Truce re-run ruffles home ministry feathers
Stung BJP stages volte-face
Hurriyat flies with the doves
Party presents wishlist on budget to Sinha
BJP plays down Sonia snan impact
Lashkar threat sends Tiger scurrying for cover
Tribal status tops Ghising agenda
Former Speaker dies
Dacoity rerun in terror belt
Police fire kills woman

 
 
TRUCE RE-RUN RUFFLES HOME MINISTRY FEATHERS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
If any arm of the government felt let down by today’s decision to extend the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, it was the home ministry.

The reason: intelligence inputs, after the Ramzan ceasefire came into effect from November 27, suggest militants have been gradually consolidating their position in the Valley and would continue their strikes on security forces.

This aspect was “debated” at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security and there was an opinion that in the backdrop of the attacks by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the security forces ought to be given a degree of freedom to operate in areas where militants have strengthened their position.

Although home minister L.K. Advani went along with the majority view — extending the truce and giving Pakistan another opportunity to rein in the militants — it is understood that he was in favour of security forces adopting a tougher posture.

This view stems from the fact that despite all efforts by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to continue with the peace process, the Pakistani establishment has done little to stop cross-border terrorism. It was, therefore, argued that security forces should be allowed to dominate the ground they had gained in counter-terrorism operations before Vajpayee announced the truce on November 22 last year.

Advani said that except for the big guns falling silent along the Line of Control, “nothing much had changed” with Islamabad not maintaining a tight leash on militants who continue to target security forces and sensitive installations. “Cross-border terrorism continues, civilians and security forces are being killed and houses and property damaged,” a senior official said.

For the past two months, intelligence inputs from the state have been indicating that militants would step up violence. Information was also being received that even though infiltration had dropped sharply in the Valley, it had increased in the Jammu region. Taking advantage of cessation of combat operations, militants have been killing informers of the security forces and intelligence agencies as well as counter-terrorists. The objective is to dry up the sources of information which, in the government’s analysis, would help the militants mount surprise attacks.

Besides, intelligence analysis suggests that even during the period of the third instalment of the truce, militants and fidayeen squads would continue to target security forces.

“Those reports have been gone into and if militants resort to violence we will act,” Union home secretary Kamal Pande told reporters. He was non-committal on whether the ceasefire could be called off if violence continued.

“The second extension will be reviewed from time to time and it will be for the government to take a decision on that count,” he said.

However, another senior official said: “This could probably be the last chance that is being given to Pakistan. If it fails to rein in terrorists from infiltrating into the state and continue with their violent activities, there is every possibility of the ceasefire not being extended a third time.”

Home ministry officials are not happy with the “peace doves” — track-II diplomacy proponents who have been flying to and from Islamabad. “They have not been able to make much headway which is evident from the fact that there has been no let-up in cross-border terrorism,” a senior official said.

   

 
 
STUNG BJP STAGES VOLTE-FACE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
Taken aback by the government’s decision to extend the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, an embarrassed BJP today made a volte-face and welcomed the move. The party was against any further extension of the ceasefire as it did not have any impact on the militants.

Senior party leaders had gone on record saying that since the ceasefire did not produce the desired results and the terrorists did not stop the killings, no useful purpose will be served by extending the truce.

The party line and that of the government were at variance with even home minister L.K. Advani, considered a hardliner, hinting against an extension.

Peeved party sources today tried to justify the decision of the Cabinet Committee on Security, saying that the truce could have been extended to allow track-II diplomacy to continue and to gauge the reaction of the new US administration under George W. Bush. The Clinton dispensation had been positive towards India, said a BJP leader.

“This step would help in gauging the views of the Bush administration as also enabling pursuing of track-II diplomacy,” he said. On Sunday, Clinton had in a letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lauded his peace initiative in Kashmir.

The BJP had been demand- ing that the government review its decision to extend the cease- fire in the wake of unaba- ted killings in the Valley. Even yesterday, senior vice-presi- dent Jana Krishnamurthy said: “Under the present circums tances, it will be extremely difficult for the government to continue the ceasefire after January 26.”

