Eunuch crowned mayor in heartland
Asha unplugged, Kajol tongue-tied
Satellites to track Veerappan
MPs� cricket appeal to Atal
Preys of the bandit hunt
BJP frowns at giggling Diggy Raja
Gujarat power protest
Women unite to storm poll bastion
Slum dweller to exporter

Lucknow, Nov. 26: 
It was a resounding snub to the parties of ordinary men and women.

Ashadevi, a eunuch, was elected mayor of Gorakhpur by a huge margin of 65,304 votes. All rivals, including the BJP and Congress candidates, had to forfeit their deposits.

Traditional Varanasi, too, followed in Gorakhpur�s footsteps, electing its first eunuch councillor, belying rumours that voters would not deviate from their �sanskriti�.

Ashadevi had contested the election as an Independent as no party had been willing to support a eunuch, but the 35-year-old pooled more votes than all others put together.

�I am the chosen one. Now it is clear to me that God has sent me here with a purpose. I will not let anybody down,� said a triumphant Ashadevi over phone from Gorakhpur. �Humanity is my only party,� Ashadevi added.

By voting for a person from a community reviled for centuries, an outsider, the electorate has made clear its deep disenchantment with political parties.

�This is what happens when leaders sit around clapping their hands like hijras. People get fed up some day and actually choose one,� said a BJP activist from Gorakhpur.

The Gorakhpur verdict has shaken Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh. �The BJP has learnt its lesson. It is our responsibility to see that this kind of situation does not arise again,� he said.

But the �third sex� seems to be a growing force in politics.

Today�s twin triumphs follow the recent election of a eunuch to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly. Shabnam Mausi, the MLA, had pitched in by campaigning for Ashadevi in Gorakhpur.

Soon after the election of the new mayor, two other eunuchs from Gorakhpur, Barkhadevi and Khusboorani, decided to contest the Assembly polls.

Ashadevi has issued a clarion call to eunuchs. �It is time to come out of the shadows and widen their field of action from marriage ceremonies to politics, sports and even show business.�

Referring to the recent fashion show in which five eunuchs sashayed down the ramp with some of India�s top models, Ashadevi said: �Given a chance, there is nothing we can�t do.�

In Varanasi, Kallu won from the Jalalipura ward on a Samajwadi Party ticket.

A month before the elections, Kallu had been confident of success. �The world will soon realise that a eunuch can do much more than dance around and clap. It�s time to make a difference to our lives and that of other unfortunate beings like us.�    

Mumbai, Nov. 26: 
�Kajol, Kajol,� Asha Bhosle called out from the stage, as the Bollywood star squirmed in her seat. �Kigo, kothay gele tumi?� she broke into Bengali as her eyes scanned the crowd.

Slowly, Kajol got up and ambled on to the floodlit podium. �No, please, I can�t speak...,� the red-faced actress pleaded, hugging the singer. �Ok, you cannot speak Bengali, but what about Marathi?� she asked. �Thoda, thoda,� came the reply.

Asha sank into a pregnant pause, only to break out in song. �Zara sa jhum loon main,� she crooned. �Nare baba na,� joined Kajol, Simran of the blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

The 7,000-strong crowd, witnessing Asha�s return to the stage at Goregaon�s police grounds last evening, went wild. Asha had not lost any of her magic in the one-and-a-half decade of stage sabbatical.

Her last public performance was at the Brabourne stadium in 1985. She did not say why she had stayed away from the stage or what brought her back yesterday.

The 68-year-old icon, second in popularity only to sister Lata Mangeshkar, sang, jigged and joked into people�s hearts in her �reappearance�, organised by Sony Entertainment Television.

As she belted out her chart-toppers one after the other, people cheered, clapped and sang along, giving her a standing ovation at the end of the two-hour performance.

She worked the crowd like a skilled magician, sending them into raptures every now and then. Spotting a young technician smoking at one end of the stage, she ordered him to come up, her voice trembling with mock rage. She snatched the cigarette from his lips and told him �not to do something that kills your heart�.

She was also at her wittiest, making as much fun of others as herself. �You know my knowledge of English!� she said, recounting her first encounter with �computer boy� A.R. Rehman during a recording in Chennai. �But he would speak to me only in English.�

There was more shocks in store for her. Rehman played no music as he recorded her songs. �I asked him �Where is the music?� He wouldn�t say anything. I came away wondering what he was going to do with my song.�

Asha said she could not �recognise� her song after Rehman had added music to it. �In our days, music would be recorded with songs, but now it is added later,� said the singer who has collaborated with western musicians while adapting with changing times.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, which saw the recording of more than 12,000 songs, Asha was the voice of many former and present stars. Several, including Helen, Rekha, Tabu and Urmila Matondkar, were present to express their gratitude to the singer, whose songs often boosted a movie�s fate at the box office.

