Siliguri ‘prize catch’ from Punjab
VHP stokes embers
Gujarat riot fury hits House
Outside teams for DNA tests
Hospital bedridden with ‘homeless’
Children killed in mine blast
Hardliners target CPM’s Cong tilt
Kidnap-hit Manipur buys time
Price cut plan to reduce grain stocks
Five-year-old skates for peace

Siliguri, March 20: 
After evading the police dragnet for more than seven months, the mastermind behind businessman Mukesh Agarwal’s abduction, Dhanwant Singh, alias Sentu, was finally arrested from his hometown Pathankot in Punjab.

Police today paraded the Bihar-based kingpin at a news conference as a “prize catch”.

Special investigating team (SIT) chief and superintendent of railway police, Siliguri, Ajoy Kumar claimed that the commerce graduate from Pathankot College used to run a mafia operation spread across Siliguri, Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and eastern Nepal.

Besides abductions, the gang was involved in dacoities and highway robberies.

Kumar said police were on the trail of Sentu and his brother Harbinder Singh, alias Senti, ever since the arrest of three gang members after a foiled attempt to abduct a tea estate owner at Islampur in Uttar Dinajpur last year.

Following a tipoff that the brothers were “holed up” in their native town in Gurdaspur district, a SIT team led by inspector Mohan Chettri and sub-inspector Achinta Gupta rushed to Pathankot and “laid a trap” with the help of their Punjab counterparts.

“While Sentu fell into the police net, Senti managed to give the slip,” the SIT chief said.

Speaking to reporters, the 28-year-old gang leader admitted that he was involved in highway robberies, armed heists and snatching.

Sentu had been arrested before in a criminal case involving betel nut trucks at Phasidewa and Bagdogra. However, the kingpin, who took to crime to make a “fast buck”, jumped bail to mastermind a series of abductions. The gangster admitted taking Rs 30 lakh as ransom to free Agarwal. Besides the abduction, the gang had also snatched several lakhs of rupees from an employee of a tobacco firm at Siliguri last year.

“We also attempted to kidnap the owner of a petrol pump at Bagdogra,” he added.

Though, Sentu did not reveal the place where Agarwal was released, the SIT chief said the gang had several hideouts in Nepal.

“We are still interrogating Sentu about the ransom. We are also looking into the gang’s sphere of operations and bases in Bihar and Nepal. Though Sentu has revealed the names of other Bihar-based gang members, their names cannot be given out for the sake of investigations,” Kumar said.

Agarwal, the owner of Millennium Paradise, an amusement centre at Siliguri, was abducted at gunpoint in front of his establishment by a six-member gang on the night of August 24 last year.

The SIT had launched a manhunt for Agarwal but failed to trace him. The 21-year-old businessman finally returned home after his family allegedly paid Rs 30 lakh to the abductors.


Ahmedabad, March 20: 
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has decided to take the ashes of Godhra victims to 700 different places all over the country, beginning April 24, raising fears of another communal flare-up.

VHP state unit vice-president Haresh Bhatt said the asthi yatra with the ashes of Godhra victims in urns will cover every district, every city and every village. At the end of the 10-day yatra, the ashes will be immersed in all major rivers.

Another senior state-level VHP leader, however, said: “Gujarat will be left out of this programme. We do not want to hold any programme that will disturb peace in the state.”

In January 1991, the VHP had organised a similar yatra carrying urns filled with ashes of kar sevaks killed in police firing at Ayodhya in October-November 1990 during the first attempt to breach the Babri mosque. The yatra had sparked off communal riots in its wake.

Although the programme has been finalised at the national level by the VHP’s central leadership, there still seems to be some confusion over the Gujarat part of the yatra. The idea, Bhatt explains, is to make every Hindu to feel that the 58 kar sevaks who died in Godhra are their brothers and sisters. “For the cause of the Ram temple they have made supreme sacrifice. They are like martyrs.”

Alongside voicing claims that it does not want to use the Godhra carnage to whip up sentiments in favour of building a Ram temple, the VHP had made a tentative plan on February 28 itself when the charred bodies were brought to Ahmedabad for cremation. “That is when we asked the relatives of the victims to preserve the ashes of all 58 kar sevaks,” Bhatt said.

Under the initial plan, however, it intended to immerse the ashes in the Ganga, Yamuna, Sarayu and other major rivers, and not go on a nationwide yatra.

The VHP admits that many BJP allies in the Vajpayee coalition might oppose the programme. “But we do not care. It’s our programme, for which we do not have to seek permission from any government. Nor do we need the approval of any party, including the ruling BJP which cannot stop us from taking out the yatra,” Bhatt said.

The Vajpayee government — torn by divided loyalties to its allies in the NDA and to the bigger Sangh family, of which the VHP is a part — will find it difficult to stop such a yatra, unless, of course, it can take shelter behind fears of a law and order problem.

