Firefight before flames touch Atal
Lock-up guards indicted
Night Signs on record book
Apex court stays Allahabad gutkha ban
Poll reform battle in SC
Sonia vetoes seniors on pump scam war
Pervez democracy in Delhi firing line
Mamata sees hope in axe on allotments
Calcutta stamp on ramp
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Aug. 5: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today scrambled to douse a scandal that singed not only his party but also one of his relatives, cancelling all petrol pump, cooking gas and kerosene dealerships awarded since January 2000.

Vajpayee intervened after a sustained media expose suggested that his niece, Aparna Mishra, was a recipient of a petrol pump licence. Reports in a daily had said the allotments had been hogged by the kith and kin of BJP officials, bringing back memories of a similar scam that engulfed Satish Sharma and the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government nearly eight years ago.

The crony allotment scandal ignited a storm in Parliament today and a dissatisfied Opposition insisted that petroleum minister Ram Naik should quit. But a defiant Naik ruled out his resignation, saying he had not done anything wrong.

However, amid speculation that the scandal is the fallout of a tussle between the pro- and anti-disinvestment groups in the government, pressure is mounting within the BJP to ease out Naik. The minister is counted among the critics of the disinvestment process, which intends to cover oil sector PSUs, too.

As a concerted Opposition paralysed both Houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister first went into a huddle with deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. Later, a meeting of the “crisis management group” took place in Vajpayee’s office, where the decision to cancel all allotments was taken.

Sources claimed that the move was to pre-empt any demand for the resignation of the Prime Minister since Aparna’s name was mentioned among the recipients of the licences. BJP sources expressed the hope that the swift move, coupled with the Congress’ questionable record on the issue, would take the sting off the Opposition onslaught.

Aparna, who lives in Lucknow, is the wife of Rajesh, the son of Vajpayee’s cousin Sarla Mishra. Aparna told a television channel that she would fight any move to cancel her allotment. “I got it through free and fair means. Therefore, there is no question of it being cancelled. But if that is done, I will fight it till the end,” she said.

The government could run into a litigation spree as the blanket cancellation will affect even those who received the licences without political patronage.

Apart from Vajpayee and Advani, the crisis group included Naik, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj, disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu and former law minister Arun Jaitley.

Sources said Jaitley drew the meeting’s attention to the possibility of a legal battle, but Vajpayee said a political decision has to be taken to remove the public perception. An initial proposal was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and to buy time. But with the Opposition kicking up a storm, the proposal found few takers.

The government has asked state-owned oil companies to run the cancelled dealerships till an alternative arrangement is made. These dealerships will now be auctioned off under a competitive bidding system.


Calcutta, Aug. 5: 
While over 250 people were suffocating inside the cramped confines of the Malda court lock-up, eventually leading to the death of two accused, the policemen on duty outside thought they were “faking” it to plot their escape.

Had the police been more “alert, agile and rational”, this tragedy could have been averted, deputy inspector-general, Malda range, A.K. Sarkar has said in his report submitted to state director-general of police Dinesh Vajpai today.

When the accused were complaining of breathlessness and suffocation, the police, “irrationally”, did not pay any heed, thinking they would escape once the lock-up door was opened.

Stating that the police had ample “time and opportunity” to prevent the tragedy, the report says even when some of the accused collapsed, unable to breathe, the constables on duty did not react.

“When the situation was going out of control, the court inspector and the policemen neither tried to make alternative arrangements nor did they inform their superior officers,” it states. “The seniors were informed only after the inmates became unconscious inside the lock-up.”

Virtually exonerating Malda superintendent of police Pankaj Dutta, the report says that had the court inspector and the policemen on duty been more careful and alert, the deaths would not have taken place. “The overall supervision, especially since so many criminals had been arrested, should have been more proper,” it states.

Sarkar says the court inspector was not present for “a substantial period of time” while the accused were brought and put into the lock-up. Ideally, the report says, the court inspector should have personally supervised the arrangements and taken “appropriate action” like transferring some of the accused to the nearest police station lock-ups.

However, Sarkar is silent on reports that the constables on duty sold water to the accused at Rs 40 a glass. There is no word on whether the two accused who died had already paid their fines but were not let off because they could not pay the bribe.

In their defence, the policemen posted at the lock-up have said they were “misled” about the extent of the suffering as some of the accused were smoking bidis, even during a 30-minute period when there was a power-cut.

The condition of the lock-up also added to the misery of the accused. Given its condition, such a tragedy could have happened much earlier, the report said.

