Kashmir monitor mechanism on table
Delhi deals trade card
Taj loosens stiff tongue
Peace prayer minus price
Crackdown against militants
Sena ‘holy’ buckets become sachets
Paper tigers on prowl
Suspend stick for Panja
Twin targets at Mamata meet
Buddha calls Kamtapuris to talks table

Agra, July 15: 
Moderate optimism about India and Pakistan getting close to set the pace for engaging in serious —- even structured —- dialogue, including Kashmir, was perceptible at the end of the first round of talks between Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Vajpayee’s acceptance of Musharraf’s invitation to visit Pakistan is perhaps a fair indication that the summit might set in motion a process for both countries opting for talks, not confrontation, to settle differences.

Obviously, both Musharraf and Vajpayee were candid in articulating views on even contentious issues. The exercise perhaps encouraged both to appreciate the compulsions for salvaging bilateral relations from its present dangerous course.

It now looks certain that the gamble for calling the summit, perhaps only as an experiment, to make a new beginning in structuring relations has paid off. Apprehensions about Pakistan’s earlier hard stance on making the summit Kashmir-centric can be said to have been partially mitigated.

Both Kashmir and measures to ensure safety from a nuclear accident were discussed in earnest. While Musharraf was high on what he called Pakistan’s total commitment to allow the people of Kashmir to exercise their right to self-determination, Vajpayee was rather frank that the crisis had been heightened by cross-border terrorism.

Vajpayee is believed to have maintained that issues involving Kashmir are highly sensitive for maintaining the character and stability of the Indian polity, and it would be a waste of time to expect any Indian government to lower its guard on Kashmir. At the same time, there was no attempt on his part to avoid talking about Kashmir.

If it suits Pakistan, India might consider encouraging the establishment of a mechanism to identify the sources of violence and its fallout on the people of Kashmir. Frank exchanges on Kashmir have perhaps lessened the earlier Pakistani stridency; but Musharraf can claim some satisfaction over his campaign to position Kashmir on the agenda for any reconciliation between the countries.

India’s position to review the Kashmir issue will oppose any timeframe. It is likely to prefer a sustained campaign in a long-term frame to prepare an appropriate atmosphere to try out a settlement. There is no great pressure on India other than Pakistan’s neurotic obsession with Kashmir. In fact, the rest of the world has developed a fatigue with this longest running T-formulation to keep talks going.

In future on Kashmir, they might be able to announce a few proposals on trade and issues affecting the people in the two countries. These measures will help encourage mutual confidence, a factor most relevant for taking the engagement to a meaningful course.

It now looks like Musharraf and Vajpayee, after their one-to-one parleys running over one-and-a-half hours, could establish a fair rapport and it is difficult to imagine that Musharraf will not strengthen the equation in the larger interest of the sub-continent. The precise level of understanding that may have been reached and the areas of differences can be measured only when the joint communiqué, either a statement or a declaration, is issued at the end of the summit.


Agra, July 15: 
India today made it clear to Pakistan that it could accord the most-favoured nation (MFN) status to India as a first step towards improving bilateral relations.

Though Delhi accorded the MFN status to Islamabad a few years ago, the gesture is yet to be reciprocated.

The issue was taken up today at the delegation-level talks between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Commerce and industry minister Murasoli Maran, present as the fourth Cabinet minister in Vajpayee’s team, pointed out the benefits the neighbours could reap if the trade restrictions were removed and they worked closely. He also laid stress on the two countries jointly taking up positions on key issues likely to be thrown up at the World Trade Organisation summit later this year.

Both India and Pakistan are signatories to the WTO Agreement, which stipulates that they accord each other the MFN status. Delhi had granted the status to Islamabad some years ago. But it has not reciprocated so far using the national security clause, which allows a country to withhold granting the status to another if its security interests are under threat.

The MFN status is a misnomer. It does not signify any special trade relationship between two countries. On the contrary, it only gives two trading nations the basic facilities to work with each other. Many western countries have stopped using the MFN nomenclature while trading with countries about which the domestic audience may have a negative perception. The US does not use the term while dealing with China. Instead it uses the more appropriate normal trade relations.

But in Pakistan, for a variety of reasons, particularly “the lack of progress on Kashmir”, there is an opinion which prevents the government from treating India as its MFN.

Initially, there were signals that Musharraf might show a little more imagination then his predecessors on the issue. But as the summit drew closer, it became clear that it, too, would not accord India the MFN status unless satisfied that Delhi was willing to move forward on Kashmir. Many Pakistanis argue that the balance of trade is in India’s favour and, therefore, Delhi should wait a while before expecting the status.

