Star wars on small screen
Smuggled cigarettes raise smoke alarm
Freak mishap leaves boy dead in his bedroom
Teen killers move court to vote
‘Rickshaw-puller’ cops trap kidnapper trio
Singer barred from public rendition of Tagore songs
October date for Rajarhat plots
AGP-BJP awaits boost from Atal
Rebel attack brings Nalbari to its knees
Rain fails to dampen spirits

 
 
STAR WARS ON SMALL SCREEN 
 
 
BY SUBHRO SAHA
 
Calcutta, May : 4 
Face-off stopping just short of fisticuffs... Debate resembling jatra... People’s voice rising above the din of pollspeak... It’s all happening on Bangla beam.

With election rhetoric reaching fever pitch, the Nayna Bandopadhyays and Rabin Debs have suddenly eclipsed the Rupa Gangulys and Sabyasachi Chakrabortys on television. The Bengali satellite channels have never had it so good, using politicians as performers to give Calcuttans what they love most — a war of words. And the viewer, in the absence of STAR, is just lapping it up.

“Only two things sell on television — fiction and interactive programmes. If a perfect marriage of the characters and the visual medium can be achieved, a programme is bound to be successful,” says Sudipto Patra, producer, current affairs, ETV. The wedlock has worked in a host of poll-related shows that have got the casual viewer as well as the serious politics buff hooked.

From ETV Bangla’s snappy face-to-face show Haddahaddi (where the anchor acted as a referee in a boxing ring) to Alpha Bangla’s Banglar Janamat or Tara Bangla’s Soja Sapta, it’s been a non-stop hit parade. As the day at the hustings draws near and pre-poll pyrotechnics fill the air, the TRPs of shows like Alpha Bangla’s Voter Larai Paray Paray and Tara Bangla’s Rajai Rajai are rising steadily.

“We took a huge risk by replacing Ek Akasher Niche with Voter Larai... on prime time. We are glad that the gamble has paid off. In Calcutta, political awareness is extremely high and that gave us the confidence to lean towards a poll-oriented programme-mix for these few weeks,” explains Aditi Mann, business head, Alpha Bangla.

In the no-holds-barred battle for eyeballs in the run-up to the most-talked-about Assembly polls in two decades, the Bengali channels have pulled out all stops. Thus, while Alpha Bangla from the Zee stable is banking heavily on the “comprehensive back-up” of Zee News to give the viewers “something extra”, ETV Bangla swears by its eight V-Sat centres and its “micro-level programming” to offer that “interactive edge” to the audience.

First-timers and established political stars alike have benefited from this studio-comfort poll platform. They can get their points across, to a captive audience, without having to brave the heat and dust of the campaign trail. Nothing sells like rumpus, and although actress-turned politician Madhabi Mukherjee’s faux paus on Tara Bangla’s hard-talk show Rajai Rajai ruffled feathers all around, it also aroused viewer interest. “We would never encourage cheap controversy, but in this case, the situation wasn’t in our control... If that serves to boost the rating of that show, then so be it,” admits Bijon Roy, a producer-director on the channel.

Response from advertisers in a segment traditionally difficult to market has been encouraging too. Alpha Bangla is looking at spot buys worth Rs 60-70 lakh on counting day alone.

With the private channels riding the airwaves, good ol’ Doordarshan has had to modify its product-mix with interactive shows like Jukti Takko and Bak Bitanda. But the USP remains “serious content”. “Most of the private Bengali channels are leaning towards infotainment, in the process, diluting the gravity and sanctity of poll-related news,” observes a DD mandarin.

Mayor Subrata Mukherjee, for one, feels politics is serious business and should stay that way. “These channels are turning politicians into jokers on television. The entire mood of election coverage on the Bengali channels is frivolous and gimmicky, with the real issues never being addressed,” he fumes.

But if the Bengali viewers’ choice is anything to go by, the mayor’s is a minority voice. Till May 13 at least, it’s Vote Din, Vote Din on Bangla channels, with a Tok Jhal Mishti tang to it.

   

 
 
SMUGGLED CIGARETTES RAISE SMOKE ALARM 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, May : 4 
They are easy on the pocket and easily available. Having flooded eastern and southern India, cheap foreign cigarettes now corner no less than 5 per cent of the tobacco market share in the Rs 12,000-crore industry. And Calcutta has emerged as the distribution point for the contraband cigarettes.

