Britain blinks in battle over bond
EU envoys in sermon on refugee camps
Shabana holds fort as Deepa spits fire
Bihar allies in show of unity
Chidambaram tilts towards Jaya-foe BJP
Vajpayee seal on Uma resignation
Muivah arrest bursts Bangkok bubble

New Delhi, Feb. 1 
Hit by New Delhi’s rapid-fire response to its proposed bond scheme for Indian visitors to the UK, the Tony Blair government today said the move was not directed against any specific country, least of all India.

The scheme was meant to “restore the right of appeal” to those who had been denied entry into Britain, it added.

The British government also denied that the amount for the proposed bond has been fixed at £10,000.

Yesterday, India had called the British proposal “discriminatory” and threatened to take “reciprocal action”.

To show displeasure, South Block denied that there Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had planned to call on visiting British minister of state for foreign affairs Keith Vaz.

The Indian-born Vaz, however, met home minister L.K. Advani, his Indian counterpart Ajit Panja and foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. He also delivered an address at the CII on “European Union and India”.

Vaz, who walked right into the eye of the storm over the proposed bond, however, cooled tempers within hours of his arrival with his articulate arguments. “It’s absolute nonsense to suggest that Indians will have to provide a bond to get into the UK,” he told reporters at British high commissioner Rob Young’s residence this evening.

As a sop to India, the British government, which already has five visa posts in major metropolitan cities in the country, has decided to extend visa-issuing facilities from two new centres — Chandigarh and Ahmedabad.

“People will be able to apply the normal way even tomorrow by providing the normal document, the normal fee and by the evening they will get their visa for the UK,” Vaz said. He pointed out that the pilot scheme was only for those who are going to Britain to visit their families and who in the past had been refused permission to enter the country.

He said Britain had 168 visa posts spread over the world and New Delhi and Mumbai were two of its busiest posts. “If any post in India is chosen it will not be the only one. Moreover, the proposed scheme will not be applicable throughout the country. A pilot scheme has to spread over several countries. And whatever steps are taken to improve the visa service here it will be done in consultation with Indian officials,” the minister said.

He pointed out only 16 per cent of the applicants are refused entry while nearly 84 per cent people are allowed to visit UK every year. “We welcome people from India to come and visit us.’’

Vaz, who is the British foreign minister of state looking after immigration and visas, among others things, argued that the proposed move was being thought of to restore the right to appeal of people — specially ethnic Asian minorities — which was taken away by the former John Major government in London. “The Tony Blair government will not undertake any policy that is discriminatory. He is the most fair person I have met,” he said.

“Those of you who are aware of my background will know that all my life I have faught for the right of ethnic minorities,” the minister added.

Vaz pointed out that the pilot scheme was being thought about following suggestions from the Asian community in UK. But he maintained that measures other than the proposed cash-bond scheme was also being thought of by the government to ensure those applicants whose have been denied a visa for the UK may get a chance of an impartial and independent judge to look into their case.

The British minister also made it clear that he was in no mood to get into another controversy when asked about his views on the sharp Indian reaction to the pilot scheme.

“The Indian response is perfectly acceptable. It’s perfectly all right for them to have reacted the way they did,” Vaz said. “Of course the Indian government must stand up for its people,” he added.    

New Delhi, Feb. 1 
Ambassadors of four European Union countries stationed here have told the Union home ministry that the condition within the camps in which thousands of Kashmiri migrants have been lodged for several years can do with some improvement.

The ambassadors of Portugal, France, Germany and Finland met home secretary Kamal Pande today and gave him an assessment of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir following their tour of the terrorist-affected state in early October. Envoys of Western countries often visit Kashmir to get on the spot information about the larger security scenario and the development activities.

Senior home ministry officials said the ambassadors told Pande that a world of improvement could be brought about in the migrants’ camps where the quality of life is well below par. The lot of the migrants, a majority of them Kashmiri Pandits who were made “soft” targets by Pakistan-backed terrorists, could be improved manifold by the state government.

