Festival funds twist to minister kin kidnap
Monday date for Uttaranchal change of guard
War update for all parties
Storm brews over Dalit conversions
Ice thaws between Karunanidhi & son
Sister college to share AIIMS workload
Delhi makes a point via special envoy
Militant mowed in mosque standoff
Hizb shows door to Kashmir chief
Britain lowers expectations

 
 
FESTIVAL FUNDS TWIST TO MINISTER KIN KIDNAP 
 
 
FROM G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
 
Hyderabad, Oct. 27: 
Dussehra donation could be one of the main reasons why Naxalites kidnapped Marthanda Rao, brother-in-law of Union minister of state for home C.H. Vidyasagar Rao, yesterday.

Though the minister has denied any ransom demand, sources said the Jansakthi Group has asked Rs 1 crore for the release of Marthanda.

Rebels in olive outfits came to Marthanda’s native village, Korram, yesterday. They posed as security sleuths and said they had come for an inspection ahead of the proposed visit of Rao.

After gaining entry into Marthanda’s house, they took him and his 20-year-old son Ramu in their car into the Manala forests. Half-an-hour later, they sent back the car with Ramu and the driver with a ransom note demanding Rs 1 crore.

Although Rao was expected to visit the village and participate in the family get-together as part of the Dussehra celebrations, Marthanda has been a target ever since he refused to meet the Jansakthi group’s stepped-up donation demand. Marthanda, who usually lives in Karimnagar, had come to his native village for the get-together.

Police sources said Marthanda, a contractor, used to contribute regularly to the extremists. Last year, he paid Rs 5 lakh. This year the demand was for Rs 30 lakh. But he refused to oblige.

Neither the minister nor any of Marthanda’s relatives has sought police help to secure his release. “They have not even filed a police complaint about the kidnap or the ransom demand,” said additional DGP Kumawat.

The minister, however, denied any ransom demand and said: “Being locals, we suffer this kind of pressure often. I am confident that he will be released soon.”

But the police confirmed that local villagers and some others were negotiating with the Naxalites for the release of Marthanda. About 50 villagers were keeping a watch on the movement of the rebels on the edges of the Manala forests to stop them from fleeing to Nizamabad or Warangal.

The kidnap came as a shock to the state administration, especially as Jansakthi was reckoned to be a weak group.

This is the fourth major kidnap by rebels in the past decade. The People’s War Group (PWG) had kidnapped Congress legislator Balraju and demanded the release of one of their members.

Rebels later abducted another Congress legislator, Sudheer, the son of former Union minister P. Shiv Shankar, from his house.

M.Venkateswar Rao, the major irrigation minister in Chandrababu Naidu’s government, was also taken hostage by the PWG.

   

 
 
MONDAY DATE FOR UTTARANCHAL CHANGE OF GUARD 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Oct. 27: 
Uttaranchal chief minister Nityanand Swami — whose ouster was imminent – today announced his decision to quit office on Monday.

Swami announced the decision after a meeting with home minister L.K. Advani. The change will be formally announced at a special session of the Uttaranchal legislature convened on that day after which it would be adjourned sine die.

Though the BJP high command has put its head together to find a successor to Swami, the task, sources said, proved tougher than expected. The choice finally narrowed down to two names: Central ministers B.C. Khanduri and Bachi Singh Rawat.

BJP sources virtually ruled out electing the new chief minister from among the MLAs, saying it would open up a “Pandora’s box”. However, one name — that of Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank — was doing the rounds.

“If it was that easy to elect a chief minister, why would we have gone for Swamy in the first place?” argued a party functionary.

Sources said Khanduri, minister of state for surface transport with independent charge, was apparently reluctant to take up the job. With the Uttaranchal polls scheduled for February next year, Khanduri said he did not want to be made a “sacrificial goat”.

The sources, however, added that Advani was still trying to persuade Khanduri, a Brahmin from the Garhwal region.

The BJP took the decision to relieve 74-year-old Swamy barely four months before the elections because the party felt he was “not up to the mark” and there was a need to promote a “younger and more dynamic leader” as in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.

Rawat, a Thakur, has the backing of human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi.

One factor working in Rawat’s favour is his caste. Thakurs are the dominant community in the hills and under-represented in the BJP’s state power structure. For example, Puran Chand Sharma, a Brahmin, headed the Uttaranchal unit while another Brahmin, Pankaj Pant, was the Speaker.

