Bengal takes Vajpai verdict to apex court
Mystery fever stalks village
Youth dies in BSF firing
Air travel rift widens
Our recording angels
Law minister runs into violence Bill tamper slur
Atal ready to pick up Ayodhya tab
Truant MPs give BJP red face
Cong rules out terror law rethink
Apex court puts debt tribunals back on track

Calcutta, March 19: 
The Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government has decided to challenge in the Supreme Court the verdict setting aside the appointment of D.C. Vajpai as the DGP and IGP of Bengal.

Calcutta High Court had passed the order yesterday on a petition by a senior IPS officer, Manas Chakraborty, who was also a claimant to the DGP’s post.

The court said that according to an apex court ruling the DGP would have to be picked from a panel of three existing officers of the rank of DG. But the state had appointed Vajpai by promoting him from the post of city police commissioner, a post equivalent to additional DG.

Chief secretary S.N. Roy today said at Writers’ Buildings that he had held telephonic discussions with the chief minister and asked him to file a special leave petition in the apex court. Bhattacharjee is in Hyderabad for the CPM party congress.

The ruling has come at a time when Bhattacharjee, law minister Nisith Adhikari, advocate general Balai Roy and the CPM brass are all in Hyderabad.

Bhattacharjee declined comment on the issue. “Why should I comment on this? This is a very small issue. Next you’ll be asking me who should be the next officer-in-charge of Maniktala police station. Even my chief secretary and home secretary should not comment on this,’’ he said.

CPM state secretary Anil Biswas also refused to comment on the ruling. Former chief minister Jyoti Basu said he had not yet seen the court order. “Let me go through the order first, then I can give my views on the issue,’’ Basu said when the conference broke for recess.

Sources said that after getting news of the verdict on Monday afternoon, Bhattacharjee discussed the matter with Roy and his predecessor Naranarayan Gooptu. He also spoke to Biswas and Basu and decided to move to the Supreme Court.

Home secretary A.K. Deb said Vajpai would continue for now. “We have not yet received the court’s order so we do not know exactly what the court has directed. Our lawyers have informed us that 14 days time has been given to us to file an appeal in the Supreme Court. So, for the moment, Vajpai will continue functioning as the DGP,’’ he said.


Burdwan, March 19: 
A mystery fever has killed three persons and afflicted several at Bidyanagar in Purbasthali in the last three days.

Bijoy Mukherjee, principal of Burdwan Medical College, led a team of doctors to Bidyanagar and collected 114 blood samples, of which 15 were from persons suffering from the fever.

Kishore Sarkar (14), Bipad Debnath (38) and his daughter Mumpy (13) are the three victims. Their deaths have sparked panic in the area.

“We can’t say for sure what disease has struck the three unfortunate people who died. So far, we can say that it is not malaria. We have collected 114 blood samples. We will have the samples tested thoroughly to find out what has actually struck Bidyanagar,” Mukherjee said.

In another development in Jamalpur, three villagers have died of gastro-enteritis. About 250 people in eight villages are suffering from the same disease.

District health department sources said that more and more people were contracting the disease by the day. So far, 25 villagers have been hospitalised.

Jamalpur block development officer Suman Bhattacharya said bleaching powder and other disinfectants were being sprayed in the affected villages.

A section of officials feels the disease has spread through contaminated water in the local ponds.

The situation has been further aggravated as there is only one physician at the local block-level health centre.


Malda, March 19: 
A 17-year-old youth from Malda district today died in firing by Border Security Force personnel.

Israel Seikh of Sasani village died around 11 am today. His father, Kalu Seikh, has lodged a complaint with Kaliachalk police station saying the BSF men fired several rounds on him while he was returning home after handing over his lunch.

Tension spread in Sasani village when news broke of Israel’s death. Additional superintendent of police of Malda Manoranjan Saha said reinforcements were sent to Kaliachalk soon after.

Angry villagers, who gathered outside the police station, dispersed only when they were promised that disciplinary action would be initiated against the BSF men. Saha said Israel was an Indian.

But the BSF has started a case against Israel, identifying him as a Bangladeshi. In its complaint with the Kaliachalk police station, the BSF said he was shot at while trying to sneak into the India through the barbed wire fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border.

