Police give tape twist to farmer firing
Samata stamps foot at ‘missed’ chance
Medics hit streets in rural-roster protest
Operation Fightback as funds-flow dries up
Tehelka ‘morals’ under scanner
All of 184 carats, still a paperweight
Jailbird on flight caged in brothel
Rush to join Buddha jaunt
Govt sees basmati victory
BJP oils party machine

 
 
POLICE GIVE TAPE TWIST TO FARMER FIRING 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Aug. 23: 
Kitne log honge?
Kaafi bhid ekhatta kar lenge...
Do-char ko marwa do...
Baad mein meeting bhi hai...
Kidhar?
Baleni mein, aap bhi aana
Theek time pe panga khada kiya...

This is part of a taped conversation between two local leaders which police released today while maintaining that last night’s incident in Baghpat was part of a bigger political conspiracy. At least three farmers were killed when police fired on a mob of stone-pelting protesters who had laid siege to a police station.

Though both the police and the ruling BJP have refused to come out with names, the incident is snowballing into a major controversy with the Samajwadi Party and the BJP pointing fingers at each other.

Union minister Ajit Singh, who visited the spot today, said there was clear evidence of a political conspiracy. “Everyone knows who all are here and trying to do what. The truth will soon come out,” he said.

In Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today told the Rajya Sabha that he has sought a report from the Uttar Pradesh government on the firing.

The trouble started after the police arrested Jai Singh, the village pradhan of Baleni, on charges of disrupting law and order. Jai Singh was intervening in a fight between two warring groups when the situation turned ugly and ended up in a brawl. The police arrested Singh along with 25 others.

But, by evening, a huge crowd had surrounded the police station. To control the stone-throwing mob, the police first resorted to a lathicharge. When that failed, they fired at the crowd, killing three of the protesters and injuring around 40, mostly farmers.

Samajwadi Party workers, however, claim that five persons were killed in the firing and at least 50 were injured, many of whom are nursing gunshot wounds in various hospitals in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. They also allege that the police had beaten up the panchayat pradhan and misbehaved with some women who were among the 25 arrested.

Arun Kumar, DIG (Meerut range), has a different version. He says there was firing from “both sides” and that the policemen fired in self-defence because the crowd threatened to torch the police station with the policemen inside. He also says that bullets, not used by the police, were found at the scene. Kumar said “investigations are on” and those responsible for fomenting the trouble would soon be arrested.

The Uttar Pradesh government has transferred the Baghpat SP, Vikram Thakur, and suspended three police officials, including an inspector.

It has also ordered an inquiry into the incident and announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh each for the kin of the dead and Rs 25,000 each for the injured. But that may not be enough to quell the surge of discontent in Baghpat, which remained tense throughout the day.

With polls just a few months away, Samajwadi Party leaders are trying to cash in on the controversy. Comparing the incident to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Janeshwar Mishra said chief minister Rajnath Singh was adopting terror tactics to uproot all opposition to his party.

General secretary Amar Singh has planned a visit to Baghpat. He has also announced that a mass agitation against the BJP and its “politics of suppression” would begin all over Uttar Pradesh. Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has set up a five-member inquiry committee to look into the killings. Some Samajwadi Party and BJP top leaders are already camping in Baghpat.

A senior BJP minister, who claimed that “some vested interests” were responsible for the incident, agreed that it happened at a “very wrong time” for the ruling party.

“As most of those killed happen to be Yadavs, the Samajwadi Party will turn it into a communal issue,” he said. “They are already doing it.”

   

 
 
SAMATA STAMPS FOOT AT ‘MISSED’ CHANCE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 23: 
The Samata Party is upset with the Centre for not seizing the opportunity provided by the leak of the Tehelka tapes to reinduct George Fernandes into the Union Cabinet. Sources said the coming days could see an orchestrated campaign by Samata MPs for Fernandes’ re-entry.

While the Congress wants a probe into the leak, the Samata leadership feels it has provided them an opportunity to discredit the Tehelka journalists, who, it was revealed, used prostitutes to swing fictitious arms deals.

Samata leaders fear that the Venkataswami Commission, which is probing the scandal, may take years to complete its inquiry and thereby delay the former defence minister’s return. They feel that all that is required for reinducting Fernandes is political will. As a senior party leader said, the coming days would prove whether the Atal Bihari Vajpayee dispensation is sincere or not.

The leader argued that if finance minister Yashwant Sinha — who had failed to check the stock market crash and is now under fire for the UTI mess — is being protected, why is Fernandes, against whom there is no personal allegation, being kept out. Samata MPs, he added, were putting pressure on Fernandes to hit back at the NDA government. A Samata MP said that since the Venkataswami Commission had only recommendatory powers, the government could also reject its findings.