Citing letters, along with their memo numbers, the report says Dutta had written to the Malda court authorities on several occasions urging them to improve the condition of the lock-up, but nothing had been done about it.


Washington, Aug. 5: 
Manoj Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Signs, has mopped up a phenomenal $60.3 million at the box office in just three days during the weekend, making the Pondicherry-born writer-director North America’s newest celebrity.

The film’s staggering appeal at the box office is a record for Mel Gibson, who plays the lead role, for Shyamalan and for Walt Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, which released the film on Friday in 3,264 theatres in the US and Canada.

The film was made with a budget of about $65 million: its cost has almost been recovered in full even before the film is released anywhere outside North America. It is due for release in Australia and New Zealand on August 15 and in Europe in September.

Signs, though, did not beat the record in Hollywood’s history for an August release. That record remained with Rush Hour 2, which collected $67.4 million during the same period last year.

But with weekend collections of $60.3 million, Signs has earned a place in Hollywood’s records as a close second.

At this figure, Signs averaged collections of $18,469 per theatre, more than the combined box office revenue of the rest of the Top Five films released in North America during the weekend.

In the run-up to the release of Signs, Disney executives had predicted weekend collections of up to $35 million for the movie. But its record surpassed even their wildest expectations.

The film is a thriller about a clergyman — played by Gibson — whose family is confronted by tragedy, mysterious crop circles and aliens.

The New York Times said in its review of Signs that “it is a wonderful movie...The other uplifting news is that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is not a one-hit wonder who struck gold with The Sixth Sense and then ran out of creative gas...Shyamalan is a new national treasure, as attuned to our sensibilities and everyday life”.

The New York Post reviewed Signs as “another genuinely scary thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan... it never comes close to the giddy heights of The Sixth Sense, the earlier Shyamalan blockbuster his subsequent efforts will unavoidably be compared with.

“That is nothing to be ashamed of. Signs is still a beautifully crafted, white-knuckle, roller-coaster ride of old-school filmmaking — the kind that believes that the less you show, the better. Signs is probably more Hitchcock than Spielberg, relying much less on high-tech special effects than basic power of suggestion, elegant camerawork, artful editing and expert sound engineering to make you shriek at a telephone ringing”.

Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan, born in Pondicherry and raised in Philadelphia, has already been acclaimed in Hollywood at the young age of 32. He is one of the highest-paid writers and directors in the industry.

The Indian-American director recently said that he was superstitious and held Indian religious ceremonies prior to the shooting for his movies.

While filming once, Shyamalan found a small figurine, which he took to the 2000 Oscars as a good-luck charm. His Sixth Sense had received six Oscar nominations then.

“I put it in my pocket and took it to the Academy Awards, but the movie lost all six awards,” Shyamalan said in a recent interview.

As for other superstitions, he wears a “lucky” black shirt and boxer shorts whenever he travels by plane.


New Delhi, Aug. 5: 
The Supreme Court today stayed an Allahabad High Court order banning pan masala, gutkha and similar materials but issued notices to the Centre on another petition seeking an all-India ban on “injurious” tobacco products.

Both orders were issued by the same bench of Justices G.B. Pattanaik and Ruma Pal.

The stay order on the high court ban came on a batch of petitions by pan masala and gutkha manufacturers in Uttar Pradesh.

The notices were issued to the Centre on a petition by the Society for Cancer in Oral Cavity Protection, represented by B. Chandrakant Rao, a physician and health activist.

The apex court issued a notice to the Uttar Pradesh government after staying the July 18 high court order banning the “manufacture, sale and use” of the tobacco products.

The high court had even barred advertisement of pan masala, gutkha and similar products in the state. The high court order added that pan masala, gutkha and similar products, “by whatever name they may be called or under whatever label they are sold”, should no longer be manufactured or sold in Uttar Pradesh.

The Tamil Nadu government had banned these products in the state through a Bill enacted in the Assembly recently.

For Rao, counsel Rama Chandra Rao and D. Rama Krishna Reddy argued that there already existed a law enabling the Centre and states to ban the manufacture of these products by virtue of powers conferred under Section 7(iv) of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. This provision includes production of pan masala, gutkha and similar products, Reddy contended.

The counsel said “lakhs of persons die” every year of oral cancer and it violates the “right to life” guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Reddy and Rao also told the court that the Andhra Pradesh government had on August 28, 1998, requested the Centre to ban the manufacture and sale of gutkha and pan masala.

The Andhra Assembly had “unanimously” resolved on March 3, 1998, to recommend to the Centre a ban on the production and sale of these products as their consumption “is a serious health hazard”.

