Centre tests legal betting waters
Squall shakes city to its roots
Salman so near, yet so far from Saleem’s Delhi
Atal gets gilded cage for holiday

New Delhi, April 15 
The Centre today said it might consider legalising betting in cricket, testing waters for a radical policy shift, even as the long arm of the law finally caught up with actor Kishen Kumar.

Sports minister S.S. Dhindsa told PTI in Chandigarh that the proposal would be considered as part of the efforts to minimise the “mischief-potential of manipulators”.

However, Dhindsa — who had earlier this week sought a report on the poor performance of the cricket team — added that betting could be made legal only after getting the views of experts.

Government sources said the Centre would not make any commitment on the proposal until it gauged the public mood through a debate expected to be generated by Dhindsa’s statement. The proposal has not yet formally reached the Prime Minister.

The government will also wait the see the impact of the betting-scandal on Parliament when it reconvenes on Monday. Dhindsa also hinted as much. “ The sports ministry, after holding a meeting with top board officials and players and seeing the outcome of a debate in Parliament, will come out with concrete plans,” he said.

The minister’s statement comes close on the heels of suggestions that there was a scope match-fixing in the sub-continent as betting is illegal in the region.

Advocates of legal betting feel that a formal regulatory framework that will be in place once gambling was allowed would help tackle match-fixing. Such a framework will also spell out explicit penalties to be imposed on those caught rigging matches. Betting on matches is legal in England, the cradle of cricket.

However, the government is worried that if the regulatory mechanism is not effective, legal betting would open the floodgates on match-fixing. It also fears a clamour for easing the curbs on lottery tickets if gambling is allowed in cricket.

Amid the debate, investigative agencies scored a break of sorts with the arrest of Kumar. Working in tandem with Delhi police, officials of the Enforcement Directorate surprised Kumar, his relatives and battery of lawyers by swooping down on the hospital and making a midnight arrest.

It was a bolt from the blue. Kumar’s friends were guarding him from the police and had not expected the ED to step in.

It did not mean that Kumar had to be removed from hospital. The ED made perfect arrangements. Strictly following the legal procedure, they brought over an additional metropolitan magistrate to give a verdict on Kumar on the hospital premises.

The ED has been given a fortnight-long judicial custody of Kumar and can take him over to the interrogation room as soon as he is discharged from the hospital.

ED and Delhi police officials exchanged notes on the elusive Kumar last evening and decided that they could not delay his arrest further. A court could have granted him anticipatory bail. Around 8 pm, it was decided that the ED would make the raid.

Enforcement personnel rounded off the Apollo hospital late last evening without Kumar’s relatives getting the wind of what was happening. They moved in around midnight and informed Kumar and his friends that he was being arrested.

This morning, the additional magistrate, Swarna Kant Mehra, held court in the hospital. Despite arguments by Kumar’s lawyers that he was innocent and was being falsely implicated, Mehra ruled in the ED’s favour.

Tomorrow, psychologists will analyse his problems and if it is established that he does not have chest pain, he will be discharged.

The ED has filed another application before the additional magistrate for having him shifted to a government-run hospital, preferably All-India Institute of Medical Sciences. In AIIMS, the police and the ED will have a tighter leash on him and government doctors will be readily available to diagnose and judge Kumar’s medical complaints.

The arrested bookie, Rajesh Kalra, has just got a day’s additional custody with the ED. The ED officials who produced him in court today wanted three more days with him. But the court ruled that Kalra would be in ED custody for only 24 more hours. After tomorrow, Kalra would be shifted to jail under judicial custody.    

Calcutta, April 15 
At least two persons were killed and several injured when a sudden thundersquall roared across the city and suburbs on Saturday afternoon.

Windspeeds of up to 117 km per hour left a trail of destruction, uprooting trees and lampposts, snapping power lines, disrupting flights and trains, while life stood still for over an hour.

The accompanying rains, however, sent the temperature plummeting, bringing much needed comfort after days of heat and humidity.

The weather office predicted that a similar thundersquall could happen on Sunday afternoon.

A 22-year-old scooterist died when he got entangled in a wire fencing blown onto the road while driving down North Colony in the South Port police station area. “A tree fell on him while he was trying to free himself,” the police said. An 88-year-old woman was killed when a building collapsed in Baranagar.

Another person was injured when he came into contact with a live wire that had snapped in Madhyamgram. Five persons, including two infants, were injured by flying branches and debris in the city.

