Nominee MLA in vote row
Gang rape sparks tension
Bangaru return hope brightens
Advani demolishes Ayodhya litigation
Rao statute panel visit rattles Congress
London laps up Lagaan first show
Northeast fury greets limitless Naga truce
Summit success to set up more sessions
Bravehearts who beat floods
Fair-play lesson awaits Bollywood

Calcutta, June 14: 
Controversy raged through the Assembly on the first day of the new session over the voting rights of the nominated MLA from the Anglo-Indian community, Gillian D�costa Hart.

Trouble erupted during the Speaker�s election that was won by the CPM�s Hashim Abdul Halim for a record fifth time. Anil Mukherjee of the Forward Bloc was re-elected Deputy Speaker unopposed.

Trinamul MLA from Chowringhee and Calcutta mayor Subrata Mukherjee objected to Hart casting her vote. All Opposition members rushed to the Chair � protem Speaker Gyan Singh Sohanpal of the Congress was conducting the election � and demanded an explanation why Hart had been allowed to vote.

Quoting the rules of business, Trinamul�s Sougata Roy said a nominated member can take part in all the debates and discussions, but cannot vote. �The number of MLAs is 294. So, in any voting, we can have 294 opinions. How can the 295th vote be granted?� he asked.

Several members from the treasury benches argued that there was no law against a nominated MLA casting her vote.

Seeing the situation snowball, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee stepped in and asked Subhas Chakraborty to tackle the issue. Chakraborty tried to pacify the enraged Opposition members that there was nothing wrong in allowing Hart to cast her vote. Law minister Nisith Adhikari also rushed to the protem Speaker�s chair and told him not to buckle under the Opposition pressure.

Hart sat through the pandemonium. �I was given a ballot and I cast my vote. After casting the vote, I informed the protem Speaker. I cannot say anything more,� she said.

Rejecting the Opposition�s demand, Sohanpal ruled that Hart�s vote was valid and said he did not find any provision in the rules which forbade a nominated member from voting.

Incensed by the verdict, Trinamul and Congress members walked out. Soon after Sohanpal announced that Halim had been elected, and left the chair to join his colleagues outside.

Halim bagged 193 votes, while the Trinamul-Congress candidate Abdur Karim Chowdhury got 79. The Congress� Mohababul Haque, who had filed his nomination yesterday, got a solitary vote. Haque could not pull out as there is no provision of withdrawal in the Speaker�s election. The SUCI abstained from voting.


Calcutta, June 14: 
Tension gripped Baruipur in South 24-Parganas after a 22-year-old woman was forcefully taken away from her house and gang-raped.

The incident occurred in Kalyanpur early on Wednesday. The victim lodged a complaint with the Baruipur police station today.

Seikh Rafique, his wife, her mother-in-law and a relative were sleeping in a room. Around 12.30 am, Rupchand Mistri, a local tough, and three other persons came to their house. All of them were in an inebriated state.

At first, they knocked and asked Rafique to open the door. Though Rafique refused to obey them, he was forced to open when they threatened to blast the house. Mistri and his men barged inand asked everybody at gun-point to vacate the place.

They then dragged Rafique�s wife out of the house and raped her. She was later found lying unconscious near the railway track.

�Everybody knows Mistri is a rowdy element but no one dares to protest against his antisocial activities in the area thinking of future reactions,� Rafique said.

Additional superintendent of police (rural) Rajesh Kumar Singh said: �Raids are continuing at different places. Mistri and other accused persons have criminal background. After the incident they have left the village but we will get them soon.�


New Delhi, June 14: 
Close on the heels of BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi�s statement in Udaipur last week that Bangaru Laxman�s �rehabilitation� was on the cards, there are indications that the former party chief may be brought back into the political mainstream.

BJP sources said Laxman has been asked by Krishnamurthi to attend the party�s national executive meetings. The BJP is slated to hold one before the monsoon session of Parliament and sources said Laxman is likely to be present. He had been asked not to attend the last national executive, which came in the middle of the Tehelka controversy.

