Sonia snub puts PM on Bihar backfoot
22 killed in Air Force crash
Basu stands by biographer
Census to track Hasina baiters
Bullock cart bond at Khajuraho
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 7 
The Centre appears set to revoke its proclamation of President?s rule in Bihar following the Congress? rejection of a last-ditch bid by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to woo the party?s support in the Rajya Sabha.

The Union Cabinet is meeting tomorrow morning to take a formal decision on the issue, but well-placed government sources said the mood in the Vajpayee establishment was to revoke President?s rule in Bihar, rather than have the resolution defeated in the Rajya Sabha.

Vajpayee pleaded with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to review her opposition to the resolution during a 45-minute meeting this evening, but got no positive response from her.

However, after a meeting of senior leaders at 10 Janpath, the Congress said that the decision to oppose President?s rule in Bihar was taken by the working committee and the party stands by it. The party alleged that the state administration under President?s rule has been taken over by the RSS, a position totally unpalatable to the Congress.

The meeting with Sonia Gandhi took place at the Prime Minister?s initiative and was also attended by home minister L.K. Advani and Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha Manmohan Singh.

Vajpayee asked the Congress chief to review her stand in the interests of the Dalits of Bihar and the restoration of law and order in the state. However, Congress sources said the Vajpayee government?s decision to invoke Article 356 in Bihar was motivated by ?political consideration? rather than administrative issues.

The Union Cabinet met informally at Vajpayee?s residence after the Prime Minister-Sonia Gandhi meeting. It was attended among others by Advani, finance minister Yashwant Sinha, parliamentary affairs minister P.R. Kumaramangalam, I&B minister Pramod Mahajan and solicitor-general Soli Sorabjee.

Following the Congress? formal rejection, the BJP and the Vajpayee government are likely to unleash a political campaign against both the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress in Bihar with an eye on consolidating the upper caste and the non-Yadav backward votebanks. Although there was a section in the ruling coalition that wanted a debate in the Rajya Sabha, even if it ended in the defeat of the resolution, the government has veered to the view that unilateral revocation of President?s rule is a better option now.

Two arguments are being forwarded in favour of not sending the resolution to the Upper House in the absence of Congress support: one, that it will mean a waste of time, and two, that it will placate restive allies like the Telugu Desam and the Akali Dal who have been lobbying for the early reinstatement of the RJD government.

Among the coalition partners, the Samata Party was the most intent on having a debate in the Rajya Sabha, for it felt that unilateral revocation would amount to ?meek surrender?. The Samata Party argued that a debate in the Rajya Sabha could at least mean the government had fought through the battle, even realising it would be defeated. However, the Samata camp, too, hinted today it may agree to a revocation without debate.

?If the RJD government comes back to power, we will hold the Congress responsible for it and make that the basis of our political campaign in the state,? a senior Samata leader said.

The Congress has taken a categorical stand against President?s rule in Bihar in the Lok Sabha and senior leaders like Arjun Singh said there was no cause to review the stand. The party will also find it difficult to change its position now as it would be seen as a move to bail out the BJP government at a time when the party itself has been stating it wants the Vajpayee dispensation out of power.

In Patna, an upbeat Laloo Prasad Yadav insisted that Rabri Devi and the entire Cabinet of the dismissed government would be reinstated if the proclamation is revoked or it falls through. Denying reports that the Congress has demanded a leadership change, Laloo Yadav said: ?If some individuals are saying something, it hardly makes a difference.?

Rabri Devi said she will abide by the ?party?s directive?. ?If the party decides, I will not run away,? she added.

The Congress refusal to endorse President?s rule came on day when official statistics indicated that the crime spiral has shown no sign of a let-up in Bihar last year. On an average, the state witnessed as many as 14 murders, six kidnappings and four rapes every day in 1998, an official report said.

Not that President?s rule has changed the situation. Today, police found the body of Anita Singh, sister of former chief minister Chandrasekhar Singh, in a flat in Patna. The police said she was kidnapped two days ago.    

New Delhi, March 7 
An Indian Air Force transport plane veered out of control minutes before touchdown at Delhi airport this morning, slamming into a cluster of bricklayers? huts and killing 22 people as it exploded into a ball of fire.

The Russian-built An-32 aircraft swerved off its landing path after hitting high-voltage electric cables, clipped a brick boundary wall and vaulted into a massive water reservoir in Pappankalan area of south-west Delhi, barely 2 km from the runway. Dozens of huts of workers building the water tanks were flattened.

The plane, flying on the Agra-Delhi-Gwalior sector, rammed into the cables after misjudging the height due to poor visibility, officials said. The dead included 15 IAF officials on way to a training camp in Allahabad and four crew members from IAF?s para-training school in Agra. A woman labourer and her two children were also killed, police said.

