Sant threatens to do or die
Khaki cover for saffron town
Beyond Ayodhya, Sangh’s restive cadre
US travel alert for temple town
Sage at end of garden path
BJP odd man fights quit pressure
Three die in Punjab train blast
Army job seekers killed in septic tank collapse
CPM leader lynched in TN
Calcutta Weather

 
 
SANT THREATENS TO DO OR DIE 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Ayodhya, March 14: 

Scent of last-minute deal on shila daan

Ayodhya turned in for the night with the threat of a showdown looming at sunrise and with the demolition nightmare of 10 years ago lurking at the back of its mind.

The Vajpayee government’s efforts to avoid a confrontation over the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s proposed shila daan or puja appeared to have failed when Mahant Ramchandra Das Paramhans threatened to end his life if he was not allowed to go to the disputed site to perform a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of a Ram temple.

The 93-year-old chairman of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, who has been spearheading the movement for construction of the Ram temple, said: “I will give up my life tomorrow if I am stopped from proceeding with my programme.”

Paramhans said he would start on his last journey at 1.15 pm tomorrow. Attempts to persuade him to change his plan continued into the night with a senior police officer paying him a visit with the administration’s offer to accept shilas (carved stones) meant for the temple.

The commissioner of Faizabad, A.K. Gupta, said he was ready to take up the mahant’s offer of donating shilas. “I will personally take the pillars as long as no one violates the Supreme Court order,” Gupta said. The shilas could be donated at any place away from the disputed site, he added.

A senior official in Lucknow, echoing the offer, however, said the donation would have to take place not only away from the disputed site but also from the acquired land.

If at all a compromise is reached, it could centre on the act of shila daan, as the VHP too appeared to indicate. “Shila daan is not prohibited by the Supreme Court order,” VHP international secretary Praveen Togadia said in Delhi.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Parliament that his government would uphold the Supreme Court’s order disallowing any religious activity on the acquired land in Ayodhya in “letter and spirit”.

“I wish to assure the House that adequate preparations have been made to maintain law and order in Ayodhya and to ensure that the March 13 order of the Supreme Court is adhered to,” Vajpayee said.

While issuing his threat, Paramhans made it clear that the Prime Minister was the target of his action, along with the Faizabad commissioner and anyone else blocking the temple plan.

“I am ready and prepared to give up my life for the cause of Lord Ram. I am willing to sacrifice my life for the temple,” he said.

As shocked followers and startled journalists made a rush to ensure they had heard the mahant right, he seized the occasion, saying: “I have been talking to the press at regular intervals and I apologise if I have made any mistakes. But this will be your last interview, I will not be there to address you any more.”

Meri jeevan lila ab yahin samapt ho jayegi (My life will end here),” Paramhans said.

His personal guard Rajeshwar Singh said since morning Paramhans has refused food and medicine.

Around 30 sadhus and VHP leaders had gathered in an “emergency meeting” at Karsevakpuram to chalk out a strategy to counter the Supreme Court’s order, but did not seem to have succeeded in working out a face-saving formula.

Adding to the VHP’s worry was the fact that only 30 sadhus from four temples had joined it. Conspicuous by his absence was Nrityagopal Das, vice-president of the Nyas. Two of the three major akhadas here have already come out in open defiance of Paramhans and the VHP. The two akhada heads, Mahant Gyan Das of Nirvani and Jagannath Das of Nirmohi, announced that they did not want to “stain their hands with blood” by associating with the VHP’s plan of shila puja.

As the Supreme Court today clarified that the whole Ram Janmabhoomi area was out of bounds for the VHP, the government threw a security cordon around the temple town to prevent Ram sevaks from entering. The city is teeming with security personnel to thwart any attempt to go to the site.

Ayodhya residents recalled that security arrangements were tight in 1992, too, but still kar sevaks had streamed into the town to demolish the Babri mosque.

