Palace-probe panel gets four more days
Sweating idol omen for Nepal tragedy
But for Bleach, Straw is better than Cook
Hurriyat defers rallies
NGOs slam report on tribal sex workers
AIDS fund on India agenda
Khatami win evokes Atal sick-bed salute
Militant turns messiah
Joint sector boost to literacy
HC blow to Hampi heritage

Kathmandu, June 10: 
King Gyanendra today extended the tenure of the inquiry commission probing the palace killings by four days even as an undercurrent of discontent swelled over the possible outcome of the investigation.

The state-run Radio Nepal, quoting a palace press release, said Gyanendra had agreed to give four more days to the two-member commission of chief justice Keshab Prasad Upadhaya and speaker Taranath Ranabhatt to complete investigations into the killing of King Birendra and other members of the royal family.

Few people expect the panel to say anything but the much circulated theory that the king, queen, and seven of their relatives were gunned down by an inebriated Dipendra.

Hundreds of college students today marched through the main thoroughfares of Kathmandu in a �silent� procession, demanding a �proper� investigation into the royal massacre. Sanjay Rai, a second-year arts student, said: �With the eyewitness testimony that pre-empted the commission�s report � identifying former Crown Prince Dipendra as the killer and giving a detailed account of how he gunned down his father, the king, and other royals before shooting himself � it is very difficult to believe that the probe will be proper. There is intense pressure from a section within the palace to give a clean chit to Paras, Dipendra�s cousin.�

�There is bound to be further unrest if the palace tries to force a concocted version of the happenings of that fateful night, which will remain a nightmare for all of us. The GeneratioNext in Nepal has grown up in more democratic environs and we will never take such things lying down,� he added, hinting at further student unrest.

Notwithstanding the rallies and the vernacular media hinting at conspiracy theories and discounting the witness testimonies, the commission has been working for 18 hours daily since delayed investigations began on Friday. Gyanendra had set up the commission last Monday and ordered it to complete its inquiry in three days.

The commission inspected the scene of the massacre in the palace and interviewed witnesses on the first day, marking for the first time in recorded Nepalese history the entry of people�s representatives into the palace to conduct an investigation.

On Saturday, the panel visited the military hospital where four members and relatives of the royal family � including Queen Komal � are recuperating.

As the Hindu kingdom waits for an answer, the official state mourning for the slain royal family ended today. But streams of people continued to queue outside Narayan Hity palace to pay tributes. �I still don�t believe what I have heard, so I will wait for the official result,� said one woman, clutching a bunch of yellow flowers.

Most of the visitors doubt whether he can command the respect King Birendra used to. �How new King Gyanendra handles the crisis and the findings of the commission will be closely watched by the people. For us, the late king Birendra was an anchor of stability in the kingdom of 22 million people, which is racked by political feuds and a bloody Maoist rebellion,� said a man waiting for his turn to pay tribute outside the palace.


Kathmandu, June 10: 
Nostradamus might have neglected Nepal, but the 550-year-old Bhimeshwore temple has never failed the Hindu kingdom.

The Nepalese believe that the stone idol of Mahadev in the temple at Dolkha, 125 km east of Kathmandu, �perspires� to forecast events that will have a widespread impact on the Himalayan kingdom.

The massacre of the star-crossed royal family that has stunned Nepal was no exception. Reports from Dolkha said residents claimed to have seen the miraculous deity perspire about four months ago. They informed the palace, as is the tradition. But, this time, destiny was not to be denied.

�I am a strong believer in science, but I, too, am surprised to see how a stone idol can really perspire,� said Shambhu Shah, the chief district livestock officer of Charikote, where the temple is located.

Like Shah, Shanta Krishna Shrestha, a social worker who had come to the capital to pay homage to the late King Birendra, recounted how the idol perspired. �The ominous signs were witnessed by the villagers in March this year. The idol started perspiring at 6.40 pm; the miracle continued till 8.30. Elders and the local priest were consulted. The villagers wiped off the perspiration with a piece of cotton and it was sent along with a message to the Royal palace.�

Traditionally, the palace sends a male goat to be sacrificed annually at the temple to ward off such ill omens.

