Meet-shy Mamata dares Buddha
Salugara awaits Lama
Asoka conquers classes, not masses
Moderate Muslim voices rise on US backlash
Cong cancels Ayodhya date
VHP raises Dhaka alarm
Allies object to terror law
Paris for cool heads on Kashmir
Bowring’s withdraws painting under cloud
Dalit-VHP conversion crisis mounts

Calcutta, Nov. 1: 
Many times after taking over as chief minister in May, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee invited Mamata Banerjee to all-party or bilateral meetings on several critical issues.

It suited both Bhattacharjee and his party to show magnanimity towards Mamata, their adversary No.1. They knew very well that Mamata would have to be out of her mind to accept the invitation and risk further alienation from her supporters. So, it surprised no one when Mamata did not turn up for any of the meetings the chief minister proposed.

But today, Mamata turned the tables on Bhattacharjee, urging him to convene an all-party meeting on the proposed Prevention of Organised Crimes Ordinance that left the government red in the face and which Bhattacharjee gave up plans to promulgate.

“It is a very sensitive issue and we will participate in an all-party meeting if it is held outside Writers’ Buildings,” she said.

She insisted on a venue outside Writers’ so that she would not have to reverse her earlier decision to not enter the secretariat. She had taken the decision after some policemen refused to let Trinamul MLA Sougata Roy enter Writers’ Buildings.

The Trinamul was in favour of a transparent discussion on the salient features of the proposed Ordinance, Mamata said, signalling a substantial shift in her earlier stand.

Some days ago, she had accused the state government of double standards for initiating “a unilateral move to introduce the (Ordinance) while denouncing the Centre’s bid to launch an anti-terrorist Ordinance”.


Salugara (Jalpaiguri) Nov. 1: 
Few ever visit sleepy Salugara, but now the town in bustling. From far, people have come in droves to listen to the Dalai Lama’s message of peace.

Buddhist monks and Tibetan angis (or nuns) are here in large numbers, rubbing shoulders with some 75,000 devotees who have arrived here ahead of the Dalai Lama’s nine-day visit from tomorrow. Colourful buntings and the shrill note of gyaling horns have given a distinctive Tibetan flavour to this town on the outskirts of Siliguri. The Dalai Lama will inaugurate a rebuilt 15th century monastery. He had instructed that the Sed-Gyued Phodang Monastery be rebuilt at Salugara.

Additional secretary of the Sed-Gyued Buddhist Research and Training Centre, Tenzing Gompo, said the Dalai Lama will hold a two-day public teaching programme – or Buddhi Chitta – on November 3 and 4. But between November 5 and 9, he will teach only some 900 lamas and angis.

This monastery was originally established at Tsang in central Tibet in 1432. It was called Gaden Phodang then.


Mumbai, Nov. 1: 
The chariot of Asoka is not exactly on a roll.

A week into its release, Shah Rukh Khan’s pet project has turned out to be a favourite of “the classes and not the masses” — a Bollywood euphemism for a film doing well only in the metros.

It might well be a double whammy for the star as he not only acted in, but also produced the film, the maiden venture of his new company, Arclightz & Films.

“The classes have loved it, but the masses appear to have reservations about it. We don’t know why,” said Mushtaq Sheikh, author of The Making of Asoka, the coffee-table book documenting the shooting of the film.

A Shah Rukh confidant, Mushtaq said reports from the film’s distributors over the past week have suggested an “overwhelming response” from the major cities, especially Mumbai and New Delhi. But the ticket sales elsewhere have not been satisfactory, he added.

Not everyone in the industry is surprised though, despite all the hoopla associated with the film, a fictionalised account of the life of emperor Ashoka.

Trade analyst Komal Nahta, in a review in his magazine Film Information last week, declared that the film was unlikely to achieve the “desired box-office collection” in semi-urban and rural India.

“I knew from the start the film would crash in most places despite all the hype. It’s now begun to go down everywhere except for a few big cities,” Nahta added.

Despite dazzling cinematography by Santosh Sivan and the skilled acting of the lead pair of Shah Rukh and Kareena Kapoor, Nahta said the film’s weakness lay in its screenplay.

The analyst said youths in the country, who make up the majority of cinema-goers, would find it hard to relate to a love story set in the 3rd century BC.

“The film looks more like a stageplay. The magic of the romance is missing as there are very few tugs at heartstrings, necessary to make a success of a love story,” he added.

How did Lagaan with a historical theme draw “the masses” when Asoka seems to have failed?