Expressing apprehensions about the yatra, a senior Muslim leader, Inamul Haq Iraki, said the VHP wants to polarise the nation to consolidate Hindu votes. Bhatt dismissed the charge. “There are no elections round the corner. Moreover, the VHP is not in the business of making governments. Ours is a one-point agenda: the Ram temple,” he said.

State Congress vice-president Hasmukh Patel warned of the possible dangers associated with the VHP programme. Recalling L.K. Advani’s Rath yatra that left a trail of communal violence, he said: “This proposed asthi yatra has even more potential to cause trouble all over the nation.”


New Delhi, March 20: 
The Gujarat flare-up singed the Lok Sabha again with Opposition leaders stalling House proceedings and demanding chief minister Narendra Modi’s resignation for failing to restore law and order in Ahmedabad, Bharuch, Himmatnagar, Vadodara and other cities.

Opposition MPs sought home minister L.K. Advani’s presence in the House to debate his earlier statement lauding the Modi government for bringing the situation under control in a record 72 hours. “But the reality is that violence is still continuing unabated,” alleged leaders of the Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Indian Union Muslim League.

The row continued for half-an-hour with the Opposition and Treasury benches exchanging charges. Failing to restore order, Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed adjourned the House till afternoon.

Congress MP from Gujarat Madhusudan Mistri raised the issue during Zero Hour, saying the situation in the state is “highly volatile and explosive” and not a single day passes without killings and rioting.

Accusing the Modi regime of turning a blind eye to FIRs naming VHP and Bajrang Dal activists as the perpetrators of violence, Mistri said the government should act swiftly to arrest them. “There is a crisis of confidence among people of the minority community,” he said, adding that all affected areas should be handed over to Central forces.

More than 13,000 riot victims were huddled in camps in his constituency and relief facilities were minimal, he added. Raghuv ansh Prasad Singh of the RJD and E. Ahmad of IUML complained about the scarcity of food in the relief camps.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav said the RSS resolution at Bangalore effectively said Muslims had to live in India under the domination of Hindus, drawing protest from the BJP and Shiv Sena MPs.

An unfazed Mulayam added it showed that those at the helm of affairs wanted another partition, but his party would never allow it. Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan challenged Mulayam’s contention and said nobody had talked about the country’s partition.

Firing kills two

Two persons were killed and three injured when police opened fire on the city’s outskirts to disperse a mob that gheraoed the Batwa police station after setting several jhuggies on fire, reports our correspondent. It occurred this evening after a factory was set on fire.


Srinagar, March 20: 
The government today deputed two senior police officials to Calcutta and Hyderabad to escort officials from the forensic laboratories there to collect fresh blood samples from relatives of the five persons killed at Pathribal following the massacre of 35 Sikhs at Chattisinghpora.

After days of negotiations, the government decided to request the heads of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), Calcutta, and Centre for DNA Finger Printing and Diagnostic Laboratory (FPDL), Hyderabad, to send their experts to collect fresh samples themselves.

The collection of blood samples has generated much controversy in the state and the government believes this step will ensure that no questions are raised about the drawing of blood and the procedure to be followed in sending the samples to the two laboratories. Apart from fresh blood samples from the relatives, the experts will also collect samples from the mortal remains of the five victims.

Two senior police officials rushed to Calcutta and Hyderabad this afternoon, carrying letters from the chief secretary. The team of experts is expected to reach Srinagar soon and collect, seal and take back fresh samples themselves to the concerned laboratories. “All this is being done to ensure transparency and not to allow anyone to fiddle with the samples,” said an official.

Media reports had exposed the fudging of DNA samples, forcing the state government to order collection of fresh samples and appointment of a one-man commission to probe the misdeeds of those responsible for collection of the blood samples.

A subsequent media exposure showed that the team of forensic experts from the government medical college led by Dr Balbir Kaur, which was accused of fudging the earlier samples, was entrusted with the job again. The government suspended the forensic experts and a police officer yesterday.


Asansol, March 20: 
The sub-divisional hospital authorities here are in a fix about what to do with 11 former patients, including five women, who have been staying on in the hospital for about four years now even after being cured.

They have converted the hospital’s corridor as a shelter since there are no beds or rooms available for them any more.

Hospital superintendent Subrata Roy said the patients’ relatives were unwilling to take them home from the hospital “despite several reminders to them”.

“We have been contacting patients’ relatives with a request to take their near and dear ones back home but with no effect,” said Roy.

“Now we are left with no option but to look for a destitute home where they can be rehabilitated. We have also initiated dialogues with some NGOs in this regard. We cannot keep the cure ones at the hospital for an indefinite period,” he added.

