Morning blaze at market
Guardians block bank to stop fee acceptance
STAR back on beam from Monday
Heavy shower
Atal charms electorate with humour
Vote for home, fare no bar
Advani halted probe into Ulfa-AGP nexus: Cong
Dimasa militants torch trucks in poll-eve strike
Rural bards sing of Algapur woes
Self-seekers dash Majuli aspirations

Calcutta, May 5: 
A fire broke out at Vardaan market on Camac Street on Saturday morning, gutting three shops and damaging four others. Shibnath Halder, a fireman, was injured after he fell off a ladder while trying to reach the first floor of the building. Twenty fire tenders were pressed into service and the blaze was brought under control after more than five hours.

Around 7 am, the securityman of the market noticed smoke billowing from the first floor and called the fire brigade. Five fire engines were sent initially, and more followed soon after. Water was pumped from Auckland Square.

As the first floor was engulfed in smoke, firemen could not enter and trace the origin of the blaze. They climbed up a ladder, when Halder fell off, injuring his right hand. He was admitted to SSKM Hospital.

Shop-owners gathered in front of the market, which has about 300 shops, and helped firemen enter it. They tried to locate the possible points from which the blaze could have started. Shop-owners closed the main entrance after firemen entered the building because a crowd had gathered in front of the market. “If the blaze spreads all the shops will be gutted. We closed the main gate to help the firemen,” said one shopkeeper.

“We closed the main gate as we feared that people may sneak in and loot our shops”, said another.

Around 11 am, the traders came to know that three shops, two jewellery counters and a stationery shop, were gutted and four others damaged.

O.P. Chaparia, owner of the gutted stationery shop, said he came to know about the fire in the morning.

According to preliminary inquiries by firemen, a short-circuit possibly sparked the blaze. They collected the samples to find out the exact cause of the fire.


Calcutta, May 5: 
The protest by parents of Patha Bhavan primary school students spilled on to the streets of Gariahat on Saturday morning. From 9 am, around 400-odd guardians blocked Gariahat Road and stalled banking activity at the Ballygunge branch of the State Bank of India (SBI) to prevent anyone from depositing fees for admission to Class V.

In the evening, the guardians opposing the decision by the secondary school management to introduce tests for primary school students seeking admission to Class V, received a boost in the form of a letter from the Board of Secondary Education. “Board secretary Pradyut Haldar has forwarded us a copy of the letter he sent to Professor Santosh Bhattacharya, president of the secondary school management committee. The Board has ruled that the admission procedure for the senior school has been postponed till the end of the elections and any admission during this period would stand cancelled”, said Pradipta Kanungo, headmistress of the primary section. When contacted, Bhattacharya refused to comment on the Board’s directive without consulting his lawyer.

On Saturday morning, the SBI’s Ballygunge branch was the scene of action. “On Friday night, we came to know that the secondary school management committee had decided to admit students to Class V without admission test. The decision was communicated through letters to 127 parents, of whom only 25 are guardians of Patha Bhavan primary school students. The letter, dated May 3, instructed guardians to deposit Rs 3,690 as admission fees,” said Suparna Roy, a guardian.

The guardians convened a meeting on Friday evening and decided that no one would deposit the fees and the bank authorities would be requested not to accept payment from parents. A letter, to this effect, was submitted to the bank on Saturday morning. Ranajoy Ghosh, assistant general manager of SBI Ballygunge branch, however, refused to “freeze the Patha Bhavan account in the absence of a court order or a written mandate of the account holder”.

While a team of parents’ representatives was engaged in discussions with the bank authorities, around 400 guardians blocked the entrance to the branch, in the presence of officers from the Gariahat police station, disrupting traffic on Gariahat Road. Though most customers and employees of the bank expressed solidarity with the agitating parents, some were engaged in heated arguments with the protesters.

After a three-hour-long discussion, a solution was worked out. “We have decided to open a separate counter on the eastern side of the premises, exclusively for Patha Bhavan admissions, from Monday,” said Ghosh, who later registered a formal complaint with the Gariahat police station, against the protesters and sought police posting to ensure normal functioning of the bank from Monday.

The guardians, however, are in no mood to back out. “We have promised not to disrupt banking transactions by preventing parents of students from other schools from depositing the admission fees,” said Kaushik Rakshit, a guardian.


