Bricks, bombs at Salt Lake booth
Trinamul to tutor flock on mayor vote
Kargil claims another braveheart
Pomp over piety in rath race
Boy kidnap trail leads to Uttar Pradesh mafia
N. Bengal bandh for Assam killings
Kismet is his calling
Police rescue hostages
Extortion notice on ministers
Unplanned growth chokes Paltan Bazar

Calcutta, July 2 
Repoll at a booth in ward 16 in Salt Lake on Sunday was marked by high drama. Police lathicharged and teargassed the mobs and fired six rounds. Thirty bombs were exploded and political activists threw brickbats at each other ceaselessly. Union minister Tapan Sikdar was heckled and his securityman fired at CPM workers. Chased by CPM activists, Trinamul MP Bikram Sarkar showed a clean pair of heels.

Scene 1: It is about 9.30 am. Panskura hero Bikram Sarkar crosses the police barricade and proceeds towards the polling station. Hundreds of CPM supporters camping nearby start shouting: �Go back, Bikram Sarkar. It is not Panskura, but Salt Lake. Why are you entering the booth? Call up didi.�� The policemen on guard at the gate stop him. �Do you know who I am?� exclaims Sarkar.

�Yes, sir, you are an MP. But no one except voters and polling agents are allowed to enter the booth,� the policemen say.

Sarkar immediately calls up district magistrate Alapan Bandopadhyay: �Alapan, where are you? How dare the police stop me? Ask them to show respect. The CPM has captured the booth.�

How the district magistrate reacted to this ex-IAS officer�s tantrum is not known, but Sarkar had to flee with a group of CPM supporters hot on his heels.

Scene 2: 11 am. Tapan Sikdar, surrounded by his followers, approaches the booth. He asks the police why bona fide voters were being driven out of the booth.

Seeing Sikdar chastising the police, about 50 CPM supporters start shouting. In retaliation, a group of BJP workers camping close by runs towards the CPM supporters and a scuffle ensues. CPM workers get agitated as four of them are hit by brickbats. The two groups start aiming bricks and chairs at each other. Sikdar trips and falls while trying to flee. His bodyguard, too, takes a tumble trying to rescue the minister.

Suddenly, both parties begin to lob bombs at each other. Sikdar�s securityman whips out his revolver and begins to fire. A bullet hits a CPM supporter in his abdomen. He is taken to hospital.

A large contingent of police and Rapid Action Force lathicharges the mob, which goes on the rampage. Bombs rain thick and fast. At least 40 persons belonging to both the parties are injured in the melee.

The mob showers brickbats and bombs on police jeeps and ransacks several cars and two-wheelers parked nearby. To bring the situation under control, police teargas the mob and open fire.

Residents of Salt Lake, who prefer not to leave their flats and steer clear of politics, have never witnessed such poll violence. So, many people don�t vote.

�We have lived here for 20 years and this is the first time we are witnessing such poll violence. This is quite new to this township,�� says P.K. Sen, a senior resident of FD block.    

Calcutta, July 2 
The Trinamul Congress will meet tomorrow to decide how to educate its newly elected councillors about voting a mayor to office.

Trinamul leader Subrata Mukherjee, also the party�s nominee for the mayor�s office, said on Sunday the party councillors needed to be educated as many of them would be participating in secret ballot voting for the first time.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Mukherjee said the Trinamul, regardless of the current impasse, would form the board at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation because it had the requisite numerical strength. �Now, we are confident of forming the city civic board,� he said.

Mukherjee�s optimism, however, does not readily conform to ground realities.

After the Congress� decision to stay away from the mayoral election, the Trinamul and the ruling Leftists, now tied at 61, need the support of as many of the six Independents as possible.

Trinamul claims that it has already secured the support of four Independents and increased its effective strength to 65.

Though Mukherjee felt that the Congress councillors� decision to absent themselves was a �good thing to happen �, the Left Front�s crisis managers indicated that they would make �serious efforts� to secure as many Independents as possible.

�We, the Trinamul, BJP and the four independents together, have 65 councillors and the Left Front has 61. So, we are far ahead of them. It would still be sufficient if we had 62 councillors,� he said.

