Cabinet carrot for Gujarat truce
Daily durbar to humour allies
Double nudge to Atal on carnage
Whew! paedophile Romeo is safe
Family court call to witness Mahanta
Reformed rebels kill five villagers
SC bars trial time limit
Delhi cool to Koirala
Free power rollback in Punjab
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, April 17: 

Offer of sops sways Mamata and Desam

The crisis that engulfed the Vajpayee government after the strident cry from secular allies for Narendra Modi’s scalp appears to have eased. Two key allies — the Telugu Desam and the Trinamul Congress — have changed position in the last 24 hours.

NDA sources said the Centre had managed to wriggle out of a sticky situation by offering sops to the two parties. Mamata Banerjee has been assured that she will be inducted into the Union Cabinet after the budget session when the Prime Minister shuffles his council of ministers.

Chandrababu Naidu has been partly appeased with the Gujarat Cabinet deciding to defer a decision on dissolution of the Assembly and holding of elections. But the Desam chief stuck to his guns on Modi’s ouster, asserting there would be “no compromise on the ideological fight”.

NDA convener George Fernandes spoke to Mamata twice this week. The Trinamul chief had taken a high public posture against Modi’s continuance as chief minister and said she would back whatever stand the Desam took.

Though she has been assured a Cabinet berth, Mamata was told that the railway portfolio, held by senior Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar, was not up for grabs. She has been eyeing the ministry since she quit it last March, demanding Fernandes’ resignation after the Tehelka expose.

After keeping the Centre on tenterhooks for some time, Mamata’s statement yesterday that Trinamul would not vote against the government in case of a no-confidence motion would have come as music to the Prime Minister’s ears.

Fernandes has also been in touch with Desam chief Naidu. Though parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu had yesterday written to deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed demanding a discussion on Gujarat, he left an escape hatch open by not specifying the rule under which the Desam wanted the discussion.

Asked if the Desam would vote against the government in case rule 184 was admitted, a senior leader mischievously quipped that it would follow Mamata. “It means, we won’t vote against the government,” he said.

The government has already met the Desam demand that immediate polls should not be held in Gujarat. “From the beginning, we have been saying that this is not the right time for elections in Gujarat. Providing relief and rehabilitation should be the priority now,” Naidu said after the Cabinet decision.

Mamata has been out in the cold since she returned to the NDA last year after a temporary separation. She has waited patiently to get re-inducted into the Cabinet, but senior BJP leaders irked with her “opportunistic” ways have opposed her re-entry.

Her trenchant criticism of the government’s handling of the Ayodhya crisis also drew flak from BJP hardliners, endangering her bid to get back into Vajpayee’s good books. The opposition within the BJP remains despite the latest assurance of a Cabinet post.

Sources said a few vacancies were likely to be created in the council of ministers once the BJP leadership finalised its “Kamaraj Plan”.

In the wake of the electoral drubbing in several states, the plan is to bring back young and articulate ministers to the party. The names of Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Venkaiah Naidu are being suggested for possible replacement.

Apart from drafting good ministers for party work, plans are also afoot to get rid of deadwood and punish those who violated party discipline like Shanta Kumar, who demanded Modi’s ouster.


New Delhi, April 17: 
In a belated bid to keep its partners in good humour following the Opposition’s clamour for a discussion on Gujarat, the NDA government has decided to hold daily meetings with floor leaders of alliance parties while Parliament is in session.

In the first such meeting held today, the government wangled an assurance from its allies that they would not support the Opposition motion if admitted under Rule 184, which entails voting.

With Parliament remaining crippled for the third day running, deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed has convened an all-party meeting tomorrow. BJP sources said the logjam was likely to continue as the government would not agree to a discussion under Rule 184.

As allies Telugu Desam, Trinamul Congress, Janata Dal (United) and Lok Janshakti Party too pressed for a discussion on Gujarat, NDA convener George Fernandes hurriedly called a meeting of floor leaders and chief whips of alliance partners.

