Pak troops get Afghan toehold
Core team put in place for Kashmir headway
Learn English, be British
Pay & fly your limo in the sky
Rumours of reunion in Akali family
Buddhism bait in fight for Dalits
Gujarat CM in rebuild race
Fifty rebels killed in Nepal
Calcutta Weather

Washington, Dec. 9: 
Caught on the wrong foot last month by the capture of Kabul by the Northern Alliance and the agreement last week on a new Afghan government which is a far cry from its Taliban proxy, General Pervez Musharraf has moved his troops inside Afghanistan.

According to intelligence reports received here, Pakistani troops have occupied more than half the “no man’s land” on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the Chaman area, which leads to the Afghan town of Spin Boldak.

These reports spoke of Musharraf’s troops and paramilitary personnel occupying the erstwhile Afghan passport checkpoint at the eastern end of the no-man’s land and hoisting the Pakistani flag yesterday.

Pakistan is also controlling vast stretches of air space along Baluchistan’s border with Afghanistan and its army helicopters are flying all along the Tora Bora mountains, creating an air corridor between the two countries.

Pakistan army spokesman, Major General Rashid Qureshi, obliquely confirmed the army’s moves at a media briefing at the foreign ministry in Islamabad yesterday: “We have increased border patrols and beefed up security along the border area, particularly close to the Tora Bora mountains and near Chaman.

“There is increased surveillance from the air and from the ground. We are utilising all assets, which means vehicular, manpower, as well as helicopter assets.”

Qureshi’s excuse is that the latest steps by the army are necessary to ensure that Osama bin Laden and al Qaida forces do not cross into Pakistan.

“We have had reports and read articles about Osama bin Laden trying to cross over to Pakistan but there is no credibility that either he or his supporters have entered Pakistan,” Qureshi said. He implied that the Americans were helping the Pakistanis in these military moves when he said: “I do not know the cost to cover this but, yes, there is assistance.”

Pakistani occupation of Afghan land and its attempt to control air space in the Tora Bora area are clever attempts by Musharraf to ensure that Pakistan is very much in the reckoning as the contours of a post-conflict Afghanistan emerge from the Bonn conclave.

It has been clear from Pakistan’s official reactions to Kabul’s interior minister designate Yunis Qanuni’s trip to New Delhi and its unofficial responses to the Bonn process that Musharraf will not take any chances in protecting its interests in Afghanistan.

By creating confusion about control of the Afghan border, Pakistan also hopes to prevent the deployment of a multinational observer force to check movements across the border.

India and several other countries would like to see such a force to prevent a repetition of events which led to the creation of the Taliban by Pakistan’s ISI.

The Chaman area is the most sensitive in the long porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The “no-man’s land” there runs across a width of two kilometres parallel to the border and is close to Wiesh, a big trading town, at the point where Pakistan has occupied the Afghan passport checkpost.


New Delhi, Dec. 9: 
The Centre today disclosed that a core group has been set up for Kashmir negotiations, signalling a drive to break the political stand-off and widen participation in Assembly elections expected early next year.

The formation of the core group also reflects the Centre’s eagerness to shift responsibility from K.C. Pant, Delhi’s official interlocutor on Kashmir, to a group of officials handpicked from the Prime Minister’s Office and the intelligence wings.

Pant’s stock went down after leaders of the Hurriyat Conference refused to meet him when he went to Srinagar earlier this year.

The core team, whose members have lines of communication with political as well as some militant groups, has the flexibility to meet Hurriyat leaders collectively and individually. The absence of rigid terms of reference will help the team focus more on moderate leaders of the Hurriyat.

The move to build the team is also being seen as an attempt to convince Kashmiris that Delhi does not have any favourites in the state and would like to let the political process flow unhindered.

If Delhi can ensure “free and fair” election, it will help it send a message to the international audience that Kashmir can run its affairs without a third-party monitor — a persistent demand of Pakistan.

Delhi has drawn up a “limited plan” to conduct Assembly polls in Jammu and Kashmir and ensure a degree of legitimacy to the state government.

The only way of doing so is to persuade moderate elements in the Hurriyat, like Shabir Shah, and militant leaders like Hizb-ul Mujahideen’s Abdul Majid Dar, to involve themselves in the democratic process. As a first step, the Centre is looking beyond Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir.

Delhi is willing to woo the Hurriyat and make another effort to get its leaders on track to contest elections. Delhi’s representatives have been arguing that if the Hurriyat feels that it can provide better leadership than Abdullah and it is more acceptable than the chief minister among the people, it should step in and contest the polls.

The election will be sold as an opportunity to prove whether the Hurriyat has the popular mandate to take up the cause of Kashmiris.

Policy planners here believe that the time is ripe to seize the initiative when the militants are in disarray with the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the confusing signals emanating from Islamabad.

The Hurriyat, which had backed Pervez Musharraf’s decision to join the US-led coalition against terrorism, had lost some of its support base in the Valley.

