Sonia mercy plea for mother Nalini
Bloodbath blots out Bihar family
Viren for Bengal on list of six Governors
Deputy for stay-on Basu
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Nov. 18 
Soon after President K.R. Narayanan returned from Austria a week ago, Sonia Gandhi drove down to Rashtrapati Bhavan with an appeal high on poignancy and potential for scepticism among opponents.

Sonia informed a stunned Narayanan that she and her children wanted to plead for mercy for a woman condemned to death for assassinating Rajiv Gandhi.

Sonia?s case before the President hinged on one argument: another child should not be orphaned. Nalini Murugan, one of the four on the death row at a Tamil Nadu jail, should be spared because of her eight-year-old daughter.

Congress leaders said the decision to seek clemency for Nalini was taken after a ?painful? discussion among Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul. ?Let no child suffer the miseries of being orphaned by an act of state,? a Congress leader quoted Sonia as saying to her children.

Nalini had married Murugan, also convicted in the assassination and facing death by hanging, while in jail. In captivity, Nalini gave birth to a girl, now an eight-year-old living with Murugan?s parents in Australia. The girl used to visit Nalini and Murugan in jail every fortnight for half-an-hour till last month, when she left the country with her grandparents.

The family had given up hope of Nalini?s survival. According to Congress sources, an executioner had even begun lubricating the iron trap doors of the gallows in Vellore Jail, where Nalini is lodged. The Tamil Nadu Governor had turned down the mercy plea of the four. The issue is now before Madras High Court, where the hearing concluded yesterday.

Highly placed sources said the President was moved by Sonia?s request and he took some time to react. Narayanan will decide on Nalini?s fate on the basis of the home ministry report. But the appeal of the Gandhis is certain to be on his mind when the mercy petition comes up before him.

Priyanka had brought up the subject with her mother after reading a report about Nalini waiting for the execution, a family friend said. Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul felt the execution would not bring them any solace. Rahul added that the gesture might bring into focus the futility of terrorist activities that lead to death and destruction.

Congress leaders? reaction was on predictable lines. ?It is a daring decision. They have done themselves proud,? a leader said.

But, barring organisations known to be sympathetic to the Tamil Eelam cause, other parties did not respond till late tonight.

Aware that political motives could be read into the appeal, 10 Janpath had decided to keep it under wraps. But Sonia told Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, about the meeting with Narayanan.

Giri had called on Sonia to ascertain her views on a mercy petition being filed by the Guild of Service, a non-government organisation.

The guild, which has the President as its patron-in-chief, today demanded reprieve for not only Nalini, but also the others on death row for killing Rajiv Gandhi. ?The flimsy nature of material against Nalini, her circumstances, the brutality she alleges of having been subjected to and, above all, the fact that she is the mother of a little girl, are factors which render her execution completely insupportable,? Giri said.    

Patna, Nov. 18 
The spectre of massacres returned to haunt Bihar as unidentified assailants butchered 12 members of a Muslim family, including seven children, near Palamau after midnight on Tuesday.

Two men and their wives and an elderly woman were the others killed in the attack on Lotogaon village in Chhatarpur. The children were aged between three and seven. However, two members of the family survived.

The administration is tight-lipped on who led the carnage. The police initially said the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) was behind the attack, but went back on the statement, saying the identity of the assailants was not known. Moreover, no official has been able to reach the remote village, nestled in the Chhotanagpur foothills 60 km from Palamau. Though the massacre occurred early yesterday, the police were informed eight hours later, giving the killers enough time to escape.

Information trickling into Patna suggest that a group of 30 men swooped down on the village around 12.30 am on Wednesday. After sealing all escape routes, they stormed the house of one Gafoor Mian and tied him and his family to pillars. The attackers then slit their throats.

??About a dozen villagers are still missing,?? said All-India Backward Muslim Congress president Sakiloor Rahman. The village comprised Muslim families.

Police director-general K.A. Jacob had initially said the MCC was behind the incident. But later, he clarified that the identity of the attackers could be ascertained after an inquiry.

Home commissioner U.N. Panjiar echoed Jacob, adding that the inspector-general of police, Ranchi, had been asked to conduct the probe.

Some home officials believe the carnage is an outcome of the rivalry between the MCC and the People?s War Group. They said the two outfits have been at war over various issues, including the control of territory. The officials said that Gafoor reportedly sheltered People?s War activists during the elections, when the battle between the two had intensified. The MCC may have targeted Gafoor to extract revenge, they added.

Though the carnage carries the MCC trademark, the officials were unable to explain why the assailants killed the children, as Naxalites are not known to target them. Observers said the MCC had publicly apologised for killing women and children after the Dalilchawk-Baghaura massacres.

Besides, the MCC is yet to take responsibility for the carnage. The outfit always leaves behind its leaflets at target spots.

