Media gag off after court snub
US emissary to forge anti-terrorism strategy
Funds blow to museum plan
Rs 3 lakh fine, 8-month ban for Chima
Bagan to back players? appeal
To Our Readers

New Delhi, Sept. 14 
The Election Commission today withdrew its guidelines banning publication and telecast of exit and opinion poll surveys following a snub from the Supreme Court, which dismissed its plea to enforce a ban.

With the withdrawal, the controversy over exit polls has been settled in favour of those who want to go ahead with them. Print and electronic media organisations are now free to publish and telecast poll surveys even during the staggered poll campaign. The only restriction is that pre-poll surveys cannot be published or telecast 48 hours before each phase, as mandated by the Representation of People?s Act (RPA).

During a day of melodrama in the apex court, resulting in the anti-climactic withdrawal of the guidelines, a constitution bench first dismissed the poll panel petition bluntly, holding ?it has no merit?. In the morning session of the proceedings, the judges said: ?We have heard the counsel for the Election Commission. In our view, the writ petition has no merit. Hence it is dismissed.?

But in the afternoon, the commission rushed to the court to submit that the guidelines were withdrawn. Following this, the judges disposed of all the pending petitions, one each by Frontline, The Times of India and one by the original petitioner, R. Rajagopal, editor of Tamil bi-weekly Nakkeeran. All of them had broadly challenged the poll panel?s guidelines on banning exit polls.

The judges said: ?We make it clear that we have not gone into the issue whether the commission?s guidelines violated the right to freedom of speech and expression. But this is not the occasion for the Election Commission to pass such a guideline without considering whether it had powers to enforce the same.?

?It is absolutely wrong on the part of the Election Commission to come knocking at the doors of the judiciary seeking execution of the guidelines issued by it,? Justice Bharucha observed. The other judges on the bench were Justice B.N. Kirpal, Justice V.N. Khare, Justice S.S.M. Quadri and Justice D.P. Mahapatra.

On February 21, 1998, the Election Commission issued guidelines banning exit and opinion poll surveys during the conduct of elections. Rajagopal had then challenged the guidelines, filing the original petition.

On August 20 this year, the panel issued similar guidelines and, fearing their violation, it went to the apex court seeking an order to uphold them. Meanwhile, the Madras High Court granted an interim stay on banning advertisements by political parties and leaders in visual media.

The apex court questioned: ?Even if the commission has powers under Article 324 of the Constitution to direct political parties or candidates to do something, does that mean it has powers to direct the man on the street not to attend an election meeting??

?Secondly,? the judges asked, ?even if we direct the government to enforce the guidelines, how is it going to do it??

?The overall consensus arrived at by all political parties and the commission does not mean that the EC has powers to enact law...,? the judges observed. ?The guidelines have no legal force...,? they added.

Jain TV counsel Shanti Bhushan then told the court that the commission ?cannot go too far applying the concept of a level playing field?. The counsel asked: ?Supposing I am a small political leader and the opponent has a charismatic lady attracting large crowds.... Will the commission uphold my plea that till my party also gets an equally charismatic politician, elections should not be held.... Is it the concept of a level playing field?? BJP happy, Cong cool

Parties reacted cautiously to the Supreme Court order rejecting the Election Commission guidelines on opinion and exit polls.

The Janata Dal (U), an ally of the BJP, felt that showing exit polls before the end of the elections would influence voters.

BJP spokesperson K.L. Sharma said: ?It should be treated as the law of the land. I am of the view that this verdict should be respected by one and all political parties and the media.?

Asked if he thought opinion and exit polls might influence voters, he said: ?It may, but we cannot curtail press freedom.?

The Congress sought to downplay the verdict. Party spokesman Kapil Sibal said: ?We will follow whatever is the law. We have no problem.?

The guidelines, he said, had posed problems for the BJP as Jain TV, ?propped up? by that party, was prohibited from telecasting the exit polls.    

New Delhi, Sept. 14: 
Indicating growing closeness with India on the threat from Islamic fundamentalist groups supported by the Taliban, the Clinton Administration has decided to despatch a senior official to forge a common strategy on counter-terrorism.

India?s keenness to develop a common position with other countries on terrorism was also evident from the speech of foreign minister Jaswant Singh at a meeting of Asian leaders in Almaty in Kazakhstan today.

?Our region is regrettably home to many terrorist groups and movements who recognise no frontiers,? Singh said at the Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building-Measures in Asia. He urged foreign ministers of all countries to work collectively to counter the ?growing threat of cross-border terrorism to Asian, indeed global, peace, security and stability?.

Michael Sheehan, coordinator for counter-terrorism in the US state department, will be here on September 17 and 18 to meet joint secretaries in the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan and American divisions of the Indian foreign ministry, Vivek Katju and Alok Prasad. The two Indian officials were in Washington recently to discuss Afghanistan with US officials.

