Mass reconversion comes wrapped in saree
Blueprint to dilute role of President
Reminder on Narmada
RSS pins hope on people�s wisdom
Chambers fight over reform pace
Phone tariff relief
Rajmata with a commoner�s spirit
Poll fight between BJP allies
Dalai Lama visits Kumbh
R-Day scare brings out commandos

Raigarh, Jan. 25: 
A synthetic saree their rite of passage, thousands of Christian tribals reverted to their �natural� state of Hinduism in Chhattisgarh yesterday.

The stadium in Sitapur in Sarguja district, 145 km from here, was the venue for the mass �reconversion�. As the grounds burnt with 25 havans (fire-pits) dug for the afternoon ceremony and the flames fed on gallons of ghee, 2,200 tribals from 341 families were �born again� as Hindus at the behest of Dilip Singh Judeo, BJP Rajya Sabha MP.

A new nylon saree or a cotton dhoti was handed over as the symbolic way of casting away Christianity.

Most of the tribals, who had not seen a new piece of cloth for years, happily received the mantra from Ram Chandra Mishra, the royal priest of the Judeo palace in Jashpur. The BJP MP behind the yajna is a member of the erstwhile royal family of Jashpur.

The �reconversion�, less than 24 hours after Congress president Sonia Gandhi�s first visit to Chhattisgarh, was said to carry a direct political message aimed at chief minister Ajit Jogi, a tribal Christian.

Judeo claimed his party had nothing to do with the reconversion. �The BJP doesn�t figure at all. This is my mission alone.� The �mission� was codenamed �Ghar Wapsi�.

The poverty-stricken, starving tribals who gathered since early morning to �return to their origins� belonged to the Uraon Scheduled Tribe.

A �purification� followed the �conversion� rites with the sprinkling of Ganga water. �After the �gangajal�, we administer two or three drops of the panchgap,� said Mishra. �Panchgap is a mixture of cowdung, urine, milk, ghee and curd. At the end, we ask the convert to throw in a betel leaf, a betel nut, a piece of coconut and sprinkle some water over the fire,� the head priest added.

A talisman with the picture of a Hindu god was tied around a convert�s neck, after which the tribals were served a hearty meal of rice, dal, vegetables and pickle. The BJP MP sat on a low stool in the open field and washed the feet of every �new� Hindu. �When the Church converts, they have plenty to give the tribals, be it bread, butter, medicines, treatment, clothes, rice, pulses, oil. We cannot afford so much,� Judeo said.

�So far we have converted no less than 1,65,000 Christian tribals from Orissa, Bihar and Maharashtra,� Judeo claimed.

The raj purohit gifted each tribal a copy of Ramcharitmanas.

Most of the tribals said they were �disillusioned� with Christianity. �Mine was a Hindu family. But some 20 years ago the preachers came. They spoke of Christ and equality amongst all. They said they would educate us, feed us, clothe us and that no was would be any higher than the other,� said 50-year-old Manjuram of village Jamdohri. �Food flowed into our home like we had never ever dreamt before. In return we had only to visit Church every Sunday. My whole family converted. But immediately after the conversion, the supplies stopped. The priests diverted their attention from us to our neighbours,� Manjuram added.

�You regret that for a few freebies you gave up the religion, your God, the belief that our forefathers nurtured for centuries. Birsa Munda was one amongst us. He fought the British for the country. And I gave up my religion for a few kilos of rice. It�s like you have betrayed your ancestors, your own blood,� said Gandhi Bara of village Katkalu.

�So when the offer came from Kumarji (Judeo), I readily agreed,� he added. �I have returned to my roots now. I will paint my house white today. Kumarji has said he will supply the whitewash,� he added, explaining that in this belt a Christian house is painted with black charcoal and a Hindu house is painted white or blue.


New Delhi, Jan. 25: 
The indirect election blueprint that drew fire from President K.R. Narayanan today packs several factors which could rob many of Rashtrapati Bhavan�s powers.

If the statute panel�s suggestion for decentralisation of power down to the grassroots were accepted, it would allow Parliament to elect its own leader without the President having to invite the leader of the majority party or the largest-single party or the leader of the largest single combination to form government.

Parliament would convene on its own after general elections and decide the Prime Minister-elect to carry out the most important executive job of the country. The President would no longer be able to decide, to his �subjective satisfaction�, who enjoys majority in the House.

