Harry Potter spell inside, fire and smoke outside
Tank water waits in vain
Contai takes insurance cake
Nazi script shovels fuel into riots fire
Normality claim, but more bloodspill
Bad now, good then
Cong in conscience cry
Maneka kicks up dust over Vaishno Devi mules
Race hots up for health post
Gangrape and murder for seeking Rs 5 more

Calcutta, April 23: 
It was an abrupt ending for the children and their parents at the Harry Potter night show at New Empire, as the screening was terminated soon after the show began because of the fire at the Firpo’s Market, located next to the hall.

The night show in New Empire had begun as usual at 8.45 pm and people had settled into their seats to watch the first saga of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone unfold.

Half an hour into the show, there was commotion in the theatre’s stalls. One among the audience recalled that someone had shouted there was a fire next door.

A few minutes later, ushers turned on their flashlights while the screening was still on, much to the dismay of the audience. “We did not know what was happening and were irritated,” said Mohua Haldar, one among the Harry Potter viewers.

However, after a few seconds, the ushers switched on their flashlights and calmly said the hall had to be evacuated as there was fire nearby.

“It was very calmly announced. The way the ushers spoke did not create any panic,” said Partha Gupta, who was at the night show with his son and his neighbour’s children.

Once the hall was evacuated, no one was allowed out onto Chowringhee, which was swarming with firemen, police and bystanders.

“We did not get to see where the fire was. All we saw was a dense wall of smoke hanging over us,” said Gupta.

Parents had to explain to children that their movie was cut short for events unforeseen. “There were children crying in the hall as they were being led out of what was their treat for the day,” Gupta said.

Policemen at the scene said there was little panic as Sriram Arcade and New Market had closed for the day, reducing the density of people in the area.

Some of the shopowners at the arcade recalled that when, a few years ago, a fire had broken out at Sriram Arcade, it had been confined to the entrance.

There was also an alert at Grand Hotel across the street as security personnel kept a strict watch on the fire.

Guests came out of their rooms to determine the extent of the damage but were assured by the staff that all was well at the hotel.


Calcutta, April 23: 
Quite a few of the shopkeepers and employees at the Firpo’s Market building were packing up for the day when shouts of “Fire!” rang out around 9 pm.

Some had already left and got the news on their mobiles while on way home.

“I rushed out of my shop to see the extent of the fire,” said Bharat Bhai, the owner of Worldwide Glass, a showroom selling glass products on the first floor of 18 Jawaharlal Nehru Road. Even in his state of shock, he was able to gauge that the blaze would be serious.

Bharat Bhai rushed back, shouted out instructions to the few staff and collected whatever valuable items he could before descending and leaving the building. Once he had salvaged his items and kept them in safe-keeping in his vehicle, he hurried back to the road, which was now teeming with onlookers.

“The first fire engine arrived within 15 minutes,” the shopkeeper recalled. With the fire services headquarters on Free School Street less than a kilometre away, it could not have been later, he commented.

Bharat Bhai’s colleagues and several other shopowners watched helplessly as the spirals of smoke rapidly grew to plumes. But the progress of the fire was apparently not matched by the fire-fighting and rescue operations.

“The fire brigade people should have sent more tenders and men sooner than they did,” remarked Ahmed Bhai, the owner of a clothing store on the first floor.

“The water at Manohar Das Tarag was waiting to be utilised. But there was no one to do so for over an hour,” the shopowner said, ruing the “slow-motion” action of the firemen.

It was well past 10 pm that pumps were set up to draw water from the tank on the Maidan, route it across Chowringhee and spray it on to the burning buildings.

Firpo’s Market has many garment stores on the ground floor as well. The shutters of these shops and others on the ground floor were already down, making it difficult to gain access to the main sections of the blaze.

The smoke, however, came out from everywhere. “At first, there were no flames to be seen from the outside. There was just the smoke,” said Kamal Kumar Dhar, the owner of one of the clothing shops that was completely gutted.

This perhaps misguided many present at the spot as to the actual extent of the blaze. It was only when a section of the roof on the first floor of the market caved in that the flames burst out, Dhar said.

Aahar Restaurant, a popular eating place on the ground floor behind the Chowringhee façade of the market building, was in ruins. “We could just about manage to retrieve some papers from the restaurant,” said its owner Rohit Singh. The majority of the shops housed in the historical building shared the same fate.


Mumbai, April 23: 
The Contai branch is one of 2,048 outposts of the Life Insurance Corporation of India across the length and breadth of the country.