But today Krishnamurthy sang a different tune. He welcomed the government move, saying the party was “not agai- nst it”. He said: “The govern- ment must have taken into consideration all aspects before extending the ceasefire for another month. It was a unilateral decision and it was not a question of time but of creating an atmosphere for a dialogue.”

He argued that it is a unilateral truce and the government can revoke it any time if Pakistan and the militants did not see reason.

“Under the circumstances, let us wait for further development,” he said, adding that if Pakistan did not control the militants, it will stand further exposed before the international community.

BJP president Bangaru Laxman, who was also against an extension and had said the militants and their leaders from across the border had not shown any intention to reciprocate the Prime Minister’s gesture, welcomed the decision.

He said the government must have had its reasons for extending the ceasefire. “The government wants to settle the Kashmir issue through dialogue. It has kept the doors open.”

The BJP wants reaction, not pro-action in Kashmir, he said and added that the government was trying its best.

   

 
 
HURRIYAT FLIES WITH THE DOVES 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD & REUTERS
 
Srinagar, Jan. 23: 
In bandh-bound Kashmir, extension of the ceasefire made little difference in the ground situation.

The snowed-in valley was shut down by a strike called by the AllParty Hurriyat Conference against the recent spate of custodial deaths. Still, the Hurriyat’s initial response to the ceasefire extension should warm the cockles of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s heart.

“The Indian Prime Minister has asserted yet again. That is our impression,” said Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Omar Farooq.

“The hawks in the government and Dr Farooq (Abdullah) must be disappointed,” he added.

Omar said the extension by another month of the ceasefire in Kashmir has once again brightened peace prospects. He was also optimistic of being given travel documents to go to Pakistan.

But he warned that “the extension alone will not help the peace process”. It must be followed by a comprehensive political package to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

Three leading militant groups — Lashkar-e-toiba, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Al-Badr-Mujahideen — rejected the extension. “The Indian ceasefire is a propaganda ploy to gain the sympathy of the international community,” Hizb spokesman Salim Hashmi told Reuters.

Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed called it an “out-and-out fraud”.

“It is a good step and to make the move successful the militants should also respond to the Prime Minister’s announcement,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, the minister of state for home in the state government.

He said during the past two months, the situation on the Line of Control has improved. But civilian killings have increased. He said strict instructions have been issued to the police that while carrying out their duty, innocent people should not be harassed.

Not everybody is convinced, though, that the ceasefire is being strictly maintained. “We are openly being told that the state police conducted this and that operation against militants across the Valley even when the army chief, Gen. Padmanabhan, maintains that firing from across the border has substantially come down. This is open doublespeak,” says Javid Gilkar, a local lecturer.

Another local resident referred to the recent statement by Farooq: “I have told my police to shoot militants at sight. We have no space for them in the various jails of the state which are already full.”

“Where is the ceasefire then?” asked Ghulam Nabi of Residency Road.

A political observer, however, felt extension of the ceasefire has sustained the hope here of a peaceful resolution of the dispute. “Moreover, it has proved that the Prime Minister has been able to overcome difficulties posed by the hawks in his government,” he said.

The chief minister was not in favour of extending the ceasfire, but his party has little option other than to welcome the step since that is the only way the peace process can be kept alive, at least visibly.

G.N. Shaheen, the provincial president of the party, said “all the three parties —- India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir — should sit and solve the problem”.

A senior police officer on condition of anonymity said the ground situation will deteriorate further. “I am against the extension. The militants are roaming freely and the security grid has been weakened. Our move will only earn us some praise at the international level.”

   

 
 
PARTY PRESENTS WISHLIST ON BUDGET TO SINHA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL ORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
With just about a month left for the general budget and five states going to polls in April-May, the BJP leadership today urged finance minister Yashwant Sinha to present a pro-people, pro-farmer and pro-swadeshi budget.

