Singhal birthday bash ignites riots
Rail board spars over rejig plans
Asoka’s cross-continent chariot stranded in Manhattan mayhem
Delhi haste comes under fire
Jaswant plans anti-terror trip
Small towns wait for calls
Vajpayee opens doors to critics
BJP plays for crusader role
London spotlight on Osama sister
Back to Afghanistan: after reel, it is time for real Rambos to move in

Bangalore, Sept. 15: 
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal’s birthday celebrations triggered violence in Hubli, leaving one dead and one critically wounded. The victim died in police firing.

Trouble started when a procession of about 10,000 VHP supporters defied police orders against marching past a mosque on the town’s main road.

The VHP men tried to force their way into the mosque and attacked policemen when they intervened, police said. The crowd started pelting stones, sparking tension in other areas of the town, where police fired to quell rioters.

Over 20 people, including five policemen, were injured. There were reports of stabbing and arson. Several shops in Karnataka town were looted and torched. A police jeep, a car and two autorickshaws were set on fire.

Additional director-general of police M.D. Singh said the violence erupted after VHP supporters scuffled with policemen. “They tried to enter and create a ruckus. The police intervened, leading to a scuffle,” he said.

However, VHP leaders claimed that stones were thrown at the procession from the mosque.

Before rushing to the affected areas, Singh said prohibitory orders were in place. Additional policemen have been requisitioned from neighbouring Belgaum, Gulbarga and Davangere districts.

“There is a lot of tension,” Singh said, adding that a night curfew had been imposed to prevent violence. The situation was under control and police had banned people from assembling in groups, he said.

Despite the violence, VHP leaders went ahead with the celebrations in the evening. Singhal, who turned 75 today, was felicitated by thousands of supporters who hailed him for his role in championing the cause of Hindus. The VHP leader was in the forefront of the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid.

Hubli is known to be communally sensitive. The BJP had launched an agitation in the town in the early ’90s for raising the national flag at the disputed Idgah Maidan. The BJP and its allied organisations used to march to the maidan on Republic Day and Independence Day every year to hoist the flag, but were stopped by the police. The dispute was settled in 1995, when H.D. Deve Gowda was chief minister.


Vadodra, Sept. 15: 
A meeting to consider the recommendations of the expert group headed by Rakesh Mohan turned into a slanging match between current and former railway board members in the presence of railway minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy O. Rajagopal.

The heated debate at a special two-day workshop organised here was sparked by the Rakesh Mohan committee’s recommendations to restructure the railways.

Despite frayed tempers, the railway ministry is likely to accept one of the key recommendation of the expert group — to develop a National Railway Development Programme as part of its efforts to restructure the railways. Though sources in the ministry said this would be undertaken soon, the sub-committee examining the expert committee’s report is expected to submit its observation only by the end of next month. The final recommendations are expected to be discussed by the Planning Commission and will later be placed before the cabinet for its approval.

Kumar had constituted the committee during his first tenure as railways minster, before Mamata Banerjee took over.

Inaugurating the workshop to discuss the committee’s recommendations, the railway minister said, “We should not have any pre-determined notions about the way the restructuring would be undertaken. An open discussion is a must and a consensus is essential before any of the recommendations are accepted and implemented.”

“We need to develop a holistic and integrated view on what the expectations of the people are, while we undertake any kind of reform or restructuring,” he added. Kumar is scheduled to make his concluding remarks on Sunday.

Even as Kumar spoke of consensus, the software that McKinsey was using to get a consensus on objective questions kept crashing. The question posed to the panel when the first crash took place was: “How to make the Indian railway system efficient?” Mohan had to come to the dais to counter the facts being rolled out by Railway officials.

The minister called for undertaking a middle path for restructuring the railways and suggested that even soft options should be explored.


London and Mumbai, Sept. 15: 
The terrorist attacks have halted Asoka in its steps in the US, the Bollywood blockbuster Shah Rukh Khan is betting his future on.

The megastar, on a tour of the US and Canada with his film, got caught up in the chaos of New York after he arrived with wife Gauri and son Aryan two days before the terrorists razed the World Trade Center towers with hijacked commercial jets.

Grounded in New York because of flight cancellations, the actor had to cancel the launch of the soundtrack of Asoka in London. He was supposed to have been present for a news conference and launch of the music on Monday but the organisers, Sony Music, called off the launch last evening as it became clear that he would not be able to make it.