Sheehan?s visit shows that New Delhi is keen to take a few tips from Washington.

The move shows the two countries? eagerness to build a common strategy and initiate a possible resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month to isolate the Taliban and its main support, Pakistan.

The US has already imposed wide-ranging sanctions on the Taliban. India, to match its position with Washington, has cancelled all flights to and from Afghanistan. There is a possibility that the Russians might moot a resolution at the General Assembly calling for similar sanctions against the Taliban.

India, which faced intrusion from Pakistan, is trying to make use of international concern over the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to corner Islamabad.

National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra today met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ? transiting through India on his way back to Moscow from the Asia-Pacific Economic Committee (Apec) meeting in Auckland ? and discussed the developments in Dagestan and problems created by Islamic fundamentalists.

Mishra made it clear that India would accept the steps taken by the Russian government in Dagestan and expressed Delhi?s solidarity with Moscow. The two also welcomed the proposed Declaration of Strategic Partnership that India and Russia are scheduled to sign at the next summit-level meeting.

In a joint declaration at the Almaty conference today, the foreign ministers of all major Asian countries called members to ?refrain from direct or indirect assistance to terrorist activities in all its forms, subversive or other activities directed towards overthrowing the state system of another member state or undermining sovereignty and territorial integrity of other member state.?

Though on the surface it appears directed at the Taliban for imparting training to various terrorist outfits, it also brings into focus Islamabad?s links with the ruling militia in Kabul.    

Calcutta, Sept. 14: 
With both the Ford Foundation and the Governor refusing to help, the civic authorities? treasured project, Calcutta Museum, is in troubled waters for want of funds .

Civic officials said today the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) is too cash-strapped to be able to set up the museum for an estimated Rs 3.5 crore in the newly-commissioned Town Hall. It had intended to inaugurate the museum on poila baisakh next year.

Soon after the Town Hall was renovated last year, the CMC decided to set up a museum there. It was suggested that the history of Calcutta ? from Job Charnock?s arrival to the freedom struggle ? would be captured in paintings and audio-visuals.

Mayor Prasanta Chatterjee announced that the CMC would give Rs 1 crore for the project, the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority Rs 1 crore and the state government Rs 50 lakh. The rest of the money would be raised from other sources.

However, the state government and the CMDA gave merely a few lakhs. Both chose to ignore CMC?s repeated appeals for funds. Assistance from other sources did not materialise. The CMC was eventually left with just over Rs 1 crore for the project.

Chatterjee wrote to The Ford Foundation early this year, asking for about Rs 2 crore. The foundation recently replied: ?Unfortunately, with the present limited resources at our disposal, we are not in a position to support the activities of your organisation.? The Ford Foundation emphasised that it would not be able to cover the cost of hardware and software for Calcutta Museum.

The mayor then appealed to the Governor, requesting him to release money from the Eastern India Zonal Cultural Fund. The Governor said it was not possible to spare money.

?We have pursued every avenue, but without success. Getting the museum ready by poila boisakh next year seems impossible,? Chatterjee said. ?We don?t know when the project will take off. How can we even think of setting a date when there is no money?? he asked. The mayor, however, said the project will not be dropped.

More money is needed because it has now been decided that the Town Hall will be centrally air-conditioned. ?We had not taken this into consideration when the plan was being drawn up. We will have to make arrangements for the air-conditioning. That will cost another Rs 50 lakh,? the mayor said.

The Town Hall was renovated at a cost of Rs 1 crore by industrialist Harsh Neotia.

The CMC spent Rs 5 crore getting the building vacated. It is yet to recover from that drain on its exchequer.

By the CMC proposal, the museum will have animated period settings, computer projections and simulated re-creations of historic events. The civic body was keen that it be the first hi-tech museum in the country.

Exhibits will be on early Calcutta, Siraj-ud-daulah?s siege, the Battle of Plassey, the new zamindars, Bengal Renaissance, turbulence of the Forties and the story of Town Hall. Municipal commissioner Asim Barman is thinking of ways of raising the money.    

Calcutta, Sept. 14: 
In a matter of football versus a footballer the Indian Football Association (IFA) today had to decide whether the rules and norms of the game were more important than an individual ? one of undisputed class.

The association?s league sub-committee today came down heavily on Chima Okerie for ?violence? during and after the Super Division championship leg derby tie between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal on August 31.

A fine of Rs 3 lakh ? unprecedented in Indian football history ? and an eight-month suspension has been slapped on the star striker of Mohun Bagan, who has lately been in the centrepiece of a number of controversies.

His actions on August 31 ? when he allegedly assaulted referee Bikash Mukherjee, stayed on the players? bench even after being shown the red card, made obscene gestures, ripped off his jersey and ran onto the ground targetting the referee ? had led to the sub-committee to take such action. If Chima fails to pay the fine by April 30 ? the day when his suspension gets over ? the punishment will be increased to two years, effective today.