The counsel also told the apex court that Andhra Pradesh High Court had taken a view in favour of banning the products, but expressed “helplessness” as it was a policy matter of the government in which a court of law could not intervene.

The lawyers added that the Centre had argued before the Andhra High Court through the attorney general that the judiciary did not normally intervene in “banning a product” related to a “state policy”.


New Delhi, Aug. 5: 
A lawyer today moved the Supreme Court, appealing for a directive to make the Centre implement its order on disclosure of criminal antecedents and other details by candidates contesting polls.

The public interest litigation moved by Umed Singh Gulia, a practising Supreme Court lawyer, contended that the all-party meeting and the subsequent draft Bill drawn up by the Union law ministry had rejected almost all the directives of the Supreme Court which amounted to “abuse” of the court “publicly”.

The apex court had in May directed the Centre to declare that candidates at all levels should disclose their criminal records, if any, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications at the time of filing of nominations. The court said people who elected their representatives should know the kind of persons they were electing as their representatives in all public bodies.

The Election Commission also modified its rules under Article 327 of the Constitution and said candidates should comply with the apex court’s directives. But the Centre chose to convene an all-party meet which unanimously rejected the directives. Union law minister Jana Krishnamurthi argued that the “field” which could be occupied by “only Parliament” could not be occupied by the poll panel and brought in the draft Bill that he circulated among all parties.

Under Section 8-B, the draft Bill proposed disqualification of a candidate against whom charges have been framed in two “heinous” crimes, which include rape, dacoity with murder and terrorism-related offences. But even this clause was dropped after nearly all parties opposed it during the second round of the all-party meeting on August 2.

One of the reasons cited was the case of MDMK leader Vaiko, who has been arrested by the Tamil Nadu government under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The unanimous conclusion the parties arrived at was any chief minister could foist two such cases on political rivals to keep them out of the fray.

The petition moved today in the apex court said: “Parliament cannot enact a law which is against the fundamental right of the electorate and in the present case the right of information about the criminal antecedents of candidates contesting election is fundamental.”

The petition contended that the draft Bill “must be stopped” from being introduced in Parliament and sought a stay on it “during the pendency of the writ petition”. It prayed that a writ of mandamus (which mandates the government to comply with the directives of the court) be issued to the government.

Information about a candidate was the fundamental right of a voter, the petition said. Otherwise, “how can the electorate or voters judge the character of the candidate contesting the election”.

It said the Supreme Court “can” dismiss or cancel the Bill passed by Parliament “if (it is) contrary to the fundamental rights of the citizens”.


New Delhi, Aug. 5: 
The Congress is going for the kill on the petrol pump scam. But party chief Sonia Gandhi had to virtually veto an influential lobby within the party before going all out against petroleum minister Ram Naik.

At a meeting of the party’s political affairs committee today, senior Congress leaders and former Union ministers advised Sonia to settle for a discussion instead of resorting to parliamentary logjam.

However, a younger lot, including Kapil Sibal, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Jagmeet Brar, took a different stand, saying the time to “oppose, expose and depose” the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime had come. They sought CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee’s services to prevail upon Sonia not to dilute her stand on the petrol pump scam.

As soon as the Congress chief reached Parliament, Somnath met and managed to convince her about mounting pressure on the government.

Sonia and Somnath also agreed to focus on Naik’s resignation instead of demanding Vajpayee’s exit as such a demand could prove counter productive and help the BJP and its NDA partners close ranks.

According to Congress insiders, the group favouring the “go slow” approach consists of those who have skeletons to hide in the cupboard.

It is an open secret that dozens of Congress leaders issued favours to their relatives with petrol pump allotments during the party’s long stint in power at the Centre.

The group is worried over the political fallout in case the BJP retaliates and releases the list of Congress beneficiaries in the scam. However, for the time being, Sonia is prepared to pay the political price. She seemed convinced that sacrificing a few individuals within the party was worth dealing a deadly blow on the BJP.

On Sonia’s direction, All India Congress Committee spokesman Jaipal Reddy said Vajpayee’s decision to cancel allotments of all petrol pumps, LPG and kerosene agencies made after January 2000 reflected an “admission of guilt” on the part of the government and demanded the resignation of the petroleum minister.

While welcoming the cancellation, Jaipal said it was a “glorious victory for the vibrancy of Indian democracy” as the decision reflected an “admission of guilt” on the part of the government, particularly Naik.

