Advani regrets, Atal rules
Race to sacrifice salary
PM in Ayodhya plunge with fringe groups
Red faces over death-meet dais
Bengal screen binds Bachchans
Christian divorce bias removed
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Aug. 27: 

Mamata returns to murmurs

Mamata Banerjee is back in the NDA after a five-and-a-half-month separation and failed conquest of Bengal.

The decision to re-induct the Trinamul Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, which had walked out in February to join the Jayalalitha-led front in Tamil Nadu, was formalised at an NDA meeting presided over by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Mamata, who held the railway portfolio when she pulled out, will, however, have to wait until a Cabinet shuffle for a ministerial berth.

Though coalition convener George Fernandes — whose resignation as defence minister was the main issue over which she had pulled out on March 15 — said the decision was unanimous, home minister L.K. Advani criticised Mamata for not expressing any regret for ditching the government on the eve of the Assembly elections and coming back without any remorse. But the Prime Minister ignored the criticism.

Advani said Mamata had met him twice last week but he did not notice any trace of regret in her. Sources said civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav and communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan, too, had reservations but did not voice them.

The home minister was joined by BJP president Jana Krishnamurthi, senior leader Sikander Bakht, the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah and Maneka Gandhi in expressing reservations about Mamata’s conduct.

Abdullah, according to sources, had even said “(Ajit) Panja should not be penalised for Mamata’s return”. Agencies, however, quoted Abdullah as saying that he had never opposed Trinamul’s return.

The sources said Fernandes defended Mamata, saying she had expressed her regrets to the Prime Minister and to him. But some of the leaders who criticised the Trinamul chief insisted on a public apology. “The least she could say is that ‘she sought readmission’ so that the message would go out that we did not invite her,” said an NDA leader.

Welcoming the NDA decision, Mamata said she was “grateful” to the Prime Minister, who “was always sympathetic to us”. She claimed she had never criticised the Prime Minister even when BJP leaders in West Bengal were attacking her. Mamata said she was the first to write to Vajpayee when he expressed his desire to resign and appealed to him not to do so.

Mamata brushed aside demands that she should express regrets for dumping the Vajpayee government. “There is no question of expressing regret as political parties are not bonded labourers,” she said. The Trinamul leader, however, claimed she had never pressed for her return and dismissed Fernandes’ statement that she had sought re-entry. “We did not make any request. It was an NDA decision,” she said.

But Panja contradicted Mamata’s claim and said the NDA had re-admitted Trinamul following an application made by her expressing her desire to rejoin. “We are happy that Mamata submitted an application to the NDA for her re-admission,” the rebel MP said.

Mamata made it clear she was not insisting on a ministerial berth. “It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative. We want him to continue the good work he is doing. I am not hankering for any ministry,” she said.


New Delhi, Aug. 27: 
Back in the NDA, Mamata Banerjee was back in her element.

Locking the Left in a contest to establish who’s more selfless, she needled MPs who found it hard to digest the perks-dripping pay package the Lok Sabha debated and passed today.

As the Left raised its lone voice against the “unfair” salary increase when the economy was in the dumps, Mamata offered a solution: Let the Left MPs donate the extra income to the Speaker’s Welfare Fund.

Her main target was Somnath Chatterjee, who had earlier listed the gloom enveloping the economy to ask: “Is this the time when we should think of ourselves first?”

Mamata’s answer: “We have two types of MPs — wholetime members who have no other income and those doubling as professors, teachers, lawyers and businessmen. Those like Somnath Chatterjee get Rs 10,000 per month.” Chatterjee returned the punch, saying he would donate his salary to Trinamul.

Mamata said if austerity was the need of the hour, MPs should not travel business class or stay in five-star hotels.

She topped her arguments with a declaration that her MPs would not claim the daily allowance (being raised to Rs 500) the day Parliament could not function because of disruptions.

Barring the Left, all parties supported the Bill. However, it was cleared in the Lok Sabha only after a two-hour debate. Normally, such Bills are passed without any discussion.


New Delhi, Aug. 27: 
The government has engaged some lesser-known Islamic outfits and scholars to work out a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute, but Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today refused to disclose their names in the Lok Sabha as it involved “national interest”.

Prominent Muslim leaders and organisations feigned ignorance about the talks. “Nobody has approached us,” said All-India Muslim Personal Law Board member G.M. Banatwallah.

Zafaryab Jeelani and Syed Shahabuddin, who head the Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Babri Masjid Coordination Committee respectively, also denied knowledge of any overture from either the Centre or Uttar Pradesh. Banatwallah, however, said nothing short of reconstruction of the masjid where it fell on December 6, 1992 would satisfy the community.