Fernandes claimed after the meeting that the NDA had unanimously rejected the demand for a discussion under Rule 184. But Trinamul, Lok Janshakti and Dal(U) had skipped the meeting. The Desam does not attend NDA meetings as it supports the government from outside.

Today’s unscheduled meeting was attended, among others, by parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan and BJP chief whip V.K. Malhotra. The three absent allies might attend tomorrow’s meeting, Malhotra said later.

Fernandes charged the Opposition with violating constitutional norms by raising state matters. “The meeting of NDA leaders was of the unanimous view that the Gujarat situation was not a subject for discussion. If you raise state matters, then tomorrow there will be demands for discussing West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh,” he told reporters.

The NDA convener dodged a query on whether the Narendra Modi government’s move to defer a decision on dissolution of the Assembly and holding of polls was part of a “compromise formula” to placate Desam. “Earlier, there was talk of holding elections but not immediately,” he said.

Desam welcomed the Gujarat Cabinet’s decision but said its “main demand” was the ouster of chief minister Modi.

“We welcome the decision to defer Assembly elections in Gujarat, but our main demand for removal of Modi stands and we are pressing for it,” Desam parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu said.

He said Desam had not set any deadline for Modi’s removal. “In politics, there is no deadline. We are waiting for government reaction.”

Naidu denied that his party was for destabilising the Central government. “That is not the question now. We are fighting for an issue,” he said.


New Delhi, April 17: 
Gujarat continued to prick the conscience of the leaders of the nation with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee donning a statesman-like role and calling for compassion and President K.R. Narayanan gently reminding everyone about the “secular vision”.

The state hijacked Delhi’s biggest event today, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar’s 75th birthday celebrations. The birthday boy — looking no longer young but displaying that the Turk in him is still alive and kicking — took a few potshots at Vajpayee, asking him to break “barriers” around him.

Shekhar, while thanking his guests, said the nation was looking towards the Prime Minister to set an example. Quoting from ancient texts, he said his hometown Ballia had this lore that sage Brighu had challenged the might of Lord Vishnu by hitting him on the chest. “I may have to do something like that,” Shekhar said, expressing anguish over the Gujarat riots.

President K.R. Narayanan, who was guest of honour, could not attend the function for “unavoidable circumstances”, but sent a message that called for action against those threatening the secular fabric of the country.

Narayanan’s message was read out by finance minister Yashwant Sinha, chairman of the Chandra Shekhar Amritahotsava Samiti.

Much like his Holi message, Narayanan said: “At a time when some parts of the country are confronting terrible communal disturbances, the secular outlook of a leader of your stature (Shekhar) is of utmost relevance to promote reconciliation and understanding among our people.”

The President then quoted Shekhar as saying in 1969: “Our concept of secular democracy is threatened by communal forces which are getting strengthened in some parts of the country.”

Vajpayee said he was misunderstood in Goa. He said if Parliament had collectively condemned the Godhra incident more aggressively, things would perhaps have been different. “It may not have taken such an ugly turn,” he said.

The Prime Minister, however, added quickly that he was not condoning the violence. He urged a deeper analysis of why some basic foundations of the nation were being challenged.

Conscious of the controversies over some of his remarks, Vajpayee said he was today speaking from the “core of his heart”. He said there was a need to preserve “karuna” (compassion) that goes with the nation’s spirit.


Washington, April 18: 
William Shakespeare could be turning in his grave.

The US Supreme Court, which prevented the counting of votes in the disputed American presidential election in 2000, wandered one step further into the bizarre yesterday when it cited Shakespeare to invalidate provisions of a law which made it a crime to create, distribute or possess “virtual” child pornography.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority judgment, said that since Shakespeare’s Juliet was only 13 years old, modern productions of Romeo and Juliet could hypothetically be banned under the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996.

So could Oscar-winning films such as Traffic and American Beauty, which show teenagers engaged in sexual situations.

In modern productions of the Shakespearean love story and in these celebrated American movies, young adult actors and actresses who only looked like minors act out such situations.

