Mahantas present clean slate
Vajpayee’s courtship begins in northwest
Guns roar, Rumsfeld muted
Minor match-makers in khaki
Second bondage for 100-year-old
Infotech show flops
Life ‘worse than death’ for 13-yr-old, mother of 3
Police brace for Jharkhand jailbreak spillover
Arrests ring Dalai Lama security alarm
Kharagpur guns for Rambabu

 
 
MAHANTAS PRESENT CLEAN SLATE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Guwahati, Nov. 5: 
Denying that she had filed any complaint with Delhi police against her husband, Jayashree Goswami-Mahanta today claimed that her marriage to former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was “as stable as ever”.

Mahanta, too, presented a picture of domestic harmony, saying there was not an iota of truth in reports that he had assaulted his wife — a former Rajya Sabha member — at her New Delhi residence last week. The AGP leader said he would like to forget the “orchestrated vilification campaign” against him since the poll debacle in May and return to active politics soon.

Jayashree said over the phone from the capital that she neither lodged a complaint with the police nor spoke to anybody about being assaulted by her husband.

“It was mischief played by people trying to unnecessarily poke their dirty noses into our personal lives. I did not call the police or lodge any complaint against my husband. Someone contacted the police and they were dutifully at my doorstep. And as required in such a situation, I accompanied them to hospital for a medical check-up,” she said.

Sub-inspector Bhanu Pratap Singh of Tughlak Road police station, where the “complaint” was lodged, said there was “nothing” in the medical report to warrant registration of a case.

Mahanta said in Guwahati he was tired of being portrayed by the media as a villain. “I want to go back to the people, whom I have promised to serve. I want to put the orchestrated vilification campaign over the past few months behind me and get on with life,” he said.

Though Jayashree did not hint at any friction at home, her husband admitted to a “minor personal problem”. However, he said “everything” had been sorted out. “I have been in touch with my wife and children over the telephone. The chapter is closed.”

Mahanta, who till yesterday seemed determined not to visit Delhi in the immediate future, said: “I will be with my family (in Delhi) in a day or two.” Sources said Mahanta’s father, who had once blamed his daughter-in-law for “all the misfortunes” in his son’s life, would accompany the former chief minister to Delhi.

One of the phone calls to Mahanta today was from his eldest son. “I am sorting out a few things here and I shall be with mummy in a day or two. Look after her and don’t trouble her,” Mahanta told his son and later spoke to his wife.

   

 
 
VAJPAYEE’S COURTSHIP BEGINS IN NORTHWEST 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
St. Petersburg, Nov. 5: 
With the experience of hindsight of a quarter century, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is seeking to radically transform India’s decade-old relations with Russia.

Recognising the post-Soviet era trend of devolving greater power to Russia’s vast, resource-rich regions, Vajpayee, on the second-day of his visit here, made an all-round push for greater visibility for India in the northwest region of Russia.

This region, which includes St. Petersburg, six provinces and three republics, has become important with Putin, a native of this city, becoming Russia’s President. Fifteen of Putin’s Cabinet members are from St. Petersburg.

If India intends to strengthen its economic, cultural and defence relations with Russia, nurtured during the Soviet era, a deeper bond with this country’s northwest is vital. A quarter of all of Russia’s exports to India come from this region. As much as 12 per cent of India’s exports to Russia are also absorbed by this region.

Russia’s northwest is also crucial for India as New Delhi rebuilds its defence ties with Moscow. Three frigates ordered by the Indian Navy as part of this process are now under construction in St. Petersburg. Similarly, two submarines for the navy have been refitted here. Sensitive parts for a nuclear power plant being built in Tamil Nadu with Russian collaboration are also manufactured in St. Petersburg.

The last time Vajpayee visited St. Petersburg was a quarter century ago. Russia was then a very different place. Everything was centralised and controlled from Moscow.

But in recognising the change and responding to it by visiting St. Petersburg, Vajpayee is setting in motion a change in India’s Russia policy which will have a lasting impact on bilateral relations.

He broke a taboo of 74 years of the Kremlin’s Communist rule when he opened an exhibition of Prince Dimitri Soltikov’s water colours and lithographs on India at the Russian Museum here. Prince Soltikov, a relative of the Czar, made two visits to India between 1841 and 1847 and the lithographs and water colours are the results of those visits.

Although these works of art are anti-colonial, reflecting an unsympathetic attitude towards British rulers in India, the communists in Moscow never allowed these to see the light of day because of Soltikov’s princely descent.

