Bargaining in Lanka holds India back
Under attack, Sharad mounts ‘hijack’ rescue
Mamata shuts door on Cong bandh
On war-footing minus shooting
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, May 23 
India today held back its military power from stepping into the Sri Lankan crisis after the LTTE and the Colombo administration failed to reach an understanding over the Eelam (motherland for Tamils) issue.

The Norwegian delegation that is mediating in Sri Lanka threw its hands up in exasperation as both sides made impossible demands and is heading for New Delhi tomorrow.

With the alert sounded, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee cancelled his trip to Bhopal scheduled this morning. There was news that the Chandrika Kumaratunga administration had agreed to a ceasefire and it was time for Indian naval personnel to move in and escort the trapped Sinhalese soldiers in Jaffna and move them out to a safer destination. Doordarshan and other media crew who had boarded the Prime Minister’s aircraft early this morning were informed that Vajpayee would not go to Bhopal today and that his trip to Paradip and Tirupati would begin tomorrow.

India has already made it clear that it did not want to see bodybags return home and would step in only when there was a ceasefire. But the Sri Lankan administration, whose forces are still fighting with their backs to the wall, were not willing to concede ground. The LTTE was making impossible demands. They were not just demanding Eelam, they were also harping on their rights to weapons and ammunition left by the fleeing Sri Lankan forces.

It was under these circumstances that the Prime Minister had no other option but to call a second meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security the same day within six hours. After realising that the warring sides in the island nation had not really come to grips with the proposal of ceasefire, India insisted that “proper conditions’’ would have to be created for its intervention.

It was a truncated CCS meeting both in the morning and evening. Home minister L.K. Advani was away in Shimla. Jaswant Singh, the external affairs minister, was away in Teheran and the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, was visiting his constituency in Hazaribagh in south Bihar. As a result, apart from the Prime Minister and his national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, the persons who mattered and were present at both meetings included Lalit Mansingh, the foreign secretary, and defence minister George Fernandes.

What has proved to be more difficult for the government to take a firm decision on moving in to evacuate the forces is the unpredictability of the LTTE rebels. There is no guarantee whatsoever at this stage that the Indian forces would not be subjected to an unforeseen attack. India is largely relying on politicians like Vaiko to do the talking with the LTTE. Vaiko, the MDMK leader, is stated to be quite close to the gang of masterminds led by Prabhakaran but he cannot really guarantee safety of Indian forces.

As a result, there was much confusion today at 7 Race Course Road, where the Prime Minister convened both meetings of the CCS. Vaiko met him for a brief while. Vajpayee has decided to keep his schedule unchanged and though he did not attend BJP president Kushabhau Thakre’s 75th birthday celebrations in Bhopal today, he would keep his commitment with Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik and Andhra’s Chandrababu Naidu the day after.

Mishra told reporters outside the Prime Minister’s residence this evening that the situation in Sri Lanka was under “constant review’’. He clarified that India was ready to provide “humanitarian aid which would include evacuation of Lankan troops from Jaffna provided it was asked for by Colombo’’.    

New Delhi, May 23 
As Sharad Yadav scampered to deflect criticism over the Alliance Air “hijack”, his rivals in the Janata Dal (United) took up the issue to gun for the civil aviation minister.

Sources said Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was aghast after reading The Telegraph report on how a group of Bihar MPs forced a Delhi-Lucknow-Patna-Calcutta hopping flight to be taken to the Bihar capital first. According to the passengers, Sharad, who was “summoned” to the airport by the MPs, asked the airline officials to “drop them (the MPs) at Patna first and then go wherever you want to”.

But even before Vajpayee could ask for an explanation from Sharad, the civil aviation minister rushed to clarify that he did not order the plane to be re-routed to Patna. Sharad told the Prime Minister that he had ordered a departmental inquiry into the May 12 incident.

Alliance Air has also issued a “clarification” saying that the plane was “re-routed” for operational reasons.