Paramhans has given a call to his followers to rise in protest against what he called the “evil designs” of the administration. “But before I die I will ask my followers to rise in lakhs to protest the government’s moves of stopping Hindus from performing puja in their own land,’’ he said as VHP president Ashok Singhal looked on silently. Singhal, who appeared upset and worried, refused to speak to the press.

   

 
 
KHAKI COVER FOR SAFFRON TOWN 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
Ayodhya, March 14: 
From Karsevakpuram to the workshop of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, from the workshop to Raj Sadan — this temple town’s main street — from Raj Sadan, through the winding, uphill lane to the site where the Babri masjid once stood, Ayodhya this evening is awash in khaki.

Some 200 yards after the point from which the road to the disputed site starts, there are at least three places — in the shouting distance of less than half a kilometre — where visitors are frisked. On the Raj Sadan, a contingent of CRPF cavalry, pennants pointing skywards, marches up and down the road. There are mobile and pedestrian patrols, too.

No entry is allowed on the wide (by Ayodhya standards) main street leading to the site. On the posts lining the street, closed-circuit television cameras rove and whirr.

There are three lanes flowing into the road leading to the tenthouse for an idol of Ram. The pujari says that today the only visitors have been policemen and journalists. On an average day, 1,000-1,500 visitors stream past the idol, shoving notes into the donation box.

People walk up to where the pujari sits — about 20 feet in front of the idol — through a one-way three-foot wide passage that is lined with parallel metal beams to about 10 feet from the ground. The roof is fenced-in, too. It is like walking through a narrow cage. A breach of the security cordons around Ayodhya and inside the town can still be checked here.

Any force wanting to break in can yet make an attempt in one of the following ways:

With the complicity of the administration. This would mean the police have to remain frozen;

By overwhelming with sheer numbers; and

By parachuting down in a commando operation.

With entry to the town restricted to all but authorised personnel, the VHP can only bank on mobilising the numbers from the temples, ashrams, dharamshalas and from among the citizenry. “I would say a force of about 2,500 people should turn out,” says Hari Narayan Das, Mahant of Bholu Bhaliya Ashram, of the Paramhans Digambar Akhada. The most optimistic estimate is a turnout of 5,000.

There is little to show that a spontaneous upsurge can tomorrow take over Ayodhya. But on the eve of December 6, 1992, too, there was little to show what was brewing in the pot of history.

Between then and now, there is a crucial difference, as R.N. Srivastava, the former Faizabad district magistrate, pointed out. “There was no decision (in 1992) to stop kar sevaks from coming into Ayodhya because the Supreme Court had permitted symbolic kar seva,” he told the Liberhan Commission, probing the Babri masjid demolition.

   

 
 
BEYOND AYODHYA, SANGH’S RESTIVE CADRE 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 14: 
The Centre is working overtime to persuade Ramchandra Das Paramhans to call off his suicide threat and convince the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to defer its daan plan at the makeshift Ram temple tomorrow.

There were indications late tonight that Paramhans might yield ground, but VHP leader Ashok Singhal was holding firm.

“The situation is grim,” said a Cabinet minister. “Even if we arrest the mahant as a pre-emptive measure, it will have serious repercussions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And if we don’t, he may carry out his threat if he is not allowed to march up to the temple.”

The government’s feedback is that the Sangh cadre, including those from the BJP, are in no mood to settle for any “compromise formula” and are ready to hit the streets at the first indication of a confrontation with the state. Sources said utterances of VHP leaders were a barometer of the “highly surcharged” mood of the cadre, who, they added, feel “let down” by the government.

Attempts are on to persuade Paramhans, chairman of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, to offer the consecrated shilas (bricks) to the receiver, the Faizabad district commissioner, at the Karyashala. As the temple workshop is some distance away from the acquired land, the “offering” would not violate the Supreme Court’s order. But the Centre is not sure if the officer can legally accept it. The bricks were worshipped a couple of days ago in the Karyashala.

