Prisoner of rebel shadows
Only .303 rules, numbers don’t
Home truths, Mr Biswas
Cong rebels cross pullout deadline
Buddha promises to put Bengal on top
Govt sees numbers hope in one-man army’s club
No Pak, no talks: Hurriyat
Mamata guards seek protection
Border force antidote
Jadeja to play cricket, on screen

 
 
PRISONER OF REBEL SHADOWS 
 
 
BY SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Murshidabad, April 26: 
A black iron gate followed by a collapsible gate followed by a waiting-hall followed by a collapsible gate: his home would have done Murshidabad’s security-paranoid nawabs proud.

Like the erstwhile nawabs of Murshidabad he, too, has a darbar. It’s 9 am to 11 am for hoi polloi every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Saturday and Sundays are reserved for those talking politics.

But the present nawab of Murshidabad, Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Choudhury, doesn’t think he’s living in a fortress. It’s more like a prison, he says. “I’m a prisoner of the situation,” he explains.

The nawabdom is also facing a threat, though the nawab wouldn’t give the attacker much chance; Mamata Banerjee has attacked before but hasn’t done too well.

But the nawab is feeling threatened, threatened enough to organise a revolt: Congress MLAs forced to give up their seats for the alliance’s sake are now fighting as Independents against the official nominees.

The nawab will take some of the blame: “Yes, the rebel candidates of Naoda, Bharatpur and Hariharpara have my moral support.” And he has a reason for his revolt: “I didn’t want to give the enemy, the Left Front, a cakewalk.”

The explanation is followed by some nawab-speak: “If the Trinamul gives up some seats even now, I’ll ensure a thrashing for the Left.”

It’s not mere bragging: the nawab, who started life as a Naxalite, was once RSP leader and former irrigation minister Debrabata Bandyopadhyay’s minion; today, Bandyopadhyay steers clear of him.

But the nawab, who’s behind Behrampore’s pothole-free roads and Lal Dighi’s fountains, won’t accept he’s behind every rebel.

“Do you expect my former mastermoshai Md Sohrab (rebel candidate from Suti) and five-time MLA Habibur Rahman (rebel candidate from Jangipur) to listen to me?”

The answer comes five seconds later as the phone rings again. On the line is Atish Sinha, raja of Kandi and seven-time Congress MLA, saying hello and trying to ensure he has the nawab on his side before he takes on the Left.

Choudhury blames the media for building an image that belies his five-and-a-half-feet frame. But Murshidabad Congressmen feel Choudhury is being modest.

They say he’s the only person in Left-ruled Bengal to have dished out a 23-0 blanking to the Left in a poll; despite that, he has lost out in the battle for more seats to “leaders” like Priya Ranjan Das Munshi who, they say, are more effective supine than standing.

The man evokes strong reactions. His opponents, who have tried to bump him off, say the man who began as an extortionist is now behind a contractor raj and earns crores.

His proponents, however, argue that his income goes to his constituents.

But Choudhury is tense, notwithstanding his good — and bad — deeds. His brother-in-law, Arit Majumdar, may be the Congress candidate in Nabagram but his shadow looms up behind half-a-dozen Congress candidates fighting the Left and at least three others who are unofficially fighting the Left and the Trinamul.

But he has faced such situations before: when Mamata called him a goonda and opposed his candidature to the Assembly, he won the election and gave a prepared speech in English in the Vidhan Sabha; when it seemed that the 2000 flood would sink him, he reached out to his marooned subjects in a country-made boat even before the administration knew what had hit it; when the Congress ceased to exist in south Bengal, it was the Choudhury wall behind which the party took shelter north of Nadia.

But things are not so simple this time. He’s fighting against the Left but he’s also fighting against his own party’s uneasy ally; he’s fighting against an “undemocratic” ruling party but he’s also fighting against an “unreasonable” seat-sharing.

