Atal puts reality before Sharif
Trader slain after rescue botch-up
Cash bitter pill for states with reform sweetener
Boulder barricade at sati site

Durban, Nov. 15 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said today that though the Commonwealth continues to recognise Nawaz Sharif as the Premier of Pakistan, India cannot close its options on dealing with the military regime in Islamabad.

?As neighbours we have to deal with the reality,? he said.

Vajpayee also indicated that the Commonwealth may impose sanctions on Pakistan if Parvez Musharraf does not take urgent steps to restore democracy.

The Prime Minister was talking to reporters this morning during a visit to the Pietermaritzburg Station from where Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a train 106 years ago.

Asked whether India, too, recognises Sharif as Pakistan?s Premier, Vajpayee said that in the Pakistani Constitution there was no other provision. Musharraf, who has declared himself Pakistan?s chief executive, has kept the country?s constitution in abeyance.

Vajpayee?s views only confirm what foreign minister Jaswant Singh had said yesterday. Clarifying that New Delhi stood for restoration of democracy in Islamabad, the foreign minister had not ruled out the possibility of resuming talks with Musharraf provided he created the ?right atmosphere?.

The Commonwealth heads of government ended their four-day meet here this afternoon with a firm demand for Sharif?s immediate release.

Condemning the ?unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically-elected Sharif government in Pakistan? last month, the Commonwealth made it clear that ?no legitimacy should be accorded to the military regime?. The leaders also demanded the immediate release of Sharif and all others detained with him by the army.

The bloc also expanded the mandate of the multilateral body to ensure good governance by member states.

Pakistan now remains suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth, but still retains its membership of the 54-member body. This, in effect, means that though Islamabad will not be allowed to participate in meetings and decision-making, the Pakistani flag will continue to fly at the organisation?s headquarters.

The Commonwealth?s concerns about the deposed Prime Minister?s well-being coincides with Musharraf?s decision to shift Sharif to Karachi and put him on trial for treason and kidnapping ? offences which carry the death penalty.

The strongly-worded statement is aimed at preventing a repeat of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto?s fate. Bhutto was executed by the Zia-ul-Haq-led military regime.

However, that the Commonwealth has not suspended Pakistan from the organisation indicates that the heads of state do not want to push Musharraf into a corner. Rather, they would prefer to engage him in dialogue and nudge him to take urgent steps for restoring democracy.

If the declaration on Pakistan is in line with India?s stand on the issue, the provision about the multilateral body playing a supervisory role might be cause for worry for many, particularly Delhi.

The Francourt declaration adopted by the heads of government commits itself ?in partnership with civil society to promote processes that help to prevent or resolve in a peaceful manner, support measures that help to stabilise post-conflict situations and combat terrorism of all kinds?.

For India, the declaration can read trouble. The Kashmir dispute has been the focus in many regional and multilateral meetings in the past. With its expanded mandate, the Kashmir issue could be brought back to the meetings of the Commonwealth.

India has so far maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between Delhi and Islamabad, thus blocking the scope for any third-party mediator.

The over-active Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group could now propose to land up in India or Pakistan to play a role in the dispute.

Though Delhi could continue to block such intrusive measures, the expanded role does provide the Commonwealth of highlighting the Kashmir dispute whenever it wants to put India in an embarrassing position.    

Calcutta, Nov. 15 
City motor parts trader Jaiprakash Gupta, who was kidnapped on Friday morning, was brutally murdered early today and his body dumped in a pond in Nimta in North 24-Parganas after the police botched up a rescue attempt.

Gupta?s brother, who identified the body, said he was strangled to death and the eyes were gouged out. Gupta?s body was found with his hands and feet tied and a bullet mark on his forehead.

Gupta had left his home on AJC Bose Road, next to the Nonapukur tram depot, early on Friday to go for his morning walk in Victoria Memorial when an Ambassador carrying six persons suddenly pulled up in front of him.

In seconds, the youth spilled out of the car, pushed Gupta in, and sped off towards Sealdah.

According to the deputy commissioner of police, south, Ranjit Pachananda, the Guptas did not inform the police about the kidnapping till Saturday, though they were receiving ransom calls all the while.

Gupta?s father, Debraj Gupta, received the first ransom call on Friday afternoon. The kidnappers wanted Rs 35 lakh for his son?s release. But Debraj Gupta kept negotiating with them and on Saturday morning the kidnappers gave him their final ?offer?: Rs 10 lakh.

Debraj Gupta reluctantly told the kidnappers he would try and raise the money. But by Saturday evening when the ransom amount could not be gathered, the Guptas lodged an FIR with the Park Street police station.

Now it was the turn of the police to deal with the kidnappers. Officials of the detective department told Debraj Gupta that they had decided to lay a trap and the next time the kidnappers called, he should tell them that the money had been organised.

The call came at 6.00 pm on Saturday. As instructed by the police, Debraj Gupta told the kidnappers that he was ready with the cash. He was, in turn, ordered to send his two other sons, Bhola and Pintu, to Tala Park in Paikpara at 11.30 that night and hand over the amount.

The police took over from here, but the trap laid by them for the kidnappers backfired, leading to the murder of Gupta.