When Vajpayee opened the exhibition today, Soltikov’s works of art were seen by the Russian public for the first time.

On the occasion of his visit, the Jawaharlal Nehru Cultural Centre, which is part of the Indian embassy in Moscow, signed memoranda of understanding with four Russian institutions to promote Indian studies. These institutions, which will have chairs for Indian studies, are from Vladivostok in the east to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Tatarstan.

Vajpayee addressed a meeting of Indologists here and assured them that “there is something in the relations between India and Russia that defies time and tide”.

The Prime Minister spoke of a little-known fact that a Russian was the first European to set foot on Indian soil. Six years before Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498, a Russian traveller, Afanasy Nikitin, had travelled to India.

Soon after Vajpayee’s arrival in Moscow, six agreements were signed between various Indian and Russian agencies. They included banking and credit deals.

   

 
 
GUNS ROAR, RUMSFELD MUTED 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Nov. 5: 
Booming guns on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) and charges of troops build-up greeted Donald Rumsfeld in Delhi today as the US defence secretary gingerly picked his way through a diplomatic minefield in the sub-continent.

Asked specifically if the US-led anti-terror campaign will be targeted against militants in Kashmir, Rumsfeld limited himself to echoing his President who had said “we will be pursuing terrorists wherever they are”.

But Rumsfeld avoided making any public statement on America’s concerns that escalating tension on the India-Pakistan border could undermine the campaign.

An Indian defence official said in Jammu a Pakistani strike formation had moved closer to the LoC by about 20 km in the last week. Pakistani troops were also inching closer to the border in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

An Indian Army spokesman said a soldier was killed when Pakistani forces fired heavy-calibre arms near Kupwara in a “hostile act that violated the Simla Agreement”. He said two Pakistani soldiers were killed when Indian forces retaliated.

   

 
 
MINOR MATCH-MAKERS IN KHAKI 
 
 
FROM KUMUD JENAMANI
 
Jamshedpur, Nov. 5: 
They couldn’t possibly arrest the groom. So they “blessed” him with a bride — a reluctant 12-year-old.

Law-keepers turned match-makers in Govindpur when they married off Sunita Kumari to Ganesh Lohra alias Rodu, a supporter of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha central committee vice-president Ramdash Soren.

It was not only moral support to the desperate beau. Police officers were present at the house where the wedding took place.

But the attempt to play Cupid backfired after Sunita was produced in court today for a recording of her statement under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code, while a medical board has been set up to verify her age.

Residents of Sairengbera village, where the girl lives, today stormed the office of the deputy superintendent of police (city) demanding justice. Angry villagers told The Telegraph that though they had informed police superintendent Amitabh Chowdhary, the police did nothing to rescue the girl from her “abductors”.

Sunita’s father, Chunnu Lohara, said he had informed the police a day after his daughter, who worked as a domestic help in Chhota Govindpur, failed to return home on October 31. But the officer-in-charge of Govindpur police station had turned him away, saying: “Have I been posted here to trace missing girls?”

The same evening, Lohara came to know that his daughter had been “abducted” by Rodu and his associates. The next day, Lohara met the East Singhbhum superintendent of police, pleading with him to intervene. He alleged Rodu had kidnapped his daughter and he feared for her safety.

The Govindpur police finally accepted his FIR and registered a case under Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code, which is bailable.

“The same night, the officer-in-charge of the Govindpur police station informed me that Rodu had fled the city along with my daughter and they might return in a day or two. The officer tried to convince me there was nothing wrong if my daughter married Rodu,” Lohara said.

Several JMM activists had also threatened him with dire consequences for trying to rescue his daughter, he added.

Lohara claimed that the police continued to buy time saying the train by which his daughter was travelling would reach the city soon and there was nothing to do but wait. On Sunday evening, he said, the officer-in-charge came to his house and informed him that his daughter and Rodu were at Soren’s house and the girl would be brought to the police station by the leader.

“When I went to the police station, I saw Sunita, clad in a pink sari with vermilion on her forehead. Rodu was standing next to her. The police, however, did not allow me to speak to my daughter,” Lohara said, with tears in his eyes. According to him, the police knew that his daughter was in Soren’s house all the while.

The police today claimed they had sent Rodu to jail. But both the girl and Rodu were seen sitting together in court with the “accused” trying to coach the 12-year-old what to say in her statement before the judicial magistrate.

Sunita’s marriage is not the only one “blessed” by the police. Nearly a fortnight ago, the officer-in-charge of Parsudih police station, Ashok Paswan — a father of three — married a teenager at the police station amid much fanfare. His first wife is still alive. Paswan was later suspended.