When Helen came onto the stage to thank her, Asha left her blushing by letting on the public into a �secret� desire. �I have never seen such a beautiful woman and if I was a man, I would have married her long ago.�

A clutch of present-day musicians and singers were also in attendance. Strumming a guitar was Leslie Lewis of Colonial Cousins fame, who scored the music for her tribute to R.D. Burman, Rahul and I. Standing with a 60-member band on a stage crafted by Bollywood art director Nitin Desai, he said: �When I met her for the first time, she told me �Music is not for everybody�. I was terribly disappointed. So I was pleasantly surprised when she asked me to compose Rahul and I.

�Mothers always make such mistakes,� pat came the reply from Asha, shimmering in a dazzling yellow sari.

As she sang a duet with Lucky Ali, she paused, lost in memories. �Had Burmansaab been alive today, he would have been happy to see his bhaijaan�s (comedian Mehmood�s) son singing with me.�    

Bangalore, Nov. 26: 
The revamped special task force, led by H.T. Sangliana, plans to press Indian Remote Sensing satellites to zero in on Veerappan.

But the authorities fear it may not be of much help in the dense jungles where the bandit is holed up with his Tamil extremist allies.

Chief minister S.M. Krishna has set in motion a series of moves to nab Veerappan after Raj Kumar was released on November 14. Sangliana has been given a carte blanche by the Karnataka government to get Veerappan �dead or alive�.

Krishna left for Delhi today to hold talks with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani for the deployment of a specialised commando force to track down Veerappan. He is also likely to meet defence minister George Fernandes. �Using satellite images to find out the hideouts of the bandit is being considered,� a home ministry official said.

Indian Space Research Organisation officials said the proposal to use images beamed by the IRS satellites for operations against Veerappan was not new. It had been mulled by the previous Janata Dal government led by J.H. Patel, but did not materialise.

But officials said the IRS satellites cannot detect the night movements of the bandit and his gang. �Even during day time, it will be difficult to spot the gang as the forest is covered with thick layers of foliage,� officials added.

The high-resolution images, however, will help the task force over a period of time to get �indelible marks of the gang�s movement� which could be used for launching a commando raid.    

New Delhi, Nov. 26: 
Six MPs, led by Congressman Eduardo Faleiro, have asked Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to reverse the Centre�s decision to scrap the Indian cricket team�s tour of Pakistan.

Drawing Vajpayee�s attention to the cancellation of the tour � in which the teams were expected to play three Tests and five one-dayers � the MPs said: �The reported decision will further damage the game which is already beset with match-fixing allegations.�

Appealing against mixing sports with politics, they said cricket could be the �most important vehicle for people-to-people contact among the countries of the sub-continent...Politics often divides people while sports unites.�

The MPs urged Vajpayee to �stand up to the forces of extremism and fundamentalism in both the countries�.

�These elements lack any constructive programme or purpose and for their own selfish and evil designs, create tension and hatred between the two countries,� they stressed.    

Salem, Nov. 26: 
Thangammal looks an unlikely prize catch for a task force strung together to hunt down India�s most wanted bandit.

But away from the limelight of the Veerappan abduction drama, the 35-year-old today told of life brutalised by those on the right side of the law.

�Holding a gun to my temple, he (a senior police officer) wanted me to spell out in detail my alleged sex life with Veerappan�s brother. I can also do that better. Tell me where Veerappan is,� Thangammal recounted before a group of journalists at Kolathur, a small town in western Tamil Nadu and one of the hotspots linked to Veerappan.

The meeting was organised by human rights groups to highlight the plight of the victims of the special task force and denounce the National Human Rights Commission�s failure to take any effective action.

Thangammal was one of the scores of women who summoned courage to come to the meeting and talk about the indelible scars without inhibition. Gang-raped and released from police custody after four months, Thangammal found that her husband had deserted her and their son.

Another woman spoke of her husband who had not uttered a word to her since she returned from custody. Today, he cannot stand her sight as it is common knowledge among the villagers that she had been raped by policemen.

Many victims pointed an accusing finger at former director general of police Walter Issac Dawaram.

Henri Tiphagne, director of People�s Watch, said that after the submission of a report on police atrocities, the National Human Rights Commission dithered for three years before setting up an inquiry committee.