In tune with the Sangh parivar’s swadeshi concept, the meeting also discussed steps to give a boost to the industrial sector, small scale and village and khadi industries and the need to stop dumping of consumer items by China.

The party has, however, justified the government’s stand on WTO and disinvestment. The party also suggested total decontrol of movement of farm produce and raising of import duties on them to protect the interests of Indian farmers against cheap imports.

The main thrust of the deliberations was to find a lasting mechanism to solve problems faced by the agriculture sector. Owing to faulty economic policies of the government, farmers in several states including Uttar Pradesh are facing a host of problems. The party appears to have realised that bread and butter, not controversial issues like Ayodhya temple will fetch them votes.

Though the party has whole-heartedly supported the government’s disinvestment policy, it has told Sinha to shed a bit of his pro-multinational image to send right signals to the people.

Apart from Sinha, BJP president Bangaru Laxman, senior vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy, party treasurer Ved Prakash Goyal, economic cell chief Jagdish Shettigar and members of foreign and defence cells also took part in the three-hour meeting at the BJP headquarters here.

Laxman said the party wanted a pro-poor budget and to tackle the farmers problems. He called for for more investment in infrastructure development to tackle the problem of surplus foodgrains and lack of storage facilities.

In this context, the leaders emphasised the need to adequate infrastructural facilities, need for additional incentives for setting up of cold storage facilities and also encouraging refrigerated transport system.

This would prevent wastage of perishable commodities such as vegetables and fruits, estimated to be around Rs 30,000 crore annually, Krishnamurthy told reporters.

Sources said Sinha listened patiently and told the BJP leaders that he would look into their suggestions.

The party also told the finance minister to take steps to check smuggling of Chinese goods into the country as this was leading to decline in demand of domestic consumer goods.

The leaders said many schemes announced in the past were not reaching the target. Some of these schemes are to be implemented through the states, but the states themselves were facing fiscal problems and some of them even diverted Central funds.

   

 
 
BJP PLAYS DOWN SONIA SNAN IMPACT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
It may be a little late in the day. But the BJP, realising that Sonia Gandhi’s snan at Kumbh had an impact, tried to play down the issue today.

Party leaders said they were not “worried” about the “success” of her visit. They added that they did not believe her gesture will fetch the Congress Hindu votes.

Sonia had yesterday offered puja to the Ganga and took a symbolic dip at the Sangam.

Nervousness was evident in the VHP camp today as it attacked the Shankaracharya of Dwarkapeeth for “blessing” her. Dubbing Sonia’s visit here for a holy dip a “stunt to woo the Hindus”, the VHP said she was trying to “mislead” the Hindu samaj.

An NDA leader, who did not want to be named, however, said her visit has proved to be a “strong countervailing” move which could neutralise the campaign of hardcore Hindutva proponents.

   

 
 
LASHKAR THREAT SENDS TIGER SCURRYING FOR COVER 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA
 
Mumbai, Jan. 23: 
No thronging. No press-fleshing or foot-clutching.

Matoshree, Bal Thackeray’s residence, today did not show any signs of the Shiv Sena chief’s birthday, usually a glitzy affair.

As dawn broke, Thackeray, who turned 74, left for an undisclosed destination fearing terrorist attacks. He took along son Uddhav, his heir apparent.

A newspaper note was all that the Sena chief left behind for the hundreds of his followers, who throng his Bandra home every year on his birthday to shake his hands or touch his feet and seek his blessings.

The note, run on the front page of his newspaper, Saamna, explained how the Sena tiger had been “forced” to take to his heels in the face of a threat to his life by Kashmiri militants.

Thackeray said he had decided to spend the day away from Matoshree and his supporters because of the recent uncovering of a Lashkar-e-Toiba plot to kill him.

Police had apparently warned him that the militants could take advantage of his birthday celebrations to get at him.

The Sena chief’s public appearances have been restricted since police arrested four Lashkar militants from Thane district in November, who admitted to a plot to kill Thackeray and blow up the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

“Every year, thousands of Sainiks visit Matoshree to greet me on my birthday. This year, too, there will be a big crowd,” Thackeray said in the note. But he would not be able to bear it if he could not meet the Sainiks for security reasons despite staying at home, he added.

