Ghising yields to bandh heat
GNLF eyes hills and Siliguri
Police chief appeals for Central troops
Teenagers hijack bus
Cong sees double dividend in dirt war
Laloo rushes to Sonia support
George camp wary of JPC hurdle to return
Copter home truths for Fernandes
March from rat fields to gateway of power
Hurriyat buys time on talks

 
 
GHISING YIELDS TO BANDH HEAT 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, April 17: 
Under pressure following mounting public resentment and the Election Commission’s warning not to disrupt the poll process, GNLF chief Subash Ghising today “instructed” the party leadership to withdraw the indefinite hill bandh from tomorrow.

The GNLF’s Darjeeling unit president, Deepak Pradhan, said Ghising had decided to take up the issue of the arrest of the masterminds of the ambush at an “official” level. The branch committees of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong had, therefore, unanimously decided to call off the bandh, which had been in effect since April 9.

“The decision to withdraw the bandh was taken at a meeting convened by the party president and Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council chairman, Subash Ghising, at the council headquarters in Lalkhoti this morning. The GNLF unit presidents told the party chief about the state government’s failure to nab the actual culprits behind the February 10 attack on him. Though the government has failed to arrest the masterminds of the strike, Ghising has been compelled to take up the case officially as the hill council has certain statutory responsibilities towards the people,” Gurung said.

The decision comes a day after the Election Commission voiced concern over the bandh in the region which was “obstructing” the poll process. Darjeeling district magistrate Anil Verma had met the GNLF leadership yesterday and made it clear that despite the bandh, all measures would be taken to ensure that candidates can file their nominations. Moreover, with the tourist season nearing, the hill residents were alarmed at the prospect of losing their revenue.

As a face-saver, the GNLF branch committees, which met later this afternoon after receiving Ghising’s missive, unanimously decided to withdraw the bandh under “protest”.

“Ghising expressed serious concern at the sequence of events beginning with the terrorist activities at Tinkataria in Kalimpong last November. We had given the home department ample time to arrest the masterminds and conspirators of the February 10 ambush. The chain of events has unfortunately coincided with the declaration of the Assembly elections. In order to end the deadlock created due to the complete failure of the government and to discharge the constitutional duties of the DGHC, the chairman appealed to the GNLF branch committee presidents to appreciate the emerging situation and to call off the indefinite strike under protest,” Gurung said.

“While thanking the hill residents who had borne the hardship with us, we apprised the hill residents of the party’s decision at different public meetings in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong this evening,” he added.

The GNLF had called the indefinite bandh to protest against the administration’s “failure” to arrest the key masterminds behind the ambush on Ghising. Immediately after the assassination attempt, the GNLF leadership had shut down the hills for eight days. The bandh was “temporarily withdrawn” on February 18, but the party gave the government a month to get their hands on those behind the attack.

Though 16 people, including militant Gorkha leader Chhattray Subba, had been arrested, the GNLF said the key culprits were still at large. The GNLF described Subba’s arrest as an “eye-wash” and said he was ninth on the conspirators’ list. The party gave the police a list of eight people it wanted arrested for the attack. But the police refused to budge, saying they would not arrest anyone unless they got concrete evidence.

   

 
 
GNLF EYES HILLS AND SILIGURI 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, April 17: 
After keeping the political set-up in the hills on tenterhooks for the past two months, the GNLF today announced it would contest all three hill Assembly seats and said it was also considering fielding a candidate from Siliguri.

The party had been silent on contesting the elections since the February 10 ambush on Subash Ghising and had asserted that it would take a decision only after the masterminds of the strike had been arrested.

The GNLF’s Kurseong unit chief, Indra Narayan Pradhan, said the party will put up candidates from Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong. The GNLF had three legislators in the previous Assembly.

“We will not only contest all the three hill Assembly seats, we are confident of retaining them. We are also considering showing our magic in Siliguri as well. If need be, we will employ magician P.C. Sorcar to bring about a surprise in the seat,” Pradhan said. The GNLF has never contested from the Siliguri constituency, which was won by state minister Ashoke Bhattacharya in 1996.

Bhattacharya had won with a margin of 54,037 votes and had gained a huge lead in Mirik, where the GNLF wields enormous clout. Refusing to divulge the names of candidates, Pradhan said: “The party’s central committee will decide on the names at a meeting in Darjeeling tomorrow.”