�Such has been the deity�s impact that late King Birendra personally made a pilgrimage to the temple and allocated funds for renovation of the temple and its storehouse in 1984 after the priest reported to the palace that the deity perspired a month earlier,� Shrestha said.

Legend has it that the 550-year-old temple owes its origins to a miracle. Some potters had made an oven with three stones and were trying to light a fire to cook a meal after a tiring day. But even after hours, they could not ignite the firewood. Frustrated, a potter flung one of the stones, which split and started bleeding. Since then people have been worshipping the stones as Bhimeshwore Mahadev.

�Village elders still talk about the miraculous idol perspiring a few months before the kingdom�s most devastating quake in 1934, which destroyed about a third of Kathmandu,� the social worker said.

Residents point out several other political upheavals and natural calamities that Mahadev has predicted. �Many residents recall how four freedom fighters were killed by the autocratic Rana regime a few months after the stone idol sweated in 1941,� said Shah. �Almost 10 years later, locals say the deity perspired again before the same Rana regime came to an end in 1950,� the district livestock officer added.

Old-timers in the village remember that the idol perspired in 1959, when B.P. Koirala became the kingdom�s first democratically-elected Prime Minister. The gods again indicated trouble in 1961 � the Koirala government fell after only 18 months in power.

There have been reports of the deity perspiring in 1971 and 1979, crucial periods in the kingdom�s history. King Mahendra passed away at the beginning of the Seventies and Birendra ordered a referendum following the violent students� movement in 1979.


New Delhi, June 10: 
Relations between India and Britain, which are almost back on track, are likely to be strengthened by Jack Straw�s appointment as foreign secretary in Tony Blair�s new Cabinet. But the Peter Bleach issue continues to be an irritant in Britain�s ties with Delhi.

Straw, who held the home secretary�s portfolio in Blair�s previous government, had personally raised the issue of Bleach � the British national accused in the Purulia armsdrop case and languishing at Alipore Central Jail in Calcutta � with his Indian counterpart L.K. Advani.

Subsequently, even other British ministers who visited Delhi asked why Bleach is being held while the five Russians, accused with him in the case and handed the same conviction, have been released.

Despite several reminders, India has not come out with a plausible explanation and this has irked the British government. If the two sides are keen on normalising ties, the Bleach issue has to be resolved amicably.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee Blair on his re-election and expressed hope that ties between the two countries would be further consolidated under his leadership.

In a letter written yesterday, Vajpayee extended an invitation to Blair to visit India, and wrote: �Your resounding victory is a tribute to your leadership, as well as an endorsement of the manner in which you have guided your country�s destiny over the last four years.�

Saying relations between India and Britain have gone from strength to strength during the past four years, Vajpayee wrote: �I extend my best wishes for your success in realising the vision for Britain which you have been articulating.�

�Our two democracies share much in common and there is much that we can achieve by working together,� he added.

South Block mandarins are happy at Straw replacing Robin Cook as the foreign secretary. Though he tried to moderate his views to a large extent in later years, Cook was perceived as an activist who wanted Britain to play a mediatory role between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute.

Straw, however, sees it as a bilateral issue which can be resolved by the two South Asian neighbours.

The fact that he took an active role in Britain�s new Anti-Terrorism Act, which helped curb militant Kashmiri organisations in London engaged in anti-India activities, had gone down well with Indian leaders.

Straw is known to be a friend of India. He has visited the country a number of times and has Indian friends both here and in London.

On the face of it, the Bleach issue looks insignificant. Many Indian diplomats believe the Blair government will not strain its relations with India because of an arms-dealer like Bleach.

But what has irked London is the manner in which the Indian leaders and senior government officials have responded to queries on the Bleach issue.

Though more than nine months have passed since the issue was first raised by the British home secretary, the Indian government has not come up with a reply to satisfy the British.