The actor was at a Manhattan hotel when the jets rammed into the twin towers, clouding the New York skyline and Asoka’s future in that country. He could not believe this had happened.

“It was shocking. We were just a few blocks from the World Trade Center and saw from the hotel window the billowing smoke and dust engulfing the sky. I felt as if I was watching a movie,” Shah Rukh told his friend Mushtaq Sheikh over phone from New York. “But this was real and this made the situation surreal.”

During his stay in the US, Shah Rukh had plans to meet Steven Spielberg, but it fell through after the terrorist strikes.

“I know it sounds selfish, but just see how this has hit Asoka and us. First, I could not send the film’s print to Toronto because all flights were cancelled. Finally, the festival (of films where Asoka was supposed to be screened) was cancelled,” Shah Rukh said.

Despite the setback, Mustaq said the film would be released on September 26 as scheduled. He said the actor arrived in Toronto today and was waiting for a flight home. The Khans are expected to return to Mumbai on Monday.

In statement sent to London about his role in the film, Shah Rukh describes Asoka as a name that has been embedded in his mind since childhood. “Every Indian child knows Asoka,” he said. “His wheel is on our flag, his seal is on our currency and his name echoes in our history and culture. That is all I knew of this great Mauryan King.”

Khan says director Santosh Sivan has played on the early life of Asoka of whom little is known before his conversion to Buddhism. “He has taken a true historical subject, added his spice and has come up with one of the best fairytales ever to be made in Indian cinema.”

“Today I can proudly say, I know Asoka. I saw Asoka at a personal level. I have not just acted in the film, I have lived the life of the legend Asoka.”

Ironically, Khan plays the role of the emperor who was converted to Buddhism after he was witness to the carnage and loss of lives in the battle of Kalinga. The coincidence doesn’t end there.

Some time ago, the Taliban kicked up a controversy by destroying the twin gigantic 53-metre high and 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statues sculpted into a mountainside. Emperor Asoka had introduced Buddhism in Afghanistan in the third century B.C.


Hyderabad, Sept. 15: 
A section of a minority community has expressed anger at India’s “haste” in extending support to the US which it believes is making Afghanistan a scapegoat for the terror attacks in the US.

“What proof has America got that Osama bin Laden was behind these attacks?” said Mohammed Saidullah, a retired professor of Osmania University who has over 20 relatives in Karachi.

If the US attacked Afghanistan, he said, it would only prove that the country was prejudiced. “We have seen how the US has played its hand in Palestine. We can never forget it.”

His 22-year-old son, an MBA student in Hyderabad, also condemned the orchestrated campaign against bin Laden. “He is not a terrorist. He is a freedom fighter whom the US wants to make a scapegoat for its designs,” he said.

He would have found support in Mir Kauser Ali, who runs an NGO which works with the slum-dwellers in the old city. “It is unfortunate that India is blind towards the Taliban and Pakistan. Instead of building friendly relations with its neighbours, it has gone out of its way to support the US.”

Many members of a minority community expressed solidarity with the Taliban and bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the terror attacks, during the Friday prayers.

On Tuesday, a prominent bakery and a tea-stall owner in the old city distributed free biscuits and tea to over 1,000 people to celebrate the “humbling of proud America”.


New Delhi, Sept. 15: 
External affairs and defence minister Jaswant Singh today indicated he may travel to some “like-minded” countries in the next few weeks to build the widest possible consensus against terrorism.

Singh is scheduled to leave for China in the second week of October. But before that, he may visit Australia and some other countries. His visit to France scheduled for September 18 and 19 had been called off. But it may now be reworked.

National security adviser Brajesh Mishra is also leaving for Moscow tomorrow to drum up support against cross-border terrorism. He will hold talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Rushailo.

It is not clear yet whether Singh will also visit Moscow to argue with the reluctant leadership why it was a wise to support the American move against the Taliban. Singh is also in touch with his US counterpart.

A section of the media quoted Singh as having said an “emphatic yes” when asked whether New Delhi’s offer to cooperate with the US would also entail working closely at the operational level with the American armed forces.

Close aides of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, however, maintain that apart from extending help to the US in its investigation into the terrorist attacks, New Delhi has not offered anything else. “The Americans have not asked for anything yet, and we have not offered anything more,” a Vajpayee aide said.

But there are indications that a section of the Indian establishment is pressing the government to go beyond merely giving the US refuelling rights to the American armed forces if needed. They want the government to not only offer bases and transit facilities to the troops but also to take an active part in the possible US response against the terror strikes.

