Accursed death, and life
Tehelka tastes Emergency knock
Gujarat under full glare of poll panel
Fashion star rises from the East
Cellphone health scare hits Mumbai highrises
Bengal spikes McKinsey for politically-correct Swaminathan
India talks tough on Pak dialogue
Sinha alert to Afghan policemen on Taliban, al Qaida
Gurbux Singh sinks in Lord’s ‘high spirits’
Calcutta Weather

Patna-tamoli, Aug. 7: 
They say in these parts of Bundelkhand that the curse of the Sati is unforgiving. Kuttu Bai is the latest to carry the curse.

So the villagers came from their hamlets in Sijaura and Saleha, Nayagaon and Nachna, Ganj and Gulgaon, Saharia, Matumuru. But the district administration stopped them some 3 km short of Patna-Tamoli, a village nestling in the Kaimur Hills just across the Vindhyachal range. It was not sati, the district officials and police told the villagers, but superstition and belief runs much deeper.

Only so much is known as fact: 60-year-old Kuttu (not Guttu, as police had said yesterday) died of burn injuries even as her husband’s pyre was burning. There were about 2,000 people around on Monday midnight, but Patna-Tamoli today bolted itself to the world. The villagers would not talk. So piecing together the events that led to Kuttu’s immolation means sifting through layers of rumour, belief, superstition and conspiracy.

Patna-Tamoli today is flooded with policemen, some in uniform, some in mufti. Since yesterday, about 20 arrests have been made by the district administration on charges of murder, attempt to murder, unlawful assembly and obstruction of a public servant (police officer) on duty. Among them are Kuttu’s two sons — Ashok, 36, and Rajkumar, 32 — who had stood as spectators while the village erupted in a sinister celebration yesterday. A magisterial inquiry, too, has been ordered.

Patna-Tamoli, a village of about 700-800 households, mostly Chaurasias who nurture betel leaf farms, is cordoned off. Villagers and gawkers on way to the crematorium by a pond are being turned back. But Kuttu’s daughter Maya, who is married and lives in another village, has managed to come. “Hum kya bole. Hum ne to suna sati ho gaye (What shall I say? I heard she has committed sati),” said the stunned 30-year-old of the dramatic events of Monday midnight.

Kuttu sat on the pyre of her husband Mallu Nai (not Nayya), 65, and set herself on fire. It makes for an exotic story. A frail old woman suddenly possessed of such superhuman strength that no force on earth could stop her from sitting on her husband’s pyre and setting herself on fire.

But Panna district magistrate Ravindra Pastor contended that by no stretch of imagination was Kuttu’s a tragic love story. “The couple had been estranged for long. They had always quarrelled and had almost always lived separately.”

Sarpanch Bimla Chaurasia agreed. Mallu, who was from the neighbouring Umaria district and had been unwell for the past three years, used to live with his in-laws in Patna-Tamoli as they had land, about 6 acres of it. Kuttu could never stand it that her husband had chosen to live off her family and they fought bitterly.

The sarpanch said Kuttu’s last words were: Mujhko keede padenge. Ab main zinda nahin rehna chahti (I will be devoured by insects. I don’t want to live any longer).” As Kuttu always quarrelled with Mallu, she was consumed with guilt and acted out of desperation, interpreted Pastor. Another district official said she was goaded into it because interested parties wanted to take over her land. Fingers pointed at a villager by the name of Jai Narayan Pathak.

Theories there’s aplenty. But no one says they saw Kuttu setting herself on fire or sitting on the pyre when it was lit.

Bimla said sub-inspector Harcharan Singh Ghose of the Saleha police station, 8 km from the village, and constable Nathu Lal were the first to reach the village on receiving the information. Ghose tried to drag Kuttu out of the pyre, but the angry mob pulled him away and beat him up. All of a sudden, they saw Kuttu on fire.

The few villagers willing to talk vouched that the pyre caught fire “automatically”. Sources said villagers had placed coconuts and agarbattis on the pyre. Perhaps, it caught fire from the burning incense sticks.