Attack on couple

A couple was seriously injured when miscreants raided their Jagaddal residence in North 24-Parganas district early today.

Sagar Mandal Mahato and Rekha were admitted to Bhatpara Hospital and later shifted to Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College and Hospital. The criminals attacked the couple with rods and daggers and managed to flee despite police presence in the area.

   

 
 
POLICE CHIEF APPEALS FOR CENTRAL TROOPS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 17: 
Director-general of police Deepak Sanyal has warned that unless the Centre agrees to send security forces, it would be difficult for the state government to conduct peaceful elections in politically volatile districts such as Midnapore, Bankura and Hooghly.

“It is simply not possible to man all booths by utilising the state’s own resources. There are 58,000 polling stations in the districts while my force strength is only 54,000. All of them cannot be deployed for election duty. At the most, I can spare 30,000 people for election duty,” Sanyal said.

The state government has asked for at least 170 companies of Central forces. But that, too, Sanyal feels, is “inadequate” considering the mounting tension in some districts. “Even if the state government receives 170 companies, which means an additional force of 11,000 personnel, it will not be enough,” he said.

The state now has around 30,000 security personnel to man 62,000 polling stations, including 4,000 in Calcutta. The trouble-prone booths have been identified on the basis of the prevailing law and order situation. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, nearly 15,000 booths had been declared sensitive.

A Congress delegation led by Pradip Bhattacharya met chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen last afternoon and demanded that political parties should be taken into confidence while preparing the list of sensitive booths.

“Experience says violence takes place mostly in booths manned by home guards. We demanded that all sensitive booths be manned by Central forces,” Bhattacharya said. Sen said he had instructed all returning officers to consult political parties before drawling up the list.

   

 
 
TEENAGERS HIJACK BUS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Malda, April 17: 
Eight teenagers hijacked a Calcutta-bound private bus last night, looting 42 passengers at gunpoint and severely injuring eight.

Deputy superintendent of police (headquarters) Subrata Mitra said the criminals, forced their way into the bus at Gangarampur on the Malda-Balurghat National Highway around 8 pm.

As the bus reached Daulatpur, one of the gang members occupied the driver’s seat while others went on a looting spree, brandishing revolvers and choppers. They stopped the bus at Gajol in Malda and fled, police said. The gang has been identified, claimed Mitra.

The victims said they have been robbed of about Rs. 2 lakh. Dipak Acharya, a cloth merchant and one of the victims, said: “The dacoits were speaking both Hindi and Bengali.”

Acharya alleged that the police had not checked the bus at Buniadpur post. No one had been arrested till late this evening.

   

 
 
CONG SEES DOUBLE DIVIDEND IN DIRT WAR 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, April 17: 
The Congress has decided to make the most of the “gutter-level” charges against Sonia Gandhi and take them to the “people’s court”, delinking the issue from the Tehelka assault in Parliament.

Congress leaders said minister of state for personnel Vasundhara Raje Scindia could not have sent Subramanian Swamy’s “chargesheet” against Sonia to the CBI without prior approval and signature of either the Prime Minister or a top official in the PMO.

The main Opposition party is outraged that the government sought legal opinion on Swamy’s “bizarre charges” and demands that Sonia and her family should be probed in connection with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

The Congress think-tank said its strategy was to place on record the “vindictive” nature of the ruling coalition. The leaders said Sonia had boycotted Saturday’s all-party meeting to underscore this aspect.

The Congress is also keen to highlight Swamy’s “outrageous” charges during the Assembly election campaigns, particularly in Kerala — where Sonia is popular — and Tamil Nadu — where Swamy is perceived a political gadfly.

“We want to tell the voters how insensitive the government can get. Was it not the same Vajpayee who was at the receiving end of Swamy’s allegations? We would not like to repeat what Swamy had said about the Prime Minister and those close to him but the whole world is aware of it,” a Congress MP said, referring to certain unsavoury remarks made against Vajpayee a few years ago.

The Congress plans to paint Vajpayee as a “vindictive, mean and revengeful” Prime Minister in a hurry to settle scores with Sonia after the Tehelka scandal. “The government of the day cannot get away with naked political vendetta,” Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy said.

Sonia’s managers are also counting on what they perceive as a “sympathy factor” to unite the party rank and file. For many in the Congress, the issue has provided a tailor-made opportunity to pass the “loyalty test”.