“So, I have decided to leave for an unidentified place,” the Sena chief said, urging his followers to stay away from his home on his birthday.

Despite Matoshree being turned into a fortress of sorts since the Lashkar plot was uncovered, Thackeray said security was not enough.

“If militants managed to sneak into the Red Fort guarded by the army, how can you say my residence is safe enough?” he asked.

His critics were not convinced. A Nationalist Congress Party leader called his decision to “flee” on his birthday a “cowardly act”. “The tiger has turned tail. He could have stayed home being guarded round the clock by the police but avoided meeting people if he was scared for his life,” he added.

But Sena leaders felt their chief’s decision was “practical and justified”. “Had he stayed home, he would have had to meet people coming in droves to greet him. So, he took the best way out,” a Sena leader said.

Failing to meet or garland Thackeray, disappointed Sena leaders greeted him by taking out ads in local newspapers and putting up billboards by the roadsides that announced his birthday.

Saamna brought out a special 48-page pullout on the occasion. The pullout was crowded with “happy birthday” ads taken out not just by Thackeray followers, but by private and public sector industries.

Thackeray and his son were expected back tomorrow, a Sena leader said.

   

 
 
TRIBAL STATUS TOPS GHISING AGENDA 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, Jan. 23: 
To keep the GNLF from renewing its demand for Gorkhaland, the Union home ministry has invited party chief and chairman of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Subhas Ghising for talks on February 7.

The meeting, to be held in New Delhi, will also be attended by the representatives of the West Bengal government.

Ghising is scheduled to leave for the capital on February 5 accompanied by his executive councillors.

“We have received a letter from the home secretary to attend the tripartite meeting in Delhi to review matters relating to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Accord,” hill council principal secretary Prasant said.

He added: “Apart from discussing more power for the council, the meeting is likely to take up its demand for inclusion of the Darjeeling hills area in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which would confer ‘tribal’ status to areas under the council’s purview. The schedule grants regional autonomy to tribal areas of the Northeast states.”

Prasant said: “Ghising had earlier written several letters to home minister Lal Krishna Advani seeking tripartite talks on granting Sixth Schedule status to the Darjeeling hill region following the Centre’s move for the formation of three new states of Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh.”

The demand for bringing the hill council areas under the Sixth Schedule was first raised by Ghising after the GNLF won a landslide victory in the March 1999 Council election, for the third consecutive time since the council was formed in 1988.

Ghising was not available for comment. But a senior GNLF leader said: “Though the state government initially opposed the demand on grounds of Darjeeling hills not having the required percentage of tribal population, it agreed ‘in principle’ to accept inclusion of the council areas through modification or amendment in the schedule in its ‘volte-face’ report submitted early last year.”

The state government set up a high-powered committee in July 1999, headed by state urban development and municipal affairs minister Ashoke Bhattacharya, to review the Darjeeling accord and provide greater power to the council as demanded by the GNLF.

After initial reservations the state government expressed its openness to the demand for Sixth Schedule status to the council areas, provided the Centre was agreeable and necessary amendments were made.

“We are seeking the inclusion of the hill areas through a Constitutional backup. Presently, the hill council, which was the outcome of a 28-month long Gorkhaland agitation culminating in the accord of 1988, has no constitutional safeguard,” a senior GNLF leader said.

Frustrated with the Centre’s long silence, Ghising had shown signs of renewing the agitation in August last year. Though the GNLF had assented to drop of the separate Gorkhaland demand in the accord, it has not given up the demand politically.

   

 
 
FORMER SPEAKER DIES 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Jan. 23: 
Former Assembly Speaker Apurbalal Majumdar died this afternoon at the SSKM hospital after a cerebral attack and renal failure. He was 84 and is survived by his widow and a daughter.

A seven-time MLA, Majumdar was first elected to the Assembly on a Forward Bloc ticket in 1957. In 1971, he was elected Speaker of the Assembly during Ajoy Mukherjee’s chief ministership.