Observers say the Aamir Khan blockbuster appealed to cinegoers largely because of the excitement of cricket cleverly interwoven into the film. They said the success of a film at times depends on how the past is merged with the present.

Observers feel Asoka is all set to recover its cost of about Rs 14 crore and unlikely to make losses. But they were not sure whether the film would become Bollywood’s “Crouching Tiger”, with Shah Rukh rolling in money.

Shah Rukh and Juhi Chawla, the business partners at Archlightz, are pinning their hopes on the West, where Asoka has got off to a good start with its “class appeal”.

Mushtaq added that they expected “overflow” from selling the music and cable television rights.

Sanjay Bhattacharjee, head of UTV Motion Pictures, distributing the film in the commercial capital, the biggest market for Hindi films, said the film sold out 95 per cent in the first four days. “We expect the demand to continue and are hoping for a good return in Mumbai,” he said.

Before winning the hearts of his viewers, Shah Rukh, however, won the praise of his distributors by selling the film at half his usual rate.

Though a Shah Rukh flick usually sells for at least Rs 2 crore, each of the six distribution territories bought the rights for Asoka for Rs 1 crore each.

“It’s an excellent decision, which Shah Rukh has done in our interest. Even if the film fails to make money, the distributors will recover their costs,” Bhattacharjee said.


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
Muslim Personal Law Board chief Qazi Mujahid-ul-Islam has asked muftis, imams and maulvis not to destroy foreign goods even if they boycott Anglo-US products in protest against the war on Afghanistan.

The head of the representative body of various factions has summoned an emergency meeting of the board on Saturday to discuss issues facing the community. He had called off a similar meeting last month fearing that the hawks would hijack the board’s agenda.

However, the communal riots in Malegaon and Gonda have forced a rethink. The board is now prepared to face the hawks, who have issued a fatwa against Pepsi, Coke, McDonald’s and other Anglo-US products.

A majority of the board’s members are still opposed to the idea of dragging religion into what they call a “purely political” battle. Saner elements like Maulana Abdul Karim Parekh, widely respected for his scholastic achievements, feel fatwa against Anglo-US goods would harm Indian Muslims.

His views are shared by Maulana Akhlaq Hussain Qasmi, a member of the board and a noted commentator on the Quran. Qasmi also feels that giving a religious colour to the Afghan war would boomerang on Indian Muslims. It is believed that both Qasmi and Parekh urged the board chief to call a meeting to check the hawks.

The Bareilvi sect chief, Maulana Tausif Raza Khan, feels Muslim clerics should have issued an “appeal” asking Muslims not to buy foreign goods. “By calling it a fatwa, they have given it a religious colour,” he said.

Qazi Islam, however, said he saw nothing wrong in the boycott call. “It is up to an individual to respond to it or not. During the freedom struggle, many responded to Gandhiji’s call to opt for swadeshi goods,” he pointed out.

Qazi Islam said he and the entire board were opposed to the idea of using force or violence against any multinational. “Islam does not permit any kind of destruction,” he said. “If you do not want to drink a particular brand of a soft drink, you are welcome to do so. But you cannot destroy public or private property.”

The pro-boycott lobby among the clerics is claiming that the call is a huge success. According to Maulana Asad Madni and his son, Mahmood Madni, about 568 muftis in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other northern states have endorsed their fatwa call.

The Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind has dispatched 1,900 copies of its fatwa to various religious seminaries in the country. “We are getting a good response,” Madni said, pointing out that many eateries in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai have stopped serving brands of US-based soft drink companies. He claimed that in Calcutta, Aliah, Aminia, Shiraz and Sabir have already responded to the boycott call.


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
In an abrupt move, the Congress has changed the venue of its “strategy session” from Ayodhya to Varanasi, ostensibly to avoid getting embroiled in the controversy surrounding the temple town.

The party’s Uttar Pradesh unit had earlier planned its executive meeting in Ayodhya on November 7. AICC general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad had backed Ayodhya as the venue on the ground that the BJP and Sangh parivar should not be allowed to project themselves as the “sole custodians” of Hinduism. Moreover, Ayodhya has a mayor from the Congress. The party think-tank felt if the meeting was held in the town, it would send the right signal to the “majority community”.

But Azad retreated after Uttar Pradesh unit chief Sriprakash Jaiswal cautioned Sonia Gandhi against a “backlash” from the minority community.

Jaiswal’s logic was that the Congress should stay away from the Ayodhya tangle and not be seen as playing the “soft-Hindutva” card.