Just days before the summit, Musharraf dropped his commerce minister Razzak Dawood from the Delhi-bound delegation in a clear signal that his focus was Kashmir. But the Indians were bent on including Maran in Vajpayee’s delegation to make it clear that not only did Delhi want a discussion on trade, but that there were other issues to be taken up apart from Kashmir.


Agra, July 15: 
It was as if the Taj Mahal had cast a spell on the hardened soldier who came out of the mausoleum inspired enough to make his first positive and unambiguous statement on the summit.

“The talks have been fruitful,” said President Pervez Musharraf, as he waved and smiled, much to the delight of screaming journalists and anxious officials of both countries.

The change in the general’s mood, after his visit to Shah Jehan’s monument of love, was apparent: the Taj’s compelling beauty had sheared away some of his earlier reticence.

Barely half-an-hour ago, Musharraf had refused to answer any question on his talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, brushing aside their queries with a “wait-till-tomorrow” refrain. But that was before he had entered the Taj.

His pilgrimage over, Musharraf seemed to have given up on waiting to be on more certain ground on the direction his talks with Vajpayee was heading.

The general, who reached the Taj a little before 5 pm, confessed it was “love at first sight”. Holding hands with his begum, Musharraf, asked to describe the Taj, smiled and replied “bahut khubsoorat, it is beautiful”. As he turned towards Begum Sehba, she said the monument of love was “fabulous and magnificent”.

The Musharrafs spent about 15 minutes in the mausoleum where the actual graves of Shah Jehan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal wereopened for the first time since Bill Clinton’s visit in March 2000.

An awe-struck Musharraf wrote in the visitor’s book: “Visit to one of the seven wonders of the world, The Taj Mahal, was a most unique experience.

The beauty in its symmetry was most exhilarating. The monument proves the genius and aesthetics of the builder, Emperor Shah Jehan. We indeed are lucky to have visited it.”

Much as he was bewitched though, the tiredness on his face could not be mistaken. Flanked by more than a hundred security men, the general, however, remained charming throughout and even indulged photographers a bit, posing with his wife at the lover’s point for a while for their benefit. As K.K. Mohammad took the couple on a guided tour of the Taj, the general kept asking him questions, on who built the monument, how long it took and how many people were employed in its construction.

Musharraf finally came out around 5.30 pm after spending more than 40 minutes at the Taj.

Incidentally, he reached the place half-an-hour late as his meeting with Vajpayee lasted 35 minutes longer than scheduled. That, summit watchers in the foreign office said, was the real reason behind the general’s obviously happy mood at the Taj. Either way, it was celebration time at the venue of the summit.

As happy diplomats from Pakistan and India celebrated Musharraf’s “fruitful” statement, one Pakistani official grinned, “today it is ‘fruitful’, tomorrow it might be ‘successful’”.

Tuning in

Musharraf spent a relaxed evening listening to a special performance of Indian classical music in the company of Vajpayee. The two chilled out by listening to Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt playing his Mohan Veena and Shubha Mudgal.    

Fatehpur Sikri, July 15: 
The Begum came, saw, even marvelled, but could not conquer all.

Away from the heated environs of Agra, Sehba Musharraf managed a quiet 30 minutes at the dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti. But her visit to the dargah atop Fatehpur Sikri left some feeling disappointed.

“Forget nazrana, Begum sahiba did not even pay for the chaddar she offered at the dargah,” said a disappointed Asif Zama, one of the four khadims (Muslim priests) who attended on Begum Musharraf.

The Begum, who flew here in an MI-8 helicopter, prayed for the success of the summit. “Aaj ka din khush-haal ho hum sab ke liye (let today be a day of peace and well-being for all),” the Begum said after offering her 15-minute prayers. Asked if she would return, she said: “Let us hope something positive comes out, Inshaallah (God willing).”

Maulana Amruddin, another khadim who performed the ziyarat for the Begum, said though “no one expects anything from such an honoured guest”, it was a break from tradition not to place anything as nazrana. Asked if he was hoping for a hefty sum, he smiled and said: “Obviously. There was a lot of preparation that preceded her arrival and a lot of hype. We were expecting a handsome amount.” But the khadims’ sense of loss was compensated by the bugum’s “earnest prayer for peace at the dargah”.

Said Abdul Quadir, another khadim: “Begum sahiba tied three strings around the holy pillars of the shrine and asked for peace between India and Pakistan.”

Pakistan aur India ke beech sulah ho jaye (Let there be lasting compromise and understanding between the two countries),” the Begum reportedly muttered loud enough for the khadims to hear.