But things aren’t that difficult as he’s making them out to be: if he wins this battle, he’ll breathe easy for some time. But there’s hope for him even if he loses: he’ll just have to ensure that Mamata loses as well.

   

 
 
ONLY .303 RULES, NUMBERS DON’T 
 
 
SUNANDO SARKAR AND ALAMGIR HOSSAIN
 
Murshidabad, April 26: 
This is one Pakistani connection which has nothing to do with the ISI.

During district-wide raids in Murshidabad, police recovered large numbers of .303 bullets bearing the “POF” mark — the stamp of the Pakistan Ordnance Factory.

But officials had no reason to believe the ISI was involved. The war, they knew, was not with Pakistan, but closer home, between the Trinamul Congress and the CPM.

The bullets dated back to the 1960s when the Pakistan army was gearing up to fight India over erstwhile East Pakistan. “The bullets have been in currency in Bangladesh for quite some time,” says officer-in-charge of Daulatabad police station Subodh Biswas.

Now, ahead of the polls, they have gained currency this side of the border.

But it’s not just Pakistani bullets. Police have also seized ammunition bearing the stamp of the Indian Ordnance Factory. And this has given them a bigger headache.

Officials admit that the cartridges, red in colour, are genuine. The question they are puzzling over is — what’s the source? How did the bullets get out? They have no answers.

What they know is that these cartridges have come from Monghyr in Bihar.

The source of it all they will go into later. They have a more immediate task on hand — to ensure a less bloody election.

Officials admit it is alarming that Murshidabad should look towards Bihar and Bangladesh just before the polls.

This can only mean one thing. For all that is being written about the strengths of each party, their weaknesses, the state of the alliances, etc., what really might make the difference is not politics after all but the power of the .303. Whichever side has more bullets, wins, no questions asked.

Not good for democracy, but then one can’t be talking such things in the arms bazaar of Murshidabad. There you talk routes and contact persons. Carriers from Bihar who first get in touch with local ganglords (read politicians) here. Not much fuss after that. Deals are struck. Simple.

What is not quite as simple is how to ensure the ammunition reaches the right person. The first approach — and the more old-fashioned one — is to leave it to these carriers to do the smuggling of finished arms.

Then there’s classroom-coaching. “Students” from Murshidabad go over to Bihar, learn the latest techniques and then bring home the weapons.

The other involves “home tuition”. Experts from Bihar come to a village in Murshidabad, spend a few days there teaching their wards the nitty-gritty of arms-making and then return to Bihar. But this puts the local ganglords at risk, and they are not too keen on it.

Ask the police and they will tell you how they always have to be on their toes when it comes to some villages — Nagrajol, Gopinathpur, Benidaspur, Sarshabad, Salua and Kaladanga.

All of them have a history of violent political confrontation. Most are situated along the banks of the river Bhairab. That makes it easy for the criminals. Just cross the river, and you are under a different police station. That’s a big advantage when the police stations are not well-connected.

With the polls now barely two weeks away, Murshidabad superintendent of police Rajesh Kumar puts up a bold front. The raids, he says, are yielding results. “We’ll take action against the criminals irrespective of their political affiliation,” he assures.

But what he can’t assure is that the .303 won’t fly on May 10.

   

 
 
HOME TRUTHS, MR BISWAS 
 
 
BY TAMAL SENGUPTA
 
Nadia, April 26: 
He may be planning the campaign battle from Calcutta’s Alimuddin Street. But Nadia is special to CPM state secretary Anil Biswas for two reasons. One, the party organisation in the district is his responsibility as a state secretariat member. The other: he hails from here. But the polls could throw up some bitter home truths for Biswas.

His problems on home turf surfaced in the 1999 general elections. Having won 10 of the 15 seats in the district in 1996, the CPM was down in 10 Assembly segments in 1999. The twin troubles from a burgeoning BJP and desertions from party ranks to the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) have made the CPM’s Nadia campaign difficult, not forgetting the challenge from a Congress-aided Trinamul.

