Atal holidays behind coconut curtain
Peace onus back on Pakistan
Bangaru allays ally temple fears
BJP warns of truce rethink
Saarc people summit blurs barriers
BJP soulsearch on civic poll see-saw
Tuskers in retreat kill 1
Four held for Trinamul home ransack
Gherao stalled

New Delhi, Dec. 27: 
A security blanket has been thrown over the Prime Minister’s holiday in Kerala following new instructions for the Special Protection Group in the wake of the Lashkar threat to target the Prime Minister’s Office and the assault on the Red Fort.

Police in Kerala, the land of coconuts, are also acting under changed instructions from the SPG.

One of the first casualties of the security overkill at the Taj Garden retreat in Kumarakom, where Atal Bihari Vajpayee is vacationing, was the traditional welcome with elephants. The pachyderms were marched off after an SPG official barked “hathi has no business in a reception”.

Theyyam performers from north Kerala, who had come to perform before Vajpayee, were also shown the door because the SPG found their headdress and use of weapons and lighted torches “too risky”. But hotel authorities were allowed to welcome Vajpayee with the traditional arati.

There was also panic at the helipad yesterday in Kottayam, where Vajpayee landed on his way to Kumarakom, after officials noticed that his foster granddaughter Niharika had not boarded the correct vehicle. She was later traced by the SPG in an escort car.

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) — which advises the SPG on Vajpayee’s security — had recently thought of re-assesssing the set-up after the Navy House raid, which later turned out to be a fiasco. There was also talk of reviewing the nature and content of the Z-plus security given to Vajpayee.

But the subject was reopened after last Friday’s raid at Red Fort and the subsequent threat reportedly by the Lashkar headquarters from Pakistan that the PMO could be its next target.

If the police and the army version is believed to be true, the surprise assault only shows how vulnerable bigwigs in Delhi really are.

For the time being, a spot decision has been taken to increase the strength of local personnel wherever the Prime Minister is travelling. No doubt, Kerala Police have had to post more men than they would usually have in Kottayam and Kumarakom.

In Delhi, policemen have been asked to mount additional vigil close to Race Course Road and at North and South Block.

Sources said the SPG might also take the IB’s help to do a thorough review of Z-plus security once Vajpayee returns. The review will most probably take place after he leaves for his trip to Southeast Asia in early January.

According to sources, Vajpayee, on his birthday two days ago, had announced late in the afternoon that he would go for a quiet Chinese dinner at the Taj Mansingh hotel with his family and a few select friends.

Delhi police was immediately informed and the number of personnel deployed to guard the joint was much more than usual. “It is a new drill, a new requirement that is being done because the SPG wants it that way,” Delhi police sources said.

No wonder, lensmen in Kottayam were rudely rebuffed when they wanted to photograph Vajpayee yesterday.

But if the tight security threw a damper on several entertainment programmes, rain also played spoilsport as a steady drizzle since morning doused the holiday spirit.

However, Vajpayee — who today scotched speculation about possible mid-term polls in the near future as “baseless and misleading” and said attempts by the Opposition to divide the NDA will not succeed — went for a stroll along the banks of the Vembanad lake this morning. He was advised against a boat ride on the lake.


New Delhi, Dec. 27: 
The recent violence unleashed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba seems to have put the pressure squarely back on Pakistan to rein in trigger-happy militants if peace has to be restored to Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in the country.

India has already indicated that after the ceasefire period ends on January 27, it might be extended indefinitely, provided outfits like the Lashkar and the Hizb-ul Mujahideen lay down arms and join the initiative to find a peaceful solution to the festering Kashmir dispute.

South Block officials have made it clear that while a violence-free phase in the embattled state might lead to resumption of Indo-Pak talks, the difficulty lies not in returning to the negotiating table but on what the two sides should be talking about.

“We can resume the dialogue with Pakistan anytime we want to. But the problem lies in what we are going to talk to them about,” said a senior foreign ministry official, who pointed out that Islamabad’s obsession on giving primacy to Kashmir over other issues has prevented meaningful progress in talks.

Pakistani officials counter this accusation, saying it was Delhi’s stalling tactics and refusal to make any concession which were the main reasons for talks in the past not being productive.

“If you start the dialogue with the opening lines that Kashmir is an integral part of India and there cannot be a solution to it outside the country’s Constitution, you are already ensuring failure in the talks,” a senior Pakistani diplomat said.

