Crack team on trail of explosives
Mamata proposes, public disposes
Gang of four robs bank of Rs 19 lakh
Hill body in downsize row with Sikkim
Sonia sidesteps videshi war ‘trap’
Kirti coup on Laloo pitch
‘Interim’ CM in Jaya poll push
Fire at Mumbai airport
No Imported spouse, we are British
Fleeing from Karachi in search of Madonna

Feb. 8: 
The Burdwan district administration has formed a taskforce comprising district police and the central force of Eastern Coalfields Limited to search for the huge quantities of explosives and detonators stolen from the company’s magazine room in the Asansol area.

Concerned about the recent rampant theft of explosives and detonators from Jamuria, Pandabeswar, Ranigunj and Asansol, the state government has asked ECL authorities to strengthen security measures. Home secretary A.K. Deb has offered police assistance to ECL, if necessary, to help revamp the security system in the colliery belt, especially for guarding magazine rooms. Deb directed district magistrate Manoj Agarwal to be more cautious in granting explosives licences and maintain a register on its utilisation and stores.

“Theft of explosives is a serious matter. Nobody knows where the stolen explosives will be used. This is alarming as the explosives can be used for subversive activities. Though the responsibility to provide security in the colliery areas lies with ECL, we are ready to help them,” Deb said.

A major cause of concern is that these explosives might have reached the People’s War Group activists who have made steady inroads in the rural belt of Burdwan, Midnapore and Bankura.

In a report to the home department on the theft of explosives, the district magistrate blamed ECL authorities for their lack of supervision in colliery areas. The report also indicates that an organised racket is behind the thefts.

Agarwal said the district administration has been formulating a new policy for purchasing, stocking and using explosives. “Additional district magistrate (Asansol) Manish Jain has been assigned to maintain a detailed record on explosives and detonators and oversee the security system in the magazine rooms,” he said.

ECL chief personnel manager R.R. Mishra said they were also concerned over the theft of explosives and were trying to prevent it.

“We have given a proposal to the district administration for strengthening security in the colliery belt. We hope that joint efforts by the ECL and the district police will strengthen security,” Mishra said.


Burdwan, Feb. 8: 
Even the drubbing in the May polls could not have prepared Mamata Banerjee for today’s sudden let-down.

In Burdwan on a jail-bharo mission, she demanded a bifurcation of the district on the lines of Midnapore.

Burdwan, the Trinamul leader told a crowd of 5,000, should be split into a rural district and an industrial one comprising Asansol, Durgapur and Ranigunj.

Chaos followed the moment she made the announcement. Leaders such as Golam Jargis and Swapan Debnath stood on their feet and protested against the proposal. Even Sovandeb Chattopadhyay, who had accompanied Mamata on the visit, argued that there was no need for a division of the district.

Then Mamata turned to the public. She asked those who were in favour of bifurcation to raise their hands.

She was greeted by pin-drop silence. “But I feel it would have been good for the people of this district. Now it is up to you,” was all she could say.

Later, she told reporters that her demand was justified. She also advised the local leaders to sit with the people of the district and explain why a bifurcation would be better for them.

Konnagar bandh

The Congress has called a 12-hour bandh at Konnagar tomorrow to protest against the alleged police assault on some contract labourers and demand the resignation of Swapan Das, the chairman of the district’s Trinamul-controlled board.

Labourers have been staging a sit-in on the municipality premises since December.


Asansol, Feb. 8: 
In the most daring dacoity in the region ever, four armed youths looted Rs 19 lakh from the Asansol branch of Canara Bank at Murgasole this morning.

The dacoits locked the employees inside the strongroom before escaping. No arrest was reported till late tonight.

Police said the four revolver-toting miscreants, aged between 25 and 30 years, entered the bank in south Asansol at 9.50 am, shortly before the start of the business hour. Only the branch manager and 10 other employees were present when the youths stormed into the bank, which is a stone’s throw from the Murgasole police outpost.

At gunpoint, the dacoits shoved the 10 employees into the strongroom and locked it. The only armed guard employed by the bank, who had just arrived and was readying for duty, was also locked in the strongroom.

The miscreants then forced the branch manager to open the cash vault and took out the money. After 20 minutes, the dacoits fled, without facing any resistance despite the bank’s sweeper, Ganga Paswan, pressing the alarm button. Paswan, who was cleaning the toilet at the time of the raid, hid unseen behind a cash counter.

The daring raid has shaken the employees. “I was about to start the day’s work when, suddenly, I was hit hard on the face. I found myself staring down the nozzle of a revolver. The dacoit ordered me in Hindi to lower my head. Other employees also faced a similar fate. We were all pushed into the strongroom,” said Prabhu Singh, a bank officer.

