Lyngdoh attacks, Advani defends
Double bonus for Calcutta high-fliers
Delhi cites Assam & Kashmir
Tehelka reporter stripped in jail
Taj sprouts under convict care
Calcutta Weather

Ahmedabad, Aug. 10: 

Poll panel slams Gujarat untruths

Chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh today did what the Centre has failed to do — he called the Gujarat administration’s bluff on the riots.

The poll panel chief, who is touring the state to see if it is ready for elections, lost his cool on finding that district collector Bhagyesh Jha had misled him on the extent of damage in Baroda. Calling Jha a “joker”, Lyngdoh asked: “Are you not ashamed of yourself?”

Armed with electoral rolls to identify the victims, the chief election commissioner first went to Best Bakery in the Hanuman Tekri area, where 12 people were killed and two went missing on March 1 after a frenzied mob torched the building.

Finding Jha’s information way off witness accounts, he turned to the official. “You had told me that Best Bakery was set up just two months before the riots, whereas the people here are telling me that it was at least 10 years old. Even the electoral rolls have the names of the victims, and you say that it was set up just two months before the riots! Are you not ashamed of yourself?” he asked.

Earlier in the morning, Lyngdoh had met in-camera the only surviving member of the bakery owner’s family, Zahida, in the circuit house. The family used to live on the floor above the workshop.

The entourage next went to Tarsali, a site not far from Best Bakery, where the team saw 185 burnt houses. Lyngdoh again lashed out at the collector. “You told me only sporadic violence had taken place. Are you a joker?”

Jha’s humiliation began before the Election Commission team set out this morning on a tour of the district’s worst affected areas. Lyngdoh refused to follow the route chalked out by the local administration. Instead, he went to the places that the non-government organisations working with riot victims wanted him to visit, inviting comparisons with predecessor T.N. Seshan, who won many admirers with his principled stand and tenacity.

Refusing to buckle under the pressure the BJP is piling for early polls in Gujarat, Lyngdoh brought the three-member Election Commission for a recce a week after a nine-member poll panel team toured the state. The first team submitted its report today, in which it is understood to have said that the situation is “not conducive” to immediate polls.

Everyone the commissioners spoke to in Baroda today, opposed early elections. “Rebuild our houses, you can hold elections tomorrow. Then we will have no objection. But not before each one of us is properly rehabilitated,” Mullauddin said.

Mohammed Hanif, who owned National Bakery and a four-storey building that was razed by a mob in Baranpur, said it would be gross injustice if polls are held before December.

The All India Milli Council told the commission that early elections would amount to a “murder of democracy’’ as 45 lakh Muslims would not be able to exercise their right to vote.


New Delhi, Aug. 10: 
There’s good news for the jet set in the City of Joy. British Airways is increasing the number of seats out of Calcutta by more than 50 per cent this winter, while KLM, the Dutch airline, is being asked by the Centre to resume its lone flight to the city that it had suspended in July.

British Airways, which has two flights to the city from London, has decided to use the wider-bodied Boeing 747-400s instead of the Boeing 777. “This will mean that BA will offer 698 seats a week instead of the 440 it now offers,” a British Airways spokesperson said.

Union civil aviation minister Syed Shahnawaz Husain said KLM has been asked to hold another round of talks with the Centre before withdrawing the flight from the city, our Calcutta bureau adds. The airline had stopped the service on July 10, saying there was not enough traffic to warrant the heavy landing charges it had to pay.

KLM could not be contacted on whether it would accede to Husain’s request.

Husain had more good news for Calcutta. The minister, who inaugurated two new aerobridges at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International airport today, said Rs 100 crore will be spent on developing the airport.

British Airways currently flies twice a week to Calcutta, out of a total of 18 flights to India every week. It flies seven times each to Delhi and Mumbai and twice to Chennai.

The airline has been seeking to double the number of flights to India as well as to fly to new destinations like Bangalore. The move to use wider-bodied aircraft seems to be an interim measure till more connections are allowed.

Although many believe Calcutta is not a lucrative destination for a continental airline, those involved in the travel trade think otherwise. “The overall capacity out of India is very low. I have been driving home this point whenever I have met any of our ministers or top officials,” said Sarabjit Singh, president of the Indian Tourist Transporters’ Association.

“It needs to be augmented from virtually all international airports. Those who plan flight rights have to realise that we are a nation of one billion people and per capita income is no index of travel needs,” he added.

Debasish Chatterjee of CTI Travels said it has to be realised that Calcutta is an “emerging” global software hub. “Naturally, the travel needs out of the city are growing daily.”


New Delhi, Aug. 10: 
L.K. Advani today insinuated that “different yardsticks” were being used for different states, even as chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh and his colleagues sized up Gujarat’s poll-worthiness.

BJP sources said the deputy Prime Minister also suggested that it was for the Gujarat government and the Union home ministry to take a final view on the matter. “The home ministry and the state government have the mechanism to determine whether the situation is normal or not,” the sources quoted him as saying.

At a closed-door meeting called by the BJP’s intellectual and media cells here, Advani cited the example of the controversial 1983 election in Assam which was boycotted by large sections. Yet, elections were held with “just three or four per cent” casting their franchise, and a government that lasted its term was formed, he added.

Advani did not situate the example directly in the context of Gujarat, but the connection was obvious. The BJP leader, the sources said, also mentioned Kashmir to make the point that elections were being held on schedule despite the situation not being normal.

The sources, however, said Advani was confident about the BJP’s prospects irrespective of when the elections are held. “In spite of the prejudices against the party, the BJP will win hands down whether polls are held in Gujarat now or in February,” they quoted him as saying.

