Sur panel hints at cover-up
Seniors first in corruption crackdown
George winds down tension after flare-up
Temple whiff in comeback
Quiet diplomacy after Powell remarks
Advani fires first salvo in war of words with Pak
Border simmers after shelling
Fernandes camp plots Jaitley return
Sonia sting for US strikes
PM packs for Moscow meet

 
 
SUR PANEL HINTS AT COVER-UP 
 
 
BY BARUN GHOSH
 
Calcutta, Oct. 16: 
The one-man truth committee, set up by the CPM to ascertain whether party leader Lakshmi De had instigated the October 7 assault on the superintendent of Medical College and Hospital, raised questions about a cover-up, saying it needed more time to wrap up the investigation.

Former health minister Prasanta Sur, a CPM veteran entrusted with the task of digging out the truth when De has already been given a clean chit by the party and the government, said he could not turn in his report today as scheduled.

“Though Tuesday was the deadline for me to submit the report, I am unable to complete the investigation because statements from some partymen concerning the incident were yet to come in ,” Sur told The Telegraph this morning.

Ten days ago, a group of CPM supporters, angry over the eviction of unauthorised occupants of employees’ quarters in the hospital premises a day before, had roughed up superintendent Sachchidananda Sinha, allegedly at the behest of De, who is also the Left Front chief whip in the Assembly.

De and four others were named in the FIR that Sinha’s family members lodged with the Bowbazar police station.

On the day of the incident, the CPM leadership condemned the assault but gave a clean chit to De who had been censured by the party eight years ago for proven connection with the now-jailed crime lord, Rashid Khan.

However, the CPM leadership set up the truth committee under Sur, tasking it to submit the report by October 16.

Noting the clean chit given to De by chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and party secretary Anil Biswas, the partymen who had intimate knowledge of the incident were avoiding making statements before Sur.

“I am still awaiting one or two written statements from partymen to complete the probe,” he added.

CPM insiders, however, said Sur was trying to buy time as he finds it difficult to indict De in his report.

“After the chief minister publicly absolved De of any responsibility for the incident, that too before he could start his work, it will be really difficult for Sur to try and identify De as the mastermind of the hospital incident,” said a member of the CPM’s Calcutta District Committee of which both Sur and De are key secretariat members.

They said Sur had also discussed his findings with CDC members, including secretary Raghunath Kusari.

Sources said, after preliminary investigations, Sur found out that De was present in the hospital on October 7 when Sinha was beaten up.

   

 
 
SENIORS FIRST IN CORRUPTION CRACKDOWN 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, Oct. 16: 
The state CPM has decided to focus on senior party members in its drive to weed out corruption from the organisation.

The party intends to take action against senior members indulging in corrupt practices, while showing leniency towards younger members to give them a chance to rectify themselves.

State CPM secretary Anil Biswas told a party meet in Howrah that it is often said that those enrolling after 1977 are prone to corruption. “I don’t believe that only comrades who joined our party after 1977 are corrupt. I know of instances where very senior party members have indulged in corruption,”he said.

   

 
 
GEORGE WINDS DOWN TENSION AFTER FLARE-UP 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
New defence minister George Fernandes today wound down the tension with Pakistan after the sabre-rattling on the Line of Control in Akhnoor last evening made America nervous and provoked President George W. Bush to ask Islamabad and New Delhi to “stand down”.

But Fernandes was betting the political and diplomatic message of the action — that India can take unilateral action against terrorists “ruthlessly” — will have served to increase South Block’s bargaining power the day secretary of state Colin Powell landed in the capital. “It is our battle. We will have to fight. We will have to win,” Fernandes said.

“I have read the US President’s statement. I would choose not to comment on it.”

The Indian action in Mendhar and Akhnoor over two evenings on Sunday and Monday would have gone unnoticed, a senior defence ministry official said, had it not been for the use of the phrase “massive punitive action” by an officer based in the sector. So far, the army has been more comfortable with the phrase “retaliatory action”.