Law ministry sources said the apex court’s order was not “technically” applicable to the makeshift temple on the disputed area and the 16 other temples on the “undisputed” land. But it is learnt that law minister Arun Jaitley would peruse the order carefully to ensure that the government does not falter legally.

The sources pointed out that since puja has been going on in all these temples, the court order did not debar it. Therefore, Paramhans would be “within his right” to offer the shilas to Ram Lalla.

Though Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not himself speak to Paramhans, his Cabinet colleagues L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh appealed to the sadhu not to do anything drastic. The sources said Paramhans is so miffed with Vajpayee that he has said he would not respond to the Prime Minister’s call.

Advani also asked Singhal to “work” on the mahant. It is believed that Singhal has advised Paramhans to “take it easy” as he is over 90 and hypertensive.

Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh issued a televised appeal and spoke to him, while RSS joint general secretary Madan Das Devi is also doing his bit. But the Sangh gave the impression that it would play along with the sants and the dharmacharyas up to a point and not be seen as just a government mediator.

A resolution adopted in the RSS’ All-India Delegates Convention at Channenhalli near Bangalore today reflected its dilemma. The RSS asked the government to remove all hurdles in the way of the Ram sevaks and pilgrims going to Karsevakpuram for the Purna Ahuti Yagna.

“No social harmony can be achieved by litigation or by deployment of forces. It can be accomplished by respecting each other’s sentiments,” the resolution said.

The Sangh also described the Supreme Court’s order as “very unfortunate”. “The sentiments of millions of Hindus are now grievously hurt,” it added.

At least 10 of the BJP’s 25 Uttar Pradesh MPs, led by Swami Chinmayanand, left for Ayodhya tonight to take part in the VHP programme. Asked if this did not amount to flouting the court’s directive, Chinmayanand retorted: “We are going for the yagna.”

However, Gorakhpur MP Swami Adityanath is already under arrest. He was picked up today along with a thousand Ram sevaks and a BJP legislator, Radhey Aggrawal, for trying to proceed towards Ayodhya armed with swords and tridents.

BJP sources admitted that the cadre have taken over the parivar and are in no mood to listen to the leadership.

“The overweening sentiment is that the ministers are dying to cling to power and the RSS leaders are determined to see that they do. Both have compromised on principles. But the MPs have felt the pulse of the people more accurately and know that if they betray them on the temple issue they may as well forfeit their deposits in the elections,” the sources said.

“This is why they are willing to even court arrest. The situation can get so bad that by the time the budget is due to be passed, Vajpayee may find half his MPs in jail.”

Sources claimed that in Gujarat, chief minister Narendra Modi got the wrong end of the stick from Sangh activists after the Godhra carnage. “We have definite information that when Modi showed unwillingness to act, he was heckled and pushed around. He was so scared that even the cops advised him to stay put at home and not venture out because they could not guarantee his security. Finally, he was forced to give in to the cadre,” BJP sources said.

   

 
 
US TRAVEL ALERT FOR TEMPLE TOWN 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, March 14: 
With the clock ticking in Ayodhya, the US state department has “strongly urged” US citizens to avoid travelling to the town, which is at the centre of the religious dispute, and surrounding areas.

“Tensions remain high in the area of Ayodhya.… Although construction has been postponed, the potential for unrest continues,” a public announcement by the state department yesterday cautioned American citizens.

It said non-essential US government-sponsored travel to Gujarat, except to the Kutch region, is being postponed.

The announcement urged American citizens to defer travel to the area and said US citizens who must go to Gujarat should register with the US consulate in Mumbai and request an update on the situation in the state.

“While the situation has calmed considerably, reports of scattered unrest continue. The potential exists for renewed violence similar to the mob attack on a train in the eastern Gujarat city of Godhra on February 27, and the incidents that occurred in the days following that attack,” the state department said.

“Strikes are common occurrences in India and also have the potential to turn violent,” the announcement cautioned.