State CPM secretary Anil Biswas said the victory of the Left Front at Salt Lake municipal polls will not have any impact on the prevailing scenario at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation.

Trinamul leaders have vowed that it will not be possible for the CPM-led Left Front to wean away any of the councillors from the Trinamul�s fold. �All our councillors are CPM-haters. It will not be easy for the communists to break them away,� Mukherjee said.

Party insiders said in spite this conviction the Trinamul is still carrying sound to rope in the willing ones to reach the magic number of 71.

A number of Congress councillors from Garden Reach and Kabitirtha, particularly those belonging to the minority community, have been contacted with offers to join the Trinamul municipal party.

Congress circles, however, said this would be a difficult task as their councillors from the minority community are aware that they would be betraying the Muslim vote-bank if they throw in their lot with the Trinamul-BJP combine.

�Our councillors have informed state party chief, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, that they will not defect under any circumstances,� said PCC general secretary Sultan Ahmed.

But the Congress is not leaving anything to chance. They are also keeping a close watch on the situation.

The Trinamul camp, however, seemed a little relaxed on Sunday with the AICC officially asking party councillors to remain absent from the mayoral poll.

�We are sure to form the the board. Even if there is change of equations in the future, the Left Front can�t bring about a no-confidence motion within six months of the election of the mayor,� said Trinamul councillor, Rajiv Deb. ends.    

Calcutta, July 2 
Captain Saptarshi Dhar went missing the day he became an uncle. On January 12, in the pleasant climes of a wintry Calcutta, his sister delivered a baby. Thousands of miles north, on a cold and frosty frontier, the young Captain was leading a patrol against heavy odds: snipers were picking out his men and the snow above was threatening to roar down in an avalanche.

No one knows what got the captain first, the snow or the enemy bullets. His body was found on July 1, more than six months later, as the the snows along the heights of Kargil began to melt.

It will be flown to Siliguri on Monday, headquarters of his unit, the 4/8 Gorkha Rifles.

Like Captain Kanad Bhattacharya, who died at the height of the Kargil war, Captain Saptarshi Dhar is from Calcutta. In the Dhar family�s tidy bungalow in Dum Dum Park, neighbours, friends and relatives of the family stream in.

The silence hangs heavy, occasionally pierced by a wail as someone recalls a meeting with the 25-year-old lad.

Even in her grief, Aditi Dhar, Saptarshi�s mother, does not lose her rationale. �When will this mindless fighting stop? Why don�t the Pakistanis and the rest of the world realise that Kashmir is a part of our country?� For six months, the family has been praying, hoping, of happy news from their boy.

�I was hoping for a miracle... I am proud of my son. He went down fighting for his country,�� Aditi sobs. In a few hours she will leave for Siliguri with daughter, Sujoyita.

Their nerves have been steeled by generations of ties with the armed forces. Saptarshi�s father, Samarjit Dhar, retired as Group Captain in the Air Force. His grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a Colonel. An uncle is a serving Major.

The sketchy reports from the Northern Command headquarters of the army in Udhampur, Kashmir, say Dhar was leading a patrol of seven that day. Their objective was to capture a height, a vantage point, above the Gurez Valley.

A Northern Command officer said the height did not have a name �but it is the origin of the Kishen Ganga river,� about 160 km from Srinagar. The patrol was prepared to repulse an enemy attack on the way to the objective.

No one apparently has lived to tell the story of what exactly happened. The patrol did not return to base camp at Trishul. After a search proved futile, it was presumed that they were trapped in an avalanche in the night.

The body of Captain Dhar, suspected to be missing in action, was found on Saturday near Barope village, the only settlement near that stretch of the Line of Control.

Army officers at the Eastern Command headquarters in Fort William said on Sunday that the body will reach Siliguri by an Indian Airlines flight.

A students of Central Schools, Saptarshi graduated from the National Defence Academy in 1994.

He belonged to the Ordnance wing and was on deputation to the Gorkha Rifles� unit in Kashmir since 1998.

�I am a patriot. I want to die fighting. My goal is to be the king,�� Saptarshi wrote in his personal diary, which the army delivered to his family.

His grandmother, Deepti, recalled how gutsy Saptarshi was.