The BJP has made striking progress in the district, reflected in the victory of Satyabrata Mukherjee from the Krishnanagar Lok Sabha seat in 1999. The party lead in four Assembly segments and its then ally, Trinamul, was ahead in seven. What the BJP has done is take away the CPM’s Hindu votes, especially in the refugee areas.

Mukherjee, who boasts that he “doesn’t need to campaign in the next polls”, has decided to field his family this time. Wife Urmibala is contesting from Kaliganj while son Soumendranath is the BJP nominee in Nakashipara.

The PDS could act as spoiler in the four seats it has put up candidates in: Chapra, Ranaghat East, Haringhata and Chakda, the seat of higher education minister Satyasadhan Chakraborty. Comrade-turned-PDS leader Subhas Bose is set to queer Chakraborty’s pitch. The PDS could also eat into the votes of Chitta Biswas, the CPM legislator from Karimpur. The rebellious band could upset the CPM’s applecart in Nakashipara and Krishnagunj, where the party had won by slender margins in 1996.

   

 
 
CONG REBELS CROSS PULLOUT DEADLINE 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, April 26: 
The last day of withdrawal of nominations did not bring any cheer to the Congress-Trinamul alliance. Districts where the partners have locked horns over seats will go to polls with most of the rebel candidates in the fray.

None of the rebels — from either party — withdrew from Malda and Murshidabad, the two districts where the alliance has run into the roughest weather. Many of the 30 seats in these two districts will see triangular contests, even if one discounts the presence of BJP and PDS candidates.

Murshidabad has seven Congress rebels for the seven seats the Trinamul is contesting. Though Congress chief whip in the Assembly, Atish Sinha, threatened disciplinary action against the rebels, it did not have much effect as district strongman and Behrampore MP Adhir Choudhury came out in support of at least three.

About Malda, PCC vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya said he was “hopeful” of a climbdown by A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury. Sources said Sonia Gandhi might talk to Ghani Khan on May 3, when she is scheduled to launch her Bengal campaign.

South 24-Parganas also has a large number of Congress rebels contesting as Nationalist Congress Party candidates. Observers, however, said they would not make much of an impact. Two nominations were cancelled in Jadavpur, where Trinamul’s Madhabi Mukherjee is taking on chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and PDS’ Samir Putatunda.

Midnapore recorded the highest number of withdrawals — 11. The BJP withdrew two candidates. The JMM (S) withdrew from Binpur, leaving the CPM to face a straight fight with the Jharkhand Party (Naren) candidate and sitting MLA, Chunibala Hansda.CPM rebel and sitting MLA, Buddhadeb Bhakat, who won by the highest margin in 1996 from Jhargram, withdrew in favour of the CPM nominee.

   

 
 
BUDDHA PROMISES TO PUT BENGAL ON TOP 
 
 
FROM UTPAL BANERJEE AND SANJUKTA DUBEY
 
Asansol, April 26: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today vowed to put Bengal on top of the list of industrialised states, a process that he claimed “has already started”.

Bhattacharjee, who was addressing a public meeting at the Asansol Polo Ground this afternoon, said the state had been lagging in this sphere.

The chief minister blamed the Union government’s policy of freight equalisation and the system of obtaining licences for opening new industries for the sorry state of affairs in Bengal. “Now we have turned around,” he said, adding that the Centre had been opposing any move taken by the state on one plea or the other.

“It took over 12 years to start Haldia Petrochemicals because of Delhi’s opposition on one plea or the other. Now it is one of the best companies in the country. Over 400 downstream companies have already come up, even surpassing our target,” the chief minister said.

“Our policy stands in sharp contrast with the policy of the NDA government. We are running a department for industrial reconstruction and getting good results. Many closed industries were reopened and many sick industries have been revived in West Bengal.

On the contrary, the NDA government has been running a department for disinvestment, which is engaged to sell profit-making units to private parties and to close down loss-making units,” he said.

