Party mulls madarsa shield for Buddha
All eyes on February dates
CM backs off crime-law controversy
BSF battles rustlers
Blood flows in classroom
Enron-hit US preaches contract sanctity
Big B phobia grips UP rivals
�Saviour� Sonia sells development
Cartoons in sleaze war
Minnows fight for people�s issues

Calcutta, Feb 5: 
The CPM leadership today considered ways to insulate chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee from criticism likely to come his way by Left Front partners when the constituents meet on Wednesday to assess the impact of his stand on unauthorised madarsas.

At a special meeting of the CPM secretariat at the party headquarters on Alimuddin Street, veteran leader Jyoti Basu, state party secretary Anil Biswas and Left Front chairman Biman Bose counselled Bhattacharjee�s government against emphasising its stand in public, party officials said. �A wrong message may go out and disturb the general Muslim sentiment,� they advised in course of the meeting, keeping the panchayat election for 2003 in view.

The Front meeting tomorrow will also seek to assess the situation in the state in the wake of the terrorist strike at the American Center and the consequent statements of the chief minister.

Apparently, the CPM brass felt the need to meet ahead of the Front meeting because it was worried about Monday�s turnout of Muslims at a protest organised by the Jamait-e-Ulema Hind at Rani Rashmoni Square in Calcutta. The protesters demanded that Bhattacharjee retract his comments on madarsas.

The CPM has reportedly come to the conclusion that some of Bhattacharjee�s remarks, though largely valid, have hurt Muslim sentiments in Bengal.

Two troubleshooters, Mohammad Amin and Mohammad Selim, both ministers, have been working quietly to pacify members of the minority community. The scheduled meeting between Bhattacharjee and Muslim leaders on Thursday indicates that this is having an impact.

The party is also aware that most Front partners are unhappy with the chief minister because of some of his statements on unauthorised madarsas and other issues. These partners are likely to be vocal during the Front meeting tomorrow.

During the day, the CPM leadership, however, sought to dispel the notion that its leadership met and discussed the snowballing issue more out of concern. It argued that its secretariat could not meet on Fridays in the past few weeks as organisational elections kept Biswas and other secretariat members tied down in district conferences.

Of the partners, it is learnt, the CPI is most vocal about the CPM and Bhattacharjee. A senior CPI leader said he has conveyed his party�s �concerns and objections� about some of Bhattacharjee�s statements to Bose.

The attack on the American Center was organised on January 22 and the Front is meeting tomorrow � about two weeks after the incident. Moreover, Bhattacharjee also did not convene a Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue after January 22.


Calcutta, Feb. 5: 
Muslim organisations and leaders of the state are looking with keen interest at three dates in February.

The dates, the leaders say, may turn out to be crucial in light of the recent pronouncements of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and other CPM leaders about the unauthorised educational institutions run exclusively for Muslims.

February 6, Wednesday, is the day Left Front constituents meet � for the first time � to discuss Bhattacharjee�s repeated statements blaming �a section of madarsas� for encouraging anti-national sentiments.

The statements have drawn their share of criticism from the Opposition � the counter-arguments, however, appeared to have been aimed more at weaning away minorities � and confused signals from the CPM�s colleagues in the power-sharing arrangement.

Thursday (February 7) has been kept aside by the chief minister for meeting leaders of Muslim organisations and intellectuals representing the community.

This is the first such meeting since the chief minister took his first broadside at the state�s khareji madarsas, which have not been recognised by the West Bengal Board for Madarsa Education and most of which teach only Islamic and Arabic literature.

Monday, February 11, is the day Bhattacharjee is scheduled to come face-to-face � again for the first time since the controversy erupted � with a large gathering of Muslims.

The audience will be drawn from the avowedly pro-CPM West Bengal Madarsa Shikshak Samiti, and the meeting � on the occasion of the organisation�s annual conference � is expected to present Bhattacharjee with an audience willing to give him a patient hearing.

�The community is waiting for a clear signal from the chief minister and the ruling coalition on the recent spate of statements about madarsas,� said Ahmed Hassan, editor of Qalam, a weekly popular among Bengali Muslims.

�The clarification, that only �a section of� madarsas are under the government scanner, has confused Muslims even more,� Hassan added, explaining why the dates are �very important to the community�.