When the committee recorded depositions of about 100 victims, Karnataka High Court imposed an interim stay. The rights commission did nothing to get the stay vacated, he said.

The conference called for a people�s campaign to seek justice for the victims of the task force.

P. Nedumaran, the Tamil nationalist leader who was instrumental in securing Raj Kumar�s release, demanded a judicial inquiry to fix responsibility for rights violations during the task force operations in the early nineties.

Kolathur Mani, an LTTE conduit, was among the organisers of the conference, which coincided with the birthday of Tiger chief V. Prabhakaran. The speakers, however, steered clear of the LTTE and Tamil nationalist issues.    

Bhopal, Nov. 26: 
Is a chief minister entitled to have a good laugh? No, says the Opposition BJP in Madhya Pradesh.

Chief minister Digvijay Singh has got into an unnecessary controversy for having laughed when the BJP was discussing an incident where police beat some of their MLAs.

BJP leader Gauri Shankar Shejwar boycotted the Assembly on Friday because the chief minister �is ridiculing an incident as grave as Opposition MLAs being subjected to police atrocities�.

Union minister Uma Bharti, during her fast-unto-death in protest of the retrenchment of daily wage-earners by the government, was the first BJP leader to find Digvijay�s laughter offensive. She said the chief minister giggles like a schoolboy.

This time, though, the objection is no laughing matter. Shejwar claims he will continue the boycott unless the chief minister apologises.

�Yehan vidhayak pit gaye aur mukhya mantriji khilliyan uda rahen hai (MLAs are getting beaten up and the chief minister is laughing),� Shejwar said. �He makes light of every situation.�

The controversy started on November 16 when the chief minister was at Morena during a visit to the Chambal region. A dozen BJP supporters, including three MLAs, tried to block the chief minister�s convoy as part of their agitation demanding Morena be declared a drought-affected district. Police used their batons to disperse them.

Next day, the BJP legislators arrived in the Assembly draped in tattered clothes and bandaged from top to bottom.

The seniormost of them, Munsilal, limped in supported by four men. Munsilal alleged that he had been beaten so severely he could not walk by himself. Another MLA said his palm was lacerated as he tried to defend himself.

�The force of the lathi was so much his hand split,� Shejwar told the House. A third MLA insisted his bones were broken.

When Digvijay denied the charges, saying he was witness to the incident, the BJP walked out. Just as the House was adjourned, the �injured� Munsilal promptly got up and walked out by himself.

Digvijay had a hearty laugh. �I found it very funny,� the chief minister later said.

�The man comes in supported by four or five men claiming he was beaten black and blue and couldn�t walk, hinting that his knee was fractured. He sits in the Assembly, his leader asks him not to get up because he is not in a position to. Once the House is adjourned, the same man gets up and walks away by himself.�

As the BJP kept bringing up the issue, forcing the Assembly to be adjourned nearly every day, Digvijay argued that an inquiry should first be conducted to see how serious the injuries were and treatment arranged after that. The chief minister giggled more with each passing day as the BJP MLAs� bandages were vanishing.

The controversy deepened when the BJP took the issue to the Governor, expecting his support since Bhai Mahavir is a Sangh parivar veteran.

Mahavir looked closely at the injuries and counted them. One in the head, one in the arm, one in the palm, two on the left leg, one on the right. Then he sighed. �Digvijay is not willing to believe you were beaten,� he told Munsilal.

Digvijay became defensive about his giggles. He said his government was willing to pay for the treatment of the MLAs in the best of hospitals abroad if a medical team found the injuries grave.

�Munsilal has a swollen knee. The X-ray reveals no fracture. Bansilal says he has a lacerated wound, X-ray says no bones broken and Sewaram Gupta claims broken bones but there are no fractures,� he said.

The BJP had had enough of the chief minister. They boycotted the Assembly. �He wants proof before treatment?� the leader of the Opposition, Shejwar, asked.

�We are boycotting the Assembly,� he said, threatening: �This is not the end.�    

Ahmedabad, Nov. 26: 
Industrial units across the state have decided to go on a strike on Tuesday against the recent power hike recommended by the Gujarat Electricity Regulatory Commission.

More than 6,000 small and medium scale industrialists will hold a protest march in Gandhinagar, Amit Goradia, president of the Forum of Federations, Chambers and Associations of Industries, Gujarat, said.

About two lakh small and 10 lakh medium industries are likely to down their shutters, which will result in a production loss of Rs 2,000 crore, Goradia said.