When RPF constables seized four gunny bags at Howrah station last week, they found Bangladeshi cigarettes stashed inside. These ‘Made in Bangladesh’ products carry a price tag of Rs 5 to Rs 10 for a pack of 10. They are smuggled through the India-Bangladesh and India-Nepal borders and flood the rural belts of eastern and southern India. The shipment from Nepal comprises the costlier European brands, which carry a heavy import duty in India.

On Friday, the contraband cigarettes case took a new turn with the Supreme Court directing the Customs department “to specify within eight weeks” what steps it had taken or planned to take to check the smuggling of foreign cigarettes.

The Calcutta market, too, has been flooded by these brands. Most retail stores in the central business district of Esplanade, Chowringhee, Lenin Sarani and Chandni Chowk, stock the costlier European brands, while some have the Bangladeshi variety stashed away. Popular ‘foreign’ brands include Win, Classics, Aziz Gold, Jet, Five Star and Good Luck.

Contraband cigarettes worth Rs 15 lakh have been seized by the RPF at Howrah station over the past few months. According to Customs sources, cigarettes worth Rs 5 lakh are, on an average, seized every day from various rail stations in the city and its suburbs. “The cartons are generally packed into soiled gunny bags and most of these are found inside compartments of south-bound trains,” said S.C. Sahoo, senior security commissioner of the RPF.

The cigarettes end up being re-cycled after the seizure. The RPF hands these over to the Customs department, which, in turn, sells them to different co-operative societies at a subsidy. “Cigarettes are perishable items... So we sell them,” explained a senior official of the Customs department.

With the influx assuming alarming proportions, tobacco giants ITC have, reportedly, written to the home ministry, the director general of foreign trade, and the Central Board of Excise and Customs, urging them to take “immediate measures” to check the flow of the contraband cigarettes. “We have written to the Central agencies to do something about the growing menace of contraband cigarettes,” said S.H. Venkatramani, head of corporate management, ITC Limited.

“We plan to intensify the campaign against these cheap foreign brands which violate the Cigarettes Act of 1975, the Weights and Measures Act... The police and Customs are just not doing enough to stop this menace,” he adds.

According to industry sources, the low-end market for these cheap cigarettes is growing at the rate of 20 per cent per annum. If the trend continues, some of the reputed cigarette brands will be “wiped out” from several sectors of eastern and southern India in the next five years, insiders fear.

Charminar, of VST, has, apparently, showed “an alarming dip” in sales over the last couple of months. “These cigarettes target the low-income group. Customers in the rural areas are dumping Indian brands as they are being offered kingsize cigarettes at throwaway prices. “It’s becoming impossible for us to compete with these smuggled cigarettes,” said a brand manager of a reputed cigarette company.

Cigarettes coming in through the Nepal border are transported by trucks. “Most policemen are not even aware that bringing these cigarettes into the country is illegal, so they enjoy a smooth passage into Indian territory,” claimed a customs official. The cigarettes are then collected by “distribution agents” of the Bangladeshi companies. These agents convince retailers to stock these cigarettes.

“People recognise these brands because the Bangladeshi companies keep advertising their products on a cable channel here,” said a retailer.

   

 
 
FREAK MISHAP LEAVES BOY DEAD IN HIS BEDROOM 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May : 4 
Sharad Bansal, 17, died in a freak accident at his south Calcutta home on Thursday evening. Sharad, a student of Assembly of God Church School, had appeared for his ICSE examinations earlier this year..

Sharad returned to his family’s eighth-floor flat in Devdoot Tower, on Southern Avenue, went to his room and locked the door “to change his clothes”.

This, according to family members, was his daily routine. But on Thursday, he was, apparently, looking for something.

He lifted one side of the heavy wooden bed and used some kind of prop to keep it in place. He then slid under the bed to continue with his search. The prop slipped, bringing the structure crashing down on his head, killing him instantly.

Sharad’s mother became anxious when he didn’t emerge from his room for half an hour. She started hammering on the door. When there was response, she panicked and called in her neighbours. They broke open the door, to find Sharad lying trapped under the bed.

Deputy commissioner of police, south, Ranjit Pachnanda, said the teenager was rushed to the nearest nursing home, where doctors declared him “brought dead”.

According to the nursing home authorities, Sharad had been brought there at around 4.30 pm on Thursday. “By then, there was nothing we could do... He had died of self-inflicted strangulation,’’ Dr R.N. Ghosh said.