On President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s proposed visit to Gujarat, Advani reportedly said: “He takes a balanced view of things, is well versed with the Constitution and we hope he will meet all sections of people and not just a few.”

In the hour-long interactive session with lawyers, doctors, academics and journalists sympathetic to the BJP, Advani stressed the need for sustaining the National Democratic Alliance, but at the same time projected the BJP as “a party…with a difference”. It was a point he had highlighted in his address at the BJP national council last Saturday.

Advani said although the BJP would like to get a majority on its own in the next Lok Sabha elections, it would not like to shake off its allies.


New Delhi, Aug. 10: 
A Tehelka reporter arrested in a poaching case was stripped in front of the jailer’s office, with 10 prison officers and CBI sleuths looking on and a crowd of prisoners jeering and jostling.

The stripping came even after Kumar Badal, arrested on July 3, had been frisked and kept in custody for 27 hours.

“The CBI officials did this after physically torturing me and threatening me,” Badal said today in an open letter to members of Parliament, the media and citizens of the country. The reporter has gone on a hungerstrike to protest against his ill-treatment.

Badal was arrested on charges of poaching in an Uttar Pradesh reserve forest and of colluding with criminals. “The fact that the CBI is showing so much enthusiasm in a false case is itself ridiculous, as if the entire organisation has gathered to protect (the) wildlife of India! The CBI should be asked if they have arrested a single poacher of thousands of elephants or any endangered species,” he wrote.

Last Wednesday, Tehelka star sleuth Aniruddh Bahal was arrested without warrant for allegedly threatening a CBI official and obstructing a public servant from doing his duty. He was later released on bail. The dotcom has been hounded relentlessly after it blew the lid off corruption in the top rungs of the NDA government in March 2001.

“Am I a habitual offender? Am I a hardened criminal? Do I have a criminal past? I am being falsely implicated in a case. I wasn’t even called to the police station (ever) in my life before this case. Why shouldn’t I get bail when I fulfil all conditions?” Badal asked.

Insinuating that police are blocking his attempt to get bail to break his spirit, he said the CBI prosecutor seeks adjournments whenever his bail hearing comes up.

The reporter said his case turned into a conspiracy to frame Tehelka the moment Saharanpur police passed it to the CBI. “The Uttar Pradesh government issued a notification within 24 hours, and so did the ministry of home affairs. They broke all record with the speed with which the case was transferred to the CBI,” he added.

“Where is the tape that the Saharanpur police claimed to have recovered from the other accused?” Badal asked.

The reporter is being kept in a dingy, insect-infested barrack with 250 other prisoners, many of them hardcore criminals like murderers and drug addicts. The cell is meant for 60 persons.


Calcutta, Aug. 10: 
He is in jail, but still wanted — by corporate bosses.

Nemai Samui, a lifer in Alipore’s Presidency Jail, is in hot demand because of a unique talent: he can make a Taj Mahal out of grass.

The 32-year-old’s skill in replicating landmarks on lawns with grass and shrubs has caught the eye of corporate houses, which want to hire his services for beautifying their gardens.

“Over a dozen corporate houses and government undertakings have approached us, requisitioning his services for beautifying their gardens and lawns. But, at the moment, I wouldn’t like to name them,” says Anil Kumar, inspector-general of prisons.

Kumar, who in June had got Samui transferred after 11 years in Midnapore jail “to help him get a better exposure in a city like Calcutta”, says he would soon shift him to the open-air jail in Lalbag, Murshidabad. Here prisoners can stay with family members and even go out to earn their living.

The arrangement, he feels, would help corporate houses and government agencies directly approach the convict and make use of his talent with permission from the jail authorities.

When that happens, it would be a big leg-up for the man whose life had hit a dead-end after he was jailed for murdering his former fiancee’s father in a fit of anger.

Samui repents what he did that cold December night in 1986. “I did it on the spur of the moment when I was told that the girl I had loved for several years had been married off to another man,” he says. “Today, I make replicas of landmarks on gardens and lawns to forget my past.”

Jail superintendent S.R. Hussain, too, has been lenient with Samui because of his “rare talent”. “We have allowed him to work till late in the night though other prisoners are locked by 5 every afternoon,” he said.

Emerging from his cell, Samui narrated how he worked overtime to make the replicas of the Red Fort, the Asoka pillar and a dinosaur on the lawns of the Midnapore Central Jail. “In Presidency jail, too, I love to work till late night when other prisoners are asleep,” he says. “It has taken me over six months to complete the replica of the Taj Mahal on the jail lawn.”

Industrialist Harsh Neotia, when contacted, praised the convict’s “innovative” talent and said he would talk to Kumar if he could requisition Samui’s services to help him back to the mainstream.

All this attention has given Samui the thrust he needed to exorcise the black despair of confinement. Samui says he plans to make some more “brilliant replicas” of important city landmarks like the Victoria Memorial and the National Library.

But if imagination comes to him easily, the process of creation — as in all works of art — is painstaking. He has to first paint on paper the landmarks and the animals he intends to replicate and then expand them on the lawns. “It is a painstaking job to regularly prune and trim the shrubs to maintain the symmetry. I have to be cautious, as any uneven growth would spoil the beauty.”

Samui says he would love to work in a government organisation. Asked if he would prefer to go to the Open Air Jail, where he could accept offers from corporate houses, he said: “I have already served for over 12 years. If I get a government job, it will help me rejoin the mainstream after I complete my sentence.”




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1.5 mm

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One or two spells of rain or thundershowers

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