This is probably the first time that so many defence personnel have been killed in a single crash. Among the victims were 10 officers, four of them wing commanders.

Today?s crash is the second in two days after an Air France cargo plane went up in flames in Chennai airport on Saturday. It came on a day when the IAF was displaying its firepower at ?Vayushakti-99? in Pokhran before defence minister George Fernandes.

Twelve persons were injured in the crash, which left the front half of the plane embedded in the water tank and its truncated tail end lying in a heap of blackened, twisted metal on the ground.

The aircraft, which took off from Agra for Allahabad via Gwalior and Delhi, was given clearance to land by the air traffic control at 8:20 am. But it suddenly disappeared from radar screens and crashed within five minutes, ATC sources said.

The black box and cockpit voice recorder are untraced, but a clock recovered from the site was stuck at 8:23 am, a senior police officer said.

The IAF, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India have launched simultaneous inquiries into the accident. The airport remained closed for three hours when firefighting and rescue operations were underway.

A retired air marshall said the airport was suddenly enveloped in thick fog that reduced visibility to near zero and the plane undershot the runway. Airport authorities had declared the area unsafe for residences, but it was not evacuated, he said.

An ATC guild release said visibility was reduced to 500 metres at the time of the crash. This could be why the pilot descended lower than the required height.

The guild said the officer on duty unsuccessfully tried to establish contact through all available frequencies after the plane vanished from the radar screen. Then he sent a jeep towards the runway to check if the plane had landed as aircraft were frequently ?found missing on the radar due to transponder incompatibility?.

In Pokhran, Fernandes said the crash could not be related to the issue of modernisation of the air force. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit visited the crash site.    

Calcutta, March 7 
As a political storm exploded over the appointment of Surabhi Banerjee as pro-vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, chief minister Jyoti Basu threw his weight behind her, saying her only drawback is that ?she is my biographer?.

Basu told The Telegraph tonight Banerjee earned the prestigious chair on the strength of her ?brilliant academic career?.

?Have you people seen her CV? It runs into 10 pages and I can only tell you it?s formidable. She is eminently suitable for the post,? Basu said. ?Don?t think for a moment that she is a stranger to the university. She has been a well-known professor of English there for years.?

According to Basu, the proposal for appointing Banerjee as the pro-vice-chancellor (academic) came up for his approval only after it was cleared by the ruling Left Front?s education cell.

?When they (the cell) sought my opinion, I gave my affirmative decision because she is a Shakespearean scholar and we found her to be the most deserving candidate,? he added.

Basu?s defence of the appointment came amid sharp reactions from the opposition Congress, Trinamul Congress and BJP.

The BJP sought to transform the issue into a flashpoint for a fresh Centre-state stand-off, urging Union human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi to look into the appointment. The party will also submit a report to the Prime Minister.

Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee said she would meet the Governor tomorrow to lodge a protest against this ?political appointment?. The state Congress said the party would also move the Governor.

?From now on, if one wants to become the vice-chancellor of a university in Bengal, all he or she has to do is write Jyoti Basu?s biography, ? Mamata said. She would not launch any agitation immediately as Madhyamik examinations were on. But the Congress said Chhatra Parishad, its student wing, would launch a state-wide agitation from tomorrow.    

Calcutta, March 7 
West Bengal has ordered a ?census? of various Muslim outfits in response to an intelligence alert that Bangladeshi activists are setting up bases in the border districts for launching a surprise campaign against the Sheikh Hasina government, a senior police officer said.

State director-general of police Deepak Sanyal said today that the Intelligence Branch had been asked to focus on some Muslim organisations which are reported to have plans for incendiary preaching at the current Urs festival at Phurphura Sharief in Jangipara in Hooghly district.

The Telegraph had reported today that the Intelligence Branch had been collecting information regarding Muslim outfits in the border districts with the help of local police since mid-January.

According to Sanyal, over one lakh Bangladesh nationals are expected to cross the border and assemble at Phurphura Sharief where the Urs celebrations will continue for the next three days.

Apparently, the West Bengal government activated the police after receiving a report from Bangladeshi intelligence agencies via New Delhi that some Bangladeshi fundamentalist groups were setting up bases in Bengal?s border districts to put into operation an anti-Hasina campaign.

According to intelligence officials, the fundamentalists have accused Sheikh Hasina of being too soft towards India and are trying to whip up passions against her government.

?They cross the border to reach Phurphura Sharief. Taking advantage of the huge gathering, certain outlawed communal outfits distribute and sell sensitive literature,?? Sanyal said.

?This literature is in Urdu and Arabic. The fundamentalists also recruit people from places like Phurphura Sharief to carry out subversive activities in Bangladesh,?? said a special superintendent of police of the state intelligence wing.