“They locked the collapsible gate of the strongroom and carried out the dacoity. We were lucky that they did not lock the airproof gate of the strongroom, as we would then have died of suffocation,” said Manik Mondal, another employee.

Branch manager J.R.P. Roy said the bank had a lot of cash. “After going through our accounts we find that Rs 19,29,350 has been looted,” he said.

Police are yet to ascertain how the dacoits arrived or escaped.

Additional district superintendent of police Supratim Sarkar said police rushed to the spot as soon as they got the information around 10.15 am.


Siliguri, Feb. 8: 
The Gorkha National Liberation Front has taken on the Sikkim government.

It all started when the Sikkim government decided to remove a majority of its 1,000-strong muster-roll and work-charge employees in a bid to trim “surplus” staff and bring about fiscal discipline in the cash-starved state.

But the hill body has alleged that the government has “singled out outsiders”, particularly those from the Darjeeling hills.

“We are steadfast in our decision to downsize the state government’s surplus staff to curtail expenditure. We have issued a notification to lay off the muster-roll and work-charge employees,” chief minister Pawan Chamling told The Telegraph from Gangtok.

“Muster-roll employment is of temporary nature. Over the years, such employment increased despite the workers having no assigned work. There is no question of the state government carrying such expenditure burden any longer,” Chamling said.

“We have, however, set up a 15-year cut-off limit for work-charge employees. Those who have completed 15 years of employment with the state government will be absorbed as bona fide state government employees,” the chief minister added.

“We expect some 400 work-charge employees to be regularised under this scheme. The state has over 500 technically-qualified unemployed youths. Following the retrenchments, these youths will be employed,” Chamling said.

The GNLF has raised a hue and cry. “The Sikkim government’s decision is aimed at Gorkhas from Darjeeling. Most of the axed muster-roll and work-charge employees are from the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong,” said GNLF Kalimpong branch committee chief Dawa Pakhrin.

Chamling countered: “It is not true that people from Darjeeling are being singled out. The decision was required as state departments were over-staffed.”

“Forty per cent of the state government’s permanent employees are from the Darjeeling hills. So there is no question of discrimination. But with the rate of unemployment on the rise in the state, we were compelled to take this decision,” the chief minister pointed out.

The GNLF has resolved to chalk out an agitational programme to support the “oustees”.

“The Sikkim government should treat the matter in a humanitarian manner. These employees have served the Sikkim government diligently, despite their low wages. We will watch the developments and launch a concerted agitation if necessary,” Pakhrin said.

GNLF threat over PDS

With residents in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong not receiving foodgrain through the public distribution system for the past month, the GNLF issued an ultimatum to the state food and civil supplies department to resume PDS within the next few weeks.

The GNLF Kalimpong branch committee today decided that if the PDS supply is not resumed soon the party will launch an agitation, according to Pakhrin.

The GNLF leader said a memorandum has been submitted to the Kalimpong SDO to resume supply of foodgrain.

“Despite the surrender of over 1.52 lakh ration cards in Kalimpong alone, over a year back, the government has not issued any fresh ration cards to consumers in Kalimpong,” Pakhrin said.

Sources in the state food and civil supplies department said the PDS system in the hills failed as funds meant for transport of foodgrain have not reached the district controller, food and supplies.


New Delhi, Feb. 8: 
Sonia Gandhi today instructed partymen not to join issue with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the “videshi” slur even as the BJP renewed its offensive, raking up the delay in the Congress chief acquiring Indian citizenship and her alleged failure to learn any local language.

Sonia overruled Congress spin-doctors, who deliberated for hours over the possibility of going on the offensive against Vajpayee.

The Congress chief told senior party leaders that the matter should be put to rest after the Prime Minister’s clarification, which she accepted at face value. A day after calling Sonia a “videshi mahila”, Vajpayee had said yesterday that he meant no disrespect to her.

Sonia asked party campaigners to “focus on national issues” like national security, farmers’ plight and misgovernance. “The BJP is trying to divert attention to non-issues and let us not fall into its bait,” she explained.

Sources close to the Congress president said she had taken Vajpayee’s remarks as recognition of her role as effective leader of the principal Opposition party. She told some outraged party functionaries that Vajpayee’s comments betrayed nervousness and a sense of panic that the Congress would soon replace the BJP at the Centre.

The Prime Minister and her other adversaries had “no idea of the stuff she is made of”, she added.

