Buddha pins hope on Delhi
Son drowned for ‘healthy’ heirs
Teachers body in doublespeak
Polio drive finds saviour in quacks
Suspected thieves lynched
8 Naxalite rebels held
Yatris sweat under security blanket
Pokhran dust settles on TN weavers
Panna clams up in govt juggernaut glare
Sati hamlet officials indicted

Calcutta, Aug. 11: 
Holding Mamata Banerjee responsible for the proposed bifurcation of railway zones, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today said he would visit Delhi on August 25 to represent the state’s case once more.

The chief minister said he would meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to urge them to reverse the Centre’s decision to bifurcate Eastern Railway.

Addressing a well-attended rally organised by the Left Front at Brigade Parade grounds to protest against the proposed bifurcation, Bhattacharjee said: “I will meet them during my visit to Delhi on August 25 and 26 and convey people’s objection to the move.”

The rally was followed by a procession from the Brigade Parade grounds, terminating at Deshbandhu Park.

Bhattacharjee came down heavily on the Trinamul Congress chief, accusing her of failing to stall the bifurcation during her tenure as railway minister. “Why didn’t Mamata force the Union government to cancel its decision on bifurcation when she was the railway minister?” he asked.

“Mamata was well aware of the Centre’s plan to bifurcate Eastern Railway. But she remained silent at that time. Now she is organising movements which will instigate provincialism,” the chief minister said on the issue that has become a thorn of contention between Bengal and Bihar.

Bhattacharjee also accused railway minister Nitish Kumar for going ahead with his plan, ignoring the recommendations of all expert committees. “Kumar himself had set up a committee under the chairmanship of Rakesh Mohan. The committee did not recommend the bifurcation. Yet, the minister is going ahead with his plan. He is giving emphasis on Hajipur probably because of the ensuing Assembly elections in Bihar,” he charged.

Bhattacharjee said all the committees set up to consider the feasibility of the railway bifurcation had opposed the idea. “Even the Planning Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report did not approve the bifurcation. The CAG also suggested that the bifurcation was nothing but a waste of money. But the railway minister is not ready to give any importance to the recommendations of the committees and even the CAG. The minister is saying he will have to bifurcate the railway at any cost. We want to know the reasons behind his decision. We don’t know what is compelling the minister to bifurcate the railway,” he added.

Bhattacharjee also criticised Vajpayee and Advani who had assured an all-party delegation from Bengal that the Union Cabinet would reconsider the issue.

“When we came to know about Kumar’s plan, we immediately contacted Vajpayee and Advani and urged them to prevent the bifurcation. Both assured me and the all-party delegation that the Union Cabinet would review it and take a final decision. But the Cabinet did nothing to prevent the railway minister from going ahead with his plan,” the chief minister said.

Addressing the rally, CPM politburo member Jyoti Basu said the proposal to bifurcate the railway was raised during the United Front’s regime in Delhi. “We asked the then Union government to close the file on the bifurcation. The then government did not proceed with the proposal. But the BJP-led coalition government is now implementing it.”

Trinamul dharna

Some 80 Trinamul MLAs and councillors reached Delhi today to participate in a dharna in front of Vajpayee’s residence tomorrow to protest against the bifurcation. Party insiders said Mamata invited them for dinner tonight at her residence in the capital.

In all, 35 MLAs and 45 councillors have gone to Delhi to take part in the programme. The party’s frontal organisations will also organise a dharna at Curzon Park for an hour from 10 am.


Moyna (East Midnapore), Aug. 11: 
Advised by an astrologer, a father threw away his 18-month-old son in a pond at Sudampur village near here on Friday night.

Tapan Pradhan and his brother Ganesh have been arrested on charges of killing the baby.

The astrologer had told Pradhan that if he sacrificed the boy, there would be more healthy children in future. Pradhan’s wife had three miscarriages earlier.

Sub-divisional police officer of Tamluk Kalyan Banerjee said police were investigating the motive behind the infant’s killing. The police are also looking for the astrologer.

