Calcutta firm bags Jessop
Governor runs into Trinamul fury
Red alert after train carnage
Thirsty elephants carry on illicit affair
Fire razes market for foreign goods
Fuming troops raise battlecry
Red-faced Centre shuts out kar sevaks
Mulayam runs into Governor list hurdle
Naidu cracks whip
Head in Kabul, heart in Shimla

 
 
CALCUTTA FIRM BAGS JESSOP 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Feb. 27: 
The government today accepted Calcutta-based Ruia Cotex’s Rs 18.18-crore bid for a 72 per cent stake in Jessop & Co, the first public sector unit in the heavy industry category to be put on the block.

But the Jessop union threatened to block the deal. A spokesperson for the union said: “We are weighing legal options. We will try to block the deal at the BIFR level or may move the high court.”

The union has already approached the state government seeking support, and will seek its intervention again.

As part of the deal, the Centre will pump in Rs 63 crore to help the firm pay off various liabilities to employees and banks. The Union government will also waive Rs 140-crore loans and interest dues.

The comprehensive package — approved by the Cabinet committee on disinvestment — comprising a financial bid and a revival strategy, will now be sent to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR), which is the state-run hospice to nurse sick companies back to health.

The BIFR, State Bank of India — the operating agency for Jessop — and Ruia Cotex will work together to turn around the company which has been swamped by accumulated losses of Rs 372.37 crore.

“We had to sell it. The other option was to shut it down,” said disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, defending the government’s action, which has incensed the plant unions.

The government had fixed the reserve price for the selloff at Rs 12 crore, sparking howls of protest from the unions and the existing management.

“The net worth was declining steadily. So even after repeated requests from the state government, the Prime Minister and MPs, we have not been able to find a solution to Jessop’s troubles,” Shourie said.

“We have already paid Rs 466 crore for two previous financial packages. Even after that the company has been making steady losses of between Rs 40 crore and Rs 45 crore annually. No one was ready for a change of management. So, the government was left with only this option to stanch the bleeding,” he said.

Pawan Ruia, chairman of the Rs 350-crore group that has got control over Jessop, said: “We felt Jessop has tremendous potential and could enhance the business of our group.” The Ruias have interests in textile, paper and agricultural commodities. The group has plantations in the south.

The Jessop workmen’s union, however, fear the new owners will strip their company of assets. A union spokesperson said: “Jessop has huge properties in Calcutta and Durgapur, the value of which is estimated at over Rs 250 crore…. Jessop has recently transferred a 5.5-acre plot to Metro Railway for a total consideration of Rs 14 crore.”

But Ruia said the company’s “assets should not exceed Rs 150 crore in all”.

Jessop has around 1,500 employees now. Ruia said there were no immediate plans of reducing the workforce.

   

 
 
GOVERNOR RUNS INTO TRINAMUL FURY 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 27: 
Trinamul Congress MLAs today mobbed Governor Viren J. Shah and paid scant respect to the national anthem, shouting through the better part of the recital.

At one point there was a near-stamped in the Assembly which opened today for the budget session. But Speaker Hashim Abdul Halim said the disturbance was nothing unusual as it happened every year. “At least this year the Governor could read the text of his speech,” he said.

Perhaps given the rowdy nature of the annual protest, police had gone through a “dress rehearsal” yesterday. They were headed by deputy commissioner, special branch, Gaurav Dutta.

Trinamul legislators, who had early today walked out shouting slogans and carrying placards in protest against the arrest and jail custody of party legislator Karim Chowdhury in North Dinajpur, rushed to the Governor even before he could begin his speech. Among the MLAs were Sonali Guha, Ashoke Deb, Paresh Pal, Moloy Ghatak, Arunava Ghosh and Jyotipriya Mullick.

Security men kept them at bay and a scuffle broke out. In the melee, three MLAs and three security persons, including women, were injured.

The Governor was escorted to the House by the Speaker at 3 pm. Immediately, Trinamul legislators stood up and started shouting slogans against the “inefficiency” of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s government.

After his speech, he made for the main exit, escorted by his guards. Trinamul MLAs who tried to intercept him were tactfully pushed out of the way. But at the main entrance, securitymen and Trinamul MLAs got into a scuffle, damaging a number of flower pots and some pedestal fans.

It took the guards by surprise when Shah ignored his car and continued walking towards the big iron gates.

Seeing this, two Trinamul MLAs tried to run up to him with their demand for the immediate release of Chowdhury.