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad today condemned the recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh and warned that its workers were preparing to go there to protect the minority community from anti-India mobs.

Addressing a news conference along with vice-president Acharya Giriraj Kishore, VHP chief Ashok Singhal demanded that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee send a team of MPs to Bangladesh to inquire into the attacks.

Appealing to the people not to be satisfied with what Begum Khaleda Zia has been saying, Singhal said he was not happy with the outcome of principal secretary Brajesh Mishra’s recent visit to Dhaka.

“Brajesh Mishra went there. What did he do there?” Singhal questioned, adding that despite assurances from Khaleda, reports of atrocities on Hindus continued to pour in from across the country.

“A parliamentary team should be sent and Khaleda Zia should be invited to Delhi for talks,” he added.

Singhal warned that the patience of the Hindu youth was running thin, and said if young Hindus decided to vent their anger, the consequences would be unpredictable.

“Whatever is happening in that country is due to the inflammatory speeches of Khaleda during the elections,” Singhal said.

Musharraf envoy

Pakistan’s law minister Shaheda Jamil arrived in Dhaka today as a special envoy of President Pervez Musharraf in the first high-level contact after a new government took charge in Bangladesh three weeks ago.

Officials said she would meet Khaleda Zia to hand over a letter from Musharraf and discuss ties between the two countries in the wake of the US-led war on Afghanistan.


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
Pushing through the new anti-terrorist Ordinance could turn out to be an uphill task for home minister L.K. Advani as NDA allies joined the Opposition chorus against certain “draconian” measures and demanded amendments before it is tabled in Parliament.

The DMK, Telugu Desam Party, Akali Dal, Samata Party, MDMK and PMK are opposed to the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance in its present form while the Janata Dal (United) said adequate safeguards should be incorporated to prevent misuse.

Sources said the Dravidian parties, especially the DMK, MDMK and PMK, with their strong links with the LTTE, are not comfortable with the Ordinance and are likely to exert pressure on the government to do away with certain “draconian” provisions.

DMK president M. Karunanidhi today told reporters at the party headquarters in Chennai that his party was firm on the need to crush terrorism, but Parliament should debate the consequences if the new law “became a tool at the hands of those intending to settle political scores”. The changes suggested after the debate should be incorporated into the proposed law, Karunanidhi emphasised.

“Before it is implemented, suitable changes have to be incorporated, particularly keeping in mind that it might be misused against political opponents,” Karunanidhi said.

He said his party had opposed Misa during Emergency as it was misused, but the CPI supported it. When Indira Gandhi introduced the 20-point programme, his party was the first to support it, Karunanidhi said.

Desam parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu said when the Ordinance is taken up in Parliament, his party would call for certain amendments. He said adequate safeguards were necessary to check its misuse.

Terming the Ordinance anti-minority, All-India Shiromani Akali Dal chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra has urged chief minister Parkash Singh Badal to instruct his MPs to oppose the Ordinance.


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine today added his name to the long list of Western leaders who have come here to urge both India and Pakistan to do nothing that could escalate tension in the volatile region.

Vedrine, who arrived here this morning as part of his shuttle diplomacy in South Asia, said the nuclear twins should try to strengthen America’s anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan.

He left for Islamabad in the evening for scheduled meetings with UN special envoy on Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Vedrine urged India and Pakistan to settle all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, in “a responsible and cool-headed fashion” and said the two should resume talks at the earliest opportunity. “We know Kashmir is a problem. All these issues should be dealt by the two countries with responsibility and in a cool-headed fashion,” he told reporters.

The French leader said the international community sought “constructive involvement” from both New Delhi and Islamabad to find a solution to the Afghan crisis and added that France wanted India and Pakistan to prevent any “deterioration” in their relations.

But India-Pakistan tensions and need for an early dialogue between the neighbours – a well-rehearsed theme of all visiting dignitaries who have recently visited the region – were not the only focus of discussions between the French minister and Delhi.

Vedrine held detailed discussions with his Indian counterpart Jaswant Singh this afternoon on the situation in Afghanistan and steps the world community could take to ensure that a new regime is able to restore normalcy to the war-ravaged country. Neither India, nor France is a member of the Six-Plus-Two Group on Afghanistan. Delhi feels the group should be expanded to help put together a political structure in post-conflict Afghanistan.

The existing group has the US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan as its eight members. Vedrine feels the group, apart from India and France, should also have key countries like Germany, the UK, Italy and Japan in it.