The villagers were alerted on the incident after Pradhan and his brother began visiting houses on the pretext of looking for the missing baby. Several villagers accompanied the duo on their search and the body was finally seen floating in a pond near Pradhan’s house.

Smelling foul play, some villagers came to Pradhan’s house and started grilling him. A few even beat him up. Pradhan then broke down and confessed that he had drowned the baby in the pond on the advice of an astrologer.

The villagers called up the police and handed over the two brothers.

“After we found the baby’s body floating in the pond, we were sure that somebody had thrown him because an 18-month-old infant could come to the pond alone. But Pradhan’s family had no rivalry with anyone so nobody could have killed the baby to take revenge. From the beginning, we suspected that Pradhan was behind the baby’s death,’’ said a villager.

“I went to an astrologer after this son was born following my wife’s three miscarriages. The astrologer told me that if I sacrificed my son to Ganga, my wife would have no more miscarriages in future and that I could have as many healthy sons as I wanted. As the river Ganga is far away from here and my wife will not leave the baby alone, I decided to throw him in the pond,” Pradhan confessed to the police.

He told the police that on Friday night when his wife was asleep, he took the baby to the pond along with his brother and drowned him.

The police failed to interrogate Pradhan’s wife Suchitra as she was in a state of shock.


Calcutta, Aug. 11: 
The Kaushik Ganguly issue has created a wedge in the monolithic West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association, with two parallel statements emanating from its central office following an executive meeting yesterday.

The two statements indicate that the dominant CPM lobby in WBCUTA, known to toe the government line on every issue, is finding it difficult to deflect criticism and dissent from teachers belonging to other Left Front partners without whose support teacher-leaders from the Congress and the Trinamul Congress would not have been able to pursue a prominent anti-government line.

The statement issued by the leadership — WBCUTA general secretary Anil Bhattacharya has been a CPM candidate in the last Lok Sabha elections — reacted to allegations of human rights violation by saying the subject was already under judicial scrutiny and that it would be better to let the law take its own course.

A parallel statement issued by some executive committee members today, however, said the Saturday’s press release was “not in conformity with the discussion” the panel had on the issue on Wednesday.

The executive committee had condemned the way Ganguly, a lecturer at the Rajabazar Science College, was “whisked away” by police without any warrant of arrest at midnight, the alleged “inhuman police torture inflicted on him in custody” and the alleged “violation of human rights”, the statement said.

“We are sorry to state that none of these views has been reflected (in the statement issued by the leadership),” the dissenting teachers said, adding that the statement was issued in a manner that “grossly violated the norms WBCUTA normally” followed.

The strongly-worded counter-statement has caught the WBCUTA leadership — already reeling under the effects of Wednesday’s meeting when speaker after speaker belonging to non-CPM front partners tore into the government’s handling of the issue — off-guard, say teachers.

On Saturday, too, CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc representatives in the executive committee had accused the CPM lobby of parroting the government line instead of articulating the teachers’ views. This, say WBCUTA insiders, prompted the leadership to go to the media immediately after the meeting.


Calcutta, Aug. 11: 
The government stopped short of inviting them to a meeting at Writers’ Buildings on Thursday but quacks in at least three districts are being involved in a renewed drive to eradicate polio.

However, the meeting at the conference room, Rotunda, was unique as it brought as many as 30 gram pradhans from six districts face to face with two ministers and health department officials for discussions that lasted some three hours.

Quacks, “medical practitioners” who are looked down upon in an age of modern science, had detected six of the seven new polio cases in Murshidabad and Birbhum in June. When the infectious viral disease is on the verge of extinction around the world, the new cases are a setback, especially when only one instance was reported in Bengal last year.

“Though a setback, the discoveries were not unexpected,” admits D.K. Ghorai, additional director of health services and state family welfare officer. “There are a few pockets in the state in which children remain unprotected from the virus despite efforts to immunise them.”