BSF sources said they had fired three rounds when Israel refused to heed repeated warnings not to cross over. Two others who were allegedly with him escaped into Bangladesh.

The three-member gang was involved in illegal trade in foreign currency, the BSF said. Three thousand Indian rupees and two hundred Bangladeshi takas were seized from them.

Two Bangladeshis also died in BSF firing at Kushmandi police station area of South Dinajpur this morning.


Calcutta, March, 19: 
Ten foreign airlines touching down at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport; limited domestic passenger flow; plummeting business volumes…

Just when the city-based air travel agents were thinking it was as bad as it gets, comes the knockout punch. With the International Air Transport Association (IATA) hiking the minimum bank guarantee — earlier linked to productivity — for air travel agents to a minimum of Rs 20 lakh in the metros. The apex body representing air travel agents in the country, conveyed the decision to members last week, casting a shadow over the future of around 90 of its members in town.

“Earlier, we were paying bank guarantees linked to our average productivity over two fortnights. In view of the business volume here, the amount was generally between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 8 lakh for most of us. The hike is unjustified, as it equates us with agents in Mumbai and Delhi,” says Tarakeshwar Singh, secretary, eastern India chapter, Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI).

The city-based agents have raised questions regarding the “unilateral” decision taken by the Agency Programme Joint Council (APJC), India, to be implemented by IATA. They have also challenged the agency’s power to review and revise the amount of the bank guarantee. “Our contractual agreement is with IATA, so why should we accept the decision taken by APJC? Besides, there wasn’t any representation from eastern India in the APJC,” says Sanjay Maniar of Travelaid.

IATA insists the move is justified. “A higher bank guarantee will imply more credit to agents from the airlines and ensure that only the serious players remain in the market,” says Rana Chowdhry, branch manager, IATA, Calcutta.

But the eastern chapter of TAFI has decided to fight out. It has already sounded out the state government’s tourism ministry, besides keeping the legal option open. “We will be submitting a representation to the tourism ministry and the CII to help safeguard the trade in this part of the country,” says Singh.


Calcutta, March, 19: 
Photography came to India in mid-19th Century, round about the same time the technology became popular in the West. The second half of the exhibition mounted by the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, (CSSSC) now on at the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre at 30C. S.P. Mukherjee Road, illustrates the development of the art of photography.

The camera, that started off as a device for taking studio snapshots, soon began to act as a recording angel, faithfully documenting the changing times. Within a few years, photography was to become an invaluable tool in advertising and other promotional enterprises, such as public relations. This is the story of local photography, as presented by art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta.

There are, obviously, many gaps in this history, but the curator was solely dependent on the CSSSC’s own archives, which it started building up in 1996. For this, it had to dip into private collections, in many cases neglected, or had to rely on the generosity of private collectors, like Siddhartha Ghosh. CSSSC has also inherited from Hitesranjan Sanyal a huge collection of about 3,000 black-and-white transparencies. Sanyal, who was a faculty of CSSSC, had taken these pictures of Bengal temples after extensively touring the districts. It also includes some rephotographed prints from the Oriental and India Office Collections, London.

The prints on display are either exhibition prints made from originals or are old bromides rephotographed. Where the photographer is still alive or the photographs were acquired, either new prints were made, as in the case of Ahmed Ali, or prints were made from copy negatives, as in the case of Debaleena Majumdar (born 1919), one of the first women photographers of the city. The photographs of Majumdar and “artist masima” Annapurna Datta, who preceded her, come as a revelation.

The show begins at the beginning with the photographs mostly from the collection of Siddhartha Ghosh and family albums, such as those of the daughter of Shibnath Sastri and of the late art critic Arany Banerjee. The prints reveal the names of local photographers who plied their trade alongside the Europeans, like Bourne & Shepherd and Johnston & Hoffman. Thus, we encounter the names of Bengal Photographers of Radhabazar Street, dating back to 1862, and S. Naseeruddin of Marquis Street. We see children in groups and wedding photographs, as well as bedizened ladies. Here, for the first time, we meet Maharaja Birchandra Manikya of Tripura, one of the pioneers in this field. A shutterbug, he has left behind self-portraits, pictures of his wife and daughter and a daguerreotype of a languid nude. Here, we also see the riveting photograph taken by Annapurna Datta (1910) of an old woman with strong features lying in bed, her long hair fanning out on a pillow trimmed with frills.