Roy said the hospital had contacted the Missionaries of Charity and they had promised to take responsibility of those who were either mentally deranged or physically incapable.

Arun Bhowmik, 70, a vegetable vendor and a resident of S.B. Gorai Road in Asansol, was admitted to the hospital with asthma in 1999.

Though the hospital found him fit to de discharged two months later, none of his four sons ever came to take him home.

Bhowmik is still optimistic that one of his sons will turn up one day.

Rajkumari Devi, 35, a mother of two sons, is not as optimistic. She has heard that her husband has already married for the second time and no longer nurses hopes of going back home in Chellidanga.

All the 11 patients were brought in by their relatives for treatment, but have been abandoned ever since.

There’s Sabitri Sutradhar, 50, from Kulti, Basanti Bhattacharya from Baraboni, Foolmoni from Budha, Siki Mohan and Amarjeet Singh from Asansol.

The hospital authorities find themselves bereft of options.

“No in-door patients after they are cured can be discharged until their relations come up to take them back home by signing the hospital register,” said superintendent Roy.


Srinagar, March 20: 
Two children were killed when a mine exploded at Takipora Lolab in northern Kupwara district while militants gunned down a National Conference leader and a policeman in Srinagar today.

Police said militants showered a hail of bullets on National Conference block president Abdul Rahman at Jogi Lankar in Srinagar late this evening when he was sitting in a shop. He died on his way to hospital. The militants managed to escape and security forces immediately launched a combing operation in the area.

Militants also shot dead constable Abdul Aziz at Gill Kadal in the city and fled. In another attack in the capital, separatists fired on two policemen at Bana Mohalla and escaped with a carbine. Head constable Ghulam Rasool and Tariq Ahmad were rushed to hospital and their condition is said to be critical.

The children were killed and five persons were wounded when a mine, planted in the road, exploded.


Hyderabad, March 20: 
The CPM hardliners today mounted an attack on the leadership’s present tilt towards the Congress, an ideological foe, at the national level as part of what is believed to be a veiled attempt to effect a change in the key position of party general secretary.

Interestingly, the attack on the leadership at the 17th CPM congress here came from the delegates from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other southern units, who focussed on former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, one of the main architects of the CPM’s Congress tilt. Among the critics were T.N. Thomas from Kerala, K. Balakrishnan from Tamil Nadu and Kishore Theckedath from Maharashtra.

The second day of the CPM conference was important as it witnessed a convergence of the hardliners’ criticism of Basu and others for “pampering of the Congress” and their push to replace Harkishen Singh Surjeet with Prakash Karat, also politburo member, as general secretary.

Another pressure group in the CPM is believed to have initiated a campaign for the induction of another politburo member, Sitaram Yechuri, into the key slot. Even though no formal discussion was held on replacing Surjeet with a younger successor today, it is believed the reconstitution of the politburo and the central committee will be taken up on Saturday.

Going by signs emanating from the Congress, any change in the CPM leadership will have an influence on the party’s approach towards the Congress. In the event of Karat’s installation as general secretary, the CPM is expected to pursue a hard line and distance itself from the Congress. But if Surjeet continues, the CPM will keep its options open on involving the Congress in the third front.

Like the hardliners, Basu and Surjeet believe that the Congress is actually hand in glove with the extremists in Tripura, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress in Bengal and the ADMK in Tamil Nadu. Citing these instances, both Karat and Yechuri urged Basu, Surjeet and their supporters to eschew their pro-Congress stance. It remains to be seen whether the young brigade will be able to convince the leadership to respond to its argument for an anti-Congress line.

Karat today placed the draft political resolution for discussion. The leadership received about 4,780 amendments to the draft resolution, of which about 1,700 were from West Bengal. Most of them related to the party’s stand on the Congress. Of these, 97 amendments were accepted by the leadership. By contrast, the party had received fewer amendments during the last party congress held in Calcutta.

Surjeet, who was under pressure from the hardliners like Karat and Yechuri for following a pro-Congress line, told reporters that the CPM will initiate measures to form and strengthen the third front without tactical support from the Congress. At the same time, he did not rule out the possibility of exploiting the Congress to remove the BJP-led government in Delhi.

Asked if the third front would be able to push out the BJP on its own, Surjeet admitted its inability. But he avoided a question on whether the CPM-dominated third front will seek Congress support to remove the BJP. “This is not the proper time to give a specific reply to the question. There are many ifs and buts in politics and only the future can tell you what our party will do in such a situation,” Surjeet said.


Imphal, March 20: 
The Manipur administration today restrained security forces from launching an operation to rescue abducted IAS officer Yambam Thamkishwor in deference to the wishes of tribal leaders negotiating with the abductors.

Militants of the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) took Thamkishwor hostage on Monday. The rebels waylaid the Chandel deputy commissioner’s convoy near his residence, overpowered his escorts and took him away in the Maruti Gypsy the guards were travelling in.