Her helicopter landed at Fatehpur at 11.15 am and she stayed till 11.45 am before going back to join President Musharraf at Agra.

The fort was barricaded and shopowners were asked to down shutters. The security ring around the Begum was so strong that no one was even allowed to come near enough to catch a good glimpse of her. “Baat karna to dur, salaam karne ka mauka hi nahi mila (Forget talking to her, we couldn’t even greet her),” said Pappubhai, a guide at the monument Akbar built in 1570.

The Begum was taken on a guided tour by K.K. Mohammad, superintendent, Archaeological Survey of India.


Srinagar July 15: 
Eighteen militants were killed in a gunbattle during a massive combing operation at the hilly Mandi area in Poonch district today.

Police sources said acting on a tip-off, army troops launched the combing operation at Hill Kaka area of Mandi in Jammu region this afternoon. A gunbattle erupted when the militants fired at the troops. In the largest operation in a year, 18 militants, mostly foreign mercenaries, were gunned down in the encounter, which continued till the evening.

Huge quantity of arms and ammunition were recovered from the site. Securitymen suspect that more militants are hiding and searches are still continuing in the area.

Troops had been put on maximum alert in the entire Jammu region on the eve of President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to India.

In an adjacent mountain area, two militants were killed in a gunbattle. Four more militants were killed in a gunbattle at Harmadev in Kupwara district this afternoon. A report from Pulwama said gunmen this evening killed two civilians riding a scooter. The police have rushed to the spot and are combing the area. Sources identified the civilians as Abdul Rashid, a school teacher, and contractor Mohammad Saleem.

Firdous Ahmad, son of a National Conference leader, was gunned down by militants at Achabal in Anantnag district today, the police said.


New Delhi, July 15: 
Yesterday, Shiv Sena activists had threatened to cleanse Rajghat with buckets of gomutra and Ganga water after Pervez Musharraf’s visit to the samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi.

But the Sena show turned out to be a damp squib. Around 50 Sainiks came with tiny sachets of gomutra and Ganga water and sprinkled them all over the place. Police arrested four of the activists.

Jai Bhagwan Goyal, the president of the party’s Delhi unit, did not have much to say as their mission folded up without even being a side show.

“We have achieved our objective” was how Goyal chose to sum up the incident. The Sena supporters were the only ones who protested against Musharraf’s visit. Delhi was free from demonstrators and protesters all through his stay here.

The Sena activists, who had dug up a cricket pitch ahead of an Indo-Pak encounter, said, Musharraf has sullied the memory of the Mahatma by sprinkling rose petals on his grave.

In Mumbai, activists burnt a Pakistani flag at Chira Bazar, says a PTI report. The mob also shouted slogans demanding the freedom of Indian fishermen languishing in Pakistani jails.

RAF at haveli

The Rapid Action Force was deployed at Neharwali Haveli this morning amidst threats that the Sena activists will “purify” it.

“There is no need to cleanse the haveli now as God itself had washed it during the nightlong rains,” local MLA Shoaib Iqbal said.


Agra, July 15: 
Editors are daring in where reporters fear to tread.

With little official information forthcoming on the substance of the Vajpayee-Musharraf talks, media organisations across the country, and indeed, also from Pakistan, have deployed their senior-most journalists in an effort to reach the crux of the summit story.

Editors of nearly all major Indian journals and newspapers have left their desks to either go back to, or try their hand at, reporting. If they are not writing, they are editing instantly and marshalling their resources like field commanders in a desperate bid to find out what is it that is making the Indian and Pakistani establishments so optimistic.

Television channels, too, had little to chew on that was meaty enough and aired opinions — of all hues — presenting news that was mostly views. Though most of it was not worth being aired, it was telecast just to keep alive the excitement on the airwaves. Till this evening, the only official statement — from the foreign ministry and endorsed by its Pakistani counterpart — has let out that the talks were “very cordial”.

The spokesman for the Pakistan President, Major General Rashid Quereshi, has added a precious soundbyte, that the talks “are positive and to me they appear to be moving forward”. The point is, moving ahead to what?

Pakistani journalists are rarely known to make tours overseas except when junkets are government-sponsored. “This time most of our newspapers have spent their own money and maybe only the travel cost from Delhi to Agra will be picked up by the government,” says Mir Jamil-ur Rahman, one of the seniormost among the 70-odd scribes who have come for the summit from across the border.