But at Yogakshema, the corporation’s headquarters, Contai occupies the pride of place by virtue of climbing to the number one position by selling 50,367 policies, the highest by any LIC branch for 2001-02.

The performance has raised eyebrows in the top echelons of the corporation. So much so that it has started a detailed survey on how the branch has consistently outperformed others, especially from the urban centres. “They have always been outperformers”, said N.P. Bali, executive director at LIC.

While the findings are not yet out, the corporation is likely to take it up at the executive committee meeting held to review and formulate future plans at a time when 11 private sector players are jostling for space in the highly-competitive life insurance market.

Contai is not the only branch in the eastern zone to ramp up sales. Of the seven zones of the corporation, the largest number of policies — 56,92,622 — sold has been from the east.

Further, of the 100 divisions of the corporation, Howrah has secured the first position on two counts — the number of policies (606,401) and the sum assured (Rs 3,943.23 crore).

LIC managing director N.C. Sharma said it was the first time in the history of the corporation that a division has sold over six lakh policies in a single year.

Leading the charge in Contai is Amit Debnath, a development officer from the Howrah division, who for the first time sold over 15,000 policies (15,125) with a sum assured of Rs 104.93 crore. He was among the four development officers to have crossed a sum assured of Rs 100 crore.

On being quizzed why the eastern zone and Contai, specifically, had outperformed the others, Bali alluded to the commitment of agents in the region.

“Unlike other regions, in the eastern zone and in Contai, in particular, selling policies is a full-time profession for agents,” T.K. Banerjee, executive director, marketing & international operations, said.

Analysts said this could be because of a lack of employment opportunities in other sectors in a state that has generally been starved of investment.

Besides, the investment options for individuals in the east are skewed heavily towards safety. LIC as a brand is noted for its security. The findings of Contai will help the corporation look increasingly to the rural markets to fuel growth.


Ahmedabad, April 23: 
The Gujarat government today came under fire from educationists and rights activists after Class XII board examinees were set questions on “Nazi solution” and asked to join potentially volatile phrases into a single sentence.

Education minister Anandi-ben Patel admitted that setting the question was a mistake but said it “does not reflect the state government’s mindset as being projected by some”. She, however, promised to see to it that such “questions” are “never ever” set in future.

The English paper of the Gujarat Higher Secondary Education Board asked students to transform sentences. One of the questions was remove “if” from the sentence “If you do not like people, kill them”. The paper also asked them to join five sentences like these into one: “There are two solutions, one of them is Nazi solution. If you do not like people, kill them, segregate them. Then strut up and down. Proclaim that you are the salt of the earth.”

With violence still raging through the riot-savaged state, the question on “Nazi solution” has put a question mark on Gujarat’s education system and the ideology the state government wants to propagate, said Sofia Khan, a social activist.

Patel tried to deflect the blame, saying question papers are set by the education board, which is an autonomous body. She said a woman teacher from the minority community drafted the paper. The teacher had picked up a paragraph from an essay on “Tolerance” that is part of the syllabus since 1995, she pointed out.

“We have no intention to propagate Nazi philosophy. It so happened that the teacher inadvertently selected this paragraph meant to test their (the students’) English grammar,” Patel said, pointing out that the question papers were set in September when no one could have foreseen the communal flare-up.

But Khan disagreed, saying the paper reflected the state government’s fascination for “fascism”. “The BJP and their cronies in Gujarat have already glorified Hilter. Can the BJP, which rules the state, deny this fact?” she asked.

Human rights activist Cedric Prakash said the teacher who set the paper would not have included this question had there been a secular government in place. “The question goes well with the mindset of the people at the helm of affairs in the state. It will be wrong to blame the teacher …,” Prakash said.

Professor Abidi Samsi, a noted educationist, felt the question was “unethical” even if it was set from a chapter in the syllabus.

As a parent, he said, “I feel sorry about the question paper, which is bound to vitiate the mind of young students who have witnessed enough mindless violence”.

The issue had its echoes in Parliament, too, with Congress leader Shivral Patil saying the government should act fast to find out the authenticity of the questions as reported in a section of the media.

“If these reports are correct, then such questions could create a psychological fear among students and could result in carnage and destruction,” he said. “The government must clarify since education is a subject in the concurrent list for which both the Centre and state governments are responsible.”


Ahmedabad, April 23: 
BJP chief Jana Krishnamurthi today claimed the “situation” in Gujarat was by and large peaceful even as seven people were killed in the fresh flare-up that entered its third day and authorities imposed curfew in Vejalpur.