The official said the statement was made in a hurry and the words were added as an afterthought, not known if by design or by accident. The result of the action — even the defence ministry official was taken by surprise by Bush’s reaction — has been bitter-sweet. The operation got magnified because of the events preceding it. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s wrote a letter to Bush after the attack on the Kashmir Assembly by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, saying “our patience is running out”. Inherent in that missive was a threat to take the action into Pakistani territory. Chief minister Farooq Abdullah also made a full-throated plea that the army begin operations across the LoC.

Action in Akhnoor has attracted international attention, but the security establishment is now trying to turn it into an opportunity to raise the pitch in its campaign against terrorism.

“The world was not prepared to accept our view on terrorism till September 11. We do not know if the US would have done what it is now doing but for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” the defence minister said on his first full day in office, hours before heading for a meeting with Powell.

“In Mendhar and Akhnoor, our army took the initiative to throw back terrorists trying to infiltrate into our side and in the process opened fire. From the reports received this morning, around 30 terrorists were killed. Eleven posts were damaged. There was a similar incident in Mendhar on October 5 when 11 terrorists were killed. This is one of those actions of the army that take place on a daily basis all along the Line of Control,” Fernandes said.

In a propaganda offensive, Pakistan today took a team of foreign journalists to the site.

Intelligence intercepts through the day indicate that the action in Akhnoor has probably taken a higher toll than was initially thought. The official line is that 30 terrorists were killed and 11 Pakistani posts damaged. Figures culled from the intercepts have led analysts to believe that at least 22 Pakistani posts were fully damaged and nine partially damaged in Mendhar last evening. In Akhnoor sector, the boundary wall of a Pakistani camp was destroyed. If these reports are true, it suggests extraordinary targeting. In the background of the official claim that heavy artillery was not used and only small arms and mortars were fired, this is almost extraordinary targeting in hilly terrain.

The defence minister did not agree that the action signalled a new, pro-active strategy in counter-insurgency operations. Asked if Indian forces can force the pace in Kashmir — particularly after Farooq wondered aloud “what is the Indian Air Force doing if it is not going to bomb terrorist camps” across the LoC — Fernandes said army operations will continue “ruthlessly”.

“Farooq Abdullah has been calling for more severe action against terrorism. Action has always been there but if it is some extraordinary step Dr Abdullah wants to have, such decisions cannot be taken on the spur of the moment,” Fernandes said.

   

 
 
TEMPLE WHIFF IN COMEBACK 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
It appears it is not for nothing that the BJP has taken up cudgels on behalf of Samata Party leader George Fernandes.

While Fernandes’ own partymen, including railway minister Nitish Kumar, were silent after his reinduction as defence minister yesterday, everyone in the BJP — from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani to rural development minister Venkaiah Naidu — put up a spirited defence for him.

Naidu, who used to be the BJP spokesman till he joined the Cabinet, today took time off to return to the Ashoka Road headquarters only to countenance Opposition protests against Fernandes’ reinstatement.

Well-placed NDA sources said apart from being Vajpayee’s principal trouble-shooter in the Central coalition again, Fernandes would be expected to play a key role in the Ayodhya issue, on an unofficial level. While the Ayodhya cell — which Vajpayee said would be reactivated shortly — would monitor official negotiations between the government and the various players in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri masjid dispute and court proceedings, Fernandes would be engaged in “back-room” manoeuvres.

“The objective is two-fold: first, in case the NDA allies start making a noise, Fernandes can contain them as the coalition’s convener. After all, Ayodhya is not part of the NDA’s common agenda and the allies can criticise the government for straying from it. Second, since he himself is from the minority community his advocacy of the Ram temple cause could go a long way in neutralising opposition from the so-called liberals and secularists,” said sources.

The defence minister has a good rapport with Mamata Banerjee, Farooq Abdullah, the Telugu Desam and the DMK, who, sources said, could raise the objections.

Fernandes is believed to have privately told his party colleagues that a negotiated settlement was the only answer to the “dispute” and reconstruction of the temple the only “solution” — a view shared by the Sangh parivar.

