Border skirmish shifts east
MLA begins search for kidnapped son
Jessop staff formula for revival
Drunk cops turn bus stand bullies
Night fire at cloth market
MLA murdered near seat of power
All-party team on riots recce
Final touches to counter-wishlist
Seer hits jarring note
Atal banks on board in temple gamble

 
 
BORDER SKIRMISH SHIFTS EAST 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, March 6: 
Border Security Force jawans this evening opened fire on Bangladesh Rifles soldiers after they shot at Indian border guards.

The firing, which began around 4.30 pm, went on for some five hours.

The battle zone covered a 10-km stretch under the Chopra police station in North Dinajpur. However, there were no reports of casualties till late tonight.

Senior BSF officials from the north Bengal frontier at Kadamtala on the outskirts of Siliguri have rushed to the trouble zone.

Sources said Bangladesh Rifles personnel at the Salbahon border outpost opened “unprovoked fire”, targeting BSF jawans at Noyabari under Chopra police station.

It appears a dispute over planting of new tea bushes in the bordering Fakir Rani tea estate near the Salbahon outpost acted as the trigger.

Bangladesh Rifles personnel claimed that the tea plantation was jutting into their territory.

Official sources said the matter was to be sorted out at a flag meeting between Bangladesh Rifles and the BSF at 4.30 this evening. But the meeting got scuttled after the Bangla troops opened fire.

“The local BSF commandant contacted their Kadamtala headquarters and apprised them of the situation. Only after getting their all-clear did the BSF retaliate. This was around 5.15 pm. By then, the Bangla troops were firing from light machine guns at our outposts at Balabari and Debijhora. In the meantime, the BSF had evacuated villagers in the zone to safer areas,” a source said.

North Dinajpur civil and police administration admitted that they were aware of the border skirmish.

“Yes, I have heard that such an exchange of fire was taking place between the BSF and Bangladesh Rifles but I have not been able to confirm it,” North Dinajpur superintendent of police Arun Kumar Sharma told The Telegraph over the phone from Raiganj.

The BSF has alerted all outposts along the entire north Bengal border with Bangladesh.

   

 
 
MLA BEGINS SEARCH FOR KIDNAPPED SON 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
March 6: 
The family of Congress legislator Chandan Sarkar today began a “personal search” for his son Pradeep who was abducted by suspected militants from Falakata in north Bengal on Monday.

The legislator’s brother, Nandan Sarkar, told The Telegraph over the phone from Falakata that he and his sibling scanned the Barosalkumar area near Jaldapara forest, where the abductors are suspected to have taken their 21-year-old hostage. The search was launched even as an Assam police team joined Bengal police in the operation to track down Pradeep.

The police suspect the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the Ulfa jointly carried out the abduction. Nandan, too, said his family had begun to believe that the abduction was the “handiwork of militants”. Ruing the fact that the abductors had not contacted anyone in the family, he said: “We want to know what they want.”

Nandan said his nephew’s friends were mum on the abduction. “They may be shell-shocked or somehow involved in the abduction,” he added.

Assam minister of state for home Pradyut Bordoloi said the Assam police team helping Bengal police in the combing operations had been asked to be “very careful”, lest the abductors cause any harm to the legislator’s son. “We just want to ensure that the boy is safe,” he said.

The minister spoke to Bengal home commissioner about the progress of the search operation and expressed satisfaction over the Left Front government’s prompt action. “The DIG, Alipurduar, is keeping me posted about the steps being initiated,” Bordoloi said.

Official sources in north Bengal said the coal and timber mafia, active along the Assam-Bengal border, may have had a hand in the abduction. “The needle of suspicion points to the KLO-Ulfa combine, but we are also investigating whether the coal and timber mafia had anything to do with the abduction,” a senior police official said.

   

 
 
JESSOP STAFF FORMULA FOR REVIVAL 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 6: 
Representatives of the Joint Forum of Union and Association of Jessop, comprising eight workers’ organisations, today met chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and told him that they were prepared to run the Central undertaking by forming a cooperative.

They also urged him to write to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee again, requesting him to review the Centre’s decision to disinvest in Jessop.

Bhattacharjee had written to Vajpayee on February 20 and asked him to intervene to protect the wagon industry.

A day before, state industry minister Nirupam Sen had written to Union heavy industries minister Manohar Joshi, calling the government decision to sell a majority stake in Jessop “an act of betrayal”.

