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Guarded picnic spot for Sahara chief

Some of the men who introduced themselves as Sahara employees stand in front of the forest guesthouse on Saturday. Sahara chief Subrata Roy is being held in police remand in the guesthouse

Lucknow, March 1: Half-a-dozen men in dark jackets and blazers stood outside the forest reserve’s gates, instructing cops on who should be let in to meet the Sahara chief Subrata Roy at the guesthouse where he is lodged in police custody.

“We are Sahara employees,” one of them told this reporter as he waved in an Audi. The dozen-odd policemen barely noticed who were going in, focusing their energies on keeping tourists, young couples and the media away from the “picnic spot”.

But a steady stream of visitors was allowed in. They included Roy’s sister and relatives, an army of Sahara executives and two foreigners whom none would identify. “Just because he is in police custody doesn’t mean he can’t have visitors,” senior superintendent of police Praveen Kumar said.

Roy, 65, is being allowed a lot else, forest officials said —home-cooked food for every meal since last night, his own wardrobe of clothes and blankets and mattresses from his house.

A forester explained that the guesthouse at the Kukrail crocodile sanctuary and reserve forest, on the city’s northeastern fringes, is “an ordinary lodge” that lacks the comforts Roy is used to. “His cook was brought in the morning to take orders for the weekend,” a cop at the gates said.

One of the dark jackets flashed a rare grin: “It’s like a picnic here now.”

If the police have a sense of humour, they can defend the culinary arrangements for Roy by pointing to a board outside the reserve’s gate. It proclaims: “Picnic spot par khana banana mana hain (cooking at the picnic spot is prohibited).” The order implies cooked food must be brought from outside — as is being done for Roy.

But another board would have provided a damper for the Sahara chief who till recently was Team India’s official sponsor. “Playing cricket/football is prohibited,” it announces, imposing perhaps the only curb on Roy at his current haunt.

The 5,000-hectare forest sprawl is a favourite with picnickers and young lovers because of its gharial breeding centres set amid teak, peltophorum, acacia and eucalyptus trees, their serenity broken only by the calls of the painted storks, white-throated kingfishers and cranes in the marshes.

But today, families in cars, couples on motorbikes and two buses packed with schoolchildren were turned away from the gates.

Not so a young foreigner in his 20s who arrived at 12.30pm, spoke to the dark jackets who addressed him as “Michael”, went in around 1.05pm and left 40 minutes later. A Sahara public relations official merely said he was “one of our people” and was from the UK.

Michael was Roy’s second Caucasian visitor of the day: around 11.45am, a middle-aged man in a suit and tie had dropped in for three quarters of an hour.

Ramendra Yadav, a forest guard, spelt out the arrangements at the two-storey guesthouse: “It has a lounge on the ground floor and three rooms on the first floor. Roy is using two rooms as his lodgings and the third as his office.”

Deputy superintendent of police Vidya Sagar Mishra declined to comment why Sahara staff instead of the police were regulating Roy’s visitors. “I have nothing to say about why he was taken to the guesthouse or why (ordinary) visitors are being turned away,” he added.

Mishra had led the team that arrested Roy yesterday, executing a Supreme Court warrant in a contempt case arising out of two Sahara companies’ failure to refund money to depositors. A magistrate remanded the industrialist in police custody till March 4, when he must be produced before the apex court.

The police did not seek transit remand yesterday. If taken to Delhi straightaway, Roy might have found himself in a police lockup in the capital.

‘Shame’ salvo

S.R. Darapuri, an IPS officer turned rights activist, said the way Roy was escorted to court in private cars and was being given VIP treatment in a guesthouse amounted to a violation of the principle of equality.

Sandeep Pandey, a Magsaysay award-winning social activist, said what was going on was “shameful” and demanded that Roy be sent to a police lockup.

The police brought the Sahara chief to the forest last night after a series of road manoeuvres to throw off chasing TV crews.

At 9pm, just 2km from the reserve, Roy’s company cars went round and round the Samtamulak Chowk before heading off in different directions.

“Just one car and a police jeep suddenly broke away towards the Kukrail forest,” said a TV reporter in one of the dozen-odd OB vans parked outside the sanctuary gates. “But we caught up with them soon.”

Half an hour later, family and Sahara staff began arriving with food and clothing. Around noon today, Roy’s sister Kumkum Roy Chowdhury came with a few relatives.

Among the other visitors were Sahara honchos such as former media wing chief Upendra Roy, marketing executive Anurag Mishra and Ghulam Zeeshan, chief of public relations.

Asked about the guesthouse facilities, Zeeshan said: “Now everything concerning Roy has come under judicial purview. Neither are we issuing any media statement nor are we commenting on this.”

None of Roy’s politician or celebrity friends, however, met him today.


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