The “over-representation” of Brahmins would be even more pronounced because the Congress plans to project its state party chief, Harish Rawat, as its chief ministerial candidate in the elections, BJP sources said.

The problem, sources said, was that the state party chief and the Speaker both hailed from Kumaon. The regional “disparity” could antagonise the Garhwal voters, the sources added.

BJP sources said Swami was keen to continue until November 9 when Uttaranchal celebrates its first birthday. But the leadership thought he might end up digging in his heels given the uncertainty over his successor. To pre-empt this possibility, sources said he was “advised” to demit office immediately.

   

 
 
WAR UPDATE FOR ALL PARTIES 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Oct. 27: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has called an all-party meeting on Tuesday for a briefing on the US-Taliban conflict.

The meeting is also intended to be an exercise at gaining the cooperation of Opposition parties in Parliament during its winter session from November 19 to December 21.

Sources said the Opposition parties will look forward to this meet to discuss the ban on the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (Simi), the Ordinance on Prevention of Terrorism (POTO), confusion over the Kashmir policy and the government’s “sell-out” to the US and other issues.

Vajpayee’s announcement follows the all-party meet convened by Congress president Sonia Gandhi last month to discuss the fallout of the terrorist attacks on the US.

Sonia had recently written to Vajpayee to be cautious in dealing with the situation arising out of the US-Afghan conflict. She had warned him that there was a tendency in some quarters to give it a communal colour.

Apart from global developments following the US-led attack on Afghanistan and the likely change in war strategy in view of the harsh winter in the mountainous country, the Prime Minister is also expected to apprise leaders on the domestic situation in the country.

Advani ‘son-in-law’

Security personnel went into a tizzy after two persons, one of them posing as L.K. Advani’s son-in-law, turned up at his posh Pandara Park residence.

Security officers immediately whisked them off to the police station for questioning. Santosh, who was posing as the son-in-law, was found to be mentally retarded, but the identity of the other person was yet to be ascertained, sources said.

Security agencies have been on high alert following reports of possible attack on the home minister.

   

 
 
STORM BREWS OVER DALIT CONVERSIONS 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Oct. 27: 
Come November 4, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has another headache to solve — preventing a possible clash between the Sangh parivar and Dalit bodies. On that day, about one million Dalits will embrace Buddhism.

The SC/ST confederation’s president, Ram Raj, the organiser of the mass conversion, said his life was under threat and he would take up the matter with Union home minister L.K. Advani.

The confederation’s president has demanded adequate security for the Dalit leaders.

“The function on November 4 will serve greatly to the cause of unity and integrity of the country, ... (and) reform the Indian society by casting off the social evils and rotten values which will finally pave the way for a good civil society,” Raj said.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS have alleged “international Christian conspiracy” demanding an immediate withdrawal of permission to the confederation to hold the mega proselytisation at the Ramlila grounds here.

A Sangh website yesterday went on the offensive with a 10-page literature against the mass conversion alleging that there was a Christian conspiracy behind the move to weaken Hinduism.

The site, Fighting for a Hindu Rashtra, said “there is every chance that some violence might occur during this proposed gathering.

   

 
 
ICE THAWS BETWEEN KARUNANIDHI & SON 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, Oct. 27: 
The prodigal son has returned. M.K. Azhagiri, M. Karunanidhi’s rebel elder son, has made peace with his father — or so it seems.

Azhagiri had virtually wrecked the DMK’s chances in Madurai and its adjoining areas in the last Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.

Once the party’s backroom boy in the temple city, he had embarrassed the DMK by backing Independents in the state polls after the leadership asked party workers to stay away from him.

But all that seemed to have been forgotten on Friday, when he came down to Anna Arivalayam, the DMK headquarters, and offered a shawl to his father.

The gesture is bound to gladden the former chief minister’s heart, more so after his younger son, M.K. Stalin, has been re-elected mayor of Chennai.

Family feuding had spilled over into party politics in the run-up to the May Assembly elections. It cost the DMK heavily as it lost all the three seats in Madurai, including that of former Speaker, P.T.R. Palainvel Rajan, to near-novices in the ADMK. Azhagiri then was said to be the “villain of the piece”.

But the DMK bounced back to win the Madurai mayorship comfortably, despite some of his supporters running as Independents for the post of ward members. This, sources said, made the rebel son see which side of the political iron was hot.