Early on Monday, the Guptas received their final phone call from the kidnappers: Gupta had been killed and his body dumped in a pond in Nimta.

The incident sparked a series of protests in Mullickbazar and Park Street areas. Traders and residents blocked the AJC Bose Road for four hours, throwing traffic out of gear. Congress MLA Sultan Ahmad has called a bandh in the Park Street area tomorrow.    

New Delhi, Nov. 15 
The finance ministry has decided to slash the size of Central plan assistance to states.

The quantum of the scaledown has not been spelled out, but internal confidential notes make it clear that the Centre cannot pay the required funds in the next two years.

However, anticipating an uproar, the Centre will sugarcoat the decision by telling states that those which agree to ?IMF-style? conditions will get ?more money than promised to reform their finances?.

But with the conditions expected to be tough to meet ? they include higher utility charges and a ceiling on the number of employees ? many states will end up getting far less than they would otherwise have got.

The Centre is expected to sound states on the proposal tomorrow at a meeting convened by finance minister Yashwant Sinha. The meeting with state finance ministers has been called to discuss sales tax issues, but the ?real agenda is quite different?, a finance ministry official said.

The ministry?s plan evolved after panic buttons were hit by the expenditure department which pointed out that the Centre, steeped in a fiscal mess with low tax collections and high expenses, will be unable to fund state plans.

While government expenses are expected to go up by 15 to 16 per cent by the end of this financial year, tax revenue growth might be just 10 per cent, compared with the target of 21 per cent. The finances of the states, too, are in a shambles. The Centre hopes that this will force some states to toe its line in exchange of additional funds.

At a preparatory meeting between Sinha and K.C. Pant, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, a consensus was reached on cutting both state and Central plan assistance.

Sources said the decision has the blessings of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The proposal, they said, was part of the wide-ranging ?tough? reform package promised by the BJP-led government.

It has also been agreed that gross budgetary support for Central plans will not be an absolute figure. A margin will be kept unallocated, which can be used as incentive to get ministries and others to agree to carry out reforms.

Another controversial decision is to persuade the states to reduce the proportion of outright grants in several Centre-sponsored welfare schemes and replace the cut with loans.

The BJP-led government has been toying with these proposals for quite some time, but it had refrained from implementing them in view of the elections.

The Centre had sent a letter to chief ministers, linking funds release with concurrence to fix a legally binding limit on the number of employees, increase user charges for utilities and other fiscal discipline measures.

This had stirred a hornet?s nest with several chief ministers, including Jyoti Basu, opposing the move. Senior finance ministry officials said the move had been initiated after some states sought the Centre?s help to bear the burden imposed by the pay commission recommendations. States have demanded nearly Rs 15,000 crore in assistance on this account.    

Nov. 15 
Police today blocked thousands of villagers from offering prayers at the sati site in Satpurwa even as the Centre said the administration could do nothing if the people wished to glorify the incident.

Taken aback by the surge of ??pilgrims?? to the village where Charan Shah flung herself into her husband?s funeral pyre, the police have blocked all entry points by placing huge boulders and stationed constables to thwart those trying to reach the place through dirt tracks. The police had to use force on the villagers yesterday. Six persons were injured in the lathicharge.

The police made announcements on loudspeakers that any person trying to disrupt peace or forcibly enter the village would be booked under the National Security Act.

The villagers have been told not to interact with outsiders as they were spreading confusion.

In Delhi, the Centre sprung to the defence of the local administration with Sumitra Mahajan, the junior minister for human resources development, saying the police were doing everything in its power to stop villagers from ??glorifying?? sati.

??They have cordoned off the area, but people are taking a parikrama outside the cordon. What can the police do??? she said.

Mahajan feels the issue is an emotive one and can flare up into an ugly conflict if the police come down heavily. ??It is like building a temple or a mosque by the wayside. The issue is religious and the police cannot touch the structures,?? she said.

The minister believes the therapy lies in raising social awareness. ??We must learn to respect widows. Why do you think they commit sati? Because of the way they feel they will be treated after their husbands? deaths,?? says Mahajan.

She said it was not possible for the police to file cases against villagers who are rushing to the spot to worship sati. ??A legal case means there will have to be witnesses to give evidence of worshipping at the spot. Which villager do you think is going to do this??? Mahajan asked.

Though she is against painting a halo around sati, Mahajan proclaims herself a votary of the ?sati? who is totally committed to her husband. ?What has kept our society is the deep love that binds husband and wife together. Why then do we complain about broken marriages and divorce?? questions the minister.

Uttar Pradesh police director- general K.L. Gupta said the incident was being ??unnecessarily glorified for no reason??. ??For us it is a case of suicide and nothing else. There is no reason to arrest anyone,?? he said.

Locals alleged that the police had removed the urns containing the ashes of Charan Shah and her husband and immersed them in a nearby nullah. But the police rubbishes the claim. ??The ashes were removed by Man Shah?s brother Malkhan and his son Shishupal,?? police superintendent L. Ravikumar said.

Women?s organisations have started descending on the village. Subhashini Ali, former CPM MP, and an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Janvadi Mahila Samiti, said: ??Charan Shah is no Roop Kanwar (the sati from Deorala). There clearly was no family involvement. However, local people are making capital of the incident to get other benefits.??    


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