The Governor, however, managed to give them the miss. He climbed into his car and sped away.

Halim later said Chowdhury, who was arrested in connection with a local incident early this month, was offered bail by the judicial magistrate himself but refused it. “What can the government do about it?” he asked.

Criticising the Governor’s address, leader of Opposition Pankaj Banerjee said his speech was full of “untruths and half-truths”. “The Governor’s address nowhere mentions the growing ISI activities in the state nor clarifies the state government’s stand on unregistered madarsas. His claim that the law and order situation in the state has remained peaceful is ridiculous given the attack on the American Center and the kidnapping of Khadim’s owner Parthapratim Roy Burman.”

The Assembly looked like a fortress with commandos and jawans of the rapid action force taking positions behinds sand bunkers with assault rifles.

The unprecedented security arrangements were made in the wake of the attack on Parliament on December 13 and the strike on the American Center on January 22.

Legislators and reporters had to pass through metal detectors before entering the House. Everyone had to show his identity card.

   

 
 
RED ALERT AFTER TRAIN CARNAGE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Feb. 27: 
The government sounded a state-wide alert after reports reached here that around 57 kar sevaks returning to Ahmedabad from Ayodhya in Sabarmati Express were torched by an angry mob in Godhra.

“We have issued an alert and that is all I can say at this moment,” chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told reporters at the Assembly.

The state director-general of police, D.C. Vajpai, summoned senior officers to Writers’ Buildings to review the situation.

Sources said Vajpai has instructed officers-in-charge of police stations and district superintendents of police to monitor activities in sensitive areas.

According to a senior deputy inspector-general of police who attended the meeting, 28 areas in Howrah, North and South 24-Parganas, Murshidabad, Nadia and Hooghly in south Bengal, Dinajpur and other border districts in north Bengal have been identified as supersensitive.

“Policemen armed with automatic self-loading rifles have been moved into these areas to nip any trouble in the bud,” he said.

In the city, police commissioner Sujoy Chakraborty held discussion with senior officers to chalk out a strategy to foil mischief-makers.

Sources said police patrolling in Metiabruz, Ekbalpore, Kidderpore, Rajabazar and Narkeldanga areas have been intensified and officers-in-charge of local police stations have been asked to be on “high alert”.

Deputy commissioner of police, headquarters, Banibrata Basu, said police have made adequate arrangements to check any untoward incident. He appealed to the people not to get provoked by rumours.

   

 
 
THIRSTY ELEPHANTS CARRY ON ILLICIT AFFAIR 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Paschim Midnapore, Feb. 27: 
If illicit liquor manufacturers here are afraid of anyone, it’s not the police but elephants which have developed a fondness for their brew.

Forest officials said, attracted by the smell of liquor, the elephants of Dalma hills come down to the dhabas — places where the brew is made. High on the brew — or desperate for a swig — they have trampled many a dhaba in the past.

“The elephants are doing the job that the district administration has failed to do,” said the sub-divisional officer of Jhargram, M. Ali Baidya.

The situation has come to such a pass that at Kankrajhore, villagers have started attending literacy centres in the evenings instead of frequenting the liquor dens.

“We used to enjoy our evening booze. But, now out of sheer fear of the elephants, we are going to the literacy centres,” said Gopinath Mahato.

Anadi Mahato, another villager, admitted that the elephant menace had been a blessing in disguise.

“Earlier we used to get sozzled and not bother about our crops. Now we can remain awake at night and keep a vigil on our produce so that they are not eaten up by elephants,” said Mahato.

These elephants went on the rampage a number of times in the Jhargram subdivision and killed five persons and injured 50 over the past one month. They attacked more than 150 houses and dhabas.

The latest victim of an elephant attack was 60-year-old Binod Nayek. Divisional forest officer Debal Roy said four others at Tipsole village were also injured last night in a separate attack.

The district administration sent a note to the state government during the day seeking help to combat the menace. Forest officials are camping in areas frequented by elephants.

These elephants use the corridor between Nayagram and Belphari. “The PWG activists also use the same corridor at night. But now, fearing elephant attack, they have begun to avoid the corridor,” a police official said.

   

 
 
FIRE RAZES MARKET FOR FOREIGN GOODS 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, Feb. 27: 
Around 50 shops of the popular Pashupatinagar market in Nepal’s Ilam district adjoining Darjeeling were gutted this morning.

The devastating fire also destroyed a residential complex and a branch of the Nepal Rastrya Bank. Property worth crores of rupees went up in the flames, which were brought under control in the afternoon.