The former BJP president was also part of a meeting of senior Andhra Pradesh party members to discuss the demand for a Telengana state. After the call was raised by a Telugu Desam Party MLA and the movement gained momentum, the Andhra Pradesh BJP unit was �tempted� to join the chorus, sources said. Laxman was reportedly instrumental in prevailing upon the state unit to go along with Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu and distance itself from the demand.

BJP sources, however, ruled out the possibility of Laxman getting a formal position either in the party or the government unless he was given a clean chit by the Venkataswami Commission, probing Defencegate. Though Laxman is still to reply to the commission�s notice, BJP sources were confident it would submit its report within the stipulated four-month period ending in July. An interim report could also be placed, they said. �This preliminary report could clear the names of certain persons,� the source added.

For the BJP, as well as the NDA government, a clean chit to Laxman and former defence minister George Fernandes was urgently needed. �Laxman has to be resurrected if we want to play the Dalit card in Uttar Pradesh and Fernandes has to be brought back into the government to contain his potential for creating trouble when he is out of it,� the source said.

BJP sources said the indications were that Justice Venkataswami was �eager to complete the inquiry in time� and would, therefore, �adhere strictly to the terms of reference set for the panel�. �Our reading is he would not exceed them like the Jain and Liberhan commissions have done and carry on with his investigations endlessly,� they added. The panel has to investigate all deals mentioned in the tapes and the onus would be on Tehelka to prove what its sources were and how the sting operation was carried out.

BJP sources said Venkataswami may �keep a low profile and avoid speaking to the media in order not to deepen the controversy like the Jain Commission had done�.

The sources, however, added that there were �imponderables� that did not necessarily concern the panel. Far more notices have been issued than was initially expected to high-profile politicians.

�Going by the number of persons to whom notices have been issued, we don�t know what stand each of them will take. Some of them want to see the unedited tapes before filing their replies,� said sources.


New Delhi, June 14: 
L.K. Advani today told the Justice Liberhan Commission that the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute cannot be resolved in any court of law and only a Parliament legislation or a negotiated settlement between Hindus and Muslims could solve the problem.

Deposing before the commission, probing the factors leading to the demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992, the home minister said �the history of litigation� since 1949 was �testimony� that the issue could not be solved in courts of law.

�The history of this litigation is a lesson for all of us... (it is) a guide ... that if the matter could be resolved it could be only through a negotiated settlement or through legislation sought to be promulgated as an Ordinance as V.P. Singh (as Prime Minister in 1990) sought to issue,� Advani said during his day-long deposition.�Even consolidation of all the cases as one would not be useful, though one cannot object to it.�

Advani chided the commission�s counsel, Anupam Gupta, for asking �irrelevant questions� and �testing my memory� with newspaper reports relating to various incidents, including the kar seva in July 1992.

He blamed the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government for complicating the Ayodhya issue. It had succumbed to pressure from minorities to nullify the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case, provoking the BJP to participate in the �Ayodhya movement�, he said.

�The turning point came in 1985 when the Supreme Court judgment was sought to be negated by a legislation (by the then Rajiv Gandhi government),� Advani said. He said while Muslim law was amended (in the wake of the judgment) to secure the minority votebank, the Rajiv Gandhi government thought that by opening the temple gate at Ayodhya it would gain the Hindu votebank also.

Advani�s statement that it would not help even if all the cases were consolidated came after Gupta said then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had sought four months from the �sadhus and sants� in July 1992 and wanted to consolidate all the cases under one judicial authority.

When the counsel again asked him a question on the basis of media reports relating to the demolition of the disputed structure, Advani retorted that �similar questions posed yesterday� were reported in a totally different context by the media. �I am used to it. The commission was also gracious enough to observe that the reporting by the media was not correct,� he said.

When Gupta asked questions from various newspaper clippings, Advani shot back, saying �at the moment what you are doing is trying to test my memory on the basis of newspaper reports of that time�.