The thawing in relations between father and son began soon after the DMK chief’s arrest in June.

Azhagiri had rushed to Chennai to receive his father at the Central Prison jail gate after the Jayalalithaa government released him on “humanitarian grounds”. Then Stalin was sent to the Madurai prison, which helped further to cement ties in the Karunanidhi family.

But for Azhagiri, the more opportune moment to publicly unveil his peace package came now.

The DMK leadership, too, was looking for it as the party needs the support of a majority of the nine Independent ward members in Madurai if its nominee is to get elected deputy mayor.

Three have already joined the DMK, which in the 72-member Madurai Corporation Council has only 29 members, including two of its ally, the BJP. While the leadership seems to be rooting for more Independents in the Madurai council through Azhagiri, both Stalin and the DMK’s Madurai mayor, S. Ramachandran, stuck to protocol today, making a courtesy call on chief minister O. Panneerselvam.

Jayalalithaa had made an issue of this earlier, saying Stalin as mayor had flouted protocol by not calling on her when she had stormed back to power in the May elections.

“We could have won even the Assembly elections in Madurai if not for the betrayal within the party,” said a DMK functionary.

However, nobody knows whether Azhagiri’s “Puja truce” is a step towards reconciliation within the DMK.

   

 
 
SISTER COLLEGE TO SHARE AIIMS WORKLOAD 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 27: 
India’s capital may soon get a new medical college to lighten the load on the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Union health minister C.P. Thakur’s proposal to start a medical college at Safdarjung Hospital, the country’s biggest healthcare centre, is likely to be cleared by the Cabinet next week.

“The Rs 81-crore project has already been cleared by the expenditure committee of the finance ministry,” said a health ministry official.

Delhi University, however, backed out of its commitment to give affiliation to the new medical college after sitting on the proposal for a year. “Now Indraprastha University has agreed to give affiliation,” the official said.

Both the AIIMS and Safdarjung Hospital are stretched to their maximum capacity with patients. Moreover, conditions at the Safdarjung Hospital leave much to be desired.

“Since he was put in charge of the health ministry, the minister has been eager to start a medical college, and one of the main reasons was to ease the pressure on AIIMS so that it can function properly,” the official said.

The latest Comptroller and Auditor General report on the AIIMS brought to the fore certain glaring weaknesses of the institution. Established in 1956, the institute was started as a teaching hospital for developing excellence in medical education and research.

“However, over the years, the institution has developed into a large hospital without adequate emphasis on teaching and research,” the CAG report said.

The CAG’s list of complaints is long and damaging for the reputation of the institution.

“There is no evidence for utilisation of research findings. The hospital infrastructure is deficient. Specialised centres of trauma and cancer have not developed. The drug de-addiction centre is not fully functional,” states the CAG.

The CAG report also criticises the institute for not having enough teaching staff and employing a majority of them on an ad-hoc basis.

According to ministry officials, Thakur being a doctor felt strongly about this state of affairs in health care. He has been complaining to the Prime Minister and the home minister about the helplessness of doctors in Bihar in the face of frequent abductions and extortion.

The minister has even suggested that doctors be exempt from paying income tax.

The new medical college, the minister hopes, will improve conditions in both the AIIMS and Safdarjung Hospital. However, he could not guarantee a check on the brain drain from India.

According to the CAG report, 49 per cent of the doctors trained at the AIIMS had found jobs abroad even as the country suffered a scarcity of trained medical personnel.

The Estimates Committee felt that medical professionals trained at the institute would develop a sense of obligation knowing that “their country is investing its meagre resources in them”. But that was not happening.

If Thakur hopes to turn the tide, he would have to put in place a mechanism that prevents doctors trained at these premier institutions from adding to the brain drain statistics.

   

 
 
DELHI MAKES A POINT VIA SPECIAL ENVOY 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Oct. 27: 
India has appointed Sati Lambah, former ambassador to Russia, its special envoy on Afghanistan.

France and the UK are among key world players to have taken similar steps in appointing special envoys on the Afghan crisis.

South Block’s decision to appoint Lambah is a clear statement that India’s stakes in Afghanistan are no less than other countries in the neighbourhood.

The move gives India the opportunity to remain in the loop of the international coalition’s anti-terrorism drive and also to put in place a political structure once the Taliban are ousted.

As part of the policy, New Delhi announced an economic and reconstruction package for Afghanistan a few days ago, including a credit line of Rs 500 crore for the new regime in Kabul.