Srinagar, June 10: 
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the Kashmiri separatist political conglomerate, said today it had deferred �holding of protests and rallies� until the India-Pakistan summit.

�We have briefly suspended the protests and agitation against state terrorism in view of the forthcoming summit-level meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Pakistan chief executive, Pervez Musharraf,� said Moulvi Abbas Ansari, senior executive member of the Hurriyat.

�We don�t want to disturb or derail the summit-level meeting between the two. We don�t want to cause any impediments to the July summit,� Ansari added.

The chief Hurriyat spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Rashid, clarified, �We have only deferred for the time being the announcement of dates for protests against the terror unleashed by the ruling National Conference on hapless Kashmiris.�

Sheikh strongly condemned the attack on devotees at Chrar-e-Sharif and said: �We will hold protests at a convenient time.�

The death toll in Friday�s Chrar-e-Sharif incident went up to six today with two women succumbing to injuries. The condition of three, undergoing treatment, continues to be critical.

A grenade was hurled on a group of women at Chrar-e-Sharif, one of the most revered shrines in Kashmir.

Police sources said the Chrar-e-Sharif station house officer, Imtiaz Ahmad, has been shifted to Budgam. Residents there have been demanding action against Ahmad, who, they allege, was responsible for the explosion.

Led by a senior Hurriyat leader, Chrar-e-Sharif residents went on a hunger strike this morning in front of the shrine of Sheikh Noor Din, which is under construction.

The protesters were shouting slogans against chief minister Farooq Abdullah and the police, demanding strict action against officials responsible for the blast.


Bhopal, June 10: 
The Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission might face the wrath of several NGOs for having �violated the fundamental human rights� of three backward tribes.

NGOs in Mandsaur, Neemuch, Ratlam, Bhind, Morena, Gwalior and other northern districts of the state are planning to launch an agitation with the affected tribes from next week against a report published by the state human rights commission, Caste-Based Prostitution in Madhya Pradesh.

The report financed by Unicef was released on International Women�s Day, 2000. The study identified the womenfolk of three tribes � the Bachharas, Bedias and Sansias � as traditional sex workers of a �socially sanctioned system wherein a minor girl born in a particular caste is forced by her own parents and relatives into prostitution and enjoys to live with it throughout her life�. The cover page of the report has the picture of a tribal prostitute.

A Kerala-based NGO, Joint Action Council, Kannur, first came across this report in Delhi. Shocked that such a report circulated by a state human rights commission was labelling women of entire castes as �prostitutes� and their men as �pimps� and describing in derogatory terms entire communities as �enjoying� and �thriving� on prostitution, the NGO immediately got in touch with its counterparts in Madhya Pradesh.

The tribes had also been named �criminal tribes� by the British. �How is Independent India different from British India?� Mulloli asked. �All three are backward tribes and instead of giving them a helping hand we have a respected state organisation pin-pointing them as prostitutes.�

The study describes Bachharas as a �social system supported by a social matrix of complex social forces where parents and brothers initiate their daughters and sisters into the flesh trade, procure customers for them and thrive on their earnings�.

On Sansias, the study observes: �Twenty-nine Sansia girls engaged in prostitution were recovered from Mumbai, Calcutta, Agra and Guna and rehabilitated locally. Seven such girls were married in a government-sponsored ceremony on August 11, 1985. It is said that even this failed to stop prostitution and 21 recovered girls returned to the flesh trade in Mumbai.�

Throughout the 70-page report, the tribal women have been looked down upon as though they were social outcasts. There are sections which read:

�What should a liberated prostitute do? The state seems to think that marriage is the solution to all their problems. But who will marry a prostitute?�

�A prostitute is a prostitute, whether with a birth mark or otherwise.�

Even children were not spared by the report which said: �A child prostitute would need behavioural correction before rehabilitation and unless it is done, future rehabilitation planning may not succeed.�

�The language is offensive,� the NGO heads alleged. Brinda Karat, general secretary, All India Democratic Women�s Association, wrote to Unicef. On May 2, the Unicef replied, washing its hands of the report.


