nearly 600 secondary schools in Calcutta. They have yet to receive their salary cheques for March.

The state government has not released the funds for the schools, reportedly due to an error in the bills sent by the office of the district inspector of schools, Calcutta. Teachers of state-funded secondary schools in the city are aggrieved at the delay. Various teachers’ bodies have decided to approach the government to demand action against the errant employees.

“No teacher in the city has received last month’s salary. Their families will be counting their pennies while the entire state rings in the Bengali new year. We will take up the matter with the government,” said Prithwis Basu, general secretary of West Bengal Headmasters’ Association.

Officials in the city district inspector’s office said they have already contacted the pay and accounts department and requested them to clear the salaries. However, they said, the salaries are unlikely to be cleared before the month-end.

District inspector’s office sources said the schools are required to requisition teachers’ salaries every month. The office prepares the bills and sends them to the pay and accounts department, which then releases the funds after verification. The respective schools, in turn, collect the salaries from their link banks.

According to sources, approximately Rs 1.5 crore is required to pay the salaries of nearly 15,000 secondary school teachers in Calcutta.

Adhikram Sanyal, general secretary of the CPM-dominated All Bengal Teachers’ Association, admitted the problems caused to the teachers by the delay. The association has sought an appointment with the officials concerned next week, he added.

   

 
 
SHIVA’S WHIRLING DEVOTEES 
 
 
BY SOUMITRA DAS
 
Calcutta, April 13: 
Drums work up a frenzy. A man in a yellow dhuti ties orange ropes around the waist of a young man in a loincloth, both of them precariously balanced on a step ladder. Both are devotees of Shiva.

The orange ropes are linked to another thick rope attached to a log, which swivels on the axis of a long pole driven into the large crowded square amidst Anath Babu Bazaar on Friday. The market is better known as Chhatubabu bazaaar, on Beadon Street, near its intersection with Chittaranjan Avenue.

The drums beat wildly. Suddenly some young men holding another cable tied to the stem of the pole start running in circles. The huge crowd steps aside so as not to get in their way. The pole starts revolving. And so does the young man tied to the swivel on top. He is like a human merry-go-round, spinning faster and faster.

Mid-air, he opens a bundle and starts throwing prasad at the crowd. Hundreds of men, women and children scramble to pick up the offerings of batasha and fruit. Then, gradually, the whirling devotee of Shiva slows down and excitement ebbs. Seven other devotees do the same in succession. Four other devotees will repeat the performance on Saturday, Poila Boisakh.

This is the famous Charak mela, when, for two days and nights, the entire thoroughfare, right up to Hedua, turns into a village fair. Everything from furniture to Krishnagar toys are sold here. Rareties like handwoven mats and baskets can be picked up here, and so can plastic toys and steel utensils

Jostling crowds descend on the narrow street and the police are hard put to maintain order. With tiny lamps burning all along the street after dark, it seems like we are back in Calcutta in its early days.

Kalyan Deb, who belongs to the family of Chhatubabu-Latubabu, says originally the Charak used to be celebrated at Mulajore, where Ramdulal De’s (Chhatu and Latu’s father) in-laws used to live. Since his in-laws were unable to run the mela, Ramdulal first shifted it to the spot, now known as Rabindra Kanan, in late 18th Century.

The people of Dompara used to celebrate Charak then. Later, it was shifted to the bazaar. On Thursday evening, Shiva’s marriage with Lilabati was celebrated, when the denizens of Dompara in Rambagan went around the neighbourhood in procession, brass band and all, collecting subscriptions.

Three days before Charak, the devotees practise what is known as jhanp, when they throw themselves into a sacred fire, on a sharp-edged weapon, and the barbed bainchi shrub but go miraculously unscathed.

   

 
 
AGP-BJP BATTLES DISSENSION 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Guwahati, April 13: 
The Asom Gana Parishad and the BJP are working overtime to stem dissidence in their ranks.

Three BJP trouble-shooters arrived here from New Delhi today to pacify party workers opposed to the “marriage of convenience” with the AGP.

Chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, too, launched a damage-control exercise. But it failed to stop some prominent AGP legislators, including ministers, from joining the band of dissidents. Some of these AGP members even threatened to defect to the Congress.

The cause of the rift in the AGP is the seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP, particularly the decision to go in for “friendly contests” in certain constituencies. These seats are held by AGP members.

The revolt has already cost Pradan Barua, the AGP legislator from Jonai, his party membership. The AGP leadership expelled Barua yesterday on charges of alleged anti-party activities.

Sources said Barua met the Congress’ election observer for Assam, Kamal Nath, in New Delhi yesterday and offered to join the party.