This Sunday, the Adityapur police married off a youth and a girl at a temple inside the police station. The marriage, however, came as a relief for the girl, who was pregnant.

   

 
 
SECOND BONDAGE FOR 100-YEAR-OLD 
 
 
FROM TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
 
Patna, Nov. 5: 
With a wide, innocent smile creasing his otherwise vacant face, he greets doctors at his dimly-lit cell in Bhagalpur jail.

Hundred-and-five-year-old convict Mahadev Paswan cannot see. He listens to footsteps and says namaste to whoever comes visiting. A cataract and malnutrition have left him immobilised. When he opens his mouth pleading for care, he flashes an array of five teeth.

“What more serious bondage could there be than living after 100. Why do you need to inflict on me a second bondage in jail?” Mahadev asked a visiting team of jail officials who were touring Bihar’s prisons last month for a survey of convicts aged over 70.

Paswan was brought to Bhagalpur jail in 1999 after he was convicted to five years of rigorous imprisonment for his complicity in an attempted murder. The visiting officers found that in 1999, Paswan had already completed 102 years.

What kind of offence could he have committed at that age?

The jail records are not clear. “His condition is so bad that he could die any day,” said Ashoke Chowdhary, Bihar minister of state for jail and a doctor himself.

To Domi Mondal, the burden of guilt for the alleged offence he had committed is less than his age. Mandal is 110 years old and is undergoing a life term. Gangrene has set in in one of his legs. Jail wardens don’t pay attention to his needs, and he has no visitors.

When the visiting officers approach him, Mondal hides his head in his folded legs. Booked in a murder case in which he was clubbed with other members of a family, he was convicted in 1982. “I pray to God that I might die here faster. Release me from life, not just jail,” he told them.

Bihar has 1,500 convicts past the age of 70, according to the survey. In violation of the jail code manual, ageing prisoners in Bihar do not get the minimum basic facilities. They get little or no medical treatment because the state jail department admits there aren’t enough doctors.

“We have been asking the state health department to fill the 22 vacancies lying vacant for the last couple of years,” said jail minister Ashoke Chowdhary.

A human rights group filed a petition before the National Human Rights Commission early this year, drawing its attention to the condition of the jails. The commission asked the state government to show cause and last month it sent for details of custody deaths.

The government has now prepared the list of convicts who died in jails in 1999 and 2000. The list obtained shows that 131 convicts died primarily of old-age related diseases. “The majority of deaths were normal. It is just that the convicts happened to be in jails,” said a jail officer.

Unconvinced by the argument, the Human Rights Commission is now awaiting the report of the state government narrating its side of the account.

As part of the process, the state jail department has set up a sentence review board with bureaucrats and social workers. The board’s first review has yielded the survey of ageing convicts. It has now sought reports on the medical condition of these convicts. “The 1,500 over-70 prisoners are convicts. There may be an equal number of undertrials who might have crossed 70,” said a jail officer.

The board has sent the list of over-70 convicts to the Governor for pardon. “But the cases are now stuck in the law department which is examining the legal formalities,” said an officer.

   

 
 
INFOTECH SHOW FLOPS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Bangalore, Nov. 5: 
The hyped global buyer-seller meet at the technology fair, Bangalore.IT.Com, turned out to be a damp squib.

The five-day event, billed as Asia’s biggest information technology show, ended today with only a few companies participating in the interaction. “The US slowdown effect is real. Recession has affected the business environment,” officials said.

At the end of the show, Karnataka had only one concrete investment proposal in its kitty. Maxima Integrated Product, a chipmaker from US, will launch a design centre in Bangalore.

“The one-to-one meet between buyers and sellers did not evoke much response,” said officials associated with the event, organised by the Karnataka government to showcase Bangalore’s technological expertise.

In terms of numbers, there were 45,000 business visitors and 1.8 lakh general visitors, but business deals were not struck.

The buyer-seller meet was incorporated this year to facilitate big and small deals. The government had set up a separate enclosure spread over 900 sq. metres. The recession was reflected in an IT company, which was to develop a software for the interaction, offering itself for sale. “When we approached them for the software, they offered us the option of buying the company out,” said a senior IT official.

Several companies from Germany, UK, Japan, Singapore, Canada and Taiwan had participated in the technology show but there were no takers for the presentations made by most of them.

However, Kerala and Orissa, which are set to join the IT bandwagon, leveraged on the event. Both these states have offered Indian and global companies sops to set up shop in their respective capitals, Thiruvananthapuram and Bhubaneswar.