NDA sources pointed out that he was enlisted on a similar mission in the past when the Vajpayee government came in for flak after alleged Bajrang Dal activists burnt alive Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in Orissa.

The BJP had maintained that Ayodhya would not figure in the Uttar Pradesh elections. But Vajpayee’s assurance to the VHP that a “solution” would be found before March 2002 and its mention in a convention in Agra last week by senior leaders like Pramod Mahajan and Kalraj Mishra indicates that the issue was being resurrected.

BJP sources admitted that the “MBC card” (the policy of a separate reservation for most backward castes and most backward Dalits) had not worked. They were also not sure whether the ban on the Students’ Islamic Movement of India and the negative mood against the Islamic bloc would actually pay electoral dividends.

“So we have decided to keep the temple issue in reserve as the last trump card to keep our Hindutva supporters intact,” said sources.

   

 
 
QUIET DIPLOMACY AFTER POWELL REMARKS 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
India has decided to fall back on “quiet diplomacy” rather than going to town about US secretary of state Colin Powell’s remarks echoing Pakistan’s contention that Kashmir was central to improving ties between the two estranged neighbours.

The Indian leadership hopes Powell will clear the air about his reported remarks at a news conference that he is scheduled to address jointly with foreign minister Jaswant Singh. If he doesn’t, Singh will make India’s stand clear on the issue.

“The talks were marked by openness and strength of self-assurance,” foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said while trying to put up a brave front after delegation-level talks between the Americans and Indians in Hyderabad House. Pressed for a response on Powell’s remarks, she pointed out that India’s stand on the issue was well known and it was only natural that it was raised once again in tonight’s talks. Powell, who arrived here from Islamabad this evening, had a 50-minute one-to-one talk with his Indian counterpart before breaking for dinner hosted by Singh where members of the two delegations spoke at length on the evolving situation in Afghanistan, its impact in the region and Indo-US relations. The talks were described as “extremely cordial, constructive and positive”.

It is not known what Powell told Singh during their closed-door meeting. But indications are he may have promised that Washington will be serious in its dealings with terrorism in all its forms, including cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. He may have requested the Indian leader not to do or say anything that will open another front in South Asia, taking away much of the focus from the US’ fight against global terrorism in Afghanistan.

In an attempt to play down Powell’s description of the Kashmir dispute, South Block tried to convey that the US secretary of state had actually said Kashmir was “essential” — and not “central” – to Indo-Pak ties.

The fact that New Delhi was unlikely to come up with a sharp response became evident by early evening when the foreign ministry spokesperson chose to ignore Powell’s remarks and instead picked only Musharraf’s description that Kashmir remained in the “heart of India-Pakistan relations” before rejecting it outright. “We certainly do not agree with that premise. This is not a new position that has been expressed and our response to that is also not altered,” Rao said.

Though his most substantial talks were supposed to be this evening with the foreign minister, tomorrow, Powell will also meet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Carefully avoiding any direct reference to the US secretary of state’s remarks, Rao said: “We have all along been saying that we must have dialogue with Pakistan and we have not jettisoned that policy. From our side there is no dearth of willingness. But Pakistan’s support to cross-border terrorism must stop.”

   

 
 
ADVANI FIRES FIRST SALVO IN WAR OF WORDS WITH PAK 
 
 
FROM SEEMA GUHA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
Home minister L.K. Advani, often projected by his supporters as India’s strongman, lived up to his reputation by taking on his bete noire, Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, today.

Much before any official reaction was forthcoming from the external affairs ministry on Musharraf’s comments during a joint news conference with US secretary of state Colin Powell about state oppression, Advani fired the first salvo.

Even as Powell landed in New Delhi, Advani reiterated India’s long-standing grouse against Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Agencies quoted him as saying that any country using terrorism as a national policy should be ostracised and declared a pariah. “If there is international opinion, things can be stopped,” the minister said.