New Delhi, June 10: 
With nearly 200,000 people getting infected by the HIV virus in India every year, the country will have many issues to raise at an historic session of the United Nations later this month.

This figure is all the more alarming as over 1 per cent of the population in six states already have HIV/AIDS.

�The disease has reached pandemic proportions and spread to almost all over the world in the 20 years since it was discovered. India is no exception,� C.P. Thakur, Union health minister, told The Telegraph.

�The first detection of an HIV-infected person was in 1986. Today, India has about 3.86 million people who have been infected by the virus,� the minister said, quoting a survey carried out last year.

�Critics may say that we have fallen for a trap laid by western lobbies who want to increase the sale of AIDS drugs in this country. But all this is nonsense. I have seen patients dying from this as yet incurable disease in Bihar and other states and I am convinced we have a serious problem,� he said.

�As the outward manifestations of the infection remain dormant for the first four to six years, the magnitude of the problem is yet to unfold. Most HIV positive persons do not know that they are infected, though they have the potential to spread the virus to others.

�The most redeeming feature in such a scenario is that we know how the virus spreads and can take precautions. Measures taken already have checked the rate of spread but a lot more has to be done by way of prevention,� the minister said.

�We do not want India and other countries in the region to repeat what has happened to most countries in Africa, where average life expectancy has come down by 20 years, where 45 per cent of the population is infected, and where (in Zambia) schools do not have teachers because they are dying of AIDS faster than they can be recruited,� Thakur said.

The UN, for the first time in its 53-year history, has summoned a special session of its General Assembly to discuss a particular disease. From June 25-27, representatives of all the member nations are expected to participate at the highest political level. The discussions will result in the adoption of a declaration of commitment that will be valid for the next 20 years, and will cover all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including prevention, treatment and funding for both.

India has a major role at the session, not only for being the country with the second largest HIV population (after South Africa), but also for holding the chair of the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) of UNAIDS, the apex body of six UN organisations that have come together since 1985 to fight the disease. Prime among the issues will be advocating more aid for south-east Asia and India, where a large programme already exists and where chances of successful intervention are greater.

�For a big country like ours, it will be impossible for the government and NGO sectors to provide anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for AIDS treatment to all the patients,� Thakur said.

�India has been advocating a global fund to help the developing countries in this aspect. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has already announced the setting up of a global health fund of $7-10 billion annually. He has included TB and malaria in it as well. But as PCB chair, we shall seek a separate window for HIV/AIDS in this fund,� the minister said.

Though Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will not be attending the session because of his knee surgery and the upcoming visit of Pervez Musharraf, he will be taking keen interest in the developments.

The Indian delegation will be led by Thakur and will comprise the health secretary, the project director of the National AIDS Control Organisation, the director-general of health services, NGO representatives and a person with HIV/AIDS. A representative of the pharmaceutical companies will also be present.

�We have no objection if Congress leader Sonia Gandhi attends the session. There should be no political bias while tackling health issues, which should always have a humanitarian approach. In fact, she has always been committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS, and it will be beneficial for the Indian delegation if she goes as well,� the minister said. �AIDS is a long-drawn battle and we need all the help we can get.�


New Delhi, June 10: 
Syed Mohammed Khatami�s re-election as President of Iran has bolstered India�s hopes of stronger bilateral ties and their strategic partnership playing an important role in ensuring stability in the region.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who struck a good rapport with Khatami during his visit to Iran in April, expressed happiness at his re-election. In a message to the Iranian President, Vajpayee said from his hospital bed in Mumbai: �Your victory reflects the continuing faith of the Iranian people in your inspiring leadership and the progress achieved by the country under your wise guidance.�

Like the people of Iran and the rest of the world, India expects Khatami to push through reforms faster in the Islamic republic in his second term. Observers said the huge mandate bore this message for Khatami.

But it remains to be seen to what extent he will be able to accelerate the pace of changes. Though some feel it will be easier for him to bring about reforms in the economic field than in the political, others argue that the two are inter-linked.