“He must have slipped under the bed to try and look for something. We have not been able to ascertain what he might have been looking for,’’ said D. Ghosh, officer-in-charge of Tollygunge police station.

The gates of the multi-storeyed building on Southern Avenue remained shut for outsiders on Friday. The Bansal family and their neighbours were in a state of shock.

“We learnt of the tragedy soon after Sharad was taken to the nursing home... No one can believe that he is no more. He was so smart and active...,” said B. Shaw, a resident of the building.

   

 
 
TEEN KILLERS MOVE COURT TO VOTE 
 
 
BY TAPAS GHOSH
 
Calcutta, May : 4 
Seven years after they were convicted of wiping out an entire family, ‘teenage killers’ Sajal Barui and Dulal Sarkar have expressed the desire to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Sajal and Dulal, serving life sentences in Midnapore Jail, have put the election commission in a spot by seeking to cast their vote in the May 10 Assembly elections. The two were convicted for the murder of Sajal’s father, step-mother, half-brother and half-sister, at Dum Dum in 1994, by the Barasat district judge, later confirmed by the high court.

Now, the two have appealed to the Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court to intervene and direct the chief electoral officer to make the necessary arrangements for them to “perform their constitutional right”. In their letter, they have argued that the Constitution and the Representation of People’s Act, 1992, have both provided the right to vote to prisoners also.

The convicts’ petition, treated as a public interest litigation, came up for hearing before the division bench of Chief Justice A. K. Mathur and Justice G. Gupta on Thursday. Joint chief electoral officer P. K. Guha Roy, who was present at the hearing, said: “Convicts do have the right to cast votes, but we have no idea whether polling centres can be set up inside the jail.”

The bench then directed chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen to file a report stating the stand of the election commission on the issue by Monday, when the matter would be heard again. Chief Justice Mathur and Justice Gupta also directed the registrar-general of the court to serve a notice to the state election officer in this regard.

The matter has caused a flutter in the city’s legal fraternity. According to advocate Sailendu Rakshit, technically, the boys do have the right to vote, but the matter must be viewed in the context of a recent regulation which debars convicts sentenced to jail terms exceeding two years from contesting the elections.

Another senior lawyer said that “though the 1992 Act provides convicts the right to vote, the Constitution has not clarified how and where they will be allowed to exercise their rights”.

   

 
 
‘RICKSHAW-PULLER’ COPS TRAP KIDNAPPER TRIO 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 4: 
Three policemen masquerading as rickshaw-pullers waited in front of a streetside eatery on Clive Row, in central Calcutta’s business hub, to identify and arrest three criminals who had arrived in the city from Bokaro with plans to kidnap a businessman.

Deputy commissioner of police, central, Zulfiquar Hasan, said a key gang member, Prakash Das, from Darbhanga, in Bihar, was in the city last week to collect information on their target, a rich central Calcutta businessman who operates from Burrabazar.

A source tipped off the cops about Das, who was trapped and taken into custody.

Hasan said Das broke down during sustained interrogation to tell the police that he had been sent to collect information about the businessman. The sleuths were unwilling to reveal the identity of the businessman, as it would jeopardise his security. Police have provided him with plainclothes security cover.

Apart from mapping the businessman’s daily routine, Das was also supposed to plan the kidnapping and hire the vehicle, decide the abduction spot and the route to be taken by the criminals with their victim to Bihar.

But Das spoke too much and engaged too many people to get to the businessman. One of his sources squealed to the police.

During interrogation, Das told investigating officers that rest of the gang were supposed to arrive on Thursday evening and get in touch with him for details.

Hasan said they did not want to risk a raid on Thursday, as the “situation was not conducive... We wanted to plan the raid properly to avoid any misadventure,’’ Hasan said.

Three cops were deputed to wait in front of the streetside eatery on Clive Row. Das had mentioned that the three men — Bunty Dom, 33, Sanjay Nishad, 21, and Ashok Das, 22 — were supposed to meet him at the eatery on Friday morning.

The cops waited there from 10.30 am, although the three criminals were scheduled to arrive between 11.45 to 12.30 pm.

But the cops had not seen the three criminals. Hasan said a police team waited at a distance in a Maruti with Das, so he could identify the rest of his gang.

