Lonely winter in gloomy Gulmarg
Sangh sings truce tune
Speaker drive to discipline MPs
Buddha firm on Bangla bandh
Admiral rules out insider angle
EC soft rule boost to CPM
Naidu acid test for Cabinet
3000 marshalled for Veerappan hunt

Gulmarg, Dec. 2: 
I wish I were newly married with my fair lady on my arms. The boy was offering a 50 per cent cut on pony rides, hire one get one free.

“For honeymoon couple sir, one pony free, goodwill discount…but only for honeymoon couple sir…”

I am, of course, too far gone down the line now to deserve either honey or moon and, therefore, I was undeserving of the ponywallah’s discount as well. I had brought no maiden along. All I had was a notebook and a pen jammed and coughing in the cold. But then the ponywallah wasn’t much better off either. He hadn’t any customers; his offer was going abegging.

There is enough snow in the fabled dale of Gulmarg now for Shammi Kapoor to be tobogganing after Saira Bano, managing, even as he hurtles, to chortle one of Hindi cinema’s most loved songs. But this is no season for frolic in Kashmir, no time for song and dance.

Saroj Khan, the dancer that makes it possible for latter day starlets to dance, is rumoured to be around, tutoring some starlet on some set. But that is in quite another part of the Valley; probably on Srinagar’s Zabarwan hills, in the best protection the security forces here can offer, for the Zabarwan is where the rulers of Kashmir live.

The forlorn snows of Gulmarg are being measured under jawans’ jackboots and the chained tyres of army trucks. “No tourists, sir, no tourists this time too,” the ponywallah said, “What love do I have for honeymooners that I would offer them discounts, I would overcharge them. But they haven’t come, it is a good discount to offer…nobody to take it so no loss to me.”

There was a dark humour about the youngster’s dubious business sense but you couldn’t have complained about it. He has, he said, fed and lost nine ponies while waiting for tourists over the last six seasons.

“When I was very little, my father and I never used to have enough ponies, there was such rush. Over the last few years, there are never enough tourists. My father died. Most of his ponies died. Every time we hear them say the tourists will come. They never do. Now there is a ceasefire but there are bombs going off in Srinagar, who will come?” he asked.

The long and straight road from Srinagar to Gulmarg remains what it has been for a long, long time — a series of checkposts and barriers that, stop after stop, demolish the illusion you are headed for a holiday resort.

You are forever more likely to cross more armoured personnel carriers and menacing Caspers — the mine-proof vehicle of the kind blown up by a mine in Anantnag on the first day of the ceasefire — than joyriders.

As one official in Srinagar, who would often take his family up to Gulmarg on weekends, says: “Gulmarg is no longer a ride and definitely not a joy. But the time you get there you have been stopped and frisked so many times you want to turn back.

“Advertisements of Gulmarg’s great tourist attractions are now as meaningless and painful as expectations of peace and settlement in the Valley. The peace initiatives now come and melt away like the snows and leaders of all varieties have fun while that snow lasts. That is all there is to it.”

Peace is still a far cry in the Valley, fun yet further away in the haze that refuses to lift from Kashmir. It is tough to connect a chaotic, troubled world with the sheer spectacle of the season’s first snow lathered on the fields and picture-postcard homes of Gulmarg.

But then you see the guns and bunkers and trucks laden with armed personnel breaking into the serene expanse everywhere and you cannot but connect Gulmarg to a chaotic, troubled world.

So perhaps the young ponywallah of Gulmarg must wait yet before he gets his honeymooners; they may not arrive until Atal Behari Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf have decided to have theirs.    

New Delhi, Dec. 2: 
Peace is the new buzz word in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Shifting gears, the Sangh, known for its hawkish stance on Kashmir, has said that despite the terrorist strikes in the Valley, the month-long ceasefire should continue.

“What is new? Such killings have been taking place even before Pakistan was created. We cannot expect anything better from Pakistan. But on our part, it is better to show restraint and not get provoked,” Shrikant Joshi, the RSS’ national prachar pramukh, said.

Explaining the sudden shift, Joshi said: “The government at the Centre draws its inspiration from Bharatiya sanskriti. The essence of Bharatiya sanskriti is liberalism and large-heartedness. The ceasefire is a manifestation of this sanskriti.

He, however, warned that if the “threshold of tolerance” was crossed, India would have no choice but to act as it did after the Kargil intrusions. “There will be limits to the restraint we show.” The RSS’ mouthpiece, Panchajanya, echoed the new dovish sentiments running through the Sangh hierarchy. In the latest issue, an editorial, titled ‘Ceasefire for us, jehad for them’, says: “We will enforce ceasefire, they (the Kashmir militants) will persist with jehad, because all they believe in is jehad. But we are Hindus, and, therefore, we are patient. We respect the sentiments of each and every religious faith. “It is only because of the feelings of respect that India declared it would not engage in combat operations against the militants during the month of Ramzan. We are optimistic and we still believe we can tap the feelings of humanity which probably exist in the innermost recesses of the minds of the most ruthless militant.”

However, it warned that “the ceasefire should not be seen as a sign of India’s weakness”.