Eight guards have been placed under suspension for allegedly surrendering their weapons to the militants without much resistance. All these security personnel are from the Eighth Battalion of Manipur Rifles.

Inspector-general of police (law and order) Ratnakar Baral told The Telegraph that tribal leaders of Chandel were trying to convince the militants to free the deputy commissioner. He said the police were not involved in the negotiations, but senior officials were monitoring the developments.

Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh said in the Assembly that politicians, social workers and NGOs based in Chandel district had advised the administration not to launch a rescue operation immediately. He said local leaders, including BJP legislator B.D. Behring, were negotiating with the IAS officer’s abductors.

“The matter is a delicate one and the government has decided against launching a rescue operation immediately. An offensive by security forces could send wrong signals to the abductors. We do not want to aggravate the situation. Intelligence reports indicate that the deputy commissioner is safe,” Ibobi Singh said.

The chief minister, however, said security forces would launch a rescue operation if the abductors refused to free Thamkishwor. “If there is no alternative, the government will not hesitate to use maximum force to rescue the IAS officer. But this can be counter-productive.”

Leaders of seven Naga tribes inhabiting Chandel had yesterday issued an ultimatum to the UKLF to free the deputy commissioner unharmed before 10 am today.


New Delhi, March 20: 
The food and finance ministries have got together to try to reduce the mammoth food mountain by cutting the price at which wheat and rice are sold to poor families living below the poverty level by 50 paise a kg through the public distribution system.

The retail prices of wheat and rice for these families are expected to fall to Rs 5.25 and Rs 3.75 a kg as a result.

The government sells food through a nation-wide chain of ration shops to poor and middle-class families. The Cabinet will take up the price cut proposal soon. However, the food ministry wants to lower the price for middle-class families, too, arguing that this will help lower stock levels faster.


Mamallapuram (Tamil Nadu), March 20: 
Sometimes it takes a little boy to open the eyes of the big guys.

About 30 km from this ancient Pallava port town, five-year-old K. Sri Praneshwaran is roller-skating down the East Coast Road on a 170-km journey for communal harmony. His mission began yesterday and he intends to reach Pondicherry – his destination — tomorrow.

The upper kindergarten student decided to give a “small hand to peace” after seeing on television the brutal images of the Gujarat communal carnage that left over 600 dead and thousands homeless.

The late March sun blazes down as Praneshwaran skims along the hard, dusty road on his skates, fitted with synthetic rubber wheels and a special bearing imported from Switzerland. A Taiwan-made heatproof headgear and knee-guards pad up his slight 17-kg frame.

Three vans, with posters publicising the “epoch making” journey, accompany the student of Chennai’s Vellammal Matriculation Higher Secondary School, the moving spirit behind his odyssey.

Gujaratil Sandai Poduranga; Ellorum friendsaaga Irukkavendum (There is terrible fighting in Gujarat, but everyone should live like friends),” the five-year-old says to a group of schoolboys and girls in Seekanangkuppam, where the team stops for lunch.

“This has been our boy’s singular message,” says his father, C. Jaikannan. Praneshwaran’s mother, K. Shanti Kannan, is also part of the team.

“We had put our son in the Anna Nagar skating club and Praneshwaran has been undergoing special coaching for the last four months. But we never thought he would be doing an arduous trip for the victims of Gujarat,” Jaikannan said.

Before he started on his journey, the boy’s parents had consulted a child specialist and a psychologist. Both gave the go-ahead “if proper exercises and diet are followed”.

Praneshwaran’s school principal had a different project on hand — an awareness programme, through roller-skating, on saving energy.

“But after seeing what happened in Gujarat, those gory images of the communal flare-up and the killings on the television screen, we were worried whether it would spread to other states. Hence the sole motivation of this yatra is promoting communal harmony,” Jaikannan said.

The matter was settled after the boy easily identified national flags of 100 countries and named 100 world leaders. The doctors’ go-ahead further assured the organisers.

Five teachers and five NCC cadets from Vellammal School are escorting the boy, besides two doctors. “It is combining youth achievement with social service,” says assistant headmaster Muruganandam, who is also part of the team.

Last year, the school had organised a cycle rally by nine NCC cadets from Chennai to Madurai to create awareness on donation of human organs.

For next year, it has planned something more ambitious for Praneshwaran: a skating expedition from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

Till this afternoon, Praneshwaran, who was flagged off from his school yesterday, has covered 35 of the targeted 62 villages along the East Coast Road.

Curious villagers lined the main road while youths from interior villages cycled several kilometres to cheer the barely 115-cm-tall boy on his pilgrimage for peace.

Praneshwaran waves back. “Will I be heard?” he asks his mother, like a grown-up.


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