�Yesterday, I answered some questions even though I had felt those were not relevant. But media reported that in a different context,� he said.

Advani will depose again on July 13 and 14.


New Delhi, June 14: 
Sonia Gandhi plans to despatch a senior party leader to P.V. Narasimha Rao to ascertain why the former Prime Minister chose to appear before the Constitution review panel set up by the NDA government.

The Sonia camp is upset because the Congress had asked partymen to oppose the Justice M.N. Venkatchalaiah panel reviewing the working of the Constitution.

In fact, Sonia had led the charge in Bangalore, accusing the panel of tinkering with the basic structure of the Constitution and terming it an �assault� on B.R. Ambedkar�s legacy. The CWC and the Bangalore plenary, where Rao was a delegate, had passed unanimous resolutions against the commission.

Party leaders said the Congress had taken a tough stand based on its apprehension of the government�s motives. Several in the party suspect a BJP design to push through a proposal debarring persons of foreign origin from holding high constitutional offices, a move aimed against Sonia.

Congress sources said Sonia was set to choose her emissary from among Natwar Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh. Though Rao has lost his clout, he continues to be a factor in Congress politics, prompting Sonia to handle the episode with care. After all, Rao had refused to join the club of former Prime Ministers or align with dissidents during the organisational polls.

Senior leader Arjun Singh, a known Rao-baiter between 1993-97, has written to party general secretary Ambika Soni, demanding a clarification as the party had taken a stand on the review commission.

Arjun�s missive has opened a Pandora�s box within the Congress, rekindling memories of the rift between the Rao-led Congress and the breakaway group, which continues to share an uneasy relationship after the 1997 reunification. As Sonia had brokered the union, she is in a tricky position.

It is the first time that a senior leader has chosen to write to a fellow CWC leader instead of directly addressing it to Sonia. The Arjun camp defended the move, saying Ambika was the right person as she heads the Congress president�s office. But the explanation has raised more questions about the emerging power equations within the party.

The Sonia camp said it will ponder the next step after getting Rao�s version. �At present, we are clueless about what he told the commission. All you know, he might have had criticised it like Chandra Shekhar and (I.K.) Gujral,� a party functionary said.

A section in the party has been trying to justify Rao�s appearance, saying he was a former Prime Minister. But the hawks discounted the argument, pointing out that he was a Congress Prime Minister.

Sonia-Annan meet

Sonia will meet United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan during her visit to the US from June 24 to 29.

She will address the Asia Society and Council on Foreign Relations and the Overseas Indian Congress. Sonia will also speak at an investment meet organised by the CII and interact with the Congressional India Caucus.


London, June 14: 
A group of British people watched a Bollywood movie for the first time in their lives at the Warner Village Cinema in Leicester Square in London last night.

They closely followed and warmly applauded every twist and turn in the story along with the many Indians in the audience.

The enthusiasm of the Britons was understandable � they comprised the British cast of Aamir Khan�s Lagaan which had its world premiere in London. The Britons had also brought their partners, relatives and friends.

Aamir, who is on a globe-trotting mission to promote the Rs 25-crore film, is off to Sun City in South Africa next. He was accompanied to London by the film�s writer and director, Ashutosh Gowariker, who was complimented for his excellent grasp of English dialogue.

Present at the premiere was one of the male leads, Paul Blackthorne, who plays the hated Captain Andrew Russell in Lagaan. But last night, there was a consensus among the Indian members of the audience that his performance had been a tour de force. He was just back from a trip to India and a pre-premiere screening in Bhuj, where Lagaan was shot on location.

�There she is � she is the pretty one,� he said, when asked about the whereabouts of one of the female leads, the British actress Rachel Shelley.

It had earlier been thought Shelley would not be invited to the premiere because she had allegedly given offence to Aamir by revealing too much about the movie in an article in a British newspaper. But all differences appeared to have been forgotten as she joined Blackthorne and Aamir on stage.

At the end of the movie, which she was watching for the first time, Shelley said: �Until the interval, I was on the edge of my seat. Now, I am more relaxed. The cinematography was wonderful.� Aamir himself said little, allowing the film to speak for itself.