He claimed that Jessop had shown a “positive operating gross margin…. So, there is no reason to offer a 70 per cent stake in the company to private bidders at a lower price.”

“Jessop has been manufacturing local train coaches and has an untarnished reputation with its emphasis on safety and security,” Ajit Chowdhury, a Citu leader in the unit, said.

“Despite a country-wide goodwill in making railway coaches and wagons, the railways had been systematically cutting down their order. Instead, railways placed orders with other states,” alleged Alok Brahmachari, a spokesman for the forum.

   

 
 
DRUNK COPS TURN BUS STAND BULLIES 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, March 6: 
Three constables — two from the general railway police and one from the state armed police — were suspended for harassing passengers at the inter-state bus terminus here in a drunken state.

Some have alleged that the trio even molested women passengers on the night of March 3 at the Tenzing Norgay Central Bus Terminus.

While two railway police constables were suspended soon after the incident, the third — Biddhu Lama — was suspended today. Railway superintendent of police Ajay Kumar claimed Lama was the driver of the inspector-general of police, north Bengal, Niraj Ranjan Das. However, additional superintendent of police, Siliguri, Kalyapaan Jairam, said he was not aware Lama was the driver of Das.

Around 8 pm on March 3, the three went to the bus terminus and claimed that they were on special duty, eyewitnesses said. Then the three began to frisk passengers, including women, and searched the baggage. They demanded money if they found anything “objectionable”.

Fed up with their behaviour, passengers finally handed them over to the police outpost across the road and lodged an FIR.

Policemen injured

Five policemen, including two officers-in-charge, were injured in an overnight encounter with dacoits on Tuesday at Diamond Harbour, reports a staff reporter. One robber was also killed in the exchange.    

 
 
NIGHT FIRE AT CLOTH MARKET 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 6: 
A fire broke out in the basement of the 11-storeyed Nandram Market on Brabourne Road around 8.30 tonight. Even till late tonight, fire brigade personnel were trying to extinguish the blaze. With no outlets, the excessive smoke choked the few access points to the basement. No injuries were reported.

At least 25 fire engines were called in but the situation was still not under control three hours later. The basement houses around 80 shops selling cloth and tailoring material.

Fire minister Pratim Chatterjee, who had rushed to the spot, said all arrangements had been taken to douse the fire. “But reaching the basement was proving difficult,” he added. “The men had to make holes in the ground floor to get access.”

   

 
 
MLA MURDERED NEAR SEAT OF POWER 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, March 6: 
Blood stained the political muddle of Uttar Pradesh as an IAS-aspirant gunned down a legislator at the gates of Raj Bhavan this afternoon in front of hundreds of policemen and onlookers.

Manzoor Ahmed, newly elected MLA from Baheri constituency in Bareilly, was shot at point-blank range by a youth identified as Abhishek Bharadwaj and an unknown accomplice.

Samajwadi activists pounced on the 23-year-old Abhishek, who did not make any frantic effort to escape, and beat him senseless before handing him over to police.

The murder site was teeming with Samajwadi legislators and supporters who had turned up for a demonstration to protest the “unfair delay’’ in calling their leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to form the government. Governor Vishnukant Shastri was not present in Raj Bhavan.

The murder sent conspiracy theories rippling through Lucknow but police claimed that Abhishek said he killed Ahmed to “gain fame”.

Few politicians have bought the reported claim of Abhishek, who belongs to an affluent family. His father is a lawyer.

Mulayam said the murder was part of a “larger conspiracy” and threatened to launch an agitation from Friday to unearth the “real story” behind it. Mohan Singh, a Samajwadi MP, claimed that Abhishek was associated with a “religious outfit”.

Police sources said Abhishek had been staying in Lucknow for the past six months, preparing for the civil services examination. The police have contacted his friends and are questioning them to shed more light on the motive.

Eyewitnesses said the youth and the accomplice joined the protesters around 1 pm. They then strolled towards Ahmed and before the shouting legislators realised what was happening killed Ahmed with a country-made pistol.

Mulayam has demanded police protection for each of his 145 legislators. All parties have asked for a judicial probe into the incident.

Union home minister L.K. Advani and caretaker chief minister Rajnath Singh condemned the murder as an “act of cowardice”.

Opposition parties said in Delhi the daylight murder reflected the “seriousness” of the situation “in the Prime Minister’s constituency”.