The West Bengal Madarsa Students� Union held a meeting at Ghatakpukur in South 24-Parganas today.

Besides demanding the withdrawal of Bhattacharjee�s �anti-madarsa� statements, the organisation asked the government to increase the number of madarsa colleges to accommodate the thousands passing out of madarsa schools every year.    

Calcutta, Feb. 5: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who withdrew the Prevention of Organised Crime Ordinance under pressure from Left Front partners, today refused to be dragged into a bigger row by discussing it at the Cabinet meeting before placing his views at the Left Front meeting tomorrow.

The issue was raised by CPI leader and water resource minister Nandagopal Bhattacharya, who urged the chief minister to explain the government�s stand on the controversy.

This is significant as activists of the Jamait-e-Ulema Hind burnt the effigy of the chief minister in Calcutta yesterday and demanded an apology from Bhattacharjee for his �unconstitutional and undemocratic remarks� on unaffiliated madarsas of the state.

�I would request members not to create any pressure on me for any remarks on this sensitive issue. Let us discuss it at the Front meeting tomorrow before we discuss it here,� the chief minister told the meeting today. He asked Bhattacharya, particularly, to be present in tomorrow�s meeting, where he would discuss the issue at length.

The CPM leader also asked his Cabinet colleagues to prepare their budgets for the next Assembly session, beginning on February 27. The Cabinet will meet next on February 26.

Minority affairs minister Mohammad Selim also reserved his comments, pleading that �there is scope of being misinterpreted�.


Murshidabad, Feb. 5: 
One person was killed and two seriously injured when Border Security Force jawans fired 21 rounds during a pitched battle with villagers who were trying to prevent them from seizing cattle that had been herded to Gughupara in Murshidabad district last night, allegedly for smuggling across the border.

The villager killed in the firing has been identified as Abdur Rakib, 30. The villagers who sustained bullet injuries were admitted to the Behrampore General Hospital, where their condition is said to be serious.

Three BSF jawans were injured in the brick-batting by the villagers and one of them had to be admitted to hospital. No arrests were, however, reported.

District superintendent of police Rajesh Kumar said about 30 buffaloes were huddled together in Gughupara, 5 km from the Bangladesh border, for smuggling. Around 8 pm, about two dozen BSF jawans went from the nearby Giridharipur outpost to Gughupara, 35 km from Behrampore town, to seize the cattle.

�When the jawans reached Gughupara, in Islampur area, and tried to take away the buffaloes, the villagers resisted. A clash ensued and the BSF fired 21 rounds in which Abdur Rakib died and two others were injured,� Kumar added.

Police sources said when the jawans went to seize the cattle, villagers, including women, attacked them with knives, stones, brickbats and other missiles. The BSF jawans initially retaliated with canes but this became difficult as the area was dark. One of the jawans, Ganga Prasad, was injured in the stomach by a sharp weapon. Two others were injured in their heads.

Eyewitnesses said when the villagers attacked the BSF party, they started running towards Debaipur village, half a kilometre away. The villagers chased them. Soon, Rakib and two others fell down on the ground after being hit by bullets.

BSF station commandant Prabhat Singh Tomar said his jawans were forced to open fire on the villagers after three of them were injured. The BSF has also lodged a complaint with the police.

Raisuddin Sheikh, a Gughupara resident countered: �We attacked the jawans only after they started shooting at us.�


Salboni (Paschim Midnapore), Feb. 5: 
A day after the brutal killing of local CPM leader Anil Mahato in a classroom here, police arrested two persons today as tension continued to mount in Salboni, which was bandh-hit for most part of the day.

Mahato, a CPM local committee member of Pirkata, was allegedly shot dead by People�s War Group activists inside a classroom of Amjorh primary school around 3 pm on Monday in front of students. The 52- year-old teacher of the institution had shot into prominence lately because of his anti-PWG comments.

Deputy inspector general (headquarters) Narayan Ghosh said the arrested persons � Monoranjan Mahato and Pranato Mahato � �were not directly related to the killing�, but were �PWG sympathisers�. Preliminary investigation has revealed that the activists might have stayed at their residences, he said, adding that the two persons arrested hailed from Balasore.

�We will increase police camps in those areas to prevent recurrence of such cases�, Ghosh said. �A combing operation is underway and several other accused who have been identified will be arrested shortly,� police superintendent K.C. Meena added.