Americans throughout India were, therefore, urged to limit their movements during strikes, avoid demonstrations and exercise caution in public areas.

“In the past, strikes have disrupted public services, including public transportation and taxis, particularly in large cities. Spontaneous demonstrations may also occur.”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has condemned communal killings in India and urged “the US government to press Indian authorities to exercise their power immediately to halt the atrocities and violence and bring the perpetrators to justice”.

The commission is a statutory body made up mainly of minority representatives in America under its International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

In a strong statement on events in Gujarat and Ayodhya, the commission said: “The US government must speak out strongly against both the increasing attacks on minorities and the ideology of hate behind them.

“The Indian government must also do more to root out the causes of such tragedies, especially by resolving the impasse over the … Babri mosque in Ayodhya destroyed by Hindu nationalists in 1992, and where Hindu nationalists are vowing to construct a Hindu temple instead.”

The statement continued: “The ideology of the Sangh parivar holds that only Hindus are ‘real’ Indians, suggesting that non-Hindus are foreigners and thus deserving of suspicion and even attack.

   

 
 
SAGE AT END OF GARDEN PATH 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
Ayodhya, March 14: 
Desperately trying to live down the agony of being the VHP’s mukhauta —mask/mascot — for the Ram mandir movement, Ramchandra Das Paramhans announcement today “to end the ballad of my life” is the ascetic’s finest hour.

The immediate reason for Paramhans’ declared intent to commit suicide, if the police stop him from performing “shila puja” tomorrow, is the Central directive to implement the Supreme Court’s orders.

But there are events that have forced his hand.

This afternoon, Paramhans was escorted into the inner chamber of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas’ workshop by the former Raja of Ayodhya, Vimlendra Mohan Pratap Mishra. Paramhans was a friend of his late father.

“What are you doing, Paramhansji? I am told you have not been eating at all,” the raja asked the nonagenarian.

“I could stop living, you know,” Paramhans told him. “I have been led up a garden path and now I am being made a fool of.”

Just then, Union home minister L.K. Advani telephoned. An angry Paramhans refused to take the call. Advani was spoken to by an associate.

“Come,” the raja said. “Please have lunch. I will have lunch with you.” Godman and king sat on the floor and partook of a humble meal.

Ayodhya’s royals are worrying over Paramhans’ health just as many of its citizenry are. This evening, a doctor said the 93-year-old seer’s blood pressure was 150/90 but there was no real reason to panic.

Vimlendra Pratap is not a BJP or a Sangh parivar activist. He has turned down repeated requests from the BJP to contest elections as the party’s nominee.

For the world outside Ayodhya, Paramhans personifies melodrama; everything — almost — that the media of the West finds so engaging about the mysticism of the Orient.

In fortress Ayodhya, for many of its people, Paramhans is one of their own. They may not all empathise with him. They do sympathise with him.

Since the VHP associated closely with Paramhans in the run-up to this phase of its Ram mandir programme, the godman was certain that a friendly government at the Centre will help his cause. Irrespective of the Supreme Court’s orders, he still believes the Vajpayee government has stabbed him in the back.

The best that he could now be offered was a television-friendly, face-saving device that will be aimed at placating the VHP — like the possibility that somewhere between the temple workshop and the site, divisional commissioner and receiver A.K. Gupta might accept a token stone, shila.

There is no official confirmation that this will happen. (Gupta had said earlier this could take place only if he got relevant orders from the government.)

Courting arrest, too, is a possibility, just as there are murmurs that the Mahant might be removed to a hospital tonight.

If the VHP tomorrow has to put on a show here – even if one that will be for the benefit of television-cameras — (Ayodhya’s citizenry are mirthful about kar sevaks always bursting into slogans at the sight of television cameras) — it will be on the strength of the respect that Paramhans commands among the seers of Ayodhya’s 1,200-odd maths and ashrams.