?We had definite information that these fundamentalist organisations exchange foreign currency and even distribute them to miscreants to create disturbances in our neighbouring country,?? a senior intelligence officer said.

The intelligence officers said certain West Asian countries donate money to West Bengal-based fundamentalist outfits on the eve of the festival. ?There are instances where some of the Bangladeshis stay back after the Urs,?? an officer added.

Local police officers said a section of Muslim religious leaders of Phurphura Sharief was opposed to the activity carried out by the communal outfits.

Intelligence sources said they had tipped off the local police about the communal outfits and even informed senior officials at Writers? Buildings.

The police chief said he has received a report in this regard from the Intelligence Branch.

?The fundamentalists are trying to set up base along West Bengal?s border. We are aware of this and are taking steps to stem their inroads,?? Sanyal said. ?We are keeping a watch on the activities of fundamentalist organisations,?? he added.

State food minister and senior Forward Bloc leader Kalimuddin Shams said those assembling at Phurphura Sharief are followers of the Sufi sect. ?There is no question of importing foreign exchange for madrasas and mosques as Muslims donate two-and-a-half per cent of their income for charity,?? Shams said.

?I can?t comment on what the Intelligence Branch is doing in the border areas, but I can assure you that the ratio of Hindus and Muslims has remained the same since Partition,?? he added.

Investigations by the Intelligence Branch revealed that Bangladeshi nationals arrive through the porous border at Nadia, Murshidabad, North 24-Parganas, South 24-Parganas, Malda, and North and South Dinajpur.    

Khajuraho, March 7 
In love-locked Khajuraho, you don?t need bus diplomacy to bring arch rivals closer. Bullock carts will do.

Uma Bharti and Digvijay Singh, after spending the last 10 years attacking each other, succumbed to the charms of such a ride today, with the Union minister even declaring a ?common cultural bond? between the two.

When a journalist asked how she could share the same cart with the chief minister, Bharti replied sagely: ?Politics divides, but culture unites.?

The ride yesterday to Shiv Sagar lake, bordering the Khajuraho temples, was an attempt to recreate the ambience of the Chandella era when the temples were built. Accompanying Bharti ? Khajuraho is her constituency ? and Singh were five Union and state ministers, and a live band. President K.R. Narayanan flagged off the millennium festivalyesterday.

Whether the past was brought back to life or not, rough tempers were certainly cooled. Bharti, the vociferous defender of Khajuraho against all state government attempts to ?modernise? it, gushed: ?The ride was a novel idea, evoking past ways of life.? Singh, for his part, was intent on proving that he was ready to forget the old feuds with his co-traveller.

When Bharti, chairperson of the Khajuraho Millennium Committee formed in 1996, reminded that she had stopped a Congress proposal to instal a casino in the temple town ? to keep ?the ugly face of sex tourism, as well as drug menace? from corrupting the temple town ? Singh smiled graciously in answer. The proposal was not under consideration anymore, he added reassuringly. Possibly he was trying to forget the massive agitation Bharti had launched when there was talk of the Spice Girls performing in Khajuraho.

Singh provided another sop. The government is thinking about an integrated development plan for Khajuraho, he told Bharti. ?Khajuraho is not just about temples. Its villages are also the home to 7 lakh people. Our plan will include projects on agriculture and handicrafts as well as a network of roads linking the monument town with the big cities,? he said.

He added that offers to start industries here should also be environment-friendly.

Bharti was all smiles.

However, the BJP?s favourite rabble-rouser did not fail to assert that certain things about Khajuraho still rankle ? like the predominance of rigidly classical dances at the Khajuraho dance festival. ?Kuchipudi and Kathakali seem to be dance forms out of place with the spirit of temples. I want the traditional Bundelkhandi dance to be featured more at the temple festival,? she told The Telegraph.

And she is also not concerned about the possible effects of her campaign on the government exchequer. Bharti?s campaigns may have cost the government dear, cutting down the flow of foreign tourists, feel many.

Last year was a case in point.

Ashoke Pradhan, director general of tourism, government of India, said last year?s foreign exchange revenue from tourism in Khajuraho was about Rs 200 crore less than the average annual earning. Though no one reason was given, political instability as well as the elections held could be responsible, sources said.

But even Bharti in her generous mood could not make the chief minister assume responsibility for the fate of the Khajuraho temples. When asked about the reconstruction of some Khajuraho temples ? of the original 85, only 22 exist today, thanks mainly to the aggressive development of Khajuraho as a tourist spot ? Singh said only the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was in the know.    

Today?s forecast: Mainly clear sky. Little change in day and night temperature.
Temperature: Maximum 36.2?C (3?C above normal)
Minimum 21.6?C (2?C above normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 86% Minimum 26%
Rainfall: Nil
Sunrise: 5.58 am Sunset: 5.57 pm    

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