Pastor is not sure how she got burnt. But for two to three hours, surrounding villagers knew that Mallu’s widow had set herself on fire and they gathered to watch a gruesome ritual.


New Delhi, Aug. 7: 
The Centre today jogged memories of the media witch-hunt during Emergency as Tehelka star sleuth Aniruddh Bahal was arrested in the latest of serial swoops on the dotcom that blew the lid off corruption in the top rungs of the NDA government.

The news portal’s investigations editor — one of the sting duo who exposed irregularities in defence purchases — was picked up from his office for allegedly threatening a CBI official and obstructing a public servant from doing his duty. No warrant was produced when the arrest was made on a complaint lodged by CBI’s N.S. Kharayat. Bahal was later released on bail.

Today’s arrest is the second in two months of a Tehelka staffer and shows how far the powers-that-be can go to harness media-men who refuse to fall in line. On July 3, reporter Kumar Badal was jailed on poaching charges. Tehelka has been hounded relentlessly after it broke the spycam scandal in March 2001, and has since spent most of its time fighting cases slapped on it.

A furious Tehelka boss Tarun Tejpal told reporters that state agencies had been out to hound the portal out of existence since last March. “The government agencies have become more and more brazen the less evidence they are able to procure against us,” he said.

Eminent lawyers and media-persons rallied behind Tehelka, expressing outrage at the arrest and concern about the freedom of the press at a news conference called by Tejpal. High profile former BBC reporter Mark Tully, former law minister Ram Jethmalani, his lawyer-daughter Rani, Swami Agnivesh and Prashant Bhusan were among those who attended.

Tully said the slow death of Tehelka through the “covert attacks on the press” was, perhaps, more dangerous than the overt ones. The government’s aim was to destroy the messenger, not the message, he said, pointing out that all the exposed politicians had been “rehabilitated”.

“One has to put a very important question to oneself: whether Tehelka would have been sitting here with all these cases if they had not broken that story,” Tully said. “One can compare the attack on the press in present days to those in the days of Emergency.”

Former minister Jethmalani lashed out at the government. “I share the moral outrage at what is happening to the Tehelka team. I am convinced they are being hounded, but I don’t know who exactly is responsible for this persecution,” he said. The government should not only be fair but must also appear to fair in its dealings, he added.

Bahal was taken to Lodhi Road police station at 10.30 am and also charged under Section 506 for criminal intimidation of Kharayat, a non-bailable offence. He was later produced before magistrate Rina Singh Nag who granted him bail for a non-bailable charge.

The dotcom described the incident as “only the latest in the series of harassment and ridiculous charges hurled at Tehelka”.


New Delhi, Aug. 7: 
For the first time, a full team of the Election Commission will visit Gujarat for an on-the-spot survey — a move that signals the commission’s increasing reluctance to submit to the BJP’s demand for early polls.

Chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh will head the three-member team, which has election commissioners T.S. Krishnamurthy and B.V. Tandon as the other observers. The team leaves tomorrow and is expected to tour Ahmedabad and Vadodara, besides other districts.

The decision is significant because a nine-member team of observers sent by the commission has just returned from the troubled state. The members today informally discussed the situation with the commission.

That Lyngdoh has decided to see for himself the ground situation in the state signals the commission’s apprehensions about holding free and fair polls. So far, the commission has withstood pressure from the BJP — both at the Centre and in Gujarat — to call early polls.

Even as chief minister Narendra Modi was publicly saying he was sure the commission would sanction early elections, Muslims in Gujarat had turned out in large numbers to meet the nine-member team when it visited the state. They flatly told the members that elections were the last thing on their minds at a time when they were struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives.

The BJP wants the commission to sanction polls before October on constitutional grounds. But the Opposition as well as a large section of citizens, non-government organisations and social and cultural activists have asked the commission not to rush into polls as the situation is far from normal. Senior BJP leaders, including Modi, have claimed that the situation in Gujarat was as normal as in any other time. They cited the incident-free Jagannath rath yatra to back their claim.

But the other argument that thousands of Muslims in the state are still terror-stricken was borne out by the testimony of relief camp inmates.