Prodyot Coomar Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore were two early practitioners. To the former we owe the pleasure of seeing the splendid interiors of his home, Emerald Bower. The latter’s photograph of a siesta in the Tagore household is reminiscent of the famous sketch by Nandalal Bose. Apart from their technical finesse, what is noteworthy is that this was the first time that photography began to be taken seriously as an art form.

During the 40s, 50s and 60s, several litterateurs, like Parimal Goswami and Kamakshi Prasad Chattopadhyay, tried their hand at photography. We cannot be sure that these photographs were ever commissioned, but through Goswami’s lens we zoom in on AIR and its artistes (a very callow Hemanta Mukherjee) and poets Sudhindranath Datta, Buddhadeb Bose, Manik Bandopadhyay and Bishnu Dey. Kamakshi Prasad’s oeuvre extends from Gandhi at Sodepur and some unforgettable Calcutta vignettes to the first industrial photos.

The versatile Ahmed Ali’s pictures occupy the major portion of a room. They cover advertising — Suchitra Sen flashing all 32 for Bata and Sabitri Chatterjee pouring out tea — some stunning industrial photographs and showbiz. Geeta Dutt, Amitabh, long long before he became Big B, Kana Kesto and a pouting Pam Crain all come alive. We end up feeling nostalgic about cabaret at Princes and a twinkling New Market.


New Delhi, March 19: 
Critics of the Bill against domestic violence are blaming law minister Arun Jaitley for “subverting” its basic principle.

“We wanted a Bill to protect women from violence. But now, it has become a Bill for protecting the family,” said a member of the Lawyer’s Collective, an organisation that had prepared the draft and forwarded it to the government.

“As long as the Bill was in the custody of the department of women and children, its basic character was intact. It was the law minister who heavily tampered with the Bill and crafted it in its present form,” said a critic. The department of women and children had suggested several radical measures to make the Bill more stringent.

Sumitra Mahajan, the minister in charge of the department, however, defended the definition of domestic violence in the Bill, which says it becomes an offence only when it is “habitual”.

“If someone’s skull is broken in one incident of violence , then that will not come under the purview of the law because it is done only once,” said Sanjoy Ghose of the Lawyer’s Collective.

Mahajan, in an interview, took pains to reiterate that it was not the government’s intention to break up families. Rather, it wants to safeguard the institution, she said. It is also with the spirit of conciliation in mind that the government has suggested “mandatory counselling sessions” for a couple, regardless of how bitter the circumstances are.

But an activist of a women’s organisation slammed the approach. “In their zeal to protect this institution, they have thrown in the ditch the spirit of the Bill which is to protect battered women,” the activist said.

The Lawyer’s Collective recounted its experiences with battered women and dismissed the provision of mandatory counselling. “How can the woman speak freely in front of her husband who is bashing her?” asked Ghose.

Women’s organisations and the Lawyer’s Collective say the Bill does not give a woman, if she is thrown out of the house after violence, the right to continue living in the house.

Critics along with some non-government organisations are now trying to whip up support against the Bill in its present form. It is expected to come up for discussion in this Parliament session. “But we are not too confident that MPs are concerned about the character of the Bill and will speak out against it,” said a woman activist.

Ironically, none of the male MPs have joined the debate on the Bill. Only women political leaders have joined issue with the government.


Lucknow, March 19: 
The Centre today expressed willingness to foot the bill if a new commission is formed on the Ayodhya case to record the statement of witnesses and expedite hearings, indicating its seriousness to see the end of the litigation.

In the morning, the high court had asked additional solicitor general R.N. Trivedi who would bear the costs of the new commission. The state government had put its foot down, claiming that its coffers were empty.

When Trivedi called up a senior bureaucrat at 2 pm to know the state government’s stand on the issue, he was told there was “no money” and was urged to seek the Centre’s help. After hectic parleys, the Centre indicated its willingness to bear the cost.