It was primarily for this reason that the meeting was called, which was attended by senior officials from WHO, Unicef, the National Polio Surveillance Project and the Union health ministry. Chaired by health minister Suryakanta Mishra, the meeting was also attended by junior minister Pratyush Mukherjee.

“Ways and means to intensify polio detection and immunisation were discussed threadbare,” said Ghorai. “A blueprint to involve all sections of the population in the six districts was drawn up.”

Which is why the quacks are also being involved. “These people, who have been a part of the villages for years, are closer to the inhabitants than the health workers and volunteers who were so far engaged in the intensified pulse polio immunisation programmes. The quacks will be able to convince the resistance pockets about the importance of immunisation.”

The detection of the new cases in areas populated by the minority community is proof that “gaps need to be filled up”, said health secretary Asim Burman.

“If Bangladesh can achieve polio-free status, then we should be able to do it, too. We have directed that all vacancies for the Integrated Child Development Scheme and Anganwadi workers be filled up. Special emphasis will also be given on the delivery system so that it has no flaws,” he added.

Teachers and religious leaders are also being trained to persuade people about the benefits of polio immunisation. The aim is to remove misconceptions about the “ill-effects” that polio drops have after they are administered. “One belief is that boys become sterile when they grow up. Some others resist to protest against the absence of electricity and schools in their villages,” Burman said.

The visitors from Delhi were impressed by the cross-section of participants at the meeting, “It remains to be seen how the state tackles the problem so that immunisation drives are complete and 100 per cent successful,” said one of the participants.


Diamond Harbour, Aug. 11: 
Two suspected thieves were lynched by villagers in separate incidents within a span of 12 hours.

A 42-year-old man, Chua, was today lynched when he was moving suspiciously along with two persons at Narayantala near Sarisha.

When villagers sought their identity, the trio failed to give satisfactory answers.

During the questioning, two of Chua’s associates fled. Residents then caught hold of Chua and started beating him. Later, police arrived and rushed him to hospital where he was declared dead.

Rashid Khan, circle inspector of Diamond Harbour, said Chua was earlier arrested for alleged involvement in highway and railway robberies.

In another incident, an unidentified 26-year-old man was lynched when he was going on a bicycle with another man at Bhagwanpur near Diamond Harbour sub-division hospital on Saturday night.

When local people noticed that one of them had a revolver, they challenged the duo. While one fled, the man with the revolver was beaten to death.

On seeing a police patrol, the mob ran away. The police took the victim to hospital where he was declared brought dead.


Behrampore, Aug. 11: 
Eight persons suspected to be People’s War activists were arrested from the border areas of Murshidabad and Nadia yesterday night.

Police said five were arrested from Bochadanga village in Naoda police station area in Murshidabad district and three from Sadipur under Thanarpara police station in Nadia.

The police identified one of them as Salma Khatun alias Shampa from Calcutta and another as Shankar De from Nimta in North 24-Parganas. Salma was arrested from Bochadanga and Shankar from Sadipur.

They were involved in organising training camps in Murshidabad and Nadia to extend the mass base of the Naxalite group. Several leaflets, muskets and live cartridges were seized.


Chandanwari, Aug. 11: 
Twenty-year-old Chobi Tiwari has just trooped into this base camp from the Amarnath cave with husband Udai Narain Tiwari, a railway employee from Lucknow, in tow.

Kichoo nai,” said Chobi, who is from Behrampore in Bengal. “Khali chobir darshan kore amra phire eshechi,” she explained with a dejected look. “Security onek beshi. Bhalo lage na.”

Chobi’s reaction is not an isolated one. Dharmesh, Nirmesh, Rana, Sonia and Malti — all share the same view. And all wait anxiously for the green signal from the security agencies for the trip back to Jammu and “safety” each morning. Religious fervour associated for years with this yatra is missing this year.

While the Kaluchak and Rajiv Nagar killings may have helped create a sense of insecurity among those desiring to visit places of religious interest in Jammu and Kashmir, the encounter near Vaishno Devi and the massacre at Nunwan has left an indelible impact on the minds of pilgrims.