Even as the minister mounted his damage-control mission, a group of Samata Party MPs met Vajpayee and complained against Sharad, top government sources said.

Sharad’s political foes are rubbing their hands in glee after the “hijack” as they have been piling pressure on the Prime Minister to remove him from the civil aviation ministry.

Sharad’s ties with George Fernandes and Ramvilas Paswan have touched a new low of late, the sources said.

They added that despite efforts by the Sharad camp to sweep the issue under the carpet, Vajpayee should ask the minister to issue a public apology.

The clarification issued by Alliance Air yesterday, citing “operational reasons” for “re-routing” the plane was aimed at bailing out the minister, the sources argued.

Clamour for an apology from Sharad came predictably from the Samata Party. Spokesman Shambhu Shrivastava demanded “an immediate inquiry into the incident” and “no cover-up”.

“The minister should apologise publicly for the act,” he said.

Shrivastava, while gunning for Sharad, was, however, lenient on his party’s MP Prabhunath Singh, who, according to the passengers on the flight, was the leader of the “hijackers” and had misbehaved with the crew.

Passengers had said that Prabhunath had whipped out his cellphone and called Sharad to ask him to re-route the plane.

Asked what action was being taken against Prabhunath, the spokesman merely said that party president Jaya Jaitley had written to the MP “drawing his attention” to the reports. “It is not fair to go by media reports. We have to have his version first,” Shrivastava said.

Asked if the Samata Party will press Vajpayee to crack down on Sharad, the spokesman said “since we have made our stand public”, it is up to the Prime Minister to take a decision.

Shrivastava said the Samata Party was not satisfied with the clarification issued by Alliance Air. “We are not happy. Therefore, an inquiry is a must and if the allegations are found true, he (Sharad) should apologise.”    

Calcutta, May 23 
Trinamul Congress leader and railway minister Mamata Banerjee today distanced herself from the West Bengal Congress’ call for a statewide strike for Thursday, claiming that her party did not believe in “bandh politics”.

Apparently annoyed over the Congress’ “unilateral” announcement of its decision to sponsor the bandh to protest the continuing violence at Keshpur, Mamata said she intended to meet “the CPM’s terror politically.”

Mamata dissociated herself from the proposed bandh as she felt that it might recoil on her party at a time when it was engaged in backbreaking campaigning for the upcoming civic polls in Calcutta, Salt Lake and elsewhere in Bengal.

The Congress’ decision to field candidates in all the 141 wards in Calcutta and Salt Lake civic elections in disregard of her proposal for a mahajot, or grand alliance, is also believed to have provoked her into taking a hard position.

However, the Congress paid no heed to Trinamul’s as well as its ally, the BJP’s contrary view and pressed ahead with the decision to sponsor the bandh.

“We are not having any second thoughts on the bandh which will take place as announced. It is the only option before us at a time when political violence is on the rise,” said Pradyut Guha, a state Congress general secretary.

At a press conference, Mamata contested the Congress position saying that a bandh was not a solution. “Our party workers are being killed by CPM cadre at Keshpur and other areas of the state. But we want to meet the challenge politically.”

To highlight the plight of Keshpur, Trinamul will observe Keshpur Day on Friday across Bengal and hold a rally at Subodh Mullick square in central Calcutta, Mamata said.

Replying to the letter that she received during the day from state Congress President A.B.A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Mamata said she was opposed to the programme as it would inconvenience the people.

The state BJP, too, backed her and said it would observe Thursday as Santras Birodhi Divas by organising a dharna at the base of the Gandhi statue.

Mamata, who returned to the city late on Monday night from Keshpur, is expected to leave for the trouble-torn area again tomorrow to meet the bereaved families of slain Trinamul workers.

In the meantime, the government began to pull out all the stops to foil the call for the bandh.

