Kashmir goes into hiding on I-Day
Vajpayee short speech falls flat
Delhi to go slow on Israel ties
Sangh & CPM share flag flak
Akalis for statute stamp on Sikhs
Karnataka held hostage in kidnap drama
Police see Lashkar hand in train blast
Pipe line meet to keep pak at bay
Democrats vow to toe Clinton line on India
Sonia set for New York

Srinagar, Aug. 16: 
If the Kashmir Valley celebrated India’s Independence Day yesterday, it concealed it very well.

Even the cows were honouring a curfew nobody had called. It must have been the biggest Houdini Act ever put on show. Life seemed to have vapourised overnight; the Valley was a beauteous tract of land whose soul had taken leave.

Downtown and central Srinagar was unreal for its sudden and utter lack of life; by contrast, the Bakshi stadium flag-hosting show was an unrelieved farce.

Chief minister Farooq Abdullah promised autonomy to a people who were not there. He spoke from behind a bullet-proof screen when the only gunmen around were his own securitymen.

As batches of various army, police and paramilitary formations began parading around the stadium, a commentator cleared the public address system and began a running commentary for the benefit of bereft stands and seats in the stadium.

It obviously does not take a crowd any longer to inspire the orator in Abdullah. He was his usual fire and brimstone self, punching the air and shifting his gaze, like a practised public speaker, from one end of the empty stands to the other.

His repeated promises on snatching autonomy for the people of Jammu and Kashmir were applauded by plainclothed jawans and policemen from Thrissur and Vijayawada and Midnapore and Marathwada.

It is quite another matter that no Kashmiri was moved or motivated enough to have been part of the Independence Day celebrations at the Bakshi stadium yesterday. But even if some had tried getting in, they would have got nowhere.

Jawans and sharpshooters lay in rings around the stadium and they wouldn’t let anyone near.

High on their list of apprehensions was a fedayeen (suicide) attack; the celebrations had to be held in a security deep freeze, the Indian Tricolour, wherever it was hoisted in the Valley — at security garrisons and atop a few government buildings and nowhere else — had to be secured by the gun.

The Hizbul Mujahideen had claimed responsibility for hoisting Pakistani flags in a few downtown localities of Srinagar on August 14; for the Indian flag in the valley yesterday, the Indian gun took responsibility. Kashmiris wouldn’t claim it.

It wasn’t as if the refusal of Kashmiris to be anywhere near any celebration of independence was a Srinagar or a Srinagar downtown phenomenon.

We drove yesterday right through the heart of the Valley up along the road from Srinagar to Kangan and Sonamarg. There wasn’t a village on the road with any sign of habitation; not a square visited by life.

It was as if the Valley wanted to attest its absence from August 15, as if only one of two things could exist — either that date on the calendar, or the Kashmiri out conducting the daily business of his life.    

New Delhi, Aug. 16: 
Not only was it the shortest of the three addresses he has delivered from the Red Fort ramparts, it was by general reckoning the dullest too.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s Independence Day address to the nation was bereft of themes and schemes. The 28-minute speech reiterated his stated position on Kashmir and Pakistan, reforms, the women’s reservation Bill, corruption and communalism.

The only announcement he made was of a road project, to be launched on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2, to link villages at a cost of Rs 5,000 crore. This wasn’t new as the budget had given a hint of the scheme.

The prepared script, written in bureaucratised Hindi, did not even mention the recent passage of the Bill creating the three new states of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

The reorganisation of states was expected to be trumpeted as a “major achievement” of the government, especially after its peace initiative in Kashmir fizzled out and the pro-reforms policy failed to put the economy back on track.

According to sources, the script-writers thought it “politically expedient” not to mention the new states, given the opposition from both within the BJP and from some NDA constituents.

Playing the statesman rather than please the Sangh parivar hawks, Vajpayee refused to answer Pakistan’s rhetoric on Kashmir being a nuclear flashpoint. His message to Islamabad was that borders could not be redrawn “either in the name of religion or on the strength of the sword”.