   

 
 
ALL-PARTY TEAM ON RIOTS RECCE 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, March 6: 
Bowing to pressure from Opposition leaders, the government has agreed to send a 21-member all-party delegation to riot-torn Ahmedabad and Godhra on Friday. But the Opposition was far from pleased and stuck to their demand that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister L.K. Advani be dismissed for the continued violence and “their tacit connivance”.

Congress president and leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi, senior CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan are likely to be in the team. The final list will be drawn up tomorrow, government sources said.

Opposition parties have been accusing the government of not facilitating a visit by an all-party team to Gujarat. They had decided to stage a dharna at the entrance of Parliament House tomorrow to protest against Modi’s failure to protect the lives and property of innocent people, sources said.

Slamming the government for its handling of the Ayodhya issue, Chatterjee said: “Mob frenzy is sought to be created.... It seems that (the) government’s functioning has been taken over by sarkari sadhus.

“Some game, some confabulations are going on and the Opposition is not taken into confidence. While judicial verdict is the only solution, the VHP, Bajrang Dal and other outfits are shouting in different voices.”

Chatterjee assailed both the Centre and the state government for being indifferent to the violence in Gujarat. “The home minister (Advani), who is equally responsible, should also be removed. There is a tacit connivance between the home ministry and the state government,” he alleged.

A programme of agitation was chalked out at an Opposition meeting today at Chatterjee’s residence. Congress deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Shivraj Patil was also present.

   

 
 
FINAL TOUCHES TO COUNTER-WISHLIST 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, March 6: 
An upbeat All India Muslim Personal Law Board is preparing for a grand assembly this weekend to clinch the Babri Masjid issue on the premise that the Vajpayee regime and the Sankaracharya of Kanchi would prevail upon the VHP to accept the legal mandate on the Ayodhya dispute.

The board is giving final touches to a “counter proposal” to be made to Sri Jayendra Saraswathi. It includes the demand for a mosque within the 67 acres of undisputed land, a legal mandate to debar Hindutva forces from raking up Mathura and Kashi, and a plaque at the disputed site recording the chronology of the dispute.

Board members said it was now upto the VHP to respond to the seer, who has been mandated by Vajpayee to mediate on the Ayodhya tangle. “We have the highest regard for the Jagatguru and we are prepared to hold a discussion. But the VHP has to honour his words that it will abide by the court verdict. It will pave the way for future talks,” a board office-bearer said, adding: “Even if the talks fail due to the VHP’s rigid stand, the board would not be blamed as we have an open mind to consider all options.”

The moderates on the board today got a shot in the arm when the influential Nadwa theological school decided to back the board’s bid to hammer out a compromise. Maulana Rabey Nadwi, rector of Darul-Ulum Nadwa, said there was no harm in a negotiated settlement. However, the Jamiat-e-Ulema decided to oppose the negotiations.

The Muslim Personal Law Board has invited all Muslim MPs and community leaders to thrash out the Ayodhya issue at its Sunday meeting. A special meeting of the board executive has been convened on Saturday morning to prepare a blueprint that would be placed before the board’s general body.

A letter signed by board secretary Syed Nizamuddin acknowledged that it had received a proposal from the Sankaracharya. Board sources said the delegation that met him consisted of two vice-presidents of the radical Jamiat-e-Islami, Mohammad Jalaluddin Umri and Mohammad Jaffar, and Maulana Abdul Kareem Parekh, a highly respectable clergy from western India, and Syed Nizamuddin, a board member. The members from southern India are also keen on a negotiated settlement, board sources said.

The board is confident of overcoming the hardliners. Many members pointed out that the community was tired of the dispute and keen to put an end to it without “losing honour”.

But a number of fringe groups continued to protest against a possible “deal” between the board and the government.

Babri Masjid Reconstruct ion Front leader Anis Durrani, chairman of Delhi Haj Committee Zafaryab Jeelani and Syed Shahabuddin were opposed to the idea of handing over the “acquired land” to the VHP.

But the board’s legal advisers are convinced that the Vajpayee regime would not face too many hurdles in court if it wished to hand over the land acquired by the Kalyan Singh government for “promotion of tourism”. If the acquisition is challenged, the only question would be of access to the disputed site, and for that purpose, the entire land cannot be held back.

“We have to clear many misconceptions spread by vested interests,” a member of the Board said, emphasising that much would also depend on the VHP’s stand. The bottomline was its declaration to abide by the court verdict.