The Child Pornography Prevention Act was passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

It covered any visual depiction “that appears to be a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct” and enjoyed wide public support in this country where paedophilia has become a major issue, especially with child abuse allegations against the Catholic church and institutions like the Hare Krishna schools.

This is the second time that America’s highest court has been drawn into the child sex issue, both times with results meeting high public disapproval even if the judgments may be upholding the US Constitution.

Five years ago, the court struck down the Communications Decency Act, which sought to prevent children from accessing pornography on the Internet.

To counter the judgment, the US Congress passed a new version of the law, which is now facing a fresh Supreme Court challenge.

The law, whose provisions were invalidated yesterday, carried a maximum punishment of 15 years in jail for a first offence and double that time for the second.

Justice Kennedy said that “few legitimate movie producers or book publishers, or few other speakers in any capacity, would risk distributing images in or near the uncertain reach of this law”.

When child pornography website owners or their clients use young adults or computer-generated pictures to depict children engaged in sexual acts and if the 1996 law is applied to them, it prohibits free “speech that records no crime and creates no victims by its production”, the judge wrote.

Instead, “the statute prohibits the visual depiction of an idea — that of teenagers engaging in sexual activity — that is a fact of modern society and has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages”.

Unlike in India, court judgments in the US are legitimately open to criticism from the media, the executive and the public.

The strongest reaction came from Congressman Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who heads the Congressional Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

He said the Supreme Court had “sided with paedophiles over children”.

Jan LaRue, senior director of a conservative group, the Family Research Council, said the court “failed children and left them vulnerable to sexual predators”.

Attorney-general John Ashcroft, an arch conservative who has been prosecuting paedophiles with missionary zeal, virtually defied the ruling.

Ashcroft said he was “disappointed” by the judgment.

“I would warn the child pornographers and others who exploit our children that they will find little refuge in today’s (Tuesday’s) decision,” he said.


Guwahati, April 17: 
The spectre of his allegedly bigamous relationship with Assembly secretariat employee Sanghamitra Bharali has returned to haunt former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.

The family court here has summoned Mahanta, his former ministerial colleague and “fair-weather” friend Sahidul Alam Choudhury and ex-parliamentarian Keshav Mahanta, also from the AGP, for a hearing on a divorce suit filed by Bharali against her husband Manideep Das.

Mahanta, his two party colleagues and a few more witnesses — one of them is D.S. Moses, the superintendent of police in charge of the chief minister’s security — have been asked to appear in court on May 16.

Das has responded to his wife’s plea for divorce on the grounds of physical abuse by accusing her of bigamy.

An official said court summons had been sent to each of the witnesses. Mahanta could not be contacted because he was out of station, while Choudhury claimed that he was yet to receive the summons. Das said his lawyers had informed him about summons being served on Mahanta and his colleagues.

It was in mid-August last year that Bharali, who has a child, caused a storm by spilling details of her alleged marriage to Mahanta at the Vigneswar Ganesh temple in Mumbai on March 11.

She even spoke of a honeymoon at his suite in a five-star hotel. Jayashree Thakkar, owner of a boutique in Mumbai and a friend of Bharali, later claimed to have witnessed the marriage ceremony.

Mahanta denied marrying Bharali and complained of a “deep-rooted conspiracy” to defame him and the AGP.

Almost a fortnight after reports of his alleged second marriage hit the headlines, the former chief minister moved court against a newspaper group and a language weekly for publishing false news about him and Bharali. He sought damages to the tune of Rs 5 crore each from both.

Bharali had named Choudhury as one of the witnesses to her “second marriage” in an interview with the weekly. However, the former minister denied it, saying Bharali was “a professional lady and may claim anything that comes to her mind”.

The Assembly secretariat employee claimed to have photographs of her alleged marriage to Mahanta. She said the pictures, shot by a professional photographer, were handed over to Choudhury by her driver in Mumbai.

Bharali, who had described Mahanta as a “durdanta premik (fantastic lover)” in the interview, later said she was devastated by his denial of the marriage. Earlier photographs showed her seated next to Mahanta at a function here. But she failed to back her claim with evidence.

