New-born baby in Dubai makes father Ansari sing
Baptism by fire for Ram temple
Blot in blood destroys accursed family
Midnight strike breaks long lull
‘Modern’ madarsa beats govt plan
Webber’s Oscar wish for Lagaan
‘Ally’ Moscow worries Delhi
Amethi rani declares war on Cong
Stalled work hits BJP in heartland
Calcutta Weather

Dubai, Feb. 17: 
A Pakistani infant, no more than a fortnight old, may hold the key to unravelling the secrets of Aftab Ansari’s web of terrorist connections that facilitated the attack on the American Center in Calcutta.

According to sources here, with whom Indian authorities have been sharing details of Ansari’s interrogation, the fugitive Indian who was deported by Dubai authorities considerably softened after he was told in captivity that he had become a father.

Ansari’s wife, a Pakistani national, gave birth to their child a few days ago and remains in Dubai. Ansari, according to information reaching here, became emotional when he heard about his offspring and expressed a desire to see his wife and child.

His interrogators in New Delhi promptly promised Ansari that they would do all that was possible to bring them to India on a visit on one condition: Ansari should spill the whole beans on his network spanning India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Since then, Ansari has been talking — and talking so much that he has given out “precious” information, which has interested even the Americans.

The US had earlier lost interest in the Calcutta shootout because no American lives were involved. But on the day of President Pervez Musharraf’s arrival in Washington, a senior Bush administration official told foreign correspondents that “the Indian government (had) briefed us several times” on the case.

“Our diplomatic security agents (have) worked closely with the Indian government. They were not involved in any interrogations or anything like that... we are pleased that this person (Ansari) was arrested. We will wait for the trial and see if he is convicted and what happens after that.”

The official said: “I have no knowledge of contacts between the US and the UAE on this case.”

If it is true, it may be a decision that the Americans regret now as, in retrospect, they would have liked to lay their hands on Ansari.

Contacts between Indian and Dubai officials in this case are now primarily aimed at ensuring that the Pakistanis do not spirit Ansari’s wife out of the UAE since she and her child have come to play a key role in the interrogation.

Dubai officials are, however, taking a legal view of the issue. They say Ansari’s wife is a legal resident of Dubai and is free to come and go as she likes.

For this reason, they have shielded her from any fallout of her husband’s arrest and deportation. This has been the Emirate’s attitude regarding all fugitives from Indian justice who have been staying there, including Dawood Ibrahim.

Dubai authorities have told the Indian government that they deported Ansari because his was a clear case of infringement of immigration laws.

For this reason, they have allowed Ansari’s businesses in Dubai to remain open. They would have been closed down for terrorist financing under the new US rules on terror funds had the authorities here looked at the Ansari deportation as linked to terrorism.


Ayodhya, Feb. 17: 
Ram bhakts today baptised the process of temple construction at the disputed site in Ayodhya.

Specially carved pillars to shoulder the weight of the proposed Ram temple were reverentially marked with the Om sign. The first pillar to be transported to the disputed site has been set aside after a long, ritualistic worship by sadhus and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders.

Undeterred by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s exasperation at failing to resolve the dispute because of the “rigid stance” taken by both parties, the VHP and the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust began laying the “symbolic foundation’’ of the Ram temple to come up at Ayodhya.

Even as VHP president Ashok Singhal appropriated the role of master of ceremonies and initiated what he termed the beginning of “Ramji finding his rightful abode,’’ more than 2,000 sadhus, led by Prabhuda Maharaj of Dudhadhar Ashram, began a parallel week-long Ram yagna to give a divine impetus to the temple construction movement.

The “closed-door’’ yagna — the media has been banned from witnessing the ceremony at Karsevakpuram and no one, except sadhus directly involved in the exercise, will be allowed anywhere near the prayer site —began with women devotees “purifying” the surrounding areas by sprinkling water from the holy Saryu river.

The air of divinity suddenly surrounding Ayodhya, however, did not stop either Singhal or Ram Janmabhoomi Trust chairman Ram Chandra Paramhans from spewing venom at those resisting the temple construction.

