Milosevic defiant in missile shower
Congress in topple tug-of-war
State stops VHP trial by fire
On the run in massacre zone
Freed MLA claims a crore for a day
Calcutta weather

Belgrade, March 25 
Yugoslavia remained defiant after a barrage of airstrikes killed 11 persons and delivered blows to its military infrastructure even as Nato launched an aerial bombardment for the second night, following through on a US pledge for a sustained campaign.

A half-dozen explosions were heard in Kosovo�s capital, Pristina, including three in the direction of the airport where the sky lit up with bright flashes.

Air raid sirens sounded elsewhere throughout Yugoslavia after dozens of war planes took off from bases in Italy and four warships in the Adriatic launched Tomahawk cruise missiles on the second day of the Nato offensive.

Western leaders had promised a second night of attacks by bombers and cruise missiles after a devastating first round.

�We�re going to systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately, unless Yugoslav President (Slobodan) Milosevic complies with the demands of the international community, we�re going to destroy these forces and their facilities and support,� said Gen. Wesley Clark, supreme commander of allied forces in Europe.

�President Milosevic knows how to get in touch with us when he is ready for peace,� US secretary of state Madeleine Albright said in Washington.

But there was no hint that the assault was causing Milosevic to rethink his refusal to end his forces� offensive in the separatist Kosovo province. After Milosevic met with his top officials to review the first bombardment, the leadership issued a statement characterising the �criminal attacks� as a grave crime against the people of Yugoslavia. This will never be forgotten and the aggressors will never be forgiven,� a spokesman for Milosevic�s party said.

Serbian TV reported that Yugoslavia has severed diplomatic ties with nations participating in the strike.

After the first day of strikes, Nato forces could not achieve their immediate objective � ending Serb attacks on the ethnic Albanian minority in Kosovo.

Fighting raged in Kosovo and Serb forces were accused of attacks on civilians. �The Serb offensive has increased somewhat,� US national security adviser Sandy Berger said.

Both Albright and Berger insisted that Nato unity was intact. Responding to a report that leaders in Italy, from where most Nato bombers took off, thought the fighting had subsided, Berger said: �There are various perspectives. But Italy was wrong, and we will point that out.� Greece, a Nato member, has objected to the strikes.

Russia, which has opposed the strikes, ruled out a military confrontation with Nato, but stepped up its diplomatic offensive. Russia circulated in the UN Security Council a resolution demanding immediate halt to the strikes and is expected to force a vote on it tomorrow. Among the Big 5, China is also against the strikes.

Indirectly supporting the attacks, Pakistan sought to draw a parallel between the Kosovo crisis and the Kashmir situation and alleged that the UN had failed to address such issues threatening international peace and security.

Nato began the initial attack Wednesday night with the launch of cruise missiles from American B-52s in the air and ships in the Adriatic Sea, many of them aimed at Yugoslavia�s air defence system.

The Yugoslav army acknowledged that more than 50 targets were hit, and Nato said initial reports indicated the first phase was a success. The Serbian health minister said 10 civilians and one soldier were killed and 60 people were wounded in the first phase.

In Nato�s first damage assessment, Clark said allied aircraft �destroyed� three Yugoslav jet fighters on Wednesday.

A US F-15 jet fighter made an emergency landing in Sarajevo on Thursday, but a US army spokesman in the Pentagon said the plane had developed a hydraulic problem during a routine mission over Bosnia and was not involved in the bombing. Nato said all aircraft returned safely, rejecting persistent Yugoslav claims that two had been shot down.

Serbia, which along with smaller Montenegro makes up Yugoslavia, ordered the expulsion of all foreign journalists from countries involved in the airstrikes.

In a sign of rising hostility towards the West, several thousand people set fire to the US embassy in Macedonia, neighbouring Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, assailants smashed windows at the cultural centres of the allied nations.    