The chief minister said that as this was the age of information technology, more engineering and technological colleges would have to be set up in the state.

Bhattacharjee said that computer education would be started at the school level and this is already being tried in some schools. “An American company has volunteered to give computer training to our school students. We do not have any objection if Americans impart education,” he said.

The chief minister reminded the people of his promise to restore work culture in the state. He also urged workers to shun the path of militant trade unionism.

Bhattacharjee strongly criticised the Congress, Trinamul and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha for their desperate attempt to whip up violence “to project West Bengal as a disturbed state”.

   

 
 
GOVT SEES NUMBERS HOPE IN ONE-MAN ARMY’S CLUB 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, April 26: 
Nervous about its depleted strength and the growing distance with the Telugu Desam, the National Democratic Alliance is working on a contingency plan to bolster its strength by additions and by engineering splits in other parties.

The coalition’s numbers have gone down after the desertion of the Trinamul Congress and the PMK. The first step in this direction was the formation of the Democratic Parliamentary Forum (DPF) comprising nine one-MP parties and Independents. The MPs informed Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi of their decision today. Balayogi has directed that the MPs be recognised as a group in Parliament, forum sources said.

The forum’s stalwarts include controversial Bihar MP Rajesh Ranjan, alias Pappu Yadav, and P.C. Thomas of the Kerala Congress (Mani group), who is the forum’s convener. Pappu Yadav, who won the Purnea Lok Sabha seat with the NDA’s support, was recently arrested in Patna for intimidating some RJD MLAs to defect to the rebel camp led by Ranjan Yadav.

Though all the nine MPs are not of the saffron camp, forum sources said they would consider extending support to the NDA after the Assembly elections are over.

The NDA is also hoping to get the support of three RJD rebel MPs who are likely to break away from Laloo Yadav shortly. Sources claim that four Trinamul MPs are also ready to join the NDA. The NDA has also been wooing the six-member Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar.

Sources in the saffron camp said if the plan worked the NDA will be richer by 22 MPs and could even jettison the Desam. They also claimed to have identified some Samajwadi Party and TDP members who are willing to cross over.

The BJP has been for long wooing the Christian-dominated Kerala Congress (M), which is now part of the Congress-led UDF in Kerala. Kerala Congress (M) chief K.M. Mani was willing to join the NDA after he was promised a Cabinet berth at the Centre. However, the spate of attacks on Christians forced him to shelve the plan.

Apart from Pappu Yadav and P.C. Thomas, the Democratic Parliamentary Forum includes Mohan Dinkar (Independent from Dadra Haveli), Jayant Rongpy (Assam Hill Development Council), Simranjit Singh Mann (Akali Dal-M), Prakash Ambedkar (Republican Party of India), S.K. Bwismuthiary (Bodoland), Vanchal Zawma (Independent from Mizoram) and Haribabu Shankar Mohale (Janata Dal-Secular).

Forum sources, however, said the primary objective of forming the group was to “get a platform for effective parliamentary work for its members” and wangle some benefits, like an office in Parliament House, which go to recognised political parties.

   

 
 
NO PAK, NO TALKS: HURRIYAT 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD AND AMBEREEN ALI SHAH
 
Srinagar and New Delhi, April 26: 
The All-Party Hurriyat Conference has rejected Delhi’s dialogue offer and insisted on talks involving Pakistan, saying “we don’t want to board a train going nowhere”.

The decision came after a two-hour meeting attended by all senior executive members of the umbrella organisation of the separatist parties in the Valley.

The Hurriyat also referred to perceived differences within the Centre on the Kashmir policy.

“Prime Minister (A.B.) Vajpayee’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire had generated a ray of hope, but the same was quickly extinguished by the hardline forces within the Central government. The result has been that the ceasefire exercise has come to mean nothing to the people of the state whose daily sufferings have, in fact, multiplied,” it said.