“This is the best opportunity we have and we should grab it with both hands,” a senior Indian diplomat said. He argued that if the terrorist camps in Afghanistan can be destroyed, it will give India the required time of at least a few years to re-assess and strengthen its weaknesses in Jammu and Kashmir.

But there are others in South Block who feel a “piggyback ride” on the Americans may ultimately prove to be counter-productive.


Chandigarh, Sept. 15: 
America lives in small towns and villages of Punjab. And the acrid smell of the World Trade Center burning is wafting across the continents to reach Dasuya.

Bachhan Singh has travelled over 200 kilometres from the small town near Hoshiarpur and has been camping in Chandigarh to try and get through to his son. Daljeet, he said, “was supposed to be at the World Trade Centre on September 11”.

Cybercafes and telephone lines to the United States have remained clogged not only here but also in the nearby towns of Mohali and Panchkula with people anxious to know the fate of their sons, daughters and relatives either working or living in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.

For some, the wait has yet to end.

Sonia, the 24-year-old daughter of the Kheras, has not been in touch since the day two hijacked aircraft plunged into the World Trade Center.

“Our calls to her have not been returned,” her mother said, clutching her daughter’s photograph. “We have no information about her.”

There are dozens of families still waiting for the call from New York.

R.K. Sethi, a retired telecom department officer of Chandigarh, and his wife, Savita, have been luckier. Their son, Atul, his wife Seema and nephew Sanjay were in the building when tragedy struck. “The whole night we kept awake. The next day Seema called up to say they were safe but were finding themselves in a different city,” he added.


New Delhi, Sept. 15: 
Opposition parties today cautioned Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee against taking any decision that would affect national security even as they extended support to the government in dealing with the situation arising out of the US’ retaliatory plan.

The CPM and the Rashtriya Janata Dal told him not to make India a battlefield “as the war is theirs”. The situation is “very complex and the government should be cautious in dealing with it as it concerns national security”, they said.

Vajpayee, who presided over the all-party meeting, told them not to believe in “stories”. “Let us make a live contact. My doors are always open. Please do not believe in stories. If you feel that the government has done anything objectionable, please call me,” Vajpayee told the all-party meeting convened by him in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the US.

The Opposition said while the country was united on the issue, the nation should be taken into confidence while formulating future strategy and not to allow Indian “land to be misused”. Vajpayee said he could not make several things, which were of sensitive nature, public in the meeting. He added that they could get in touch with him and seek clarifications “before making any opinion”.

External affairs minister Jaswant Singh, who had on Thursday said India would give operational facilities to the US if it strikes, said the US did not make any such suggestion or request (for base) at this juncture. Singh said terrorists do not have a religion and the fight should be against terrorism. “If we make the mistake of linking it with Islam instead of uniting the world, it would be divided,” he said.

Senior Congress leader Manmohan Singh said the government should “anticipate the likely fallout and consequences (of any US strike against terrorists) and take effective steps to safeguard our vital national interests”.

Referring to Prime Minister’s warning that harsh economic measures may have to be taken in case there was a military strike by the US, CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet asked the government to tax the rich and not burden the poor. “We will not disappoint comrade Surjeet,” Vajpayee was quoted as saying.

Copies of the Prime Minister’s televised address to the nation last night were circulated among the leaders at the meeting. Several parties also referred to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and regretted that though India was a victim of terrorism for the last 12 years, many countries did not speak up against the violence.

The meeting decided to commemorate September 18 as National Solidarity Day Against Terrorism and also observe a two-minute silence at 10.30 am on that day to mourn those who were killed in the terrorist attacks. Home minister L.K. Advani, who proposed the idea, said it would send across a message that India was united against terrorism.

Surjeet cautioned the government on the long-term repercussions of a possible US strike and “prospects for South Asia region”, given India’s earlier stand on Afghanistan. RSP leader Abani Roy said the government should ensure that “we are not used by America”, while CPI’s Gaya Singh criticised the US for its “big brother attitude” and creating Taliban and abetting terrorism across the globe.


New Delhi, Sept. 15: 
The BJP is hoping that the A.B. Vajpayee government will get to play an important role in the impending American strikes on Afghanistan and emerge as the country’s first real “crusader” against terrorism.

Though counter-terrorism has been high on the BJP’s list of priorities, its three-year-old government has no results to show in either Jammu and Kashmir or the Northeast — the hotbeds of insurgency in the country.

“This would be the most opportune moment to prove to the country that we mean what we say,” a BJP office-bearer said.