Yesterday, party MPs had stalled proceedings in the Lok Sabha demanding the arrest of Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal. Today also the matter was raised in the House. One MP said the Samata would not allow the opportunity to slip and the government should indicate clearly when Fernandes will be brought back to the Cabinet.

The former defence minister had held a meeting of Samata leaders yesterday to discuss how to make use of the leak. Sources said most MPs are getting restive and want the party to take a drastic action if the Vajpayee government does not do anything to rehabilitate their leader.

   

 
 
MEDICS HIT STREETS IN RURAL-ROSTER PROTEST 
 
 
FROM SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Bhopal, Aug. 23: 
Medical students in Bhopal have taken to the streets to protest against a government order which has made it mandatory for new doctors to serve two years in villages before they are given their MBBS degrees.

Faced with a scarcity of doctors willing to work in villages, the Madhya Pradesh government passed the order in 1997, and made the students sign bonds. The only way a student can skip the two-year rural stint is by paying the government Rs 75,000.

The first batch of students who are bound by the government order will graduate in February next year. Students from the Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior and Jabalpur medical colleges were made to sign the bond.

Since 1997, around 2,400 students have signed the bond. But it was only on Tuesday that 125 students from the Bhopal Medical College took to the streets, threatening the government with dire consequences if it did not withdraw the order. Students of the other three medical colleges, however, did not join the demonstration.

“The government took this decision out of dire necessity. Rural Madhya Pradesh suffers without trained medical practitioners,” the state’s director for medical education, Dr V.K. Joshi, said.

“According to the government policy, every student seeking admission to the four medical colleges in the state have to fill a bond saying he or she agrees to serve two years in rural areas after completion of the MBBS course. All of them who are protesting now were made aware of the government decision five years ago. Each of them signed a bond. We don’t see why they are out to break their promise when the time has come to fulfil it,” Joshi added.

The government took out advertisements and made the policy public in 1997. “We made it very clear that a two-year internship in rural areas is compulsory before the student is given a degree. There was no chance of any confusion,” he said.

But students are saying that a two-year stint in rural areas would mean a break in their studies. They don’t want to wait that long before enrolling for the post-graduate course.

Chief minister Digvijay Singh, however, is unrelenting. His government claims that Madhya Pradesh is not the first state in the country to introduce this rule. The state ministry of health claims Maharashtra has a similar policy. Only, in Maharashtra, the student can choose which rural area he will go to. Students won’t get that choice in Madhya Pradesh.

Even in states which do not have medical colleges like Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Meghalaya, medical students have to sign a bond with the government, agreeing to serve in their state for a stipulated period before the government grants them admission through their quotas in medical colleges in neighbouring states.

“But we have given them an option,” Joshi said. “If they don’t want to go to the villages, they can pay Rs 75,000 each. Then they are free.”

But students say Rs 75,000 is too steep. The fees for the MBBS course are Rs 12,000 per year. Taking that into account, students will have to fork out around Rs 1.5 lakh to get the degree without doing their two years in villages.

   

 
 
OPERATION FIGHTBACK AS FUNDS-FLOW DRIES UP 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, Aug. 23: 
In the heat of the media glare on Wednesday as he took questions on Tehelka’s modus operandi in uncovering Defencegate, the unflappable Tarun Tejpal dropped his guard for a second. “They have been after us, the I-T department is reopening our files and doing all sorts of things.”

But if Tejpal is being persecuted, he is not advertising it simply because he has a business to run. “I am not complaining,” he said.

Since Tehelka first came out with its expose in March, Tejpal and his CEO and head of the investigative team, Aniruddh Bahal, have been to the US, negotiated with non-resident Indians, sought alliances and funding. None of the support that it has sought has been forthcoming in a size adequate enough to guarantee that Tehelka will not go the way of so many dotcoms — under.

In July last year, Tehelka had a dream launch. It did not need to advertise and market itself the way so many other portals did. Newspapers and television channels did it for them in editorial columns when Tehelka announced its launch along with the sensational video tapes that cricketer Manoj Prabhakar took for it in its investigation into matchfixing.

That was, and is, the revenue model that Tejpal banks on: give out spicy stories on its portal that will get them the “click-throughs and the eyeballs” which in turn would get it advertising and the money required to turn the news operation into a successful business venture.

As Tejpal and his team grapple with questions of morality and ethics after using sex workers to gratify army officers in pursuit of a story, there is bound to be the nagging suspicion that the revenue model might have served to turn business away from Tehelka.