Blackthorne thanked the makers on behalf of the British cast, of whom there are at least 15 in major and medium-sized roles.

Aamir will be heartened by the reaction of the Indian industry experts in the audience. Avtar Panesar, who is based in London for Yashraj Films, said: �This is going to be a hit.�

The English academic and author, Rachel Dwyer, who writes on Bollywood, said: �This was great fun.�

There was a general feeling, though, that the first half of the film, when the Indian and British characters clash, was superior to the second half which is almost a ball-by-ball coverage of a cricket match between the two sides.

Some felt the cricket had been overdone and the sequences were a trifle repetitive. But everyone agreed that the villagers� first attempt at understanding the rules of cricket was genuinely funny and was one of the comic highlights of Lagaan.

However, a wider British audience might feel that the references to English rulers were unremittingly insulting and hostile. Gauri, the village belle played by newcomer Gracie Singh, fears she might lose her lover, Bhuvan (Aamir) to Elizabeth Russell (Rachel Shelley) and calls her a �white witch�.

Another Indian wonders whether the Brits will go back to their �frozen little island�. One Indian says gratuitously: �I hate the British.� The British masters occasionally call the Indians �darkies� and a smirking Capt. Russell gets his own back by observing: �The British empire is best in the world.�


New Delhi & Calcutta, June 14: 
The Centre today accepted a long-standing demand of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), extending its ceasefire with the insurgent outfit to other areas in the Northeast �without any territorial limits�.

But Assam and Manipur greeted the extension with anger. Assam, fearful that the truce without territorial limits would lead to heightened insurgency in the state, slammed the Centre�s �unilateral� decision. A two-line official reaction issued this evening said the Centre took the decision �without taking into consideration the views of the Government of Assam�.

Union home secretary Kamal Pande � who briefed reporters after the �fruitful conclusion� of the peace talks between the government�s interlocutor, K. Padmanabhaiah, and the NSCN(I-M) leadership in Bangkok � said time had come for �more substantive talks� between the �two entities�. �Both parties,� he said, �have agreed to move forward with the process of dialogue to bring about a lasting solution to the Naga issue.�

The meetings in the Thai capital over the past two days also resulted in the ceasefire being extended by another year. The truce between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M) has been in operation since August 1, 1997. The last extension is due to end on July 31. But the Centre�s acceptance of the NSCN(I-M)�s demand for extending the ceasefire outside Nagaland has brought into focus key issues regarding inter-state relations.

The decision was taken despite newly-elected Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi publicly expressing his reservations against extending the truce to his state, Manipur and Arunchal Pradesh where there are pockets of Naga-inhabited areas.

Gogoi, who is leaving for Delhi tomorrow, is likely to raise the issue with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

A top source in the Gogoi government said Assam was more worried after yesterday�s ambush on Assam Rifles personnel, believed to have been carried out by Naga militants. Security forces, the source said, fear more violence �now that the Naga rebels are free to move within Assam�.

He said NSCN(I-M) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah�s reported statement in Bangkok that the Nagas �only want 1,200,000 sq km of land which belong to the Nagas� also indicated that the outfit was serious about its demand for a �Greater Nagalim�. Nagaland�s area is 16,579 sq km.

Manipur, now under President�s rule, also reacted strongly. �The Centre has treated the Manipur Assembly�s resolutions as a joke. We have passed three resolutions already opposing the extension of NSCN(I-M) ceasefire to Manipur�s areas.

We cannot tolerate such treatment,� an MLA said, pointing out that the ceasefire extension beyond Nagaland�s borders was a direct threat to Manipur�s territorial integrity.

As a precautionary measures, the district administration of Imphal West, Imphal East and Churachandpur have clamped prohibitionary orders under Cr.Pc 144. Prohibitory orders may be clamped in other districts by tonight, sources said.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Mukut Mithi said that �as long as long as the Naga militants follow the ceasefire ground rules�, the state government had �no problems�.