Reading out a Urdu statement at the Hurriyat headquarters, chairman Abdul Gani Bhat said “there would be no meaningful result if a bilateral dialogue is started on Kashmir between the Government of India and the Hurriyat”.

It added that “the government wants to deal with Kashmir as an internal law-and-order problem and this is contrary to the proclaimed stand of the Kashmiris”.

The Hurriyat ridiculed the Centre for laying down what it called “conditions on their own promises”. It said the government’s emissary, K.C. Pant, drafted his offer ignoring the trilateral dimension.

The statement said: “The government is promise-bound to allow the Hurriyat to visit Pakistan as it would enable us to talk to the Pakistan government and the militants. The Indian government is honouring its commitment to allow us to visit Pakistan in breach and not in observance.

“Only an honest and unconditional tripartite dialogue between India, Pakistan and the people of the troubled state can yield permanent peace in Kashmir.”

The Hurriyat asserted that it would talk to the “Government of India” only after it spoke to the Pakistan government and the militant leaders there. “We don’t want to board a train going nowhere. We want to board a train with a destination,” Bhat said.

The tone of the Hurriyat response was set in the capital itself with hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani dubbing the ceasefire a “drama”. The Hurriyat trip to Pakistan was caught in a tug-of-war after the Centre refused to give Geelani the green signal.

Addressing a meeting of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India yesterday in Delhi, Geelani said: “Jammu and Kashmir is not a part of India. Till the Kashmiris are not given the right to decide their fate... their jihad will continue. It is wrong to call the freedom movement Pakistani-sponsored terrorism.” Geelani took a dig at the Prime Minister, too, saying: “Vajpayee had said that the Kashmir issue would be solved within the limits of humanity, but we cannot see or feel any form of humanity in Jammu and Kashmir.”

“Seven lakh soldiers are stationed in the Valley. The forces that are present are inhuman to the people in the Valley. Women are humiliated, men are tortured. Not all the people who are killed are militants, thousands of innocent people lose their lives,” he said.

   

 
 
MAMATA GUARDS SEEK PROTECTION 
 
 
BY OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, April 26: 
Mamata Banerjee has become embroiled in a controversy over her security cover, with special branch deputy commissioner Gaurav Dutt shooting off a letter to the chief minister that it is getting “very difficult” to protect her.

Dutt, who has been entrusted with VVIP security, claimed that that the Trinamul Congress chief — a Z-special category VVIP — is neither travelling in the bullet-proof vehicle nor allowing securitymen near her.

A police officer in charge of Mamata’s security detail said that on Wednesday she asked three armed guards to move away. “I don’t want to see you near me. You are obstructing people from coming near me,” an angry Mamata reportedly told them.

Trinamul supporters have also reportedly turned the heat on the securitymen. According to a police officer in Mamata’s security convoy, they are being forced by the supporters to follow at a distance.

“We are being abused and heckled. In Nadia, Trinamul supporters pointed at us and said we are stooges of the CPM,” another officer said. “No self-respecting officer can work in such circumstances, but as a disciplined force we are forced to bear the humiliation. We have voiced our discontent to our superior officers,” said a sub-inspector.

“Mamata Banerjee is moving all over the state mingling with people. All of a sudden, from Tuesday, she is not allowing securitymen near her. She has also refused to travel in the bullet-proof car. We are caught in the political crossfire. If anything happens to her tomorrow, our neck will be on the line,” a senior inspector said.

“Mamata Banerjee is a high-risk VVIP. My men will be blamed should any untoward incident occur. So, we have decided to keep the government posted of the development,” Dutt said. He added that the bullet-proof car and security cover as per Z-special category are still being “detailed” for Mamata.

Mamata is not convinced. “The policemen detailed for security are government agents. They are spying on me,” she said. “I don’t need any security. The people of Bengal will protect me.”

According to sources in the Union home ministry, the Intelligence Bureau has categorised former chief minister Jyoti Basu, current chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council chairman Subash Ghising and Mamata Banerjee as Z-special category VVIPs.