This was the age of “resolving differences and not for prolonging disputes”, he stressed. India, he said, was ready to heal the wounds by the larger canons of insaaniyat (humanism).

The only unexpected note was his warning to the Sangh clan that the government would not tolerate activities of any organisation that spreads communal discord or incites violence. His evocation of India’s pluralism — “We are one in many and many in one” — was interpreted by observers as complimenting President K.R. Narayanan’s concern in his Independence Day-eve address over increasing attacks on minorities.    

New Delhi, Aug. 16: 
India has decided to apply the brakes on its rapidly-growing relations with Israel. At least for the time being.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has been advised to hold meetings with key figures of the Arab world on the margins of the United Nations Millennium Summit early next month in New York, but avoid any tête-à-tête with the Israelis.

Vajpayee, who is scheduled to go on a fortnight-long visit to the United States, will kick off his American tour from New York where he will address the summit on September 8. But meetings with leaders of important nations are being worked out for the Prime Minister on the margins of the summit.

Though his schedule is being prepared, an attempt is being made to ensure that Vajpayee avoids meeting his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak on the sidelines, but holds a series of meetings with key figures in the Arab world.

The number two in the Palestinian set up, Abu Allah, is arriving here tomorrow to hold discussions with Indian leaders. He will meet the President, the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and other senior leaders in Delhi.

The growing closeness between India and Israel over the past few months, culminating in two high-level visits in May-June this year by home minister L.K. Advani and foreign minister Jaswant Singh had created apprehensions both at home and outside. The Arab world, in particular, considered to be Delhi’s time-tested ally, did not take too kindly to this closeness.

An attempt is now being made to assure both that Delhi was not embarking on a foreign policy that will bring it closer to the Israelis at the cost of its friends in the Gulf and other Islamic nations.

Though the list is still tentative, attempts are being made to fix meetings between Vajpayee and some key leaders in the Arab world, including Yasser Arafat and the King of Syria and Jordan.

Last month, India had organised a meeting in the South Block of Arab ambassadors to allay their fears about the new-found bonhomie between India and Israel. But they were not satisfied.

The task has now fallen on Vajpayee to restore the confidence among India’s old allies in the Arab world.

The Arab world is important for India for a number of reasons. It not only has a large deposit of oil and natural gas that energy-hungry India requires, it is also home to a large number of Indian workers who send back a huge remittance of nearly $10 billion which is important in keeping Delhi’s foreign exchange reserves at a respectable figure.

Moreover, with Pakistan constantly lobbying the Arab nations to support its initiative on Kashmir, India has to maintain good relations with them.    

New Delhi, Aug. 16: 
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) found itself in strange company and an unlikely controversy today when doubts were raised in the Lok Sabha over the allegiance of the Sangh and the CPM to the national flag.

The Opposition and the National Democratic Alliance members clashed in the House after Prakash Ambedkar alleged that the RSS had no respect for the Tricolour and it never hoisted the flag on its headquarters at Nagpur.

The CPM, too, was pitchforked into the row as Sudip Bandopadhyay of the Trinamul Congress alleged that the Red headquarters on Calcutta’s Alimuddin Street never hoisted the national flag.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan denied the charge against the RSS. “I am associated with the RSS since my childhood and I would say that all RSS offices hoisted the national flag,” he said.

Mahajan urged the Opposition not to reap political mileage by making such charges. The minister offered to take Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh member Prakash Ambedkar to the RSS headquarters on January 26 next year and allow him to unfurl the Tricolour.

Raising the issue during Zero Hour, Ambedkar said an all-party meeting in 1998 at Nagpur had decided to send representatives to the RSS headquarters for hoisting the Tricolour, if the organisation on its own failed to do so. Last year, Ambedkar said, when the workers of different political parties went there to raise the flag, they were lathicharged and chased. He added that this year too, the RSS resisted attempts to unfurl the tricolour on its building.

Mahajan said any individual or organisation could hoist national flags on their houses or buildings on national days, but he did not see all MPs and politicians flying national flags atop their houses on these occasions. “Does that mean that they are all unpatriotic?” Mahajan asked.    