Power supply was disrupted in seven places served by the CESC between 2 and 6 pm. Three 33-kv feeders tripped after trees fell on overhead lines in Budge Budge and Patuli in the south, and Sinthee in north Calcutta. Faults occurred at Kasba, Thakurpukur and Kutighat distributing stations. Train services in Sealdah section were affected till late on Saturday evening as overhead wires were snapped by flying branches. The railways ran shuttles to clear passengers.

Three Calcutta-bound planes had to be diverted as they failed to land due to the thunderstorm. The British Airways flight scheduled to arrive in the city from Delhi was diverted to Dhaka. An Indian Airlines flight from Dimapur was sent to Bhubaneswar and another flight from Dhaka was asked to fly back.

According to the weather office, the thundersquall was caused by a low pressure zone stretching from western Madhya Pradesh to Gangetic West Bengal across Orissa. R.N. Goldar of the Alipore weather office said there are chances of another nor’wester on Sunday afternoon or evening. He said that the storms would continue as long as the low pressure area existed.

The strong winds ripped off the corrugated fibreglass shades of the Eden Gardens galleries and sent them flying in lethal trajectories around the Maidan.

n Another picture on Page 8    

New Delhi, April 15 
He is travelling the route the novel Midnight’s Children had taken. Minus Kashmir, of course. Salman Rushdie has been to Agra, where the protagonist Saleem Sinai’s mother, Ameena goes through a failed relationship. He is now in Delhi where Saleem Sinai was conceived. He might travel to Mumbai where Saleem grew up.

Imprisoned on the seventh floor of the Taj Palace hotel, he can hardly get a sniff of the real Delhi, hardly renew his contact with the lanes through which Ameena had made her risk-loaded trip with Lifafa Das to the fortune-teller. Red Fort is several kilometres away.

And the security is too tight. The media has been informing the world since yesterday that Salman Rushdie is here.

Yes, he is feeling relaxed wearing a striped kurta. Relaxed and at home in a Delhi that has changed a lot. He has seen a bit of the extreme poverty, has seen the money in the wallets of the splurging nouveau riche.

He finally accommodated a group of mediapersons who had barged into his suite this afternoon. They had got wind that he was meeting a few of their fraternity.

He is bubbling like an uncorked champagne bottle. He has a lot of plans. He wants to make his ancestral home near Shimla a writers’ retreat.

“My family and I want to use it, or make it a writers’ retreat,” he said, savouring every moment of his stay in India after 12 years.

He lets the reporters know that he had spent two days at Anees Villa there before he reached Delhi yesterday. There was a concealed suggestion that it was bad luck for the reporters that they could not hunt him down there.

“Bad luck,’’ he said when a mediaperson dared to ask him why he had not brought along his girlfriend, a Chennai-born woman. He said that with the money he had earned from Satanic Verses he wanted to buy a place in India but the plan was shelved. The threats on his life killed that plan.

Rushdie said on his arrival to this country from London, he had visited Jaipur, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri before going to Solan.

He had felt “safe’’ and that he never wanted to get away from India. This visit was helping him to get back that familiar smell. He was getting back the feel of his motherland.

He does not want to be remembered as the author of Satanic Verses. “If they read my other books, they would understand me better,’’ he felt. He had said yesterday he was not here to lobby for the lifting of the ban.

But he definitely wanted the ban to go. “Yes, of course. I want to see the ban lifted. I am not in favour of censorship.’’

On the shooting of Midnight’s Children he said. “We don’t have the permission to shoot the film in India. I am persuading the BBC to once again push through the project.’’

He was asked the nasty question if Ayatollah Khomeini did not deserve half his royalty for it was he who had forced such renown on him, Rushdie responded without batting an eyelid : “Fortunately, he is not in a position to collect it.’’

But the state where Midnight’s Children was born, in the heart of Srinagar, demonstrators were protesting over his arrival. Hundreds of Kashmiris took to the streets shouting “down with Rushdie’’.

They also raised slogans against an Indian government that could be so “callous’’ to permit a “blasphemous’’ writer Rushdie a visa.    

Manali, April 15 
We were two days too late checking into suite 306 of the Manali Holiday Inn, else we would have had a window on our Prime Minister’s holiday.

But no, we wouldn’t have had the window even if we had got there in time. Special Protection Group (SPG) commandos sat in suite 306 while Atal Behari Vajpayee vacationed in the cottage right below; in fact, they sat in all suites on tier three of this sprawling terraced resort across the Beas from Manali town.