The CPM district committee took out a procession from Midnapore town to Salboni today to protest the killing. CPM district committee secretary Deepak Sarkar condemned the murder, saying �CPM members would continue to fight against the PWG�.

Investigations by the police in the last 24 hours have revealed that the assailants had used a carbine-like weapon in the attack on Mahato.

Five empty bullet cartridges similar to the ones usually used in 9 mm pistols was recovered from the spot, police said. �It seems that the weapons were improvised, but very effective,� a senior police officer said.

Eyewitnesses told the police that the masked assailants escaped through the rear door of the school after shooting Mahato at point-blank range. �Some saw these men disappear into the wilderness towards Lalgarh. We immediately stepped up operations and finally managed to arrest two of them,� a senior police officer said.


Chennai, Feb. 5: 
A US warship sailed into Madras port early this morning as ambassador Robert Blackwill set the stage for another round of talks between the navies of the two countries but ruled out a �permanent base� for American forces in India.

The envoy also emphasised the need to protect the �sanctity of contracts� in projects like the Dabhol power company to ensure continued flow of US investments to India.

Blackwill said unless India honours sanctity of contracts, it would sound the �death blow� to US investments in the country. �My concern is regarding this and it has nothing to do with Enron�s collapse in the US,� he said.

The envoy said he was worried that America�s economic ties with India were falling behind �other major advances in our relationship�. He said US trade in India had shrunk and direct foreign investments from America into India were �absolutely flat�.

Blackwill, who fielded a range of questions at a news conference here, said the naval interaction beginning tomorrow was a �follow-on� to what President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had decided when they met in Washington last November.

�My visit signals the extraordinary progress made in the defence arena,� he said, adding the talks on board the USS Blue Ridge were part of the effort to accelerate defence co-operation. Referring to some �20 licences� put up to the US Congress in the last 10 days, Blackwill said defence sales to India were expected to accelerate.

USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, is the third American naval vessel to have come here in recent months. The meeting of the joint naval executive steering group is expected to cover vital areas like defence sales, strategy, joint exercises and intelligence exchanges.

Blackwill, however, emphasised that his country had �no intention to permanently station American forces� in India. �American forces may visit you briefly and Indian forces might exercise with the US in the appropriate exercise training areas in the US,� he said. But there is no plan to have a �permanent base or permanent station of military forces in India�.

Blackwill made it clear that US-India relations in terms of �naval component� were being pursued separately from any third-party interest and dismissed comparisons with US economic assistance to Pakistan. That �aid� was in the context of Pakistan�s joining the international coalition against terrorism and has �nothing to do with India�, he said.

The Bush administration, he added, believes the world will be a �safer, more prosperous and democratic place as US-India long-term strategic co-operation is increased�. This has nothing to do with any third party and �takes as its basis the rise of India as a great power�, he underlined.

Blackwill said he did not think India�s defence purchases from Russia would affect relations with America. �We believe that good relations between Moscow and New Delhi are very much in America�s interests,� he stressed.

He said America was committed to its �hope� of restoring democracy in Pakistan. On the India-Pakistan border standoff, he said it was dangerous because two forces in forward positions at the �highest level of readiness� could spark off an unintended confrontation.


Lucknow, Feb. 5: 
After the gifts he was distributing, it was the blood donation camps he was attending. Now, the BJP and the Congress are carping and crying about the money spent to organise these functions.

With the Big B turning out to be the biggest weapon in Mulayam Singh�s arsenal � he has been drawing crowds at several �felicitations and functions�� sponsored by the Samajwadi Party � the two parties have appealed to the Election Commission to �look into the real motive behind these Mulayam-backed acts��.

Their latest query: Isn�t the expenditure incurred on these so-called �social functions� a violation of the election code?

Amitabh Bachchan has been the centrepiece of several such shows where he has shared the dais with Mulayam and Amar Singh, and friends Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar.

Whether it was his felicitation in Allahabad, distribution of blankets in Rampur or disbursement of artificial limbs in Azamgarh, the functions drew huge crowds.

A jittery BJP managed to convince the Election Commission to put a stop to the �gift distribution�� ceremonies, but the panel seems to be in a quandary over Mulayam�s latest ace: blood donation camps attended by Bachchan. The star is scheduled to inaugurate more camps in Kanpur on Friday and in Lucknow the day after.