Describing the government’s new peace initiative as a “manifestation of Hindu magnanimity”, the Panchajanya editorial said: “It would not be wrong to say that the ceasefire move is a means of paving the ground to reopen talks with Kashmir militants.”

Echoing the BJP’s argument, the RSS said the initiative was a response to the “cry for peace and normality” among the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

The editorial pointed out that while the Pakistan-backed militant outfits have rejected the ceasefire, the Hurriyat Conference and Jamait-e-Islami welcomed it. The latter was quoted as saying there should be permanent ceasefire.

“But since Kashmir is an issue involving only India and the Kashmir militants, how does Pakistan come into the picture?” the editorial asked.

But in the very next line, the RSS’ mouthpiece indicated it was not against talks with Pakistan, provided it gave up supporting the militants.    

New Delhi, Dec. 2: 
The growing indiscipline among members of the Lok Sabha has peeved Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi. He is planning to meet party leaders to ascertain their view on the suggestion that MPs who persistently defy the Chair should be suspended from the House.

The Speaker, sources said, will ask party presidents to direct their members to “behave” in the House.

Balayogi is particularly aghast at the behaviour of the MPs during Zero Hour and the habit of “rushing to the well” at the drop of a hat and creating bedlam. Some members show scant respect for the Chair and return to their seats only after repeated and stern warnings.

Balayogi raised the issue and criticised the unruly behaviour of the members and the inability of party chief whips to control them at a business advisory committee meeting on Thursday. Sources said the Speaker holds that if a member does not behave in the House, action should be taken at the party level.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan mooted the proposal to suspend members who rushed to the well of the House at the meeting. But several parties such as the Samajwadi Party harbour reservations.

A section of the members say that a blanket ban is undemocratic and that they should not be penalised for the inefficiency of the presiding officers in controlling the House.

However, with progressive degeneration in the quality of debate coupled with the increasing tendency to score political points over rivals rather than taking up issues of public import, the job of the presiding officer has become all the more difficult.

The issue of the unruly behaviour of MPs was discussed during the Budget and monsoon sessions and a set of verbal guidelines was issued, but to no avail.

Last week, two Samajwadi MPs held the House hostage by stalling proceedings for many hours. The Speaker was forced to adjourn the House thrice without transacting any business.

Unlike in the previous Houses, the 13th Lok Sabha has more than 40 parties and scores of new faces. There are members who disrupt even Question Hour on trivial issues much to the consternation of the Chair and other members. Earlier, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had laid down a rule that no member of the party should rush to the well. But the directive was soon flouted as Congress members found much to their chagrin members of the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bahujan Samaj Party, the BJP, the Republican Party of India and several others taking political advantage by creating pandemonium in the House.    

Calcutta, Dec. 2: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today said there was no reason to withdraw or defer the December 20 general strike in the state as the Centre “has not yet set up the natural calamity contingency fund”.

Bhattacharjee was replying to newspersons at the CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street this evening. Returning to Calcutta from his north Bengal trip this afternoon, Bhattacharjee did not go to Writers’ Buildings but met senior party officials at the party headquarters and briefed them on the political situation in five north Bengal districts.

“The Union finance minister told me that they will place a bill in the current session of Parliament seeking formation of the contingency fund. But as far as I know, no such bill has been placed before Parliament and we have no reason either to withdraw or defer our December 20 strike in the state,” he said.

Bhattacharjee, however, said his party might think about postponing the strike or deferring it once “the Centre takes any positive step in forming the fund”.

He said he had briefed Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the current political situation in north Bengal and that Vajpayee assured him of all possible cooperation in fighting the separatists in the region.

“The Prime Minister told me that if necessary he might discuss the issue with me in the near future,” Bhattacharjee added.

“I have not said she is involved with the Kamtapuris. In fact, she herself had issued statements in the press announcing her sympathy and support for the Kamtapuris,” he said, when asked why he had accused Mamata Banerjee of hobnobbing with the Kamtapuris.

The chief minister accused Mamata of not responding to his call for a bipartite meeting to restore peace and normalcy in the trouble-torn areas in Midnapore.    

New Delhi, Dec. 2: 
Amid investigations by the navy and Delhi police into last night’s bizarre shootout, navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar today ruled out any “insider” angle but said he has been receiving threats over the past one year.

Kumar brushed aside speculation that the midnight shootout, between a mysterious “intruder” and a marine commando at the navy chief’s official residence, was a result of a firefight between his own guards. “I completely rule out a misunderstanding between the guards,” the navy chief said.

The stranger is said to have sneaked inside Kumar’s 12 Rajaji Marg residence early on Friday morning. He fired at and injured marine commando Satbir Singh, the only guard to have spotted him. Satbir then apparently fired 36 rounds from his machine gun, but missed his target who is said to have escaped either by scaling the 10-foot fenced wall or by walking out through the rear entrance.

The house is close to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s 7 Race Course Road residence.

Kumar was speaking to reporters on the eve of Navy Day. Before the news conference began, defence officials subtly said the focus of the meet should be on the coming International Fleet Review. The message was clear: Admiral Kumar or the navy must not be embarrassed.