�He was highly motivated by army life and from his school days, had a strong desire to be a soldier,�� she said.

The family called him Tojo, after a legendary Yugoslav general.

Saptarshi last visited Calcutta on furlough in August 1999.

The Northern Command described him as a good soldier who led from the front.

The chief of staff, Eastern Command, Lt.-Gen. Satish Chopra, said Saptarshi will be cremated with full military honours.    

Calcutta, July 2 
The day has arrived and the preparations are complete. Come Monday and the chariots of the gods roll, triggering an undeclared but strongly underlying competition as to which is the best.

Rathyatra, the age-old annual chariot festival in which the divine trio of Lord Jagannath and siblings Balaram and Subhadra symbolically travel to their aunt�s house, has over the years gained popularity in Calcutta, though the most important yatra in the country is held in Puri.

The journey that the authorities of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon) conducts has added considerable hype to the occasion, ever since it took to the city�s thoroughfares almost a decade ago.

Perhaps the most popular and most publicised because of the pomp, gaiety and funds associated with it, the Iscon Rathyatra added a new dimension to the festival in the city by being the first organisation to introduce collapsible chariots.

All three carriages, each almost 30 feet high, can reduce their height to pass under tram wires and tree branches. Hard labour goes in from four days in advance to decorate the carriages from top to bottom. The effort, however, shows up at times as being overdone, feel some festival enthusiasts.

But what draws crowds to the Iskcon procession is the distribution of well-made prasadam by the volunteers.

The inauguration is usually done by a prominent public personality, who sweeps the road in front of the chariots before they start moving.

This time, Union minister of state for telecommunications Tapan Sikdar will inaugurate the yatra near Metro Railway�s Central station. Police are worried over whether the chariots will reach their destination before office-hour traffic. A seven-day fair will be held on the Maidan till the return journey, or Ultarath, is held.

Another organisation whose chariot-pulling also pulls crowds is the Rathyatra taken out by the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir on Chakraberia Road (North).

Sadhu Divyamurtidas says when their procession first started on city roads seven years ago, there were hardly 200 people. �Today, about 7,000 follow the chariot.�

The 16-foot-tall carriage, with a wooden and metal frame, is decorated with flowers and cloth. �The idols are carved out every year from wood and immersed either in the Hooghly or in Orissa after Ultarath,� the sadhu said.

Mayoral candidate Subrata Mukherjee will �flag off� this rath this year, in the presence of former Tisco chief Russi Mody. Mukherjee will apply tilak and perform puja before sweeping the road with a golden broom.

The oldest rathyatra in the city is brought out by the Saborno Roychoudhury Paribar Parishad of Barisha, Behala. �Our forefather, Roy Krishnadeb Majumdar Choudhury, started the festival in 1719,� said Dilip Roy Choudhury.

In 1984, a local committee was set up, which allowed outsiders to join. �This procession, though travelling about 4 km, draws huge crowds on Diamond Harbour Road. The carriage is preceded by four bands and kirtan singers.

Three other organisations, including the Taramandir Trust of Belgachhia, are bringing out raths in a big way on Monday. For once, political processions will not cause the traffic jams.    

Calcutta, July 2 
A gang of criminals based in Ballia is behind a series of kidnappings in the city.

This came to light after the recent arrest of two gang members from Uttar Pradesh by the detective department of the city police. The two men have been identified as Pappu and Ramesh.

The gang�s activities were revealed after a boy was kidnapped from Girish Park. Detectives have stumbled upon information on the gang�s activities.

During interrogation, the two accused said other gang members had holed up in a house on Tobin Road, near BT Road, for a long time to plot the kidnappings. �They do not stay long in any particular area to hoodwink the police. They move from one hideout to another on the city outskirts as these places do not fall under the jurisdiction of the city police,� the two accused admitted.

The detectives said the gang members operate on contract. They charge between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh for every kidnapping. Mafia bosses from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar ask them to kidnap the sons of rich businessmen. Accordingly, they carry out the order.

�Our job is only to kidnap a person and then send him or her safely to hideouts in other states. Only the close aides of the mafia leaders handle the ransom demand,� the accused told the police.