Zee Telefilms, that had bought the “Operation West End” video tapes in March, has pulled out from a deal to buy a 26 per cent stake in Buffalo Networks of which Tehelka is a division. Just after the Union budget, Shankar Sharma of First Global, which had a 15 per cent stake in Buffalo, ran into trouble over allegations that he beat down share prices. Tehelka managers suspect the heat was turned on him for political reasons just as Zee was quietly dissuaded from associating itself with the venture.

Tejpal and friends are now scouting the globe to raise funds. A plan to spin off Tehelka into a subsidiary company of Buffalo has been shelved. Buffalo Networks now operates like a family-run venture with Tejpal as the largest shareholder. “We are in talks with prospective business partners. What kind of money we are looking to raise and with whom we are talking are details that I cannot go into now,” says Tejpal.

This is a comedown since the time Businessweek rated Tehelka as one of the top 10 portals that could buck the trend with its nose for news. At one point, Tehelka was evaluated at $20 million. Now, its ambitions of venturing selectively into print and television, too, are looking unrealistic.

Since the March expose, Tehelka has already cut down on staff size. Freelancers complain that they are not being paid for months. Yet, the mostly young and youthful staff stick it out with fingers crossed, almost as if it is a mission and not a business.

Tehelka does not hide the fact that its finances are weak. A notice on the Tehelka site says it has set up an investigative fund and invites donations from all sympathisers. “We are engaged in Operation Fightback,” it says.

   

 
 
TEHELKA ‘MORALS’ UNDER SCANNER 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 23: 
The government today announced that an inquiry will be held into Tehelka’s alleged adoption of “illegal and immoral methods” even as parliamentarians cutting across party lines disapproved of the portal’s move to employ sex workers to expose murky defence deals.

The government also gave a clean chit to former defence minister George Fernandes who had to step down in the wake of the exposé. This drew strong protest from the Opposition, which questioned the logic behind parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan exonerating Fernandes when a commission of inquiry was probing Armsgate.

Mahajan however, remained unfazed. “In my opinion, he is innocent. But this would be decided by the Venkataswami Commission probing the matter,” he said.

Amid uproarious scenes in the Lok Sabha, Mahajan criticised Tehelka for making a plea under right to information and freedom of the press. “No one, including MPs and journalists, are above the law. Everybody is equal before the law,” Mahajan said after an impromptu debate during zero hour. As the leaders of various political parties had reached a broad understanding not to disrupt House proceedings, discussion continued amid heated arguments.

Mahajan said the government will take stern action against Tehelka if it is found to have violated the law by adopting “illegal and immoral methods” to expose corruption in defence deals. He said the home ministry will look into various aspects of the means adopted by the portal.

Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar initiated the Tehelka discussion by condemning the portal for adopting “undignified and immoral” ways to avail the services of sex workers to extract information from defence personnel.

The CPM’s Somnath Chatterjee joined Congress’ Madhavrao Scindia in insisting on a joint parliamentary committee to unravel the truth. The Samata’s Brahmananda Mandal said the government should probe the “nexus” between the Congress and Tehelka, The Congress strongly criticised the statement.

In the Upper House, a resolute Opposition objected to the Chair admitting a special mention by a Samata Party member on investigative journalism. This led to an adjournment for over an hour. Amid the chaos, Krishan Kant allowed the Samata MP Rajiv Ranjan Singh “Lalan” to make the submission. Pranab Mukherjee and Suresh Pachouri protested that the issue pertained to national security and it was sub-judice.

   

 
 
ALL OF 184 CARATS, STILL A PAPERWEIGHT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 23: 
If the Kohinoor adorned Shahjehan’s Peacock throne, a diamond twice as big was tossed around as a paperweight.

In 1891, diamond trader Alexander Malcolm Jacob — the inspiration for Lurgan Sahib in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim — sold his most precious possession to Nizam Mahboob Ali Pasha. At 184.75 carat, the Jacob — previously Imperial — diamond is the ninth-largest in the world in terms of size and third in clarity. It is valued at Rs 400 crore.

The diamond, twice as big as the Kohinoor, is the centrepiece of the 173-piece collection of the Nizam’s jewels that will go on display on August 29. The collection consists of necklaces dripping with emeralds and pearls, turban ornaments and scabbards studded with precious stones.

And the Jacob diamond.

Discovered in South Africa in 1884, the diamond weighed 457.5 carat in the rough. The stone was cut and faceted in Amsterdam.

However, the sale led to a criminal suit and the Nizam had to appear before a commission in Calcutta to give evidence. Ultimately the Nizam retained the jewel and Jacob died a pauper.