The home secretary is believed to have “appreciated” the concern voiced by the ambassadors, who also felt that the human rights situation had improved compared to the seriousness of the allegations that used to be levelled against the security forces in the early 1990s.

During their extensive tour, the envoys discussed with district officials and villagers the extent of development activities that the state has undertaken. Their feedback to the home ministry is that most people complained how they are continuing to be denied the fruits of development.

The envoys’ report card also had some good things to say about the efforts of the Centre and the Farooq Abdullah regime to combat terrorism. It is understood that they lauded the efforts of the village defence committees and the special police officers to take on militants in inaccessible areas.

Home ministry officials said the envoys were veering round to the view that terrorism had assumed a mercenary character with the majority of the militants in Kashmir being foreigners.

They were happy that the state government was preparing to hold panchayat elections, which home ministry officials assured was “on the cards”.    

Feb. 1 
Shabana Azmi is playing godmother on the sets of Water. With director Deepa Mehta away in Delhi, the veteran actress has taken on the role of guardian to keep the restless film flock together.

Lobbying to get the Uttar Pradesh government’s ban on filming lifted, Mehta today dared the BJP top brass to revoke the censor board’s permission to shoot her film in Varanasi.

“Whether it is Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani or I&B minister Arun Jaitley, someone should let me know in the next two days whether I can shoot my film in this country or not,” she said in Delhi.

Returning the fire, the BJP said Mehta’s latest venture smacked of “moral vandalism”. Party leader Jana Krishnamurthy said: “Anything that denigrates Hindu culture and hurts the sentiments of the community cannot be tolerated.” He did, however, condemn in the same breath the “physical vandalism” and destruction of the sets by BJP-led mobs.

While the filmmaker and the politicians remain locked in battle, patience is wearing thin among the cast. The unit is getting increasingly vocal in expressing disgust at the Sangh parivar’s opposition to the film.

To keep tempers in check, Shabana has taken charge of what is said to the media. Of the three actresses who play the widows, the youngest, Urvi Gokani, has been made to shut out the press. Even Nandita Das checks with Shabana before making a comment.

“I have shaved off my head. I am now committed to see the shooting of this film start at any cost,” said Shabana. Nandita echoed her. “I am willing to risk my life to see this film start... If need be, we’ll adopt a brick-for-brick policy. Yes, we are terribly hurt and angry,” she said.

However, the BJP is unlikely to come off its high horse soon. When Krishnamurthy was reminded that the information and broadcasting ministry had vetted the script, he said: “But you must know how it works. Some clerk must have passed it.” He said Mehta should have submitted her script for scrutiny to an outfit called the “Kashi Vidwat Parishad”. If these “intellectuals” okayed it, she could have gone ahead.

Party spokesman Venkaiah Naidu added: “If Deepa Mehta has the right to protest against vandalism, even the people have the right to protest. Finally, it is the people who should decide the issue.”

The furious director, who stands to lose Rs 2.5 crore if she packs up and leaves Varanasi as per the Sangh diktat, dismissed the idea of quitting the warfront. “Why should I move out of Varanasi? The I&B ministry and the censor board have okayed the project,” she argued.

Mehta said, if anything, the vandalism had steeled her resolve. “If the authorities feel I’m such a controversial director, why don’t they tell me I can’t make films in this country,” she shot back.    

Patna, Feb. 1 
The quibbling NDA partners were knocked into a rough shape today as senior alliance leaders came on a common platform to speak a common language.

Points of dispute like choice of chief minister and seat adjustment were swept under the carpet as the parties, responding to electoral compulsions, joined hands against Laloo Prasad Yadav’s “jungle raj”.

Laloo, in alliance with the CPM, had been recovering lost ground as the coalition partners fought among themselves.

In a show of unity, the NDA news conference today was attended by Nitish Kumar of the Samata Party, Ram Vilas Paswan of the Janata Dal(U), Sushil Modi of the BJP and Anand Mohan of the Bihar People’s Party.

