Hammer attack on Indian girl in Derby
No plans now for talks, says Vajpayee
Jaish hangs suicide attack threat
Pak shadow on PM date
Venkaiah vacuum hope for Mamata
Samata targets spycam panel
MLAs force hunt for CM heir
Temple troops signal return to basics
Cong calls for swoop on VHP bigwigs

Derby, Oct. 18: 
It is the first day of Navratri and, at their modest terrace house in Derby, the Shukla family is recovering from a frightening ordeal. They have been to the temple and offered prasad of nuts and misri to their guests.

Radhika, their 15-year-old-daughter, has just been discharged from hospital after being viciously beaten up with a claw hammer by a gang of eight to 10 Pakistani youths. She is wearing black jeans and a faded pink T-shirt but her arm is in a sling. Derby, famed throughout the world for its Rolls-Royce cars, has 30,000 Indians and 18,000 Pakistanis. Relations have been tense since September 11 and have been made worse by pockets of support among Pakistani youths for Osama bin Laden. Now, after the unprovoked assault on Radhika, matters have deteriorated.

Radhika comes across as a bright girl. Despite her ordeal, she looks calm but there is bruise around her right eye. In the current tense atmosphere, her parents, Prem and Bina Shukla, will not allow her to go back to school where she was attacked.

The Shukla family sits in a small backroom and recalls its nightmare. On Monday at lunchtime, a Pakistani gang of 15-19 year olds descended upon Derby Moor Community School with claw hammers and started beating up Radhika, three of her friends and two teachers as they made their way from one school building to the refectory.

Shukla, 50, a former British Rail crane driver who came to Britain from Punjab 35 years ago, says: “I pick up my daughter every day.”

The headmaster, Alan Vaughan, whose intervention probably saved Radhika’s life, the family believes, told him there has been a “serious incident” at school. “That really shook me,” says Shukla.

Bina — a Punjabi woman, she changed her surname from Rai to Roy when she lived in Calcutta — says Radhika and her friends heard loud noises and turned around to see a gang of boys advancing with hammers and rods. Radhika fell after being struck on the back of her neck and on the head with a claw hammer.

She was kept at the Derby Royal Infirmary till the early hours of Tuesday. She suffered internal bleeding in her right ear and a hairline fracture on the skull. “One culprit who attacked our daughter was captured there and then,” said Radhika’s mother. Two youths, aged 15 and 19, have been charged by police and another five are being questioned. The police are trying to ease tension by not revealing their identities.

Radhika thinks this is wrong “because they can just come back and hit me again. If I see them again, I will recognise them straightaway. I am just scared of what I have told the police.” Her father gently tells her not to be scared and describes Radhika as a “very, very brave girl”. It is not clear why she was picked on but at her school the walls have been daubed with slogans, “Osama bin Laden rules”.

It has been suggested that her assailants targeted her because of a spat last week between a West Indian and a Pakistani girl over race. Somehow, the latter’s headscarf came off during the incident. The girls later apologised to each other. Radhika herself was not present during their quarrel, her father points out.

Radhika goes on : “I am good friends with Pakistani people. At the hospital one of my Pakistani friends rang me to see if I was all right. ‘Was my brother involved?’ she asked.” Radhika told her he was not. Another Pakistani friend, who rang her at home, “was crying”.

In all, the Shukla family have received 700 calls, including a few from Pakistani families. Margaret Beckett, the local MP and leader of the House of Commons, has also telephoned, as had the Indian High Commissioner, Nareshwar Dayal. Apparently, word has got back to the Indian prime minister.

One of the guests in the Shukla household is Gurmit Singh Maan, chairman of the Indian community centre. He says Hindu, Muslim and Sikh organisations in Derby, concerned at the escalation in communal tension — some Pakistani shops are being boycotted by Indians — have had a meeting and set up a steering group.

Another is Krishnan Sharma, a member of the local Hindu temple, who says: “The president of the temple is telling people to keep calm and keep their nerves.”


Chennai, Oct. 18: 
Politely turning down US secretary of state Colin Powell’s suggestion, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today made it clear that there was no plan now to have any structured dialogue with Pakistan.

After attending the wedding of BJP president Jana Krishnamurthi’s son here, Vajpayee told reporters at the Chennai airport before leaving for New Delhi that India was holding talks with Pakistan, but “there is no proposal to have formal talks”.

The Prime Minister, sporting a vermilion tilak on his forehead, said his talks with Powell were “free and frank”. India, he said, had clearly “explained” its position on various issues, including terrorism, to Powell.

But Vajpayee’s short private visit with home minister L.K. Advani, rural development minister Venkaiah Naidu and tourism minister Ananth Kumar, gave some anxious moments to chief minister O. Panneerselvam.