“We have informed the government through a letter (memo number 297(23)) about the security status of the VVIPs,” a joint secretary said.

“Security threats to VVIPs are reviewed by Central and state intelligence departments. Senior IPS officers of these departments decide on the security cover to be provided to the VVIPs. Mamata Banerjee has been classified as Z-special,” a police officer said.

   

 
 
BORDER FORCE ANTIDOTE 
 
 
FROM BIDHAYAK DAS
 
Pyrdiwah, April 26: 
Recruiting local people to the Border Security Force would help the Centre face challenges posed by neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Union minister of state for home I.D. Swami said after his visit to Pyrdiwah today.

After inspecting border pillars in Pyrdiwah II village, Swami assured the inhabitants that the village would remain “our land”, till the dispute was settled. It was the duty of the BSF and the locals to protect the village, he said.

BSF inspector-general V.K. Gaur was to recruit locals as this would be an “obvious advantage”.

Accompanied by joint secretary (home) in charge of the Northeast, G.K. Pillai, Swami visited Lyngkhat and Pyrdiwah. He was also accompanied by the Meghalaya home minister (police) R.A. Lyngdoh, state government officials and top BSF officers.

The Union minister also visited the BSF border outpost at Dawki before leaving for New Delhi this afternoon.

Swami who patiently heard the views of the villagers of Pyrdiwah and the BSF, was convinced that mistrust and lack of proper communication were the reasons behind the Bangladesh Rifles’ take over.

   

 
 
JADEJA TO PLAY CRICKET, ON SCREEN 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA
 
Mumbai, April 26: 
Chasing his own shadow on the road to ignominy from the pinnacle of fame, Ajay Jadeja today retreated into Bollywood, hoping to relive his days as cricketer and salvage his celebrity status.

Banned from the Indian cricket team for five years on charges of match-fixing, the former boy-faced vice-captain, known as much for his batting skills as his “cool’’ looks, signed up for a Hindi film, playing a cricketer on screen and making up for lost time on field.

“Cricket has been my first love and will always be so,’’ Jadeja, 30, said, denying he was quitting the game.

Cricket was too deep in his heart, said Jadeja, who started to play the game as a seventh-grade student, entering the national side five grades later.

With flashbulbs popping and mikes thrust in his face, Jadeja turned the shifting spotlight back on him at the mahurat of his debut film at an Andheri studio.

The script, not disclosed entirely, appears to have been written, with Jadeja in mind. The film is to veer around the life of a cricketer resembling Jadeja, a character full of exuberance and flamboyance.

“I am playing a character who behaves and talks the way I do in real life,’’ the former India batsman said.

Director Yusuf Khan said, when he offered Jadeja the role, he did not agree immediately. “He went through the script and signed up only after he was satisfied.’’

Like his actor, Khan is a debutante too. A veteran editor, he will direct a film for the first time.

Khan kept most of the script under his sleeves, refusing to give details to retain the novelty. “It involves three people, but it’s not a typical love triangle. I cannot reveal the storyline.’’

The filmmaker has yet to come up with a name for the film, which will be shot in the United Kingdom for a month.

Jadeja will star with Sunil Shetty in the film. Bollywood grapevine has it that the director is trying to rope in actress Urmila Matondkar of Rangeela fame, but negotiations are not yet through.

Producer Pammi Sandhu said Jadeja agreed to act in the film because he was not pressed for time any longer, but Shetty, a Jadeja friend, had also helped in the effort.

Jadeja said it was the script that drew him to the film in the first place. “Since it is my debut film, I wanted to get a good role and I have got one.’’

Sources said the film will stay clear of all the charges of betting and match-fixing that dogged the former cricketer, knocking him down from the pedestal in the end. “It is simply not in the script.’’

The producer refused to divulge the money Jadeja was being paid for his role, but said it was “certainly not a fat amount”.

Jadeja is no stranger to acting, having worked in several TV commercials.

   
 

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