Dal(U) chief Sharad Yadav also flew down this morning. BJP veteran Kailashpati Mishra was present as the high priest of the alliance.

In a marked contrast to his earlier outburst, Nitish said he harboured no grievances now over the allotment to 90 seats.

Paswan said his party workers were now rejuvenated, and the BJP leaders put in that they had no problems with the BPP’s demands.

Anand Mohan, who was till recently breathing fire and brimstone, looked a bit uncomfortable. “Like the youngest member of a family, I will try to make the maximum sacrifice,” he said.

The allies are to issue a joint manifesto tomorrow “in an attempt to reinvigorate the image of the NDA”.

Paswan said: “We are bound by the duties imposed on us by the people in the Lok Sabha poll. The last election was a rehearsal for the end of Laloo raj. Now it will be a decisive battle against corruption, breakdown of law and order and underdevelopment.”

However, the anti-Laloo axis may still suffer setbacks due to structural flaws as well as the excess number of candidates in the fray.

Although the surplus candidates will be asked to retire, the parties may not push their members, lest it led to dissent.

Sharad Yadav, however, was firm on the issue. “The parties have been instructed to tell the additional candidates to retire. If they don’t, the parties should publicly announce their expulsion,” he said.

But this is easier said than done. For example, Samata has placed candidates in 40 seats more than the 90 it has been allotted. Although this happened before the final round of talks, Samata could face a revolt if it asked its nominees to withdraw.

Many leaders have spent their time and money on the campaign. Who will take their responsibility, asked a senior Samata leader.

Besides, the JD(U) itself is still unable to sort out its extremely backward caste tangle. Its national general secretary Mangilal Mandal is crying foul and spokesman Lakhsmi Sahu is sulking over alleged nepotism in the party.

Anand Mohan, who had kept his walkout threat alive till the last minute, finally decided to stay with the NDA after talking to Atal Behari Vajpayee last evening.

But though the BPP has agreed to settle for less, Anand Mohan’s associates feel it would be hard to contain the party’s young Rajput aspirants with mere platitudes.

Anand Mohan, who said he himself might not contest, would ask his cadre to have the votes transferred to the NDA nominees. But “I can only try”, he said.

All the leaders have decided to address the NDA campaigns starting tomorrow.    

New Delhi, Feb. 1 
With his party edging closer to arch rival Jayalalitha, former finance minister P. Chidambaram is gradually being drawn to the BJP.

The capital was rife with rumours of a realignment after Chidambaram reportedly met home minister L.K. Advani last night. If Chidambaram eventually joins the BJP, he will be following in the footsteps of another former Congressman from his state, P.R. Kumaramangalam.

A section of the Tamil press, particularly the pro-DMK dailies, reported the meeting, fuelling speculation that the BJP’s newfound southern ally is brokering the negotiations.

Both the Tamil Maanila Congress, Chidambaram’s party, and sources close to Advani denied the “meeting”. But a source close to Chidambaram refused to confirm or deny it, saying: “Better ask those who wrote the report.”

A BJP leader said Chidambaram was “unhappy” about the growing proximity between his party chief GK Moopanar and Jayalalitha, who have struck a deal for the Assembly bypolls.

Sources said Chidambaram had sent last year sent feelers to the BJP for support in the Sivaganga Lok Sabha poll. His request was not turned down immediately, but the BJP decided against an understanding after it felt that his prospects were “dim”. He lost the election.

The sources said this time,too, a section of the BJP is “cold” to the “overtures”. Kumaramangalam is also believed to be “unhappy” about the reported meeting.    

New Delhi, Feb. 1 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today finally accepted minister of state for tourism Uma Bharti’s resignation. Culture minister Ananth Kumar will hold additional charge of her ministry.

Bharti put in her papers last month and expressed a desire to plunge into full-time “agitational” politics in Madhya Pradesh, her home state.