Surprisingly, the Nizam paid no attention to the diamond’s worth and kept it as a simple stone in his collection. His son and the last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, found it by chance several years after his father’s death in the toe of his slipper in Chowmahalla Palace, and used it as a paperweight.

Besides the Jacob diamond, the collection has pieces purchased between the 18th and the 20th centuries: diamonds from South Africa and Golconda, rubies and spinels from Burma, emeralds from Colombia, Alexandrites from Russia and lustrous pearls from Basrah.

There are turban ornaments called sarpech, kalgi and sarpetis, armlets, anklets, medals and belt ornaments called baglus. Rings, necklaces and the fabled seven strings of pearls will be on display. As will be earrings with the delightful name Lu Lu.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will inaugurate the exhibition at the National Museum. Visitors can seen the fabled collection for Rs 50. Make it Rs 500 if you are a foreigner.

Tourism and culture minister Ananth Kumar said the collection was valued between Rs 3,000 crore and Rs 10,000 crore. “They are a national heritage. You cannot put a value to it,” he said.

The jewels were purchased by the government after a protracted legal battle.

After the privy purse was abolished in the early seventies, princely states began shipping out art treasures abroad for fear of confiscation. In a bid to stem this drain, the government enacted the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. Section 19 of the Act empowered the government to acquire priceless collections that were sent out.

The government stepped in to stop the Nizam’s jewels from going out of the country. After a prolonged litigation, the judgment went in favour of the Union government in 1995. The jewels were acquired for Rs 218 crore from two trusts set up by the last Nizam.

The exquisite workmanship and the quality of the gems will be recorded in a catalogue priced at Rs 3,000 which will be available in November. Initially, the National Museum had decided to have a print order of 5,000 copies. But already there are advance orders for 2,000 copies from abroad. So the print order has been increased to 7,500 copies. The price, however, will not be reduced.

   

 
 
JAILBIRD ON FLIGHT CAGED IN BROTHEL 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Aug. 23: 
When the earth cracked open in Bhuj, Manoj Singh did not mind at all. As buildings collapsed all around him, the man from Calcutta saw his road to freedom leading from the jail.

But his freedom lasted for just about eight months. Today, Calcutta police picked him up from a brothel in Sonagachhi.

For Manoj — Manojia to friends — the wheels turned full circle.

Before he hit big time, Manoj used to be a terror in the Burrabazar-Jorasanko belt. He was a leading extortionist in the area.

This led to his arrest in 1999. He did a stint at the Presidency jail. This was where the seeds were sown for bigger things.

It was at the city jail that he met Manjit Singh alias Mange, the don with international links . Later, the don, who was to become his guru and guide, was arrested was arrested from Park Street in an early-morning chase in 1999 that involved policemen from Uttar Pradesh.

But their friendship was deep. It was Manoj who helped the dreaded criminal flee from the SSKM hospital, where he was held in police custody, officials said.

Then Manoj was released on bail. But all along, he kept in touch with Mange.

The move paid rich dividends for Manoj as Mange helped him join a gang which had a much larger field of operations, officials added.

He moved to bigger things, to Gujarat, Delhi and Punjab. He was allegedly involved in the abduction of several businessmen in the different states.

Then in the middle of last year, he was arrested in Bhuj for his suspected role in the abduction of two Gujarat-based businessmen.

The earthquake helped him cut short his stint in jail. But he had not bargained for the fact that the sex-worker he was visiting would tip off the police.

“An Arms Act case was slapped on him,” deputy commissioner (central) Zulfikar Hassan said.

Police interrogations now are expected to concentrate on the whereabouts of his three associates — Michael, Pammu and Raju Sharma — who fled from the Bhuj Jail with him.

During preliminary interrogations, Manoj admitted that he had come to Calcutta a few weeks ago. But he had not disclosed the whereabouts of his associates, police sources said.

   

 
 
RUSH TO JOIN BUDDHA JAUNT 
 
 
BY SHANKAR MUKHERJEE
 
Calcutta, Aug. 23: 
Officers at the state secretariat are caught in the middle. Everybody who’s anybody wants to accompany Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on his first foreign trip as chief minister, while Bhattacharjee wants to take along only those who are directly linked to the aim of his visit.

Many people, including bureaucrats, industrialists and technologists, have started lobbying the state secretariat for inclusion in the delegation accompanying Bhattacharjee on his seven-day visit to Japan, scheduled to start on September 15, according to sources at Writers’ Buildings.

However, the chief minister has issued strict instructions to his secretariat. “I do not want to create a hue and cry over my foreign trip. I do not want to increase the team unnecessarily. The delegation will be as small as possible,” Bhattacharjee said.