India has tried to ensure it does not put all its eggs in one basket. During his visit, Vajpayee had tried to meet all the key players in the Iranian political set-up, including the supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Vajpayee�s visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Iran in seven years, was described by Khatami as �a turning point� in bilateral relations and �a new chapter� in the field of human and international relations. Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh matched the sentiment by calling it a �path-breaking� visit.

The high point of the visit was the Tehran Declaration � a sort of a vision statement � that Vajpayee and Khatami had signed. It chalks out the course that bilateral relations are likely to take in the near future and attempts to broadbase it to ensure cooperation in key political, economic and cultural sectors.

Iran is important to India as it is not only the leader of the Shia Muslim world, but also a key player in the Gulf, an area of vital importance to Delhi. Iran has the world�s largest natural gas reserves, which an energy-hungry country like India, whose economy is growing at over 6 per cent per year, is looking for.

Iran was a close ally of Pakistan till a few years ago, but developments in Afghanistan, particularly under the Taliban, has given rise to fundamentalist forces which have worried Tehran.

Being the leader of the Shia world, it has to look after the well-being of the religious and ethnic minority in the strife-torn country, dominated by the Pakhtoons. Moreover, it shares a long border with Afghanistan and the smuggling of narcotics and small arms through it has added to Iran�s concern.


Mohali, June 10: 
Punjab�s Doctor Death is now preaching life. Forsaking his days in the eighties as the once-dreaded chief of the Sohan Singh Panthic Committee that controlled terrorists and is said to have ordered many a massacre in the state, the 87-year-old Sohan Singh now plays the good doctor, advising people on how to live longer.

�Let us talk on how one can work towards increasing one�s life span,� he says, politely turning down questions on Khalistan, a demand he had nurtured when militancy was at its peak.

�Everyone who comes to me wants to speak about terrorism and my alleged role in the entire affair. But let me reveal that my name was used. I think I know the people who used my name to spread terror,� Singh says.

Speaking reluctantly on the era of terrorism, the former Khalistan ideologue termed the arrest of Khalistan Commando Force chief Wassan Singh Zaffarwal and the willingness of London-based self-styled president of the Council of Khalistan Jagjit Singh Chauhan to return to India as �political�. Since elections could be announced any moment, �things are on the boil. Some more such people may surrender�, he said.

�The Khalistan movement has run out of steam. If people like Paramjit Singh Panjwar or Zaffarwal want to come back, it will not make any difference. I have no advice for them now. It is for them to chalk their future course of action,� Singh added.

He revealed that the Khalistan movement died the day terrorist outfits refused to heed his advice to contest elections in 1992. �The decision was suicidal. The Khalistan movement simply petered out,� he added, confirming that the Akalis had accepted his arguments and boycotted the Lok Sabha polls in 1990.

Singh, a former Punjab health services director with many firsts to his credit, said Pakistan had exploited the Khalistanis. �Their (Khalistanis�) mission no longer generates the passion as witnessed earlier and it has been proved by the purposeless lives Panjwar and Zaffarwal have been living abroad,� he reminisces.

Singh, too, had remained in hiding for eight years after Operation Bluestar and was arrested in 1993. He denied he had fled to Pakistan or Nepal as the police believe. �I was here all the time,� he said, adding, that the demand for Khalistan is not likely to die down.

On the political scenario in the state, Sohan Singh feared that the Congress could storm back to power if the Akali-BJP government failed to gauge the mood of the people.

�I feel chief minister Parkash Singh Badal is a true Akali. He was one of the few members of the party who did not sell out to the Centre when the going got tough for the party in the state. The Centre had tried hard to purchase Akali leaders.


Bangalore, June 10: 
Every child in Bangalore will be in school by 2003 if an ambitious corporate-government-voluntary movement is successful.

The scheme was announced recently by ICICI chairman N. Vaghul, who is also a member of the board of trustees of Akshara Foundation. The inspiration to set up the foundation, a charitable trust, came from the work of a Mumbai-based voluntary organisation, Pratham, in the field of literacy.