Playing to the gallery at these shows, Bachchan has been singing all his favourite songs, dancing to his favourite numbers before subtly telling the people that Mulayam is the best.

�Mulayamji will hold your hand and lead you to happiness, he is honest and unbelievably dependable,�� Bachchan has been saying, deftly sandwiching his praise for Mulayam between dialogues from Sholay or songs from Silsila.

Outwitted, the Congress and the BJP have shifted focus to the money spent on these functions. The state poll panel has forwarded these complaints to the Election Commission.

Though the central panel has asked for time to �deliberate� on the issue, a senior official in the state commission said there was nothing much anyone could do.

�When we could do something, we did,�� he said. �What can one possibly do to stop these camps as it is not violative of any rule? On the face of it, blood donation camps are totally interactive social functions.��

Shivpal Yadav, Mulayam�s brother, said the charges against Bachchan and the Samajwadi were totally ridiculous.

�In these functions, we don�t put up Samajwadi Party flags, nor are there political speeches. Bachchan just says a few things in praise of Netaji,�� he said.

�Anyway, when the BJP is sucking the blood of the people, we are giving it away, how can anyone have problems with that?�� he added.


Balachour (Nawanshahr), Feb. 5: 
Congress president Sonia Gandhi today appealed to the people to throw out the Akali-BJP government in Punjab.

Launching the Congress campaign in Punjab from this backward constituency, she said: �Sab kuch Akali-BJP sarkar ne chopat kar diya hai. Yeh koi samanya chunav nahin hai, yeh Punjab ke bhavishya ko tay karega (The Akali-BJP government has ruined everything. This is no ordinary election, the results will decide the future of Punjab).�

Addressing the first of her three rallies, Sonia, who arrived here in a helicopter, said the Akali-BJP government had institutionalised corruption and ruined the state�s economy. Speaking in fluent Hindi, she berated the ruling coalition, saying it would not go unpunished after the Congress came to power.

�Punjab is a border state. For 45 years under the Congress it had attained all-round development. The steady economic growth of the state was being taken as an example by other states in the country. But during the last five years, there has been no development. The trend started by the Akali-BJP government needs to be reversed. Yeh gathbandhan Punjab ko barbad kar raha hai (This combine is ruining Punjab),� she told the cheering 30,000-strong crowd.

Holding the Akali-BJP government responsible for the economic downslide in the state, Sonia said the state was witnessing growing unemployment and farmers were being misled. �There is no law and order in the state. Waqt aa gaya hai ki Punjab ko paanch saal ki barbadi se bachaya jaya (The time has come to save Punjab from the destruction of the last five years),� she said.

Praising Punjabis for their hard work in making the state economically strong, Sonia said the Akali-BJP government was bent on undoing all that hard work �sirf kursi ke liye (only to remain in power)�.

Coming down heavily on the Akalis, Sonia said the Shiromani Akali Dal was responsible for terrorism and had no right to talk about brotherhood. �Kya hak hai aapse vote maangne ka? (What right do they have to ask for your votes?)� she said.

The Congress chief warned the people not to vote for those who had institutionalised corruption at the Centre. �Vinaash ki aag aaj beh rahi hai, pehle vikaas ki dhaara beh rahi thi (Destruction is prevalent all over, earlier, it was only development).�

Sonia reminded the people that the Congress was in power in 11 states and all of them were developing rapidly. �I personally have been seeking reports on development projects in the states ruled by my party and even monitor their progress,� she said.

She took the Akali-BJP government to task for making farmers run from pillar to post to sell their produce. �Yeh Congress ke raaj mein nahin hota tha (This never happened under the Congress),� she said.

Sonia said the Congress had kept its promises in the state ruled by the party and declared that Punjab�s progress was the most important question weighing on the party.

The Congress president later left for Jalandhar and Abohar, where she delivered the same speech.


Jalandhar, Feb. 5: 
An ad war has erupted between the rivals on the poll battlefield here, with sleaze, personal insinuations and below-the-belt punches turning the flavours of the season.