Barua’s home constituency is one of the 10 where there will be “friendly contests” between AGP and BJP candidates. However, state BJP leaders deny that these 10 seats include the 44 their party will contest.

Undeterred by Barua’s expulsion, two AGP ministers — Ramendra Narayan Kalita and Kamala Kalita — today jointly convened a meeting of 5,000-odd party activists in the Chandraprova High School at Azara under Guwahati West constituency.

A 23-member panel comprising representatives of various party committees in Guwahati West constituency was constituted to pressure Mahanta into abandoning the idea of “friendly contests”.

A section of AGP activists who attended the meeting said Ramendra Narayan Kalita should contest the elections as a Congress candidate if Mahanta does not review the seat-sharing arrangement. Another group said he should file his nomination as an Independent candidate.

Sources said the Congress had already offered Ramendra Narayan Kalita a ticket to contest the polls from his home constituency.

In another development, dissident BJP leader Hiranya Bhattacharyya today floated a new party, christened the “Assam BJP”. He said the party would field candidates in 60 constituencies.

Bhattacharyya released the first list of 13 candidates and said he would contest the Nalbari seat. However, he promised to back out “if there is a better candidate than me”.

The dissident leader said he formed the “Assam BJP” in protest against the central BJP leadership’s “total surrender to the AGP”. He said Mahanta was dictating terms to the BJP leadership.

However, Bhattacharyya promised to return to the BJP if it called off its alliance with the AGP.

Sunil Shastri, the BJP observer for Assam, downplayed the “split”. He said Bhattacharyya’s departure would not affect the party.

But the BJP’s concern over the development was apparent when Shastri, Narendra Modi and V. Satish went into a huddle at a city hotel to discuss the issue.

State BJP president Rajen Gohain and Union water resources minister Bijoya Chakravorty also attended the meeting.

   

 
 
MAHADEV PRESIDES OVER REBEL ‘MARTYRDOM’ SITE 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Imphal, April 13: 
Relatives and friends of People’s Liberation Army rebels today found a statue of Lord Mahadev at the martyrs’ tomb of the outfit located at Cheiraoching hills here.

They had converged there after the Imphal bench of the Gauhati High Court directed the state government to allow them to pay floral tributes to PLA rebels killed by security forces. The outfit observes April 13 as “Martyrs’ Day”.

The statue was allegedly installed by security personnel to prevent the PLA supporters from paying tributes. Ten PLA rebels, led by its “acting chairman”, Kunjabihari, were killed in a fierce gun-battle with the Army at Kadompokpi village in Imphal West district on this day in 1982.

The government has always tried to stymie the tribute-paying occasion for nearly the past one decade, and effectively, thwart any attempts to whip up anti-national sentiments.

However, a large number of sympathisers thronged the martyrs’ spot armed with the High Court’s permission only to find the Mahadev statue.

Bhajans also played near the statue installed just five meters away from the tomb. The concrete structure of the tomb was destroyed last year by security forces.

“Martyrs’ day” today coincides with the Vaishnavite Manipuri Hindu New Year, Cheiraoba. Every afternoon on this day, people climb the Cheiraoching hills to offer prayers to Hindu deities, located on the hill-top. Many devotees were seen offering prayers at the statue erected near the tomb.

Police and Assam Rifles personnel were deployed in large numbers though they did not stop the PLA supporters from coming near the desecrated tomb.

   

 
 
HC QUASHES TRIPURA APPOINTMENTS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Agartala, April 13: 
The Agartala bench of the Guwahati High Court has terminated the services of eight panchayat extension officers recruited through the Tripura Public Service Commission in 1997.

Justice B.B. Deb of the High Court also questioned the integrity commission’s authorities who had made the appointments, when the case came up for hearing yesterday.

According to the case details, advertisements were issued in 1995 in the CPM organ Daily Desherkatha, inviting applications for nine panchyat extension officers.

Records showed that though 914 candidates applied for the post, the then commission chairman Suprasanna Chakraborty found that only two had the requisite qualification. This was informed to the panchayat department.

However, on December 26, 1996, the then panchayat director Nepal Sinha informed the chairman that his department (with approval from the state government) had prepared a panel of 90 candidates. “The TPSC cannot amend the recruitment policy of the state government,” Sinha added.

Thereafter, the commission authorities violated the provisions of the Article 309 of the Constitution and allowed all the 90 applicants to take the exam.

A panel of nine successful candidates was forwarded to the panchayat department in January 1997.

   

 
 
REVELLERS SOAK IN FESTIVITIES 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Guwahati, April 13: 
Intermittent showers since the morning failed to wash away the colours of Rongali Bihu as revellers soaked in the festive ambience at bihutolis across this capital city.

By the time the rain started, the customary flag-hoisting and swahid tarpan (homage to martyrs) at various bihutolis was over. A large number of people dressed in their festive best attended the inaugural functions.

