Azhar, CBI in long innings
Delhi drive to arrange PM meet with Pope
Farooq signals autonomy retreat
Left sop to Ghising
Advani eyes tips from crack commandos
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, June 22 
In the longest interrogation till date of any cricketer, Mohammed Azharuddin was grilled for almost four hours today by sleuths of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

As Azhar’s questioning got off the ground behind closed doors, another gathered momentum in full public glare in Cape Town, with Hansie Cronje testifying there was no proof that the former India captain was involved in match-fixing.

Azhar denied any involvement and reiterated he had not introduced bookie Mukesh Gupta to Cronje. With the investigators persisting with questions on his friendship with cricket punters, the former skipper admitted to knowing Rattan Mehta, a Mumbai-based businessman suspected to be a bookie.

Azhar argued that as a well-known cricketer, he met a number of people and Mehta was just one of them. He claimed that he was unaware that Mehta was involved in betting. Therefore, Azhar said, he could not be held responsible if Mehta was involved in match-fixing.

The CBI was trying to build on information that Azhar has been frequently noticed at a restaurant run by Mehta in Mumbai. Mehta is also suspected to be the ‘R’ named by South Africa’s cricket boss Ali Bacher as his contact in the cricket underworld.

Azhar’s claim found support in Cronje’s statement today. The sacked South African captain said Azhar had not been party to discussions during which Mukesh Gupta, also known as MK, offered him a bribe to throw a match in 1996.

“I don’t believe Mr Azharuddin knew what the conversation was about. He might have had an idea, but that would have been speculation on my side,” Cronje told the Edwin King Commission. “I thought he just introduced me to someone who wanted to get into diamond dealing in South Africa.”

Cronje said he had never spoken about his meeting with Gupta to Azhar, whom he had considered a good friend.

Despite Azhar’s assertion, it is unlikely that the CBI will turn off the heat. The bureau may also question his wife and former actress Sangeeta Bijlani. Her career had peaked quite a few years ago after which she stopped acting. If she still has a substantial income, she would have to explain to the CBI how it was possible.

The bureau feels that some of the money made by Azhar is being showed as Bijlani’s income. Income-tax authorities in Mumbai have been screening the returns of the wives of a few influential cricketers, past and present.

Azhar, who had been asked to appear for questioning by the CBI, was accompanied by his brother to the bureau’s office. The agency’s agents had cordoned off the approach to the CBI headquarters where Azhar was brought in an official Ambassador.

All hell broke loose soon after he stepped out of the CBI’s CGO complex headquarters. Reporters broke through the cordon of CBI agents and bombarded questions at him. They demanded that Azhar should tell them what he had revealed to the CBI or at least make a statement like Ajit Wadekar and Prashant Vaidya. But he did not.

A senior CBI officer said the sleuths had extensively grilled Azhar on his relationship with Cronje, Gupta and other bookies. The officials also asked him details about his income, from matches, endorsements and sponsorships.

The official said the CBI is focusing on the period Azhar captained the side.

The income-tax department, which is looking into the incomes and assets of some top cricketers, both past and present, including Azhar and Kapil Dev, will try and pinpoint the “concealed incomes” and value of assets possessed by them.

A senior tax official said investigators will try and compare the income and earnings of the cricketers with the assets they possess. “It is well known that when assets like flats are purchased, buyers usually show that they have been purchased for a lesser value,” he said.

“A comparison will give an indication of how cricketers conceal their actual income,” the official added.    

New Delhi, June 22 
Worried about India’s image abroad in the wake of attacks on Christians in the country, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s managers are trying to arrange a meeting between the Prime Minister and Pope John Paul II at the Holy See at the end of an Italian visit which begins this Sunday.

The Prime Minister is going on a five-day visit to Italy and Portugal with a high-level delegation. After his bilateral visit in Italy, Vajpayee will go to Lisbon where the high-point will be his participation in the first-ever Indo-European Union summit.

Attempts are being made by South Block officials to fix a meeting between Vajpayee and the Pope at the Vatican on June 27 after the Prime Minister finishes the Italian part of his visit and is on his way to Lisbon.

Indian foreign ministry officials are, however, trying to play down the proposed meeting on the plea that nothing has been finalised and both sides are trying to work out a date and time.

Refusing to attach any significance to the meeting, if and when it takes place, they pointed out that the Pope had met Vajpayee when he visited India in November last year. On the Prime Minister’s part, it is an attempt to return the “courtesy”.

However, attempts to get the two to meet has much to do with the ruling BJP’s image in some parts of the world as a hardline Hindu party.

In January 1991, when the murder of Graham Staines in Orissa coincided with a series of attacks against Christians in different parts of the country, India put forward its foreign minister Jaswant Singh to convince the international community that these were “aberrations in the system and the new government was as committed to secular values of India as its predecessors”.

By allowing the Pope to visit India and hold the Asian Bishops Synod last year, the Vajpayee government had earned several brownie points diplomatically, particularly as it came after China’s refusal to let the Synod be held in Hong Kong.

With a fresh series of attacks on Christians, underscored by Brother George’s murder in Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister’s advisers feel that there is once more a need to refurbish its image.