Other organisations like the Jamiat-e-Ulema, the Jamiat-e-Islami, the Muslim League and the heads of Islamic seats of learning at Lucknow, Aligarh, Deoband, Patna and Azamgarh said no contact had been made with them.

Muslim leaders said Vajpayee’s remarks were aimed at buying more time rather than seriously working on an out-of-court settlement.

“He is treading on thin ice. The VHP-Dharam Sansad has slapped a March 11, 2001 deadline on him and the NDA constituents would not allow him to cross the lakshman rekha. He is trying to placate Hindutva hardliners and seeking time beyond March 11 to keep the restless VHP at bay,” said a Muslim MP.

But highly-placed sources said the diwan of Dargah, Ajmer Sharief, some Shia ulemas from Lucknow and clerics from the Bareilwi sect have been sounded. The diwan of Ajmer Sharief is engaged in a protracted legal battle to take control of the shrine from influential khadims (servants of the shrine) without success.

Two members of the National Minorities Commission, John Joseph and Trilochan Singh, have reportedly got in touch with Muslim leaders like Javed Habib, who heads the Bharti Muslim Majlis, and Qari Mohammad Mian Mehndi, chairman of the Rs 500-crore National Minorities Financial Development Corporation.

Qari Mian, known to be close to former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the post-Babri Masjid demolition phase, said he was approached by Singh but made it clear that nothing concrete emerged from the “preliminary talks”. The Muslim community, he said, wanted an “honourable settlement”.

Mian said the land on which the 16th-century mosque stood should be handed over to Muslims, but pointed out that as both sides (Hindus and Muslims) were unwilling to concede much “... a negotiated settlement is much more difficult to achieve”.

Vajpayee had opened the Pandora’s box at a news conference in Lucknow. Asked to comment on the VHP’s demand for resolution of the Babri dispute before March 2001, the Prime Minister had said that he hoped the issue would be resolved before that, adding that “talks are on”.

In the Lok Sabha today, Opposition MPs urged him to name the organisations with which negotiations were on. But Vajpayee refused.

“Talks are still continuing. It is not in public interest to disclose their names,” he said, adding that he would inform the members after the talks ended and a decision was reached.


Calcutta, Aug. 27: 
The CPM leadership today pulled up the party’s North 24-Parganas unit after discovering that Sudhir Bhattacharya, the alleged mastermind of Dum Dum municipality chairman Sailen Das’ murder, shared the dais with CPM leaders at a meeting to condole the death.

With Alimuddin Street reading the riot act, the district unit has ordered an investigation into how Bhattacharya found a place in the front row where state party secretary Anil Biswas was also seated.

The condolence meeting, organised by the CPM’s Dum Dum unit, was held on August 19, five days before Bhattacharya was arrested for allegedly hiring contract killers to eliminate Das.

“I was intrigued when I saw him seated a few feet away. But I did not pay much attention because at that point, it was a small matter to me,” Biswas said.

Bhattacharya was even allowed to speak after Biswas in praise of Das, whose murder he is accused of plotting.

North 24-Parganas party leaders today moved to identify the functionary who had invited Bhattacharya to the condolence meeting and allowed him to address it. “I don’t have the slightest idea who got him there,” Biswas said. Senior CPM leader and secretariat member Shyamal Chakraborty was also present at the meeting.

It is learnt that an influential local CPM leader and district committee member had invited Bhattacharya. The district committee member is reported to be very close to Chandan Bhattacharya, Sudhir’s councillor-realtor son.

The local CPM leadership is also embarrassed about revelations of the party’s links with Dulal Deb, a controversial local realtor. Deb, who is close to the district committee member, was found to be moving in a Tata Sumo fitted with CPM flags on the day of Das’ funeral. Party leaders are now trying to ascertain who authorised Deb to use the flags on his car.

CPM sources said Deb was close to Bhattacharya and had constructed several buildings in Dum Dum when Bhattacharya was chairman of the civic body. Later, Deb got friendly with his son Chandan and became his business partner. Deb was not available for a comment.

Police are likely to visit Chennai, where Bhattacharya would often go for eye check-ups, to check if he had any bank accounts there. The former municipality chairman’s daughter lives in Chennai.

The police were not allowed by doctors at SSKM Hospital, where Bhattacharya is being held in police custody, to question him because of his poor health. “We questioned him for few minutes. A few leads have come out,” an officer said.

Bhattacharya said he had given Rs 1.10 lakh to S.P. Kamat, the Dum Dum municipality employee who allegedly chalked out the plan to kill Das, for buying a Tata Sumo. He added that he earned the money by working as an LIC agent till 1999.