However, reporters insisted Kumar give a version of the incident. While the admiral did not explain how an intruder could enter his residential complex, he indicated he had been receiving threats from “unknown and unidentified quarters” over the past year.

“There may have been threats but they are part of the job that we in the armed forces do. We take it in our stride,” the navy chief said.

“The court of inquiry will come to some conclusion within a couple of days,” he added.

The Delhi police crime branch, which is carrying out a separate probe, does not seem to have come across any clue to the possible motive behind the break-in. Although some wires and cordex were allegedly found inside Kumar’s residence, the police are not sure why the intruder should have left them behind after he had been spotted and challenged.

The police are yet to recover the empty shell that ejected out of the weapon from which the intruder allegedly fired at Satbir.    

New Delhi, Dec. 2: 
The Election Commission has given the CPM a bonus by revising and softening its guidelines for deciding the national status of a political party.

The commission today announced the addition of one more clause to the existing set of rules in the 1968 Election Symbols Order — an amendment that will restore to the CPM its national status.

According to the present set of guidelines, a party has to secure six per cent of votes polled in four or more states in a general election or an Assembly poll. In addition, a national party will also have to win at least one seat in four states in the Lok Sabha.

Two months ago the commission stripped the CPM of its national status because it managed to poll 6 per cent of votes in three states, instead of the mandatory four.

During the hearing before the commission, the CPM complained that the decision was unfair as the party had as many as 33 MPs in the Lok Sabha and said the Commission should base its guidelines on the party’s strength in the Lok Sabha or in the Assembly.

According to the revised rules, if a national party failed to conform to the previous guidelines it could now fall back on one more option for winning or retaining national status. It will have to win 11 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha and the members will have to be elected from three different states.

The CPM now easily qualifies for national status. The party has 33 MPs in the Lok Sabha from four states —- 21 from West Bengal, 8 from Kerala, 2 from Tripura and 1 each from Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

The revised guidelines will also make it easy for a party to secure regional status. The previous guidelines required a party to poll 6 per cent of votes either in a general election or an Assembly poll and to win, in addition, two seats in the Assembly.

According to the new amendment, a party can also claim regional status if it wins at least three seats in the Legislative Assembly.

The last time the commission amended the guidelines was in 1977, in recognition of the increasingly significant role played by regional parties in their respective states.

Chief election commissioner M.S. Gill said the commission has made the revisions based on the submissions made by the parties in the court proceedings before it.    

Hyderabad, Dec. 2: 
Chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has given his erring Cabinet colleagues six months to pull up their socks or face the music.

Naidu told the ministers that he wouldn’t hesitate to take action against them, including retrenchment from the Cabinet, if things didn’t improve in their departments in the next six months.

The move, also aimed at curbing dissidence, came at a recent Cabinet meeting where the Andhra chief executive took several ministers to task for their poor performance levels.

Among those hauled up were industry minister K. Vidhyadhar Rao, health minister S. Aruna and power minister K. Subbarayudu.

Rao had irked Naidu for initiating talks with Malaysian and Japanese business delegations for investment in software in the state. The government’s current drive is not for software but hardware units.

“I don’t know why you don’t understand the new initiatives of my policy. Our visit to China and Japan was in that direction only,” he told the minister who was also a member of the 10-day tour of Japan and China.

Health minister Aruna was rapped for making casual remarks about the preparedness of the government, particularly with regard to Japanese Encephalitis (JE). She had also made fun of Naidu’s proposal to import JE vaccines from China when there was enough stocks in Delhi.    

Bangalore, Dec. 2: 
Three thousand policemen, including 1,000 Border Security Force personnel, will comb the forests as the Special Task Force renews operations against Veerappan.

The state police brass, led by director-general C. Dinakar, Karnataka STF commander H.T. Sangliana and his Tamil Nadu counterpart V. Balachandran met here today to finalise “joint strategies” to capture Veerappan.

The meeting decided that aerial reconnaissance missions would be undertaken to track Veerappan. Stating that recces will be more effective that satellite imagery, Dinakar said helicopters would be made available to the STF.

The BSF unit will include a commando group. “It is a self-contained unit with a core commando group that is trained to undertake guerrilla operations,” Dinakar said. Sangliana added that the National Security Guards would be involved in the second phase of the mission.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Sangliana said the Tamil nationalist sentiments raked up during the Raj Kumar abduction crisis had complicated the task of capturing Veerappan. “Tamil nationalist sentiments are being kicked up. This is helping Veerappan, who has tried to project himself as a Tamil nationalist.”

However, the new STF chief who has earned the “supercop” sobriquet as a result of his derring-do, said there was no hard evidence yet on Veerappan’s alleged links with the LTTE. “I don’t believe that the LTTE will benefit by linking itself with a notorious criminal,” he said.

Sangliana admitted gathering intelligence in the jungle was proving to be difficult. “But it does not mean all sources have dried up,” said the IPS officer from Mizoram. Sangliana spent a week in the jungle that extends into three states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — to familiarise himself with the terrain.

The STF chief said there was no territorial restriction on the task force units of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He wanted to ensure that there was no competition between the two forces for credit.    


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