The popular market selling imported goods, especially electronic gadgets, is a must-see on the itinerary of tourists visiting Darjeeling.

A Nepalese official ruled out sabotage. “The fire apparently was triggered when a domestic LPG cylinder stored in one of the shops exploded around 8.30 this morning. The explosion set ablaze shops on both sides of the road and spread quickly due to a strong wind. We do not suspect sabotage or arson by Maoist rebels.”

   

 
 
FUMING TROOPS RAISE BATTLECRY 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Feb. 27: 
Sadhus and senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders camping in Ayodhya for the 100-day Poorna Ahuti Yagna, have reacted angrily to the Godhra incident.

Mobs attacked a train carrying about 1,200 kar sevaks, who were returning to Gujarat after taking part in the yagna that signalled the spiritual beginning of the temple construction movement. The carnage left 57 dead.

Chairman of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas Ram Chandra Paramhans has warned of a possible Hindu backlash. “These unarmed kar sevaks, who were merely chanting Ram naam, were peacefully going back to their homes,” Paramhans said, adding that a reaction to this attack by “Islamic jihadis” could not be ruled out.

As several states put their administration on alert, the Uttar Pradesh government began taking stock of the situation in Ayodhya and devising ways to stop the heavy inflow of kar sevaks.

Reacting to the devotee build-up for the March 15 programme — sadhus have decided to instal a pillar at the disputed site — L.K. Advani has asked chief minister Rajnath Singh to monitor the movement of kar sevaks and, if possible, stop them from entering Ayodhya.

“We are trying to restrict the number of kar sevaks coming into Ayodhya and we are keeping our eyes open so that we can stop any congregation which could lead to a dangerous situation,” Faizabad police commissioner A.K. Gupta said.

As an immediate measure, the administration has requisitioned 3,000 more police officials. Police are building sandbanks around Karsevakpuram and barricades have again come up around Ayodhya. All vehicles coming into the town are being checked.

“The police have specific reports that terrorists in the garb of kar sevaks might converge on Ayodhya to create disturbances,” Gupta said.

Groups of kar sevaks from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar are in Ayodhya now.

Others from the Northeast, east and north are waiting to land at the yagna site in Karsevakpuram. Close to 10,000 kar sevaks are arriving in Ayodhya every day while groups who have completed the puja return. The yagna began on February 24.

Fresh kar sevaks go on a tour of the mandirs on the day they arrive and take part in the yagna the next day before heading home.

VHP president Ashok Singhal, reported to be on his way to Gujarat, is expecting two lakh kar sevaks to be present in Ayodhya on March 15.

Kar sevaks in Ayodhya have expressed anxiety to the yagna organisers, though the situation in the temple town is reported to be peaceful.

A senior VHP activist and editor of Ayodhya Samvad, Sharad Sharma, said the attack on kar sevaks has only strengthened the resolve of the sadhus and the VHP to go ahead with the construction.

“This attack will push the kar sevaks even more. For the thousands who are coming, the temple is a symbol of Hindu regeneration and an assertion of their identity,’’ Sharma said.

Many of the kar sevaks have, however, been driven to Ayodhya more by their interest in the puja than in the VHP’s agenda.

Rajesh, a kar sevak from Jammu, had told this correspondent on February 23 that he was only interested in the puja. He refused to get into a discussion on the temple issue.

Similarly, Babulal, who had come from Samastipur with his family of nine, said all he knows is that the mukhiya of his village paid for the expenses of the trip.

“What do you mean why I am here? Our mukhiya asked us to come for the puja and that is why we are here,” Babulal said. He knew nothing of the VHP’s plan to storm the disputed site on March 15.

Like many others, Babulal was just a pilgrim on his way to Ayodhya to help his old mother earn some punya.

Just like those on the train to Ahmedabad.

   

 
 
RED-FACED CENTRE SHUTS OUT KAR SEVAKS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
The attack on the Sabarmati Express this morning stirred the Vajpayee government into action as the leadership scrambled to prevent a flare-up.

After addressing a joint news conference with Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai, a grim-faced Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee appealed to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to call off their threat to begin construction of the Ram temple next month.

Dubbing the incident “tragic” and “unfortunate”, Vajpayee said the Ayodhya dispute could not be resolved through agitation.

“There are two ways to resolve the issue — one through talks among the concerned parties and the other through the judiciary,” he said. He appealed to the people not to be swayed by rumours.