But 18 months after the Kargil flare-up, world players saw a ray of hope in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ceasefire announcement. Key players who were keen that the nuclear neighbours return to the talks table said they were optimistic that the announcement might lead to somewhere.

The Pak leadership has also responded by saying that Islamabad would ensure the stability of the ceasefire with India along the Line of Control (LoC).

Pakistan went a step ahead, assuring that it was no longer insisting on a tri-partite dialogue between Delhi, Islamabad and the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) as long as India holds separate talks with them and allows them to travel to Islamabad to interact with the junta.

But the attack on the Red Fort and in Srinagar by Lashkar militants have once again strained the initiative and put the onus back on Pakistan to control the militants.

Some Indian experts feel the attacks are a reflection of the debate raging across the border. “It shows that there are still some elements in Pakistan who are debating whether Islamabad should give up its leverage on using violence in Kashmir to keep India on the backfoot,” a member of an important Indian think-tank said.

But some officials argued that this was all the more reason why Pervez Musharraf would try to establish command over the militants to ensure that such violent incidents do not imperil the possibility of a resumption in talks.

“If Gen. Musharraf is not in control of things in Pakistan, then why should we talk to him?” a senior foreign ministry official said.


Hyderabad, Dec. 27: 
BJP president Bangaru Laxman today described the Ram temple issue as an “article of faith” for his party.

Urging allies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to persist with the coalition, Laxman said the Centre’s performance has been satisfactory.

“Issues that have cropped up between the partners on local and religious issues are being amicably ironed out,” he said, adding that the NDA was “cohesive and purposive”.

Asked about the recent tussle with the Telugu Desam over the farmers’ issue, Laxman said: “It has been sorted out. The nation need not have any misgivings about our (BJP) and our partners’ commitment to the common agenda”.

Laxman was here to address a meeting of BJP office-bearers in the state. Aswhini Kumar, who is in charge of the party’s affairs in the state, also attended the meeting.

Commenting on the threat posed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba to the Prime Minister’s Office, the BJP chief said the militants were desperate because the people of Jammu and Kashmir were “dissociating themselves” from them. So they are aiming to “derail the peace process launched by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.”

Laxman accused Pakistan of playing a double game on the ceasefire along the Line of Control.


New Delhi, Dec. 27: 
Taking note of the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s reported threat to target the Prime Minister’s Office, the BJP said it would “seriously” imperil the current peace process.

BJP spokesman Jana Krishnamurthy went as far as warning that the Centre may be compelled to review the ceasefire and in case the move backfired, the onus would rest squarely on Pakistan.

Krishnamurthy told reporters: “We can put up with small pinpricks and we do not have to get upset simply because they (Lashkar) say they will target the PMO. But even so we expect Pakistan to take serious note of this threat.”

“We call upon Pakistan to ensure it curbs the activities of Lashkar as the onus is on the country’s establishment to ensure that if any such nefarious attempt is indulged in by the Lashkar, it would upset the peace process and the Indian government would have to rethink on the whole issue,” he added.

Describing the Lashkar’s threats as “more of a challenge to Pakistan than India”, Krishnamurthy said: “If Pakistan wants to have talks with India on all issues, including Kashmir, then the prerequisite is to have peace and it is a two-way affair though India has unilaterally declared ceasefire.”

He added that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s statement from Kottayam confirmed the perception that “whatever incidents one has been witnessing in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir have been carried out by organisations in Pakistan”.


New Delhi, Dec 27: 
There were no government representatives at this Saarc conference: only activists and non-government organisations from five countries — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The second conference of the Saarc Peoples Forum met in Kathmandu to discuss an issue of growing importance in the region: food security and trafficking in women and children.

The future of Saarc seemed uncertain following an indefinite postponement of its summit originally scheduled to have been held two months ago in Nepal, which hosted the People’s Forum conference.

“We do not know what is the future of Saarc,” said the speakers. But they were determined to keep this forum of people-to-people contact alive. The governments are sparring but the people are ready to share their experiences and shake hands. Their main concern is to rein in unbridled globalisation that they believe is eroding people’s livelihood, driving the marginalised across the borders of one nation to another.

The People’s Forum has asked its governments to see the “critical connection” between food security and trafficking in women and children and ensure food security to lessen the vulnerability of women and children.

Though the People’s Forum is yet to gather data on the link between globalisation and an increase in trafficking, the grassroots participants said there could be no doubt of a correspondence between the two.