Many hardliners in India want Pakistan to figure on the US list of rogue states which sponsor terrorism. Despite Delhi’s attempts to convince the US, it has not been able to get Pakistan on that list. Advani’s attack on Pakistan was also aimed at placating domestic opinion. The minister knows that the US, bent on retaliation against Osama bin Laden and al Qaida, is in no mood to isolate Pakistan.

While supporting US action against bin Laden and the Taliban, Musharraf said the world should also consider the root cause of terrorism which lay in “political oppression and the denial of justice”. Musharraf is not the only world leader to make this point. Nor did he refer to Kashmir when he spoke of political oppression. But he may have wanted the message to go across to both Powell and India that he was referring to Indian injustice in Kashmir.

Advani fired the first salvo from the Indian camp. He chose to do so while addressing the National Security Guards in Haryana. “Our neighbouring nation is saying it is supporting the campaign against terrorism because due to this it will get more support to what it is doing in Kashmir. This is strange,” Advani said.

But, as yet, no Pakistan leader has gone on record that support to the US-led coalition was a quid pro quo for Washington’s help in solving the Kashmir problem. This is possibly Islamabad’s unstated agenda and, so far, there has not been any official articulation of this view.

“But whatever they (Pakistan) may say, they will not get support (on Kashmir),” the minister said. Advani also made the point that India was capable of fighting its battle against terrorism by itself. There is growing realisation in Delhi that getting diplomatic support from the international community is just one aspect of the war against terrorism. Finally, it was up to India to deal with terrorists in Kashmir.

Earlier, Powell irked India by saying that Kashmir was central to better India-Pakistan ties. He also spoke of respect for human rights while dealing with insurgency in Kashmir. This must have been music to Pakistani ears, who have campaigned against human rights violations by Indian security forces in Kashmir.

   

 
 
BORDER SIMMERS AFTER SHELLING 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Srinagar, Oct. 16: 
The situation along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Mendhar and Akhnoor sectors remained tense following last night’s heavy exchange of fire.

Defence sources said fierce firing continued through the night in the two sectors with both sides resorting to shelling and gunfire. The exchange continued till this morning.

The army said last evening it had destroyed 11 Pakistani posts, fortifications and facility detachments along the LoC in Mendhar in Poonch district and in Akhnoor in Kathua district of Jammu region. A defence spokesman had said that “the destruction of the posts was a punitive action against Pakistan”.

In the Kupwara sector, stringent security forced armed smugglers to abandon a huge cache of arms near the LoC, the spokesman said.

The arms included 13 107-mm rockets, 15 solar rockets, eight RPG rockets, a box containing IEDs, 10 mortar bombs, 61 hand grenades and 10 rifle grenades.

Elsewhere in the Valley, one person was killed and 35 wounded in two grenade attacks in Srinagar and in the southern Kashmir town of Kulgam late this afternoon.

Police said unidentified persons hurled a grenade at a security patrol in Kulgam bus stand, which missed the target and killed a civilian, Bashir Ahmad. Twenty persons were injured in the blast.

Militants hurled another grenade at a security vehicle near the exhibition crossing in the heart of the capital, injuring 15 civilians.

Briefing reporters, police said 11 militants had been gunned down by security forces in separate encounters in north Kashmir.

In another incident, a CRPF soldier ran amok in his battalion headquarters at the Bakshi Stadium here, gunning down two of his colleagues last night.

   

 
 
FERNANDES CAMP PLOTS JAITLEY RETURN 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
George Fernandes’ reinduction into the Cabinet has caused disquiet in the Samata Party as some leaders feel that the party has lost the corruption plank against Laloo Prasad Yadav even as moves are afoot to bring back Jaya Jaitley as Samata chief.

The anti-Fernandes, anti-Jaitley camp in the party echoed the views of BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha. The actor, much to the embarrassment of the BJP, told a television channel that if Fernandes, under the scanner of the Venkataswami Commission, could be reinducted, then why could Yadav, who is chargesheeted, not become the chief minister.

