Talks gesture before test ban hardsell
Fingers crossed after murder of missionary
BJP flip-flop on Farooq
Orissa shield for conversion
Couple found dead in car
Panja odyssey for Council seat
Minister under fire for Kerala rampage

New Delhi, July 14 
The Vajpayee government appears to have begun its meticulously-planned exercise of “softening up” the Opposition before launching a more pronounced campaign for getting majority consent on the CTBT sign-up.

This evening’s all-party meeting was a polite gesture of sharing foreign policy information with seniors from most parties — a gesture which left many Opposition leaders wondering why the government had to call this impromptu meet and discuss facts that were already well-known.

The focus of the meeting, however, was on the developments in Fiji, where Indian-born Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his ministers have been released but coup leader George Speight is making a bid to form the new government.

Also discussed were the fate of Indian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun following the roadblock set up by the Revolutionary United Front.

It was a clever move on the government’s part to apprise the Opposition of the developments and discuss the options before Delhi to deal with them.

The government made it clear that it would make all efforts to prevent a “criminal” like George Speight from coming to power and ensure that a “non-racial and democratic government” was restored in Fiji.

On Sierra Leone, the Centre said it was not in favour of any change in mandate that might escalate violence in the African nation and put the Indian troops at further risk. But it was also argued that UN peacekeeping was a long tradition and the government would not break it.

Taking the Opposition into confidence would possibly spare the government criticism in Parliament about not trying to ease the situation of the Indian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone.

Resentment has been building up in certain quarters against the Vajpayee regime’s failure to send a senior minister to the trouble spot. But foreign minister Jaswant Singh said such criticism was unwarranted as Indian soldiers were fighting in “five different geographical locations”.

Though the meeting was convened by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, it was Jaswant who did the briefing. Defence minister George Fernandes, commerce minister Murasoli Maran, foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh and other officials were also present.

From the Opposition, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her deputy Manmohan Singh, Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party, Mayavati of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Biplab Dasgupta of the CPM came to see what South Block had to offer. But they were none the wiser for it.

“I don’t know what was the urgency of convening this meeting and telling us things which have already appeared in newspapers,” said an Opposition leader.

He added there was indication that at least another such meeting would be convened before Parliament’s monsoon session began on July 24.

The decision to call the all-party meeting, though innocuous, appears to be hiding the real motive. It could be an attempt to ensure that neither Fiji nor Sierra Leone becomes major debating points in Parliament and it could also be a precursor to the real issue: assessment of the national mood on the test ban treaty.

A meeting between Vajpayee and President Bill Clinton is due in Washington in September. If the Prime Minister can assure the US of India’s decision to sign the CTBT, it will be a big boost to bilateral ties.

The government, therefore, has to start building consensus or, at least, gauging the Opposition mood before that. Today’s meet seems part of that plan.

Jaswant stressed that Delhi would make all attempts to “prevent the criminalisation of the Fijian polity”. On Sierra Leone, he pointed out that it was “primarily the responsibility of the UN” to ensure that the siege on peacekeepers was brought to an end.

Asked about a possible move to change the mandate of the UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone that would turn them into peace enforcers, he said: “It’s our view that they are sufficiently empowered to deal with the situation.”    

July 14 
The murder of the missionary principal of St Xavier’s School near Ranchi has sent stabs of fear across the Christian community in Chhotanagpur.

Father Remis Kerketta was shot dead while returning to the school in Bundu, about 30 km from Ranchi, on Wednesday night.

Police said the 46-year-old missionary, who was riding a motorcycle, was accosted by some unidentified people near Jamchua. The assailants shot him through the head and took away his motorcycle and money — around Rs 10,000. Before escaping, the killers covered the victim’s head with his helmet.

A spokesman for Marresa House, local headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, said Father Kerketta visited Ranchi at least thrice a week. He said the principal was carrying the cash to meet some school expenses. The spokesman added that the priest took the same route every time and was, therefore, an easy prey.

Umesh Kumar Singh, superintendent of police (rural) Ranchi, said the principal’s death had been wrongly passed off as an accident. The autopsy report has confirmed that he was murdered.

Both Umesh Singh and Ranchi district magistrate Sukhdev Singh believe prima facie that robbery could be the motive. “But we are keeping all options open. It is only after a thorough investigation that we will know the exact motive,” said Umesh Singh.

However, Church organisations are keeping their fingers crossed given the history of killings and humiliation meted out to the Christian community in the Ranchi-Gumla-Dumka belt.

Although no one has directly blamed any political party for the murder, senior Church leaders pointed out that the killing occurred in an area wracked by land disputes between Christian establishments and Hindu bodies.