According to Ubinig, an NGO in Bangladesh, it is not just prostitution that fuels and sustains trafficking.

“The use to which the trafficked persons are put depends on the exploitative global trading system and its supply and demand trends,” said the Ubinig.

The speakers said the lure of profit could lie in the sale to brothels, adoption homes, camel jockeys, forced marriage and domestic and bonded labour. But this, they insisted, must not be used to restrict the mobility of women. The governments of Nepal and Bangladesh recently barred women from seeking employment abroad.

Hard-hitting statistics were revealed at the Saarc People’s Forum. In the last 10 years, more than 20,00,000 women were illegally transported. An average of 45,000 women and children are smuggled to Pakistan every year.

“The traffickers are using India and Pakistan as their route to the UAE and other countries,” said the Ubinig.

The spiralling graph of trafficking has made governments sit up, but there are no easy solutions with the marginalised and the poor thrown on the sidelines of the economy.

“Why did the governments put off the Saarc meeting? They must cooperate on these issues,” asked Farida Akhter of the Ubinig.

Natasha from Bangladesh had carried out a study on the status of Bangladeshis and Nepalis in India which showed that most of the women were sold to brothels while others worked as domestic help or rag pickers.

The last conference of the People’s Forum was held in Colombo two years ago.

“Our main objective is to foster close cooperation among the countries so that we can make a difference to the lives of the people,” said the organisers.


New Delhi, Dec. 27: 
High up on the agenda of the two-day BJP national executive — starting January 4 in the capital after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee returns from his Kerala holiday — is a threadbare discussion of the recent local bodies’ elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

The results have been a mixed bag of cookies for the BJP: disastrous in Gujarat, indifferent in Uttar Pradesh and spectacular in Himachal.

At the last national executive in October, it was decided that the Gujarat unit would submit a report to the high command analysing reasons behind the rout as well as the Congress’ clean sweep of civic bodies and panchayats despite reports of infighting. But sources said till date no such report has been prepared for “fear” of having to name top bosses like chief minister Keshubhai Patel and state unit chief Rajendrasinh Rana.

Sources said the general perception was both would have to shoulder a substantial share of the blame. According to them, even if no report was prepared by the time the session commences, both Patel and Rana would have to answer questions on the poll disaster. More so because Gujarat is the only big state where the BJP is ruling with an absolute majority.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s initial euphoria over winning six of the 11 mayoral posts subsided after it suffered major reverses in other tiers of the elections. Party unit sources blamed the losses on “lack of cadre enthusiasm” and the “hangover effect” of the Ram Prakash Gupta regime.

Sources said one of the main reasons why the Ram temple issue was resurrected was to revive cadre morale and salvage the party’s urban bastion, nearly half of which has been usurped by the Samajwadi Party and to a lesser extent by the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress.

The only silver lining was the party’s performance in Himachal where the BJP won 80 per cent of posts in all local bodies.


Calcutta, Dec. 27: 
Three tuskers wrecked havoc at Sonamukhi, Ro-ngpur and Bhaglui village in Bankura and Kasba in Burdwan in the early hours, killing one person as they retreated into the jungles.

According to divisional forest officer of Burdwan V.K. Sood, the elephants had travelled from the jungles of Sonamukhi to Kasba.

“We could see them coming. We sent the women back to the village to alert the rest,’’ a villager said. “Our main concern was to save our crop.’’

Villagers armed with bows and arrows and beating drums formed a cordon near the field. The tuskers panicked and retreated after being hit by the arrows.


Midnapore, Dec. 27: 
Four CPM supporters were arrested today for ransacking the house of Trinamul Congress leader Gour Ghoroi in Mundamari village, Vineet Goel, additional superintendent of police, Kharagpur, said.

CPM supporters allegedly hurled bombs at Ghoroi’s house yesterday set it on fire.

A Trinamul team led by MLA Dipak Ghosh met the SDPO, Kharagpur, Anil Srinivas, at Pingla police station today and submitted a memorandum.

Later, Ghosh told reporters that Ghoroi and other Trinamul leaders were in danger as CPM activists were openly moving about, brandishing firearms. He demanded police protection for them.

In a separate incident, Trinamul supporter Khirod Doloi was hacked with a tangi by CPM supporters at Gotgaria village when he was putting up posters.


Durgapur, Dec. 27: 
Members of the Tank Truck Owners’ Association, who gheraoed Indian Oil’s Rajbandh terminal yesterday, withdrew their protest after district authorities intervened.    

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