Mamata fires madarsa gun
Private push to Haldia port
RSP joins Bloc against Big Brother
Cry for CPM apology
Neutral handover option revived
Kargil replay ‘plot’
Priyanka in UP poll dilemma
Cong soft on VHP, Mulayam
At work, with toothbrush and in lungi
Clinton on travel list

Malda, Jan. 29: 
Mamata Banerjee today moved to endear herself to the minority community by supporting it on the madarsa issue.

Criticising chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s statements against khareji (unaffiliated) madarsas, where the emphasis is on imparting Islamic education, the Trinamul Congress chief called for a “softer handling of the issue”.

“It is unfortunate that today a particular community is being driven towards the wall. This is not a step in the right direction. It appears that we have forgotten that India is a country where people belonging to diverse religions live together within the fabric of communal harmony,” she said, in her first reaction to the controversy.

Bhattacharjee had said last week that some unaffiliated madarsas were fomenting anti-national activities and blamed the ISI for the mushrooming of such institutions along the border with Bangladesh.

Mamata’s comments are aimed at appeasing her party’s minority supporters and weaning away the CPM’s “hurt” voters.

The Trinamul leader believes that if she is not seen as articulating the sentiments of the minority community, the Congress will further consolidate its grip on the minority votebank. “She cannot afford to lose the votes to the Congress,” a party official said.

Mamata also accused the Left Front government of allowing madarsas to mushroom in Bengal during its 25-year regime. “These madarsas did not come up overnight. The Left parties came to power riding piggyback on their support and now they are finding fault with them. What have they been doing so long?” she asked at a news conference after inaugurating a new Trinamul office in Malda town.

Mamata also held the Left Front responsible for steady infiltration of ISI agents into the state. “The Left Front government knew everything about the activities of the ISI agents but failed to take any action against them. The government is accountable to the people for its inability to tackle terrorists,” she added.

“The time is ripe to fight the terrorists unitedly, shedding political differences. But we find that the Left Front here does not even treat us as the principal Opposition party, let alone take us into confidence in tackling the present menace,” she said.


Haldia, Jan. 29: 
Calcutta Port Trust has, in principle, decided to privatise the upcoming projects in the Haldia Dock Complex involving an investment of Rs 950 crore. These include leasing out two existing berths and the Brownfield expansion of the complex with 15 more berths.

CPT’s move comes after the government recently issued a privatisation policy for Indian ports. Chairman H.P. Roy today said privatisation is expected to make the system more efficient, an ingredient necessary to get business in a world of cut-throat competition.

The port authority has already privatised Berths 8 and 4.

An MoU was signed today with TM International Logistics Ltd, a joint venture between Tata Steel and IQ Martrade & Holding GmbH of Germany. Roy is optimistic the agreement will boost the efficiency of Haldia port. “Worldwide, ports are thriving in the same way only. We think this will have a great influence on our system,” Roy said.

The joint venture will start operating in Berth 12 within three months.

The company will simultaneously undertake installation of all required equipment and development of other infrastructure at the berth over a period of three years.


Malda, Jan. 29: 
Voices of dissent within the Left Front were heard again with the Revolutionary Socialist Party today starting from where the Forward Bloc had signed off. The RSP accused the CPM, the major partner in the Front, of taking “unilateral” decisions on important issues, ignoring the opinion of the minor partners.

“We were ardent advocates of decentralisation of power, but now we find everything is being centralised. The Left Front was not created at the CPM headquarters. Instead, we had collectively formed the Left Front,” RSP state secretary Debabrata Bandopadhyay, a former irrigation minister, said at the party’s 16th state conference at Balurghat.

A fortnight ago, Forward Bloc leaders had lashed out at the CPM in the same vein.

Bandopadhyay alleged that Big Brother CPM was trying to grab “more power” in the name of decentralising a number of government agencies, including the panchayati raj system. “It is regrettable that the CPM has become power-hungry and is desperate to grab power even by ignoring the minor Front partners,” he said. The Front is no longer an effective tool for organising people’s movement, he rued.


Calcutta, Jan. 29: 
The West Bengal Madarsa Students’ Union and some religious leaders today demanded an apology from the CPM and the government for criticising the state’s khareji madarsas and warned they would suffer in the elections if they did not.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had recently said that some of these madarsas, teaching only Islam and Arabic literature, may have been used by anti-national elements. Earlier this week, state CPM secretary Anil Biswas had asked his party cadre to maintain strict vigil in their localities on probable anti-national elements.

“Everyone knows that Muslims almost everywhere vote en bloc for the CPM,” Noor-ud-din Barkati, Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Masjid, said.

“But things may change for the party if the party and the government it leads go on targeting Muslims and their educational institutions,” he said.