Chandigarh, Aug. 16: 
Shiromani Akali Dal leaders are pressuring Parkash Singh Badal to delete the word “Sikh” from a constitutional clause that clubs the community along with the Hindus.

The clause has been referred to in the party’s 23-page report to be submitted shortly to the national commission of the Constitution review committee. The report discusses how to bring the national polity “along truly federal lines and the need to recast the Constitution to ensure greater fiscal, legislative and political devolution of powers to the states”.

Explanation II in sub clause (b) of clause 2 of Article 25 states that “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly”.

The clamour for deleting “Sikh” from the article is being seen as a dangerous move by the Punjab BJP. “It is fraught with dangerous consequences,” said state president Brij Lal Rinwa. He supported a separate identity for Sikhs and hinted a debate should be held on their demand for a wider minority status.

The Akalis have been constantly harping that Sikhs are not Hindus. The Khalistani movement, too, found support from a section of the Sikhs who did not consider themselves Hindus.

“Article 25 is too harsh on the Sikhs. After all, we are not Hindus and do not even look like them. Our ancestors may have been Hindus and Muslims but we are a separate community and the Constitution must respect that viewpoint. So long as Sikhs are branded with the Hindus, there will always be tension in Punjab,” a senior Akali leader said.

While the Centre has been briefed by the state BJP on the repercussions an amendment to Article 25 could have, radical Akali leaders like Simranjit Singh Mann and Gurcharan Singh Tohra have supported the move. “This is the right time to ask the Centre to give in to the demands of the Sikhs. It is now or never,” said Charan Singh, secretary general of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar).

Other leaders believe that once the word “Sikh” is removed from Article 25, the road to Khalistan will become smoother. “That would amount to accepting that the Sikhs are a different race, making the formalities at the United Nations for a separate state easier,” a leader said.

According to Institute of Sikh Studies chief Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, Badal is unlikely to give in to pressure from his partymen . “He has his own axe to grind with the Centre and with Punjab totally dependent on Delhi, he is not likely to incorporate Article 25 in his party’s report to the Constitution review committee. To him the role of the Planning Commission vis-à-vis the states is more important,” he added. The report comes down sharply on the Planning Commission, saying it has “assumed the status of a parallel government”. It also stresses on the implementation of the 1978 resolution of the Anandpur Sahib Convention as laid before the Sarkaria Commission. It seeks a federation, not a union, of states with the Centre retaining only defence, currency, foreign affairs and telecommunication.    

Bangalore, Aug. 16: 
Even as the agonising wait for the release of Kannada superstar Raj Kumar from the clutches of forest brigand Veerappan entered its third week, a substantial part of the Karnataka government and the industry remains “hostage” to the kidnap drama.

While chief minister S.M. Krishna and his crisis management group, setting aside other official duties, meet at least twice a day to monitor the situation, the entire film and television industry has gone into a deep freeze, awaiting Raj Kumar’s safe return.

Schools and colleges, which remained closed for two weeks, opened on Monday with worries on how to cope with the backlog; the pubs, clubs, restaurants and wine shops, which were banned from selling liquor since the kidnap on July 30, tentatively threw open their doors today with the government easing the restrictions, but the nagging uncertainty over Raj Kumar’s release and the fear of violence should the thespian be harmed continues.

Though small and big industries have gradually limped back to normal, postponement of proposed launches specially in the IT and energy sectors and cancellation of hotel bookings have severely dented Karnataka’s carefully cultivated image under Krishna’s 10-month-rule as a safe and attractive haven for investment.

After the embarrassment of Nepal Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s visit to Bangalore falling through, top government sources today expressed confidence that Japan Prime Minister Yosihiro Mori’s visit on Monday will go through as scheduled as “he is not attending any public function”.

Such is Raj Kumar’s hold over the film industry that thousands of daily wage-earners have gone without work ever since the “voluntary” closure. The South India Film Chamber of Commerce, which decided to shut down all cinema halls — numbering around 1,200 — and halt shooting, dubbing and editing activities to sympathise with the superstar, is now caught in a cleft stick. Though the losses are mounting, it cannot revive the activities while the superstar is in captivity without inviting the Raj Kumar fans’ wrath.

