Sonia dip reaps political whirlwind
Samjhauta gets steam for three years
Muslim leaders ready to talk Ayodhya with govt
Foreign service chokes on Chokila
Orissa refuses to host away match
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi & Allahabad, Jan. 21: 
Over-ruling security considerations and a plea from the mela administration to avoid the Kumbh congregation till January 24, Sonia Gandhi will reach Triveni tomorrow morning to take a holy dip in a visit laced with political controversy.

News of Sonia’s visit to the Kumbh has churned the political “triveni” of the Congress, the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

They maintain that the Congress chief’s visit — two days before the season’s second shahi snan on amavasya (January 24) — has become a political issue rather than an administrative problem or a religious ritual.

Congress leader Pramod Tiwari accused the BJP-led government of politicising Sonia’s Allahabad trip. “The BJP has converted it into a political decision which the administration has sought to implement. But all that Soniaji is doing is maintaining her family tradition. Panditji used to come to the Kumbh and later Indiraji used to visit Anandmayee Ma’s camp at the mela,” he said.

Alleging that the Allahabad administration was bent on blocking Sonia’s Sangam visit on the “pretext that it may disrupt their arrangements”, Tiwari wondered why the human resources development minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, was permitted to take a dip on January 14 — makar sankranti.

“Joshi also has almost the same kind of security as Soniaji,” he pointed out.

VHP vice-president Acharya Giriraj Kishore’s riposte to Tiwari’s poser was: “There’s a difference. Joshiji belongs to Allahabad so it is his birthright.”

Tiwari argued that Sonia would not pose a security threat because “she is not coming on a major bathing day and neither will she address a public meeting”. He said the Congress was ready to reschedule her visit according to the administration’s convenience. “If they cannot arrange the visit of the leader of the Opposition, how can they manage two crore pilgrims?” Tiwari asked.

Sources at 10 Janpath made light of a “routine circular” that had gone to all VIPs asking them to avoid Kumbh till amavasya on January 24, claiming that it was merely an “advisory”. They alleged that the Sangh was rattled by Sonia’s decision to perform what they described as a “private” and “religious” obligation.

The Samajwadi Party felt Sonia’s Kumbh foray was meant to be a “signal to tell people she is well versed in the culture of this country”. “It is a way of telling Hindus she belongs to this religion after her marriage to Rajiv,” said Samajwadi leader Reoti Raman Singh.

To buttress his observation, Singh pointed out that Mulayam Yadav did not visit Kumbh while on a trip to the city today to attend a marriage. “This is because Mulayam’s constituents do not really care whether he took a dip in the Sangam or not,” he said.

The Congress, on the other hand, he explained, was trying to win back sections of the Brahmins and other upper castes who had shifted to the BJP during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. “For these sections, gestures like a visit to Kumbh have a lot of symbolic value. For our backward caste voters, bread-butter issues are more important,” said Singh.

Sonia will also call on Swami Swaroopanand, the Shankaracharya of Jyotishpeeth, at the Kumbh venue at 12 noon tomorrow.

The VHP, which yesterday raved and ranted about Sonia’s Christian antecedents in its dharam sansad, modulated its response today. “It shows that Sonia has finally accepted Hindutva as the mainstream of this country,” Bajrang Dal chief Surendranath Jain said.


Chandigarh, Jan. 21: 
India and Pakistan today agreed to extend the Samjhauta Express service for three more years, putting to rest speculation over the future of the only rail link between the neighbours.

The agreement also promised to upgrade service by providing sleeper and economy class accommodation.

Pakistan had wanted the train service to be extended to Amritsar, but the agreement — signed by railway officials of both countries after meetings held over five days in Delhi — did not mention the demand.

The train now terminates at Attari on the Indo-Pakistan border in Punjab.

The decision to run the train to Amritsar has been kept in abeyance for the time being, a senior railway official said on telephone from Delhi. He added, however, that the agreement has prepared the ground for further talks on the subject.

