Bodies missing in mystery massacre claim
First step for Ayodhya consensus
PM health trip to heal Lucknow
Mamata heat back on Buddha
Cable TV hit for Hrithik fiasco
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi & Calcutta, Jan. 5: 
Bengal�s taut nerves were stretched to snapping-point today as unconfirmed reports of 15 people being torched in a Midnapore village spread like bush fire, igniting anxious enquiries, high emotions and a slanging match between the ruling Left and Mamata Banerjee�s Trinamul Congress.

The extraordinary chain of events began unfolding after Abdul Rehman Mondal, a Trinamul supporter, filed a first information report in the Garbeta police station on Friday.

The FIR said Mondal�s wife, eight minor children and eight others � all Trinamul supporters � were burnt alive in his two-storeyed house in Chhoto Angaria village by a group of armed CPM supporters.

However, Mondal�s wife Anisha Bibi and six children were found to be safe by a police team which rushed to the village, nearly 22 km from Garbeta town. Mondal�s house was gutted, but there was no trace of any loss of life, the police said.

Bibi later claimed that Selima, 4, and Mastura, 6, were burnt alive, but she �somehow� managed to save the rest of the children.

Before filing the FIR, Mondal had verbally complained to the police that five party supporters had been kidnapped by a group of CPM activists from his village on Thursday. An officer of the Garbeta police station said the five were later traced to the local Trinamul office.

�We found nothing that tells us about torching of human beings in that house. There was no charred body or limbs, no remains of personal effects,� said Ashok Saha, deputy superintendent of police. The police said they drew a blank even after combing the border village as well as a wide stretch of woods surrounding it.

The mystery deepened when inspector-general of police, J.R. Bhagat, and other officers said one of the persons stated in the FIR as missing had been found.

Bhagat said those named killed and killers in the FIR have criminal records and many were wanted for dacoities and murders. The police said they are investigating whether Mondal�s brother, accused of some crimes, was involved.

In his FIR, Mondal had put the time of the alleged massacre at 10 pm, but he did not lodge a complaint till 10 am on Friday, the police said. Mondal said he could not reach Garbeta earlier as he had to trek through a dense forest.

Minutes after the complaint was filed, a police contingent left for the spot. The search for bodies was conducted by superintendent of police Gaurav Dutta. The inspector-general of police also joined them.

Another factor which has foxed the police is the presence of so many people in Mondal�s house. His wife said a dozen Trinamul supporters who were living in a party-run relief camp � set up after a spurt in political clashes � had decided to re-enter the village and spend the night at the house.

Both the warring sides, the CPM and the Trinamul, had agreed earlier to keep the local police station informed if their activists decided to shift back to their villages. However, the police said, they were not informed last night.

The Trinamul leaders in Calcutta and Midnapore could not explain why the �missing� supporters chose to leave the camp run by their own party and return without telling the police.

But Mondal claimed they returned on an �assurance from the CPM�. �They asked us to surrender and live in peace. They told us that if we listened to them, we will not be attacked,� he said.

Mondal and his wife said they had dinner together around 6 pm and retired. At 7 pm, a group of armed men � all CPM supporters, they alleged � surrounded the house.

�They fired indiscriminately and set fire to the house. I began to suffocate and somehow jumped out through the window. My wife and children also jumped out but others were trapped inside and were burnt alive,�� Mondal said.


New Delhi, Jan. 5: 
For the first time since the demolition of the Babri mosque eight years ago, Hindus and Muslims have agreed to sit at the negotiating table to try and resolve the Ayodhya dispute.

The talks are expected to take place on January 13 in Lucknow. The principal representatives are the Faizabad MP and former Bajrang Dal chief, Vinay Katiyar, and Mohammad Hashim Ansari, the main litigant on behalf of the Muslim Waqf Board in the title deed cases over the disputed site in Ayodhya.

A senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader said lawyers from both sides are also expected to be at the meeting, which has the Centre�s go-ahead. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had expressed his keenness on an out-of-court settlement of the dispute on the floor of the House and in his recent Kumarakom musings. The Lucknow meeting seems to be the first step in this direction.

However, the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee, the main body representing Muslims in the mandir-masjid dispute, is not likely to participate in the talks. The committee is meeting in Lucknow on Sunday to discuss the Ayodhya developments in the context of Vajpayee�s statements as well as the VHP�s forthcoming dharam sansad which is expected to announce a schedule for the temple construction.

VHP sources said efforts may be made at the meeting to persuade Ansari to withdraw the legal cases and clear the way for acquisition of a portion of the disputed site for the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas or trust which looks after matters related to the proposed Ram temple.

�If Ansari withdraws the cases, the ill-will between the two communities will reduce vastly and at least the path to a mutual settlement will become visible,� said sources.

Asked if the VHP was optimistic of a concrete outcome, the sources said: �We are not too hopeful, but at least we can put the ball in the Muslims� court.�

Ansari and Katiyar were quoted by agencies as having said in Faizabad that if negotiations could be started on Kashmir, the two sides in the Ayodhya dispute could also hold talks.

Asked what he would do if the Committee refused to accept Katiyar�s proposal, Ansari replied: �I have fixed the date for the talks and, if required, I will talk alone because it is an issue concerning Ayodhya.�

The court case over the disputed land is being heard for the past 39 years and so far only 14 witnesses have been examined.

Of late, the BJP has been saying that since the legal tangle is so complex, the option of a negotiated settlement is far more �tenable and practicable�.


New Delhi, Jan. 5: 
The health ministry is paving the way for the long-awaited return of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to his constituency in Lucknow.

A massive health mela is being planned there on January 31, an opportunity the Prime Minister has grabbed with alacrity.