Not only has the Amarnath rush dwindled, as many as 75 per cent of the pilgrims present at Jammu and Nunwan during the massacre left without even paying a courtesy visit to Seshnag. Fear psychosis has prevailed over belief.

High security marks the entire route from Nunwan to Amarnath. The whole stretch is swarming with men and women in uniform. This correspondent had to prove his identity seven times from Nunwan to Pahalgam — a distance of less than 1.5 km — before being allowed to proceed further and being frisked again.

Apart from the Nunwan massacre, rumours of a major terrorist strike on yatris “any time from August 11” has forced a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims thronging the Nunwan camp. Many have even offered to return to Jammu or Srinagar.

“We have heard of fidayeen attacks any time and are returning,” lamented Ramesh Sharma from Ahmedabad.

Only 1,257 pilgrims left Nunwan for the yatra today — nearly 400 less than yesterday. Though those leaving today had heard of the melting of the Shiv lingam, many preferred to continue their trek to the cave because they had no other option.

“I have come here for the first time and cannot afford to come again. I will go up despite knowing that I will not be able to pay darshan,” says Anup Saxena from Nagpur. “It is not worth the trouble with threats from terrorists. The security is good but not foolproof. But as I will not be able to afford another trip, I have no other choice but to go ahead,” added Saxena.

Instructions have been issued to pilgrims not to raise religious slogans along the route. They have also been sternly told not to carry flags of political parties.

Although the number of yatris is dwindling with the passage of each day, security agencies are gearing up to meet the challenge of a “record number” of pilgrims when the holy chhhari mubarak reaches the cave on Raksha Bandhan day. Local people, however, term the security agencies’ claim of more pilgrims as “wishful thinking”.

Officials say they have heightened security for the pilgrims. “We have inducted more personnel and are even patrolling parallel ranges to provide full security to the pilgrims,” said a senior BSF officer.

But security is not the only problem that the yatra officials face. The local administration today spent the entire day trying to convince organisations providing free langar from Nunwan to the holy cave to continue doing so.

Langar parties have stopped providing food, citing security reasons and the “high-handedness” of security agencies along the route. Many claim that they have been told by security personnel to reduce the number of workers for fear of fidayeen attacks in the higher reaches. Many of them have trekked back to Chandanwari with the utensils and food supplies.


Ammaiyarkuppam (Tamil Nadu), Aug. 11: 
Ezhumalai, 48, has been working a handloom since the age of 12. But the “warp and woof” of the handloom has been silent in his home for over two years now. As Ezhumalai’s old mother lies on the floor, a cat sits on the mud chullah in their kitchen.

“They have not cooked for days,” says another weaver and a friend of the family. “Even for an urgent hernia operation for Ezhumalai, we pooled together small amounts of money,” he adds.

This frail and emaciated widower, belonging to a traditional weaving community, has had practically no work since the US imposed economic sanctions on India following the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998. The US embargo hit Indian textile exports a great deal, particularly handloom exports from Tamil Nadu.

Nearly all the handlooms in this village, 105 km from Chennai, have been silent for the past four months, gathering a thick coat of dust. The weavers in this handloom belt in Tiruvallore district stare at despair.

Between 10-12,000 handlooms in the 132 villages around Ammayaiyarkuppam have gone out of business for several months now following the Tamil Nadu government scrapping the “Free sarees/dhotis scheme”. The Janata sarees and dhotis, as they are commonly referred to, were being sourced from the handlooms in this region.

“This is the immediate reason for our near-starvation conditions,” says Kandan, another handloom weaver whose right leg is disabled. Before the Janata saree/dhoti scheme was scrapped, these weavers were regularly provided yarn and worked for wages, which sometimes went up to Rs 1,300 per month, depending on the number of sarees they wove. But the cooperative societies have run out of cash and these weavers have had no fresh orders for a long time.