The agreement, which will come into force with immediate effect, was signed by additional member (traffic) of the Railway Board, S.S. Bhandari, and Abdul Qayyum, additional general manager (freight), Pakistan Railways.

Under the revised agreement, the Samjhauta Express will continue to run as a bi-weekly service between the two countries.

India also accepted Pakistan’s proposal to permit attaching up to two extra coaches in times of heavy rush.

The long-term Samjhauta agreement seems almost a miracle, given the frosty relationship between the two neighbours.

Started as a symbol of peace between the two countries following the Simla Agreement in 1972, the train has been running regularly since September 1975.

Although the much-publicised Lahore-Delhi bus set into motion famously by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in February 1999 provides the other surface transport link between India and Pakistan, the people of the two countries, particularly those affected by Partition, have a special attachment to the train. Many use the train to visit their relatives across the border.

Initially, the train linked Lahore with Delhi, but in 1995 the service was curtailed to terminate at Amritsar. Then Attari was fixed as the terminal point.

Since 1995, the future of the train has looked uncertain on many occasions due to recurrence of hostilities between the two countries. But except on two occasions — during Operation Bluestar in 1984 and in 1992 after the demolition of Babri masjid, when the train stopped plying for a couple of weeks each time — the service was never stopped because of its popularity.

It ferries over 5,000 passengers a week compared to the 160 in the bus.


New Delhi, Jan. 21: 
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board today said it is willing to negotiate on the Ram temple if the Centre “disciplines anti-national forces” again threatening to take the law into their hands.

Speaking in favour of talks with the Vajpayee government, the law board suggested that the Centre take the initiative to create a “conducive atmosphere” for dialogue.

“You cannot hold negotiations with organisations trying to browbeat and intimidate you,” a member said, in an obvious reference to the VHP’s temple resolution and the views of other Hindutva hawks.

He added that the board would go for an out-of-court settlement if the government agreed to build a mosque along with the Ram temple on the disputed site. But the VHP and the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas have been unwilling to let a mosque come up within panchkosi (five km) of the site.

In its meeting today, the board working committee adopted a resolution ruling out talks with the VHP and those responsible for the Babri masjid demolition. But insiders said the majority opinion was for exploring options for a negotiated settlement.

Several speakers lamented that “secular” parties had fallen silent on rebuilding the mosque and implementing the court verdict if it favoured the Muslims.

Secretary Maulana Nizamuddin said the board was prepared to give “due consideration” to any government initiative for talks provided it “acts sincerely to create a conducive atmosphere for the same”. But he denied the board had got a talks offer yet.

“In the absence of any structured agenda or recognised representation, the talks cannot be held. Who do we talk to and talk about what?” a member asked, stressing that the law board was the sole recognised body authorised to hold talks.

Following belligerent statements from the VHP and other outfits over the past few days, the board also decided to set up a five-member panel under Maulana Nizamuddin to monitor Ayodhya developments and submit monthly reports. Other members are Yusuf Mucchala, Maulana Sajjad Nomani, Syed Shahabuddin and Zafaryab Jeelani.

The board resolution reiterated its known position on the dispute: “The land dedicated as a mosque shall always remain a mosque and every effort shall be made for its restoration.”

The board accused the Sangh parivar of launching a “persistent and well-orchestrated hate campaign” and voiced concern over its alleged attempts to mar communal harmony.

It also resolved to evolve an action plan to interact with people at the grassroots so that they are not misled by the “hate campaign”. The move is aimed at countering the RSS’ Rashtriya Jan Jagran Abhiyan.


New Delhi, Jan. 21: 
Chokila Iyer’s appointment as foreign secretary was aimed at stemming dissatisfaction in the ministry. But it appears to have given rise to a new problem, choking the movement of senior diplomats at the top.

Iyer is India’s first woman diplomat to get the top job in the elite service. Having lost the race for the chair as a result of the government’s politically correct move, several senior diplomats are reluctant to leave their present posts and take up new assignments.