Expressing surprise at Vajpayee’s statement, he said the Centre had to relent on the VHP’s demand and surrender the area surrounding the disputed 40/80-feet site. “Hum ko woh jameen denahi padega kyonki woh hamari hai (the government has to hand over that land to us because it is rightfully ours),’’ Singhal said.

Paramhans said today’s ritual was “a symbol of victory” and a pointer to the seriousness of the promise to build the temple. On Friday, the trust’s chairman had reacted sharply to the Prime Minister’s contention that talks on resolving the Ayodhya dispute had failed because neither warring party was ready to yield ground.

“Whom did Vajpayee speak to?’’ Paramhans thundered. “There has been no talk with the sadhu samaj and I don’t regard the meeting in New Delhi as an attempt by the Prime Minister to take the opinion of sadhus.”

There was a meeting late last month between Vajpayee and sadhus.

The Ram yagna will continue till February 23, making ground for the poornahuti yagna a day later. According to Singhal, beginning February 24, more than 20,000 Ram sevaks will gather in Ayodhya every day for the next 100 days.

“Anything can happen in those 100 days,” warned Singhal.


Calcutta, Feb. 17: 
Four months ago, Moumita Ghosh died at the age of 27. She was suffering from thalassaemia.

Yesterday, her brother Bappaditya bled to death after a minor injury in a road crash. He, too, was suffering from the same disease.

In the wee hours today, their mother Mira hanged herself to death. She blamed herself and her husband — both suspected to be thalassaemia carriers — for bringing on the “curse” on the family.

In the next room, one of her daughters, Sumita, followed suit.

An ordinary middle-class family living in a middle-class locality in north Calcutta today suffered an extraordinary reversal in fortune as it stared at multiple deaths directly or indirectly brought about by the dreaded disease.

The first death this month — of Bappaditya’s — from a bleeding wound that required only five stitches also brought the focus back on how ill-equipped Calcutta’s state-run hospitals and private institutions are to deal with emergencies.

At the end of the day, the nine-member Ghosh family had been reduced to five. Still alive to recount the tale of horror were head of the family Krishnadhan, sons Ranjan, Achintya and Sabyasachi and daughter Amita.

The chain of events on Saturday began with an accident on Amherst Street. Bappaditya, going to a friend’s house to get some floppies, was hit by a vehicle that sped away. Local residents took a bleeding Bappaditya to the Medical College Hospital where, besides giving him five stitches, doctors — unaided by equipment – could only watch him die.

Before he was taken to hospital, Bappaditya managed to whisper his residence number. Neighbours Ashok Basu and Rina Basu soon reached the hospital with Bappaditya’s friends, parents and sister Sumita.

“His mother Mira and Sumita were wailing and it was difficult controlling them,’’ Rina said, adding that they were then sent back home. Krishnadhan and sons Ranjan and Achintya stayed back. Sabyasachi was not in town.

“The two were stoic during the 10-minute journey back home,” Rina, who accompanied Mira and Sumita, said. “I escorted them to their rooms and offered to stay back but went home after they said they could manage on their own,” she said.

After about 15 minutes, Rina’s son Riju and other neighbours knocked on the Ghoshs’ door to check if mother and daughter were okay. “The door opened when pushed and we saw Mira hanging from the ceiling of one room and Sumita in a similar state in the next one,” Rina said.

“She had used a nylon rope to hang herself. The stool on which she had stood was lying in a corner. It was horrifying. I stood there dumbfounded,” was all Krishnadhan could say today. “The entire world seemed to crash down on me in a few moments as I stood there, looking at my wife’s and daughter’s bodies.”


Srinagar, Feb. 17: 
A midnight strike pierced the over month-long lull in militant violence in Jammu and Kashmir when a group of gunmen burst into a family’s home and shot dead eight people, including five children and two women.

The dead — all of one community — were identified as Ashok Kumar (20), Jatti Devi (40), Shakuntala Devi (35), one-and-a-half-year-old Chottu Ram, Bimla Devi (13), Babli (8), Babu Ram and Madan Kumar (both 7).

Police sources here said a group of heavily-armed militants came to Narla village in Rajouri district of Jammu and knocked on the door of Mithu Ram.

