Bihar MPs in hurry hijack plane home
Shelled airport between Tigers and prey
Pentagon caught in Star Wars rerun scandal
Gill-buster son on run
Devil’s Alternative grabs calm Kargil
Calcutta weather

Lucknow, May 18 
It was a hijacking the nation never heard about. Less violent and tragic than the headline-grabbing ordeal aboard IC 814, but no less sordid and shocking.

On May 12, an Alliance Air plane bound for Lucknow was hijacked in New Delhi and forced to land at Patna. No ransom was demanded. The 27 hijackers wore khadi kurtas, some even sported Nehru topis: they were all MPs from Bihar going home for the weekend after attending Parliament.

The people’s representatives, cutting across party lines, had “no time to waste in Lucknow” and preferred to flout all air-traffic control norms and reach Patna first rather than follow the scheduled Delhi-Lucknow-Patna course.

“It was a harrowing experience,” fumes Shailendra Jain, district governor of Rotary International, who was on board Alliance Air Flight CD 7411.

A seething Jain, who is yet to get over his ordeal, says: “The MPs flouted all norms of civilised behaviour. They couldn’t have got away with such an obnoxious show of power anywhere else.”

But they did, and how. According to the passengers, trouble erupted when some MPs, among them Prabhunath Singh of the Samata Party and Union water resources minister C.P. Thakur, suddenly decided they wanted to go to Patna first.

Around 6.15 pm, when the plane had already started taxiing, Singh whipped out his mobile phone and said: “I want to talk to Sharad Yadav (civil aviation minister).” When a steward approached him, saying, “Sir, please switch off your cellphone”, Singh barked: “Chup kar, main tera baap se baat kar raha hoon (Shut up, I am speaking to your father).”

Soon there was an announcement that due to some reason the plane would have to return to the tarmac and all passengers would have to disembark. “We objected but the pilot and crew members gave us no explanation,” says B.K. Bansal, another passenger.

Bansal and his non-VIP co-passengers got their answer when they saw a harried looking Sharad Yadav rush to the airport and talk to the netas and the authorities. “Inko Patna utar dena, phir jahan chahe chale jaana (Drop them at Patna first and then go wherever you want to),” a passenger heard the minister order.

Civil aviation ministry sources in Delhi confirmed that Sharad Yadav was at the airport then. The minister could not be reached for comment as he is out of the country.

Says Jain: “Even though the ordeal went on for nearly five hours, our persistent queries received no convincing answers. First they said the weather was bad, then they said someone was unwell. Finally, they pleaded they had to go to Patna first because there was no landing facility there after 10.30 pm. But it didn’t make sense because we took off from Delhi only at 10.15 in the night and reached Patna around 11.30 pm.”

A.K. Upadhyaya, Lucknow station manager of Indian Airlines (Alliance Air is a subsidiary of the national carrier), confirmed the delay but said it could have been due to bad weather. He, however, had no answer when asked how the airline could jeopardise the lives of passengers by “force-landing” at Patna beyond the 10.30 pm deadline.

Bansal, who swears he will never fly with Bihar MPs again, says there was commotion soon after they boarded the plane at 5.45 pm. “It was a weird experience. We were shuttling between the plane and the cafeteria. After we were asked to deplane and given fresh boarding passes, we were asked to go through the whole security-check process again. Those who didn’t want to go through the fiasco were granted free boarding by Indian Airlines. Around 10 persons disembarked,” he said.

When the passengers boarded the aircraft again, they heard the pilot announce that the plane would first go to Patna and then come back to Lucknow.

Another passenger, who didn’t wish to be named, said that apart from the delay and unavailabily of food in the cafeteria, what was most harrowing was the crude behaviour of some of the MPs.

“A monk, who I later learnt was a nominated member of Parliament, was swearing at the crew in the most filthy language. It was such an embarrassment with so many women around,” he said.

Though Uttar Pradesh principal secretary, health, V.K. Diwan, who was also on the plane, has apparently threatened to approach the Consumer Forum, most do not see any punitive action coming the way of these MPs.    

May 18 
Tamil Tiger guerrillas claimed to have taken control over two strategic roads leading into Jaffna and are pounding the Pallali airbase to cut off supplies for 40,000 soldiers defending the peninsula. The Sri Lankan government denied the claim.

According to an Associated Press report, fighting intensified today as rebels from the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fired between six and 10 artillery shells on the airport, located around 10 km north of Jaffna city. If Pallali falls, the area’s 40,000 soldiers and support staff will be trapped with nowhere to go.

Military officials, requesting anonymity, confirmed the attack on the airbase, but refused to provide details. It was the second time in two days that the airport, which serves as the army’s storage facility, came under attack.

Some political observers scoffed at the Tigers’ claim, saying they were trying to portray a scary situation in Pallali when everything was normal.