Calcutta, May 5: 
Bowing to rising demands for the channels from subscribers, cable operators of the city have decided to lift the boycott of the STAR bouquet. STAR will be back on beam from Monday noon.

“Most of the viewers want the channels back, especially with the elections round the corner”, Shankar Chatterjee, spokesman for the cablemen’s joint action committee, said on Saturday.

Chatterjee said: “The channels (minus STAR Gold) will come back at the increased rate of Rs 25.75 per month as STAR didn’t agree to our demand for a discount. But the broadcaster has promised to give us a notice period of 45-60 days before the next hike, which they said, won’t be as stiff as this time”.

Operators expect a monthly hike of around Rs 25 per month for subscribers, taking into account impending hikes by other channels.

Jaspal Khanna, vice-president, corporate communications, STAR, said from Mumbai: “We are happy to be back with the Calcutta viewers. I am sure they will enjoy our channels as before.” The STAR bouquet had been blacked out in the city since the midnight of March 1.

Police team sent to Patna

A police team is being sent to Patna in search of Rohit Singh, who had attacked the administrator of MR Bangur Hospital, Subhasish Saha, on Friday.

Rohit, 22, slashed the neck of Saha, landlord of his Mahendra Roy Lane residence, in the Topsia police station area, with a razor.

Saha was admitted to National Medical College and Hospital where his condition was stated to be critical. Rohit and his two accomplices are absconding. The attack is reportedly a sequel to a long-standing dispute. Rohit’s father Kamalesh left Calcutta for Patna a year ago.

New SER chief: M.C. Srivastava took over as general manager, South Eastern Railway. He held the post of additional member, catering and tourism, in the Railway Board before joining SER.


Calcutta, May 5: 
The season’s heaviest downpour flooded city streets on Saturday evening, says a staff reporter. A Bangalore-bound flight was delayed by an hour-and-a-half while two flights from Mumbai and Delhi failed to land. According to the Met office, a low pressure belt caused the two-hour-long rainfall. The downpour is likely to continue for another week.    

Guwahati, May 5 : 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today begged for votes, but with a difference. The star campaigner used his laconic humour to good effect as he wooed the electorate to vote for the AGP-BJP combine.

People chose to forget the long wait under a blazing sun at the Judges’ Field as the Prime Minister struck an instant rapport with the crowd. “Thank you very much for the warm welcome you have accorded me, but the real swagat will be the one when all of you come to vote for the alliance on May 10,” Vajpayee said.

Using short and crisp sentences, Vajpayee conveyed a strong message to the people: “Use your ballot power to defeat those who believe in bullet.” Midway through his 25-minute speech, a vocal BJP supporter got up to “declare” that the “AGP-BJP combine will come to power”.

Vajpayee’s reaction was instant. “Bahut acche. Lekin hum log jitenge jab aap log ghar se nikalke AGP-BJP ke liye vote dalenge (very good, but we will win only when you come out of your house to vote for the AGP-BJP alliance),’’ he quipped.

Obviously not pleased with the low turnout — barely 3,000 people attended the rally — the BJP leader questioned, “You are afraid to come to the meeting, how will you come to the polling booth?”

However, Vajpayee’s jibes at the Congress elicited the loudest cheers. “I wonder why the Congress is so desperate to come back to power. It is the oldest party and had fought for the nation’s Independence. They have done a lot and now they should take some rest,” Vajpayee said, drawing peals of laughter from the crowd.

Vajpayee, however, could not resist from indulging in a bit of friendly leg-pulling. Referring to chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, he said, “Ye hamare purane dost hain...lekin Mahanta beech-beech mein dosti bhool jaate hain (He has been an old friend but sometimes he tends to forget the friendship).” Mahanta was seen squirming in his seat with a nervous smile.

Vajpayee was quick to add that “We are natural friends” as he recalled his association with Mahanta during the anti-foreigners’ movement. State BJP president Rajen Gohain — one of the most vocal opponents of the AGP-BJP alliance — declared that “we brothers have come together for the good of the state”.

BJP leader and Union minister of state for water resources Bijoya Chakravorty said Vajpayee has earmarked a large amount for the state.

“Fifty industries will be set up with this money, providing employment to 50 lakh youth,’’ she declared with her usual flourish. However, very few people heard her as their attention was diverted by Vajpayee’s car, which was approaching the venue. The Prime Minister went to the Raj Bhavan for a “10-minute rest”. Security was unprecedented.


