Four votes that made Mamata cross
After victory begins the witch-hunt
Army blows lid off document racket
Cramped shelter for most-clicked stones
Godhra stares at vacuum
Azad pays for Mulayam link
Crippling RS poll blow to Naveen
‘Killer’ screen alarm for parents
Jaya gets tough with taxpayers & tipplers
Amrinder cracks graft whip

Calcutta, March 27: 
Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee today got her nominee through to Rajya Sabha, but not before suffering a major humiliation with the Congress igniting a mini rebellion in Trinamul by getting four of her legislators to cross-vote.

Despite the success in the Rajya Sabha election, the scoreline signalled a setback for Mamata whose authority on her party was expected to weaken in the days ahead in the face of the likely increase in poaching on her turf by the Congress.

Till yesterday, Mamata had asserted that all her 60 legislators would vote for her nominee, Dinesh Trivedi, Trinamul’s all-India general secretary, a lightweight who is known to be her pointman in Delhi.

Late in the evening, Mamata and other Trinamul leaders claimed they had identified the four legislators who cross-voted for the Congress, defying the party whip. “We would take appropriate action at the appropriate time,” Mamata said.

As expected, the ruling Left Front won all the four seats it contested, though three votes cast in their favour stood cancelled for technical reasons. The winning Front candidates were Prasanta Chatterjee, Tarini Kanta Roy, Sheikh Khabiruddin Ahmed (all from CPM) and Debabrata Biswas (Forward Bloc). Chatterjee got 51 votes, Roy and Ahmed polled 50 each, and Biswas received 49 — the small deficit occurring on account of cancellation of three ballots.

Congress candidate Arjun Sengupta bagged 33 votes, as against 56 polled by Trivedi. Sengupta apparently received votes of all the 26 Congress MLAs and three Independents backed by the party, apart from those of four Trinamul members. The lone absentee in the Congress camp was leader of its legislature party Atish Sinha who is undergoing treatment at a nursing home for a cerebral attack.

The Trinamul chief, however, tried to put up a brave front when asked to comment on the cross-voting. “I am happy that our nominee has won by the highest number of votes. It does not matter that four of our legislators voted for the Congress. After all, the Congress has been trying to engineer a split in our party by resorting to horse-trading,” she told reporters.

Party sources, however, said the Trinamul chief could face organisational problems as a fallout of the cross-voting and rebel MP Ajit Panja’s decision to defy the party whip and vote for the Prevention of Terrorism Bill that was passed at a joint session of Parliament yesterday.

The total number of voters in the Rajya Sabha polls was 293 after the demise of Forward Bloc MLA and Deputy Speaker Anil Mukherjee. Of them, 292 cast votes as Sinha could not come to the House. The number of valid votes was 289 after cancellation of three ballots.

Trivedi’s failure to poll all the 60 votes from party legislators made the ruling CPM jubilant. “It may be a victory for Trivedi, but a defeat for Mamata,” Robin Deb, CPM legislator, was heard shouting.


Calcutta, March 27: 
After her poll defeat last May, this was a victory that Mamata Banerjee could well have celebrated, but it was a victory that left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Mamata says she has identified the four “betrayers” though the Rajya Sabha election was held through secret ballot.

But she may find it difficult to act tough as the seeds of rebellion sown by the Congress may begin to germinate, and this Mamata will have to handle with care.

Agitated over the cross-voting, Mamata loyalists pointed accusing fingers at Congressmen who broke ranks with the parent party to secure a Trinamul nomination during the last Assembly polls.

“We cannot imagine that anyone can go against Mamata’s clear orders to cast all votes in favour of the party candidate. We, who are with Mamata since the early 1990s, have always obeyed her. We feel those who cross-voted today do not belong to our party even if they are our MLAs,” said a senior Trinamul leader.

Sources within Trinamul said that though it is next to impossible to pinpoint the cross-voters, a witch-hunt appears to have already begun and those who joined Trinamul immediately before the Assembly polls are the prime suspects.

Observers said this is for the first time after Ajit Panja’s rebellion that cracks appeared in Trinamul and Mamata’s leadership was challenged within the party. “The challenge has come not from any small-time local leaders but from MLAs. Mamata should now introspect on why things have come to such a pass,” a senior party leader said.

Mamata’s detractors, however, saw nothing unusual in today’s poll outcome. “It is she who had put up Jayanta Bhattacharya as the Trinamul-backed Independent candidate against official Congress nominee D.P. Roy two years ago and engineered the cross-voting which resulted in the former’s victory. So, now that it has boomeranged this time it should not upset her. She should face it sportingly,” said a party leader.