“We are still reeling under the impact of the 1998 US sanctions and there are no handloom exports worth the quantity now to the US, our major market for decades,” says Prasad, who did a stint as a quality inspector in a Mumbai textile mill. Moreover, Chinese textiles being much more competitive in the export market have practically robbed all opportunities for Indian weavers in the absence of a “coherent textile policy” of the Centre or the state government, he adds.

Since the post-Pokhran sanctions, the weavers were practically surviving on the state government’s free saree/dhoti scheme. The earlier DMK regime had earmarked Rs 130 crore for this scheme to keep the handloom cooperatives going. “Now we do not know where to look to and the younger among us may be forced to migrate to Mumbai,” adds Prasad.

Steeped in debt, these handloom weavers are unable to convert to power looms by hypothecating their property because of the high interest rates and power tariff, says Sindhu, who runs a small power loom unit here.

The community has started few gruel centres (soup kitchens). But these, too, have become a victim of the political battle between the ADMK and the DMK.


Lately in Patna-Tamoli, Aug. 11: 
For a millisecond that will forever remain frozen in memory, the earth tilted and came rushing as if it will swallow all from horizon to horizon. Then the jeep stopped, and everything was still. The vehicle had skid at a sharp bend on the muddy road.

The road only gets worse and it is still some 20 km from Patna-Tamoli.

It might as well have been another planet.

On Tuesday, August 6, it probably was. That morning Kuttu Bai sat on her husband’s pyre for nearly two hours before it was set ablaze and she died of burns.

There are at least two roads from the district headquarters at Panna to Patna-Tamoli, each worse than the other, each passing through Saleha — the police station nearest to the village — each barely jeepable but now ferrying bureaucrats and senior police officers in cars nonetheless, and neither allowing for time travel.

Patna-Tamoli is about the irrelevance of politics, irrelevance of government and state till an old, expendable widow commits sati and the people around want to venerate the deed.

For at least 10 hours since Mallu Sen died and Patna-Tamoli prepared for a spectacle, there was no political leader, no administrative officer, no policeman around. When a policeman did come and try to do his duty as he saw it, it was to the chagrin of the villagers who beat him up.

In the oral history that does the round of police officers and bureaucrats here, there are at least five instances of sati in Panna district in the last 150 years or so. Three of these — including Kuttu Bai’s — were in Patna-Tamoli.

“People here in Bundelkhand are deeply in awe of the idea of sati. But that was long ago in the past. There have been no recent instances,” says district magistrate Ravindra Pastor. “But there is a belief that Sati is an incarnate of Shakti and the women around here are endowed with shakti (strength).”

The belief used to run deep in the Chaurasia community. Barsati Lal Chaurasia, a villager, says: “I have heard that when a widow has been possessed by Sati, she goes with the funeral procession dressed in bridal wear and accompanied by the ululation of the village women and the strains of the Ramdhun (a chant in the name of the Ram). Of course, I am not saying that is how it was with Kuttu Bai.”

Government registers its immediate, official presence to the visitor in Patna-Tamoli in two ways. First, the fact that there is a telephone (dependent on the whimsies of nature) in the sarpanch’s house is known at the Saleha police station — that is how thanedar sub-inspector Harcharan Singh Ghose learnt of what was about to happen that morning. Second, graffiti on one of the first houses in the village reads: “Saksharta ki aai lahar, hoti parhai dono pahar (The literacy wave has come, we study morning and evening).”

The wave does not wash.

But Patna-Tamoli still surprises. For one, the sarpanch is a woman, Bimla Chaurasia. Most villagers did not know which party she belonged to, Congress or BJP — it simply did not matter, but everyone pointed out she is a Chaurasia, the dominant caste.

It was her husband, Ramadhar, to whom Kuttu Bai’s younger son, Rajkumar, first came and said his mother was threatening to commit sati; it was he who despatched the village chowkidar, Ramgarib Vishwakarma, to the burning ghat to check out what was happening; it was Ramadhar, again, who called the police station and spoke to Harcharan Ghose.