It is unusual for the chief election commissioner to go on a survey himself. But he has made an exception in the case of Gujarat, raising the hopes of those who do not want early polls.


Aug. 7: 
A star was born at the Lakme India Fashion Week on Wednesday — and his name is Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

This determinately low-key lad from Calcutta presented a show that knocked the socks off everyone present. Loud applause greeted Sabyasachi’s collection, best described as global hippie with a touch of Bengal.

And for once it wasn’t the well-orchestrated kind, led by friends and family of the designer. This was the spontaneous reaction of people genuinely moved by the beauty and power of the clothes.

Among those brimming with superlatives was Eric Wilson, fashion editor with the American fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily, who said: “This was a fantastic show with clothes that are truly international in their quality and appeal.”

Maria Valentino, of the fashion portal First View, agreed. “These are clothes that would sell anywhere in the world. I could see them in Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue.”

Asha Baxi of Nift had a different take. “The reason these clothes work,” she said, “is because they are rooted in India. They may incorporate global trends and influences but they are rooted in the soil of this country.”

Sabyasachi had put India back in the Fashion Week, and in the process, stolen the limelight from such big names as Rohit Bal and Raghavendra Rathore.

The unifying theme of this collection — that took in everything from layered skirts, trousers, long kurtas, bandhgalas and saris – was patchwork, always Sabyasachi’s forte but now very in internationally.

But rather than go the predictable way and achieve this effect through fabric, the designer preferred to do so through treatment.

Thus antique Banarasi brocade was textured and shaded with thread and then interspersed with mirrorwork and embroidery to provide several points of interest within a single garment.

The sari was given fresh appeal by being paired with long kurtas, severe bandhgalas and kimono-style blouses. Rough-hewn khadi in solid colours like orange and red was contrasted to great effect with brocade and sequinned skirts for a bohemian gypsy look.

The Bengal influence found expression in dhoti-salwar and the knotted sari pallu, reminiscent of that generation of woman who tied their household keys in them.

The clothes were accessorised with thick, black-framed glasses and jholas to create a look that is best described as College Street chic. Says the designer: “I was inspired by the pictures of my mother as she used to dress in her art college days.”

Nostalgia may have inspired the collection, but it encapsulated a look for this day and age. And not surprisingly, the buyers were queuing up outside Sabyasachi’s stall in the exhibition area.

Harvey Sutton and Tony Morgan, the creative direction managers of Selfridges (who will brief their buyers back in London) were making discreet enquiries as was Diane Fries, a Hong Kong buyer. Soniya Kripalani of Aesthetics, Dubai, who is starting a new store in Jakarta in October, placed a large order.

Domestic buyers like Kavita Bhartia of Ogaan and Tina Tahiliani Parekh of Ensemble were equally enthusiastic.

It is safe to say that Sabyasachi, whose collection is predicated on what a Frenchwoman of style would wear if she travelled across the globe, will soon be following in the footsteps of this mythical creature.


Mumbai, Aug. 7: 
Flat-owners in Mumbai are running scared. But the threat this time is not from the underworld, it’s from the rooftop.

The World Health Organisation has just come out with a report saying that people living in houses with cell antennae on the roof are exposed to microwave radiation. Though the exposure is less than that of a person directly speaking on a mobile, it is for long periods.

Jittery flat-owners today called an emergency meeting to discuss the “health hazard”. A disclaimer saying reports that mobile phone emissions are safe were “a distortion of WHO’s position on the possible health effects of mobile phone use” compounded their fears.

“It is not an issue that can be taken lightly. There is certain danger to the health of flat-owners and members of co-operative societies from the use of mobile phones and mobile phone antennas installed on the rooftops. Even the WHO report says that,” said Mahabaleshwar N. Morje, secretary of The Flat Owners’ Association, Bombay.

An anxious H.C. Gandhi of New Sagar Darshan Society also shot off a letter to WHO asking it “to hold appropriate enquiry and take action (on cell phone companies) to avoid danger to millions of people”.