   

 
 
SEER HITS JARRING NOTE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 6: 
The Kanchi Sankaracharya’s efforts to end the Ayodhya dispute were criticised by a section of the Hindu clergy which felt religious leaders must not play into the hands of politicians.

Swami Abhokshjanand Teerth of the Puri Peeth took the lead in raising the chorus of protest against the BJP and VHP.

The Swami accused the Centre of openly patronising the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal and using the Kanchi Sankaracharya to give its stamp of approval to the temple construction in Ayodhya.

“We religious leaders should not become slaves nor allow ourselves to be forced to say and do anything that the government wants. Atal Bihari Vajpayee can decide to give away the land to the VHP but the entire country cannot be subjugated to the wishes of one person and that includes me,” the swami told the press.

He alleged that instead of punishing the “Gujarat rioters who included members of the VHP and Bajrang Dal”, the government was trying to use the situation for its political ends.

“In the name of Hindu religion and Ram, political attempts are on to instigate the people and create instability. But violence has nothing to do with Hinduism. Ram temple is not a political issue but a religious matter and in order to solve the matter we must respect the legal court and the dharmic courts of both religions,” he said.

The swami appealed to the Hindu religious leaders to make an effort to separate religion from politics and keep politicians away from religious issues.

Reacting to the allegations, VHP general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore said: “We do not take him seriously. We do not consider it necessary to comment on the statements of a self-proclaimed seer who is not recognised by the other Sankaracharyas.”

   

 
 
ATAL BANKS ON BOARD IN TEMPLE GAMBLE 
 
 
FROM SEEMA GUHA
 
New Delhi, March 6: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is relying heavily on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to sell Kanchi Sankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi’s proposal to the community.

The Sankaracharya is trying to get a written assurance from the VHP that it would honour the court verdict on who owned the disputed site in Ayodhya. In return, the “undisputed” area will be handed over to the outfit.

The tacit undertaking will be that the area where the Babri Masjid stood would remain untouched, so that a mosque could be built there in the future.

It is a make-or-break gamble for Vajpayee, who is struggling to hammer out a deal which would not just defuse the March 15 crisis but also work out a solution to end the impasse.

Though the VHP today said it would never give an undertaking in writing, the Prime Minister’s Office is unfazed. Sources close to Vajpayee said the outfit is trying to extract the most out of the situation.

“Such snags are to be expected in this kind of sensitive negotiations. But we will keep chipping away at a permanent solution so that the nation can put this issue behind it,” a senior official explained.

Officials said Vajpayee is using his wide network of contacts to keep channels of communication open to both Hindus and Muslims.

The signal that the PMO has received from Muslims is that the majority opinion was for an amicable settlement of the dispute, which has brought nothing but suffering to the community.

The Muslim law board is meeting on Sunday to give its verdict on the Kanchi seer’s proposal. Though officials foresee the usual carping by certain leaders, the government, for the moment, appears to have put all its bets on the law board.

Both Vajpayee and his aides realise that the entire exercise could fall through and there would be numerous hurdles on the way, but the government has no choice but to appear optimistic as it works on both the VHP and the Muslim board to thrash out a compromise.

“We are confident that if members of the Muslim Personal Law Board agree to a compromise, a final solution to the Ayodhya dispute can be worked out,” a senior government official said.

The Vajpayee government is confident that if a settlement is acceptable to the majority of Muslims, political parties would think twice before opposing the move.

“So long as our National Democratic Alliance partners see eye to eye with the government on working out a settlement, we are not worried about the rest,” said an official. He emphasised that the Prime Minister would not be able to go ahead with his peace plan without the NDA’s backing.

However, there are doubts among sections within the government on whether the law board can deliver, especially as the VHP is unlikely to agree to the rebuilding of the mosque.

“The Muslim Personal Law Board can work out a deal only if the VHP is also ready to compromise. But going by past precedent, they are unlikely to consider allowing the rebuilding of a mosque near the temple. So what will the Personal Law Board sell to the community,” a senior official pointed out.

Since the Godhra train carnage, some VHP leaders have publicly derided the Prime Minister, saying there was no point in his party leading the coalition if the BJP ideology is not respected. If Vajpayee cannot manage, he should quit, is their common refrain.

But others feel the outfit is not on a strong wicket and will finally have to avoid a confrontation with the government. They said the VHP would not have hesitated to force a confrontation if it was confident that the BJP would better its representation in Parliament.

Even the Sangh parivar realises that the party may not be in a position to form a government next time.

   
 

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