Guwahati, May 5: 
For a change, Rasool Ali of Lakhimari in Dhubri district is not haggling with the person manning the ticket counter of a travel agency in the busy Paltan Bazar area.

A rickshaw-puller, Ali just wants to board the bus to Dhubri. He is even willing to pay almost double of what he would have usually paid. Krishna Das of Tripura, who works for the travel agency, says, “Since it is election time they will not argue. The bus fare to Dhubri is Rs 125, but we don’t get more than Rs 60 and in rarer cases Rs 100. Even a couple of days back Ali would have bargained. Today, he bought the ticket for Rs 100, no questions asked.”

According to Das, around 22 to 25 packed buses have been leaving for Dhubri the past week. “Since a lot many buses have been put on election duty, there has been a demand and supply crisis. Earlier, 40 to 45 buses used to ply daily. People like Ali start thronging the Nepali Mandir area since early morning.”

Every time there is an election in the state or a festival, particularly Id, the scene is re-enacted, and not only in Guwahati. Nagaon, Hojai, Jorhat, Golaghat, Tinsukia, Tezpur and Mangoldoi, where there is a sizeable migrant labour population, there is a rise in the number of passengers flocking to Dhubri and areas along the Bangladesh border like Cachar.

“Hundreds of buses have left and will be leaving before the elections. Already the number of rickshaw-pullers and maids throughout the state has dropped. It will further fall in the coming days,” says Prahlad Deka of Nalbari, another travel agency employee.

The bus to Dhubri holds a special meaning for this predominantly-Muslim migrant population. Though more keen than the others to cast their votes, their consciousness has more to do with survival than politics. It is also a different matter that most, being illiterate and poor, cannot differentiate between the Congress’ hand and BJP’s lotus. Says Momina Begum, working as a maid in the capital city: “I have to go and vote or else I will have to face a lot of problems. I will vote as advised by our village leaders.”

In a nutshell, the migrants consider the vote their only weapon to “protect” their citizenship for they are viewed by most as Bangladeshis illegally settled in the state. The All-Assam Students’ Union, which spearheaded the anti-foreigners’ movement, claims that the unabated influx may soon reduce the indigenous population to a minority. It is also suspected that over a lakh doubtful voters may exercise their franchise this time.

In all, there are 3.13 lakh “D” voters in the state. A case in this connection is pending with the Gauhati High Court. “Since there has been a strong influence of North Bengal on the indigenous population of the undivided Goalpara district, sadly, even the local Koch-rajbongshis are mistaken for the so-called Bangladeshis in the mainland mainly because of their dialect.”

Those studying the influx problem attribute the trend to the people’s lack of knowledge about the region, particularly those living east of Nagaon. “There is no denying the influx problem but vested interests have taken advantage of this to create a fear psychosis in the minds of this population,” an analyst said.


Guwahati, May 5: 
Under fire from the Asom Gana Parishad and the BJP for having alleged links with the Ulfa, the Congress today hit back, alleging that Union home minister L.K. Advani had halted investigations carried out by the Union home ministry into reports of an Ulfa-AGP nexus.

Addressing a news conference here today, senior Congress leader Jagdish Tytler alleged that the Union home ministry which had carried out a probe into the AGP-Ulfa nexus, found evidence of links between some ministers of the ruling AGP and the banned Ulfa. “All those investigations were halted at the personal intervention of Union home minister L.K. Advani,” Tytler alleged. The AGP had alleged that the Congress, in league with militant outfits, was behind the current killings. Hinting at a political angle for putting a stop to the investigations, the Congress leader alleged that all this had been done after the AGP had joined hands with the BJP for a poll alliance.

The Congress has been under attack from both the AGP and the BJP on its alleged nexus with the Ulfa in the coming elections. Leaders of the AGP and the BJP have been holding the Congress responsible for attacks on its workers with help from the Ulfa.

He also clarified that the Congress never supported any killing either by a militant outfit or by any agency. The Congress leader said PCC president Tarun Gogoi had condemned the killing of Jayanta Dutta. “The party has also condemned all killings in the past month,” Tytler said.

The AGP had flayed the Congress for maintaining silence over the Ulfa killings and for not condemning the killing of BJP general secretary Jayanta Dutta. Senior BJP leaders including Murli Manohar Joshi had accused the Congress of not condemning the Ulfa and the killings perpetrated by it. Tytler said Gogoi is not averse to any inquiry and the Congress had itself called for a judicial inquiry for links between ministers and militants. The party would welcome a judicial inquiry into the matter. “The allegation of a Congress-Ulfa nexus is absolutely baseless and the political parties are trying to make it an election issue,” Tytler added.