The three arrived at around 1 pm. Das pointed them out to the police officers in the Maruti. One of them got off and signalled to the ‘rickshaw-pullers’. The three criminals were trapped and rounded up. Hasan said three countrymade six-shooters and a large quantity of ammunition were recovered from the trio. “We are getting in touch with our counterparts in Bokaro to cross-check their antecedents,’’ Hasan added.

   

 
 
SINGER BARRED FROM PUBLIC RENDITION OF TAGORE SONGS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 4: 
In an interim injunction, the city civil court has barred controversial singer Kumarjit from publicly performing or releasing either audio or audio-visual recordings of his renditions of Rabindrasangeet until further notice.

Kumarjit, a resident of Baguiati, recently created a sensation by singing “distorted” versions of Rabindrasangeet. He also released an audio recording of his renditions of Tagore’s tunes, which irked Visva-Bharati University and the state government, as well as drawing sharp criticism from eminent Rabindrasangeet singers.

According to the order, Kumarjit will not be allowed to release any cassettes using lyrics or poems written by Tagore without the permission of Visva-Bharati.

As per the Copyright Act, artistes are required to take the permission of the Visva-Bharati Music Board before the release of any recordings. The state government and Visva-Bharati Music Board had lodged an FIR against Kumarjit.

Pradeep Banerjee, secretary, Visva-Bharati Music Board, said the court had passed the order on the basis of an appeal made by the Board, demanding appropriate action against the singer. The state government has taken “a serious stand” on the matter, and has said that it will deal with the matter “firmly”.

   

 
 
OCTOBER DATE FOR RAJARHAT PLOTS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 4: 
Possession of land at the new township at Rajarhat will be given from October.

According to Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (Hidco), the implementing authority of the township, nearly 1,600 co-operative societies and 1,100 individuals will get possession of their plots in Action Area-I. “We have already issued allotment letters to those who have got plots through lottery. Registration of possession and deed will start from October,” said a senior Hidco official.

However, a problem will arise in registration of plots bought by unregistered co-operatives. “We have urged the co-operative department to open a branch office for quick registration of co-operatives which have been allotted plots,” said Hidco general manager Ashok Bhattacharya. The branch is expected to function from mid-May and will take a maximum of two months to complete all the registrations, he added.

Though possession of plots will be given, civic amenities like power, roads, sewerage and drinking water are not available yet. “Work is progressing on a war footing. We are taking all steps so that the plot-owners can start construction as soon as possible,” a senior director of Hidco said. About 640 hectares have been earmarked for Action Area- I, where half the area will comprise waterbodies, open space, playgrounds and greenery. Part of the other half has been allotted for residential buildings.

   

 
 
AGP-BJP AWAITS BOOST FROM ATAL 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Guwahati, May 4: 
Its confidence dented by the Ulfa’s killing spree, the AGP-BJP combine is looking for inspiration from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Union ministers L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have already campaigned in Assam, but it is Vajpayee who is expected to provide the vital spark.

Shortly after his scheduled arrival here tomorrow, the Prime Minister will address a meeting at the Judges’ Field. He will leave for Silchar on Sunday to attend another election rally.

The Ulfa has been ceaselessly targeting AGP activists since the election process began.

Last night, the outfit gunned down three activists of the ruling party and injured several others in two separate incidents in Lower Assam.

The militants have not spared the BJP either.

On Tuesday, they killed Jayanta Dutta, the BJP candidate for the Dibrugarh seat, and Biren Phukan, general secretary of the party’s district unit.

The AGP-BJP combine has called a bandh in Nalbari tomorrow in protest against the attacks by Ulfa militants.

The two allies suspect the Congress of having a hand in the violent campaign against their workers.

Launching a tirade against the Congress, Joshi today said the Opposition party’s reluctance to condemn the series of militant attacks was intriguing.

“The Congress’ silence lends credence to our belief that it has links with the Ulfa,” the Union human resources development minister said.

Joshi said he had been informed that Ulfa militants were moving about in vehicles owned by Congressmen. “The Election Commission should conduct an inquiry into the nexus,” he added.

The Union minister denied that the morale of AGP-BJP workers had hit a low. “On the contrary, the killings have strengthened our resolve to win the elections,” he said.

Joshi said the BJP would request the Election Commission to deploy additional forces in Assam to facilitate free and fair elections on May 10.

