Delhi in secret link-up with Taliban
Clash in Christian block
Exam-free teenagers waylay woman
Bhagwat bout brews
CPM flaunts varsity stranglehold
Calcutta weather

Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), March 16 
In a move which is expected to dramatically change power equations in the sub-continent and Central Asia, India has established direct contacts with Afghanistan?s Taliban government.

Although the secret contacts sanctioned by the BJP-led government fall far short of any diplomatic recognition of the world?s ultimate Islamic fundamentalist regime, they assume enormous significance in the light of a breakthrough in the UN-brokered Afghanistan peace talks which ended here on Sunday.

Sources at the peace talks, at which the Taliban was represented by a high-level, two-member delegation, said India turned over a new leaf in its relations with the Islamic militia when it sent a plane-load of medicines to the rebel-controlled areas in Afghanistan some time ago.

The supply of medicines was in response to a desperate request from the Taliban to New Delhi for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan, where fighting has been a way of life for close to 20 years since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

India had no difficulty in sending the consignment of medicines to Afghanistan, sources here said. This was because New Delhi has consistently followed a policy of providing humanitarian assistance to all Afghans, irrespective of their politics, even during the Soviet occupation of Kabul.

But New Delhi quickly cashed in on the contacts. As a result, Ariana, Afghanistan?s national airline, now under the control of the Taliban, has been secretly allowed to fly to Amritsar regularly.

Due to the extreme sensitivity of the operation and the secrecy surrounding it, the sources, however, declined to go into details of the flights or their cargo.

With the prospects of peace suddenly brightening on the Afghan horizon following the UN-brokered talks here last weekend, the BJP-led government?s decision to open contacts with the Taliban may turn out to be an initiative as significant as Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee?s bus journey to Lahore or the decision to end India?s nuclear ambiguity.

Sources at the peace talks here said the Indian initiative complements similar moves by a number of countries in recent months. Foreign ministers of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have met Taliban representatives, mostly in Pakistan, since November last year.

The Iranians, strong backers of the anti-Taliban alliance, of which Afghan Shias are a part, have also met representatives of the Taliban in Dubai recently.

The peace negotiations here are a result of talks in Pakistan between Boris Shikhmuradov, the foreign minister of Turkmenistan, and leaders of the Taliban.

Sources said the BJP government?s bold decision to start talking to the Taliban is timely, even if controversial in view of the Islamic militia?s extremist positions and its Pakistani patronage.

With the talks to be continued in Afghanistan after the Id festival later this month, New Delhi?s initiative has ensured that India will not be cut out of the peace action and what lies beyond in its backyard as the UN holds out hopes of a return to normality in Kabul.    

Bhubaneswar, March 16 
A group of tribals, backed by suspected Hindu fundamentalist organisations, today clashed with Christians at Ranalai village in R.Udaygiri, wounding four members of the community and torching 30 houses.

The attack followed desecration of a cross on a forested hillock near the village yesterday, about 18 km from the block headquarters in southern Gajapati district bordering Andhra Pradesh. The attackers fired bullets and arrows at Christians who are the dominant community in the village.

The injured were admitted to Chheligada hospital. Two of them, with severe bullet injuries, were in critical condition. Several other villagers were also treated for arrow wounds.

Senior police officials, including DIG (southern range) Sanjeev Marik, rushed to the spot and were camping there till late tonight. Reinforcements were sent from nearby towns. A senior administration official said the area was tense, but under control.

This is the third attack on the community since December in Christian-dominated R.Udaygiri block. A 2000-strong mob went on the rampage in R.Udaygiri on December 8, killing two local thugs inside a jail and burning down over 100 houses in a Christian neighbourhood. One of the slain toughs belonged to the community. A few days later, a number of houses in a nearby minority-dominated village was set on fire.

The incident, coming after the murders of Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two sons in Manoharpur, rocked the newly-installed Giridhar Gamang ministry, with the chief minister coming under intense opposition fire in the Assembly.