A Congress ad depicting a cartoon of Haryana chief minister O.P. Chautala handing over a land allotment letter and receiving the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal mortgage deed from Punjab chief minister P.S. Badal today drew a like rejoinder from the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Putting out a cartoon of Sonia Gandhi leading a crowd of faceless people, the Akalis warned the people that their future was at stake under a Congress government.

�Born and bred abroad, they cannot recall the names of 10 villages in Punjab. Can your own and your children�s future be entrusted to such aliens?�� it said.

The Akalis also filed a case in the court of the Chandigarh chief judicial magistrate alleging that the Congress had wrongly conveyed that Badal mortgaged Punjab�s interests on the canal in favour of Haryana in lieu of 22 acres at Gurgaon.

The Panthic Morcha � an umbrella body of small Akali parties and dissidents � joined the mud slinging by targeting Badal�s wife, Surinder Kaur.

Morcha leaders have released photographs of Surinder Kaur in the company of scantily clad women holding cigarettes and liquor glasses, both taboo among the Sikhs. �Who is being anti-Panthic � us or Badal?� asked morcha leader G.S. Tohra.

Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh has gone a step further. At rallies in Jalandhar recently, he named journalists of national dailies who allegedly told him Badal would lose his deposit from Lambi.

Badal�s son Sukhbir has taken up cudgels for the Akalis. A Rajya Sabha member, he called a news conference at his Chandigarh residence and condemned the �vulgar� statements made by the morcha.

He also sought the Election Commission�s intervention to stop personal attacks on his father.

Apart from the SYL canal cartoon, the punchline on ads released by the Congress is: �Badal hatao, Punjab bachao�. Most of them carry Badal�s caricature � sometimes as a hen laying eggs like �night clubs� and �petrol pumps� or �parking lots� in the US and Australia. The allegation is he has amassed properties worth crores.

The Akalis hit back with ads lampooning Amarinder Singh as a cat going on a pilgrimage � Nau sau choohe khaake, billi haj ko chali.


Almora, Feb. 5: 
In the shadow of two political heavyweights � the BJP and the Congress � a third alternative is struggling to rear its head in Uttaranchal.

The architects of this new outfit call it the Uttarakhand Lok Vahini, which includes a faction of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, the Jan Vikas Party, and two Left parties, the CPI and CPI(M-L).

Apart from the third front, there are the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, who continue to languish on the sidelines despite having their own pockets of influence.

�For us the issues are the Kargil coffin scandal, the BJP government�s non-performance and corruption,� said Suraj Karnataka, a Congress leader.

The BJP is also highlighting the coffin scam. Both parties hope to extract an emotional price from the coffin bungling as this region lost the largest number of men in the Kargil conflict.

But the people are not so much affected by the coffin scandal as they are by poverty and unemployment.

�They are talking in the air. We are the ones to bring the real issues to the fore,� said P.C. Tewari, the Uttarakhand Lok Vahini�s candidate in Almora. Tewari has a long history of activism to his name and the people like him but his chances of winning the Almora seat is anybody�s guess.

Tewari�s front is championing all the issues that the BJP and Congress are sidestepping � the killing presence of the liquor mafia, the confusion in the division of powers and distribution of electricity between Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal, the loss of people�s right over the forests, the BJP government�s failure to book those responsible for the 1994 Muzaffarnagar outrage.

His manifesto has a different ring to it but the author remains a lightweight compared to the well-heeled, more resourceful BJP and Congress.

Yet, the Uttarakhandis are locked in friendly contests in several constituencies.

Instead of summoning up a common pool of their meagre resources, the third front members and its sympathisers are frittering them away in separate battles.

That is good news for the BJP and the Congress. Out of the 29 seats in the Uttaranchal Assembly, the BJP is the frontrunner on a majority of them while the Congress lags behind with a lone seat.

The other political groups are hoping that the winds of change blow their way.

�A hung Assembly is a distinct possibility,� said a political observer. The BJP is having a tough time standing straight against the discontent within the party. The Congress is moving uphill, but the pace is sluggish.

�In case of a hung Assembly the third front parties and others will play an important part,� said Satish Joshi of the Uttarakhand Lok Vahini.

That is the best the third front can hope for at the moment. Will they support the Congress in case of a hung legislature? Tewari says they might, but any support will be conditional.

�We have taken up a certain agenda and any party which wants our help will have to agree to at least some major part of this agenda,� he said.


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