“We, therefore, demand the resignation of Naik because the chairmen of the dealers’ selection boards were directly appointed by the minister,” he said. Reddy also demanded an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge, assisted by the CBI, to unearth the “grave irregularities” in the allotments.

The Congress spokesman added that the CBI should seize all materials and information pertaining to the allotment of these pumps immediately.


New Delhi, Aug. 5: 
India has decided to bring in the issue of democracy, or the lack of it in Pakistan, in a big way to mount pressure on the Pervez Musharraf regime.

In the past, Delhi had talked mainly about infiltration and Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir to expose Islamabad to the outside world. But now it has decided to highlight the issue of democracy.

Among the international groupings, the issue of democracy is important only in the Commonwealth and since the September 1999 military coup, Pakistan has been suspended from its councils. But this has not deterred major foreign powers to engage with Musharraf, especially after he decided to join the international coalition against terrorism.

India now wants the world to highlight the lack of democracy in Pakistan and put pressure on the President to ensure that he fulfils his pledge to restore democracy in the country.

South Block mandarins feelMusharraf, who became the darling of the West after joining the US-led coalition against terror, exposed himself both to the outside world and to the people of Pakistan by deciding to hold a referendum in the country to formalise his presidentship.

The stage-managed elections made it clear to the people that Musharraf was no better than the politicians in Pakistan, who he had claimed to replace.

The forthcoming elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which the US and other world powers have supported, has made Pakistan jittery as it fears that this could lead to its further isolation on the Kashmir issue.

Islamabad said recently that elections in the state could not be a substitute to the Kashmiris’ demand for a plebiscite. The Indian establishment, aware of the Pakistani anxiety, has decided to expose its double standards on the issue.

“If the election in Kashmir is no substitute to the demand for plebiscite, will the October elections being planned in Pakistan be a substitute for democracy?” asked a senior foreign ministry official.

Referring to Islamabad’s assertion that elections in Jammu and Kashmir will not be credible if there is no free participation, the official asked whether the exclusion of former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and other important political leaders in the polls in Pakistan will give it credibility.

The Pakistani establishment has often said that the earlier elections in Jammu and Kashmir have been rigged, but officials here pointed out that the lesser said about elections in Pakistan, the better. “Elections in Pakistan are free and fair, but the counting is rigged. Why is it that no one protests when democracy and the whole system in Pakistan is rigged?” the official added.

Pakistan argues that a low voter turn out in the Valley means the people reject India, but it can hardly justify the below 10 per cent legitimate voting in this year’s referendum that Musharraf held to get himself elected as President for the next five years.

“Does the low voter turn out also mean that the people of Pakistan have rejected Musharraf?”

Islamabad’s attempt to ridicule India’s failure to grant greater autonomy to Kashmiris despite provisions in the Constitution, is countered by Indian officials pointing out that constitutional amendments in Pakistan only lead to curtailment of its Parliament’s autonomy and to marginalise the role of the Prime Minister.

These arguments are being put forward not only to counter Pakistani propaganda but to point out to the West and major world players that Islamabad, the biggest violator of democracy and democratic traditions, should not be taken seriously when it tries to highlight the wrongs in Kashmir.


Calcutta, Aug. 5: 
Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee today lauded Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “firm stand regarding the petrol pump scam” and said she expected similar intervention in the proposed bifurcation of Eastern Railway.

“I am happy to learn that the Prime Minister has cancelled the allotment of a large number of petrol pumps in the wake of the current controversy. I will urge him to reconsider the Cabinet decision on railway bifurcation and creation of new zones which has done gross injustice to states like West Bengal, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh,” Mamata said.

Congratulating the people of Bengal for their “spontaneous support to today’s 24-hour statewide bandh,” the Trinamul chief said the Centre should take the people’s sentiment into consideration and stall the bifurcation. “The Prime Minister had in the past responded to our appeals on issues affecting people’s interests. We want him to intervene in the railway bifurcation in the manner in which the late Jawaharlal Nehru stalled a similar move back in 1953. We hope he will not allow a particular individual to divide the nation,” she asserted, without naming railway minister Nitish Kumar.

Mamata pointed out that her campaign against anti-bifurcation is not directed against any neighbouring state. “We do not want to enter into any dispute with our neighbouring state…. But we will expect quick intervention from the Centre, lest the issue assumes the form of an inter-state problem like the Cauvery water dispute which is now plaguing Karnataka and Tamil Nadu,” she said.