While the Fernandes’ camp feels Jaitley should be brought back as party chief, railway minister Nitish Kumar’s supporters are rattled by the “manner” in which Fernandes was reinducted. “We have lost our battle against Laloo Yadav. Our MLAs used to shout at the RJD in the Bihar assembly that Yadav was charge-sheeted whereas our leader (George) resigned on a mere allegation,” said a party leader from Bihar.

While Prabhunath Singh, party MP from Chhapra, went on record criticising the reinduction, there are others who are quiet but upset. Government and television channels could not get anyone from the Samata yesterday to defend Fernandes’ rehabilitation.

It was left to BJP leaders and Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shanker Prasad to stoutly defend Fernandes on television against Congress spokeperson Jaipal Reddy’s onslaught.

   

 
 
SONIA STING FOR US STRIKES 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
The Congress today marked a policy shift by distancing itself from the Vajpayee government’s stand of extending blanket support to the US in its war against terror and asserting that the global community should set ground rules, define terrorism and take calibrated action instead of opting for “ad-hoc” steps.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi said continuous bombing in Afghanistan was killing innocent citizens and would not yield the desired results in the fight against terrorism. She said the spirit of “global secularism” would go a long way in curbing terror.

Sonia was addressing an emergency meeting of the Congress Working Committee at her residence. A majority of CWC members disagreed with the US policy and said the spirit of non-alignment should be revived. They regretted that Delhi had failed to take a lead in that direction.

Congress sources, however, said there were some who did not endorse the Sonia line, but they chose not to force their opinion in view of sensitive nature of the issue.

The CWC also pointed out to the government that the army’s primary task was to guard the country’s borders. The remark comes in the wake of reports of clashes along the Indo-Pak border in Jammu and Kashmir.

Sonia, along with senior leaders Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Natwar Singh, will call on US secretary of state Colin Powell tomorrow to articulate the Congress’ point of view.

   

 
 
PM PACKS FOR MOSCOW MEET 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to go ahead with his visit to Russia early next month to participate in the annual summit-level meeting with President Vladimir Putin, signalling the importance Delhi attaches to its ties with Moscow.

The three-day state visit from November 4 will pave the way for India acquiring from Russia four TU-22 strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Since the September 11 attacks in the US, Vajpayee has called off his trips to New York, Australia and several other countries, saying fast-paced developments following the strikeback on Afghanistan requires his presence in New Delhi. However, now the same developments seem to warrant a visit to Russia.

The decision to visit Russia comes at a time when there is criticism from certain quarters that the Vajpayee government is too eager to join the US-initiated fight against global terrorism. Moscow has been New Delhi’s “time-tested” ally and Vajpayee’s decision to go to Moscow at this juncture will not only appease the domestic audience, but also leave another option open for India if Pakistan’s ties with the US strengthen.

During his three-day visit to New Delhi, Russian deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov discussed with the Indian leadership developments in the region, particularly in Afghanistan, and also firmed up the dates for Vajpayee’s visit next month. The topics of discussion also included nuclear energy, hydel and thermal projects as well as co-operation in the oil and gas fields.

Klebanov said the two countries can cooperate in pipeline construction and oil and gas exploration. Joint ventures are also being talked of in the power sector.

The two countries were concluding negotiations on the leasing of four Russian TU-44 strategic bombers to India, according to the deputy Prime Minister. The finishing touches to the deal may be given during Vajpayee’s visit to Russia but it may take a few more days for it to be initialled.

The focus of discussion between Klebanov and the Indian leadership was Afghanistan. “It is of great strategic and geo-political importance to us as well as India,” the Russian deputy Prime Minister said, adding that the two sides discussed a possible post-Taliban vacuum in Kabul and the role that the Northern Alliance could play.

Moscow, like New Delhi, is in favour of a “broadbased and multi-ethnic” government in Afghanistan that will not only be able to accommodate the views of all Afghan people, but will also prevent fundamentalist and terrorist elements from flourishing in the country.

   
 

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