With the battle for Jaffna intensifying by the day, the United States has decided to send its under-secretary of state for political affairs, Thomas Pickering, to Colombo. The decision comes close on the heels of an American willingness to mediate in the ethnic conflict.

Though the Lankan government has rebutted reports of the LTTE’s advance, the island’s defence chief Rohan de Silva Daluvatte has arrived in India, apparently to seek strategic advice from military commanders.

AP, quoting the clandestine Voice of Tigers radio monitored in Vavuniya, said the Tigers had captured Kaithady military base, 3 km east of Jaffna, and sections of two roads in a 12-hour battle.

The government denied it had lost control of the roads, but admitted that the army had withdrawn their defences from the Ariyalai sector.

“Several attempts by the terrorists to advance...from Ariyalai area were contained by the security forces by readjusting the defended localities,” the situation report released by information director Ariya Rubasinghe said. Ariyalai is less than 10 km away from Jaffna city.

The government has frequently used the term “readjusted” in the past to describe troop withdrawal from the frontlines.

The continuing “readjustment of defended localities” implies that the Tigers are indeed advancing towards Chavakacheri, 4 km east of Jaffna. The Tigers have changed their strategy and are focusing on this town as it would bring them closer to Pallali airbase.

The guerrillas are now shelling the airport from Kaithady, a garrison town on the A9 highway linking Jaffna with the mainland. The LTTE claims it overran Kaithady after a “ferocious 12-hour combat”.

The Tigers said over 100 soldiers died in the battle. The government admitted to only 24 wounded.

The LTTE is targeting Pallali in the hope of choking the supply line. Even during the battle for Elephant Pass last month, the guerrillas had first cut off the water supply route and demoralised the soldiers.

As Lanka celebrated Vesak, marking Lord Buddha’s birth, the toll in yesterday’s temple blast in Batticaloa went up to 23. Reports today said that among those killed yesterday were nine children, all below 12, from an orphanage in the LTTE-controlled area.

Reports today suggested that the LTTE may have triggered the explosion in retaliation against last month’s grenade blast in Trincomalee, in which 19 people — most of them Tamils — were killed. The grenade went off in the midst of a huge crowd celebrating Tamil New Year’s Day.

. The grenade was apparently hurled by an unidentified Sinhalese soldier.

The rapid rebel advance to encircle Jaffna prompted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to express concern for the safety of the city’s half-a-million residents.

“The current military situation has put civilians at great risk and has already caused casualties among the people of Jaffna,” high commissioner Sadako Ogata said in a statement from Geneva.    

Boston, May 18 
A leading defence technology expert here has accused the Pentagon of trying to cover up what he says was a failure of a crucial technology test for US’ proposed anti-missile defence shield.

Professor Theodore Postol at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has said the US Ballistic Missile Defence Organization (BMDO) and its contractors “tampered with data” to fraudulently dub the test successful.

In a letter sent last week to John Podesta, White House chief of staff, Postol has called for an independent scientific investigation of the test results. Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security at MIT, was formerly a scientific advisor to the US Chief of Naval Operations.

A spokesperson for the national missile defence programme denied the allegations. “There has never been any doctoring of data or fraud,” Lt Col Richard Lehner said and added that the BMDO was looking at Postol’s analysis and would respond to it later.

The test was part of a series that could influence President Bill Clinton’s decision, expected later this year, whether to deploy the national missile defence system, a tamer version of the Star Wars programme of the 1980s.

It will be made up of a network of satellites, ground-based radars and hit-to-kill interceptors that will seek out incoming missiles and destroy them by colliding with it high above the atmosphere.

Although the US says its national missile defence system is intended to stop small numbers of ballistic missiles from “rogue states” like North Korea, Russia fears the shield will weaken the deterrent value of its forces.

The US defence department expects the system to cost $ 60 billion. Arms control experts have warned that a decision to deploy it may have profound implications on international security.

Critics have repeatedly said the technology available today is not advanced enough for interceptors to discriminate warheads from decoys. Now Postol has alleged that the BMDO attempted to hide what he says were “programme-stopping facts” revealed during the first test three years ago.

Postol said his analysis, based on BMDO’s own documents, supports similar allegations by Nira Schwartz, a former engineer working with a company developing the discrimination technology who has taken the case to court.

Schwartz had alleged that the company was manipulating data to show that the technology worked. Her allegations had led to an investigation by the US Defence Criminal Investigation Service.

The test objective was to determine whether an interceptor could distinguish between a mock warhead and decoy balloons. Sensors, which function as electronic eyes, on the interceptor see the possible targets as points of light.

Postol says the test data showed that light signals from the objects fluctuated in a “varied random and unpredictable” way.    

Chandigarh, May 18 
The 18-year-old son of Rupan Deol Bajaj, the officer who won a sexual harassment case against supercop K.P.S. Gill, has the police hot on his trail.