Tytler said the Union home minister, which had ordered an inquiry into the alleged links of the Congress and Ulfa, could not find out anything. Quoting intelligence reports, the AGP had said that militants who had sneaked in prior to the polls had used vehicles owned by the Congress.


Silchar, May 5: 
Dimasa militants struck yesterday in south Assam, torching trucks and intimidating truckers.

With only five days to go for the Assembly polls in Assam, the spectre of violence looms large over the eastern border of Cachar district. This area is divided into two Assembly seats.

The Dima Halam Daoga, after a long respite, struck again in the district when its activists captured 13 trucks at a stone quarry on the Madhura river at Bairamkhal village on the district’s borders with North Cachar Hills district yesterday.

The rebels then torched two trucks and partially burnt the rest. The trucks were waiting to be loaded with boulders for chipping at various stone crushers in the district. Seven Dimasa guerrillas belonging to the DHD, based in North Cachar Hills district, brandished revolvers and grenades, official sources here. The rebels attacked the trucks and drove away the drivers, before damaging the vehicles as punishment to the truckers for not paying “taxes” to the outfit.

The militants disappeared into the nearby jungles before the police arrived from Udarbond police station.

Tension simmered for some time at Udarbond town, 10 km east of here, as a large number of vehicle-owners and residents staged an indefinite blockade of National Highway 54 in protest against the torching of vehicles by the rebels.

An appeal was issued to them by the administration and the police to lift the road blockade, but it went unheeded. Following this, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans lathicharged the protesters and cleared the vital road. Sources said six persons, including Janata Dal (United) candidate from Udarbond seat Lokman Ali, suffered injuries when the CRPF jawans caned them. Lokman Ali was admitted to Silchar medical college and hospital for treatment.

Police sources said mobile patrolling in both Udarbond and Lakhipur constituencies have been stepped as a precautionary measure following the incident.

There are reports that militants of the People’s Liberation Army and the United National Liberation Front of adjoining Manipur have also been planning to sneak into the district to create turmoil on the eve of the polls.

Fresh reinforcements of paramilitary troops had also been sent to these constituencies to ensure normal polling.


Silchar, May 5: 
A unique “battle of ballads” has added a lilt to the otherwise straight-laced campaign in Algapur Assembly seat in South Assam’s Hailakandi district.

Asom Gana Parishad stalwart and rural development minister Shahidul Alam Choudhury is seeking re-election from the seat for the fourth time.

Rural minstrels are attracting hordes of curious voters at markets and bus-stops with their “ballads” lampooning the contestants. One such composition mocks Shahidul Alam Choudhury’s second marriage solemnised a few months ago. The song goes: “Pola morlo kandilai na, bia korlai koila na... (You did not weep when your son died. You re-married but you did not invite us... Oh Allah, strange are the ways of your creations!).” But an unruffled Choudhury takes it all in his stride.

However, not all is smooth for the rural development minister. His Congress adversary Mahram Ali Mazumdar has launched an aggressive campaign in the constituency, bounded by Cachar and Karimganj districts. He is posing a serious threat to Choudhury, who won the seat by a margin of over 20,000 votes defeating Ashok Dutta Gupta of the Congress in 1996. Mazumdar is harping on Choudhury’s “failure” to tone up the economy of the backward constituency, allegations of corruption, his inability to provide employment to the youth and the unholy electoral tie-up between the AGP and the BJP.

According to him, the BJP is a communal party “playing with the sentiments of the minorities, who comprise nearly 48 per cent of the 1.10 lakh-electorate.’’

Mazumdar, a leading contractor for the Hindustan Paper Corporation’s Panchgram mill located in the constituency, has been pegging his campaign on the “abysmal” poverty and blaming Choudhury for it.

He said, “Hundreds of youth are unemployed but Shahidul Alam Choudhury could not create job opportunities for them in the rural development sector under his department.” Algapur’s Achilles heel is Bakri Hoar, a marshy lowland which is difficult to cultivate because it remains waterlogged for the better part of the year.