The majlis-e-shura (executive committee) of the religious heads of mosques would soon meet to decide upon a date for a march to Writers’ Buildings, he added.

The madarsa students’ union will organise a march to Esplanade on Wednesday. “We are happy that the chief minister has clarified that the government-sponsored madarsas are not breeding grounds for ISI agents,” said the union’s general secretary, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman.

But Bhattacharjee’s statement had hurt Muslim sentiments, he insisted.


New Delhi/Islamabad, Jan. 29: 

Pakistan offers talks on troops

Handing over some of the terrorists on India’s most-wanted list to a third country is emerging as a possible way out of the military standoff on the subcontinent.

The foundations for such a formula were laid during talks between US secretary of state Colin Powell and Delhi earlier this month, but indications are it will crystallise in the first seven or 10 days of February. The timing is crucial in the context of the forthcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh.

For the first time since it mounted efforts to cool the temperatures, Islamabad today offered immediate talks on a phased withdrawal of troops from the border. It also suggested that this should be followed by comprehensive talks on Kashmir.

But an intransigent Delhi snubbed the offer — the first ever in which Pakistan has de-linked Kashmir from the tension on the borders — saying any forward movement in bilateral relations would have to be preceded by some action on the terrorists’ list.

Indian leaders are keenly watching what “handover” strategy General Pervez Musharraf will devise at the meeting with powerful corps commanders on Thursday. Much will depend on the support he is able to draw out. The sticking points are likely to be which terrorists will be handed over to which country.

Delhi is yet to spell out what it will be satisfied with, but has made it clear that handing over some Sikh militants will not do. “It has to be Khalistani terrorists plus some of the Bombay blast suspects which could possibly break the current impasse,” a South Block official said.

“Having taken a tough stand on the issue, the government would need names which are saleable to the domestic audience,” he added.

Pakistan foreign office spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan rued as “unfortunate” India’s consistently negative response to what he called his country’s goodwill offers.

“Absurd excuses have sometimes been made not to hold talks,” he said, adding that Pakistan would remain patient. “Pakistan has done its bit, the ball is now in India’s court.”

But South Block officials said Delhi would not budge on the handover issue. “Our bottom line is to see some movement on the (handover) demand…,” a prime ministerial aide said.

On the possibility of Pakistan handing over the terrorists to a third-country, he said a lot would depend on which country they are handed over to.

“If they are handed over to countries in the West, it would be much easier for us to get them back. But if they are sent to some other place from where the terrorists once again melt away, it would not help us at all,” he said.

National security adviser Brajesh Mishra is scheduled to attend a security meeting in Munich later this week. Pakistan foreign minister Abdus Sattar will also attend.

This has sparked speculation about a possible meeting between them on the sidelines.

Indian foreign ministry officials said an informal interaction could not be ruled out.


New Delhi, Jan. 29: 
Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed militants have built bunkers and blown-up small bridges in the Poonch-Rajouri sector in Kashmir in action similar to the Kargil-type intrusions, reports PTI quoting intelligence sources.

Several “pucca” bunkers have been built in Kakahills, Darhal, Manjakote, Gambir, Mendhar and Behramgala areas since the army build-up on the border in the last few weeks.

Defence sources in New Delhi, however, said the reports of bunkers having been built are “untrue”. But an exchange of fire continues in the region.

Military sources said Pakistan has targeted the area in the past, too, to buttress their claim not only to the Srinagar Valley north of the Pir Panjal, but also part of Jammu south of the range.

The sources said that if it is true that militants backed by the Pakistan army have dug in, then an offensive by the Indian army could take shape almost immediately. Unlike the reaches north of the range, the Poonch-Rajouri area is not snowed under. Altitude varies from 5,000 to 9,000 feet.

“Such a big intrusion would have been caught out earlier. Also, it is unlikely the Pakistan army will adopt such tactics now with the high level of forces on the border,” said a major general who has served in the area.

The report from Pooch says the militants have built bunkers that are strong and can withstand mortar fire. The hideouts have also been fortified in renewed militant building activity in the Surankote-Darhal belt.

in the area, the intelligence sources said. Surankote is about 15 km from the LoC inside India.

“The simple aim of militants acting as per direction of the Special Services Group unit of the Pakistan army is to completely wipe out ground support for army and district authorities as pre-war tactics,” they claimed.

The sources said over 3,000 tonnes of explosive and several truckloads of weaponry, including rocket launchers, mortar guns, missiles and flame throwers, were also believed to have been sent in by the Pakistani army through the militants. In Delhi, sources doubted the veracity of such claims because there aren’t enough roads in the area to deliver “truckloads of weaponry”.

The intelligence sources said structures vacated by the Rashtriya Rifles troops at high altitude posts have been set on fire by the militants.