Ranjit Bajaj has been charged with kidnapping, robbery and illegal possession of arms. Police filed a case against him following a complaint by Sunny Garg, the 16-year-old son of a city industrialist.

Sunny was driving his father’s car out of Sector 15 on May 14 when Ranjit and a friend blocked his way, the police said. The duo got out of their car and asked Sunny to shift to the adjacent seat. When he refused, Ranjit allegedly brandished a pistol.

Sunny was then taken to Ranjit’s residence where he was kicked and hit with a rod. The duo snatched Rs 1,000 from Sunny and took Rs 1.18 lakh from the dashboard of his car, a mobile phone and some documents, police said.

A police party raided the Bajaj residence last night and found some objects allegedly belonging to Sunny which, he said, had been taken by Ranjit and his friend.

A senior police officer said Sunny was repeatedly threatened and asked to arrange Rs 20 lakh for his release. In his statement, Sunny said he was so frightened that he did not tell his parents about the incident immediately. The police were informed on Tuesday.

Jasmohan Singh, inspector (press) UT Police, said search parties had fanned out across the city and it was a matter of time before Ranjit was arrested. “Not only this case, his bail plea has been rejected in another forgery case, too,” he added.

Rupan Deol, who is principal secretary (appeals) in the Punjab government, was not available for comment. Her husband B.R. Bajaj, also an IAS officer, could not be reached either.

Rupan Deol hit the headlines after she charged former Punjab police chief K.P.S. Gill with bottom-pinching at a private party in the Eighties. After a drawn-out court battle, she won the case and Gill was handed a suspended prison sentence.

Ranjit is not the first VIP son caught on the wrong side of the law. Children and grandchildren of several top politicians and officials in the city openly carry weapons and terrorise people. Some have allegedly been involved in criminal offences, including rape.    

Kargil, May 18 
The armyman at the sleepy outpost was genial and welcoming but he wondered why we had come all the way again. He was in mufti and wore rubber chappals and his gun was nowhere at hand. His jawans were washing clothes by the river and some others were lounging on the rocks listening to Hindi film songs on a shortwave set.

On the bed in his tarpaulin tent lay a dishevelled copy of Frederick Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative and a self-served deck of cards. The officer had probably been taking turns at re-reading a dated semi-classic and playing patience. He was bored and suggested we would be too. “I don’t know why you took all the trouble,” he said, “there is nothing happening here this summer.” Perhaps that’s why.

The unusual had become so much the usual in Kargil last summer that the return to routine appears the odd thing. Humdrum is the big story. Peace is breaking out, slowly emerging from winter’s long hibernation like clumps of sturdy vegetation. Normalcy is on the march.

Children are going to school. Shops are doing business. The men are gossiping in the tea stalls, the women are buying and carting vegetables and meat, fat roosters are out parading the streets and crowing at the top of their voices. Most of last summer they cowered in the sheds with their hens, shaken by the shellfire and the sound of artillery pounding. This summer the roosters are making all the noise. The guns are silent. Most of them, in fact, are neatly wrapped and nestled in bunkers.

So, in one sense nothing is happening in Kargil. The dateline is not living up to its infamy. But in another, very consoling sense, at least for Kargilis, everything is happening in Kargil. “This is the first summer in three years that we have a sense of normalcy,” says a businessman in the busy marketplace, “the shelling had begun in 1998 and we already had the intimations of something terrible about to happen, last year the war happened. Isn’t it great nothing is happening this season? I can open my shop, my children can go to school, some tourists can come by. The things that should happen are happening.”

Everywhere people are busy picking up the pieces of their torn lives. The long winter is too harsh and too debilitating in these parts so this is the time to clear the debris of last summer’s war. Blasted dwellings being torn down and built anew, shops and businesses being brushed and painted. Schools and hospitals being recast. Kargil is heart-warmingly lost in renovating itself.

So lost and engrossed, in fact, that most of Kargil has no time to worry about a recurrence of what happened last summer. “War? Again?” asked a restaurateur, “we’ll think about it after I have set my place in order. It cannot happen every year, and even if it does, our lives have to go on. Last year was no example of how to get on with it.”

Well past nightfall, Kargil’s one-lane bazaar is still busy, the people out of the streets as if with a vengeance. The shops sparkled with bright lights and the street was abuzz with the sounds of vendors and bargainers. It looked like another place, alive, youthful, as if it had been to a beauty parlour to have last summer’s scars removed. No body was hurrying home. Not even the roosters who must be up at first light tomorrow morning. Or have they too decided to have the summer of their lives? Will they too wake up late in this town where nothing is happening and everything is?    

Temperature: Maximum: 36.4°C (nornal) Minimum: 22.9°C (-41) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 93%, Minimum:55% Today: Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of the development of thunderclouds towards afternoon or evening. Maximum temperature likely to be around 37°C. Sunset: 6.08 pm Sunrise: 4.57 am    

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