“Church leaders are treading cautiously. Since the case is under investigation, it is hasty to blame any particular organisation, but the area has been tense since the VHP supporters took up the land dispute cases and warned Christians to wind up their operations,” said Father Ranjit Toppo, a senior Church spokesman in Ranchi.

Enquiries in Ranchi revealed that the disputed land which led to a case in Ranchi High Court had belonged to St Xavier’s School.

The Church authorities are alarmed because the killing of Christian leaders in the area is nothing new. In 1994, a priest of the local Protestant Church in Gumla was killed under mysterious circumstances.

The BJP demanded a thorough probe into the murder. “We have always been made a scapegoat in the irrelevant disputes involving the Church and the BJP. But still, now we demand a comprehensive probe. Otherwise, we would also be made a target this time,” said state party president Nandkishore Yadav.

The killing sparked a furore in the Assembly with the Opposition led by the NDA demanding a reply from the government.

Chief minister Rabri Devi has ordered an inquiry by the Ranchi inspector-general of police.

The All-Jharkhand Students’ Union led a protest march to the district headquarters. Union leader Ajay Kerketta alleged that the case appeared to be more than just a robbery.    

New Delhi, July 14 
The BJP, which has been blowing hot and cold over chief minister Farooq Abdullah’s autonomy resolution, today dubbed him a “fundamentalist Muslim”.

Two days after BJP spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu gave a certificate to Abdullah vouching that he was a patriot, senior party vice-president J.P. Mathur said: “He is pro-India, no doubt. But he is a fundamentalist Muslim. He has exposed himself as a fundamentalist.”

Asked why the party leaders were speaking in different voices — the chief minister has been described by turns as communal, patriot and fundamentalist — Mathur said his statement was in the context of Abdullah’s speech in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, where he said Jinnah had been “cornered” and if he (Abdullah) had opted to go with Pakistan he would have become Prime Minister of that country.    

New Delhi, July 14 
The Orissa government has virtually given legal cover to religious conversions by stating that anyone seeking a change in faith should do so by filing an affidavit in court that it is not taking place under pressure or allurement.

The flip side of the recent amendment to the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, is that it may also amount to discouraging conversions because of the widespread reluctance to enter into any legal process and the difficulties involved in court proceedings.

At a meeting on July 7, held at the Union home ministry and attended by top officials from the states which have been experiencing attacks on Christians and their institutions, the Orissa home secretary admitted that the 1968 Act had “recently” been amended to ensure that individuals willing to convert from one religious following to another would now have to file a court affidavit, stating that they were converting voluntarily and not under duress or allurement.

Those wishing to convert will have to mention in the affidavit that people having any “objections” to their decision may respond within 15 days of the filing of the statement.

State officials insist that the basic provisions of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act remain the same. As per the original law, it is mandatory for priests, maulvis and purohits to report all cases of conversion and reconversion to the district magistrate concerned.

Justifying the amendment, a senior Orissa official said: “The idea was to give more teeth to the existing Act which was being flouted by all concerned. Conversions and reconversions were taking place clandestinely and neither priests nor purohits or maulvis were sending any intimation of cases of conversions to the administration.”

However, he added that “not much should be read into the amended portion”. Priests will continue to report cases of conversion or reconversion to the district magistrate.

Officials said the amendment was necessary to ensure that no one was forcibly converted. “There have been instances where individuals have been allured into changing their faith. Not all cases were voluntary,” an official said.

A senior officer said the government thought it “prudent” to amend the 1968 Act because of fears of a possible backlash from Hindutva forces. He said that following the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines in January last year, there had been a change in the “mood” of forces favouring reconversion.    

New Delhi, July 14 
Another young couple has been found dead inside a car in the capital, the third such incident in the past few months.

Though the two earlier couples had killed themselves, police are unsure what led to the deaths of Chander Sharma, 27, and his girlfriend Rachna.

Their naked bodies were found late last night on the front seat of a car inside a garage at Shahdara, a northeastern suburb.

Both of them lived nearby and had known each other for some time.

While Chander owned a small copper-winding shop in Shahdara, Rachna stayed in a Delhi Development Authority flat in the nearby Manasarovar locality.

The police said the bodies did not have any injury marks and preliminary inquiries showed no trace of poison.

According to additional deputy commissioner of police Sunil Garg, the couple may have died from suffocation.

“At the time when the bodies were found, the car’s airconditioner was on and the battery was completely exhausted. We could smell what can be described as gas congestion,” Garg said.

Inquiries revealed that Rachna had accompanied her parents to a Sai Baba temple.

On her way back, she got off at Preet Vihar, saying she would return home after meeting a friend. From Preet Vihar, Rachna went with Chander and Navneet Bhalla, a common friend.

Navneet later told the police that on their way to the garage-cum-shop on Teesfuta Road, they bought whisky and wafers.