The court’s observations had come during a hearing on the Centre’s petition that sought directives for hearing the case on a day-to-day basis.

“Only 24 witnesses have been questioned so far. There are about 150 from one side and 75 from the other. The Union is very anxious that the matter should be expedited as soon as possible. That is why, after appealing to the court for a day-to-day hearing, another suggestion we have made is for a new commission to be constituted,” Trivedi said.

The government’s application for a speedier trial has been received with cynicism by the two main plaintiffs in the case, the Sunni Central Wakf Board and the Nirmohi Akhada. While neither is against day-to-day hearing per se, they hold that the Centre had no “locus standi” in the matter as it is not party to it.

The plaintiffs have submitted that the Centre’s application is “infructuous” as the court had, on July 12, already ordered holding of day-to-day hearings on a state government plea. The wakf wants the government to be a party first. It argues that in the absence of the government making “applications” without being a party, other such applications would follow, delaying the hearings unnecessarily.

The government is not keen to become a party to the dispute. Trivedi pleaded on behalf of the Centre that the government was the receiver of the acquired land and, therefore, it was not necessary for it to become a party to the case.

He maintained that the government was spending Rs 30 crore annually for security and other arrangements in Ayodhya to maintain status quo at the acquired land and the expenses were becoming a burden on the exchequer.

Trivedi was, however, “unhappy and hurt” at the way wakf board counsel S.S. Ray was arguing his case. “How can they say the Centre’s stand is ‘supercilious’,’’ Trivedi fumed.

“Supercilious means haughty, disdainful, contemptuous. These are very strong words to use for the government, which just wants the case to be heard faster in the interest of the nation.”

The court has reserved its decision on the application and constitution of a commission till tomorrow.

VP Singh claim

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh today said the VHP has vindicated his stand that political considerations were behind the temple movement by conceding to perform shila daan outside the acquired land in Ayodhya.

Deposing as a witness before the Liberhan Commission, the former Prime Minister said that in 1990, he had made an offer to the vhp to start construction of the temple outside the acquired land. But the VHP had turned him down as it wanted his government to fall.


New Delhi, March 19: 
In a major embarrassment to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, 43 NDA MPs were absent from the Lok Sabha during the vote on the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance last night.

Though the Bill was adopted much to the relief of the government — 264 against 148 — there were several red faces in the BJP as 21 of the absentee members belonged to the saffron party. Sources said of the 21, only two had taken permission. The rest included minister Vasundhara Raje and party vice-president Madan Lal Khurana.

Sources close to parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said showcause notices would be issued to the MPs who disregarded the party whip to be present.

“As luck would have it, several Opposition members, too, absented. Otherwise, it would have been a touch-and-go situation (in the vote),” said a party source.

Though the MPs who violated the whip could be expelled, the party cannot afford to act against such a large number of MPs. The showcause is only meant to convey the message that they should not disregard whips in future.

Sources said the absence of MPs from alliance parties has also caused concern to the parliamentary affairs minister. Mahajan is planning to take up the matter with the floor leaders of the allies.

The nine-member Trinamul Congress had absented as a matter of policy.

Among the other absentees were eight MPs from the Telugu Desam Party, one from the Shiv Sena, two each from the DMK, the Janata Dal (United), the Indian National Lok Dal, the Biju Janata Dal and the Akali Dal and two Independents.

However, there were a number of absentees in the Congress ranks as well. Asked about the reasons, party spokesperson Jaipal Reddy said they had taken the high command’s permission.

Several BJP members were found missing from the Lok Sabha this morning, too, leaving the treasury benches almost empty.

As the question hour commenced at 11 am, the Congress and other Opposition parties wanted to know from the government why the BJP members were not present in the House. “Who is running the House? The NDA or the Opposition?” the members shouted at the treasury benches.

Mahajan, though, had an explanation. The members are “celebrating” four years of the Prime Minister’s tenure, he said and added that they would join later.

“Instead of celebrating the tenure outside the House, we could discuss the four years of failure inside,” said Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.


New Delhi, March 19: 
The Congress today denied having a rethink on the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance.