“India has been as much at the receiving end of the terrorism from across the borders as the US. So if it’s a collaborative effort, what is wrong?” a source asked.

The BJP sees this as an occasion not just to crush Osama bin Laden, but also to give a “fitting” reply to Pakistan, which it describes as the ultimate manifestation of “Islamic fundamentalism”.

Home minister L.K. Advani said today that any US strategy to crush terrorism must take into account Pakistan’s “active encouragement” to the “scourge” in tandem with Afghanistan’s Taliban. Advani hinted at wider Indo-US interaction in intelligence-sharing.

Politically, India’s direct intervention alongside the US would consolidate Vajpayee’s position within the NDA, the party and the Sangh parivar for the rest of his term and act as a “shield” against problems arising out of an economic slowdown, law and order upheavals and “recalcitrant” state governments.

The other two “high points” in the government’s tenure — the Pokhran blasts and the Kargil war – had achieved this. While the first helped Vajpayee to stave off pressures from allies like Jayalalithaa, Kargil helped the BJP maintain its lead in the 1999 polls.

The “fight against terrorism” would also come as a boon before the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections, sources said. The BJP is playing every other card to battle anti-incumbency in the state. It has introduced a new reservation policy, offered sops to teachers and traders, and sacked corrupt ministers. But the results, sources conceded, were still uncertain.

On the other hand, an issue like terrorism could polarise voters along communal lines and perhaps overcome caste divisions like the mandir card did.

The BJP has been quick to notice the fallout of the US developments in Uttar Pradesh. In Agra, for instance, it was reported that some boys allegedly threatened students with dire consequences if India backed the US. The administration has ordered an inquiry into the incident.


London, Sept 15: 
The sister of Osama bin Laden is living in London, a Tory MP revealed yesterday.

Henry Bellingham, MP from North West Norfolk, told the Emergency Commons debate yesterday that bin Laden’s sister had visited Afghanistan several times and alleged that she had links with the al Qaida, bin Laden’s terrorist organisation.

Bellingham asked foreign secretary Jack Straw if he was aware that bin Laden’s sister lived in London. He also asked the minister if he knew about the number of West Asian organisations in London that fund-raised and peddled evil. He named Sheikh Abu Hamza, the Imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque, who had been quoted in the media as backing the terrorist attacks on America. Abu Hamza’s son and stepson were among the eight Britons convicted on charges of plotting to bomb western targets in Yemen in 1999.

Straw said he was aware of Abu Hamza but was quiet about bin Laden’s sister.

The Daily Mail quoted Whitehall sources to confirm that bin Laden’s sister was living in Britain. She was just “one of a number of the terrorist’s relatives currently in the UK.”

“She is here legitimately and security services keep a very close eye on her,” said the newspaper quoting the sources. Tony Blair’s official spokesman said: “The bin Laden family is a very complicated one. Bin Laden himself has distanced himself from his family for the last 10 years. As to precisely whether his sister is here or not, we are checking that out.”

Bellingham said he had learned bin Laden’s sister was “no angel”. “I am not suggesting and I do not know whether she supports what has been happening in American, but I think she had close links with al Qaida.”

Security sources indicated the woman — the wife of a businessman who has lived in London for many years — was investigated for possible links with bin Laden.

“We have no evidence of this person ever presenting a security threat, she seems to be just a straightforward person,” one source said. “If anyone has evidence to the contrary, it is their duty to pass it on to the police.”

Bin Laden is widely seen as having been ostracised by his family. His younger brother Bakar, a prominent businessmen who owns a construction empire in Saudi Arabia, has his home in London and attended a banquet in Riyadh with the Prince of Wales last February.

Meanwhile, the anti-American feeling was running high in some mosques of Britain yesterday.

Shah Jalal, a 19-year-old student, led a crowd of more than 200 outside the Finsbury Park Mosque, which has as its Imam, Abu Hamza, a bin Laden sympathiser. Celebrating the attacks on the US, the youth suggested that Whitehall should also be bombed by Muslim fundamentalists.

Jalal, the son of a Bangladeshi immigrant, declared: “I pray I might be a suicide bomber. I would go to paradise for that. I know I’ve been created for a purpose. I would feel great privilege if I was called upon to be a shahid.

“They are talking about the 20,000 people that died. What about the millions of Muslims killed in Iraq, Palestine and Bosnia?”

While some mosques celebrated the attack, Muslim schools felt the brunt of the anti-Muslim feeling that the attacks have generated and remained closed yesterday.