As the fear-stricken residents did not open the door, two gunmen forced their entry into the house through a window and opened fire from their automatic weapons.

“Eight persons died on the spot,” said a police officer on condition of anonymity.

The police said the villagers shifted seven others, who received serious injuries in the indiscriminate firing, to hospital this morning.

With the condition of the seven injured, including five children, deteriorating, the state government rushed a helicopter and moved them to Jammu hospital. The injured have been identified as Anju (25), Taki (4), Pappal (7), Usha (5), Asha and Nisha.

“Around eight militants came to the village last night. Two militants went inside the house while six remained outside. It was a joint family,” said the officer.

The injured cried for help throughout the night, but neighbours reached their house only this morning. A group of villagers trekked several hours to inform the police. Messages were immediately sent to Jammu and senior police and civil officials left for the spot.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We condemn this attack and firmly believe that Indian security forces are behind this incident,” a spokesman for the United Jihad Council in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir said.

Jaish-e-Mohammad also distanced itself from the attack.

Though encounters with militants continue across the state, there has been a drastic drop in attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. For over a month, there has been no suicide attack on security forces.


Calcutta, Feb. 17: 
Five-year-old Sheikh Abdul has just learnt to read the alphabet — English at that — and is now into adding seven and five. The next period, he will delve into the textbook teaching the Bengali alphabet and, after that, will listen to the Diniat master teaching him how to offer namaaz.

This is not a scene from a maktab of the future as envisaged by the Left Front, at present desperately trying to shake off a controversy that threatens to act where it hurts most: the vote-bank. Instead, this is for real; this has been going on in at least 428 maktabs (where special emphasis is on teaching the basic tenets of Islam and learning to read the Quran) all over Bengal.

Add around 100 primary schools and 20 khareji madarsas (which train students to be maulanas and maulvis) — these are the ones at the centre of the controversy following chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s reported statements linking a section of them with anti-national activities — where the syllabus has already been modernised and you are staring at a scenario where private enterprise has beaten government plans in the race — again.

These 550-odd centres of Islamic learning, all supervised by the Calcutta-based Islamic Educational Welfare Trust — which has former Governor A.R. Kidwai as the patron of a school it runs, besides eminent citizens like former Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vishwavidyalay vice-chancellor S.B. Chattopadhyay and Justice Shamsuddin Ahmed associated with it — have already successfully modernised their syllabus.

This has happened much before the Left unveiling its plans to bring them — and the other maktabs and madarsas of which the government admits to not having a definite data-bank — within the ambit of modern education.

But it is not that the government has not tried to introduce “secular” subjects to madarsa education. In 1994, it introduced a scheme — called Financial Assistance for Modernisation of Madarsa Education (1994) — and invited applications from the khareji madarsas willing to participate. But this died an unsung death with allegations of nepotism and corruption following it to the grave. Grants for the 1994 scheme, where the government agreed to pay the salary of one teacher who would teach English, Bengali and mathematics in an unaffiliated madarsa, were released as late as 1997. Madarsas were told they would be reimbursed the salaries of teachers teaching the “secular” subjects for the financial year 1995-96.

A large section of madarsas which had applied for the scheme did not employ any teacher at all in 1995-96 as they were not sure they would be reimbursed, admitted a senior madarsa board official. But many of them were loath to let the grants pass by and the government, too, pressed them to accept the largesse to prove that the scheme had been a “success”. The result: many madarsa managing committees, with the knowledge of the government, spent the midnight oil, literally, to “manufacture” students’ rolls and teachers’ attendance lists, officials admitted.

The Islamic Educational Welfare Trust-controlled syllabus, however, has made a more modest — and permanent — arrangement. Beside the 428 maktabs which teach English, Bengali and maths, the 100-odd primary schools teaching Arabic have been teaching other “secular” subjects like history, geography, general knowledge and environmental awareness and hygiene and taking standardised examinations.


London, Feb. 17: 
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has wished Aamir Khan’s Lagaan all the best for the Oscars, saying it has put Hindi films on international arena.

“I wish the film the very best of luck,” he told The Telegraph.