Bharti’s decision to return to Madhya Pradesh stems as much from her perception of a leadership vacuum in the state BJP and her ambitions for the chief minister’s chair as her belief that the old guard may not survive for long, especially after Kushabhau Thakre completes his innings as party president in April this year.

The trio of Sunderlal Patwa-Lakhiram Aggarwal-Lakshmi Narayan Pandey had held sway over state politics for several decades with Thakre’s blessings and managed to keep Bharti at a safe distance. With Thakre almost certainly not getting a second term on account of poor health, BJP sources said the clout of Patwa and company may be considerably reduced.

Bharti could have had a potential rival in Vikram Verma, former leader of the Opposition in the state legislature. But after he lost the last polls, Verma too has been on the periphery of state politics.

The state BJP had been lying low in Digvijay Singh’s second term, until Bharti — reportedly prodded by mentor L.K. Advani — decided to go on the offensive. She first took the matter of the alleged assault of BJP councillors by the police to the streets, and then went to town over the death of a constable posted outside Congress leader Arjun Singh’s residence. The latter was gored to death by a cheetal.    

New Delhi, Feb. 1 
The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) has an elaborate network of offices, expensive apartments, front companies which manage the burgeoning real estate businesses, bank accounts under fictitious names and even a mailing address in Bangkok, the world’s so-called vice city.

Since the early Nineties, NSCN(I-M) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, the insurgent outfit’s president Isak Chisi Swu and about 50 leaders have been living in a prosperous Bangkok suburb, Sukhaphiban. Muivah stays in an exclusive apartment block called Thansap Mansion on Sukhaphiban-3 Road.

His flat, guarded round-the-clock by no less than 10 cadre who live in smaller houses in the same locality, is close to the so-called Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland Coordination Centre office, which is a two-storeyed building located at 100/482 Ramintranivet, Ramintra Road, a posh suburb of the Thai capital. According to reports available with officials here, the windows of the office always remain shut.

Barely two to three km away is the post office from where the NSCN(I-M) leadership post and receive letters. To make sure that their address is not traced, the NSCN(I-M) bosses have arranged an exclusive box office address to receive mail. The mailing address available with the government is PO Box No. 81. The post office is located at Chorekhebua, Bangkok-10230.

Indian security agencies have been able to track down at least one of the accounts which Muivah personally operates under the alias Muslimuddin. Bangkok Bank, where the account was opened in the early 1990s, is situated on Pattanakram Road, Ramkhamhaeng.

Muslimuddin is believed to be a Bangladeshi name and Muivah also holds a fake Bangladeshi passport. His arrest by the Thai police, once on January 19 when he arrived from Karachi and again on January 29 after he tried to flee the country, has revealed that he possessed two false passports, one South Korean and the other Singaporean.

Officials said of late they have received reports that the NSCN(I-M) has set up many front companies engaged in several kinds of businesses and activities, including real estate, toy manufacturing and tour guides within Thailand. Officials believe the tour operating firms help the NSCN(I-M) cadre to move around the country and abroad covertly and conveniently.

“The NSCN(I-M) leaders live pretty comfortably in Thailand as their cadre rough it out in Nagaland,” an official said, describing the lifestyles of the outfit’s members who have made Bangkok a haven.

Muivah’s arrest twice has burst the bubble that Bangkok remains a haven for insurgent leaders on the run from the Indian government. Officials believe that the Thai police’s action has sent a message to the Ulfa, National Democratic Front of Boroland and the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur that Bangkok can no longer provide them with unhindered cover. “One positive fallout of the arrests is that the Northeast insurgent outfits will now find it difficult to strike arms deals in some of the South-East Asian countries,” an official said.

The government is upbeat that after Muivah was arrested twice in quick succession, latest reports from Nagaland indicate a possibility of some of the Naga tribes, like the Angamis and the Chakesang, turning against the NSCN(I-M). Preliminary reports from the state suggest that the S.C. Jamir government has begun the process to seek Muivah’s extradition or deportation. However, the state government cannot take up the matter independently with the Thai authorities. It has to approach the Centre first.    


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