Chief minister Rabri Devi, along with RJD chief Laloo Yadav, started for the village this morning, but had to stop at Telari, 2 km from Lotogaon, as there is no motorable road beyond that. She summoned the two surviving women and announced an ex gratia of Rs 12 lakh.

The BJP has renewed its demand for Rabri Devi?s ouster.    

New Delhi, Nov. 18 
The Centre today finalised the list of Governors for six states with Mukand Steel owner Viren Shah set to enter Raj Bhavan in Calcutta.

Political personalities are missing from the list which the government sent to Rashtrapati Bhavan for the President?s assent.

Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab and Manipur are without Governors. Former Tamil Nadu chief secretary M.M. Rajendran was named Orissa Governor on November 12.

Home minister L.K. Advani said the list had been finalised and he expected Rashtrapati Bhavan to make the formal announcement shortly.

Advani had a brief meeting with Jyoti Basu at North Block today. He said the discussions did not focus on Shah who, according to the chief minister, was ??acceptable?? as the Governor.

Top government sources said Vinod Pandey, Cabinet secretary under V.P. Singh, is likely to take charge of Bihar, while former Delhi police chief Ved Marwah, who is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board, will succeed O.P. Srivastava as the Manipur Governor. Srivastava?s term had expired a few months ago and he was on extension.

Goa Governor Lt Gen. (retd) J.F.R. Jacob will be shifted to Punjab, where the post has been lying vacant for some time. Though Jacob was appointed in March 1998, the BJP government is keen to bring in Mohammad Fazal, who heads the party?s minorities cell, in his place. Fazal is a retired IAS officer and has been a member of the Planning Commission.

Sources said two names have been shortlisted for the post in Karnataka ? BJP general secretary Jana Krishnamurthy and former Election Commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthy.

??The party is still undecided on who would be Karnataka Governor, though the chances of the former Election Commissioner are better,?? a source said.

By finalising the list, which does not have anyone with strong leanings to the Sangh parivar, the Centre has put to rest speculation revolving around Akali Dal leader S.S. Barnala, Sushma Swaraj and former bureaucrats K. Padmanabhaiah and N.N. Vohra. Sikandar Bakht, minister in the previous Vajpayee regime who was left out this time, had informed that he was ??disinterested?? in becoming Governor.    

Nov. 18 
The CPM politburo today turned down chief minister Jyoti Basu?s offer of retirement on health grounds and asked him to continue to govern West Bengal with the help of a deputy.

Home (police) minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya , already Number Two in the invisible pecking order in the government, is almost certain to become the official deputy to Basu.

On the opening day of the two-day meeting convened in New Delhi specifically to discuss the issue, the politburo took nearly three hours to reach the decision and issued a statement explaining it in the afternoon. The party?s central committee will endorse it in the next two days.

?(We) appreciate the concerns regarding Basu?s health problems,? the statement reads. ?However, keeping in mind the complex political situation and his vast administrative experience, the politburo felt (that) his services are still required and requested him to continue. Comrade Jyoti Basu accepted this proposal.?

Basu, who has been pressing the apex policy making body to allow him to relinquish office, said in New Delhi he had no option but to stay on. ?What can I do? I have to listen to my party and will continue to serve the CPM as long as my health permits,? Basu told The Telegraph.

Predictably, the Left Front partners , like the CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP , hailed the decision, saying it would further consolidate the front.

The politburo did not name the likely incumbent, but as The Telegraph reported a week ago, it is just a matter of a fortnight or so before Bhattacharya is appointed.

Going by indications in Calcutta and Delhi, Bhattacharya will be given the new chair once the CPM secretariat in Bengal ? as advised by the politburo ? takes a formal decision.

Basu, who is believed to have scripted the process of installation of deputy chief minister as much as the appointment last year of Anil Biswas as state party secretary in tune with his overall succession plans, is expected to make the formal announcement before the month is out. ?I want to wrap it (the issue) up without delay,? Basu is believed to have told close associates.

Once Bhattacharya is appointed deputy chief minister, he will be on test as a possible successor to Basu. The CPM is uneasy about making a choice as Buddhadev has his share of detractors within the party. ?We (state secretariat) meet every Friday, so we hope to take a decision regarding appointment of a deputy chief minister next Friday,? said Biswas.

For several years now Basu had been seeking retirement. But each time he came up against a wall of refusal in the party.

Thursday?s politburo handed out the same ruling to Basu ?within the first three hours of the meeting it vetoed his request for retirement, making it clear that his long innings as chief minister is going to stretch even longer. The party needs him for the Assembly polls scheduled in two years.    

Temperature: Maximum: 29.0?C (0) Minimum: 20.4?C (+2) Rainfall: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 96%, Minimum:55% Today: The weather office predicts a mainly clear sky and a slight fall in night temperature Sunset: 4.48 pm Sunrise: 5.57 am    

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