“I consider A.R. Rahman to be a huge talent and I want his music to be heard internationally. Bollywood films are a regular feature of the UK cinema and the fact that Lagaan has now been shortlisted for the Oscar speaks for itself.”

Lloyd Webber is producing Bombay Dreams — a musical inspired by Bollywood films. The music is composed by Rahman.

The composer of such famous long-running musicals as Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Starlight Express spoke even as Rahman scooped up the Filmfare award for best music for Lagaan and the film won both the best film and best director awards.


New Delhi, Feb. 17: 
Pakistan’s overtures to Russia are worrying India. What is worse, Delhi’s “time-tested” ally Moscow has begun to respond to them.

Publicly, the Indian leadership maintains a brave front. “We are aware of the developments. But we are not biting our nails in anxiety,” a senior South Block official said.

But in private, foreign ministry officials admit that links between Russia and Pakistan are growing at a steadier pace now than even a few years ago.

It has, perhaps, been one of Pakistan’s long-standing desires to put itself on the Russian radar screen if not to break the bond between Delhi and Moscow. In the past, all such Pakistani initiatives had come a cropper. But finally the Russian leadership seems to be warming up to Islamabad.

The most worrying part would be defence cooperation between the two sides, though at the moment the possibility looks far-fetched. Over 65 per cent of Indian military hardware comes from Russia.

But given Pakistan’s keenness to wean Russia away from the Indian market by offering equally lucrative deals, the growing ties between the two could become a major problem for Delhi.

Last month, Pervez Musharraf sent his special envoy Afsand Yarwali to apprise Moscow of Islamabad’s side of the story in the stand off with Delhi. This may have been prompted by Russia’s statement that the South Asian twins should take steps to cool temperatures in the region.

Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov got a taste of what India thought of Moscow’s statement when he spoke to his counterpart, Jaswant Singh, in Delhi.

Officially, the Russian leadership told the Pakistani special envoy what India would have loved to hear: cross-border terror in Jammu and Kashmir and infiltration along the Line of Control would have to stop before the South Asian neighbours could resume dialogue. A few days later in Delhi, Ivanov repeated this in a joint statement with Singh.

But at private discussions, Moscow assured Islamabad it would maintain regular contact on issues of mutual concern and in areas where cooperation could be mutually beneficial.

The current interactions between the two are not worrying India. What they may entail in future is of concern.

“Irrespective of what we may feel, it is a sovereign Russian decision to maintain relations with Pakistan,” a senior foreign ministry official said.


Amethi, Feb. 17: 
When Sonia Gandhi arrives here later this week, she may find she has come too late to her family fief.

Amita Singh, the rani of Amethi contesting on a BJP ticket, is already claiming victory. “The question is of margins,” she says, as villagers, old, young and cynical, rush to touch the feet of their ‘raniji’.

In a strange twist of fate, Amita is pitted against a person who is believed to have nearly killed her husband, former BJP MP Sanjay Singh, in a bloody shootout in 1989.

Congress candidate Ashis Shukla is the main accused in that attempted murder. Amita had lost her first husband and national badminton champion Syed Modi, too, to bullets on a busy Lucknow street in July 1998, the needle of suspicion pointing towards the man she married later, Sanjay.

Now, she is seeking vengeance, not bloody revenge, but badla for Sanjay’s devastating defeat in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections when he lost to Sonia by three lakh votes. She is vowing to wipe Congress off the “face of Amethi”, with help from the Congress.

Of the eight Assembly constituencies in Sultanpur, of which Amethi is one, the Congress now has only Amethi to call its own. The Congress seems to have added to its miseries by changing sitting MLA Ram Harsh Singh and replacing him with Shukla in the hope of garnering a bigger chunk of the Brahmin votes.

Most are cynical about the gamble paying off. As Imtiaz Alam, a shopkeeper in Amethi, says: “The Congress just needs a push (over the edge). The story is all over.”

In Narhaini, a small village some kilometres away from Amethi, everyone gathers to hear Amita. In the din and bustle, there is one common refrain. “We are not angry with the Congress,” says Ramakant Mishra, as others nod, almost sorrowfully in agreement. “All we want is development which they can’t ensure us anymore,” 67-year-old Mishra adds.