Farm hand Sirajul Islam (40) rues, “As the farmers cannot till their land, they are forced to earn their livelihood by working as daily wage earners in other people’s farms. The also do odd jobs to augment their meagre income.’’ Another peasant, Abdus Safad, fails to understand how “minister Choudhury” aligned with the BJP, which was allegedly “responsible for burning the Quran in north India recently.”

But Choudhury dismisses his detractors by terming their canards as “half-baked and ill-motivated.” He barnstorms his constituency with a large retinue of supporters in an elaborate convoy to “display his might.’’

He said he has been meeting his voters in informal groups at markets and street corners. He even visited a large number of houses personally.

Choudhury’s “new” wife Mamduda Yasmin Laskar, a college principal, also accompanies her husband to the meetings and elicits feedback from the stream of visitors, who flock to the minister’s large but modest single-storey residence everyday.

Choudhury’s trump card is his “zeal to revitalise the ailing education system in his backward constituency.”

He has built at least three colleges (one exclusively for science), three schools, one Unani medical college and hospital and an “extension” training centre at Algapur from his charitable trusts. “I am for the minority women’s empowerment. I believe it is only education which can ensure the progress of any community and help it to rise above fundamentalism”.

He claims that his untiring efforts have been instrumental in getting a Rs 32-crore World Bank project approved the Bakri Hoar wasteland. The project will help farmers raise at least two crops a year. Choudhury’s added advantage this time is the help being extended by the BJP. A top saffron leader, Krishna Prasad Rai, who polled 28,194 votes in the constituency in 1991, giving Choudhury a run for his money, is now siding with him. He wields considerable clout among the Hindi-speaking people in the area.

Jelil Laskar, one of Mazumdar’s campaigner, also acknowledged Choudhury’s contribution to education and healthcare. But he regretted that the AGP heavyweight did not do “enough for improving the water supply, renovation of derelict roads and ensuring more power supply.’’

Despite the advantages, it is a rough road ahead of Choudhury.


Guwahati, May 5: 
For the islanders in Majuli, elections are a pagan ritual: when their hopes and aspirations are sacrificed at the altar of politics by self-seeking leaders who recite promises (that are never kept) like mantras.

Once the pride of the state for being the seat of Vaishnavite culture and also because of its claim to fame as the largest riverine island in the world, Majuli today presents a picture of desperation.

“We, the voters, are just sacrificial lambs,” said Ranoj Pegu of the Bongaon area. The religious angle is ironic. For, in the 15th and 16th centuries, Sankardev began preaching his Vaishnavite faith from this island — whose teachings still bind together Assam.

“I don’t know how long I can boast of being from Majuli,” Pegu said. In more recent times, though, Majuli became a household name in the country and in the corridors of United Nations for another reason for which Pegu can hardly afford to take pride.

It was on this island that noted social worker Sanjoy Ghose was abducted and then killed by the United Liberation Front of Asom. Ghose and his non-governmental organisation, AVARD-NE, had come to Majuli in 1996 to help the islanders become self-reliant. Once here, he added one more item to his agenda: finding ways to protect Majuli from the annual onslaught of the Brahmaputra. He did not live to see either of his dreams come true. He was hacked, stuffed inside a gunny bag and thrown into the depths of the Brahmaputra on the night of July 4, 1997.

“Our problems have not only remained but have also multiplied over the years, no mater which party has been in power at Dispur,” Pegu said.

Erosion by the Brahmaputra is the greatest threat to the existence of the island. From an area of 1,256 square km, it is now 800 square km. The danger is so real that the island’s jewel in the crown, the satras, have begun to look for new places — of course across the Brahmaputra — for survival.

Like all other times, political parties and their nominees for the elections speak of nothing but saving the island from the jaws of the red river, as the Brahmaputra is also called.

But at Doria there stands evidence of the politician’s insincerity. There stands across a small stream a remnant of a bridge. None other than chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta had promised to build a new bridge across the stream to connect Lower and Upper Majuli. The AGP candidate for the Majuli Assembly constituency, Jogeswar Doley, continues to repeat the promise made by his leader as he begs for votes.

Others in the fray, like Rajib Lochan Pegu (Congress) and Padmeswar Doley (Independent), also parrot the same lines.

“By the time they get round to really doing something, the island would probably no longer be there,” said Putul Hazarika, a resident of Kamalabari. “Nothing is impossible. The island can still be saved. But for that we need some dedicated people, maybe someone like Sanjoy,’’ Ranoj said.


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