Acting on a criminal intelligence report, the detectives are also gathering information on other Ballia-based gang members and their contact persons in the city.

The officials said the gang members had carried out four kidnappings in the city. The police were in the dark about the incidents as they were not informed. That was because family members, instead of going to the police, negotiated directly with the mafia and coughed up the ransom.

The police are now establishing contact with members of these families to cross-check the statements made by the accused.    

Siliguri, July 2 
The All Gorkha Students� Union (AGSU) has called a 24-hour strike in Darjeeling and the Dooars on July 28 in protest against the frequent killing of Nepali-speaking people by militants in Assam, reports our special correspondent.

The AGSU�s call comes in the wake of the killing of four Nepalis allegedly by Bodo militants in Nalbari on June 22. Earlier, 19 Nepalis were shot dead by extremists in Karbi Anglong and north Assam between April and May.

AGSU joint-secretary Madhukar Tamang said: �Besides protesting the frequent massacre of Nepali-speaking people, we want the Centre to recognise them as a specially protected class in the Northeast.� He added: �At the same time, we want to use the bandh to highlight our long-standing demand for the creation of a separate Gorkhaland, comprising Darjeeling and the Dooars, to protect the identity of the Nepali-speaking Indians.�

A joint delegation of the AGSU, an independent students� union, the All Bodo Students� Union and the All Jharkhand Students� Union will visit Delhi on July 19 to press for the formation of Gorkhaland, Jharkhand, Bodoland and other smaller states.    

Calcutta, July 2 
Sixty-five-year-old Sandra (not her real name), living in Los Angeles for years, had just got her only son engaged. But amidst all the excitement, she felt an underlying sense of unease.

Was something wrong somewhere, wondered a mother�s instinct. She asked around for �the right� astrologer and was directed to the door of Sunit Kumar Gupta.

Born and brought up in Bhowanipore, south Calcutta, the LA-based astrologer, who had built up quite a reputation over 15 years, studied her face and asked Sandra to �postpone the wedding by three weeks�.

A fortnight later, Sandra burst into Gupta�s �chamber� and declared that the engagement had been �called off�.

�One look at her face and I knew that the marriage would not materialise. But I couldn�t tell it on her face and so I chose to be diplomatic and told her to postpone the wedding by three weeks, by which time I knew it would be called off. This is what is called divya drishti,� explains Gupta, now parked in his Sambhunath Pandit Street residence.

Early this year, 39-year-old Gupta decided to to something in and for Calcutta. The result: the zodiac hotline � astrological advice over the phone.

First stop, Calcutta Telephones� officials for the �special permit� required to start the business under the utility�s premium rate service. The service went on line from Poila Baisakh (April 14).

�The response has been overwhelming. Now, I find it easier over the telephone,� says Gupta. �When I face my clients in my chamber, I have found that sometimes there is a clash of vibes and often their body language disturbs my concentration. That�s precisely why I don�t use the video telephone for astrological advice in Los Angeles.� The other major advantage of telephonic predictions is the anonymity factor. No appointment is required nor identity disclosed.

�The sky is the limit in this business and the telephone company willing, I can route calls from all over the world to Calcutta and to any other part of the country,� declares Gupta.

He now has his own array of astrologers (being trained by Team Gupta: Sunit, brother Navneet and sister Kanchan) to operate the zodiac hotline (0-900-33-3300).

But how accurate is a phone forecast? �We do it through Tarot cards, the oracle associated with the Gypsies. All we need to know is the person�s name. If he or she is unwilling to give the name, even the initials will do,� explains Gupta.

What about the success rate of the telephonic astrological consultation, which today deals with everything from examinations to marriages?

�The predictions are, obviously, accurate and that�s why I am so successful, compared with so many others in the business who have gone bankrupt...,� he says with a twinkle in his bespectacled eyes, before breaking off to answer yet another call. Gupta�s star trek can be traced back to Sambhunath Pandit Street in the early 60s, where his parents (who originally belonged to Kashmir) had settled in post-partition Calcutta. A general interest in metaphysics that ran in the family fuelled young Sunit�s fascination for numerology, palmistry and astrology.