Chattisgarh has also drawn plans to have Internet connections to all its 20,000 villages by 2005.

   

 
 
LIFE ‘WORSE THAN DEATH’ FOR 13-YR-OLD, MOTHER OF 3 
 
 
FROM SUNANDO SARKAR
 
Thakurnagar (North 24-Parganas), Nov. 5: 
Lakshmi Das is 37. Her eldest daughter, Durga, is 18. Rani Sil, who hid in the paddy fields for three days, is 25. And Sadhana Poddar is all of 13. None of them was, however, too old or too young to escape what each would first deny and then break down and simply describe as “something worse than death”.

Lakshmi, Durga, Rani and Sadhana (all names of rape victims have been changed) are four of the 60-odd women and over 100 persons who have taken refuge in villages between Thakurnagar railway station and the Indo-Bangladesh border. Each of the 100-plus men and women has his or her own share of horror tales to recount – some can back it up with multiple scars on their torso – but all admit that the four women were the worst victims of an unequal war.

Rani was a resident of Padmamanasi, an idyllic-sounding village in Bangladesh’s Bhola district. Now, she is an unsure resident of a village near the Thakurnagar railway station. “Please don’t mention the village,” members of the Bangladesh Udbastu Unnayan Sangsad, an organisation which arranged shelter for her, pleaded. “Rani and the others may be caught and pushed back,” sangsad secretary Bimal Majumdar explained.

Rani, however, couldn’t care less. After having spent 72 hours in the paddy fields behind her house, she thought she had given the marauders the slip. She, however, couldn’t have been more mistaken. Raped for “what seemed a lifetime” after she came out of hiding, she finally managed to escape by paying Rs 10,000. She had strength enough to gather her three children, who had taken shelter in a neighbour’s house, and trek for more than two days to India and safety but she doesn’t know what happened to her husband. “After all that I have gone through, it hardly matters,” she said.

Lakshmi and Durga, however, are yet to attain that stoic frame of mind. They crossed over to India from Bangladesh exactly a week ago and were residents of a village, again in Bhola which seemed to be one of the worst-affected districts. Lakshmi still can’t walk properly. The trek was painful. “But there was a lot more.”

What does she mean by “a lot more”? “I have lost everything I had,” she replies. And it’s a lot more than her property in Algi and her belongings, every bit of which was looted.

“They came to our house first on October 10 (a day before Bangladesh went to the polls that brought the BNP-led alliance to power) and then again a fortnight later,” she said.

“We stayed on because we thought that the pre-poll nightmare would be the last,” she said, explaining why she finally set out on October 25 for India.

Her daughter refuses to come out to speak. “She has a very bad headache,” says her younger brother. Durga finally comes out after a lot of coaxing; you can see why she initially refused to come out. “Please don’t ask her anything,” her mother pleads. “She has had to go through a lot of pain,” she explains.

So younger sister Debjani takes over. She got away because she stayed at Borhuddin with her uncle to study. But getting away meant not going out of the house after August. “I would always be followed to school and back and threatened with abduction and…,” Debjani’s voice trails off.

Sadhana, the youngest victim of the nightmare, was left at a village near Thakurnagar by her “dadu”, Paran, on October 19. She has two sisters still at her Ramnagar home in Barishal. Asked why her family thought it safe to keep them back for some more time, she replied — very matter-of-factly — that they were “still not even 10”.

   

 
 
POLICE BRACE FOR JHARKHAND JAILBREAK SPILLOVER 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Nov. 5: 
Alarmed by warnings of a possible eruption of violence in Burdwan and Birbhum districts, bordering Jharkhand, the state government has put the administration on alert.

An intelligence report submitted to the home department says a gang of criminals who escaped from a jail in Jharkhand have joined forces with Naxalites in the state to unleash terror.

The men might infiltrate the state through the Jharkhand border and commit bank dacoities or other crimes in the colliery town of Asansol-Durgapur, the report says. They could also attack police stations near the border areas in Burdwan and Birbhum.

The report adds that the criminals might kidnap industrialists and businessmen from the colliery town. The gang had earlier abducted a businessman from Asansol for a hefty ransom.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today reviewed the situation with chief secretary Manish Gupta, home secretary S.N. Roy and senior state police officials.

A worried Bhattacharjee directed police to take firm measures to combat a possible joint attack by Jharkhand criminals and Naxalites here.

Sources at Writers’ Buildings said Bhattacharjee might take up the matter with his counterpart in Jharkhand, Baburam Marandi.