Of the seven, two were killed in police firing and one was burnt alive.

Krishnamurthi, who was in the riot-scarred state to study the situation, said the state government had taken appropriate steps to control the bloodletting. The feedback he claimed to have received from MLAs and ministers was that except for Ahmedabad the situation was returning to normal and the state was peaceful.

“Even the entire city is not disturbed,” the BJP leader said but admitted he had not met a single leader from the minority community.

The BJP president said it was time to apply the “healing touch” and speed up rehabilitation work. All political parties should work to restore peace and build confidence between Hindus and Muslims, he added.

Krishnamurthi claimed the state government was doing what it could to stop the violence and pointed out that large number of deaths in police firing confirmed that the government was “doing its level best to control the situation”.

But less than one kilometre from the Circuit House, where the BJP chief was addressing a news conference and patting the Narendra Modi government on the back, smoke billowed from three shops while a mob pelted stones at a dargah. A house beside the dargah was also torched.

“The shops that were set on fire were very close to police commissioner P.C. Pande’s office in Shahibaug,” said an eyewitness. The shops, owned by minority community members, were so close to the compound that the commissioner could see the flames from his office windows.

Police sources said tension built up in the area after a few boys reportedly rushed towards the Dariyakhan Ghummat area, where one of the relief camps is situated, with arms, triggering panic among the inmates who came out on the street.

Fearing trouble, Hindu women from adjoining areas fled from their houses and entered the police commissioner’s office compound where they huddled for two hours. Rapid Action Force and police personnel searched the camp where they did not find any weapons or explosives.

One person was burnt alive and four were hit with iron rods, sticks and sharp weapons in Vasna and Juhapura areas, prompting the authorities to impose curfew. Three persons have been admitted in VS Hospital in a critical condition, the police said.

Earlier in the morning, two youths were stabbed in the Dalgarwad area under Karanj police station. Both were hospitalised.

Indefinite curfew continued in Gomtipur, Rakhyal and Bapunagar areas of Ahmedabad.

Apprehending “retaliation” from the minority community, the VHP has asked the government to launch a combing operation in the city and relief camps.


New Delhi, April 23: 
Lok Sabha deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed’s verdict has upset the Prime Minister and the BJP, though Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his party have moved motions under the same rule when they were in the Opposition.

Vajpayee voiced his pique when he met reporters outside Rashtrapati Bhavan this evening after the investiture of Arjan Singh as Marshal of the Indian Air Force.

Vajpayee accepted the verdict under Rule 184 that allows voting but termed it “unfortunate”, adding: “It should not set a precedent.” He felt that law and order was a state subject and it was not the job of Parliament to discuss it. He asserted that the minorities were not in danger and enjoyed “full rights and complete protection”.

However, as leader of the Opposition in 1997 when the United Front was in power, Vajpayee himself had moved a motion under 184 on Bihar after a spate of caste violence against Dalits.

The BJP made this demand on other occasions, too. One instance was in 1997 when a party legislator in Uttar Pradesh, Brahm Dutt Dwivedi, was killed. The state was then under Central rule and Romesh Bhandari the Governor.

Another was when a report on the state guest house attack on the BSP leader Mayavati was released — again in 1997 — holding the Samajwadi Party responsible. Vajpayee was vocal both times in pressing the need for a discussion under Rule 184.

Vajpayee’s comments in the evening reflected a general feeling within the BJP that today’s ruling was “unfair”. The main points of contention against Sayeed’s verdict were:

There was too much stress on the “victimisation” of minorities and too little of what the majority community went through in Gujarat. “A person in that post should take a rounded view of events,” said a BJP MP.

It contained “unnecessary” references to the National Human Rights Commission, the Minorities Commission and women’s groups which visited Gujarat and brought out reports on the violence.

The ruling repeated what “Congress floor leaders were saying day in and day out”, said a BJP leader. “The mental makeup as reflected in the ruling is according to the party he (Sayeed) comes from,” he alleged.

The BJP pointed to reports that Sayeed called Sonia Gandhi in her chamber in Parliament yesterday with some persons from his constituency in Lakshadweep who wanted to take a photograph with her. The alleged visit — which was denied by the Congress — was deemed as “improper” by the BJP.

BJP sources claimed that they felt “short-changed” by the ruling. A senior leader said: “He (Sayeed) was aware that the government knew informally what he was doing”. In the light of this, the phraseology should have been more “objective”.

The motion, however, does not contain any direct or overt criticism of either the Centre or the Gujarat government.