AICC spokesman Jaipal Reddy said the Congress would direct all party MPs in the Rajya Sabha to be present and defeat the Bill when it comes for voting in the House.

“Our opposition is total. There is no review. The Bill is too flawed to be amended,” Reddy said. The changes mooted in the Bill are “cosmetic and marginal” he said.

The Congress spokesman, however, admitted that many party MPs were absent when the Bill was put to vote in the Lok Sabha last night. He said this would not be repeated in the Upper House where the party has issued a three-line whip for its members to vote against the Bill.

Congress chief whip in the Rajya Sabha Pranab Mukherjee said he would ensure that all party MPs vote against the Bill. “Unless a member has a valid excuse for not being able to attend the House, the whip is binding on all,” he said.

Congress leaders said they would continue to oppose the proposed law even if the Bill is passed in the joint session of Parliament, scheduled to be held on March 26.

RSS resolution

The Congress condemned the RSS resolution adopted at its Bangalore session, which said Muslims can be safe in the country if they earn the goodwill of Hindus.

Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi raised the issue during zero hour. He termed the resolution a “direct challenge to (the) Indian Constitution” and said “the House should unequivocally condemn and disapprove the RSS resolution”.

Das Munshi alleged that the RSS resolution virtually justified the Gujarat flare-up. He said the need of the hour was unity but the resolution seemed to be against it, endangering the country’s fragile secular fabric.

The Congress leader pointed out that both the Prime Minister and the home minister had categorically stated that the government would not compromise on the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. “Parliament cannot ignore this issue,” he said.


New Delhi, March 19: 
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of an Act that allows the formation and operation of tribunals to recover debts due to banks and financial institutions.

The court order lifts the air of uncertainty hanging over the debt-recovery tribunals, set up to tame thousands of loan defaulters, including political and corporate holy cows. Bad debt, which has ballooned past Rs 60,000 crore, is one of the biggest millstones around Indian public sector banks’ necks.

Three high courts — Delhi, Gauhati and Karnataka — had struck down the Act of 1993 citing various reasons, including one that said certain references in the legislation eroded the independence of the legislation.

The main contention of the petitioners was that the Act violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before and equal application of law, and the formation of tribunals was “beyond the legislative competence of Parliament”.

But a three-judge bench of Justices B.N. Kirpal, Y.K. Sabharwal and K.G. Balakrishnan has set the controversy to rest by endorsing the legislation.

The court noted that banks and financial institutions had been experiencing “considerable difficulties in recovering loans” and the procedure being followed “had resulted in a significant portion of the funds being blocked”.

The Supreme Court bench also laid down guidelines for appointments to the tribunal.

The presiding officer of a tribunal should be qualified to be a district judge. In the case of the appellate tribunal, he should be qualified to be a judge of a high court or should have been a member of the Indian Legal Service who has held a Grade-I post for at least three years or held office as the presiding officer of a tribunal for at least three years.

Such persons would be well versed in law to be able to decide cases independently and judiciously, the court said.

The bench made several observations to allay the misgivings the legislation has evoked.

There is no reason to presume that the banking tribunals and the appellate tribunals would not be independent or that justice would be denied to the defendants or that the independence of the judiciary would stand eroded.

Such tribunals, whether they pertain to income-tax or sales tax or excise and customs or administration, have now become an essential part of the judicial system in the country. Such specialised institutions may not strictly come within the concept of the judiciary but it cannot be presumed that such tribunals are not an effective part of the justice delivery system, like courts of law.

The decision of the appellate tribunal is not final and could be subjected to judicial review by the high court under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution.

The provision to transfer pending cases from civil courts to a tribunal is in no way bad in law. Once a debt-recovery tribunal is established and the jurisdiction of the courts barred under Section 18 of the Act, it would be only logical that any matter pending in the civil court should stand transferred to the tribunal.

When the Central Administrative Tribunal was established, all cases pending in high courts were transferred.

Section 30, after amendment, gives a right to any person aggrieved by an order of the recovery officer to appeal to the tribunal. There is, therefore, sufficient safeguard provided in the event of a recovery officer acting in an arbitrary or an unreasonable manner.


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