Party insiders said Trivedi’s victory notwithstanding, today’s cross-voting has sent a signal to the NDA partners, particularly the BJP, that all was not well in the Trinamul under Mamata’s leadership.

The Rajya Sabha results may also bring down by a few notches her chances of getting a berth in the Union ministry.

Mamata’s loss of face comes at a time when she is facing flak from BJP ministers in the Union Cabinet for her criticism of the Union Budget. She is also under attack for keeping her flock away from the joint session of Parliament called to pass the Prevention of Terrorism Bill.


Siliguri, March 27: 
A routine verification blew the lid off a thriving racket churning out false marksheets and fake residential proofs for north Bengal youths seeking jobs with the army.

Police have arrested the alleged kingpin, Kaushik Mondal, who used to run the show from Raigunj in north Dianjpur.

The matter came to light during the recent army recruitment at its branch recruitment office in Siliguri. The jawans were being exclusively recruited from the six north Bengal districts — Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, North and South Dinajpur, Malda — and Sikkim.

Recruiting officer Col. M. Sajjad said the army was extra cautious this year because of heightened subversive activities in the region. The army sent the applications of all the 800-odd shortlisted candidates — who had cleared the initial rounds of written, physical and medical tests — for verification. Till last year, the army forwarded only the ‘doubtful’ applications for verification with the local civil authorities at the level of the sub-divisional officer.

“Of the entire lot, local authorities detected that 34 candidates had submitted fake residential certificates,” Sajjad said. “Malda tops the list with 20 fake certificates. Eleven of them were apparently issued by the ‘SDO’ of a non-existent office in English Bazaar.”

He added: “The local authorities also detected four such fake certificates in North Dinajpur, two from South Dinajpur and one each from Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.” He believes all forgeries were the handiwork of experts. Exact replicas of official rubber stamps were used in the fake certificates. Sajjad said six candidates had also either tampered their educational certificates or submitted fake transfer certificates from Darjeeling.

It was the Islampur SDO who detected the first fake certificate. There were three such in the lot sent to him for verification.

The discovery sent police on the trail of the well-oiled racket that operated mostly in the border districts but had tentacles all over the state. Sajjad said intelligence officials are looking into whether the group also provided fake documents to infiltrators from Nepal.

Mondal’s arrest by North Dianjpur police has helped the intelligence agencies learn more about the racket. “Interrogation of Mondal has revealed that the gang ran an organised racket spanning several border districts. They issued certificates for a large sum of money. On the basis of Mondal’s information, we have sent a team of sleuths to Nadia, Mursidabad and North 24-Parganas to track down the rest of the gang. The detection of fake certificates in the army recruitment case is just the tip of the iceberg,” said North Dinajpur superintendent of police Ajay Kumar Sharma.

Explaining the gang’s modus operandi, he added: “They issued fake residential certificates of some obscure villages in north Bengal to people seeking them, say, in Nadia or North 24-Parganas.”

The police are observing some people who supply rubber stamps to government offices and top officers. Police suspect unscrupulous traders sold their excess rubber stamps to racketeers for a hefty price.

The army, on its part, has sought the help of local authorities to check the growing incidence of fake certificates and touts. Director of the army’s zonal recruiting office, eastern zone, Calcutta, Col. R.M.B. Baruah, said the army has sought the help of north Bengal divisional commissioner A.K. Jain to launch an awareness campaign against “recruitment touts” and fake certificates.

Last year, too, the Siliguri branch recruitment office had cracked down on an organised recruitment racket.


Lucknow, March 27: 
The most photographed slabs of stone in recent history today landed up at the cramped treasury office of the Faizabad administration.

Packed in two wooden caskets, the shilas were quietly shifted from the Dashrath Mahal temple by two government officials at 10 am.

Under pressure from anti-VHP sadhus in Ayodhya, the state government acted quickly on a directive from the Centre and put the stones under double lock at the district treasury.

A letter from the Union home ministry seeking “safe and non-controversial” sanctuary for the shilas had been sent to state principal secretary Naresh Dayal two days ago.

The letter, written by B.K. Haldar, joint secretary (home), had also asked the administration to “take appropriate action regarding the shilas”.

Sadhus opposed to the VHP and Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas chairman Ramchandra Das Paramhans had refused to have the shilas at the Dashrath Mahal temple or any other temple under their control.

Led by Acharya Devendraprasad, mahant of Dashrath Mahal temple, some 15 sadhus belonging to various temples and akhadas had openly revolted against the VHP and called the March 15 shila daan a farce. They had threatened to throw the stones in the “gutter” if the administration did not remove them.