The Congress leader’s announcement of a “ceasefire”, however, had little impact on the BJP. Party spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra launched a tirade against her. He demanded an apology from her for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and charged the Congress chief with putting the nation’s security at risk by opposing the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance and supporting madarsas.

“The BJP has not raised the issue of her foreign origins. But if the Congress is hell bent on raking it up, we would like to know why it took her 16 years to acquire Indian citizenship? Why, despite staying in India for 34 years, has she never addressed a gathering without the help of a written speech?” the BJP spokesman asked.

Referring to Sonia’s parliamentary performance, Malhoutra said it was against the rules to read out from written speeches in Parliament, but the Congress chief always did that. Vajpayee out of “extreme courtesy” prevented party MPs from objecting to it, he added.

The BJP spokesman regretted that Sonia had, during her poll campaign, never referred to issues such as terrorism, the growing ISI network in the country, the attack on Parliament and the proxy war being waged by Pakistan.

Sources close to Sonia said she was not upset by Vajpayee’s remarks. She was greatly agitated when Purno Sangma, Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar had raked up the foreign-origin issue in May 1999 as the criticism had come from within the party. However, once the dust settled down and she withdrew her resignation as AICC president, Sonia became indifferent to the “videshi” slur.

The sources also wonder what Vajpayee’s line of defence would be if voters in Punjab and Uttaranchal give a mandate to the Congress headed by a “videshi mahila”?

Congress leaders said they are surprised by the timing of Vajpayee’s remarks. “We thought that the BJP would raise the foreign-origin issue shortly before the general elections,” a party MP said.


Patna, Feb. 8: 
You could call it a political coup on the cricket pitch, though Kirti Azad would not agree.

While Bihar strongman Laloo Yadav was today away in Uttar Pradesh campaigning for his party as well as Soniaji’s Congress, the cricketer-turned-BJP legislator stole the show: he launched a rebel cricket board to take on the Laloo-led Bihar Cricket Association.

Azad has christened the new body the Association of Bihar Cricket and claims there is no politics in his move. But eyebrows have been raised as the Darbhanga MP enjoys much clout in the National Democratic Alliance and the cowbelt is priming for Assembly polls.

“There is no politics in this. I am a cricketer by heart and a politician by choice,” Azad declared at a news conference after a general body meeting of his association, which has allegedly secured the support of several national cricketers.

“My primary object in launching this association is to promote cricket. There is no dearth of cricketers in Bihar, but the talents are running away elsewhere. I will stop the escapist (sic) mood of the cricketers,” he continued, flanked by cricketers Saba Karim, Rajiv Raza and Ambika Dayal.

But Azad did not skip the chance to target Laloo. “There has been no move to promote cricket by Mr Laloo Yadav. Has anything happened in Bihar since he became president? He is surrounded by a caucus of non-cricketers which will not allow him to help cricket,” he alleged.

The former Test player, who has been holding coaching camps in his constituency since last year, justified his action by saying he had sounded out Laloo on bettering Bihar cricket but to little avail. “I tried to speak to him on this, solicit his help. He showed no initiative or any gesture of cooperation. So I had to go my way,” he said.

Azad has launched his parallel board at a time the Laloo-led body is fighting a legitimacy case in court. The Jamshedpur unit of the Bihar Cricket Association has claimed that it is the original body as the association was initially registered in that city. After Jharkhand was created, Bihar took over the board.

A Bihar cricketer said Kirti’s board would be the third body to seek BCCI affiliation. “When two men fight for a piece of cake, a monkey waiting for a chance gets the benefit,” he quipped.

The new board has 32 “democratically elected” district presidents. It has divided the state into eight zones and will be hold a state-level cricket tournament this month.

Some of Azad’s office bearers are, however, members of the Krira Manch, a sports unit of the BJP. “If it is so, it is just a coincidence. But Krira Manch may produce a good cricketer who could be in my association. What is wrong in that?” Azad asked.

But the RJD is certain there is more to it than meets the eye. “We can say that it is not simple cricket now,” spokesman Shivanand Tiwari said.

“Kirti’s body with functionaries of the BJP in it stands exposed. Let every political party open a new association of cricket like Kirti. Cricket is good politics too at the district level,” a minister added.


Chennai, Feb. 8: 
The Andipatti bypoll is nearly two weeks away. But chief minister O. Panneerselvam, who from Day1 had termed himself “interim”, appears all too eager to make his “self-fulfilling prophecy as the stop-gap CM come true”.