Three London schools also remained closed after their students were threatened in school. Mothers in burqas and those wearing hijabs were racially taunted.

The family of Osama bin Laden condemned Tuesday’s attacks on the US saying they “contradict the basic precepts of Islam”, read an international Arabic newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, adds AFP.

“Speaking for myself and all the members of bin Laden’s family, I express in strongest possible terms, our condemnation of the painful attacks which victimised innocent men, children and women,” said bin Laden’s elder brother Abdalla Awad bin Laden.

Issuing his condemnation in the London-based daily, Abdalla Awad bin Laden said: “We consider those acts an unspeakable contravention of the principles of our religion and they stand to be condemned by any and all religions and by humanity at large.”

“We take this opportunity to confirm what we had already declared on February 19, 1994, that the family of bin Laden renounces Osama’s deeds and stratagems and has absolutely nothing to do with them,” the story said.

Osama bin Laden has been widely pinpointed as the chief suspect for masterminding the hijacking of the four planes, which claimed thousands of lives in the Tuesday’s attack.


New Delhi, Sept. 15: 
America has moved from if to when; George W. Bush has moved from being President to commander-in-chief; and India with the world has begun the countdown.

In the war scenarios, drawn up by strategists and defence experts in thinktanks in New Delhi, America will depend on its Rambos when the strike against Osama bin Laden, his network and his hosts is launched. In the scenarios, the target will be Afghanistan, but not necessarily Afghanistan alone.

“The situation on the ground in Afghanistan — and that is where the target is likely to be — is not the same now as it was in the beginning of the week. The militants will have to move out of their hideouts. I still think the US will launch air strikes, using missiles and aircraft. The objective will be to flatten and soften up the terrain, to have the enemy on the run. And if the enemy is on the run, the enemy will be disorganised. The air strikes will be followed by airborne special forces,” says Major General (retired) Ashok Krishna, deputy director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

The special forces — commandos immortalised by the character of Rambo in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Sylvester Stallone — can carry out fast attacks on specific targets. One of the Rambo films was also set in Afghanistan. If the US is to “hunt down” bin Laden, its Rambos have to do the job.

But following Bush’s radio speech this evening, saying the American retribution will be long and sustained, strategists are pondering the impact of prolonged US military involvement in India’s neighbourhood.

“You cannot fight a long land war so far away from home in a landlocked country,” says General Krishna. The US has claimed that Pakistan has agreed to extend support to its actions — allowing permission for its airspace to be used.

It is still not clear if Pakistan will also allow its ground bases to be used, if the occasion arises. Analysts say the US will use support in Tajikistan and even a base inside Afghanistan, at Bagram in the country’s north-east, which is under the influence of the Northern Alliance opposed to the Taliban.

Taliban’s threat to its neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, falls into a pattern predicted by experts. During the Gulf War, Iraq had launched missiles, Scuds, against Israel but Patriots cut them down.

Taliban’s threat is bad news for India even if it does not share a common border. The Russian newspaper, Pravda, and The New York Post reported today that the Taliban have been digging its heels in, preparing for attack, and have also moved its artillery close to its borders with its northern neighbours — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In that sense, if an attack on Afghanistan by America is a “blowback” — jargon coined by the CIA to describe reaction to a successful military mission — of the attacks on New York and Washington, possible artillery pounding of its neighbours by the Taliban will be the Afghan “blowback”.

“I hope not,” says S.K. Singh, former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan talking of a scenario in which American ground forces get involved. “They will never do anything so silly because Afghanistan is known to them — they ran the Mujahideen there (through the 1980s in their fight against Soviet occupation).”

In the past, experts say, America has taken prolonged wars badly. Example: Vietnam. The “bodybag syndrome”, as one commentator said, haunts them. “Come what may, the boys have to be back home before Christmas.”

But there are signs that the magnitude of the attack on America this week could force a change in the mindset. Seventy per cent of Americans have voted for revenge in network opinion polls.

“If the US has not struck yet, it shows that its response is measured,” says Chintamani Mahapatra, associate professor of American studies with Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Core Group for the Study of National Security. “There are 10,000 Muslims in the American military; there are 3.5 million people of Arab origin living in the US. America cannot let this war degenerate into a conflict between Christianity and Islam. So it is trying to ensure the support of as many moderate Islamic states as possible.”

It took nearly six months after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, for the American-led forces to react — partly because of the international consensus that had to be built up. This time the consensus has built up faster.


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