The team will be confined to seven members — Bhattacharjee, principal secretary Amit Kiran Deb, commerce and industry secretary Jawhar Sircar and three industrialists chosen by Bhattacharjee, one of whom is likely to be R.P. Goenka.

Jyoti Basu had to face the wrath of the Opposition for taking large delegations during his foreign trips. Critics had alleged that though members of the government, especially the chief minister and the WBIDC chairman, were spending public money touring several countries, there was no output. Basu’s last foreign trip as chief minister was to Israel and London where he led an 18-member delegation.

Bhattacharjee does not want to walk that path. “He does not want to leave any scope for the Opposition to criticise him,” officials said.

Sources said at least 20 industrialists, including some prominent figures and some known to be very close to the government and the CPM, wanted to accompany Bhattacharjee. Besides, there were 10 other prominent aspirants from other fields.

“We had to strike off almost all the names. Though all the industrialists who wished to go with Bhattacharjee would have travelled on their own cost, we have expressed our inability to include them in the delegation,” said a senior official.

This is probably the first time that no one from the WBIDC will accompany the chief minister on his foreign trip.

According to the itinerary, the chief minister will leave on September 15 and reach Bangkok by Thai Airways. After a night’s halt, he will leave for Tokyo and Osaka.

“Discussion with two or three ministers and bureaucrats are also on the agenda and the entire programme is being chalked out by the Japanese embassy. We shall get the final programme within a week,” said a senior official at Writers’ Buildings.

   

 
 
GOVT SEES BASMATI VICTORY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 23: 
The BJP government today rushed to defend itself on the basmati patents case by claiming that the patent given to US seeds giant RiceTec would not hit Indian exports of the rice variety and was “in fact...a victory for India”.

Junior commerce minister Raman Singh claimed in the Lok Sabha that reports in the media that India had lost the basmati patents case were erroneous. “At the very outset, I would like to categorically inform the House that the reports are incorrect and based on mis-interpretation,” Singh said.

The minister implicitly claimed that the fact that only three rice strains developed by RiceTec from basmati seeds had been given a patent was a victory for the country. The company had not been given patents for all basmati strains and its claim that it owned most of the germplasm connected with the rice variety has been rejected. He also pointed out that Indian exports of basmati to the US has been increasing and stands at Rs 2,141 crore.

The suo motu statement made in the Lower House cannot be immediately debated. However, the government has to repeat the same statement in the Rajya Sabha, where the Opposition hopes it will be able to catch the treasury benches on the wrong foot.

India recently lost out in the basmati patents case, which was heard by the US Patents and Trademarks Office, to RiceTec simply because it delayed in bringing out a gazette notfication claiming “basmati” was a geographical brand like champagne or Scotch whisky.

The US patents office accepted RiceTec’s claims that its three basmati look-alike rice strains are similar or superior to “basmati” and that basmati is merely a generic description of a variety of rice.

The only thing that lawyers representing the commerce ministry’s arm, APEDA, could extract from the US patents office was the withdrawal by RiceTec of claims that would have given it exclusive rights to rice germplasm from virtually all parts of the world, including northern India, the Americas and the Caribbean islands.

   

 
 
BJP OILS PARTY MACHINE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 23: 
With the monsoon session reaching its tail-end, the BJP has begun to focus its attention on gearing up the organisation for the Uttar Pradesh polls.

Party chief Jana Krishnamurthi has convened a meeting of presidents of the various morchas (front organisations) and cells here on Saturday. He is now touring Uttar Pradesh for a first-hand feel of the ground realities and the state unit’s preparedness.

BJP sources said Krishnamurthi is particularly interested in sizing up the equation between BJP ministers and the party cadre after reports had filtered in that grassroots workers were “disenchanted” with the Uttar Pradesh ruling establishment for “ignoring” their demands and aspirations.

At the August 25 meeting, the BJP chief is expected to work out an agenda on how the services of the various cells and front organisations — particularly those of the Youth, SC\ST and kisan morchas — can be utilised during the polls, both in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

The BJP will also hold a one-day Chintan Baithak (Introspection Session) of senior office-bearers and other functionaries in Jodhpur on September 12. The session, sources said, is expected to reflect on the state of the party-government relationship, which has been an uneven one.

However, with the RSS mending fences with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sources said the party, too, is likely to tone down its reservations on certain aspects of the government’s policies, especially those related to the economy and the BJP’s relationship with other NDA constituents.

That the party had mellowed down its stance was evident in Krishnamurthi softening his own approach towards the re-entry of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress into the NDA. The BJP chief had opposed the reinduction and insisted on a “cooling-off” period before Mamata’s case could be considered. But last week, he directed the Bengal BJP not to speak out against Mamata.

   
 

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