A similar wave of anger had swept the Congress when the I.K. Gujral government had refused to withdraw two DMK ministers over the Jain commission report. The Congress dumped the Gujral regime to express solidarity with the Nehru-Gandhi family.

A Congress leader alleged that the BJP was pressing ahead with its usual “double speak”. He said his party woke up to the ruling coalition’s gameplan when different government functionaries started speaking in different voices.

He claimed that former defence minister George Fernandes’ comments a few days ago “articulated” the government’s strategy.

Soon after an NDA meeting, Fernandes had criticised the Congress’ “shameful, low-level and below-the-belt” campaign and promised to meet dirt with dirt minus the “obscenity”.

On Monday, the Congress decided to go on the offensive. According to Congress floor managers, they were upset not with Swamy but with the Prime Minister. “As we see it, it was not a casual, routine and preliminary inquiry as the government is trying to project. There is a pattern and design in it,” a party leader said.

   

 
 
LALOO RUSHES TO SONIA SUPPORT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 17: 
Laloo Prasad Yadav today met Sonia Gandhi and offered the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s unflinching support to the Congress in its fight against the BJP even as the Opposition remained divided on whether to continue to hold up Parliament.

The former Bihar chief minister accused the Centre of “threatening into silence” Opposition leaders including Sonia, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and himself.

While other Opposition parties did not support the Congress when it alleged the government had referred Subramanian Swamy’s frivolous charges against Sonia to the CBI out of political vendetta, the RJD spoke for the Congress saying the issue concerned not the party president but the person of the leader of Opposition.

Laloo impressed upon Sonia the need for all Opposition parties to stay united as there were attempts to divide them. Later, Congress leader Kapil Sibal also held discussions with the RJD chief.

Talking to reporters later, the RJD chief said parties should remain solidly united on Tehelka and demanded action against the guilty.

He said action should be taken against those seen “culpable” in the tapes and Parliament should not be allowed to function normally unless that was done.

Downplaying the demand for a JPC probe, he said the question of an inquiry does not arise. Those shown accepting money in the defence deal should be prosecuted and tried for “treason”.

The former chief minister said “a probe is irrelevant as it is not a simple issue of corruption. The case pertains to national security”. Parliament should not be allowed to transact business and even Question Hour should not be allowed “as no question can be more important than the scam in defence deals”, he said.

Hitting out at his confidant-turned-rival Ranjan Yadav, Laloo said Ranjan was no longer the RJD working president. Ranjan, who has been spearheading the oust-Rabri drive and is eyeing the chief minister’s post, is backed by NDA leaders.

“There is no post of working president in the party as per its constitution. I had appointed him working president just because I went to jail,” Laloo said.

Dismissing any threat to the Rabri government, Laloo asserted that his party was intact in the state. “It is a conspiracy hatched by the BJP and the RSS to show that there is lot of dissidence in my party,” he said.

   

 
 
GEORGE CAMP WARY OF JPC HURDLE TO RETURN 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 17: 
The government’s sudden refusal to set up a joint parliamentary committee on the Tehelka expose has fuelled speculation that the turnaround is linked to the rehabilitation of George Fernandes, who quit as defence minister after an uproar.

The government was not averse to a JPC probe till last night. But a section of Fernandes’ party, Samata, is opposed to such a time-consuming inquiry. The Fernandes camp fears that it would delay his reinduction into the Vajpayee Cabinet.

Till last night, the government was ready for any type of discussion or inquiry, including a JPC probe, and had included it in the offer made to the Congress.

But Fernandes’ supporters disagreed with the idea of a parliamentary probe, pointing out that it may take more than a year to complete the investigation. They feared that till then Fernandes, who has been retained the convener of the National Democratic Alliance, will be forced to cool his heels.

Though a section of the BJP will not be unhappy if Fernandes stays out a little longer, the Prime Minister’s circle is learnt to be keen to have its trusted trouble-shooter back as soon as possible.

Speculation is rife that Fernandes would be reinstated once a commission headed by a former judge submits its report. The commission is expected to finish its job in a matter of months, unlike a JPC.

Even before the inquiry commission was set up, senior NDA leaders, including the Prime Minister, publicly gave a clean chit to Fernandes. Loud hints were also dropped that he would be reinducted after four months, the time given to the commission.