In Nagaland, people heaved a sigh of relief, especially after the NSCN(I-M)�s threat last month to back out of the ongoing truce on the issue of the ceasefire�s territorial extent.

Chief minister S.C. Jamir said his government favoured the continuation of the current truce as it was the desire of the Naga people. Naga Hoho, the apex body of all Nagas, welcomed the decision.

Asked whether the consent of the chief ministers of the three states had been taken, Pande said: �We have written letters to the state governments and consulted them at every step. The Prime Minister has also met and sought their views.�

The home secretary said the ceasefire �will not, in any way, affect the territorial integrity of any of the North-eastern states� as the �ground situation was taken into account�.

Asked if the NSCN(I-M) now would not lay claim to the concept of a �Greater Nagaland� (Nagalim), the home secretary was only prepared to say that �the talks (in Bangkok) were about extending the ceasefire�.

Home ministry sources said the Centre was earlier apprehensive that any decision to extend the ceasefire without territorial limits will be seen as acceptance of a Greater Nagaland. �We had, therefore, sought a written assurance from the NSCN(I-M) leadership,� an official said.


New Delhi, June 14: 
If the proposed summit between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf next month goes off well, they will get at least two more opportunities this year to meet each other and sustain the momentum generated from their talks to normalise relations between India and Pakistan.

India�s high commissioner in Pakistan, Vijay Nambiar, is in the capital to brief Indian leaders about the mood in Islamabad on the proposed talks and to finalise dates and perhaps also part of the agenda. A formal announcement about the summit date is likely to be made next week and officials feel �the ball starts rolling� only after that.

A team from Islamabad to oversee the security, protocol and media related arrangements would also come here after the official announcement is made about the date and duration of Musharraf�s visit to Delhi. Musharraf�s visit may be a three-day one, of which one day will be spent in the summit with Vajpayee.

He may also meet other senior leaders like Jaswant Singh and L.K. Advani. Musharraf, who is also the chief of the country�s armed forces, may also have a meeting with his Indian counterpart General S. Padmanabhan.

Though there will be an agenda for the talks, summit meetings between leaders of the two countries have usually been freewheeling. Observers believe that the success of the talks will depend on the personal chemistry between the Vajpayee and Musharraf. �If they hit it off well, then the chances of sustaining the dialogue brightens,� a Pakistani diplomat said.

Officials of both countries feel that if the Delhi summit is positive it is likely to revive the Saarc heads of government meet, which has been stalled since August 1998. Leaders of South Asia have traditionally met each other on the sidelines of the Saarc to sort out bilateral problems as the Saarc does not permit such issues to be discussed at its forum.

The second window of opportunity will come at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. In the past, Indian and Pakistani leaders have met on the margins of the UNGA, but for the last few years strained relations between the two countries have prevented such meetings from taking place.

Both Musharraf and other Pakistani leaders have been stressing on the need to be flexible to make the talks successful. Pakistani foreign minister Abdus Sattar said in London yesterday that the two countries should not be in a �time warp� and show imagination and flexibility to make progress in their talks.

�We were never in a time warp. India has always sought reconciliation and progress in relations with Pakistan through dialogue,� Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said. �The recent invitation of the Prime Minister to General Musharraf to come to Delhi for talks amply demonstrates this view,� she added.


Calcutta, June 14: 
It was Saturday night, 11 pm. Balaram Mondal, a fisherman of Duttaphulia in Nadia, was pulling the nets in river Ichhamati. Suddenly, he heard a peculiar sound. The noise seemed to be coming from everywhere.

He thought it was water, rushing forward from all sides, furiously, fast. For some moments, his mind went blank with absolute terror, and then he knew what he had to do. He had to run, faster than the water, to alert his neighbours. By next morning, the whole area was flooded.

He took his boat out to buy his rations from Kalopur. On his way back, he heard screams. People had climbed on trees and were screaming for help as the flood waters swirled menacingly below.