A probe instituted by Speaker Prithibi Majhi to ascertain the veracity of Bharali’s allegations was dropped for “lack of evidence”. The controversy was, however, enough to harm Mahanta’s career. He was virtually forced to relinquish the post of AGP president in September.


Srinagar, April 17: 
Counter-insurgents working with the security forces gunned down five villagers, including two students, and injured three at Balhama village in northern Baramullah district last night.

The state authorities have reportedly asked the Rashtriya Rifles to immediately hand over the three surrendered militants working with it to the police.

Reports reaching Srinagar this morning said the three counter-insurgents and security forces raided houses in Balhama last night and tried to arrest some persons.

The team roughed up residents during the search, the residents complained. When the villagers protested against the beating and resisted attempts to arrest several youth, the incensed counter-insurgents allegedly opened fire on them. Four persons died on the spot while four others received injuries.

The villagers told police and civil officials today that the former rebels did not allow them to shift the injured to Baramullah hospital. It was only after the police reached the village late at night that they could be taken to hospital.


New Delhi, April 17: 
Trials in “heinous” crime and political corruption cases will not be the same again as the Supreme Court has ruled that no upper time limit could be fixed for completing them.

A seven-judge Constitution bench of the apex court today partially rejected a batch of directions set by a smaller bench fixing time limits for all criminal cases. The court had, however, excluded serious offences and cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act from its directive.

It will now be difficult for politicians and those involved in anti-terror Act cases to wriggle out on grounds of time limit.

The smaller bench had said that “where the offence alleged was either compoundable or punishable with not more than three years, if the trial had not commenced for more than two years, those should be treated as closed”. This was for “speeding up the trial”.

The larger bench partially rejected it saying “it is neither advisable, nor feasible, nor judicially permissible to draw or prescribe an outer limit for conclusion of all criminal proceedings”.

The seven-judge bench of Chief Justice S.P. Bharucha and Justices S.S.M. Quadri, R.C. Lahoti, N.S. Hegde, Ruma Pal, Doraiswamy Raju and Arijit Passayat, in its unanimous verdict, said: “The time limits or bars of limitation prescribed in Common Cause case could not have been so prescribed or drawn and are not good law”.

“The criminal courts are not obliged to terminate trial or criminal proceedings merely on account of lapse of time, as prescribed by the directions made in (the) Common Cause case and Rajdeo Sharma Case,” the seven-member bench said.

In Rajdeo Sharma’s case, another smaller bench had iterated the guidelines fixed in the 1992 Antulay case in which the court recognised the undertrials’ right to speedy trial.

“Fair, just and reasonable procedure implicit in Article 21 of the Constitution creates a right in the accused to be tried speedily. Right to speedy trial is the right of the accused,” the bench had said.

But the larger bench said: “The nature of the offence and other circumstances in a given case may be such that quashing of proceedings may not be in the interest of justice.”

Cases under the anti-terror Act and several other criminal cases classified as “heinous crimes” come within the ambit of the directive. Under this category, there are an estimated 1.3 crore cases pending in trial courts across the country but the judges’ strength is only around 12,000.


New Delhi, April 17: 
Former Nepali Prime Minister G.P. Koirala has made it clear that he will do nothing at the moment to destabilise the Sher Bahadur Deuba government in Kathmandu. But he added that any proposed constitutional amendments should not expand the king’s role.

The president of the ruling Nepali Congress, who is here ostensibly to attend the 75th birthday celebration of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and also on an invitation from BJP chief Jana Krishnamurthi, met other Indian leaders during his stay in the capital over the past few days.

His mission, though not explicitly stated, is to assess if Delhi would be supportive of a proposed campaign in Kathmandu to replace Deuba. Going by the indication that he received from the leaders here, South Block is in no mood to rally behind any move that will destabilise the present regime in Nepal.

Party insiders said a move is on in the Nepali Congress to get Deuba replaced. But it requires the final nod from Koirala, who is not only the party president, but also one of its most influential leaders. “I don’t believe in changing governments through no confidence motions,” said Koirala, a victim of a similar move last year.