According to Navneet, Chander had asked him to leave him and Rachna alone and lock the car doors from outside.

It is this request that sounds mysterious to the police as they are wondering whether the couple had contemplated suicide.

The police are yet to find out if Rachna and Chander’s respective families were resisting their marriage.

Navneet said that as requested, he returned to the car after two hours.

He said he panicked on seeing them lying unconscious and called Chander’s brother Harish, who informed the police.    

New Delhi, July 14 
As the Indian effort to find a permanent seat in the UN Security Council gains momentum, minister of state for external affairs Ajit Panja is being used more and more by the Vajpayee government to canvass support in African and West Asian countries, most of them members of either the Organisation of Islamic Conference or the Organisation of African Unity.

Panja has been to Tunis, Cairo and Khartoum in April this year. He has just returned from the oil-rich kingdom of Kuwait, where he tried to convince decision-makers of the need to back India.

Kuwait, which is demanding that its 600-odd prisoners languishing in Iraqi jails since the Gulf War be returned, has been assured by the minister that India would offer all assistance in this matter.

It appears that in the months preceding the crucial September meeting of the UN General Assembly, Panja might make several trips abroad to garner support. Several of these trips might be to Africa and West Asia.

When contacted, he said he found the Kuwaitis quite positive about India’s claim for a Security Council seat. “I was overwhelmed by their hospitality,” said the beaming minister.

Panja’s brief included convincing the Kuwaitis of India’s stand on global terrorism and how it affected India. He gave them details of the Airbus hijack and told them how it was done at the behest of another nation.

Another business on the agenda was the migration of Indian workers to Kuwait.

There are 280,000 Indian expatriates working in Kuwait. Among them are highly-paid professionals like software specialists and doctors. There are a large number of domestics, too.

About two years ago, India prohibited job-seekers from going to Kuwait because of reports that the Indian domestic workforce was being treated cruelly.

Kuwaitis are now sending signals that the ban be lifted. A delegation will shortly go to the Gulf country to review the working conditions before allowing Indians to take up menial jobs there.

It is a long-standing complaint that the illiterate Indian domestics are discriminated against and paid paltry wages in Kuwait. But there are signs that the situation may change now if these domestics have even rudimentary education.

India will also send a 1,500-strong health team, including 400 doctors, to Kuwait. The Gulf nation has a perennial shortage of medical staff and professionals from the sub-continent have always helped fill the gap.

Panja also inspected the 240-km border between Iraq and Kuwait, now under the supervision of the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission.

Among the mission’s troops, many are from the sub-continent. The minister said he was impressed by the camaraderie between Pakistani and Indian soldiers and he even spoke in Bengali to the Bangladeshi troops.    

New Delhi, July 14 
Kerala chief minister E.K. Nayanar today blamed O. Rajagopal, Union minister of state for law and parliamentary affairs, for instigating RSS and BJP workers to go on the rampage in Thiruvananthapuram yesterday to show the Left Front government in a poor light.

The unprecedented violence saw property worth Rs 3 crore destroyed “by the BJP/RSS hooligans,” Nayanar told The Telegraph.

The agitators were protesting against a police lathi-charge on Wednesday on ABVP workers demanding Nayanar’s resignation, accusing him of corruption in sanctioning plus-two courses to private-run schools.

Earlier, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) had also levelled allegations of corruption and nepotism in sanctioning the courses.

Nayanar said the BJP had no mass base in Kerala and was, therefore, taking recourse to “hit-and-run” tactics to create chaos.

“Despite its best efforts, the BJP couldn’t get a single candidate elected to the Assembly or the Lok Sabha. Rajagopal, though a Keralite, had to get elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh,” Nayanar said.

He alleged that Rajagopal instigated the RSS cadre with “the help of BJP central leaders” and was making “provocative speeches justifying BJP activities”.

The two-hour violence saw police remain mute spectators, even as the 500-strong mob armed with rods and petrol bombs unleashed terror, attacking an ayurveda college and damaging over 300 vehicles, including 100 state transport buses. Even media representatives were not spared.

The incident triggered a wave of public anger against the BJP, forcing district chief P. Ashok Kumar to apologise.

Nayanar, who claimed that the incident was aimed at damaging the credibility of his government, alleged that the Congress, too, had supported the violence. He claimed that the BJP and the Congress were collaborating to form a “mahajot” in Kerala.

Asked why the police had not intervened to control the violence, Nayanar said he had instructed them not to lathi-charge the demonstrators or resort to firing, but only to use teargas.

He said demonstrations in Kerala were usually peaceful, but the RSS cadre wanted to take the police by surprise.

“But now I have given instructions to deal with them strictly,” he added.    


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