One hopes everybody concerned has taken note of the clear signals sent out by a body often accused of going soft on the big names of the Calcutta League.

The trouble that Tuesday started when in the last minute of regulation play, a Dinesh Dhoundial shot touched Debjit Ghosh?s hand inside the box, and Mukherjee pointed to the dreaded spot, albeit after some hesitation. Mohun Bagan, at that point, were leading by a 75th-minute goal by Dulal Biswas.

Chima immediately charged at Mukherjee, and probably a push put the referee down. Three others in the picture were Biswas, Samuel Omollo and Debjit Ghosh. The trio too were taken to task by the CFL league committee today, for ?chasing the referee?. They will have to pay a fine of Rs 10,000 each by September 30, failing which they will be suspended from October 1 to 30.

Ranjit Gupta, IFA joint secretary, said that the decisions were unanimous, adding that all members of the committee were present today. He said that the measures taken against Chima were harsh because the committee felt that his ?offence was very grave.?

Asked why the IFA, in earlier cases ? especially the infamous incident when Bhaichung Bhutia had allegedly assaulted Udayan Haldar ? had let the offenders off rather lightly, especially in context to today?s verdict, Gupta said: ?The IFA has rectified itself.? But, surprisngly, he was quick to add that this decision, though important, was not going to be a trendsetter. ?Every case will be judged individually. There can be no thumb rule.?

Gupta said that Syed Nayeemuddin?s gesture that day, when he had tried to restrict his players and bring back some semblance of order, was noted by the match commissioner Sumanta Ghosh in his report to the IFA, and the committee today lauded his efforts.

But IFA?s action today failed to satisfy a number of questions that rose regarding the officials and their performance during that crucial match, which almost was the title decider.

Asked why a referee, who had not passed the Cooper?s test, was chosen to officiate in the crunch tie ? which by the IFA?s own admission was important enough to merit the presence of a match commissioner ? Gupta defended the IFA by saying Mukherjee was an ?experienced and able official.?

He refused to accept that the referee?s decision to grant a disputed penalty in the dying minutes, added to the fact that he had a rather poor match, might have contributed to the problem.

Moreover, the fourth referee, Subir Mitra, should have taken a more positive role that day. It is the duty of the fourth referee to see that a player shown the red card is not present within the technical area.

The IFA joint secretary did say that the fourth referee would be asked for an explanation later. ?We wanted to deal with the players first,? he added.    

Calcutta, Sept 14: 
Mohun Bagan superstar Chima Okerie has been asked by his club to appeal to the IFA governing body against the Rs 3 lakh fine and the eight-month suspension slapped on him by the state body.

The other three players of the club ? Dulal Biswas, Samuel Omollo and Debjit Ghosh ? too will appeal against the Rs 10,000 fine on each.

The IFA decision has naturally not gone down well with the Mohun Bagan authorities. ?Chima never hit the referee. This kind of incident takes place every day at the Maidan. But only Mohun Bagan are singled out for punishment,? an agitated Anjan Mitra, secretary of the club, said. ?A ban for two matches should have been sufficient,? was his response when asked what he deemed was a fitting punishment. ?Chima is innocent. It is sad that the IFA is trying to curtail his career,? said Mitra, adding that if the governing body did not revoke or drastically lessen the punishment of all four players, the glamour club will go to court.

It has been a trend in local soccer that appeals to seemingly tough stands have yielded whimper-level revokings of punishment.

Chima was not available for comment, but sources said he was very upset.

The Mohun Bagan authorities maintained that the IFA was vindictive towards their club, and a ?vicious circle? was working to bring down the reputation of the prestigious institution. Mitra said that after he had ?gone to voice his protest at the IFA office? after the state body refused to host their Asian Club Cup match against Muktijodda Parishad, the IFA had been waiting to take revenge.

?If I had only wanted to hurt Ranjit Gupta (IFA joint secretary) I could have sent 200 goons. I have no dearth of people like that. But I went because we had a serious grievance,? boasted the secretary of the over 100-year-old National Club, deemed an institution.

Though Gupta maintained that the decision on Chima was unanimously passed, a source close to Mohun Bagan added that it was a majority verdict. Dhilon Sengupta, a CFL league committee member, had proposed a fine of Rs 3 lakh and suspension of one year, which was later reduced to eight months by Gupta, the source said.

As far as the other three were concerned, Mohun Bagan authorities were of the view that it was ridiculous to penalise a player for ?requesting? the referee to explain the reason for a penalty.

Chima, whose ban starts from today, will not be able to accompany the team to Haldia for the Airlines Gold Cup. ?My team will obviously suffer, and so will Chima,? added Mitra. But the club authorities seemed confident that the governing body of the IFA will pass a ruling in their favour.    

The Telegraph website is a truncated edition today because of the September 3 fire in our offices. Apart from the front page, links are available to the East only.    

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