The rebel mahants feared that the Dashrath Mahal temple would be gradually taken over by the VHP and Paramhans and that keeping the shilas there was just the beginning of the temple-grabbing process.

The VHP reacted angrily to the administration’s move to shift the shilas to the treasury. Senior state VHP leader Purshottam Narain said the organisation would protest against the administration’s action.

Narain will be meeting VHP working president Ashok Singhal in Allahabad to chart the next course of action: to either keep quiet as the Prime Minister wishes or look for a face-saver.

“The direction of the government was to keep the shilas in a safe and sacred place,’’ Narain said. “How can the treasury with all sorts of confiscated items, dust and disrespect be called sacred? What the administration has done is very unfortunate.’’

But the protagonist of the shila daan ceremony, Paramhans, chose to remain tight-lipped about the latest development. “Shila daan ke baad mera kaam to ho gaya,’’ he said. “It is now the duty of the government to treat the shilas with the respect they deserve. I have nothing more to say on this.’’

While Paramhans maintains an embarrassed silence, Devendraprasad and his supporters are “celebrating the defeat of the VHP”.

“This just shows that the VHP has been totally isolated in Ayodhya today. All the sants and mahants belonging to major temples are with us. They know it would be criminal to conspire with the VHP by remaining quiet any longer,” Devendraprasad said.

After the March 15 shila daan, disappointed sadhus, who called the function a “compromise and no-show”, had distanced themselves from the VHP and Paramhans. Even the vice-president of the Nyas, Acharya Nritya Gopal Das, did not attend the ceremony.

Of the three major akhadas in Ayodhya, two had announced they had nothing to do with the March 15 programme because “it was a shame on the temple movement”.

“We are not going to watch silently as the VHP hijacks the temple movement. This is the beginning of the VHP’s end,” said Mahant Gyan Das, head of the Nirvani akhada.


Godhra, March 27: 
The ghost of the train massacre still haunts Godhra railway station.

One month after a mob torched the Sabarmati Express killing 58 kar sevaks, tension is still palpable. The station wears a deserted look, as all Muslim vendors have vanished fearing they might be arrested.

The only people around are policemen, some of them posted there to investigate the carnage.

Even non-Muslim stall owners close shop early, and after 7 pm, there is virtually no one around. “We go back to our homes before night curfew is clamped,” says S.M. Bansal, a vendor.

No incident of violence has been reported from the town after March 15, but night curfew remains in force as the area is still tense. People are polarised along communal lines — since February 27, Hindus and Muslims have avoided areas dominated by the other community.

Amid the fear of “impending” retaliation, authorities have revoked all 2,000 arms licences in the district. To instil confidence among residents, peace committees have been set up.

“We are trying to arrange meetings of Hindus and Muslim by taking them to other localities. But the people are still sceptical,” says superintendent of police Raju Bhargav.

Organising such peace meetings is proving difficult — there are no Muslim leaders left in the town. With 64 already arrested and many absconding, the minority community has been virtually left leaderless.

The charred coach of the ill-fated express lies at the railway yard for the convenience of human rights activists and a host of “fact-finding” teams.

Though Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and defence minister George Fernandes blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence for the carnage, police officers handling the probe say they have so far not been able to establish any “terrorist or trans-border link to the Godhra incident”.

“It is not our problem if we are unable to establish that the attack was premeditated and inspired by a foreign agency during our month-long intense investigation. If politicians feel embarrassed, they should realise that they should not have jumped the gun,” said a senior officer.

But K.C. Bawa, deputy superintendent of Western Railway, differed. “My investigation does establish that the attack was pre-planned and engineered by the ISI,” he said.

Bawa has interrogated 64 of the accused, including prime suspects Mohammed Kalota and Haji Bilal, president and standing committee chairman of the Godhra Nagar Palika. Another 33 people are absconding.

Investigators, however, are not ruling anything out. They feel that after arresting all those who are absconding they would get significant leads that might substantiate the chief minister and the defence minister’s claim.


New Delhi, March 27: 
An assertive Sonia Gandhi today dropped Ghulam Nabi Azad as general secretary and gave the man for all seasons a punishing assignment as chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress, a defunct unit in the terror-stricken state.

Azad had dominated the AICC for more than a decade, but never worked in the Valley. He replaces Mohd Shafi Qureshi, who was not keen on continuing as chief of the Jammu and Kashmir unit. Qureshi seldom visited the Valley and preferred to operate from Delhi.

Azad, who survived successive Congress chiefs since the Indira Gandhi era, paid the price for the party’s dismal performance in the recent Uttar Pradesh polls. He was AICC general secretary in charge of the state. Sources said Sonia discarded him because of his proximity to the Samajwadi Party.