Calcutta, Aug. 27: 
Abhishek Bachchan has not yet put ink to paper, but will probably do so any day now, for a Bengali film. In Raja Sen’s Matribhumi, he also plays son to his real-life mother, Jaya Bachchan.

This casting coup will be of mutual benefit to Bachchan Junior, whose portfolio will get a boost by such a film, and Sen, maker of National Award winning films, who gets a mega-wattage Bollywood star to do serious Bengali cinema. His presence will also give a glucose shot in the emaciated arm of Bengali cinema.

Negotiations have been on for a few months now, but it was only about 10 days ago that there was virtual confirmation from Abhishek. The perennial problem of dates was the only obstacle. That having been juggled and sorted out — Sen is scheduled to start shooting three weeks from now — there is “a little crisis”, as he puts it.

Abhishek is a little apprehensive about delivering some parts of dialogue in Bengali and all parties concerned, most of all Sen himself, are quite tense about his security. Sen has already written a letter to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee about the latter problem, and is working on the difficult dialogue bits.

“These may be changed into English or maybe I’ll edit out those tough Bengali lines,” Sen told The Telegraph.

Sen and Jaya have been having discussions for quite some time now on these counts and, as things stood last night, a formal announcement should be made in a few days’ time. The other lead role is being played by Calcutta’s Sabyasachi Chakraborty.

Sen began the film with the title, Asthra, but the working title is now Matribhumi. He agreed with The Telegraph that, while the former title sounded like a Bollywood action thriller, the current one sounds a bit outdated and Manoj Kumarish.

That may not work with today’s market which would need a techno patriotic USP like music whiz A.R. Rahman’s album, Vandemataram. “I’ll consider changing the title later,” said Sen.

Matribhumi, from Sen’s own story and script, is based on current times and flashbacks to 1945. It is about an ex-freedom fighter, 67-year-old Suprabha Devi, played by Jaya Bachchan, who did her bit then and now lives in North Bengal and works as a social activist.

She is accompanied by a committed journalist, Sanjay, played by Sabyasachi Chakraborty, who is a faithful son figure. He meets her when a search is launched for a girl who goes missing from a welfare home she runs.

Anjan is a computer engineer settled in Boston who comes to India on an assignment and meets his mother.

He convinces her to accompany him back to Boston and spend the rest of her life with him and her grandson born some six months before.

He is to return from Bangalore after 12 days, but, in that period, she redecides to stay back. Times are such again, she feels, that her presence in her own motherland is required.

An insecure and unsafe life for just about anyone adds the contemporary touch.

Anjan is to be played by Abhishek Bachchan whose security in Calcutta is ironically an issue in casting him in the film.

Jaya was to play the central character of a mother in Sen’s last released film some months ago, Chakrabyuha, but as that did not happen, the script was modified. Jaya has seen Sen’s Damu and Aatmiyoswajan, both of which won National Awards.

He first met Jaya during the 1993 National Awards ceremony when she was in charge and he had made a documentary on Suchitra Mitra.

“So Jayadi was aware of my track record and Tapanda (Tapan Sinha) had also approached her on my behalf.”

Sen first had a story sitting for Matribhumi with Jaya four months ago in Mumbai and she had agreed to do the role but only after toothcombing the final script. She gave the formal nod last month. In the initial stages itself, Abhishek’s name had cropped up and she had offered to talk to him on Sen’s behalf.

After her signing on, the move to get Abhishek gathered momentum and last night, in a manner of saying, Abhishek has uncapped his pen and poised it over the contract papers.


New Delhi, Aug. 27: 
The Rajya Sabha today passed the Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act, removing the gender-based discriminations among Christians.

The government has accepted all the 13 suggestions of the standing committee except one that empowered religious authority to sanction divorce. This would amount to usurping the court’s judicial authority, the Centre said.

The Bill introduces two new grounds for divorce, in line with the Hindu Marriage Act and the Special Marriage Act: mutual consent and irretrievable breakdown of marriage. As of now, the Indian Divorce Act of 1869 rules that a man can divorce his wife for adultery but not so the wife who would have to charge her husband with another offence along with adultery if she wants divorce. The Bill removes the requirement of a confirmation of the divorce from the high court.

Another significant change in the Act is that it scraps the alimony ceiling of either one-fifth or one-third and leaves the decision on maintenance to the discretion of courts.

Bishop Consesau of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India said the church was in favour of religious authority sanctioning divorce. “If two people are married in a church, the government accepts it. We wanted the government to also accept annulment of marriage between two people by the church,” he said. The church does not accept divorce but agrees to dissolution of marriage if it has been brought about by force or ignorance.




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