One reason for uncertainty about the proposed meeting is Vatican’s reluctance in accepting a visit which is attached to Italy. The geographical proximity between Rome and Vatican has made the latter extremely sensitive to any such practice. The Vatican is keen on a independent visit.

If the visit materialises, Vajpayee may take the opportunity to reassure the Pope that Christians in India are not being targeted and the recent attacks, though unfortunate, should be seen as “stray incidents” and not as a trend. The meeting will also give the Prime Minister a chance to send a signal to Christians in India that they are safe under his rule.

But irrespective of whether Vajpayee gets to meet the Pope, the Prime Minister may feel the need to explain his government’s stand to the Italian leaders and, later, other European representatives. Both the European Union and Italy are important for India, not only in the economic field but also politically.    

June 22 
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah has indicated to the Prime Minister that the autonomy resolution may not be put to vote during the current Assembly session.

In Srinagar, a senior National Conference leader today said the Assembly will instead adopt the State Autonomy Committee (SAC) report. The report, which takes a softer stance, has already been endorsed by the Cabinet.

After meeting the Prime Minister in the capital, Abdullah said the autonomy issue would be discussed with the Centre and his government had no plans to get a resolution first in the Assembly.

The special autonomy session in the Assembly has been extended by a day till Monday.

The chief minister said the resolution would not lead to any disintegration of the country. He also ruled out the possibility of confrontation between the Centre and Srinagar on autonomy.

In Srinagar, the NC leader pointed out there was pressure within the party to move a resolution for autonomy. “Since the issue is sensitive, we would like it to be discussed threadbare and that is why Dr Abdullah yesterday called for a national debate,” he added.

The chief minister flew to Delhi this morning along with his finance minister after speaking to senior party leaders.

The Assembly today witnessed noisy scenes with Opposition BJP members attempting to disrupt discussions.

Education minister Mohammad Shafi said the restoration of autonomy would be a “window of opportunity to further strengthen the ties of the state with the rest of the country”.

“Three consecutive Prime Ministers promised autonomy during the past decade,” he said. “Countries denying rights to their identities face the condemnation and isolation and it is our desire to see that nobody raises a finger at our great nation,” he added.

A free-for-all followed Shafi’s long speech. Panthers Party member Harsh Dev Singh took on the minister, saying autonomy will “threaten the sovereignty of India and will be detrimental to the interests of the state”. He described the SAC report as the “most controversial document of the century which will open a Pandora’s Box”.

Congress’ Lal Singh said he felt that autonomy will divide the state along communal lines, while Jagdesh Raj Dubey of the Janata Dal said: “The autonomy will add to the discrimination for Jammu and disintegrate the country”.

Choudhury Chuni Lal of the BJP said the Delhi Agreement of 1952, giving special privilege to Kashmir, had no constitutional validity and described it as an agreement between two friends, Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru.    

Calcutta, June 22 
The Left Front Cabinet today approved the decision to add the word, ‘autonomous’, to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).

In a meeting presided over by Jyoti Basu, the Cabinet cleared the decision, a long-pending demand of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and its supremo, Subhas Ghising.

The GNLF has been protesting against the delay in granting the autonomous rights to the DGHC. The Cabinet discussed the issue and has decided to send the matter to the Centre for its approval.    

London, June 22 
India wants to improve the training of its anti-terrorist commando units by taking the help and advice of the acknowledged masters of the business — Britain’s famed Special Air Services.

Home minister L.K. Advani, who held talks with his British counterpart, Jack Straw, and with senior officers at Scotland Yard during his current trip to Britain, had a key presentation today from the SAS at its headquarters in Hereford.

“He saw some mock exercises,” according to informed sources in London.

It is understood that it would be too sensitive politically to invite SAS units to India to help with training but there would be no problem in sending Indian recruits to the UK.

The SAS — something of a legend in Britain for its heroics and famous abroad for its motto, Who dares Wins — has been deployed by the British in many exceptionally difficult operations. It has been used in Northern Ireland to fight the IRA, behind enemy lines in Iraq during the Gulf War, and against Argentina during the Falklands conflict.

The most dramatic use of the SAS occurred when hostages were taken by Arab terrorists at the Iranian Embassy in London. Wearing black hoods, the SAS slid down ropes from hovering helicopters, blasted their way into the embassy through high windows and shot dead the terrorists.

Its mystique has been retained through the policy of never allowing SAS members to reveal their identities.

One area where the Indians feel deficient is in communications, according to sources. The weaknesses of India’s anti-terrorist forces and the lack of a political structure to deal with emergencies was glaringly revealed during the hijack of the Indian Airlines plane to Afghanistan.

Advani, who also met foreign secretary Robin Cook, has passed on his fears that Muslim groups are raising funds in Britain to finance terror campaigns in India.

There does seem to be some cooperation between Britain and India in fighting terrorism. When known activists travel from Britain to India, the Indian authorities are tipped off by British police. But Advani has said he would much rather that such people were arrested in Britain and charged under UK law.    

Temperature: Maximum: 28.6°C (-5) Minimum: 25.8°C (-1) RAINFALL: 69.8 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 986%, Minimum:83% Today: A few spells of light to moderate rain, with one or two heavy showers or thundershowers. Sunset: 6.23 pm Sunrise: 4.55 am    

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