Sources said the Prime Minister is weighing the option of accommodating Fernandes in the foreign ministry. Jaswant Singh, who is now holding additional charge of defence, may be asked to retain the defence portfolio.

The assumption is that the Jaswant Singh-Arun Singh duo is tailor-made for the defence ministry as they get along well with the army top brass. Arun Singh has been drafted as an advisor to the foreign ministry.

Rejecting the demand for a JPC, government sources today said: “We had agreed to a JPC in the beginning. But at that time, the Congress wanted nothing short of the government’s resignation. Now after setting up a one-man judicial commission, how can we have a parallel inquiry. What will the judiciary think of us?”

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, however, said the government was not averse to a JPC if there was a consensus in the House. He said the Congress should first come forward for a discussion in the House. “Let the majority decide,” he added.

   

 
 
COPTER HOME TRUTHS FOR FERNANDES 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, April 17: 
The Tehelka cloud yet to dispel, former defence minister George Fernandes has been confronted with another controversy: he allegedly “misused” an air force helicopter for a visit to Midnapore, which, according to the home ministry, was a political one.

Fernandes’ former ministry, which had defended the trip saying that it was an official visit, stands to be accused of misleading Parliament.

On September 8 last year, Fernandes had visited Midnapore following then ally and railway minister Mamata Banerjee’s charge that the Left Front government in West Bengal had unleashed a reign of terror against Trinamul Congress cadre, particularly in Keshpur, Garbeta and Chandrakona areas of the scarred district.

To help Fernandes’ chopper to land, Mamata had got the railways to build a helipad in Midnapore.

In a letter dated March 23, 2001, to Rajya Sabha member Dipankar Mukherjee, who had raised the issue in the House on November 29, Jaswant Singh, who was entrusted with the defence portfolio after Fernandes quit, said: “I would like to clarify that my predecessor had visited Midnapore in the month of September 2000 on the specific directions from the Prime Minister to take stock of the law and order situation there, as a representative of the Union government and had accordingly submitted a report to the ministry of home affairs for appropriate action.”

Since the visit to Midnapore was “in his official capacity”, Singh said, “the use of (an) IAF helicopter cannot be termed as for purposes other than official”.

In his written reply to the Rajya Sabha also, Singh had said the trip was in Fernandes’ “official capacity”. Singh repeated the answer while fielding a similar question from another MP, Chandra Kala Pandey.

Fernandes, in his reply to the Rajya Sabha on November 29, 2000, had stated that his journey had been in his official capacity.

However, the home ministry shattered his defence by informing the Rajya Sabha secretariat on December 26, 2000, that “the minister for defence visited West Bengal in his capacity as the convener of the NDA”.

The home ministry statement has sparked speculation on whether Fernandes visited Midnapore in his official capacity or he went there on a “political mission” as the convener of the ruling coalition at the behest of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Senior CPM leader and MP Somnath Chatterjee said “defence utility was used for abject partisan political purposes”. He said his party may serve a breach of privilege notice against Fernandes in the monsoon session of Parliament. Left sources did not rule out the possibility of moving a public interest litigation against Fernandes for “misusing” an air force helicopter.

The Centre had earlier filed suits in Delhi High Court demanding that Rs 22 crore from former Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, Chandra Shekhar and H.D. Deve Gowda for use of defence aircraft for political purposes.

   

 
 
MARCH FROM RAT FIELDS TO GATEWAY OF POWER 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Khagaria (Bihar), April 17: 
From trapping rodents in fields to winning elections, it has been a long march forward for the backward Mushahars of north and central Bihar.

Forty-one-year-old Surender Sada, a Mushahar farmhand, has won unopposed in the ongoing panchayat polls from Udangharari village under Aboli block.

Villages surrounding Udangharari, where Mushahars are in majority, were so long controlled by Rajput and Koeri landlords. Sada will now be one of the ward members who will chart the course of the area’s development.

He is not alone. The Mushahars are on a self-assertion mission, for the first time in panchayat elections in Bihar.

Of the 13 candidates in the fray for the mukhia’s post in Udangharari, Chammu Das, another Mushahar, is also trying his luck for the first time.

Brimming with new-found confidence, the Mushahars have demanded that the polling booth be shifted from an upper caste- dominated village to their own colony’s school building so that they can vote in peace. A rally in support of this demand outside the panchayat office last month caught the polling officers by surprise.