The forum of 44 chambers, federations and associations of industries was set up on November 17 to mount pressure on the state government.

Claiming that the new power tariff has put an additional burden of Rs 600 crore on industries, the forum has demanded that electricity should be made available to all consumers at the same rate throughout the state. The forum also wants immediate withdrawal of sales tax on electricity.

Coming down heavily on the Cabinet subcommittee set up by the government to find a way to lessen the additional financial burden on industries and agriculture, Goradia alleged that even after a month, the committee has done nothing to address their problems. Instead they have introduced new bills which �we are not going to pay�, he said.    

Patna, Nov. 26: 
Women in Bihar are set to take on their male counterparts by fielding �consensus independent candidates� for the Bihar panchayat polls, based on the panchayat polls in Madhya Pradesh in 1999.

Women�s groups working in the districts of eastern Madhya Pradesh, now in Chhattisgarh, have fielded candidates who are not affiliated with any political party. They have raised issues concerning rural women.

�We believe woman power will have to be roped in at the grassroots level if the panchayat experiment is to be made effective. Women may bring about all the difference in its functioning,� said Sister Sabina, coordinator of Samakhya, a confederation of over 20 women�s groups working for the last five years for the advancement of women�s literacy under the Bihar Education Project.

A recent high court ruling disallowed reservation of seats for women in single unit panchayat bodies. The state government, which had sought reservation for Dalits and backwards, is unhappy with the verdict and had asked for the Supreme Court�s intervention. The issue is pending in the court.

But women�s organisations are confident that this will not stand in the way of their participation in the panchayat polls, slated to be held in February. �We want to test our strength while fighting the polls against male candidates,� an activist working in Sitamarhi said.

Women�s groups in Bihar have faced a lot of opposition in their crusade for the empowerment of women.

�We were vilified for dragging women out of their homes for literacy classes, we faced death threats. Undeterred, we kept up our pressure and now we have the support of the women in the villages,� said Suchandra, who has been working in Rohtas, one of the worst-affected districts.

Samakhya is gaining social acceptance after women�s bodies affiliated to it began to take on corruption. A primary school teacher, taking a nap and playing cards instead of taking classes, was caught red-handed. Women also gheraoed a truck smuggling out contraband goods in Sitamarhi and forced the police to arrest the culprits. In Champaran district, activists fought against untouchability being practised against people belonging to Mushahar caste and taught them self-respect.

In Rohtas, women have set up Shanti Senas in a cluster of villages, involving a man and a woman from each village. These groups are supposed to hold meetings to understand cases of indiscimination and sort them out through district-level government officers.

In the last five years, Samakhya has built 75,000 units across 26 districts. The number of women members has crossed a lakh.    

Ahmedabad, Nov. 26: 
Burqa-clad Roshanben Sheikh has come a long way from a slum-dweller to a modest exporter of patchworked clothes. This enterprising woman is a shining example for Muslim women in the city where she has become a household name.

The 55-year-old lost her mother when she was just three and was rendered homeless by the devastating flood in 1973. In those days, she used to live in a slum on the banks of Sabarmati .

Though the flood rendered 2,500 families of slum dwellers homeless, in the long run it proved blessing in disguise. The government assigned a city-based NGO, the Ahmedabad Study Action Group ( ASAG), the task of rehabilitating the flood affected people. �I came in contact with ASAG , which constructed houses for us in Juhapura and started vocational training for women� recalls Roshanben.

The turning point came ASAG director Kirti Shah selected her for special training in National Institute of Design(NID) . �The six months that I spent in NID learning cutting and design, gave me confidence to chart the course of my own life ,�� says Roshanben.She then trained 25 women, mostly poor, widows, divorced Muslim women, who then formed a co-operative.

After working with the ASAG for four years, she set up the Mahila Patchwork Co-operative Society .

Initially, the co-operative only got orders from local residents. However, for the last five years it has been getting orders from Italy and the UK.

Displaying bed covers and cushion covers , she says: �These items are being prepared for export.�

Though Roshanben refused to disclose the co-operative�s annual turnover, she admits that income has been increasing steadily. Afariben, who works for the co-operative, says: �I could arrange my daughter�s marriage because I am working here.� The other 200 skilled women working for the co-operative Society, run by the Muslim women of Juhapura, have a similar story to tell.

Though living below the poverty line, the women have continued the art of patchwork , a traditional craft .

Every year, the Mahila Co-operative participates in at least six exhibitions held in major cities in the country. One such exhibition is presently on at Delhi Haat �where we always get good response�,� Roshanben says.    


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