Afghanistan’s future will also come up during the two-day state visit of German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who arrives tomorrow.

Sources said Schroeder, who will be coming here after discussions with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and other senior members of the military regime in Islamabad, will discuss with the Indian leadership how to bring about a regime in Kabul that will be stable and broadbased. Germany, one of the strongest economies in the world, is an important trading partner and investor in South Asia.

This afternoon, Pierre Lafrance, the French government’s special envoy on Afghanistan, held talks with foreign secretary Chokila Iyer on the interim political structure when the Taliban is dislodged. Lafrance had toured the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Pakistan before coming to India.

Like India, France also wants to play an important role in Afghanistan. Neither is in the Six-plus-Two grouping, but both feel it should be expanded to take in other countries whose views are important in putting in place a political structure in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

France has, however, put in a word of caution. If the US continues bombing Afghanistan resulting in increased collateral damage, it may not only strengthen the Taliban’s position but also elevate the leaders of the militia to the status of national heroes, with most other tribes rallying behind them. Such a scenario, Paris has warned, may divide the world further on the current military campaign.

It has suggested political and psychological action along with the armed campaign and favours convening the Grand Council of Afghan elders to elect a regime that can bring stability to the nation and accommodate the aspirations of all Afghans.

Though Paris also feels the Taliban do not have any role to play in a new political structure, it believes there are “moderates” among the militia who may play a role in future developments.

France has been backing the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah. It feels the exiled king not only commands the respect of Afghans but also sees him as an expert on Afghan affairs who can play a key role in bringing peace and stability to the country.

Both Iran and Pakistan, neighbours of Afghanistan who have a major stake in any future regime in Kabul, have given enough indication that they are willing to interact with other countries to find a mutually agreed stand to help the Afghan people settle this issue.

Till recently, Islamabad had been one of the staunchest supporters of the Taliban, while Tehran had identified itself with the Northern Alliance. But Lafrance feels neither Pakistan nor Iran is rigid in their position.

Pakistan has made it clear that it is willing to reach out to the Northern Alliance, while Iran has admitted that the Alliance, without the presence of the Pakhtoons, will not be able to provide stability in Afghanistan.

All these issues were discussed between the French envoy and the Indian foreign secretary today and both sides agreed that no attempt should be made by outsiders to impose a new regime on the Afghan people.

   

 
 
MILITANT MOWED IN MOSQUE STANDOFF 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Srinagar, Oct. 27: 
One militant was shot dead after troops today laid siege to a village mosque in Panzan in central Budgam district where three militants were holed up, according to latest reports reaching here.

Nearly 30 people, including two senior police and paramilitary BSF officers, were also killed in stepped up violence across Jammu and Kashmir.

Police sources said troops of the Rashtriya Rifles and the Special Operations Group of the state police jointly laid a siege around the mosque in Panzan after receiving reports on the presence of militants there.

“We have reports that there can be between two to three militants holed up inside the mosque,” said a senior police officer. He said the police had safely brought out over four dozen children who were in a nearby school when the siege was laid. The militants fired a few rounds when the siege was being laid, he added.

“During initial searches, one militant of the Jaish-e Mohammad was arrested,” the police official said.

Sources said civilians were collected in an open space for identification parades. The area was tense this evening with the siege being further tightened all routes to the mosque have been plugged.

A police officer died along with his driver in a mine blast at Bilawar village in the Kathua district of Jammu late this afternoon. The police said sub-divisional police officer Davinder Sharma was returning after visiting a nearby village where militants had exploded a bomb.

A BSF assistant commandant and a police sub-inspector were killed when a joint party of the BSF and the police came under fire from rebels.

The police said militants kiiled four members of a family after forcibly entering the house in Kandola Gandoh village in Doda district. Militants also killed two members of another family in Barshalla village.

Four militants were gunned down by security forces in a fierce gun battle with the security forces at Malwan village in Anantnag district. A police spokesman here said four more militants were gunned down by the security forces at Nambla village in Chingus sector of Rajouri district.

Four civilians who received serious injuries during the gun battle were admitted in hospital.

Life in the entire Kashmir valley remained paralysed following a general strike called by the Hurriyat Conference to observe the landing of Indian troops in Srinagar in 1947. Police used tearsmoke to disperse stone throwing youths.