Second, Patna-Tamoli has a government higher secondary school. It grazes the walls of Kuttu Bai’s kuchcha house.

Inside Patna-Tamoli, every villager is afraid to talk because of so many policemen around. They signal you in, away from the main road, and in unison complain how harassed they are since the sati; how pitilessly police have arrested fellow villagers — including Kuttu Bai’s two sons, who were picked up on the pretext that they will be let off soon, but have been charged with murder.

In that sense, the village today is deeply resentful of the state as they are experiencing it now — an external force intervening in its own affairs. If a team from the National Commission for Women has returned from Patna-Tamoli without being able to talk to a single eyewitness, it is no surprise. Patna-Tamoli is guarding its own zealously.

Even in the 1987 Roop Kanwar sati incident in Deorala, all the accused were acquitted six years later because there wasn’t enough evidence.

At the Patna-Tamoli burning ghat, too, Ghose recalls, it was as if the crowd that morning was “frozen stiff barring the stray shout of ‘Sati ki jai’”.

“But as soon as I dragged down Kuttu Bai from the pyre, it was as if all hell had broken loose because she let out a scream ‘Ayee, yeh ko ho raha hai?’ (What are you doing?)”

In retrospect, Ghose agrees that he was trying to save an old woman but the assembled crowd refused to see that and thought he was guilty of committing an atrocity — by forcing down an old woman — and preventing her from acting against her will. “If the people had stopped her, you tell me, would it have been possible for her to commit sati?” Ghose wonders aloud.

But did they force her into it?

“That I cannot say,” replies Ghose.

No one in Patna-Tamoli today says Kuttu Bai was forcibly set on fire. Just as surely, no one wants to argue if the village willed her to commit sati.

The administration gained control of the situation, after the event. The first time a politician was around was when district magistrate Pastor egged on zilla parishad vice-president Ramakant Sharma (of the Congress) to address the crowd that was gathering between Saleha and Patna-Tamoli, wanting to go to the burning ghat with offerings of coconut and incense sticks.

Pastor and Sharma repeatedly said it was not a sati because, first, the couple was not on good terms (thus trying to rob the deed of its “marital valour”), second, it was not pre-announced and, third, that the rituals that accompany a sati and are supervised by a priest did not take place.

But even Pastor and the administration know, this is merely stop-gap. Belief and superstition run much deeper and wider here. In the villages around Patna-Tamoli, local people want to know if it is safe to visit the site for a darshan.

They say here in these parts of Bundelkhand that the curse of the sati is unforgiving. In these parts of Bundelkhand, politics, state and government are irrelevant. When there is a sati and when it rains on the parched soil, Panna’s rivulets and streams will gush and wash up diamonds for the fortunate.

The land is still accursed.


New Delhi, Aug. 11: 
The National Commission for Women has indicted the Panna administration for not lifting a finger to stop 60-year-old Kuttu Bai from immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Commission chairperson Poornima Advani, who returned to Delhi today after visiting the district in Madhya Pradesh, said everybody — the administration as well as the villagers — knew that Kuttu Bai was planning to burn herself to death. “They knew at least two to three hours before the incident took place. Let me say if nobody pushed her to the flames, nobody also tried to save her,” said Advani.

The four-member team spoke to villagers and district officials to get a chronology of events and understand the circumstances that led to Kuttu Bai’s death. A day after the sati incident, Advani had spoken to the Panna district officials about the incident. Her visit confirmed that Kuttu Bai could have been saved, had the police and the administration acted in time.

The fact-finding team had difficulty in ferreting out information from the villagers since nobody was willing to come out with the details. The Prevention of Sati Act makes those who watch the crime equally culpable as its abettors. The village, according to the team, was still in the grip of fear with the villagers withdrawn into a shell.

Advani recommended special courts to try the case and also that the anti-sati law should be applied more stringently. The commission will place a report before the Centre.


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