A rumour last week that a theatre had started showing English films resulted in about 60 motorcycle-borne fans descending on it with lathis, before the police pacified them and sent them back.

President of the film directors’ association Rajendra Babu said: “We are ready for any amount of sacrifice till Dr Raj’s safe return.” But the industrywallahs are privately cribbing about an “over Rs 50 crore loss” suffered already. No less is the agony of the thriving private television channels and producers, who are forced to show re-run of serials in the absence of new material.

The silver lining in the abduction drama is that though there is extreme anxiety over the inordinate delay in the release of Karnataka’s icon, the people have remained peaceful. and restrained. A continuous stream of audio and video cassettes, showing Raj Kumar in good health and appealing for peace has helped in relieving the tension.

Both the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments have gone more than half way in meeting Veerappan’s demands and remain hopeful of Raj Kumar’s early release. A designated Tada court in Mysore, which today heard the Karnataka government’s plea for dropping cases against 51 of Veerappan’s supporters, put off the hearing till tomorrow.

Sources said they were confident that the court will favourably consider the government’s initiative in larger public interest and sufficient ground work has been done to release the detenues on bail immediately to meet one of Veerappan’s major demands. Tamil Nadu has withdrawn cases under the National Security Act against five persons in jail and promised to release them as soon as Raj Kumar and three other hostages are freed.

Sources said about 450 pages of documents were being sent with emissary R. Gopal to convince Veerappan that both state governments were doing their best to meet his demands. They expressed confidence that “the hostages will be set free in the next four to five days”.    

Lucknow, Aug. 16: 
The Uttar Pradesh police has constituted a Special Task Force team headed by the inspector-general to probe the Sabarmati Express blast, suspected to have been set off by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The explosion on Independence Day-eve killed nine and injured around 70 others.

Director-general of police M.C. Dwivedi said that though there was “no conclusive evidence” to pin the Lashkar, the foreign hand could not be ignored owing to the proximity of the Nepal border and reports of continued ISI activity around the Faizabad-Gorakhpur belt.

Three teams from Delhi have arrived for an on-the-spot inspection of the last two compartments of the train that were blown up.

Even as an investigation was ordered, there were reports that divisional railway manager K.K. Pandey had sounded a warning on August 14 that there could be an attack specifically target- ing trains along the Faizabad route.

The police maintain that the warning came just two hours before the blast and there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Railway officials continued to blame the police for the “security lapse”. They said that since law and order was a state subject, the state had to look into it. Pandey added that a case has been lodged with the GRP.    

New Delhi, Aug 16: 
The first meeting of the joint committee on the Indo-Iranian gas pipeline will be held in Teheran this week-end.

To ensure it does not spark speculation about a possible engagement with Pakistan, the foreign ministry clarified that it was a “bilateral agreement” between Delhi and Teheran and that, at the moment, there was little possibility of involving a third country.

The three-day meeting of the joint committee will begin from August 18 and will look into “all aspects of gas supplies” from Iran to India.

The Indian delegation is being headed by K.V. Rajan, secretary (east) in the foreign ministry. It will include representatives from the petroleum and defence ministries. The Iranian side will be led by its deputy minister for economic relations.

The decision to set up the committee of experts was taken during foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s visit to Iran in May this year. But subsequently, there was speculation about whether Pakistan would be involved in the proposed gas pipeline project.

Iran has the largest natural gas reserve in the world and after over two decades of American sanctions, it is scouting for larger markets. An energy-hungry India is keen to get natural gas from Iran. But Teheran is also interested in involving Pakistan in this arrangement.

However, India has made it clear to Teheran that though it was keen on getting natural gas from Iran, it was against any arrangement that included Islamabad to it.

There are three ways of bringing Iranian gas to India. Iran is arguing that the overland route will be the cheapest, but New Delhi is not in its favour because it will have to come through Pakistan. Another option is to lay a sub-sea pipeline, avoiding Pakistan’s territorial waters. A third alternative is converting the gas it into liquified-natural-gas and getting it shipped in cylinders from Iran’s Bandar Abbas port.