There were allegations backed by statistics which said the Congress performed badly in places where the Samajwadi Party had won comfortably. The insinuation was that he tried to work out a deal with Mulayam Singh Yadav without taking permission from the high command.

Ahmad Patel, a low-key former AICC treasurer, is tipped to replace Azad. Patel has been working as a back-room manager for the Congress president for the last few months.

He also headed the party campaign in Punjab, Uttaranchal and Manipur, states where the Congress succeeded in forming the government.

Azad’s exit took everyone by surprise. Senior leaders said that after the selection of the Rajya Sabha candidates, it was the second instance that Sonia acted “independently”, dumping her reliance on the “coterie”.

In the morning, the Congress chief called up AICC general secretary Mohsina Kidwai in Jaipur and asked her to make an announcement.

Azad faces an uphill task. As Jammu and Kashmir party chief, he is expected to revitalise the party and take on Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference. The problem is, he is perceived to be close to Abdullah, their friendship dating back to his election to the Rajya Sabha five-and-a-half years ago when the National Conference donated surplus votes. Azad’s term in the upper House ends in November.

With more shake-ups likely, party sources said another general secretary could be dropped along with some 10 AICC secretaries.

Sonia has called a meeting of legislature party leaders and state unit chiefs along with a conference of elected representatives of rural bodies. In the second week of April, she will conduct a performance appraisal of 14 chief ministers of Congress-ruled states.

AICC spokesman Jaipal Reddy denied that Azad has been demoted. Pointing out that elections in Jammu and Kashmir were round the corner, Reddy said: “Azad is blessed with the Midas touch as he has won every state for the party where he was made in-charge.”


Bhubaneswar, March 27: 
Independent candidate Dilip Ray today managed to win the cliffhanger of a contest to go to the Rajya Sabha for another six years. Legislators from all parties, including Biju Janata Dal, BJP and Congress, cross-voted in favour of the affluent hotelier despite party diktats.

The former Union coal minister’s win has come as a serious blow to BJD president and chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who had gone out of his way over the past weeks to stall Ray’s re-election.

Ray, who had got the lowest number of first preference votes among all the five candidates, edged past Congress candidate Maurice Kujur when the second preference votes were counted.

Against a requirement of 29 first preference votes, the expelled BJD leader secured 22 to Kujur’s 23. While Ray secured six second preference votes from the BJP camp, Kujur did not get a single second preference vote and was thus eliminated.

The other three candidates — Sushree Devi and Promila Bohidar from the BJD and Surendra Lath from the BJP — also secured their berths in the Upper House.

While BJP candidate Surendra Lath won by securing 39 first preference votes, BJD candidate Promila Bohidar got 32 votes. However, there was temporary anxiety in the BJD camp as Sushree Devi secured 26 first preference votes against the required 29. But she booked her ticket to the Rajya Sabha by winning 25 second preference votes.

Ray’s re-election means that cross-voting was the order of the day. While the BJD candidates together secured 58 first preference votes against the party’s strength of 73, the BJP candidate got 39 of its 41 votes.

The Congress also secured two votes less than its official strength of 25. In the 146-member House, 143 members today turned up for voting.

One vote was rejected while three legislators, including ailing school and mass education minister Bhagabat Behera, did not cast theirs.


New Delhi, March 27: 
Mukesh Khanna, star and producer of Shaktimaan, which has been under attack for encouraging violence, today defended his serial, saying Indian children needed an Indian superhero.

“Children love characters like Superman. I strongly feel Indian children deserve an Indian superhero,” he said at a discussion on the impact of television on young minds, hosted by the Centre for Advocacy and Research.

The centre, which monitors the effects of television programmes on viewers, has done research for a Unesco study titled Killing Screen — The Depiction of Violence on Television and its Effect on Children.

The study carries a warning for parents who do not keep an eye on what their children watch on the screen. “Many children are in an environment where both their ‘real’ experiences and what they watch on television support the belief that violence is a natural way of life,” it says.

Children, particularly boys, have a marked preference for aggressive media content. “This explains the universal success of movie characters such as Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

A few years ago, the death of a child trying to imitate a difficult stunt by the Shaktimaan hero had outraged viewers, forcing the producer to insert a warning. “My serial has definitely made an impact. But I realised it could also be negative — its immense popularity also put a great deal of responsibility on me,” Khanna said.

Psychiatrist H.S. Dhavle, a participant in the study, said television is one of the bigger factors affecting children. He narrated his experience with a 12-year-old patient who was in a “severe state of anxiety”.