New Delhi, Jan. 29: 
All major political parties have launched their campaign for the Assembly polls on caste, performance and leadership issues but the Congress is still pinning hopes on the “Priyanka factor” to shore up prospects, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.

But there is still no sign of Priyanka emerging as a full-time campaigner. Rather, 10 Janpath insiders are talking about the possibility of Rahul Gandhi taking up the family profession of politics.

Family friends and senior party leaders have reasons to count on Rahul. He has apparently come to India for good winding up consultancy work in London. Well-placed sources said a search is also on to get a suitable match as his relations with a Venezuelan girl, Junita, have run into rough weather.

However, the news of Rahul assisting mother Sonia and taking up politics at a later stage (after the Uttar Pradesh polls) has not enthused the Congress rank and file. To a majority of them, Priyanka has a much wider appeal that cuts across caste, gender and regional barriers.

Uttar Pradesh party chief Sriprakash Jaiswal had recently requested Sonia to persuade Priyanka to campaign in Amethi, Kanpur and Allahabad. Sonia said it was up to her daughter to decide.

Priyanka is reportedly in double mind about pitching in to bail out the Congress at a time when most pollsters have almost written off the party in Uttar Pradesh.

Initially, Priyanka was more than keen to campaign in Amethi but now she is receiving reports that the party may not win even half of the Assembly seats that fall within Sonia’s parliamentary constituency. The presence of Amita Modi, wife of Sanjay Singh, has posed a greater challenge to Priyanka.

At a personal level, she is itching to take her on and ensure a repeat of Arun Nehru. Rajiv Gandhi’s cousin, Arun, badly lost the Raibareilly Lok Sabha seat in 1999 after Priyanka pleaded voters to defeat a “traiter”.

A section of the party is putting pressure on Priyanka not to get involved with the Uttar Pradesh polls on grounds that if the Congress fares poorly, it would be a poor reflection on Priyanka.

“Unless there is strong organisational network, we would not be able to take advantage of her presence. We should save her for general elections,” said a senior AICC functionary.

According to them, if the Congress gets 20-25 seats in Uttar Pradesh, it would reflect badly on Sonia and end the myth of the Nehru-Gandhi factor in heartland politics.

However, Congressmen from the state think otherwise.

This school feels Priyanka’s presence would enhance the Congress tally to somewhere around 50 seats and keep them in contention. “We can at least become king-makers,” said a party functionary.

Priyanka is keeping her cards close to the chest. She has been listening to the arguments of both sides.

Jaiswal said he has not heard anything about her campaign plans. He is drawing solace from the fact that she has not said “No”.

Highly placed sources in 10 Janpath said Sonia is keen to draft Rahul ahead of Priyanka.

AICC general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad has vetoed a proposal to draft film stars Shah Rukh Khan, Juhi Chawla and others to counter Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Sridevi, Kajol and Ajay Devgan, who have been roped in by Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party.

Azad is said to be against the “wasteful expenditure”. According to him, the gamble would not translate into votes for the Congress. The three film personalities in the party — Rajesh Khanna, Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt — are not very active now. Both Kumar and Dutt are not keeping best of health while Khanna is said to be sulking over the denial of a Rajya Sabha nomination.


Lucknow, Jan. 29: 
The Congress today released its election manifesto and said its central theme for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections will be development, social justice and communal harmony.

The manifesto avoided any direct criticism of Mulayam Singh Yadav or the Samajwadi Party, raising speculation in political circles that the party is keeping the door open for a post-poll alliance.

But asked about its soft approach towards the Samajwadi, state unit chief Sriprakash Jaiswal refused to absolve either the Samajwadi, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the BJP for the state’s “pathetic” condition. “That doesn’t mean the Samajwadi Party or for that matter even the Bahujan Samaj Party is not responsible for the pathetic condition of Uttar Pradesh,” he said. “Between the three of them they have ruined Uttar Pradesh.”

On terrorism, the Congress stand is somewhere between that of the BJP and the Samajwadi. Maintaining that “all kinds of terrorism will be rooted out,” the party said terrorism had no relation with the polls. “It is an issue the country is facing, (and) the BJP is exploiting it in an unfair way to garner votes,” Jaiswal emphasised.

The party also watered down its criticism of the VHP’s renewed thrust on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. Saying it would respect the verdict of the Supreme Court, the Congress promised greater security to minority institutions of worship.


Bhachau (Kutch), Jan. 29: 
Ravi Soni, a bank employee, starts his workday by brushing his teeth in the morning and often finishes it at the dinner table.

Like his six other colleagues at the Dena Bank, operating from a pre-fab room for the past one year without any security guard, Soni’s workload and problems have multiplied since the quake ravaged this Kutch town a year ago.

Soni does not complain, though.

“There is no fixed working time for us now. We start our workday around seven in the morning while brushing our teeth. We often work through dinner in lungis,” Soni, a special assistant, said. “Who says we government banks do not work?”