But it was left to home minister L.K. Advani to spell out the Centre’s determination to defuse the situation in Ayodhya.

Advani issued a directive to the Uttar Pradesh government to stop kar sevaks from entering Ayodhya.

The Cabinet tonight held a two-hour meeting to take stalk of the situation arising out of the Godhra incident.

The railways have been asked to ensure that there are no group reservations in trains to Ayodhya. They have also been asked to come down heavily on ticketless travellers, as kar sevaks generally do not bother to buy tickets.

The home ministry has asked all states to keep a tight leash on the communal situation.

The signal from New Delhi to the Sangh parivar was clear: the Prime Minister and the home minister had no differences over maintaining communal harmony. Advani might have been the messiah of Hindutva in 1992, but as home minister, he could not afford to let things go out of hand.

Advani sent out a clear message, in a strongly worded statement at noon, that the government would not idly watch while the VHP went ahead with its plans. He said the VHP exercise could lead to flagrant defiance of court orders and warned that the government would come down hard on law-breakers.

BJP leaders appear determined to ensure that there is no repeat of 1992, when P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Congress regime watched helplessly as the Babri Masjid came down.

The change of mood has been dictated by the compulsions of alliance politics. NDA allies, especially the Telugu Desam, the DMK, the Samata Party and the Biju Janata Dal have already warned the government that they will pull out if the Supreme Court directive on Ayodhya is not respected.

The Vajpayee government, battered in the recent state elections, realises that this is a do or die test to prove its credentials. “It is one thing as an opposition party to exploit the Ram mandir issue. Being in power at the Centre gives an entirely new twist to the situation. No Central government can do what Narasimha Rao had done in 1992,” a prime ministerial aide explained.

Senior Cabinet ministers realise that the passion for Hindutva has faded.

It may have catapulted the party to the helm of national politics in the early nineties, but is certainly not a poll winner now.

Economic development and good governance is what voters are looking for, sources in the government said.

   

 
 
MULAYAM RUNS INTO GOVERNOR LIST HURDLE 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Feb. 27: 
A smiling Mulayam Singh Yadav went to Raj Bhavan this morning but when he came out, a shadow had crossed his face.

“The Governor is insisting on a list of those supporting me,” Mulayam said on his way out after staking claim to form the next government in Uttar Pradesh.

Mulayam’s Samajwadi Party is still short of 66 legislators to reach the simple majority mark of 202 but he was banking on Governor Vishnukant Shastri to invite him as the leader of the single largest party and prove his majority later on the floor of the House.

“The mandate has gone against the BJP, and as leader of the single largest party, the people have obviously put their trust in the Samajwadi Party,” Mulayam said.

Had the Governor, whose association with the Sangh parivar is well known, given Mulayam time, it would have been easier for the Samajwadi chief to put together a rag-tag coalition.

Prospective defectors the Samajwadi has contacted are waiting in the wings, keeping a close watch on how things develop between him, the Governor and the Congress.

With the Congress — which has 25 members — taking an ambivalent stand on extending support to Mulayam, defectors from other parties are finding it difficult to commit themselves to the Samajwadi right away.

“What happens if we say yes to Mulayam now and the Congress backs out?” an Independent candidate asked.

“We will be left nowhere. We, too, have to keep our options open.”

Asked what the Governor had to say to his proposal, Mulayam said: “We asked him to give us a chance and he said he will look into it. But his insistence on the list of supporters doesn’t make sense. Majority has to be proved in the House.”

Mulayam said there were numerous precedents — of the leader of the single largest party being called to form the government — to back his claim.

The Samajwadi chief had sought a month’s time from the Governor to prove his majority in the House.

But the Governor maintained that he must first go through the list of MLAs in the Samajwadi camp. “If there is a precedent of calling the leader of the single largest party, there is also a precedent of handing over the MLAs’ list,” Shastri said.

“I have insisted on the list because it is my priority to have a stable government in this state,” he added.

Maintaining that there was no time frame within which a government had to be formed, the Governor reiterated that the last word would be his and added that he was surprised by Mulayam’s refusal to even mention the names of those who would be supporting him.

President’s rule would, however, be the last option, Shastri said. “I personally don’t favour President’s rule and I will consider it only when I have exhausted all the alternatives,” Shastri said.

But in an obvious signal of his unwillingness to call Mulayam right now, the Governor also raised the issue of horse-trading with the Samajwadi chief.