“We couldn’t diagnose his illness and he had to be admitted in a mental health clinic. After two days he told us stories of husbands burning their wives, adding a dramatic dimension to it. All these were horror scenes he had witnessed on television,” Dhavle said.

According to him, over 50 per cent of children have such nightmares but most of them would still cite horror serials as their favourites.


Chennai, March 27: 
It was a budget with a political message: Amma is here to stay.

The ADMK government’s first budget after Jayalalithaa returned to power was low on populism, but high on tax.

Presenting the 2002-03 budget in the Assembly, Tamil Nadu finance minister C. Ponnaiyan laid stress on additional resource mobilisation. Taking a leaf out of Yashwant Sinha’s Union budget, he slapped a 5 per cent surcharge on the sales tax on all items except “rice, wheat, kerosene, cooking gas and some declared goods”.

He dealt a blow to tipplers and scrapped the cheap liquor scheme that was introduced last January after a series of hooch tragedies. The scheme goes defunct from April 14, the day of the Tamil New Year. But he has allowed IMFL outlets to open bars after paying a licence fee.

Ponnaiyan has also borrowed an idea from his Bengal counterpart, Asim Dasgupta, and imposed a nominal levy of 1 per cent on resale of all commodities, except “rice, wheat, pulses, grams, Indian made foreign liquor and other declared goods”.

Jayalalithaa sat through the entire budget speech, lending weight to Ponnaiyan’s tax proposals that are expected to mop up an extra Rs 690 crore.

The government has decided to constitute a tax reforms and revenue administration commission under the chairmanship of Raja J. Chelliah.

Jayalalithaa has written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a one-time assistance package of Rs 3,000 crore to help put Tamil Nadu back on the road to development.

As value-added tax (VAT) is scheduled to come into effect throughout the country from April 1 next year, Ponnaiyan announced definitive “preparatory steps” to move towards the new tax regime. As a result, taxes on several items, including foreign liquor and paan masala without tobacco, have gone up.

In another key measure, Ponnaiyan has widened the entry tax on a host of new items, including motor spirit, lubricating oils, aluminium, asbestos cement sheets, sanitary ware, wheat products, tobacco and tobacco products.

In a move that middle-class women may resent, Ponnaiyan has slapped a 1 per cent luxury tax on “monthly accretions of stock of silk saris whose purchase value exceeds Rs 3,000 each.

“Considering the serious financial crisis faced by the government, the budget on the whole is not so harsh,” Jayalalithaa said.

The Andipatti by-poll promise that price of ration rice will be kept at Rs 3.50 per kg has been fulfilled, she said, pointing out that Rs 1,240 crore has been earmarked as food subsidy.

However, to reduce the overall food subsidy bill, the government has decided to introduce a coupon system from July 1 for drawing rice under PDS. These coupons will help replace bogus ration cards.

Taking forward its women-friendly policies, Tamil Nadu will for the first time set up two all-women courts in Chennai and Coimbatore to deal exclusively with offences against women. The government will continue with its scheme to give free bicycles to Dalit and tribal girls at the plus-one and plus-two levels.


Chandigarh, March 27: 
The Amrinder Singh-led Congress government in Punjab has given the vigilance department the green signal to act on specific complaints against state government staff, taking its first steps towards delivering on its election promise of providing a corruption-free regime.

The vigilance department on Monday arrested the high-profile and controversial Punjab Public Service Commission chairman Ravinder Paul Singh Sidhu from his residence for allegedly taking a bribe of Rs 5 lakh from an excise inspector who had been empanelled for nomination to the commission’s executive. The amount was recovered from a drawer in Sidhu’s house.

Sidhu, who initially resisted arrest, had to be bodily lifted and dumped into the police van. He has been booked under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, at the vigilance bureau police station in Mohali.

Vigilance department officers said there were a number of corruption complaints against Sidhu. “The operation was planned meticulously. The Rs 5 lakh was part of a deal for Rs 35 lakh struck by Bhupath Singh, a Punjab excise inspector on deputation to the Union Territory administration. The rest of the amount was supposed to be given after the interview,” said an officer.

The vigilance team that raided Sidhu’s residence also recovered arms and ammunition, several bottles of Scotch and incriminating documents. The validity and entitlement of arms owned by Sidhu is under scrutiny.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court, on a petition by Sidhu’s counsel on Monday, had directed the Punjab DGP to ensure the personal safety of Sidhu and produce him in court yesterday. But the police failed to do so as Sidhu had been whisked off to the magistrate’s court in Kharar, about 25 km from here.


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