Second, a vote of no-confidence would mandatorily be followed by a vote of constructive confidence. This means the House that votes out a Prime Minister would have to immediately decide the successor. This would curtail the present powers of the President.

A.B. Vajpayee�s recent suggestion that Houses should have a fixed five-year term would also mean that the President has no power in case a Prime Minister is voted out. According to the suggestion, if a Prime Minister loses the no-confidence motion and no other leader is able to win the trust of the House, the leader who enjoyed majority would continue in office as the term is fixed.

Indirect elections are dealt with on page 6 of the consultation paper submitted by the Constitution Review Commission. It says as of now the President, Vice-President, members of the Rajya Sabha and legislative councils at the state level are elected indirectly. MLAs and MPs elect the President, and MLAs elect Rajya Sabha members and MLCs.

Under the heading �Gandhian model�, the paper suggests that under the new system local representatives should be directly elected by the people at the village, panchayat and panchayat union level. These elected members should, in turn, elect the representatives for Parliament, who, in turn, should elect the prime minister. Such a system would constitute real �indirect elections�, the paper says.

But Narayanan says this would amount to doing �in the name of Mahatma Gandhi here in India� what was done in Pakistan. Sources said Narayanan was scathingly critical as the decentralisation idea was the brainwave of the RSS thinktank.

The paper says: �To strike at the root of most of the problems, one option suggested for consideration is of the adoption of the Gandhian model of de-centralisation of power down to the grassroots people�s level, and a bottom-up instead of the present top-down approach with multi-member or double-member constituency-based direct elections being held to the primary tier of governance and all the upper tiers being filled up by representatives elected by electoral colleges of representatives manning the lower tiers�.


New Delhi, Jan. 25: 
Narmada Bachao Andolan leaders Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy have reason to rejoice.

President K.R. Narayanan today indirectly endorsed their cause in his Republic Day-eve speech.

Narayanan emphasised that the livelihood and the unique culture of tribals should be protected when development projects were undertaken in areas inhabited by them.

The President said the development path that the country has adopted was hurting the tribals and threatening their existence.

�Let it not be said by future generations that the Indian republic has been built on the destruction of the green earth and the innocent tribals who have been living there for centuries,� he said.

Narayanan, who was recently approached for intervention by the Andolan leaders following the Supreme Court�s go-ahead on the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project, said it was well known how large river-valley projects were uprooting tribals and causing them misery. He, however, did not name the Narmada project.

�When they have to be displaced, the resettlement schemes should be discussed with them and implemented with sincerity. This could avoid many critical situations and we will be able to carry the tribals with us,� he said.

�The awakening of the women and the youth of India is something that gives us hope. But the march of development is having different kinds of impact on different sections of our people. It tends to widen the existing inequalities and create new inequalities. The already marginalised sections, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are the greatest sufferers in this process,� he added.

According to Narayanan, one pre-condition for the success of development projects in extensive tribal areas was that they should be taken into confidence on the benefits and their livelihood and unique cultures protected.


New Delhi, Jan. 25: 
The RSS responded cautiously to President K.R. Narayanan�s Republic Day-eve address that criticised the advocacy of an indirect system of election and a fixed term of Parliament by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The BJP did not react, saying the address would have to be read �closely�. Sangh spokesman M.G. Vaidya said on phone from Nagpur: �The RSS has not decided anything, we have not applied our minds. It is for the political apparatus to find solutions to such problems. We trust in the wisdom of the common man.�

Despite Vaidya�s reticence, political stability and electoral reforms have been the favourite preoccupations of RSS sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan. At Sangh gatherings he has spoken in support of indirect elections adopted by the Rajya Sabha and state legislative councils, BJP sources said.

The sources said Sudarshan has talked of the need to constitute electoral colleges of professionals to elect MPs instead of the system of universal franchise. Sudarshan�s concept would by implication disenfranchise unlettered or under-educated persons.

After taking over as RSS chief, Sudarshan came out in support of the Centre�s decision to constitute a review panel to examine the Constitution. But within the Sangh, some leaders counselled discretion as they felt the suggestion of reviewing the Constitution would be construed as a backdoor means of ending reservation quotas for backward castes and Dalits.

Vaidya seems to have been guarded on Narayanan�s speech for the same reason.


New Delhi, Jan. 25: 
Indian industry is split wide open. Two months after the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) lambasted the government for the tardy pace of reform, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) today came out with a report that claims to rubbish the CII-WEF view.