After completing his B.Com from Bhowanipore Education Society and dabbling in student politics under the Chhatra Parishad banner, Gupta left for London in 1984. This was to change the course of his life. �By then, I had finished reading B.V. Raman�s Fundamentals of Astrology and other books on the subject penned by Cheiro, Krishnamurthy and Linda Goodman,� recalls Gupta.

But the pursuit of his childhood passion did not slow down his academic career � a post-graduation in metaphysics and doctorates in metaphysics and divinity followed in quick succession at California.

Gupta, meanwhile, had started �active practice� in astrology in LA by giving �consultations� over the telephone.

Today, his predictions include Bill Clinton�s presidential victory, Michael Jackson�s rise to superstardom (even before Thriller), and the BJP-led coalition�s coming to power in Delhi last year.

�A person�s fate depends on the karma in his or her present and past lives,� says the firm believer in Vedic astrology, following in the footprints of Varahamihir and Parashar.

So what karma has drawn this successful astrologer and metaphysicist to the city of his birth?

�I know quite well that whatever I earn in Calcutta is only a fraction of what I earn back in the US,� says Gupta. �But as a Calcuttan, I want to help fellow-Calcuttans through my knowledge and experience. If I am successful and expand my business in my own city, I can not only help people to deal with their problems better but also train and employ a lot of people,� he concludes, laying out the Tarot cards on the table.    

Agartala, July 2 
Police yesterday rescued 26 people held captive by militants in a hideout in south Tripura�s Lakshyapara village since May 21.

Sources said the rescue operation was launched after one of the hostages, all from the Kuch community, slipped out of the hideout on Friday night and contacted legislator Kajal Das from Kalyanpur over phone.

A team led by officer-incharge Gouranga Dev and Tripura State Rifles personnel raided the village yesterday morning and rescued all 26 hostages. Not a single bullet was fired during the raid, sources said.

Militants of the National Liberation Front of Tripura had abducted the 26 non-tribals from the Kuch Colony under Kalyanpur police station.

The mass abduction follo- wed the massacre of over 30 Bengalis in Bagber, North Mahar- anipur and Durgapur villages.

Nibaran Barma, the 63-year-old Kuch whose courage saved 26 lives, including his own, told the police today that the NLFT militants initially planned to kill all their hostages.

However, they were dissuaded from doing so by village elders, who reasoned that the entire Kuch community could be wiped out together once those who had fled the area returned to their houses.

Barma said the militants forced him and the other Kuch hostages to wear tribal attire and convert to Christianity. �They made us work hard and gave us something to eat only once in two days,� he said.

The Kuch elder said a �well-meaning tribal youth� from Lakshyapara village informed him on Friday that the militants were planning to kill him and his fellow-hostages. �He advised me to flee the hideout and inform the police latest by Saturday afternoon,� he said.

Putting his life at risk, Barma surreptitiously walked out of the village, found a PCOs and informed Kajal Das about the location of the militant hideout. He then came back to the village.

An official said the police were �lightning quick� in responding to the legislator�s request to launch a rescue operation. �Rescuing so many people from militant captivity is a major achievement. The police deserve a pat on their backs,� he said.    

Shillong, July 2 
The People�s Liberation Front, an underground militant outfit, has slapped extortion notices on some legislators, including two ministers, in Meghalaya.

Sources at the MLAs hostel said the outfit has issued extortion notices to legislators from Garo Hills and threatened them with �dire consequences�� if the payments were not made.

The ministers include that of planning Lotsing A. Sangma and social welfare minister Admiral K. Sangma. However, they were not available for comments.

Confirming the report, superintendent of police, East Khasi Hills, G.H.P. Raju said, �Some of the Garo MLAs have been served with extortion notices.�� Security has been beefed up at the MLA�s hostel, he added. The extortionists have been identified as Alden Marak and Balkhos Marak.

Raju said the police had recovered some extortion notes from the arrested PLF members. �The notes were signed by PLF commander-in-chief Vincent A. Sangma and finance secretary Nikseng Marak.� The East Khasi Hills police have launched a massive search operation to flush out Sangma.

�The two PLA cadre have confessed that Sangma is hiding in the city,�� the SP said. The PLA is an offshoot of the Achik Liberation Magrik Army (Alma). Most of its cadre are �surrendered rebels,� who returned underground after their rehabilitation scheme flopped. Sources said the legislators have sought �security� for their families.