At Writers’ Buildings, deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and transport minister Subhas Chakraborty asserted that the government would initiate “necessary measures” to ensure normal life was not affected on the day. They said arrangements were being made so that buses, cars, trams, trains and other modes of public transport could ply.

In a dig at Mamata, Chakraborty said he did not have to speak to her to ensure trains ran smoothly. In his view, general managers would suffice.    

Batalik, May 23 
This was the fiercest battleground on the frontier last summer; this summer it is the busiest. There isn’t a flat patch in the craggy gorges of Batalik, nor a vantage peak where the army isn’t digging in: new gun positions, elaborate communication centres, supply depots and ammunition dumps, hospitals, helipads. Batalik is in the throes of feverish fencebuilding.

“We were taken totally unawares last year and whatever arrangements we made to fight off the intrusion were temporary emergency measures,” says an officer who fought last year’s war from the frontlines, “this year we have to put in place permanent defence lines. That is the war we are fighting this summer .”

So, armies of labourers and jawans have been deployed, scraping and sawing off the hillsides, levelling the ground, hauling brick and mortar, building new and permanent bases for soldiers. “We will never be able to pull out of here after what happened last year,” the officer says, “The army directory is going to acquire a few more permanent addresses.”

Culverts are being turned into bridges, sheds into pucca barracks, tent settlements into all-weather tinshed housing. All along the high plateau road to Batalik via Humbotingla, gun positions have acquired more solid contours; they look less like gun positions now, in fact, more like mini townships. Deeper, larger bunkers, concrete shelters for guns and ammunition, underground communication and briefing rooms, full fledged canteens and kitchens.

The Batalik bridge itself is going through a facelift. Torn to shreds by merciless shelling last summer, it is now being refortified. The tin and tarpaulin dwellings have gone: they are carving a new Batalik on the rock with more rock.

The little village is agog with its inhabitants. They spent all of last summer away, in the safety of nearby settlements like Simloo and Lalung. This summer they are back, busy picking up the pieces. Most of their homes had been shelled and had to be rebuilt. Most of their apricot crop went unpicked.

“This time perhaps we will have fruits, not bombs,” says Mohammed Ramzan, owner of a small apricot orchard on the slopes below Batalik, “let us see what happens.”

These are not very happy times for people in these parts. The absence of shelling from across is not the end of their problems. Last winter was mild, with far less snowfall than usual. As a result the fields are going to starve for water this summer.

“Already the streams have become erratic, they used to be gushing with melted snow by this time but there is only a trickle this year,” Ramzan says.

The presence of the army, more and more jawans, more and more construction too is a hindrance. “We know they are here to help and secure us, but they also interfere with our routine, they take over patches of our land, they build temporary roads through our fields, they take away the lion’s share of our drinking is not easy.”

The army for its part, keeps to itself even though it is settled in the middle of villages like Batalik. Communication between the villagers and army is little, trust even littler. The jawans and the villagers have the same things to say about each other: “they are like aliens.”

They walk on opposite sides of the village street, they buy their daily wares from different shops — the jawans from the army canteen in the village centre and the villagers from one ill-stocked shop on the opposite end — they speak different languages, they emphasise their variance.

The army wears the air of a benign occupying force, the people the air of the occupied. “They have to trust us for a relationship to be established,” says one of Batalik’s elders, “when they needed to hire labour for work here they brought people from outside whereas they could have hired some of us. We would have earned some money, they would have had their work done, but they don’t trust us.”

The army officer has another thing to say, “We have been here too little time to trust. Besides, last summer we got a jolt. Who do we trust?”

“The trust must happen but if we are going to stay here for good, there is still a lot of time...”he says.    

Temperature: Maximum: 30°C (-6) Minimum: 25.2°C (-2) RAINFALL: 52.6 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 98%, Minimum: 52.6% Today: A few spells of light rain with one or two showers or thundershowers. Maximum temperature likely to be around 32°C. Sunset: 6.11 pm Sunrise: 4.55 am    

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