New Delhi, March 25 
The Congress leadership is caught in a dilemma over making a bid for power by splintering the Vajpayee coalition. Party chief Sonia Gandhi added fuel to the speculation by accepting Subramanian Swamy�s invitation for a t�te-�-t�te with ADMK chief Jayalalitha on Monday, two days after the coordination committee meeting of the BJP and its allies.

Senior party leaders claimed that Sonia Gandhi has made up her mind to dislodge the government. They said the chances of success would depend on factors like Jayalalitha�s willingness to ditch the Vajpayee government, the split in some BJP allies and blanket support from the left parties and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM).

An influential section of the Congress is prompting Sonia Gandhi to go for the kill with the help of Jayalalitha. This group (also called the 70-plus group) includes Arjun Singh, Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy, K. Karunakaran, Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee. They feel the Congress must strike before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee consolidates his position.

They claimed that along with the ADMK, sections of the Samata Party and Biju Janata Dal were willing to ditch the BJP-led government. CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet is in touch with Sonia Gandhi and has assured the support of some key non-BJP groups, provided the Congress forms the government in the event of a power shift.

However, another section of the party is advising Sonia Gandhi not to embark on what they called an �adventurous� course. Among the cautious lobby is leader of Opposition Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma, Digvijay Singh, Jitendra Prasada and Rajesh Pilot. They feel such a move may boomerang and spoil Sonia Gandhi�s main draw in the next general elections.

This camp feels that Sonia Gandhi should wait till November, when Assembly polls are due in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and Maharashtra. These elections, they feel, will provide a better idea of the public mood.

Those favouring the topple bid right away said the Congress� prospects would be better if the party is in power when Assembly polls are held. These leaders argued that the Congress may not get another chance, as disgruntled leaders in the Samata Party and other parties may change their minds.

They said the Congress should harden its stand in the light of the Vishnu Bhagwat and Mohan Guruswamy issues and the recent attacks on minorities.

They maintained there was no harm in going full steam ahead against the Vajpayee government. �Let us assume that we do not succeed. Still, we will manage to keep the heat on and put the Vajpayee government consistently on the defensive,� a CWC member said.

Sources close to 10 Janpath said Sonia Gandhi was willing to strike but she would prefer fresh polls, a proposition which has few takers outside the Congress. The BJP�s current allies � the potential ditchers of the coalition � are in no mood to face snap polls.    

Popra (Malda), March 25 
The district administration here intervened this afternoon to stop agnipariksha, the purification process for initiation to Hinduism, and insisted that it had prevented the VHP�s conversion programme.

The Bajrang Dal and the VHP, on the contrary, claimed their paravartan yagna (conversion ceremony) was a success even though they had to do without the agnipariksha.

There were a few tense moments when the district administration stopped the agnipariksha. �What is this business of conversion to Hinduism?� asked an official. �There is nothing like this in Hinduism,� he said.

But Asit Bhattacharya, chief organiser of the state VHP, said: �It is absolute high-handedness on the part of the administration that forced us to cancel the purification rites.�

Bhattacharya did not appear to be too upset about this as offerings at the yagna were the most crucial part of the ceremony, in which, he claimed, hundreds participated. Even as the tribals lined up at the yagna site to make their offerings, slogans like Ram Chandraji ki jai, Bharat mata ki jai and Sanatan Hindu dharma ki jai rent the air.

Newly-recruited tribal youths of the Bajrang Dal chanted: Jai jai Ram, Jai Sia Ram and Santhal samaj ki jai.

The district administration maintains that there were no conversions. �It is just a big religious congregation,� said an official.

The day began with scores of tribals taking holy dips and arriving at the sites with pots of water. There were at least three areas where tribal gurus were performing the rites. The VHP leaders supervised all the sites round the clock.

At about 1 pm, the fire for agnipariksha was lit. A small trench was dug and filled with firewood. Dry twigs were sprinkled on top. Tribals had to walk over the fire.

Just as small children started lining up, a posse of policemen entered the enclosure, asking the organisers to explain first what the meaning of purification was. �What are the impurities the participants want to burn?� K.K. Das, inspector-general of police, South Bengal, asked.