The administration had earlier strengthened �security cover� of some politicians to pre-empt �probable assassination attempts.� In addition to stepped-up security, plainclothes policemen were also deputed to �protect�� the VIPs.

Another underground outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, has also expressed its �displeasure� with politicians.

The HNLC militants had raided finance minister A.H. Scott Lyngdoh�s house on June 6 and snatched nearly half-a-dozen revolvers and several rounds of ammunition from the guards.

MLA hostel sources said the police today reviewed �security arrangement�� at the VIP bungalows. �We cannot leave anything to chance,�� a police source told The Telegraph. Another Garo outfit, the Achik National Volunteers� Council, which is fighting for a �greater Garoland,� is on a recruitment drive in the hills.

�More than 50 boys have joined the outfit,�� a source said. This came to light following the arrest of a number of ANVC rebels over the past two weeks.

The three ANVC cadre, who laid down arms at Resubelpara outpost in South Garo Hills on June 28, also confirmed the report, sources added.

The ANVC had displayed its �strength�� in West Khasi Hills when it seized more than 100 coal-laden trucks near Borsora on February 18.    

Guwahati, July 2 
Unplanned growth and inefficacious management have turned city�s Paltan Bazar area into a pedestrians� �nightmare.�

Commuters jostle for space on manhole-littered pavements, while buses ply at a snail�s pace belching toxic fumes.

Autorickshaws blow their horns incessantly as rickshaws trying to manoeuvre their way through non-existent passages.

Very little has changed in Paltan Bazar over the years. Despite the chaos, it remains one of the most important commercial centres in the city.

So many buildings have come up in the area that there is virtually no space to widen the roads.

According to officials, the level of noise and air pollution in the area is one of the highest in the city. Says Arun Barua, a school student who stays in Paltan Bazar, �It is impossible to study at night because of the noise made by trains entering the station or leaving it.�

Apart from congestion and noise pollution, heaps of garbage on the roadside add to the mess. Roads are often waterlogged after rain.

Workers leave gaps between concrete slabs covering the manholes resulting in �accidents.�� Rajesh Barua, a resident of Ganeshguri, barely escaped falling into one of these manholes recently. �Thank god, there was a street light and I noticed the gap between two slabs of concrete,� he recalls.

Residents of the area and shopkeepers say the authorities seldom bother to redress their grievances. �Instead of doing something to reduce the chaos in the area, they dump stones and filth on the main road,� says Mohan Singh, who owns a grocery store.

With the area becoming more congested each passing day, people do not take the trouble to shop there. �Why would customers come to our shops if the situation is so bad. Renovation of roads has been going on for several months now. There appears to be no end to it,� says Singh.

Adding to congestion, every tourist agency has opened a counter at Paltan Bazar. The situation worsens after 7 pm when night buses start departing. These buses do not pick up speed unless they have adequate passengers.

�A bus takes almost half-an-hour to go out of the area even after everyone is seated,� says Sonali Phukan, who goes to Tezpur once a week.

Criminal activity has also increased in Paltan Bazar. According to police, people living in the jhuggis (shanties) along the railway line are to blame for the spurt in crime.

�They are driven out once in a while, but they come back again,� says Rajen Singh, who runs a tea stall near the Panbazar flyover.

Even the footpaths have been encroached upon by hawkers. �The police evict these hawkers in sporadic anti-encroachment drives, but they come back after a couple of days. There are people selling goods right at the edge of the railway bridge behind the station,� says an N.F. Railway employee.

There is a proposal to shift the bus stop from Paltan Bazar to Six Mile in Khanapara, but transport operators are opposed to it.

�Shifting the bus stop to Six Mile will ruin our business. This place is accessible from all sides and is an ideal location,� says a tour operator. �Do the authorities think shifting the bus stop to Six Mile will solve the congestion problem? Actually, the same problem will arise there,� he adds.

Several new hotels and shopping complexes have come up in Paltan Bazar over the past few years. Most of these hotels do not have any parking space and vehicles have to be kept by the side of the road. This makes the parked vehicles vulnerable to thefts.    


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