At The Headline cafe and bar opened at the Mughal Sheraton, host to the media centre, summit chit-chat and cocktails make for heady concoctions. Cashing in on the publicity the event affords it, the hotel has announced its discotheque will be open till 2 am. It also offers a three-day all-expenses paid Europe tour to a lucky journalist. Of the hotel’s 285 rooms, 250 have been taken up by journalists.


Calcutta, July 15: 
Irked by rebel MP Ajit Panja’s stand, the All-India Trinamul Congress Committee has decided to suspend him pending an enquiry.

This comes in the wake of Panja’s decision to organise a rally in Hooghly on July 21 to counter party chief Mamata Banerjee’s much-hyped meeting at Esplanade on the same day to condole the killing of 13 Congress workers in police firing in 1992.

“The time is ripe to rein in Ajitda. We cannot allow him to continuously damage the organisation in a calculated manner,” said party spokesman and MP Sudip Bandopadhyay.

He said Mamata has convened an emergency meeting of the party’s working committee tomorrow to discuss the “crucial” issue. “The apex body will have to give a serious thought to the state committee’s report recommending stern disciplinary action against Panja,” he added.

Confirming that party MP from Panskura Bikram Sarkar is framing rules regarding the suspension, he said they will be submitted to Mamata tomorrow. “In our organisational constitution, such rules have not yet been framed as the question has so far not arisen,” he observed.

Trinamul sources said Panja, who is stripped of key party posts, including that of chairman of the state committee, will be suspended for some time. The move is being viewed in political circles as a deliberate attempt to prevent Panja from rejoining A.B. Vajpayee’s Cabinet.

At a meeting last month, Trinamul leaders were unanimous in expelling four party functionaries, including a vice-president from Howrah and two other key functionaries, for aligning with Panja. They also sent a strongly worded report to the apex body recommending “punishment” for Panja.

They said Mamata held a closed-door meeting with mayor Subrata Mukherjee at the latter’s residence this morning, presumably to seek her one-time mentor’s opinion on Panja’s suspension.

Trinamul officials said the party will not expel Panja as this will give him an opportunity to join the Union Cabinet as an Independent MP. “We want to isolate Panja from the party as well as the masses,” said a Trinamul leader.

Stung by the party’s stand, Ranjit Panja, elder brother of the rebel MP, said this will surely send a “wrong signal” to the party rank and file across the state.

“I believe this is a step in the wrong direction and party leaders should instead explore the possibility of brokering peace with Ajit without delay. There is no doubt that Ajit is going the wrong way but he should be given an opportunity to explain his position,” the elder Panja said.


Calcutta, July 15: 
Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee will target both chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and her one-time sympathiser and sports minister Subhas Chakraborty at her July 21 mass rally if there is any attempt by the CID, probing the Salt Lake stadium arrests, to “cover up the CPM-criminal nexus”.

Mamata, who is awaiting the outcome of the CID inquiry and Bhattacharjee’s statement on the issue in the Assembly on July 19, intends to politically exploit it in the event of Chakraborty “getting a reprieve from the government as well as the CPM”.

The Trinamul chief, who has directed her party MPs to raise “the CPM’s Assembly poll rigging” issue in the monsoon session of the Lok Sabha, feels a cover-up will vindicate her contention that only a CBI probe will bring out the truth and reveal the role played by the arrested criminals in the elections.

Trinamul workers on Saturday organised a number of street-corner meetings on Chakraborty’s turf in the Belgachhia East Assembly constituency in support of the July 21 rally, urging the people to protest against the “state government’s inaction over the stadium arrests” and reiterating the party’s demand for a CBI probe.

Sources said the Trinamul leader would spare no efforts to confront the state government over the stadium issue if the CID decides to “overlook Chakraborty’s involvement and treats it as a mere law and order problem”.


Siliguri, July 15: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today appealed to the Kamtapur Peoples’ Party to shun the separatist militants and invited them to sit across the table to sort out their problems.

“The government is willing to sit across the table with the misguided KPP leadership to sort out the problems plaguing the Rajbonshi community,” Bhattacharjee said. “But in no way will we tolerate the separatist Kamtapur Liberation Organisation trying to turn north Bengal into another Assam.”

Bhattacharjee was addressing a gathering here at the Indoor Stadium to celebrate the Left Front’s sixth consecutive victory in the Assembly polls.

Admitting that north Bengal needs more attention to develop, the chief minister warned that the KLO armed uprising will be put down with an iron hand.

“We will not tolerate any militancy in the region. The Kamtapuris have to decide for themselves whether they want to sit with us or go along with the KLO militants,” he said.

“I am ready to sit with the Kamtapur leaders with an open mind. But first they have to decide with whom they will go,” the chief minister added.


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