�The aim is to ensure that every child in Bangalore is in school and learning by the end of 2003,� Vaghul said.

�I see no reason why we can�t have 100 per cent literacy in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh to begin with,� Vaghul said, referring to the work of the two organisations.

The literacy movement is spreading to other cities, according to the ICICI chairman.

Akshara is one of the few joint initiatives involving the corporate, government and voluntary sectors.

The board of Akshara trustees includes state commissioner of public instruction Vijay Bhaskar, Azim Premji Foundation executive member C.V. Madhukar and Eduquity Software CEO R. Dhirendra.

Akshara, founded in March last year, has fanned out across the city to further the agenda of universal primary education.

�We have been working for a year now,� said Rohini Nilekani, another trustee of the Akshara foundation.

Akshara�s grassroots programmes already encompass about 18,000 children. The foundation is striving to cover 45,000 children by 2001-2002.

The Balwadi Programme, which prepares children aged between three and five for formal schooling, covers 15,000 children.

The foundation�s bridge course focuses on dropouts aged between six and 10. Jnana Jyothi is aimed at helping children achieve the minimum prescribed academic level.

Akshara plans to put the scheme into action by turning the 1,000-odd government schools in the city into centres for all education-related activities in the neighbourhood.

Another initiative launched by the foundation is the setting up of the Content Development Centre to familiarise children with information technology, in keeping with Bangalore�s image as India�s very own Silicon Valley.

�The objective is to expose children to technology at an early age and motivate them to come to school,� said Rohini, wife of Infosys managing-director Nandan Nilekani.

The development centre will produce computer-based content in Indian languages.


Bangalore, June 10: 
In a body blow to Hampi, a world heritage site, a high court directive has stalled demolition of a bridge on the Tungabhadra river for eight weeks.

The court order follows a public interest litigation filed by Basavarajjapa, a villager in the area.

The order will suit the S.M. Krishna ministry, which argues that the bridge helps residents to transport their goods across the river.

As of now, residents ferry across in boats and have to take a route covering nearly 20 km.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) had recommended against the construction of the bridge at the famous ruins of Hampi.

Unesco has threatened to pull out Hampi from the heritage list if the bridge, on the verge of completion, is not brought down.

�It suits the government which is dithering to demolish the bridge. There is lack of political will to dump the bridge,� ASI sources said.

Hampi, the capital of the once flourishing Vijayanagar empire, attracts foreign and Indian tourists and academics because of its past. The 15th century ruins are spread over 26 sq. km in rocky terrain.

ASI and Unesco wants the government to abandon the bridge as it would mar the scenic beauty and further damage the sublime environment of the region.

�The matter is before the high court, so we will have to wait till it takes a decision,� officials at the public works department said. Till now, the state government has spent Rs. 3 crore on the bridge.

The Krishna ministry had agreed to fall in line but pressure from the residents and the elected representatives of Bellary district, where Hampi is located, forced the authorities to retract on its earlier decision to dismantle the bridge.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi successfully contested the last Parliamentary elections from Bellary but she gave up the constituency preferring Amethi.

Unesco has also asked the government to clear all illegal dwellings near Hampi. A committee headed by additional chief secretary Achouta Malik to look into the issue had asked the government to follow Unesco�s directive.

As the committee was looking into the row, senior ministers, including culture minister Rani Satish, had expressed helplessness in the face of pressure to continue construction of the bridge.

Satish said the government was willing to restrict movement of vehicles on the bridge.

Junoko Taniguchchi, a senior official at Unesco, who made an on-the-spot study of the man-made degradation of Asia�s largest archaeological site, indicted the government for granting permission to construct the bridge in the first place.

In her report, Taniguchchi criticised the poor maintenance of the ruins and the onslaught by way of construction of bridges and illegal houses and hotels in the area.

ASI superintendent D. Jitendra Das said the authorities in Hampi were not cooperating in maintaining the ruins, part of which comes under state control.

If Unesco withdrew the world heritage site status, it would be the first time such a decision would be taken in the world.


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