The superintendent of police soon called the organisers and asked for certificates to show that those who will walk on fire had the expertise to do it.�Who will take the responsibility if someone is badly burnt?� he asked.

VHP and tribal leaders tried to explain that it was part of the day�s religious rites, but the organisers were told that agnipariksha would not be allowed.

The VHP leader and the tribal gurus went into a huddle and finally decided not to insist on it. The paravartan yagna was held instead.

Maharaj Bhagan Kisku conducted the yagna while a tribal woman, Guru Rekha Hembrom, read out the mantras. In a speech coinciding with the yagna, she said: �It is high time the Santhal samaj undertook a self-purification process. Conversion has affected Santhal samaj.�

Stiff security

The entire district administration was deployed during the day at Popra. Apart from armed policemen, all the officers-in-charge of nearby police stations and deputy superintendents of police were in attendance at Popra.

Several monks wearing saffron robes had arrived at Popra this morning, but they were mostly kept confined in a camp where nobody was allowed to enter. The organisers announced in Santhali that none of the participants should talk either to the police or the media. The warning was repeated over microphones every now and then.

Asit Bhattacharya said the day�s religious rites will be followed by door-to-door campaigns in tribal villages during which the legal aspects of the conversion process will be taken care of.

Boxfuls of lockets of Ram and Sita and picture postcards of Hindu gods and goddesses were brought. They were distributed at the end of the day�s rites. Virtually every Santhal family which participated went back home with these mementos.    

Jehanabad, March 25 
Dalits are fleeing their homes across Jehanabad district after the private landlord army, Ranbir Sena, and Naxalites matched genocide with genocide in spiralling violence that has claimed 81 lives since January.

Fear stalks the streets of the Dalit tolas � hamlets of the poor and backward castes usually located at the southern end of largish villages � from where most of the men have fled. Every outsider is viewed with suspicion.

In Azadbigha village, a group of eight men sitting under a banyan tree disperses quickly as a car moves into sight. Is it the Ranbir Sena? Is it the police? �We are afraid,� says Ramayan Ram, 70, after being cajoled to speak. �We are panicky.�

Ram and the other men of Azadbigha, a hamlet of 200 Dalit households, have gathered in the afternoon to exchange notes after having spent the night elsewhere. Their women and children were left behind.

The men hope and pray fervently that if the killers attack, they would take pity on the children and their mothers and spare them. There is little possibility of that, given the track record of the Ranbir Sena which believes in �butchering Naxalites in their mothers� wombs�.

The Azadbigha picture mirrors that of scores of villages in the district. Official sources have identified 292 villages as �sensitive�, of which 73 are �super- sensitive�.

Within shouting distance of Azadbigha is Ganiari, where the chasm between the Dalits and the upper-caste Bhumihars � the main support base of the Ranbir Sena � has widened so much that no work is done in the fields as the harvesting season peaks. The Bhumihars are landholders; the Dalits sharecroppers or agricultural labourers.

Out in the fields, standing crop has ripened to a golden yellow but no one dares to cut stalk with sickle. The sharecroppers and labourers will not work for the Bhumihars. They will also not allow Bhumihars to harvest the crop, risking their own livelihood.

�If we do not harvest, we will not get our share,� says Basmatia Devi of a sharecropping family. But the men, who do the bulk of the work in the fields, have fled the village.

At Khatangi, a village close to Senari where the cadre of the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) slit the throats of 34 Bhumihars last week, it is the same story. Khatangi is also high on the list of villages that the administration suspects as Naxalite bases.

Police have raided Dalit-dominated Khatangi several times since the Senari carnage. �Naxalites take shelter in Khatangi,� says Nageshwar Sharma, a Bhumihar of Senari. In their search and arrest raids, the police have picked up Khatangi�s Dalits at random.