Fresh from a three-day campaign for ADMK chief Jayalalithaa, Panneerselvam teamed up with finance minister C. Ponnaiyan in back-sliding on the sensitive issue of voluntary retirement scheme for state government employees. He declared that 30 per cent downsizing of surplus staff did not mean “retrenchment”.

In making this tactical concession to the karmacharis, the Tamil Nadu government team, which negotiated with the Joint Action Committee of Employees and teachers’ organisations, which had threatened indefinite strike from yesterday, avoided a major showdown.

Apparently, the “instructions from Amma” to Panneerselvam and Ponnaiyan were to ensure that the government staff did not go ahead with their strike as the crucial by-election, which she hopes to win to return as chief minister, is slated for February 21. Sources said the ADMK regime can hardly afford a repeat of the way it had last year handled the state transport workers’ strike over payment of bonus.

The government said the proposed “30 per cent cut in surplus staff” was yet to be formalised through a government order, so employees need not worry. It added that before going ahead with any trimming plan, the state would ensure the interests of employees and teachers and also see that their pension benefits are not affected. Though couched in such general terms, it was a big reassurance for the worried staffers.

The government also handed down a series of “assurances in writing”. They include restoration of festival advance to all employees from April 1, 2002 and steps to fill in existing vacancies in various departments within the ambit of the review being done by the Staff Reforms Commission. The government also assured it would appoint a panel to study how the proposed cut in grants for educational institutions would affect teachers and other staff.

The chief minister looked pleased that his administration won a “diplomatic victory” as the settlement with the employees made it clear that other outstanding issues — like payment of Pongal bonus and ex-gratia — would be sorted out.

Emerging from the Cabinet meeting he chaired at Fort St George this evening, which many thought could be his last, Panneerselvam said the immediate financial outgo from the commitments his regime had made to government staff was not much.

About Rs 112 crore allotted to Tamil Nadu last year under the National Calamity Relief Fund was still there, he said. This amount, besides extra Central assistance if need be, would be sought to compensate farmers in the Cauvery delta districts whose crops had been damaged in the recent floods.


Mumbai, Feb. 8: 
A fire blazed through the domestic terminal of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport here today, gutting the building and sending passengers into panic.

More than 100 firemen battled the blaze for over four hours to bring it under control. No injuries were reported.

Airport officials said the blaze had not hit air services in any way. Almost all aircraft took off and touched down on schedule in the country’s busiest airport.

Fire brigade officials suspect a short circuit caused the blaze. Police said though they did not suspect any foul play, they were investigating the fire, the fiercest in the airport in a decade.

The fire broke out around 1.30 pm in Terminal No.1B of the airport in Santacruz that houses the engineering division of Jet Airways.

By the time firemen arrived, it had spread to the first floor, housing the pay and account office of the airport authorities, fire brigade sources said.

As smoke billowed from the gutted building, passengers and airport staff panicked and ran around adding to the confusion. Those waiting in the lobby scrambled out. An airport security officer said the passengers had no idea about what had actually happened and some of them had presumed that there was a terrorist attack.

“We are lucky nobody got hurt in the chaos,” the officer said.

The police threw a security cordon around the building in flame and sealed the area. Thirty fire engines were pressed into operation.

Deputy commissioner of police (airport) Sanjay Barve said the extent of the damage was not yet known but a large number of official records were destroyed.


Feb. 8: 
Home secretary (interior minister) David Blunkett has upset sections of the Asian community in Britain by suggesting it would integrate better if fewer of them were to import wives and husbands from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This comes on top of new rules that will require immigrants to pass an English language test before being given British nationality.

In 2000, there were almost 18,000 grants of entry clearance to spouses from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — more than double the number in 1996.

The home secretary yesterday launched his immigration white paper, “Secure Borders, Safe Haven”, which aims to break down racial barriers between communities and ensure greater integration of ethnic minorities.

The white paper says: “We believe there is a discussion to be had within those communities that continue the practice of arranged marriages as to whether more of these could be undertaken within the settled community here.”

Though Blunkett said he did not intend to forbid arranged marriages, he made it clear he disapproved of them across countries. “There’s nothing that’s off-bounds,” he said, defending his right to speak out.

“It’s a kind of reverse racism that if you’re White and middle class you can’t say or do anything at all that might upset someone who’s Black or Asian, rather than seeing that as something that is contrary to real integration and diversity. That’s deeply patronising,” he said.

“It is the business of those who come into our country to question our ways, and it is our business to raise issues of relevance with those who are practising a different social norm,” he insisted.