The CII and the Ficci together represent almost the entire organised sector in the country and a large share of foreign investors.

Releasing the report, Ficci president Chirayu R. Amin made it a point to emphasise that the study was carried out in the wake of almost-vitriolic criticism of Indian economic policies by, chiefly, Claude Smadja, who heads the World Economic Forum, and Rahul Bajaj, who was a co-chairman of the CII-WEF summit here last November. (Amin did not name the CII and the WEF but there was little room for doubt after Ficci officials told the press who the organisation was reacting to).

Ficci, too, held its annual session in December. At the session, Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha expressed his displeasure over the way the government was painted black by the WEF. Sinha remarked he was shocked to see how some Indian companies were being used by foreign investors to voice their sentiments. The Ficci study has been provoked, to a large measure, by the finance minister�s outburst.

Amit Mitra, the Ficci secretary general, said the study, titled �The Experience of Foreign Direct Investors in India�, was based on a survey of 400 companies. The respondents were asked questions such as:

How would rate the attractiveness of India as an FDI destination vis-a-vis competing countries such as China, Latin America, CIS on the following parameters � hurdles in bringing in funds, legal framework, rate of growth in India, ease of market penetration, profitability of operations, flexibility in repatriation of profits and dividends;

How would you rate the ease of operations in India? (Respondents were asked a total of nine questions).

�The detailed responses that we received were carefully analysed and we stumbled upon a few very revealing facts,� said Amin. �While admittedly there are difficulties, yet investors do confirm their faith.�

Ficci found that nearly 54 per cent of foreign direct investors were to expand their operations in India and have chalked out augmentation plans. A total 87 per cent said growth conditions in the country are attractive. On profitability, 74 per cent felt their profit levels to be average to good. Ficci says this is a striking feature given that many of the respondents are relatively new entrants, having set up their operations after 1995.

An inter-country comparison showed that 66 per cent find India to be reasonably attractive as an FDI destination vis-a-vis other countries.

A total 75 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with the legal framework in the country. �This is a direct reconfirmation that the policy changes being introduced by the government are having the desired impact,� Ficci assesses.

Of the respondents, 71 per cent found market penetration to be reasonably easy and an overwhelming 97 per cent were pleased with the manpower quality and availability.

The major weakness pointed out by the companies was in infrastructure � 63 per cent found power availability and quality to be bad and 60 per cent felt transport facilities were below average. Telecom facilities were found to be of reasonable standard by 58 per cent of the respondents. The other weaknesses pointed out were: labour laws, weak image of the �Made in India� label, the taxation system and ground-level obstacles.


Calcutta, Jan. 25: 
Telephone users in West Bengal received a Republic Day gift with tariff being slashed by eight times for calls made between 50 and 100 km and two times for calls between 100 and 200 km.

Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) consumers will have to pay Rs 1.80 every two minutes for calls within a radius of 100 km against the existing rate of Rs. 14.60.

BSNL has, however, withdrawn the off-peak rates for the calls, which will now be charged on a flat-rate basis.

To avail this concessional tariff, subscribers will have to dial 95 in place of 0.

With the introduction of this tariff, calls from Calcutta to Arambag, Bongaon, Burdwan, Ghatal, Gosaba, Haldia, Kakdwip, Kalna, Krishnagar, Sheherabazar and Tamluk will be just a local call with a two-minute pulse.


New Delhi, Jan. 25: 
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a political fledgling and had just started making his mark as an orator when one of his first trademark witticisms was directed at Vijaya Raje Scindia.

A BJP old-timer recalled that in a public function in Gwalior � the Rajmata�s home ground and Vajpayee�s former political turf � she was seated along with her husband, Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia, face concealed behind a ghunghat (heavy veil).

Vajpayee, the old-timer reminisced, said: �My mother is sitting right here in front of me, but look at the fate of her poor son. He cannot even see her face.� The Rajmata promptly lifted her ghunghat. That was how the BJP remembered its veteran leader: a mother figure sans the intimidating patina of authority.

For the party which prided itself on her royal lineage, the Rajmata was first a �mata� and then a representative of the �Rajwada khandan�. �She combined the best of both worlds. She had the grace and manners of royalty and the spirit of a commoner. She had the ability to strike a rapport with one and all,� said a senior leader.