With a membership of over 4,500, the flat-owners’ association has called a meeting on Sunday to discuss the “cancer emitting threat” and to make people aware of recent studies pointing an accusing finger at cell phones. “For starters, we will call for the removal of every existing cell phone antennae from the roof tops of Mumbai’s buildings,” said Morje. “We may soon file a petition in the high court to press for our demand.”

But a senior official from Orange, one of the city’s biggest cell phone companies, refused to fuel the fears. He said the matter would be placed before an expert committee and a decision arrived at only after “reading the flat owners’ affair in more detail”.

Though WHO has set off a cell scare, its report clearly states that no recent review has concluded that exposure to the radio frequency (RF) fields from mobile phones or their base stations causes any adverse health consequence.

But it adds “there are gaps in knowledge that have been identified for further research to better access health risks. It will take about 3-4 years for the required RF research to be completed, evaluated and to publish the final results of any health risks. The statement continues to reflect the current status of the science and conveys WHO’s position on this issue.”

Determined to get rid of the rooftop scare, the flat-owners’ association has got hold of a copy of Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet that ran a report saying “two extremely large property owners in Gothenburg, Sweden, have stopped the setting up of any more mobile telephone antennas on their buildings”.

The association is also armed with a January 2001 ruling made by the department of justice, police and transport, Geneva. It said renters in 11 high rise apartments, surrounded by mobile phone antennas from Swiss mobile phone operators DIAX, were entitled to a 30 per cent rental deduction.

The Swiss government also directed DIAX to immediately turn off and remove the antennae “after 13 medical certificates reflecting radiation-caused health problems came to light”.


Calcutta, Aug. 7: 
A day after forsaking McKinsey’s recommendations, the government indicated that the new agriculture policy, the making of which was at the centre of a political storm over the past few months, would be shaped by the thinking of agriculture economist M.S. Swaminathan.

Officials involved in the framing of the upcoming agriculture policy said the weightage of the Swaminathan factor in the policy, in fact, had all along been — contrary to public perception — much larger than the proposals made by McKinsey, the consultancy firm.

Seeking to put the current exercise in perspective, agriculture secretary N.K.S. Jhala said the policy-framing exercise began almost a year ago when Swaminathan came down to Calcutta to present a paper on ways to maximise agricultural production at a seminar organised by state agriculture and planning departments.

“Despite Bengal’s laudable achievements in various segments of agriculture, moving from a deficit to surplus position, the government decided to look at ways to improve the performance in keeping with changing times,” said Jhala.

“Our policy makers decided to build upon the good work and enable the state to change farming patterns, optimise productivity and diversify, especially into unconventional crops,” he explained.

The Swaminathan growth path broadly proposes to consolidate on the success base the state has and better utilise land resources. It includes bringing larger areas under irrigation and improving marketing strategies by taking the farmers into confidence.

The new agriculture policy would also have to provide for medium and long-term measures that would minimise the impact of situations like floods and deficient rainfall in future. This would involve a whole set of measures, officials said.

Irrigation minister Nandagopal Bhattacharya, who is a member of the core committee of the state Cabinet, stressed that while better land use was the objective, “it would be seen that farmers were not harmed in any way.”

Corroborating that the seeds for the new policy came from the Swaminathan papers, the minister said the suggestions then made the rounds of various ministers for additions and alterations.

“The farmers themselves know that rice, in most cases, has become an unproductive crop. Hence the need to diversify.” Peanuts, pineapples and flowers could be better alternatives, Bhattacharya said.

But contract farming and growing cash crops that would lend to the growth of multinational companies, as envisaged in the Mckinsey report, was not on the agenda. Though they may have figured at one point of time after the commerce and industry department invited the firm to examine ways of improving productivity in the agriculture sector, the suggestions had to be “totally ignored.”

The ruckus raised by Left Front partners and even sections of the CPM over the firm’s involvement and recommendations made the proposals “anti-Left.” On the other hand, Swaminathan’s suggestions were more “politically correct.” As a result, the Mckinsey report on improving the state’s agricultural performance is now being dismissed as “a coincidence” that occurred along with the economist’s proposals. “There is a need for a new policy, though there will not be any radical changes. Our performance has been adequate in the sector but we need to pass on to a higher stage of development,” the minister added.