The special protection group took over the Dasaprakash Hotel, the venue of the wedding, since Tuesday itself.

But it was the niceties of protocol that put the “interim” chief minister in a fix.

There was a motley crowd at the VVIP enclosure which included local BJP general secretary Ela Ganesan and a few representatives of the DMK, MDMK, PMK and MGR-ADMK – all NDA allies – to greet Vajpayee. But even half-an-hour before Vajpayee’s special aircraft arrived last night, there was no clue whether the chief minister would come to the airport.

Panneerselvam finally arrived, followed by Governor C. Rangarajan. But the chief minister maintained his distance from Vajpayee. Finally, photographers had to goad Panneerselvam to stand close to the Prime Minister for a photo-op.


Srinagar, Oct. 18: 
Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Pakistan-based militant outfit of Maulana Masood Azhar, warned of intensified suicide attacks across India even as a Jammu and Kashmir minister escaped an attempt on life this afternoon.

The Jaish central command decision comes in retaliation to the “indiscriminate” shelling on civilians by Indian troops in Akhnoor and Mendhar sectors and the VHP threat to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya, a statement of the outfit said today.

The statement, which appeared in a local daily, said Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh, Parliament and the Assemblies besides Indian army installations would be targeted in the new wave of attacks.

Jammu and Kashmir works minister Ali Mohammad Sagar had a close shave late this afternoon while attending a public meeting at Delina Baramullah in north Kashmir.

Police said militants fired two rifle grenades as soon as Sagar reached Delina. The grenades missed their target and exploded without causing any damage.

The explosions triggered panic and the villagers who had gathered to listen to the minister ran helter-skelter. The guards quickly cordoned off the venue as the authorities rushed in with reinforcements from adjoining areas within minutes of the explosions. Two persons were injured in the melee.

Sagar later addressed a handful of people before being escorted to Srinagar by security forces. Police said security arrangements were tight at the venue and paramilitary forces and state armed police personnel had been deployed there from early this morning.

Tension simmered at the border, too, with Pakistani troops firing indiscriminately on Indian positions in the Akhnoor sector of Jammu district last night. Indian troops retaliated.

Elsewhere, three soldiers died in a fierce gunbattle with militants at Hurpora Shopian in southern Pulwama district during a combing operation, police said. Sources said three militants were also killed in the night-long fighting.

Border talks

Indian and Pakistani generals in charge of military operations have spoken to each other over the situation in the border after Islamabad accused Delhi of deploying additional troops, a charge dismissed as complete fabrication.

India’s director general of military operations Lt Gen S.S. Chahal had a telephone talk with his Pakistani counterpart yesterday afternoon at the latter’s specific request, army spokesman brigadier Jaspaul Singh told in Delhi.


New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
A worry has started creeping into the Indian camp over the possibility of a meeting between George W. Bush and General Pervez Musharraf hours before the American President is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Washington.

The opportunity for a Bush-Musharraf meeting will arise on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

If a meeting comes off, not only will it take away much of the shine from Vajpayee’s “exclusive” visit with Bush, but will also strengthen the view that the Americans are mediating between India and Pakistan.

Bush has invited Vajpayee to come to Washington for a “working visit” on November 9.

It is unlikely Bush will also invite Musharraf, but he may agree to a meeting in New York.

Secretary of state Colin Powell’s decision to describe Kashmir as “central” to India-Pakistan relations was easier to ignore as he also extended Bush’s invitation at his meeting with Vajpayee. It was seen by India as a signal of US readiness to keep New Delhi in the loop in its fight against terror.

Reports received by the Indian establishment suggest the Pakistani President, basking in his key-player status in the American coalition, will surely attend the general assembly to highlight the role being played by his military regime and talk about Kashmir.

While there if Musharraf seeks a meeting with the US President, Bush will find it next to impossible to reject the request.

Bush is likely to be in New York on October 8 on the first day of the rescheduled general assembly. Musharraf may also be one of the speakers on that day. Even if he is not, the Pakistani President is likely to take advantage of Bush’s presence there for a day to press for a meeting.

Indian officials say that if Bush’s meetings with Vajpayee and Musharraf take place within a day of each other, the impression is likely to be strengthened that Washington is playing an active role in normalising relations between the South Asian neighbours.

One way of countering the charge is to ensure that after the meeting with Bush, Vajpayee highlights only issues pertaining to Indo-US relations and keeps Kashmir and New Delhi’s ties with Pakistan to the minimum.

Another would be to avoid a visit by the Prime Minister or foreign minister Jaswant Singh to Pakistan and resume the dialogue broken off in Agra.


New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
A window of hope for Mamata Banerjee’s re-induction into the Cabinet has opened with rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu tipped to return to the BJP organisation by the end of next week.