“Today, Bengal is not alone in its protest against the railway bifurcation. Jharkhand has already raised its voice against the railway minister’s move to carve out the Dhanbad division from Eastern Railway and shift it to the Hajipur-based East-Central Railway. We intend to join hands with Jharkhand to strengthen our movement. We feel the Prime Minister should rethink the matter and take steps to give the states their due share,” the Trinamul leader said.

Mamata reiterated that today’s bandh was observed as a mark of protest not only against the railway bifurcation but also against the Centre’s reported move to shift the headquarters of Coal India and the Damodar Valley Corporation from Calcutta to other states. “The Centre should reverse its step-motherly attitude towards some states and treat them all equally,” she said.

Despite her anti-Centre tone, the Trinamul leader today refrained from criticising either the Vajpayee or deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. However, she continued to target Kumar. Mamata said the retention of Dhanbad and the inclusion of Katihar divisions in Eastern Railway was the minimum price for her party’s association with the NDA.

The Trinamul leader maintained that there has been no change in her party’s decision to stage a dharna in front of the Prime Minister’s residence on August 12. “We will also seek an appointment with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam either on August 13 or 14 to explain our stand if the Centre fails to resolve the problem,” she said.


Aug. 5: 
Last night, Ritu Kumar demonstrated yet again why she is regarded as the First Lady of Indian fashion. Showcasing her new pret line, Label, she assimilated every international design trend within a look that was quintessentially Ritu — clean, simple lines on signature prints in primary colours like black, white, beige, brown, navy, red. These were covetable clothes, with prices beginning at Rs 700-odd and moving up to Rs 10,000.

Denim, the fabric of the moment, was embellished with thread embroidery, mirrorwork and lacing. The biggest design trend of the season, the peasant blouse, was tweaked around with drawstring detailing, rubber-band sleeves, empire waistlines, corseting and lacing. Scarves doubled up as belts and sarong-style skirts worn over trousers, leather inserts added interest to fabrics, as did patchwork and glitter. The white khadi line was a great look for dressy summer evenings, while eveningwear was built around an abundance of mukaish.

Kumar may be India’s best-known label today, but few realise that her story began in Calcutta, where she moved as a young bride in the Sixties. She started her design career by reviving the block print tradition of Serampore and set up the first Ritu’s Boutique in Calcutta in 1968, selling printed saris and salwar suits. Now, her chain extends all over India and she has a loyal clientele in West Asia and London, quite apart from being the official costumier of Indian beauty queens like Sushmita Sen.

now, the city that produced Ritu Kumar is laying stake to the status of a design destination in its own right. After Delhi and Mumbai, Calcutta has the largest number of designers at the Lakme India Fashion Week: Monapali, Kiran Uttam Ghosh, Anamika Khanna, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Seema and Swapan, Lalit and Sunita Jalan. And though not all of them have shown as yet, the buyers are still lining up to look at their wares.

, which has three stores in Calcutta, is supplying a pret line to the department store Westside countrywide, with kurtas priced at Rs 600-900 and outfits at Rs 2,000-4,000. The label had also made inroads into the Delhi market with its first outlet and is in talks with a Hyderabad store, Elahe, as well.

Uttam Ghosh of Kimono, who already sells out of such up-market boutiques as Mumbai’s Melange and Delhi’s Ogaan, is in talks with Shoppers’ Stop to stock their Delhi and Mumbai outlets with a cheaper pret line. Lifestyle, the designer store in Chennai, has also shown interest in her chiffon line, priced between Rs 5,000 and 10,000 and her pleated line which retails at between Rs 2,300 and 4,000.

Mukherjee, the whiz kid on the block at 25 and a great favourite of Calcutta industrialists Sanjeev Goenka and Harsh Neotia, has been approached by a buyer from Hong Kong, Diane Fries, impressed with his patchwork collection in antique Benarasi brocade. He also had feelers from Dubai stores, though he is not sure that he can handle the volumes involved just yet.>Says Sabyasachi, who has dressed Calcutta beauties Bipasha Basu, Celina Jaitley and Koena Mitra, and retails out of the best boutiques in the country, “This is Calcutta’s time. There is a great opportunity here for us to establish ourself as a centre of fashion design. We need to introspect and take ourselves seriously because these kind of geographical turns are rare.”

Now, it’s up to the Calcutta design brigade to make the most of this window of opportunity — which may not remain open forever.




Maximum: 30.2°C (-2)
Minimum:26.3°C (0)


7.5 mm

Relative humidity

Maximum: 95%,
Minimum: 87%


Sunrise: 5.12 am
Sunset: 6.13 pm
A few spells of rain or thundershowers

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