He joined the Congress in 1972 and was elected MLA. He became the Speaker for the second time when Siddhartha Shankar Ray was chief minister. Majumdar contested from Uluberia and Bagda Assembly constituencies.

Fighting for the cause of Backward Castes, he also became close to B.R. Ambedkar as a student leader. He was born in Faridpur district, now in Bangladesh.

Majumdar left the Congress following differences with some leaders and joined the Trinamul Congress. Recently he had retired from active politics for health reasons.

“We deeply condole Apurbada’s death. I had known him for 30 years,” said Saugata Roy, PCC vice-president.

   

 
 
DACOITY RERUN IN TERROR BELT 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Kulpi (South 24-Parganas), Jan 23: 
Barely four days after six houses were looted in Sonarpur, armed dacoits struck another village in the district in the early hours today.

A gang of 20 masked men armed with country-made revolvers, bhojalis and swords raided Jamberia village under Kulpi police station. Going on a looting spree from 2 am, the dacoits robbed Rs 1 lakh from the houses of five businessmen. They fled after the two-hour operation.

The villagers and local leaders said police, who were informed during the raids, arrived two hours after the dacoits fled.

The police denied the charge. Superintendent of police A.K. Maliwal said: “Policemen rushed to the spot as soon as they received the information. Our efforts are on to track down dacoits.”

The villagers were sleeping when the raids started. Biswanath Mandal, whose house was raided, said he realised dacoits had struck when he heard bombs. “I did not come out, but shouted at my neighbours to alert them,” said Mandal.

No villager came out. “All the dacoits were armed,” said Tapash Adhikary, another villager.

The miscreants divided into two groups and cordoned the houses. “Five of them stormed into my house and shouted at us not to raise an alarm. They took out revolvers and forced me and my family members on the floor. Then they unlocked the almirah and took all the ornaments and cash,” recalled Mandal.

Bhola Mandal, a CPM leader, was also robbed. “They broke open the door and robbed cash and ornaments at gunpoint,” he said.

Bijoy Niyogi, a CPM leader, said that the incident could be averted if the police had reacted early. Trinamul Congress leader Dibakar Naskar said the police had been told several times to launch a night-vigil. “But they did not pay any attention to our suggestion,” he said.

A couple of weeks ago, 10 houses were looted at Kanpur, a village adjacent to Kulpi.

   

 
 
POLICE FIRE KILLS WOMAN 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Malda, Jan. 23: 
A woman was killed and three others injured as police opened fire to disperse two clashing groups at Banshibari in South Dinajpur district today. Five policemen were also hurt in the melee.

The victim, 25-year-old Mamata Mandal, was caught in the firing while returning home with water from a roadside pump. The injured have been admitted to hospital in critical condition.

Police said today’s clash was the sequel to a long-standing rivalry between two local groups. Trouble began around 11 am when one Dipak Sarkar and his men came to occupy a piece of land that belonged to the public works department. More than 100 members of the local club, which has been occupying the plot, resisted them, resulting in the clash.

The police first made a baton charge, but failed to control the mob. Banshibari police station officer-in-charge Tarapada Ghosh then ordered his force to open fire.

Superintendent of police Manoj Sharma said: “There was no other way open for us. Police had to fire in self defence.”

As news of the police firing spread, hundreds of residents converged on the spot. They later went on a rampage on National Highway 34. The mob set a mini-truck on fire. Police had to resort to lathicharge to quell the mob.

But a section of the residents squatted on the highway for over four hours, demanding immediate action against Ghosh. They relented around 4 pm after the district magistrate and Sharma promised action.

Brothel raid

Police recovered a huge stock of electronic goods, including cameras, video games, wrist watches and sunglasses worth Rs 50,000 from a brothel at Kadaroad in Durgapur. One person was arrested. The goods were seized after the police raided the brothel after a local businessman, Khudiram Choudhury, complained that the goods were looted from his shop last night.

   
 

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