BJP sources said Naidu was likely to take over as BJP secretary-general, a designation created especially for him.

In the normal course, he would have been made general secretary (organisation), a post vacated by Narendra Modi when he became Gujarat chief minister. But apart from sounding more impressive, the new designation signifies that Naidu will be number two in the party hierarchy.

As BJP president Jana Krishnamurthi’s deputy, he will be expected to oversee the working of the party and liaise with the government on a day-to-day basis as he did when Kushabhau Thakre was the chief.

In Naidu’s absence, there has been virtually no party-government interaction and this “lacuna” had caused slip-ups on policy articulations, sources said.

Before the last Cabinet reshuffle, it was speculated that Mamata would replace Naidu. But the exercise was eventually limited to just filling in the defence ministry vacancies.

Sources said it was increasingly being felt that the BJP organisation, made up mostly of individuals over 70, was in need of “young blood with dash and dynamism”.

Naidu had fitted the bill after the party lost its second-rung leaders Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and Ananth Kumar to the government, the sources added. He was also considered an effective spokesman for the party and his departure had created a vacuum. Naidu is believed to be still reluctant to give up his portfolio but both Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani are persuading him to return to home base.

Although Vajpayee had ruled out an immediate expansion, BJP sources said Naidu’s likely shift might pave the way for Mamata’s return.

Another vacancy could arise if minister of state for surface transport (with independent charge) B.C. Khanduri is moved to Uttaranchal as chief minister.

PMK MPs, who had also left the NDA and rejoined at the same time as Mamata, are also waiting in the wings for government berths.

Mamata’s chances have brightened with George Fernandes’ return as defence minister. Although she had resigned over the Tehelka issue, once out of power she became one of Fernandes’ most vociferous supporters. NDA sources said Fernandes was not only likely to lobby for Mamata’s re-induction, but could even work to get her back the railway ministry.


New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
Emboldened by the reinduction of George Fernandes, the Tehelka-tainted Samata Party has begun a counter offensive against the Venkataswami Commission for holding the spycam tapes as genuine.

The party today organised a presentation of the Tehelka tapes to disprove the panel’s view that the tapes were not doctored. Samata chief V.V. Krishna Rao hinted the party might move court over the issue of “doctored” tapes.

Legal and political circles feel the campaign is part of a pressure tactic aimed at demoralising the commission probing the scam.

The Samata is also planning to launch an offensive against the Congress plan to hit the districts with the tapes to campaign against Fernandes’ reinduction before the commission gave its verdict on the expose.

Rao said “we have apprehensions” over the veracity of the tapes but quickly added the party was “satisfied” with the functioning of the commission. “We are cooperating with it but expressing our apprehensions,” he said.

On whether he doubted the commission’s verdict that the tapes were not doctored, he said: “We are doubting the video tapes supplied by Tehelka.” The only intention of the dotcom was to malign Fernandes and weaken the NDA and “not get to the truth,” Rao alleged.

He criticised the Congress “attitude” and reminded that the same party was extending support to the Bihar government.

In today’s presentation, computer and digital production systems experts Milin Kapoor and Arun Mehta “showed” it is “easy to manipulate digital data which is what modern video recording essentially is”. Kapoor said he had seen the exposé on television and out of curiosity examined it. He “found something wrong with the tapes” and sent an affidavit to the commission which summoned him for deposition.

Jaya Jaitly’s lawyer had later sought his help to prove that the tapes were doctored. Asked why he was arguing for the Samata cause, Mehta said as a concerned citizen he wanted to bring to light “a serious case of fraud”.

Mehta also questioned the army for taking action against defence officials shown by the Tehelka as involved in deals with shady arms dealers. The tapes should be subjected to forensic examination, he demanded.


New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
In a bizarre turn of events, Sonia Gandhi has begun hunting for a successor to Pondicherry chief minister P. Shanmugham after failing to persuade any MLA to vacate his seat to enable the chief minister to contest polls and retain his post.

Even as the Congress tried to hardsell the line that no party MLA was willing to vacate a seat for Shanmugham, party sources said the reasons behind the chief minister’s exit were political. The death of Shanmugham’s mentor, G.K. Moopanar, on August 31 altered the chief minister’s equations with the Congress high command. Patron Jayalalitha’s exit in Tamil Nadu came as another blow to Shanmugham.

The developments in Pondicherry have raised serious questions about Sonia’s style of functioning and her relation with the chief ministers of party-ruled states. At the party headquarters, there were few takers for the seat theory. They wondered why Shanmugham was picked in the first place when he was not a member of the Assembly. “Sonia knew from Day One that Shanmugham had to get elected within the stipulated six months’ time. Why did she and (Ghulam Nabi) Azad turn a blind eye and make no effort to wriggle out of the mess?” asked a party MP.