BJP sources said that when word first got around that Scindia wished to join the Jana Sangh, leaders like Vajpayee were sceptical whether she would fit in with the hoi polloi. But she proved all their apprehensions wrong.

The party has a whole repertoire of anecdotes to illustrate how the Rajmata endeared herself with her �common� touch. In BJP national executives and other gatherings, she would personally serve food to those seated on the floor in the days before the party discovered the buffet style of dining.

BJP sources said that once during a summer election, made worse by a serious leg wound, she campaigned tirelessly and was, at places, lifted on and off the podium by party workers.

Yet, after the Rajmata breathed her last this morning at the Apollo Hospitals here, there were surprisingly not too many BJP workers at her residence where her body was brought before being flown to Gwalior for the cremation.

Party sources said this was �expected�. For the last three years, she had virtually retired from politics after a series of health problems. Then, unlike the death of P.R. Kumaramangalam or BJP vice-president K.L. Sharma, the Rajmata�s demise was not entirely unexpected.

Old-timers pointed out with more than a tinge of sorrow how Scindia, despite her contribution to the party�s growth, could not savour the fruits of power. The only consolation, they said, was that her daughter Vasundhara was amply compensated with ministerial portfolios of her choice.

The Rajmata�s contribution to Hindutva was more substantial than the profile-boosting aura of royalty she brought to the Jana Sangh when it was dubbed a party of halwais and mithaiwallas.

She ran into controversy when she was both BJP and VHP vice-president at the height of the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign.

When the BJP could no longer defend how one of its most senior leaders could be a VHP office-bearer when it maintained that the two were separate outfits, Scindia quit the parishad. But she was a prominent figure in all the kar sevas that were held in Ayodhya and, on one occasion, even carried a basket-load of cement to the disputed site.

BJP sources also said that it was thanks to the Rajmata that Jaswant Singh joined the party.


New Delhi, Jan. 25: 
The byelection to Asthawan Assembly constituency in Bihar has put the BJP in a spot. With two allies in the fray, the party does not know whom to support.

Efforts are on to field a common NDA nominee for the February 19 byelection. But George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar are expected to field a candidate and so is Ram Vilas Paswan. Both the NDA partners need the BJP�s support to win. The party is likely to officially side with the Fernandes-Kumar duo but covertly help Paswan.

BJP leaders Uma Bharti and Sushil Kumar Modi had attended a public meeting in Patna convened by Paswan to mark the death anniversary of former chief minister Karpoori Thakur.

But, given the caste arithmetic, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav�s nominee is likely to harm the prospects of Paswan�s candidate and indirectly help the Samata Party. The bypoll could be a pointer towards a future political realignment.

Samata is fielding a strong Kurmi candidate, Satish Kumar, who had won in 1995 as an Independent. Paswan�s Lok Jan Shakti is fielding Arun Kumar Singh, also a Kurmi. Both candidates belong to the Ghamela sub-caste.

Asthawan, part of the Nalanda Lok Sabha constituency represented by Fernandes, is known as �Kurmiland�. It also has a sizeable population of upper caste Bhumihars and Scheduled Castes and a sprinkling of Extremely Backward Caste. Yadavs are negligible.

Victory is crucial for both Kumar, a Kurmi leader, and Fernandes, the local MP. For Paswan, the stakes are not as high because he is new to the constituency.

With both parties picking Kurmi candidates, the Bhumihar votes will be crucial.The BJP has considerable influence among the Bhumihars and can make or mar the prospects of either candidate.

But in a bid to divide the Bhumihar votes, Laloo Yadav is planning to field the son of sitting MLA R. P. Sharma, whose death caused the byelection.

If the RJD candidate can split the Bhumihar votes, Nitish Kumar will benefit. Though the Lok Jan Shakti is also fielding a Kurmi candidate, the Samata nominee is expected to get maximum Kurmi votes as he is an acknowledged leader of the community.

Paswan is, however, leaving nothing to chance. He expects to get the support of the entire Paswan community and, with BJP�s help, most of the Bhumihar votes.


Lucknow, Jan. 25: 
The Kumbh Mela today drew a rather special �pilgrim�, his Holiness the Dalai Lama. But the Tibetan leader�s �very personal visit� was not to be with VHP leader Ashok Singhal seizing the opportunity to call for �Hindu-Buddhist unity to fight the onslaught of Islamic fundamentalism�.