The second officer of the R.Udaygiri police station, B.C. Patnaik, said over phone that the cross was installed atop the hillock in 1972 and there had never been any dispute over it. He said tension started to simmer in the area last afternoon after some villagers found the cross desecrated.

Accompanied by circle inspector Asit Kumar Mohanty, officer-in-charge Bhabani Shankar Mishra rushed to the village soon after they got the message yesterday and pacified the villagers. Patnaik said the officials also got both sides to sign a pledge not to create any trouble in the area. But despite their efforts to keep peace, the police officer said, violence broke out this afternoon.

Police said they suspected the hand of Hindu fundamentalist groups in the incident. They said the use of firearms also pointed in that direction.    

Calcutta, March 16 
Out on a joyride in their Tata Sumo soon after the Madhyamik examinations gave over, four students taunted, slapped and robbed a woman on Ballygunge Circular Road yesterday.

Nandini Gupta and two of her friends had just got off their car and begun walking towards a tailor?s shop on Ahiripukur road when the boys spotted them. Passing lewd remarks, they pulled up alongside the women, grabbed Nandini by the hair, slapped her, snatched her purse and sped away.

Three of the boys have been arrested and charged with snatching and outraging a woman?s modesty. A hunt is on for the fourth. Those arrested will be produced in court tomorrow.

Deputy commissioner of police, detective department, Narayan Ghosh, said the boys, aged between 17 and 19, had been driving around the city in a Sumo without a licence.

The boys study in a school on A.J.C. Bose Road. They are Apurba Ghosh, who was at the wheel, and his friends Naushad Khan, Vivek Das and Wahed, who were sitting at the back.

Officer-in-charge of Karaya police station Satyajit Banerjee said Nandini is the wife of a city businessman. The incident occurred around 4.30 pm when the middle-aged woman and two friends were walking towards a tailor?s shop. Nandini lost Rs 10,000.

When the boys spotted the women, they slowed down their Sumo and began tailing them, hurling abuses and making gestures. The women ignored them, but the boys persisted.

They continued to follow the women and at one point swerved and braked alongside Nandini. They caught her by the hair and when she protested, the students slapped her.

?The woman tried to free herself, but the boys held on as they tried to pull her diamond earring out. Her friends tried to help her, but could not do very much. The students threatened the two women that they would be assaulted too if they tried to free Gupta,?? Banerjee said.

The youth managed to pull the earring out, but it fell on the road. They then snatched her purse and sped away. Nandini, however, noted the vehicle?s registration number and filed a complaint at Karaya police station. Police traced the vehicle and its owner with help from the motor vehicles department. The car belongs to Apurba?s father, a resident of Jadavpur Central Road.

A police team led by Banerjee went to Apurba?s residence around 10 pm and picked him up. Naushad and Vivek were arrested from Beckbagan and Karaya Road today after Apurba broke during interrogation. Police raided Wahed?s residence several times, but he is yet to be traced. The purse has not been found.    

New Delhi, March 16 
The government and the Opposition were on a collision course today over the constitution and mandate of the MPs? committee that will decide which aspects of the Vishnu Bhagwat ouster are to be raised in Parliament.

While the Centre appears unclear on what exactly it wants the panel to do, the Opposition fears the coalition is trying to delay, if not avoid, a debate by entangling the committee in the nitty-gritty of what its brief ought to be.

The MPs met for the first time this morning, under the chairmanship of the Lok Sabha Speaker, to finalise the terms of reference of the debate. But nothing came of the meeting, parliamentary affairs minister P.R. Kumaramangalam said.

Though the minister said the ?government was not changing its stand on the Bhagwat discussion?, conflicting signals emerged from the coalition. BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu said the Centre felt the issue was too sensitive to be debated openly.

He said the panel should scan literature relating to the ouster before considering the merits of holding a debate. ?We are willing to go by the combined wisdom of the committee,? he said.

But the government has not spelt out whether the panel?s recommendations will be binding on it. Parliamentary affairs ministry sources said presiding officers of both Houses are not obliged to accept its suggestions.