Party leaders said Shanmugham was not getting along with 10 Janpath and party general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad. So the leadership made no effort to prevail upon party MLAs to vacate a seat for the chief minister.


Oct. 18: 
The open defiance of security personnel at Ayodhya by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is the latest indicator that the Sangh family is activating its core agenda. It is still unclear how far the ruling BJP will go along with such a course of action, but events point to a testing of the waters by militant fraternal organisations.

The state chief of the BJP, Kalraj Mishra, turned a blind eye when asked about the incident. His own party had nothing to do with the incident, but the VHP was free to continue its own activities. Only last week, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh struck a strident note at the national youth convention of the ruling party in Agra. He warned that any admirer of bin Laden would be locked up in gaol.

There is obviously a different deal for saffron activists. Wherever the apparatus of the administration permits, the militant groups of the Hindutva parivar will take over the public space. This has also been the case in Hubli in the Congress-ruled Karnataka. At Asind in Rajasthan, the Gehlot ministry has had to tackle tensions between Muslims and the powerful Gujjar community. Yet, these were local flashpoints with consequences that do not immediately extend beyond state boundaries.

Ayodhya is an altogether different matter. It is a site of great symbolic importance within the country and well beyond it. Karsevakpuaram, which is a stone’s throw from the disputed site, is a hub of activity at all times of the year. With the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections due in or by March 2002, there is now little doubt that the Ram card will be played at some time.

What is still not clear is the manner and the way the issue will be brought on the centre stage. There are contradictory signals. The VHP has publicly said it will not wait beyond March next year. If nothing is done, its cadre will do the job.

Easier said than done. Construction is a laborious process and cannot be accomplished in a matter of hours. Even if the state police step aside, such a unilateral act will set off political tremors for the alliance government in New Delhi. However weak the partners may be, they cannot remain by-standers to such a spectacle.

Striking a much more conciliatory tone, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has often spoken of a settlement on the basis of consensus. He hinted that all religious groups would be brought into a dialogue held away from the glare of publicity to enable a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution.

The Ayodhya cell will still find it difficult to conjure up such a dream scenario. No Muslim leader of note has yet come forward to take part in such a dialogue. The land in question is part of a court dispute, a civil suit that is unlikely to be disposed of in time. The groups that are party to the dispute show no sign of withdrawing its claim.

Perhaps, the answer will be to blow hot and cold at the same time. The national leadership and the state unit of the ruling party will dissociate themselves from any explicit appeal. In any case, many of their other actions assist the VHP in pursuing its own agenda.

The ban on Simi and the promulgation of a new anti-terrorism Ordinance both will play a role in polarising perceptions if not consolidating votebanks. The front organisations of the Sangh have lost no time in conveying their message that certain communities are prone to be less nationalist than others.

In the special case of Uttar Pradesh, this serves a dual purpose. The Ram temple will unite the cadre, act as balm to caste based sentiment and rally a beleaguered party afraid of an anti-incumbency wave.

The stumbling block is that being in power in Lucknow and New Delhi, the party itself will have to reap the harvest without any direct role in working for the common objective.

How far it will overcome the wages of anti-incumbency in the forthcoming Assembly polls in three states is a different matter. The tightrope walk may continue. But October marks the return of the saffron card.


New Delhi, Oct. 18: 
The Congress today demanded the arrest of top VHP leaders for the “deliberate and defiant violation of law” in Ayodhya, and changed its stand on the Tada clone by declaring it will not support the Bill when it comes up for voting in the Rajya Sabha.

Congress support to the Prevention of Terrorism Act is crucial because the NDA lacks simple majority in the Lok Sabha. The main Opposition party had earlier justified the need for the Tada clone, but objected to the manner in which the Vajpayee regime was going about it.

The Congress also “fine-tuned” its views on the ban on the Students’ Islamic Movement of India alleging that the Centre’s action was “one sided”. Party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy said the Centre should consider banning the VHP and the Bajrang Dal for indulging in illegal activities.

Congress leaders said they had second thoughts about the Tada clone in the wake of the Ayodhya developments and had decided to block it. Reversing the party’s stand, Reddy said he saw no merit in the proposed Bill against terrorism and rejected it as draconian.

“Only bad rulers need tough laws,” Reddy said, adding that the Congress high command would direct the chief ministers of all Congress-ruled states to oppose the Tada clone.

Several Congress chief ministers have emphasised the need to bring in legislation with “more teeth” to combat terrorism. Sonia Gandhi summoned party leaders this morning to discuss the Ayodhya developments and revise the Congress’ stand on the Tada clone, that has been hastily cleared by the Union Cabinet.


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