New Delhi, Aug. 7: 
India has made it clear that even if infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir comes to a complete end, it should not be seen as the end of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Instead, it has stressed that Islamabad will not only have to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure based on its territory, it will also have to destroy the communications link with terrorists in India to prove its credentials.

“It’s too simplistic to equate terrorism with infiltration alone. You may have no infiltration but still have terrorism,” a senior foreign ministry official said. He argued that as long as Pakistan kept alive the infrastructure of terrorism and infiltration on both sides of the border, the potential of terrorist activities would remain.

The official refused to make any distinction between the terrorists who had sneaked into India before and after the national address by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on January 12, pledging to bring about a complete change in his country’s policy on Kashmir and promising to take strong measures on terrorists and fundamentalists based on Pakistani soil.

“No, I don’t think terrorism can be distinguished on this basis. Terrorists are terrorists,” he said.

The senior South Block official made it clear that though a total cessation of terrorist activities and violence to allow peaceful, free and fair elections in Kashmir would be the “litmus test” of Pakistan’s intentions, it would be wrong to assume that India will resume its stalled dialogue with Islamabad immediately after the polls.

“Pakistan has to visibly, decisively, credibly and to India’s satisfaction take steps against terrorists before we can move on towards further de-escalatory steps and, perhaps, eventually to dialogue,” he said. He pointed out that if one had to judge by what was happening on the ground, Musharraf was yet to fulfil the commitment he made to the United States and other world leaders to stop infiltration permanently.

He admitted there had been a decline in infiltration across the LoC but argued that it did not mean an end to terrorism. “What is the meaning of permanent? It means that infiltration has to end permanently and not significantly,” the official said, adding that as long as Pakistan kept the right to resume infiltration, it could at best be described as a “temporary or tactical” measure. “I think the jury is completely out with regard to (the) implementation of Musharraf’s commitment,” he added.

The official said India would make an assessment whether Pakistan had destroyed its communications network with the terrorists after the elections in Kashmir. He claimed that instructions from across the border to terrorists active in Jammu and Kashmir were quite frequent. Pakistani officials used sophisticated methods such as satellite telephones to pass on instructions to the terrorists, making it difficult for the Indian authorities to intercept or detect these messages.


New Delhi, Aug. 7: 
India today made it clear that it had no favourites in Afghanistan and its only desire was to see the war-ravaged nation emerge as a “ strong, united, independent and prosperous” country.

The message was delivered by foreign minister Yashwant Sinha who is scheduled to leave for Afghanistan on Friday night. Sinha also warned against attempts by the Taliban and al Qaida to regroup and reorganise and said it not only posed a major threat to Afghanistan but also to the security and stability of the entire region.

“While the al Qaida and Taliban have been displaced from Afghanistan, they, along with other terrorist organisations, continue to regroup and reorganise,” the foreign minister said. “This poses a serious threat not only to return of peace and stability in Afghanistan, but also risks spread of instability in our region.”

Sinha was speaking at a reception for a batch of 97 Afghan police officers and diplomats who are undergoing training in India.

His remarks spell special significance as it comes at a time when the fissures have begun to show within the transitional government under Hamid Karzai. Serious difference on security issues between President Karzai and defence minister Fahim and other “Panjshiri” elements in his government could turn into a major obstacle for a united, peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

In the past, infighting among the various ethnic groups created a situation in Afghanistan that led Pakistan to prop up the Pashtoon-dominated Taliban to take control of the country. The student militia regime not only destroyed the secular traditions of Afghanistan but also turned the country into a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism and terrorism. Sinha’s remarks are an attempt at warning the present Afghan leadership not to repeat the same mistakes that they had made in the past.

The foreign minister said that one of the important areas of Afghan reconstruction had to be the development of its security structure. It is important that the security structures in Afghanistan continue to be established as “Afghan institutions, flowing out of intra-Afghan processes relevant to and targeted at meeting Afghan needs of dealing with internal and external threats,” he said.