Militants attacked security forces with grenades at four places in the city resulting in injuries to ten persons including four security personnel.

   

 
 
HIZB SHOWS DOOR TO KASHMIR CHIEF 
 
 
FROM MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
Srinagar, Oct. 27: 
The Hizb-ul Mujahideen today removed its chief commander (operations) Abdul Majeed Dar who had declared a unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir last year. A local news agency said Dar had been replaced by Saiful Islam.

The decision to remove Dar was taken at the group’s central command council meeting in Muzaffarabad, which was presided by the Hizb-ul Mujahideen supreme commander Syed Salahuddin, the KPS agency said quoting the group’s spokesman.

“The command council decided to relieve Abdul Majid Dar as the chief commander (operations) on his completion of the one-year term. The outfit has appointed Saiful Islam as the new chief commander in Kashmir,” the spokesman of the outfit told the agency.

Dar’s sudden removal exposed differences simmering within the Hizb-ul Mujahideen since last August when he announced a unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir to “facilitate a solution to (the) Kashmir problem”.

The ceasefire, however, was withdrawn by the Mujahideen supreme commander Syed Salahuddin following refusal by the government to involve Pakistan in the talks.

About a hundred people were killed by gunmen in a single night in Jammu and Kashmir days before Salahuddin withdrew the ceasefire on August 8.

A car bomb killed 15 people, mostly policemen and a photojournalist, outside the State Bank of India on Residency Road two days after the ceasefire was withdrawn.

Dar merged his Tehrikul Jehadi Islami into the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, then led by Master Ahsan Dar, in early 1991. Based in the PoK for most of this time, Dar returned to the valley last year to assume command.

An agency report quoting the spokesman said all field commanders of the group had been instructed to report to the new commander-in-chief.

   

 
 
BRITAIN LOWERS EXPECTATIONS 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
London, Oct. 27: 
Britain is now about to get involved in the ground war in Afghanistan, with the announcement yesterday from the ministry of defence in London that an elite force of 200 Royal Marine commandos are ready to go into action.

But this has been coupled with the more sobering assessment from a senior British military figure, admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the defence staff, that the war may not end quickly and could last for three to four years.

The voices ranged against the war are becoming increasingly strident after only three weeks of America’s not entirely successful bombing campaign. This is why it is unlikely the British leadership seriously expects the conflict to rage for an indefinite period.

However, in the face of a number of setbacks, including mounting civilian casualties and the capture and execution by the Taliban of Abdul Haq, the mujaheedin commander on whom the Americans had pinned some of their hopes, the British are dampening down expectations of a quick resolution to the military campaign.

Every statement made during war ought to provoke two questions: Why is it being made? What does it really mean?

“We are in for the long haul,” said Boyce at a news conference at the ministry of defence in London, which means he expects his words to reach the Taliban, even with their damaged communications.

The admiral, who was also addressing a domestic British as well as an international audience, said: “We can carry on until the job is done. If it takes three or four years then it takes three or four years.”

In explaining why it was proving difficult getting intelligence from inside Afghanistan using wire taps, he made an interesting confession: “Only six per cent of the Afghan population has electricity, so not many people are using telephones.”

Given that some military analysts originally estimated that it would take 50,000 to 100,000 western troops to defeat the Taliban, the decision to send only 200 Royal Marine commandos, highly trained though they are, must be seen at this stage as largely symbolic.

As to what the commandos will do has not been made clear. They will be based on a royal navy assault ship, HMS Fearless, either in the Gulf or the Arabian Sea and ferried in by helicopter. The commandos are being backed by a 5,000-strong British force stationed on several warships.

Although the opposition Tories, led by their new leader, Iain Duncan Smith, are giving support to Tony Blair’s policy of standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Americans, some Conservative MPs have expressed surprise and dismay that Britain is sending only 200 commandos.

Among those who feel this is inadequate is Nicholas Soames, a former Tory army minister, who told Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, during a Commons debate: “Most of us had hoped that you might announce a significant stepping up in the tempo of operations and quite possibly the deployment of forces on the ground.”

An indication of British sentiment came from another Tory MP, Robert Spink, who urged the minister: “Will he get on with the job, get the troops there and finish the job?”

There has been very little talk recently of capturing Osama bin Laden, although that must remain the ultimate American and British objective.

Unless that happens, the campaign will be deemed a failure — even if, as still seems likely, the Taliban are eventually toppled.

   
 

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