Asked about the possibility of a change in guard in Nepal, the former Prime Minister today said: “Changing the Deuba government will depend on the situation.”

Though he did not elaborate, it was clear that Koirala would review his stand to support the extension of Emergency by the Nepal government to deal with the Maoist rebels at the end of the three-month period.

Koirala is aware that Deuba, who recently visited Delhi, enjoys the confidence of the Indian leaders and any move to destabilise him at this juncture would not find favour with the Vajpayee government and other key members in the Indian establishment. The move for him now is to wait and watch.

The Nepali Congress president tried to play down the differences within the party. “It is natural for any democratic party to have differences and to encourage debates. Unless that happens, a party cannot move forward.” He also clarified his support to the imposition of Emergency in Nepal. “Emergency cannot find a place in a democracy, but then you have to do it at times to deal with extraordinary situations.”

However, his apparent support to Deuba did not stop Koirala from throwing a few barbs at his party rival. “When you are in a minority, you have to make adjustments with undesirable elements. The Deuba government which is in the minority is making such adjustments which in the long run may prove to be costly.” Though he did not specify the “ undesirable elements”, he could have hinted at the relationship of convenience between Deuba and the palace.

Asked if King Gyanendra had a greater role to play in the country, Koirala made it clear that the king, under the present Constitution, only had a nominal role to play. “He is a constitutional monarch and should not get involved in the day-to-day running of the government and administrative affairs,” he said.

The former Prime Minister felt that the Maoist insurgents were not only isolated by world opinion but also by Nepalis because of their mindless acts of violence against innocent people and destruction of government property.


Chandigarh, April 17: 
The Congress government in Punjab has decided to discontinue free power to farmers owning over seven acres of land before the state budget is presented in June. The power tariff, too, may be hiked substantially for all categories, including the scheduled castes.

The decision was taken by chief minister Amarinder Singh following a meeting late last week with officials of the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB).

Singh, who had yesterday stated that certain hard decisions would have to be taken to pull out PSEB from the red, however, is in favour of continuing the policy of free power for small farmers.

The PSEB’s losses have been put at a staggering Rs 2,400 crore mainly because of the populist policy of providing free power to farmers to run their tube-wells.

“The majority of farmers in Punjab own less than seven acres. The number of big ones is small and can be counted on the fingertips. They are the ones who have benefited from the scheme and not the small farmers,” Singh said.

The decision to rollback free power has not come easy for the government, particularly since the Congress poll campaign in Punjab was based on providing freebies to the people, especially the backwards and the rural population.

According to the chief minister, 52 per cent of the state’s farmers own less than three acres of land while 84 per cent own less than seven acres.

“It is the poor farmer who needs to be looked after,” Singh said.

“I am not against free power. But free power at the cost of ruining the state’s economy is not feasible. We are working at a package which would not only protect the small farmers but also help PSEB pull out of the red,” he said.

Incidentally, the Congress had promised to provide free power to small farmers during the 1992 poll campaign. But the promise failed to bring in votes.

Singh has been berating the Shiromani Akali Dal for following policies that have literally made the state bankrupt. In order to put back things in shape, the state government has stopped payment of funds to village heads for development.

The scheme was launched by former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal during his sangat darshans on the plea that money was needed to run the government.

The chief minister’s announcement of a partial rollback on free power to farmers follows recent criticism that the Congress was reneging on its poll promises.

Stunned by the crowds the Akalis have been gathering in the rural areas over the move to rollback free power, the government got the PSEB to release its financial statement as a newspaper advertisement to counter the Akali propaganda.

Ministers were ordered to give out statements that the state electricity board’s collapse was imminent if harsh steps were not taken.

“The advertisements were aimed at educating the people that free power has caused havoc with the economy and the electricity board. Without reforms, the power sector will not survive in the state. The Akali government is a signatory to carrying out reforms. But they used to say one thing to the Centre and do something else in the state,” said a senior Punjab minister.




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