Paramhans’ worries are born not only out of the inability to mobilise support on the streets — given the security-sanitisation of the town — it is also because he knows he is now political capital.

   

 
 
BJP ODD MAN FIGHTS QUIT PRESSURE 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, March 14: 
To quit or not to quit — Ganibhai Qureshi has never faced such dilemma in his 33-year political career.

A known Muslim face of the BJP in Gujarat, the chairman of the state’s Minorities Finance and Development Corporation risks social boycott if he holds on to the post. If he resigns, he loses his position.

In post-Godhra Gujarat, bloodied by communal riots that claimed over 600 lives, Qureshi is under tremendous pressure to quit the party he has been associated with since the days of the Jan Sangh.

All the Muslim youths he had brought into the BJP fold over the last four years seem to have made up their mind to quit.

“No self-respecting Muslim can remain in the party after what we saw and faced in the BJP rule,” said Inamul Haq Iraki, who now feels ashamed to call himself a BJP member.

Qureshi has tried to persuade both Iraki and Rafiq Memon, city president of the party’s minority cell, not to quit.

“I have been telling them we can serve the community if we remain loyal to the party,” he said. “But they are adamant. They seem to have made up their mind.”

As for himself, Qureshi intends to remain in the party and continue as the chairman of the minority board. “He would not give up his post,” said Congress MLA Farooq Shaik, who has known him for several years.

“His lust for power and position will ensure that he remains in the party even if all the other Muslims desert it which is almost certain.”

But Qureshi disputes the charge and says if he sticks with the party it would be because he is convinced by its ideology, not because of his position.

“I do not mind even if I’m left alone in the BJP. I was alone, a lonely Muslim, when I joined the Jan Sangh in 1969,” he said. “I would not like to resign from the BJP just because of the communal riots.”

Qureshi says there have been riots even during the Congress regime, when curfew was clamped for longer spells – at times for more than six months.

The BJP veteran admits his personal rapport with the BJP big bosses. “Whenever I called up any party leaders, they responded. The home minister was kind enough to call me on February 28 itself,” he said.

Upset with Qureshi’s decision, Memon and Iraki said they would see to it that he is socially boycotted and no Muslim does business with him. The 52-year-old has a flourishing cement business in Vadodara.

Over 5,000 Muslims in the state had enrolled in the BJP after former party chief Bangaru Laxman gave a call to them in a bid to establish the party’s secular credentials.

Officially, even today, there are over 300 active Muslim members in the party who would not hesitate to resign with Memon.

The minority cell chief, however, says they would stay back only if chief minister Narendra Modi assures them that Muslims who have been set up in relief camps will get rehabilitated and given protection. Memon is scheduled to meet the chief minister on Saturday.

Iraki is exploring the possibility of floating a new outfit.

   

 
 
THREE DIE IN PUNJAB TRAIN BLAST 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Doraha/Ludhiana, March 14: 
Slippers, wheat, rice, cloth pieces, burnt wood, a wide open roof and an acrid smell are all that remains of the second class compartment of the Ferozepur-Dhanbad express which was ripped apart by an explosion last night.

Three persons died and 30 were injured in the blast that occurred around 11 pm as the train was nearing Doraha, about 20 km from Ludhiana.

One person died on the spot and the rest succumbed to injuries in hospital. Thirteen people were rushed to a private hospital in Doraha while the others were admitted to the Dayanand Medical College and Hospital in Ludhiana. Four persons have already been released.

Preliminary investigations revealed a bomb had been kept in a bundle on a luggage rack. Forensic experts from Chandigarh said it could be RDX and similar to the device that claimed two lives on a bus in Satnaur on January 31.

Northern Railways general manager Kanwaljit Singh said two of the dead had been identified as Jadu Yadav and Malti.

Over 100 people were travelling in the affected coach. “The train is usually overcrowded with people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh returning after work on the fields in Punjab. There were some Sikhs also on their way to Patna,” an eyewitness said.