So s it was just as well we got there late; we didn’t see the Prime Minister but we did see his cottage — all of it, for several unimpeded hours, though only from the outside.

The odds are that while Vajpayee was there we wouldn’t have been able to set eyes on an inch of it. Even the waiter who served the SPG and the Prime Minister’s official party at the Holiday Inn didn’t get a dekko. “We had to wear special passes to enter the hotel and we could go to only select places. The rooms had the screens pulled tight all the time. There was too much security all over the place, they were like mosquitoes, in the gardens, on the slopes, on the roofs, all over,” he complained.

When our Prime Minister goes on holiday, the people around him go furiously at work — the surroundings have to be smoked and sanitised, communication lines have to be put in place, the minutiae down to the plumbing, the drapery and the grass the VIP will set his foot on have to be checked out, floodlights have to be installed, contingencies — a team of doctors, for instance — have to be accounted for, security rings have to be mapped and appointed. They do everything to ensure that nothing is missed. They, in fact, do everything to ensure that on holiday, the Prime Minister feels exactly like he feels at work — trapped in an intricate web of securitymen and constrained by their many concerns.

They almost thought their elaborate preparations had been in order when one afternoon they spotted a hang-glider circling down over the Prime Minister’s cottage. An innovative assassin? An alert was sounded, angry commandos began rushing about, shouting at the “intruder” and threatening to shoot. The flier brought himself down on a slope close by and was immediately arrested and released.

He was no killer, just a gliding enthusiast who had flung himself into air from an overhanging peak not knowing he could have landed on India’s Prime Minister.

So no freeing of arms for Vajpayee on his three-day escape to Manali, no long walks, no moment of unwatched ease. “He was forever inside the cottage,” says a senior staffer at the Manali Holiday Inn, “He did come out for short walks sometimes on the lawns but everywhere his eyes went he must have seen securitymen.” And when he sat on the garden-swing the Prime Minister could have been sure he was under watch from all the suite windows of the Holiday Inn’s tier three.

Our system affords the Indian Prime Minister no official holidays so there is no Indian equivalent of Camp David or Checkers. The President does have an official retreat in Simla but not the Prime Minister; he is supposed to be an untiring workhorse.

But over the years, Prime Ministers have escaped to favoured haunts for breaks. Indira Gandhi used to go to Srinagar in fall to see the plane trees turn rust, Rajiv Gandhi took celebrated vacations in Ranthambhore and the Andamans, Vajpayee goes to his family’s cottage at the Manali Holiday Inn.

On paper, of course, the cottage where the Prime Minister stayed has nothing to do with the Manali Holiday Inn — the resort is run by a Delhi-based business group and the cottage is a very private property owned by Ranjan Bhattacharya, Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law. “Nothing to do with the hotel, sir, nothing,” the hotel staff are at pains to underline, “We are separate, they are separate.”

But on the ground, the commonalties are inescapable. The cottage is, in effect, an adjunct to the Holiday Inn, built in the same style on the same compound. A little hedge separates the public hotel from the very private cottage and where the hedge ends there is a little wicket gate that says: Private. No Entry.

The cottage stands on a promontory high over the Beas, away from the bustle of town and back to back with the Holiday Inn. It is a rather modest affair placed in a spectacular setting: a one-and-a-half storey house built from slate and timber and trimmed with sloping roofs. Its backyard is a ledge jutting out over the river; it has finely pruned lawns and young apple trees. Down below, the river gurgles and on both sides rise high, snow-capped peaks.

A lone housekeeper stays at the cottage and he, for apparent reasons, is a reticent man. “Yes PM saab came, but now he is back in Delhi,” he says from across the padlocked gate, “He has been coming for a few days every year since 1985, only last year he did not come because of Kargil.” It was as if he wanted to say, “So what’s the big deal? He came as usual, as every year, and now he is gone, as usual. What’s there that should provoke interest?”

Sukh Ram — that is what the housekeeper says his name is — is his master’s loyal hand and a man who knows the value of discretion. So while he tells us the Prime Minister relished fish (probably trout that abound in the streams) he just nods his head blankly about what else went on inside during the holiday. “Nothing much, PM saab relaxed, that is what he comes here for.”

A private holiday in a private home for a man who perhaps gets too little privacy. Perhaps just as well we were two days too late.    


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