At the historical Latasil playground, where the Guwahati Bihu sanmilani is celebrating its golden jubilee, Bhupen Hazarika was the guest of honour.

The poet-singer-filmmaker was supposed to lead a procession to the Latasil playground atop a regally-decorated elephant, but a last-minute hitch forced him to do the honours on foot. Apparently unnerved by the high-decibel sound of dhols and khols (both traditional drums), the elephant refused to budge.

Addressing the gathering, Hazarika recalled his long association with the Latasil Bihutoli. He termed the Bihutoli as the “launching pad of many a star”.

The Guwahati Bihu sanmilani conferred the title of “Luit Ratna” on Hazarika for his contribution to art and culture. Humble as ever, he reciprocated the gesture by saying, “I am a small man and indebted to the people for showering me with their love and blessings.”

He said peace had returned to the state, and the people were coming out without fear to participate in the festivities.

Judges’ Field was another Bihu venue that attracted a large crowd. The cultural heritage of the Northeast was showcased at the open-air Bihu function organised by the All-Assam Students’ Union.

Assamese film personalities Moloya Goswami, Biju Phukan, Chetana Das and Dinesh Das brought the bihutolis alive by dancing to the accompaniment of the dhol and pepa.Prominent student leaders, too, let their hair down.

Rain brought an abrupt end to the programme. The performers as well as the audience ran for cover when the sky opened up. The weather looked up towards evening, bringing out the crowds again. Thousands of revellers made a beeline for the Bihutolis where some of Assam’s finest artistes performed.

The singers invited to various bihutolis include Khagen Mahanta, Archana Mahanta, Zubeen Garg and Kumar Bhabesh. The star attraction is, however, Bhupen Hazarika. He will perform at the Guwahati Bihu sanmilani.

Creating Bihu history, the Pub-Guwahati Bihu sanmilani at Chandmari is “webcasting” its programme live on the Internet. The programme can be seen at “vedanti.com”. Apart from cultural programmes, various traditional sporting events and pitha-making competitions have been organised at the bihutolis .

But life has not been easy for the organisers, particularly due to the slush at the bihutolis. With the weatherman forecasting more showers in the next few days, organisers fear people might steer clear .

   

 
 
SEASON OF DESPAIR FOR ULFA KIN 
 
 
FROM PULLOCK DUTTA
 
Jorhat, April 13: 
Rongali Bihu marks a joyous beginning to the Assamese New Year. But for the Gogoi family from Tingkhong in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district, this season of joy has turned into one of despair.

Unlike in the past two years, the Asom Gana Parishad-led government’s decision not to offer “safe passage” to Ulfa militants this Rongali Bihu has been a major disappointment for the Gogois, who had been hoping to see their 27-year-old son Abhay during the festival. Abhay joined the Ulfa just before the last Assembly elections in 1996. His native village of Tingkhong has long been an Ulfa stronghold.

Says Geeta Devi, Abhay’s 51-year-old mother, “Meeting our son was next to impossible till the government offered safe passage to Ulfa activists as a goodwill gesture on Rongali Bihu a couple of years back. But there is no chance of seeing him this year as the offer has not been renewed. Our Bihu is over even before it has begun.”

Geeta Devi, who completed her high school studies in the early Sixties despite being from a remote village, says the government did not make a fresh safe-passage offer due to the Assembly polls.

“I am convinced Dispur would have made such an offer had there been no elections. This is politics. I do not know what else our leaders will do in the name of politics,” she adds. The last time Abhay came home, his family was “more or less successful” in convincing him about the futility of violence. But he sought time to take a decision. “As he will not be home for the Bihu, there is no way of knowing what he has decided.

The government’s decision not to make a fresh safe-passage offer will undoubtedly influence his next move,” says Geeta Devi. The Gogois are not the only ones who are disappointed. Families of hundreds of Ulfa militants feel the same way about the government’s decision.

“He came on Bihu last year and said he was willing to come overground. But I have not heard from him since. I expected to hear some good news this time, but there is no hope now,” says Mamoni Bora, whose son is one of the most wanted Ulfa militants from Upper Assam. Bora is a resident of Lahing, a village in Jorhat.

Sources in Dispur said the government decided against offering safe passage to militants in view of reports that the Ulfa might disrupt the elections. With less than a month to go for the polls, no government would have taken the risk of giving rebels an opportunity to move about freely, they said.

An official who requested anonymity said the AGP-led government’s decision was perhaps the right one. “Despite the government trying to break the ice, the Ulfa has remained indifferent. Earlier offers of safe passage did not result in any positive development. One cannot be guided by the heart at all times,” he said.

Names of some persons have been changed

   
 

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