The Dalai Lama, unwilling to be dragged into any controversy, said he had come to visit the Kumbh mela �as any other pilgrim�. He refused to answer questions on either the current status of Trinley Dorje and his �virtual house arrest� in a Dharamshala monastery or the latest developments in Sino-Tibetan relations. However, his closed door meeting with Singhal raised many eyebrows.

�I am a pilgrim like the millions of others here, please treat me as one,� the Dalai Lama pleaded. He maintained that he had not been invited by either the VHP or the sadhu samaj. �I have come on my own.� When asked if he, too, would take a holy dip at the Sangam, the Dalai Lama smiled and said: �No.�

The Tibetan spiritual leader, who had worked overtime to make his visit seem as innocuous and low profile as possible, said: �I am not answering anything even remotely connected to politics.�

Maintaining that he discussed �only personal things� with Singhal, the Dalai Lama said the construction of the temple at Ayodhya was not one of them.

Though Singhal vouched for the Dalai Lama, saying that the meeting was a �personal� t�te-�-t�te and no motive should be attached to it, he lost neither time nor opportunity in calling for a Hindu-Buddhist handshake to ward off what he called �Islamic fundamentalism�.

After lying low for some time in the wake of some sadhus and akhadas refusing to toe the VHP�s line on the mandir, the VHP snatched the initiative once again by calling for a concerted fight against Islamic fundamentalism.

�It is the right time for Buddhists and Hindus to come together in their efforts to root out Islamic fundamentalism from India and the world,� Singhal said. He added that over the years many Buddhist monasteries had been destroyed by Muslims.

However, Singhal�s sharp statements have left many prominent sadhus confused. Some of those who have publicly called for a non-confrontationist stance on the temple and other controversial issues said Singhal�s statements had taken them by surprise. �Only recently we were asked to go slow,� said a prominent akhada head.

The Dalai Lama has decided to stay back at the Kumbh for another day. He will be addressing the press tomorrow and is also slated to meet the heads of some akhadas.


Siliguri, Jan. 25: 
The administration threw a blanket of security around vital installations in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts today amid fears that Kamtapur separatists could strike during Republic Day celebrations.

Clad in black dungarees and bullet-proof vests and armed with AK assault rifles, commandos from the police forces of these districts are guarding the installations round the clock against possible strikes by the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO).

The government is taking no chances following intelligence reports that KLO separatists, aided by the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), could target vulnerable installations in the region. The outfit has urged the people to boycott the celebrations.

At least 14 militant outfits from the Northeast along with the KLO have called a bandh in their respective areas of �influence�.

This is the first time that the authorities have deployed the specially-raised �commando force� at all railway and government installations in the region.

Police have also been conducting serial raids for the past few days at known KLO hideouts.

�We are conducting regular raids the past few days at known and suspected KLO hideouts in Mayanaguri, Belakoba, Dupguri, Natha, Saudangi and Kumargramduar areas in Jalpaiguri. Besides, round-the-clock surveillance and special patrolling is underway at all vital installations and railway tracks and river bridges in the district, especially those situated on areas bordering Assam in the east and Bhutan in the north,� Jalpaiguri superintendent of police Ranvir Kumar said.

The North-East Frontier Railway has made its own security arrangements for track patrolling. Authorities have decided to suspend running of trains between Guwahati and New Jalpaiguri tonight following insurgent threats. Several Guwahati-bound trains, including the down New Delhi-Guwahati Rajdhani Express, and the Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchenjunga Express, have been �controlled� at New Jalpaiguri this evening. The trains will be halted at the station for the night and will proceed for Guwahati tomorrow morning, railway sources said.

�Besides, all vehicles are being checked on highways passing through the Dooars region in the district,� Kumar added.

Similar security arrangements have been by the Cooch Behar police. Police superintendent Kailash Chandra Meena said: �In addition to the district police force, security personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force and the Eastern Frontier Rifles have been deployed at vulnerable spots and installations. Our special commando force personnel are manning the six major check posts on the borders with Assam and Bangladesh. Commandos are also keeping watch on railway tracks and river bridges passing through Cooch Behar,� Meena said.

Local resistance groups have been told to watch out for �suspicious� people or vehicles�.

The district police chief said that a suspected KLO activist, Hiten Burman (25), was arrested from Najiran Deutikhata village near Borobisha on the Cooch Behar-Assam border last night.


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