It was crossing the bridge over Sirhind canal when the explosion was heard. Smoke billowed from the compartment and panic spread as the doors got jammed. “Had Doraha not been nearby, all of us would have died in the fire,” said Arvind from Uttaranchal, who is being treated for burns.

   

 
 
ARMY JOB SEEKERS KILLED IN SEPTIC TANK COLLAPSE 
 
 
OUR BUREAU AND AGENCIES
 
Lucknow, March 14: 
At least 21 youths were killed and three injured when the septic tank on which they were standing during an army recruitment in the cantonment area here collapsed this morning, police said.

The issue rocked the Lok Sabha with Samajwadi Party members storming the well, demanding a statement from the government on the issue.

As soon as the House assembled this morning, Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav claimed that at least 50 youths had drowned and the situation there had become explosive.

District magistrate Jeevash Nandan said the youths in the age group of 18 to 21 died when the tank gave way. The three injured were admitted to the Command Hospital, he said. The incident occurred around 5.10 am.

However, an army spokesman said 18 youths were killed and three injured in the incident. All the 18 bodies have been brought to the Command Hospital.

“Rescue operations were carried out immediately. Many have been saved. But there are 21 deaths,” senior superintendent of police B.B. Bakshi said.

He ruled out the possibility of any more person being trapped inside the sewage. “Rescue operations are almost over. And we have seen that no more person is inside,” Bakshi added.

The district magistrate said a magisterial enquiry has been ordered into the incident. The army has also ordered an inquiry. An army spokesman said the court of inquiry will be headed by the station commander of Lucknow. He has been asked to submit a report within 90 days, the spokesman added.

Uttar Pradesh Governor Vishnu Kant Shastri announced an ex gratia of Rs 1 lakh each to the kin of the youths killed in the accident.

Shastri expressed profound grief over the deaths, an official release said here.

The Governor also announced a financial assistance of Rs 25,000 each to the injured, the release said, adding stern action would be taken against those found guilty.

The Governor’s secretary, V.N. Garg, visited the scene of the incident for an on-the-spot assessment of the situation.

In the Lok Sabha, Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed told a protesting Samajwadi chief that he would be allowed to raise the matter during zero hour but Yadav insisted on an immediate government response.

Amid protests from NDA members over the Yadav’s attempts to disrupt the question hour, Samajwadi members trooped to the well shouting anti-government slogans such as “Lalji Tandon ko giraftar karo (arrest Lalji Tandon)”. Tandon, they alleged, was responsible for the poor quality of the tank built during his tenure as Uttar Pradesh urban development minister.

In a bid to pacify the members, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar appealed to the chair to allow Yadav to have his say so that the House could transact business.

At one stage, Yadav asked his party men to return to their seats but in the face of remarks by some ruling NDA members, he directed them to return to the well.

MDMK chief Vaiko and several other NDA members demanded suspension of Samajwadi members from the House for alleged violation of the code of conduct.

   

 
 
CPM LEADER LYNCHED IN TN 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, March 14: 
The lynching of a CPM panchayat president rocked the Tamil Nadu Assembly today.

Rathinaswamy, the panchayat president of Iduvai, was killed near his house and hanged from a tree yesterday. He was allegedly murdered for his pro-Dalit and anti-Hindutva stance.

CPM member Karunakaran, who raised the issue during zero hour, said: “It is the meanest of political murders and an act of cowardice.” Such things should never happen to “the servants of people”, he added. There was an attempt on Rathinaswamy’s life in 1998 as well.

Jayalalithaa assured the agitated Marxists that the culprits would be brought to book.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 35°C (+1)
Minimum: 22.8°C (+2)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Max: 83%
Min: 28%

Sunrise: 5.51 am

Sunset: 5.41 pm

Today:

Partly cloudy sky, with possibility of development of thunderclouds towards late afternoon or evening
   
 

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