�All the men fled after what happened at Senari,� says an elderly woman. �Those who did not were arrested.� Most Khatangi huts are locked. �We are as good as dead,� lamented another woman. �With the men away there is nobody to feed us.�

The police deny that they are persecuting Dalits. �Though it is true that Dalits have fled from some villages for fear of retaliation, the situation is not as serious as is being portrayed by the media,� says Arvind Gupta, sub-divisional police officer of Karpi.

The exodus of Dalits from Jehanabad�s terror-stricken villages is accepted by the administration as a corollary to the violence that continues to rage. It matters little that lives and livelihoods are lost. Indeed it would seem in all structures that represent administration -- like police station houses -- to be such a routine affair that it does not merit mention in official reports, let alone in media briefings. In Kurtha police station at the epicentre of the Jehanabad violence, the police feign ignorance.

But in Pan Bigha, some distance away, the residents are packing up to leave. Despite the presence of a Bihar Military Police picket, more than 25 Harijan families have left. The rest are stuffing their meagre belongings into bundles for the road. Hari Ravidas places some bottles and small wicker baskets into a bucket while his brother Shankar Ravidas ties a blanket and sheet with a rope. They are leaving shortly.

�Only last night we saw men of the Ranbir Sena moving across the village,� says Hari, a farm labourer. �May be they were on a reconnaissance mission. Who can tell when they will turn on us?�

The movement of Sena volunteers has not gone unnoticed by the policemen. They are afraid too. �We have been made to set up camp in one corner of the village. We are afraid of what could happen if there is an attack,� says a constable. Asked what they would do if indeed there was an attack, he said �We will rush to our defences.�

The policemen wanted their picket in the middle of the village. That would make it safer for them and, they argue, safer for the villagers as well. �In a far corner, they could easily attack and snatch our arms.�

The story repeats itself in Jagdishpur and Vaidbigha; in Ramnagar, Sohsa, Kamata, Akpopur and Murgibigha; in Gokupur and Dharna. The police are wary; the Dalits afraid of both the Ranbir Sena and the police.

�Dalits are soft targets,� says Karo Manjhi, a Dalit of Senari who left after the MCC attack. �Dalits are killed and arrested. The Sena men come and kill us and the police come and torture us.�

At his quarters in Jehanabad town, district magistrate Arunish Chawla is readying to leave. He has been served marching orders after the Senari killings. �The chasm between the castes is widening. It is dangerous for society,� he concludes.

Chawla was posted in Jehanabad shortly after Sundar Singh Bhandari took over the administration for a 25-day spell of President�s Rule. His stint here has been for barely a month. The youthful Chawla said he had initiated a process to form peace committees in each village. The committee would comprise representatives of all castes. In several villages, the committees have already been formed.

But this is not the first time such a step has been taken. In the past, the administration had raised village protection forces in 321 villages. But they were mostly stillborn because the conflict within the villages did not leave them with scope to function.

There were also instances of the upper castes cornering weapon licences issued to some members of these forces as have there been instances of the upper castes and the Dalits raising rival outfits in the same village.

Jehanabad has its own rules.    

Chennai, March 25 
The Tamil Nadu Speaker today decided to abide by a Madras High Court order for the release of jailed ADMK legislator R. Thamaraikkani, avoiding a constitutional row between the legislature and judiciary.

Thamaraikkani, who was freed this evening after four days in prison, said he was tortured and stripped in jail and denied medical help though he was ill.

He threatened to sue the Speaker for compensation at Rs 1 crore for each day spent in prison.

Earlier in the day, the high court granted him bail after suspending an Assembly resolution that sentenced the legislator to 15 days� simple imprisonment for assaulting the agriculture minister.

However, the court made it clear this was only an interim order. Thamaraikkani will still have to serve the prison term if the petition challenging the Assembly resolution is dismissed after the final hearing.    

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

Temperature: Maximum 34.9� (Normal)
Minimum 25.4�C (3�C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 93%
Minimum 37%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset:5.45 pm
Sunrise: 5.40 am

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