“After the Topchachi incident in which extremists attacked a police camp and killed 13 policemen, we cannot take any risks. We have kept ourselves ready to face any eventuality,’’ said deputy inspector-general of police Narayan Ghosh.

A large contingent of security forces, including specially-trained policemen, has been deployed at Kulti, Salanpur, Rupnarayanpur, Chittaranjan and Kalyaneswari, bordering Jharkhand. The police have been given a free hand to open fire if required.

“Forces armed with light machine guns have been posted in all five police stations and on rooftops beside the police stations. Heaps of sand bags have been dumped around the five police chowkis near the border at Jamtara. The forces have been equipped with adequate arms and ammunition,’’ said B.N. Ramesh, district superintendent of police, in Asansol to oversee the security arrangements.

“We have cancelled the leave of policemen stationed in the Asansol and Durgapur belt. A round-the-clock police patrol on highways, especially on the Chittaranjan – Jamtara Road, has been intensified,” Ramesh said.

   

 
 
ARRESTS RING DALAI LAMA SECURITY ALARM 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Nov. 5: 
The arrest of four persons — three Bhutanese and an Indian — with anti-Dalai Lama documents has sent police into a tizzy over the security of the Tibetan leader who is on a week-long visit to Salaugara near here.

Additional superintendent of police, Siliguri, Kaliappan Jayaraman said: “The state intelligence branch last night arrested four persons from Pradhan Nagar on the outskirts of Siliguri for suspicious movement. Rs 12,000 in cash and a cellphone with STD connection were seized from them.

“The men said they were members of the banned Druk National Congress party of Bhutan and had assembled in Siliguri to meet their colleagues.”

The four were identified as Hari Bhattarai (39), a resident of the Bhutanese refugee camp of Beldangi in eastern Nepal, Chewang Dhondup (27), Pema Tenzing (33) and Kamal Pradhan (40), who is from Kalchini in Jalpaiguri. Jayaraman said the police were checking their credentials.

“We seized a lot of anti-Dalai Lama literature. It is surprising that refugees should carry an expensive mobile telephone, that too with an STD connection, and a large amount of cash on them. The group had been making frequent long-distance calls, apparently to Delhi,”an intelligence official said.

Jalpaiguri police have beefed up security for the Dalai Lama.

   

 
 
KHARAGPUR GUNS FOR RAMBABU 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Kharagpur, Nov. 5: 
Notorious crimelord B. Rambabu, the prime accused in the Gautam Chowbey murder case, has been remanded in police custody for two weeks.

Thousands of people gathered outside the court before Rambabu was brought in this afternoon. Workers of the Trinamul Congress, which had organised a rally demanding exemplary punishment for the murder accused, also assembled inside the compound.

Midnapore police, along with their counterparts from Andhra Pradesh, had arrested Rambabu and six of his associates from Hyderabad on November 1. They were brought to Kharagpur yesterday and produced before the sub-divisional judicial magistrate’s court today.

The magistrate, P.K. Agarwal, granted the request to remand the accused in police custody. Rambabu, his brother B Srinibas Rao and Sanjay Thakur will be held in the police lock-up of Kharagpur Town police station.

The remaining four — Kankar Rao, S Balaraju alias Chhota Srinu, R Chinna and P Krishna Rao — have been remanded in jail custody. They will be presented at the test identification parade to be held shortly.

No lawyer appeared in favour of the accused in court.

A large contingent of armed policemen was deployed around the court compound and senior district police officials were camping there. Around 3 pm, when the prison van carrying the accused reached the court, a mob gheraoed the van and demanded that Rambabu be handed over to the public. “We want Rambabu’s head,” the crowd shouted.

The slogan-shouting continued for about 30 minutes, with protesters blocking the path of the van. Police finally had to resort to a lathicharge to disperse the mob and take the accused inside the court. A group of Trinamul supporters also forced their way in and started abusing Rambabu and his associates. Some even spat and threw shoes at them.

The magistrate took two minutes to give his verdict and the accused were quickly whisked out amid tight security. People threw brickbats and stones at the prison van when it was on its way back to the police lock-up.

When contacted, Gouri Choubey, Gautam’s mother, refused to comment. But another family member said: “People will surely heave a sigh of relief if Rambabu and his associates are given exemplary punishment.”

Rambabu is also wanted for the murder of Gautam’s brother Manas. Both brothers were Trinamul leaders. Gautam was killed two months ago while Manas was murdered in 1999.

   
 

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