India’s traditional ties with the Panjshiris or the Northern Alliance, as they were known till recently, are well known. But New Delhi has been making serious efforts to spread its links to other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, particularly the Pashtoons, since the Taliban was ousted from power.

Both Russia and Iran, who had aligned with India to support the Northern Alliance, have asked New Delhi to make its preference for the Panjshiris known in the current power struggle in Kabul. But the Indian leadership has refrained from doing so, keeping in mind its objective of reaching out to other ethnic groups among the Afghans.

Sinha’s remarks were a clear indication that this would be on the agenda during his talks with President Karzai and other senior Afghan leaders this weekend. India has pledged financial assistance worth $100 million to Afghanistan and already advanced a third of that amount for reconstruction and shoring up the Afghan economy.

Sinha will be taking along one of the three Airbuses that India has promised to donate to Afghanistan. New Delhi has already despatched 50 buses to strengthen the Afghan public transport fleet and also extended medical and educational assistance and helped in training its police, diplomats and administrative staff.


London, Aug. 7: 
It wasn’t only England who lost out in the dramatic Natwest trophy final at Lord’s on July 13. Today, Gurbux Singh, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, resigned after being fined £500 over a rowdy incident involving police as he left the ground.

Singh, 51, a Sikh and the first Indian to hold the post of chairman of the CRE, the body which enforces the law on racial equality in Britain, pleaded guilty to the public order offence and later expressed “deep regret” for the incident.

He leaves with a payoff estimated at £100,000, which itself has provoked criticism. It was revealed in Bow Street magistrates’ court today that Singh, a strong supporter of the Indian team, had consumed seven glasses of wine on a hot day and had been in “high spirits” after India’s victory.

The details of Singh’s misbehaviour were outlined by the prosecuting lawyer, Deborah Walsh, who said that Singh was accompanied by his wife, Siobhan Maguire, 40, when the incident with police occurred.

Walsh said: “At about 7.15 in the evening, Constable Hambleton was outside the ground and Singh knocked into the officer’s right shoulder and knocked the officer off balance, then pushed the officer out of the way.”

Singh’s wife apologised to the police but Singh told the constable: “F... off, don’t you know who I am? I know Ian f... Blair.”

This was not a mistaken reference to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, but to Ian Blair, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

A small scuffle broke out between Singh and another member of the crowd. Walsh said: “He then walked towards Hambleton with clenched fists, shouting: ‘You F...’”

Another policeman put Singh in a neck lock, but the latter continued to be abusive and told the officers: “I will have your jobs. Do you know who I am? Blair is going to hear about this.”

Police could smell drink on Singh’s breath and noticed his eyes were glazed. A handcuffed Singh and his wife were arrested and taken to a police station, but only the CRE chief was charged a few days later.

Singh’s legal counsel, William Boyce, told the court that the CRE chairman “deeply feels he has let himself down and others. He is a defendant who will punish himself far more seriously than the court can or will, and continue to punish himself. He is selfless in the service of others, a man of honour and integrity. ”

Boyce said: “We accept that had he not been drunk that day he would have been aware that his language and hand movements were inappropriate. He is sorry to have slipped momentarily from setting an example to others at all levels. Others deeply respect and admire him — his three children, his family, his friends and members of the public.”

The district judge Nicholas Evans noted that Singh had pleaded guilty and apologised to the police but handed down a £500 fine plus costs of £55.

“This was disgraceful behaviour for a long period of time,” commented the judge. In his apology later, Singh said: “I have today stepped down as chairman of the CRE. I have decided to do so in order that a line can be drawn under recent events. I also believe this to be in the best interests of the CRE and race relations in general. I have communicated my decision to the Home Office and my departure is by mutual consent.”

He thanked the CRE staff and added: “I have every confidence that they will successfully deliver the important agenda that lies before them. It is important for the CRE to focus on this important agenda in the interests of those individuals who face racial discrimination on a daily basis. I deeply regret this entire incident and now wish to put it behind me.”




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