“The old booth is located in Kheri village across the river. On polling day, the upper caste leaders would force boatmen to withdraw the boats so that we could not cross the river. Whoever swam across to vote was bashed up,” said Sitaram Chowdhary, a Mushahar elder. Sitaram, now 70 and unable to move, has never seen a ballot paper.

Like many of his neighbours, Sada is an advocate of the peaceful co-existence preached by Mushahar prophet Dina Badri. Legend has it that Badri, born in a territory close to Nepal, laid down his life in the course of his crusade to organise Mushahars of the country.

With the gradual spread of education, Badri’s brand of Vaishnavite teachings is gaining popularity among the new generation. One fallout is that Mushahars, who trapped rats for a living and ate them, have turned vegetarian. This backward caste group has rediscovered its history and hero and is using them in their political reawakening.

Udangharari, a sprawling colony of Mushahars in the district, is on an elevated flatland near Bagmati and Koshi river. Six months in a year, the village remains cut off from the state and Mushahars use boats to commute. Not surprisingly, most Mushahar candidates have used boat, fish, river and bridge as poll symbols.

Most of the men who made a living out of tilling and sowing are facing unemployment after the advent of machines. “We get work just four or five days in a month and when that is not available, we migrate. We have to take loans from mahajans at Rs 10 per Rs 100 as interest per month before migration,” says Budhan Sada, a Mushahar leader working for an NGO, Samta, in Udhangharari.

“They are caught between a raging river and gun toting upper caste musclemen,” adds Prem Singh, a social worker running Samta. Samta, Cencord and PRIA, a Delhi-based non-government organisation, have conducted a study on the caste group.

The social workers mapped out half-a-dozen backward villages which are under water due to erosion. Last year, a group of 250 Mushahar families in Janglitola swam across to the bank when their homes went under water. They were promised rehabilitation by politicians from all parties. The families are now living on a roadside plot. The state government recently gave them tin plates to serve as roof for their huts, said Prem Singh.

Unlike other backward castes like Manjhi and Paswan, who were politically empowered by their national leaders, Mushahars have never had any champions. But in this election, they have decided to take on their caste tormentors.

In Jehanabad’s Ulhasnagar, a group of 200 Mushahars were driven out of the booth by upper caste voters before the district magistrate intervened. He deployed security forces and helped the Mushahars cast their votes. Many of them were in tears to see ballot papers for the first time.

Khagaria district magistrate Deepak Singh admits the crisis of jobs for the Mushahars but points out that in all government relief funds, this caste group is being given priority. The change, though slow, is perceptible as Mushahars make an effort to join the mainstream.

   

 
 
HURRIYAT BUYS TIME ON TALKS 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Srinagar, April 17: 
The All-Party Hurriyat Conference will consult its working committee and general council before taking a decision on Delhi’s unconditional talks offer.

The Hurriyat move came after a five-hour meeting of the executive this morning, which was attended by senior executive members and presided over by chairman Abdul Gani Bhat.

After the meeting, Bhat told reporters that the executive has decided to convene a meeting of its general council and working committee shortly to reach a consensus on the issue. “The working committee will meet on Saturday, followed by the general council meeting on Monday. We will be formulating our response to the Indian offer for unconditional talks after that.”

The Hurriyat chief confirmed that they have received a formal letter from Indian negotiator K.C. Pant, inviting them for a dialogue. “We got the letter only this afternoon. We discussed the issue and the meeting remained inconclusive,” he said.

The Hurriyat executive will be consulting its working committee and the general council for the first time since its creation in 1993.

Political observers here said the executive of the umbrella organisation of separatist parties in the Valley decided to confer with the general council and working committee to broadbase the responsibility of the vital decision.

With sharp differences between the hawks and the doves within the Hurriyat on the talks, the move to lob the ball in the court of the working committee and general council is being seen as a “time-buying exercise”.

The Hurriyat chairman clarified after the meeting that there was no controversy within the conglomerate regarding senior pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, whose recent statements sharpened the differences between the hardliners and moderates. “Geelani will continue to represent Jamaat-e-Islami in the Hurriyat executive,” Bhat stressed.

The firebrand Jamaat leader, however, did not attended the meeting, but sent his representative, Qazi Ahadullah.

   
 

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