Young Asian women brought up in Britain “want to be able to marry someone who speaks their language, namely English, who has been educated in the same way as they have, and has similar social attitudes”, the home secretary argued. “That seems a crucial issue in terms of future co-operation and breaking down of terrible tension that exists when people are trapped between two different cultures and backgrounds. I don’t think it’s unreasonable. I hope I’m doing it sensitively.”

The practice of importing wives is most common among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, though it is not uncommon among Indians either.

Several Hindi films have centred around this theme, the latest being Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. Subhash Ghai’s Pardes, starring Mahima Choudhary, told the story of an Indian girl who escaped from an unhappy marriage with a man brought up in the West.

Blunkett was supported by Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, who sees herself as a champion of oppressed Asian women. “Islam is quite clear when parents are arranging a marriage for their children, the main prerequisite is compatibility. That compatibility will be so much more easily achieved if they arrange marriages within the UK community,” she said.

“It would help the many young women who visit my office in need of help because of the breakdown of such traditional arranged marriages,” she added.

There was a hostile reaction to Blunkett’s proposals from Milena Buyum, of the National Assembly Against Racism, who urged him not to interfere in such a sensitive area.

“Telling established British communities whom they should or should not marry is quite abhorrent to these communities. This would send exactly the wrong signal to these predominantly Asian communities that they are not part of the British norm. It is not a way to encourage social cohesion. In fact, raising these issues will alienate those communities,” Buyum said.

The real situation, in practice, is a lot more complicated. Importing brides is going out of fashion among educated Indians. However, getting a British educated girl to agree to marriage is not easy either.

Many want to leave the question of marriage till their thirties while they get on with their careers.

Men find they make great girlfriends but poor wives. The demure Indian girl with fluttering eyelashes is a thing of the past.

Among orthodox Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins, there is a far greater willingness among parents to import wives and husbands for their children as a way of preserving “traditional culture”.

This leads, in some cases, to “forced marriages”, whereby young schoolgirls are dragged back to Pakistan and married off to elderly uncles or totally unsuitable cousins.

This has given all arranged marriages a bad name, thereby allowing Blunkett to take action to stem immigration.


Mumbai, Feb. 8: 
He could well be Madonna’s most ardent lover.

He had loved her from the day he set his sights on her and wanted to be her. He also wanted to dress her. But Atif Siddiqi, a teenager in Karachi following Madonna’s every move, was separated by many miles from his diva.

So, accompanied by his mother, his accomplice, he enrolled himself at a fashion institute in Los Angeles and started to design clothes that would finally drape Madonna. He sent the designs to Madonna’s management, who never got back.

Barely out of his teenage, Atif kept trying — other Hollywood names, if only to get closer to Madonna. Instead, he was seduced by a former teacher who promised him celeb clients but did not get any. Then Atif got invited to a party where Madonna was supposed to come. She did not turn up, but Marino did.

Marino, a gorgeous hulk, flipped for Atif — gay, very pretty in a short halterneck dress designed by himself and a Madonna wig. Marino, of course, would not accept that Atif is a “boy”, and Madonna remained elusive, author of his life, but remote and glittering.

But Atif wouldn’t let go so easily. So he did the next best thing — shot a film on his mother, himself and Madonna, two women and a man who would be woman, whose lives had got mixed up.

M! Mom, Madonna and Me is that film, which showed at the ongoing Miff 2002, Mumbai’s international festival for short films. MMMM is not only a quest for Madonna. It’s a lusty no-holds-barred romp through the filmmaker’s own life. But more than anything, it’s the story of someone, who, having realised early in his life that he is not what he seems, searches for freedom of expression and escapes from a macho claustrophobic South Asian milieu.

“I ran away from Karachi to find myself. Madonna is my hero. She symbolises freedom of expression and the power of making a myth out of her life. She has shown such determination in the face of so much adversity,” says Atif. A la Madonna, he tried to reinvent himself, trying to find out which one of his identities suits himself most and makes him feel in touch with himself.

Now, dressed as Madonna, Atif is a performance artiste in Montreal’s nightclubs. He has been in Montreal for a few years. After his stint in Los Angeles — the city of “lost angels” — he was back in Karachi for a year. There he didn’t do much except appear in a fashion mag photo-feature done up as a woman, Madonna style. That ruffled a few feathers and brought threats from fundamentalists. He went off to Montreal. He feels it is “home”.

It was in 1998, when Madonna had entered her “Indian” phase, that Atif thought of making the film. But why the extra ‘M!’? “M stands for so many things — mom, Madonna, me, music, maya…” Mmmm.

In India for the first time — he has to report to authorities everyday for his Pakistani citizenship — Atif is planning his second film when he goes back.

“It will about the search for love?”


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