Vajpayee has long felt guilty of not paying due attention to the electorate that sent him to Parliament, though last time with a diminished margin. In the 1999 polls, he moved around the old town almost like a corporator, addressing street-corner meetings in the wake of fears of a sharply-decreased margin with the Opposition putting up a strong campaign behind Congress nominee Karan Singh.

Since his re-election as Prime Minister, Vajpayee has gone back to Lucknow just once. Now, health minister C.P. Thakur, quite close to the Prime Minister, is going out of his way to organise what will be the country�s biggest health mela. Truckloads of medicines will be sent to King George Medical College in Lucknow, where the camp is tentatively scheduled to be held. Arrangements are being made for the treatment of almost 2,00,000 people.

Leading specialists will go from the three Centrally-controlled hospitals in Delhi � the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, Safdarjang Hospital and Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. �We will try to collect more medicines this time. In Patna, where the last mela was held, the medicines we had carried for 70,000 people were distributed in two hours flat,� said a health official.

The health mela offers Vajpayee a non-political excuse for a political visit. He would have found it difficult to strike the right chord had he made his repeatedly-deferred trip for a political reason.

These melas have acquired a political hue since Thakur took over. The first was at Mathura, which has an obvious religious association. The second was at Kargil and the third in Patna, Thakur�s constituency.


Calcutta, Jan. 5: 
First the violence in Keshpur and then the bandh and the alleged Garbeta massacre. Over the past two days, Mamata Banerjee has snatched the initiative back from Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in the game of oneupmanship that started with his anointment as chief minister.

Matching Mamata step for step, even travelling in a van rickshaw, Bhattacharjee was setting the pace.

After the Keshpur violence, it�s the chief minister facing the law and order heat. The mysterious incident near Garbeta coinciding with today�s largely successful bandh appears to be fetching a National Democratic Alliance team to Bengal, according to Trinamul sources.

Mamata will take the team to Chhoto Angaria village, where the alleged massacre has taken place, tomorrow.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee spoke to her today, enquiring about the situation in the state. On Mamata�s request for NDA support, Vajpayee said he would talk to defence minister and alliance convener George Fernandes to find out if he would be able to make a trip to Calcutta at the shortest possible notice.

Fernandes, despite his preoccupation with the political manoeuvres that have split his own party, spoke to Mamata late this evening and reverted to home minister L.K. Advani to say he would like to go to Bengal as early as possible, even tomorrow.

Advani waited in his North Block office till late tonight expecting a report from Bengal chief secretary Manish Gupta on the bandh. It never came. Advani will decide tomorrow how the ministry will proceed. Trinamul MP Nitish Sengupta has sent a letter to the home minister, describing the violence in Bengal.

Government sources said Vajpayee lent a sympathetic ear to Mamata, but did not pledge anything, leaving the decision-making to the home minister, as the rule-book demands.

Although the bandh fits in with her strategy of putting law and order back on top of the political agenda, initially Mamata was reluctant to overturn her promise to shun the politics of strikes. She wanted a local-level bandh, but mayor Subrata Mukherjee and party MP Sudip Bandopadhyay, who accompanied Mamata to Keshpur, prevailed on her.

�Growing pressure from party workers who have mounted a statewide protest against the CPM made her change her mind,� Mukherjee said.

Trinamul has decided to intensify its agitation highlighting the �alarming law and order situation�. It iterated its demand for President�s rule in view of �the massacre (at Garbeta) of our workers by CPM hoodlums�.

�Our main task now is to resist the CPM�s terror and restore peace before the Assembly polls. We cannot rest till the people get back their democratic rights,� Trinamul leader Pankaj Banerjee said.


Kathmandu, Jan. 5: 
Nepal has cancelled the licence of one of its largest cable TV networks for allegedly highlighting the unsubstantiated remarks attributed to actor Hrithik Roshan which sparked a mob rampage.

The G.P. Koirala government said it had enough proof that some top members of Space-time Network had a �hand� in highlighting the alleged anti-Nepal comments. Officially, the government said it was revoking the network�s licence for its failure to comply with terms and conditions.

A statement released by the information ministry said Space-time had been granted licence to operate cable network on condition that it would install its own satellite by March 2000. Failure to comply with this condition and several others had resulted in the licence being cancelled, it added. The network has been servicing over 50,000 viewers since 1997. The decision comes in the wake of an earlier announcement which banned screening of films starring Hrithik.

�It�s beyond anybody�s analysis as to why the licence was cancelled. But as it was done through a ministerial-level decision (equal to a veto), nobody can say anything,� a senior communications ministry official said. �There were personal disagreements between minister of communications Jayaprakash Gupta and Jamim Shah, managing-director of Space-time Network, long before the Hrithik episode,� the official added.

�The communications minister used the episode as an opportunity to take revenge, as violence was incited claiming Hrithik said something derogatory against Nepal and Nepalis.�

Earlier this week, the chief district officer of Kathmandu had summoned Shah, a Nepali of Kashmiri origin who runs Space-time. Shah, whose family has been living in Nepal for generations, was interrogated in connection with the riots, Space-time Dainik, a daily brought out by the network, said. He has been summoned again on January 8. The daily, in its front-page editorial on Tuesday, said the government�s decision raised questions about �the right of the Nepalese to live as Nepalese in Nepal�. It also accused the communications minister of perpetrating last week�s violence.

�The government has questioned me on the entire episode and has cancelled the cable network licence too. The paper and the network have become a victim of some conspiracy only because I happen to be a Nepalese of Kashmiri origin. One should not forget that my family shifted to Nepal over 250 years ago,� Shah said.




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