Senior diplomats in several key missions like France, London, Berlin and Geneva are averse to moving out, creating a bottleneck in the ministry’s flow of appointments.

One such diplomat is Kanwal Sibal, ambassador to France. Sibal was one of the hot favourites to replace Lalit Mansingh as foreign secretary. But after Iyer’s appointment, Sibal has shown little interest in returning to Delhi.

The ambassador was to come to South Block and take over from secretary (east) K.V. Rajen on his retirement in March and wait his turn for the foreign secretary’s chair. But Sibal has made it clear that he was in no mood to return and preferred to be in Paris where his tenure is not yet over.

This has put paid to Savitri Kunnadi’s relocation plans from Geneva to Paris. Kunnadi, heading the Indian Permanent Mission in Geneva, was slated to take over as ambassador in France. As a sop, she was offered a posting at The Hague, which she promptly turned down. Kunnadi has decided to bide her time in Geneva till something more promising comes her way.

Though Mansingh will be going to Washington as India’s ambassador soon after retirement, another former foreign secretary, K. Raghunath, has not been so lucky.

Raghunath was Berlin-bound to take over from Ronen Sen, who, in turn, was to go to London as the high commissioner. But the flow has been broken as Nareshwar Dayal, the incumbent in London, has managed to get an extension and will not vacate the post till the end of the year.

The chain-reaction set off by Iyer’s appointment has also made R.S. Kalha, secretary (west), change his mind about going to Canada as India’s ambassador. He has more than a year in the service, but indications are that he will continue in the headquarters rather than take up his post in Ottawa.

Satish Chandra, another senior diplomat who retires in the middle of next year, has decided to stay on as secretary in the National Security Council.

But the decision to grant extensions to senior diplomats are taken arbitrarily. While Dayal has been given two extensions to stay on in London till the end of the year, other senior diplomats have been turned down. Rajen, secretary (east), and S.T. Deware, secretary (economic relations), will be retiring within a few months and neither has been given extensions.


Bhubaneswar, Jan. 21: 
Mamata Banerjee and her enemies, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, rarely ever meet at home, Bengal.

The sheer prospect of their coming face to face away from home sent shivers down the spine of a neighbouring state’s rulers.

On Monday, Mamata’s path might have crossed that of her enemies, Jyoti Basu and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. As railway minister, she was scheduled to inaugurate the 75th anniversary function of the BNR Hotel at Puri.

She wasn’t even supposed to come to Bhubaneswar, where Basu, Bhattacharjee and other CPM leaders have been camping for the party’s politburo meeting. Still, the Naveen Patnaik government of Orissa chickened out, possibly tormented by memories of the violent clashes the parties have been engaged in recently.

Puri, less than an hour’s drive from Bhubaneswar, they found to be too close for comfort. The CPM has planned a rally here tomorrow, when thousands of activists would pour into the city in a show of strength. The authorities did not want Mamata and her supporters to be anywhere in the vicinity.

Mamata was to travel to Cuttack to attend a function at Janakinath Bhavan, the birthplace of Netaji, on January 23. Bhubaneswar is midway between Puri and Cuttack.

To prevent a situation where the two sides are present here at the same time, not to talk of a chance meeting that Bhattacharjee has been seeking, the government was even prepared to fly her to Cuttack from Puri. That option was weighed carefully before someone pointed out that Mamata, always unpredictable, might suddenly want to stop at Bhubaneswar.

“Suppose she had insisted that she would halt at Bhubaneswar on her way to Cuttack. It would have been difficult for us to say no to an important minister like her. It would have meant surefire trouble,” sources said.

The government cancelled Mamata’s programme at the last moment even though invitation cards carrying here name were sent by the railways days ago and the Governor had given his assent to attend the function.

Information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj will now visit Cuttack and it is not known yet who will open BNR Hotel’s anniversary. The disruption has already cost the railways dear.

Although this is the tourist season, the hotel, now conferred heritage status, was evacuated and kept empty for seven days in anticipation of the minister’s visit.




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