Thousands of local residents, who have lost their homes and loved ones to the quake, throng the bank every day to avail the compensations and loans the government is making available through the branch, which once used to operate from a small two-storeyed building that also collapsed.

“Our workload has gone up several times, but we still have the same seven staff that we had before the earthquake. We are putting in extra hours to finish the job and help the people as much as we can,” said accountant K.K. Arya, the branch head.

The hard work has paid off — the bank has registered a profit of Rs 94 lakh this year, almost six times the figure last year. But along with the profit, the problems of the staff have soared as well.

With the quake killing more than 5000 people and destroying nearly 50,000 houses in this town, the bank staff has been forced to live in tents without their families.

“We had to send our families away since there is no house to live in and no school to send our children to,” said computer operator Ramesh Choubey.

The tents, their home for the last one year, were provided by a non-government organisation. “The government has not given us any shelter even though we have been dealing with their money only,” Choubey said.

Bhachau, like its mangled cousins Bhuj and Anjar, has been caught in a bureaucratic muddle over town planning – even a year after the quake, the government has not started reconstruction.

Like the bank staff, employees of other government offices, too, have a hard time largely because of government indecision. The local post office, also operating from a pre-fab shed in the absence of its collapsed building, is struggling with nearly 500 claims of its dead clients.

“A large number of local residents had their money in the post office under different savings and insurance schemes, but now many of them are dead,” post master S.D. Jadeja said. “How can you settle claims worth Rs 50 lakh with the handful of staff that I have.”

The one-room post office doubles up as “home” for its three employees who lost their homes to the quake. “They have been cooking here and staying here for the last one year,” Jadeja said.

It will take at least two years for the near ones of the dead to get the money back from the post office. “There is nothing I can do with 17 staff, including postmen, who have to deliver around 2000 letters, while others have to handle 1000 government money orders a day,” Jadeja said.

While some government organisations such as the railways transferred its staff out of Bhuj in the wake of the disaster, the Dena Bank staff said they were compelled to stay back.

“We all have asked for transfers, but the management said no one is willing to come here to replace us. They said they cannot for the same reason increase the staff either,” the accountant said.

Soni said he had taken out a staff loan of Rs 1.20 lakh to build a house. With the house no longer standing, he has asked the bank to write off the loan. “But they have not said anything.”

But not all the problems the staff at Dena Bank faces are personal. Though the bank keeps an average Rs 10 lakh for disbursement of loans and compensations, it has no guard.

“We had two securitymen before the quake, but they have now been withdrawn because they were needed somewhere else. This is when the bank is housed in an unsafe room made of fibre,” the branch head said.


New Delhi, Jan. 29: 
Like Cinderella, Delhi is all set to be dressed up for its date with the five-day Pacific Asia Travel Association annual conference beginning on April 14.

The Union ministry of tourism, the host for the conference, has gone into an overdrive coordinating the details so that things go right. Vinay K. Duggal, the director general of tourism, is acting as the pointsman between the government and the industry.

Union minister for tourism and culture Jagmohan, the chairman of the host committee, will call a meeting of representatives of civic agencies and Delhi police to see that the city is spruced up to tempt the international travel industry.

Less than three months from now, the curtains will go up on the conference, the biggest travel industry event to be held here for the first time.

Some 1,500 delegates and their spouses are expected to arrive in Delhi on the occasion. The major business of the conference will be conducted at Ashok Hotel, while some activities have been planned at other venues as well.

The theme of the conference is Tourism — Looking Ahead and Beyond. It will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Rajya Sabha MP Karan Singh will deliver the keynote address.

Though the organisers are keeping it under wraps, it is learnt that one of the star attractions at the conference will be former US President Bill Clinton, a self-confessed unofficial ambassador for India.

Travel industry insiders are positive about the conference. Says Larry Malarkar, a travel industry consultant: “Anything which enhances India’s profile in the international market is welcome.”

Sham Suri of the Federation of Hotels and Restaurants Association of India strikes a similar note. He says that close to a dozen top hotels in Delhi have been designated as official hotels for the conference.

“The conference will have a good fallout both for the short and the long term,” he adds.

According to Ram Kohli of Creative Travels, one of the conveners of the conference as well as the secretary-general of the association, this will be a great opportunity for Indian tourism. He is very happy with registrations coming in.

Says Kohli: “Think of the possible impact on the travel industry from leaders from 52 countries.”

Kohli points out that apart from the business sessions, a very good complimentary entertainment programme has also been laid out for the delegates and their spouses. This includes yoga demonstration, a Delhi heritage tour for the spouses, a fashion show, a cookery demonstration, a herbal beauty demonstration, ayurvedic treatment, et al, he said.


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