�I rescued them and ferried them to a safer place. On the second trip, around 4 am, I heard cries for help from a bamboo grove. There was a woman trapped in a grove with her six-month-old. It was still dark and I had to hack away at the bamboo for an hour to finally reach her. From then on, I kept going back to that area to ferry relief and medicines for as many people as could be found.�

A year later, he got his due. Balaram was among the 24 brave men and women from Nadia and North 24-Parganas to be honoured today by the UK-based organisation, Save the Children, at a function at the Nehru Children�s Museum.

Harikrishna Dwivedi and Vivek Bhardwaj, the district magistrates of North 24-Parganas and Nadia, handed over the commendation certificates. They thanked the bravehearts for their role in saving lives in last year�s floods.

Certificate in hand, Balaram was beaming. So was Sahanara Biswas, a housewife of Shiberia in Nadia. But she still gets nightmares when she remembers the power punch of the water that brought the mud walls of her house crumbling down. �Our house was on the river bank. Somehow, that morning, I had a strong feeling that things would go wrong. No warning had reached us.

�The water came rushing around 5 pm, and in two hours, the whole area was flooded. I heard that a woman, my next-door neighbour, was washed away. I took a raft and went in search for her. Finally, I found her 6 km away, partially submerged and trapped in a barbed-wire fence.

�Next night, a six-month-old baby fell off the perch. I dived into the water and rescued the baby. I pumped out the water from its stomach.� Today, she smiles. It�s all over. She�s proved she�s brave, but the memories pack as much punch as the flood waters.

Thanking all the bravehearts, Dwivedi said: �People will have to come forward to combat natural calamities. We, the administration, can only help them a little. If the local organisations become united, the affected people will benefit.�

He said keeping last year�s devastating floods in mind, a number of measures like desilting the Ichhamati river and removing illegal fisheries from the river�s way have already been taken.


Mumbai, June 14: 
If many are content wailing about cinema, soaps and commercials commodifying the female body for the male gaze, the Maharashtra State Commission for Women is thinking of an antidote.

�The commission is planning to take up portrayal of women in media in the form of a movement and sensitise the financiers, directors and other personalities related to the film world on realistic portrayals of women in their media with the changing times,� chairperson Nirmala Sawant-Prabhavalkar said today.

The decision came after a workshop organised by the panel on the portrayal of women in media. At Tuesday�s workshop, speaker after speaker talked about the necessity of seeing a woman not as a castrating revenger, but in a really positive role � as someone who is in control of her life.

The impetus, the commission feels, has to come from the makers. �Every media exercise is an investment. In a film, an actor does what he is told to do. So we want to influence the people who invest,� said member-secretary of the commission T.F. Thekkekara.

For the purpose, the commission will hold several closed-door meetings with ad managers and film producers, Prabhavalkar said. �We expect the movement to take shape within a couple of months,� she added. NGOs working in the field will also be involved.

The meetings will be held over a period of time. The commission said it will see to it that the dialogue continues.

Inaugurating the workshop, actor and Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi had lashed out at mainstream media, stating the so-called empowerment of women on the big screen was very deceptive. Avenging angels were the favourite avatar in which �empowered women� were cast, she said, but they were nothing but honorary men, like being Rambolina after Rambo.

Azmi also pointed at certain lyrics. Songs like Choli ke peechhe kya hai reveal the woman�s body in segments � she seems to lose autonomy over her body, part by part. And if songs like sarkailo khatiya jaara lage give the impression that women are asserting their sexuality, they are actually exposing the women with a new vulnerability before the male eye, the actress said.

Director Shyam Benegal also pointed in the same direction. �Depicting a man�s sexuality is all right. But a woman�s sexuality is not to be portrayed on the big screen,� said the director, in whose films, from Ankur to Zubeida, women have always played a big role.

Censorship was also discussed at the workshop, attended mostly by women. A civil servant, who had worked on the censor board, talked about the preponderance of rape scenes in Indian films. �It is because Indian audiences are so prudish. They can only see sex when in its most distorted and perverted forms,� she said.


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