“Despite the Ulfa’s efforts to derail the election process in Assam, the people will not allow the bullet to win. We believe they will give a fitting reply to the rebels,” he added.

State BJP president Rajen Gohain, who released the party’s election manifesto today, echoed Joshi’s views. He said the party would do its best to bring the Ulfa to the negotiation table after the elections.

Former defence minister and Samata Party leader George Fernandes, another political heavyweight currently campaigning in Assam, said the state holds the key to restoration of peace in the entire Northeast.

Branding Assam as the most “impoverished state after Bihar”, he said, “A Herculean effort is required to bring it at par with other states.”

The Samata Party has fielded candidates in 20 constituencies.

The AGP today accused Bhagawan Sahai, one of the central electoral observers for Nagaon, of violating the Election Commission’s model code of conduct by indulging in activities favouring the Congress.

“We have information that Sahai has been indirectly trying to influence people to vote for the Congress,” AGP spokesman Prabin Sharma said. He said the party had lodged a complaint against Sahai.

   

 
 
REBEL ATTACK BRINGS NALBARI TO ITS KNEES 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Guwahati, May 4: 
Blood-splattered Nalbari today went into a shell as the Ulfa’s orgy of violence brought electioneering to a standstill across the district.

Additional Army columns moved into “sensitive” areas of the district to boost the people’s confidence.

Last night, troops of the Army’s Red Horns division, operating in Bongaigaon district, killed Bijoy Mech, Lower Assam “commander” of the Ulfa’s Enigma group. The encounter followed an Ulfa attack on an Asom Gana Parishad election office at Bogorihati under Belsor police station. Three party activists were killed on the spot, while five more later succumbed to their injuries.

The condition of two activists, undergoing treatment at the Guwahati Medical College Hospital, is stated to be critical.

In Sivasagar, Congress activists allegedly assaulted Ranjit Dutta, a leader of the BJP’s youth wing, last night.

Dutta, who was rescued from near his residence in Jaysagar with deep cuts on his body, has been admitted to a private nursing home in Dibrugarh.

Mathura Rabha, the personal security officer of Independent candidate Kulbahadaur Chetri from Rangapara constituency, was injured when suspected militants fired at the former minister’s convoy near Kathalguri tea estate in Sonitpur district late last night.

   

 
 
RAIN FAILS TO DAMPEN SPIRITS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Agartala, May 4: 
Despite inclement weather, campaigning for the May 10 byelection to the Banamalipur Assembly constituency has gained momentum.

The greater part of the constituency was inundated yesterday following continuous rainfall over the past 27 hours. Trinamul Congress candidate and former minister Ratan Chakraborty moved through waist-deep water in many areas to contact people and provide them help. Chakraborty also carried on his door-to-door campaign.

The heavy waterlogging in the constituency has put Left Front candidate Prashanta Kopali (CPI) in a tight spot as the Left Front captured the Agartala municipal council in elections held on December 16 last year, promising a cleaner city and better civic amenities. To make matters worse for the Left Front, the steep hike in water and house tax in the Agartala municipal council area in the current year’s budget has caused serious resentment among residents of Banamalipur as in other constituencies and municipal wards of Agartala.

Sources in the Left Front indicated they were pinning hopes on the inevitable division of anti-Left votes between the Congress and Trinamul to win the seat for the first time since 1978.

However, the Left Front’s hopes of wresting the seat rests on the performance of Congress candidate Mahitosh Saha, who is ploughing a lonely furrow, backed only by PCC president Birajit Sinha and Congress Legislature Party leader Jawahar Saha.

Saha’s predicament was reflected in the poor attendance at a PCC meeting called by AICC observer and former party MP Imran Kidwai, who arrived here this morning to boost the Congress’s sagging campaign for the bypoll. Only 10 of 72 PCC members attended the meeting, said PCC member and Congress spokesman Tapas De. Unless Saha secures a part of the traditional Congress votes, the Left Front candidate’s prospects will be bleak.

The surprise of the electioneering is the colourful manner in which Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janashakti party candidate Papri Halder is conducting her campaign.

Though there is virtually no Dalit vote in the constituency and the chances of the Lok Janashakti party are next to nothing in Tripura’s bipolar politics, Papri Halder’s campaign has already caused concern among other contenders. Sources in the party here said that Union minister for communication Ram Vilas Paswan will arrive here on Sunday and campaign for the party candidate for three days.

   
 

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