“I asked him about reports appearing in newspapers which hint at the buying and selling of MLAs and Mulayam told me not to believe in those,” Shastri said. “I told him that if the reports were true, it would be a dark blotch on the democratic process.”

Political observers said Congress support has again become crucial for Mulayam to form the next government in Uttar Pradesh.

   

 
 
NAIDU CRACKS WHIP 
 
 
FROM G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
 
Hyderabad, Feb. 27: 
The Chandrababu Naidu government today prevented an ugly standoff at Vijayawada station from turning violent, taking the lead in thwarting the temple protagonists in Ayodhya.

The Andhra Pradesh police stopped nearly 300 kar sevaks and supporters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad from leaving for Ayodhya by Kerala Express at Vijayawada. Despite protests and dharnas, the VHP volunteers were detained and stopped from boarding the train, which was delayed by over two hours this afternoon.

Railway authorities said trouble started when leaders of minority groups trooped to the station and tried to stop the VHP and Bajrang Dal volunteers from boarding the train. As the situation turned tense, the railway police called in their city counterparts, who formed a human barricade between the two groups locked in a tense standoff.

The railway authorities and the police tried to convince the volunteers to change their travel plans and board another train on some other day to avoid tension and possible violence. The bhakts refused and sat on a dharna. The police detained the activists and allowed the train to proceed without the VHP volunteers.

Interestingly, the move came on a day when the chief minister came under attack in the House over raids on mosques and madarsas. Legislators of the MIM and the Congress accused the Naidu government of increasingly acting on anti-Muslim lines because of its affinity to ally BJP.

BJP leader in the House, N. Indrasena Reddy, on the other hand, had said yesterday that the government was pampering minorities. He took umbrage at home minister T. Devender Gowd’s statement in the House that the Desam did not back religious activity which was likely to generate communal tension.

Refuting an accusation by an MIM legislator that the ruling party was supporting and sponsoring a VHP drive to send volunteers to Ayodhya, he had said the government was opposed to mass congregations called by the VHP in Ayodhya in the name of religion. In fact, the Telugu Desam government has already taken a policy decision to prohibit the VHP from taking out processions in the state.

Minority leaders in Hyderabad expressed happiness at Naidu’s determination to stop the volunteers from congregating at Ayodhya. “Why should there be any room for another mayhem at Ayodhya?” they asked.

About 10 teams of volunteers have already left for Ayodhya in batches of 100 amid much fanfare, irking the minority community which tried to take matters into hand at Vijayawada today. Andhra Pradesh VHP president G. Pulla Reddy said about 60,000 volunteers from the state will participate in the maha yagna at Ayodhya. “It is a do-or-die task for us this time,” he said.

The Opposition stalled House proceedings for nearly an hour over the issue of raids on mosques and madarsas. They said police were conducting the raids in the towns of Kurnool, Guntur, Karimnagar and Hyderabad.

   

 
 
HEAD IN KABUL, HEART IN SHIMLA 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
Hamid Karzai can well call his first political assignment to India a success, but it failed to satisfy his heart.

The Afghan interim leader could not visit Shimla where he had spent six of his student years. “How can I describe to you what a beautiful place it is,” Karzai said this afternoon at the joint news conference he addressed with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at Hyderabad House.

“I spent some very important years of my life there,” he said. “I was only 18. I can still remember the beautiful people I met there.…”

To prove his roots with India, he even switched from Americanised English to answer a question in chaste Hindustani to loud applause.

It was the language he must have used when he was in Shimla during the seventies. Initially, a visit to the hill station had been on his itinerary.

But it had to be dropped at the last minute because Karzai’s three-day visit had to be reduced to two to accommodate his trip to Paris for a meeting with the French government.

Dressed in western clothes with his customary green designer robe on top, Karzai talked of how the new regime in Kabul was committed to eliminating “terrorism and radicalism”.

He wanted to have “good and friendly relations” with India and all its neighbours and sought their help to put in place a “responsible” government in Kabul and make the country a peaceful place.

Karzai has been circling the globe after taking over in Kabul, but kept Delhi for later. But he made it clear that he had a lot to thank the Indian leadership for its help to the new regime.

The Indian government too got the message across that Karzai was an important guest. He was treated as the visiting head of government and given a formal reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt this morning. ‘

During the day, Karzai also held meetings with President K.R. Narayanan, Vajpayee and other senior members of his Cabinet, including home minister L.K. Advani and foreign minister Jaswant Singh.

   
 

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