Asked if the motion was admitted only because the deputy Speaker was not from the NDA, Vajpayee replied: “This Speaker is also ours.”


New Delhi, April 23: 
Claiming victory over the Gujarat ruling, the Congress today appealed to the BJP’s allies to vote according to their “conscience” even as it opposed any intervention by international organisations, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy said the riots were an “aberration” and India’s “vibrant democracy, vigilant press and independent judiciary” were capable of correcting whatever had gone wrong in Gujarat.

Echoing the government, Reddy said: “There is no need for international agencies to get exercised over the human rights situation in Gujarat.”

“Vehement protests” against the violence were proof of the health of Indian political institutions, he added.

On the proposed vote in the Lok Sabha on Gujarat, Reddy said the outcome of the discussion under Rule 184 would depend on the “conscience” of many parties, which have expressed concern about the violence. He called upon the allies to stand up and be counted.

He, however, stressed that the government’s defeat under Rule 184 had no “constitutional implications”.

Opposition leaders are convinced that the voting would not pose a serious threat to the Vajpayee regime, but it would adversely affect the BJP and its NDA allies in the “long run.” A prominent Opposition leader said: “We want them (NDA) to languish in office.”

Asked what would be achieved by an Opposition victory, Reddy said the outcome would have “no constitutional implications, but more political implications as the government would stand condemned in the eyes of the people”.

The discussion under Rule 184 was “not technically a censure motion and was not comparable to passage of cut motions to the Finance Bill or defeat of the motion of thanks on the President’s address”.

Congress leaders contested Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s claim that deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed’s ruling to allow a discussion under Rule 184 was unprecedented. They said there were 20 instances where the conduct of state governments was discussed in the Lok Sabha.

Some of these adjournment motions were even moved by prominent leaders like Jaswant Singh, Sharad Pawar and Vajpayee himself.

In his ruling, Sayeed had cited a 1997 precedent, when the conduct of Bihar government was discussed in the Lok Sabha.


New Delhi, April 23: 
Risking the displeasure of the Sangh parivar, animal-lover and minister Maneka Gandhi has decided to wield the stick this time against the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board. She wants the board to ban the use of ponies or mules for ferrying pilgrims to the shrine.

In a letter to the board, the minister of state for statistics and programme implementation has pulled up member Ashwini Kumar Chopra for “extensively” using the animals — often called beasts of burden — for ferrying pilgrims from Katra to the Vaishno Devi shrine and back. Maneka’s ministry includes the department of animal welfare, a service that has always been her “first love”.

“The one-way distance for this journey is about 15 km and the animals are being forced to complete the journey in the shortest possible time so as to ferry more and more pilgrims. In many cases, weak and sick animals are forced to carry very hefty pilgrims,” wrote Maneka. Pointing out that most of the animals are “not fit for transportation on foot”, Maneka said: “They are being used for hours in excess of the permissible rules and in adverse weather. They are not given feed or water at the stipulated levels.”

After listing the five rules outlined in the gazette notification for preventing cruelty to animals, the minister tersely said: “None of these rules are being followed by the persons using ponies/mules at the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine. Therefore, the use of ponies/mules should be discontinued with immediate effect and palkies/dolies may be utilised for carrying pilgrims to the site.”

The guidelines in the gazette say every animal to be transported on foot should be “healthy” and in “good condition”. Ponies and mules are allowed to cover a maximum of 6 km per hour and 45 km per day. Every three hours, the animal is to be rested or given feed.

Further, the animal has the right to a rest of 20 minutes after a drink and a break of one hour after being given a feed. The maximum temperature range during which animals can be used for transportation on foot is 12ºC to 30ºC.

Ever since she was given charge of animal welfare, Maneka has been shooting off letters to a wide range of defaulters for not following the rules.

Recently, she ordered the Bombay Turf Club to use shock-absorbing whips on racing horses. The whip, she added, cannot be used more than three times. The turf club filed a petition against Maneka’s order in the Bombay Civil Court, but it fell through.

“Many jockeys have been punished since then — the punishments range from fines to barring an entire family from participating in the race,” said an official in the ministry.

Maneka has also laid down strictures for developing anti-venom vaccines. Usually, horses are injected small doses of the poison for over almost a year and then allowed to develop anti-bodies.

The committee supervising experiments on animals had the found Pune-based Hoffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Corporation Ltd violating these strictures and had moved against it.


New Delhi, April 23: 
The queue of candidates for the much sought-after health secretary’s post is becoming longer with less than a week to go before Javed Chowdhury retires.

There are at least four aspirants trying to pip each other to the post, which Chowdhury vacates this month end.