Both Houses erupted in chaos and had to be adjourned after the Centre turned down the Opposition demand for an immediate discussion on Bhagwat?s defence deal allegations. In the Lok Sabha, Congress MPs sought a debate under rule 184 which entails voting and a joint parliamentary committee to probe the Bhagwat ouster as well as the charges levelled by former finance ministry adviser Mohan Guruswamy.

Kumaramangalam brushed aside the Opposition?s demands, saying: ?Many members feel that since a committee has been set up, why have two sets of discussions on Bhagwat?s sack and the defence deals?? But he did not clarify who the members were and why the Centre sought to link the issues.

The Opposition feels that by forming an ?informal committee?, the Centre is trying to sweep a ?sordid? issue under the carpet.

A new problem has cropped up with Opposition leaders refusing to head the panel.Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar has refused to chair the committee. So has CPI leader Indrajit Gupta. Sources said they fear that if they accept the post, it might give the impression that they have been ?co-opted by the government?.    

Calcutta, March 16 
Surabhi Banerjee may yet find her place in history. Not for writing Jyoti Basu?s biography, but for being the catalyst in bringing out in the open what has so far been in the realm of suspicion.

In an honest admission, CPM?s West Bengal secretary Anil Biswas has put it beyond doubt that his party has colonised institutions of learning and that Banerjee?s appointment as pro-vice-chancellor of Calcutta University may be its latest instance, but the process began decades ago.

The statement by Biswas, regarded as Bengal?s education czar, comes a week after the chief minister?s public admission that a Left Front education cell controls education in the state.

In the party mouthpiece Ganashakti, Biswas has said: ?There is nothing new in reports that our organisational team oversees the affairs of different universities in Bengal.?

?As a matter of fact, communist party teams have been looking after party interests in institutions of higher learning since 1953,? he said, offering an insight into the ways the CPM polices universities.

Biswas made the observation in the wake of disclosures that the CPM, not satisfied with mere control over appointment of key university posts, has assigned party leaders to look after institutions of higher education.

The party will even determine whether a university should defer an examination in case of a bandh called by an opposition party.

Banerjee?s controversial appointment has again brought to the fore the CPM?s scant regard for autonomy of universities and school examination boards.

Biswas? admission in the party organ is also a telling testimony to the fact that the CPM ? in a throwback to Stalinist days ? sees nothing fundamentally wrong in the party controlling areas of such public interest as education.

Setting aside the larger issue of why the Left Front needs to have an education cell, the CPM has shown scant respect for the opinion of its allies, as borne out by Banerjee?s appointment. Other parties of the Front had no say.

?We are totally ignored and treated shabbily as far as appointments to key posts are concerned,? said Amiya Basu, a CPI member of the education cell.

The CPM is now working out its strategy to appoint five vice-chancellors of its choice at Calcutta, North Bengal, Kalyani and Vidyasagar universities and BE College, a deemed university.

In end-1997, the registrar, finance officer and the controller of examinations at Jadavpur University were appointed, skirting the guidelines of the University Grants Commission (UGC).

While the registrar and the controller of examinations did not have the requisite educational qualifications, the finance officer did not conform to the stipulated age.

Apart from Banerjee?s appointment, Front partners also accuse the big brother of forcing the higher education department to bypass UGC norms and maintain the retirement age of college teachers at 60 instead of 62.

Though the smaller allies have often expressed their annoyance, the CPM has always ignored them while taking decisions.

?In most cases, teachers are appointed to colleges and universities on the basis of their political affiliation and not merit.... None of these appointments figures in the front?s meetings,? said Arnab Roy, an RSP teacher-member of the Front?s education cell.

The question is: why appointments to an educational institution should at all be discussed ? let alone decided ? in a political forum, of the Left Front or the CPM?    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Mainly clear night. Not much change in day and night temperature

Temperature: Maximum 34.1?C (Normal )
Minimum 24.1?C (3? above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 90%
Minimum 40%


Sunrise:5.49 am
Sunset: 5.42 pm

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