Aware that Iran was keen to involve Pakistan, Jaswant Singh had made it clear in Teheran that New Delhi was in no mood to accept this proposal unless Islamabad made a firm commitment on giving up cross-border terrorism.    

Washington, Aug 16: 
In sharp contrast to the Republicans, America’s Democrats, meeting in Los Angeles to nominate Al Gore as their presidential candidate, have sent out strong signals that the party will continue President Bill Clinton’s India policy if they retain White House in November. Two developments in the Gore camp this week suggest that New Delhi has less to worry about a Gore presidency than has generally been feared, despite the vice-president’s strident positions on nuclear non-proliferation and the environment.

“President Clinton’s historic trip to India and Pakistan has created new possibilities for dialogue with these countries, and under a Gore administration these will be continued vigorously,” says the manifesto adopted by the Democrats at their national convention on Tuesday. Simultaneously, the vice-president’s office has told Indian officials engaged in finalising Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit here next month that Gore would like to host a lunch for Vajpayee on September 15 after his summit with Clinton.

Busy on the election trail, there have been doubts whether Gore would even attend the joint session of the US Congress which Vajpayee is to address on September 14. as vice-president, Gore is the presiding officer of the Senate.

But his desire to be present in Washington during the Vajpayee-Clinton summit and host the lunch makes it clear that under a Gore administration, the rediscovery of India and the US by each other in recent years would continue.

Of course, the democratic manifesto has made the usual references to a nuclear South Asia and Kashmir, but this is more in deference to political correctness than to any strident policy commitment.

“We continue our work with India and Pakistan to dampen down a nuclear arms race on the sub-continent,” says the document.

On Kashmir, it emphasises that the dispute must be resolved through peaceful means, side-stepping any controversy over US mediation or meddling.

The Republicans, on the other hand, had singled out Pakistan for praise in their manifesto, referring to America’s “long-standing relationship” with that country. The Republicans had also carefully balanced India against Pakistan and their references to the nuclearisation of South Asia were alarmist in comparison to their rivals.

The Republican and Democratic manifestos also offered startling contrasts on China. The democrats asserted that their administration would “continue to engage China” and search out ways to cooperate across a broad range of issues.

The Republican manifesto described China as “America’s key challenge in Asia. China is a strategic competitor of the US, not a strategic partner.”

The Democrats not only reiterated their commitment to pursue efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but also sought a mandate from the American people for this effort. “As President, Gore will promptly resubmit this treaty to the senate with a demand from the American people for its ratification”.    

New Delhi, Aug.16 
Would-be grandma Sonia Gandhi will be anxious to return home after her maiden tour abroad as the leader of the Opposition to New York since daughter Priyanka is expected to deliver a Virgo baby in the first fortnight of September.

The obstetricians cannot be precise but the schedule given to the family is such. The New York trip is important for Sonia, though the Congress leader will have only a delegate’s status in the Millennium Conference of presiding officers of parliament, organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union which is headed by Congress leader Najma Heptullah.

However, the deputy leader of the Rajya Sabha is expected to ensure that “delegate” Sonia gets a chance to address 200 delegates from across the world. Sonia should also get to meet leaders like Li Peng, among the seniormost Chinese Communist Party leaders, who will be in New York.

While eyebrows are being raised in the Congress on why the leader of the Opposition chose to be a “mere delegate”, her strategists defended the decision. Since it would give her “international exposure”, Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi’s invitation was hard to resist, they said.

Sonia’s managers convinced her that instead of getting into “protocol hassles”, she should try to make best use of the IPU conference. But affairs at home, where Priyanka and husband Robert Vadra are awaiting their first child, will also weigh heavy on Sonia’s mind. Sonia has been finding time to look after her daughter over the past few months. She has also missed out on political advice from Priyanka, who had made a difference to the campaign in Amethi. Of late, Priyanka has been practising “Vipasana”, a form of meditation, to keep herself fit.    


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