Apart from the fact that the health secretary’s office handles important segments in the ministry, a lot of money going to come into this sector. The global health funds under the World Health Organisation is going to pump in $2 billion for combating malaria, TB and AIDS.

Till recently, J.V.R. Prasada Rao, special secretary in the health ministry and director National AIDS Control Organisation, was considered a forerunner. Rao, from the 1967 batch of the IAS, has been extremely influential, especially after he took charge of the AIDS organisation.

However, Rao’s critics point out that he has spent six years in the ministry and his continuation is not desirable from the administrative point of view.

Rajendra Nair, commissioner, Handloom Development Corporation, has managed some vocal supporters to petition on his behalf. Nair’s drawback is that he has only 11 months to go before retirement.

S.P. Aggarwal, director-general of health services, is also eyeing the post. But his chances, according to sources, are slim because of the strictures slapped on him by the Central Vigilance Commission.

The other names doing the rounds of speculation are those of Prabhakaran, special secretary in the ministry of power and N.K. Sinha, coal secretary.


Bhaktakheda (Unnao), April 23: 
It was early morning when 250 Yadavs, high on country liquor and communal hatred, descended on Bhaktakheda, a predominantly Dalit village populated by Chamars and Pasis.

As the 15 trembling families ducked under cots and hid behind trees, they could never have imagined the heavy price they would have to pay for Rs 5.

Soon began the rape, torture, murder and loot. By 8, an eerie calm had enveloped the village. Three women had been gangraped, an old man murdered, 18 persons seriously injured and a two-year-old girl knifed.

As the youth fled the village, violated women lay on the paddy fields, screaming for help. Most of the older lot had been beaten into submission, their limbs fractured and minds terrorised.

Police later found 180 empty liquor bottles littered around the village by the feudal lords who wanted to teach their bonded labourers a lesson.

Victims and eyewitnesses say the police and the local administration tried everything to cover up the crime, committed by a group of moneyed, landed Yadavs on March 31. The landlords were enraged that the Chamar and Pasi families had the audacity to ask them to raise their daily wages from Rs 10 to Rs 15.

It was only after 25-year-old Usma, who had been gangraped by three men that morning, came to appeal before the SC/ST Commission that the case came to light. Usma’s 28-year-old sister-in-law Kalavati, too, had been raped by two men in the same hut.

“We have been waiting for weeks but no one has come to our village,” Usma said between sobs. When she went to the circle officer of Auras police station that day to complain, the policewoman had shouted: “Tum Chamar log sab chinaar ho, bhago yahan se nahi to thane me band kardoongi aur balatkar karwaoongi (All you Chamar women are prostitutes, get out of here or I will lock you up and get you raped).”

Rajay Pal, whose brother Shiv Pal was killed, was shooed away with the threat that he would be hanged and his family imprisoned for life.

The four main accused, Anil Pratap Yadav, Girish Yadav, Om Prakash and Pramod are absconding, a month after the assault took place.

Though the SC/ST Commission and the police say “no one will be spared”, few are ready to believe them.

Atrocities against Dalits were reported to have gone up seven times in the last five years. Besides, not a single annual report has been filed by the commission since 1997.

Poornima Singh, SP (Unnao), said she has posted a PAC picket at Bhaktakheda and that the Dalit village is “now safe from external attack”. She added that the circle officer has been transferred and three constables suspended for dereliction of duty. “We will hunt the culprits down soon,” she said, adding that “the police are doing everything to protect the villagers. They are fine now.”

But in this deserted village,men have not dared to return and women still shiver at the sight of strangers.

Ram Dulara, an 88-year-old blind woman who was kicked and punched, is unable to speak. She just shows her frail, wrinkled legs to anybody who bothers to see and starts crying.

Sonarani still clutches her eight-month old child whom the rampaging Yadavs threatened “to throw into the Ganga”. Nankauno, 78, can’t walk. His legs have been crushed. There is fear and pain everywhere. More so after the local Samajwadi Party MLA, Sundarlal Kureel, announced that the Pasis and Chamaars who voted for the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate should not be spared and that he will “look after the Yadavs”.

But even as the elders are cowering with images of the nightmare, Munna, the only Pasi graduate in the village, is ravaged by a sense of helplessness and rage. “You know, I am a graduate and know how to articulate my community’s problems but there is no one who will listen to me because I am a Dalit,” he said. “There is nothing anybody can do until the government takes us seriously. I don’t know how long we will be raped, beaten and subjugated like this,” Munna said.


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