Asked whether India had a role to play in settling the crisis, Vedrine said the desire shown by Delhi on the issue was legitimate. “That is why I am here to talk to the Indian leadership and seek their views on what steps could be taken for a solution in Afghanistan,” he said. He pointed out that within the UN, member countries were yet to find the right format and adequate formula that would involve key world players to play a role in post-conflict Afghanistan.

On whether he had asked the Indian leadership to show restraint and not embark on military action inside Pakistan to target terrorist bases, Vedrine made it clear that he did not raise the issue.

UN general says sorry

UN chief military observer Major General Hermann K. Loidolt today expressed “sincerest apology” for his “misbehaviour” in making political comments on Jammu and Kashmir

In a letter to the director-general of military operations, he said: “I deeply regret that this incident caused some discomfort. It was not intended to blame someone on something.”

The apology comes three days after Loidolt said the US might have to step in to resolve the Kashmir issue.

Loidolt said: “If I had violated any existing regulations, I am sorry for that. I can assure you I have learned the lesson and that will never happen again.”

“Sir, please accept my sincerest apology and excuse, the only thing I may bring forward and offer and what may perhaps serve as pretext for my misbehaviour is the short time I am here in the mission.”


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
Even before the auctioneer could cry going, going, gone at the Bowring’s auction on November 5, Lot number 59 has been withdrawn. The painting — Kashmiri Women by Narayan Sridhar Bendre (1910-1992) — was used in the first auction catalogue of Bowring’s Fine Arts Auctioneer.

When the catalogue was circulated, Vadodara-based artist Gulam Mohammed Sheikh found the painting similar to the one in Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. Sheikh had used a reproduction of the painting in black and white in the book Contemporary Art in Baroda, which he had edited. A colour reproduction of the painting is there in the centenary catalogue of the museum. The museum painting is done in oil on board and is called Future? There is a mark of frame on the painting, indicating that the painting was framed while it was still wet.

Sheikh had been Bendre’s student and had seen the painting in the museum for several decades. Alarmed, Sheikh brought the matter to the notice of the museum authorities. He then went with Jyoti Bhatt, another of Bendre’s student, to the museum to check if the painting was safe.

The museum authorities in turn got in touch with Patrick Bowring, deputy chairman of Bowring’s Fine Art Auctioneers. Bowring rushed to Baroda to compare the one held by the auctioneers with the one in the museum collection.

Says Bowring: “We decided to withhold the painting for further research.”

The painting is oil on canvas measuring 27 x 35.5 inches. It is signed in Devnagri in the lower right corner of the canvas and is dated 43. Bowring has checked the provenance of the painting he has acquired and is fairly confident of its source. Talking of the painting that Bowring’s would have put on the block, Bowring says there is no question that it is an old painting, when the lucrative potential of faking was nonexistent.

Interestingly, Bowring says: “Since this debate opened, two more versions of the same painting have emerged.” Such incidents are common in the West, he adds. There often exist more than one version of the same painting. But in the West, the provenances are better recorded.

Sheikh says he has not come across any evidence of another version of the same painting existing. However, the incident highlights once again the pitfalls in the growth of a secondary art market.


New Delhi, Nov. 1: 
Confrontation between Dalits and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad intensified today with the latter demanding the arrest and prosecution of Christian rights activist John Dayal for conspiring to convert one million Dalits to Buddhism and Dalit leader Ram Raj warning that the government and fundamentalist organisations would be responsible for a countrywide agitation and violence if the rally was stopped unlawfully.

Dalit activists said there was a “deep-rooted” conspiracy to disrupt the “diksha” ceremony and since people have already started pouring in, they would go ahead with the conversion which was within their constitutional right.

“We are not converting to Islam or Christianity but to Buddhism, an ancient Indian religion,” said Raj, chairman of the Confederation of SC/ST organisations.

But VHP chief Ashok Singhal said Dayal, the secretary general of the All-India Christian Council, was behind the rally. He charged Dayal with campaigning against India and Hinduism during the recently-concluded conference against racism in Durban.

Fearing law and order problems, certain officials of the National Commission for Minorities have joined the VHP effort to stop the mass conversion on November 4 at the Ramlila grounds here.

Over 10 lakh Dalits are scheduled to convert at the rally organised by Raj, which the VHP alleges is part of a larger “Christian conspiracy”. Calling mass conversions “unconstitutional”, Singhal demanded that the rally be cancelled.

Raj said in a statement that his organisation had received permission from Delhi High Court to go ahead with the function, which he claimed was religious and so, the police could not stop it.


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