“Nowadays Congress leaders don’t even come here anymore. Things were different in the time of Indira Gandhi, maybe Rajiv Gandhi, too.”

Babulal, a Harijan elder, says the “emotional bond with the Congress is still there, though times have changed for us for the worse. We want to remedy that. It is nothing personal.”

Amita, meanwhile, is promising more than a quick-fix cure for all the ailments she says “Congressi netas have left as a legacy in Amethi”.

She has played her cards well. After getting elected as chairperson of the Sultanpur Zilla Panchayat, she initiated a number of development measures. She knew these “good deeds” — of recent vintage — would serve as reminders at the time of elections. She also married off 52 poor couples some months ago and has promised to organise another mass wedding of 101 Dalit men and women next month.

Looking demure in her simple sari she says: “Please don’t get swayed away by emotions for the Congress, don’t look back, just look ahead into the future. Forget Sonia Gandhi. She has deserted you. Can you tell me how many times she has come here after winning the Lok Sabha election?”

“No,” villagers squatting in the mild sun answer in unison, but the hint of sadness and regret is clear on their hopeful faces.


Jaunpur, Feb. 17: 
At the peak of the Ram mandir movement and the Mandal wave, veteran Congress leader Narayan Dutt Tiwari was the only politician from Uttar Pradesh who spoke about a secular and non-casteist issue like development.

The former chief minister of the state was laughed at by his own party colleagues for going on a Vikas (development) rath yatra in 1992 when it was politically fashionable to ride a Ram or a “social justice” chariot.

Tiwari’s persistence has finally paid off. Development and governance have emerged as the main issues in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

However, because of the absence of a charismatic state leader — with Tiwari now in Uttaranchal — an ineffective organisation and the inability to grapple with the changed caste equations, the Congress is not in a position to take advantage of this new consciousness about development and governance. The party, instead, has criticised the BJP for the indifference its five-year rule showed towards these aspects, which people said impinged far more directly on their lives than a Ram temple or Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

In the Jaunpur district court, normally reticent non-BJP supporters shouted down vocal supporters of the saffron brigade who sought to defend the government’s “development record”. A Lekpal (revenue record keeper) spoke of how, in his 35 years of service, he had never seen such levels of “corruption and inefficiency” as under BJP rule.

“Salaries are not paid on time on the pretext that the state treasury is empty. I discovered this was a lie because I saw some of my colleagues receiving their salaries after giving a fixed monthly cut to the financial accountant,” the Lekpal said.

In Jaunpur’s State Inter-College, teachers have struck work for the last few months because they have not been paid their salaries. This despite chief minister Rajnath Singh trumpeting his government’s decision to extend the Fifth Pay Commission’s recommendations to teachers as a “major achievement”.

In neighbouring Azamgarh, lawyer Subedar Yadav pinned down the fiscal crisis to Singh’s jumbo-sized cabinet of 100 ministers. “All of them were given a free hand to do what they wished — loot, kill. Much of the government’s money was spent on fulfilling their whims and fancies,” Yadav said.

Many other sections of society are as resentful of the BJP government. Allahabad University — once known as the “Oxford of the East” for producing much of the country’s ICS and IAS officers — has come down many notches in terms of job aspirations. Instead of rooting for the civil services, its students aim mostly to become police sub-inspectors and primary school teachers — but with little luck.

Niteshwar Rai, a post-graduate Hindi student, spoke of how examinations to qualify for a sub-inspector’s post were repeatedly cancelled either because the papers were leaked out, the posts were scrapped, or the roll numbers are missing, as in his case.

“It has never happened under previous governments. But under the BJP it is common for examinations to get cancelled twice or thrice. Students who come from faraway places return as mental wrecks because, apart from months of preparations, they spend money on travel and board and lodging and all for nothing,” said Rai.




Maximum: 30.1°C (0)
Minimum: 16°C (-1)



Relative Humidity

Max: 94%
Min: 39%

Sunrise: 6.12 am

Sunset: 5.29 pm


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 17°C

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