Having realised that New Delhi is now trying to wean away leaders like Shah and some sections of the Kashmiri militants to participate in the proposed elections, the Hurriyat is keen to ensure that it is not totally marginalised in the process.


London, Dec. 9: 
British home secretary David Blunkett wants Asian immigrants to learn English as a way of improving social cohesion and avoiding the kind of riots that occurred in the northern cities of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford earlier this summer.

Blunkett was disclosing government thinking on how to enhance a sense of belonging and British identity ahead of the publication of a number of reports by the home office on the riots, which involved mainly Muslim youths of Pakistani origin.

But the proposed government action, revealed today, is much more sweeping than simply dealing with the riots. For example, Blunkett condemned as “unacceptable” such practices as forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

“Enforced marriages and youngsters under the age of 16 being whistled away to the Indian subcontinent, genital mutilation and practices that may be acceptable in parts of Africa, are unacceptable in Britain,” said Blunkett, who has the reputation of being a hard-hitting home secretary.

“We need to be clear we don’t tolerate the intolerable under the guise of cultural difference,” he added. “We have norms of acceptability and those who come into our home — for that is what it is — should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere.”

It is not entirely clear whether immigrants who apply for British nationality will have to pass an English language test. But Blunkett has no doubt that immigrants would benefit by learning the language.

“The Nationality and Immigration White Paper will deal with the issue of how to ensure people have the tools to be part of that regeneration, including being able to obtain sufficient grasp of the English language for their own well-being and that of their children and grandchildren,” he said.

“What I want to get across in the White Paper is that this is not a threat, it is a promise,” he went on. “When we touched on this at the time I issued the statement on asylum and immigration in October, someone from the Council for the Welfare of Immigrants abused it as linguistic colonialism. I reject that entirely.”

He argued: “People who talk in that language fail to grasp that if you are to build a cohesive nation, then it’s the job of all of us to make an effort to take responsibility for doing that.”

The government’s aim was “to build diversity not separation”. “We recognise there are historic divisions between communities that have separated Asian from white and Afro-Caribbean from Asian and that it will take many years to overcome,” said Blunkett.

Posing a number of questions, Blunkett asked: “How do people in the Asian community help the second and third generation feel British, belong and identify with Britain, and at the same time retain the right to contribute their own culture?”

Another question was: “How do they avoid a conflict between embracing the history and identity of someone born and identifying with Britain while being able to contribute to those cultural norms which go to make up the country we are today?”

Those who are better informed about Britain’s ethnic minorities than Blunkett, who has been home secretary for five months, say that he has made the classic mistake of lumping all Asians together.

The Indians, who number about a million and a half, have become increasingly middle-class and prosperous and, by and large, do not become involved in either rioting or acts of violence.

The rioting was by second and third generation British-born youths of Pakistani origin. In a sense, their problem is that not that they do not speak English but that they speak it only too well — in the local accents of Lancashire and Bradford. It is just that they do not want to be as subservient, as they see it, as first generation immigrants.

The problem of forced marriage again applies mainly — although not exclusively — to Pakistani Muslims, and especially those from Mirpur who are the most orthodox.


Bangalore, Dec. 9: 
The tiny and serene Jakkur airstrip beckons celebrities.

John Gray, the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, tops the list. He comes down almost religiously to combine his spiritual sojourns with the joy of flying.

The country’s creme de la crème — Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, the Ambanis and Birlas and head honchos of multinational companies — all descend here for heli-rides.

“We have created a niche market in India for heli-tourism,” says Capt. G.R. Gopinath, managing director and founder of the country’s first commercial helicopter charter service company, Deccan Aviation. “Its-your-limousine-in-the-sky-tag attracts the cash-flush citizens for whom the exhilaration of charter flying carries no price tag.

Gray is a classic case. On his first visit, he hired a chopper for a 10-day heli-tour to his spiritual guru at Penukonda in Andhra Pradesh and a pilgrimage to Tirupati, Thiruvanamali, Hampi and Shirdi. It cost Gray $5,000 per day. He didn’t complain for he lived like a king. “Everything was organised in style for him. He keeps coming regularly,” says Gopinath.

Not all Deccan Aviation clients, however, play and pay like Gray.

Most opt for the heli-tourism’s favourite package — a ride over the falls in Sivasamudram and land in the tranquil environs of the Cauvery fishing camp. They hop on again to get a glimpse of the Mysore Palace before the touchdown at Kabini wildlife sanctuary, where one could be lucky enough to spot a tiger. The lodges at Kabini is rated as one of the best jungle resorts in Asia. The tab for the two-day tour is Rs 1 lakh.

In the north, the heli-heritage cruise from Delhi to Taj Mahal and Jaipur, is equally popular. The Himalayan expedition is another attraction, according to Gopinath, who started off his Bangalore-based venture in a small way in 1997. His company now owns seven helicopters and two Pilatus aircraft with operational bases in several cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad.

Heli-tourism is slowly catching up but as Gopinath puts it, “India has a long way to go”. “India is the second place after Africa to offer big game which inspires awe in humans. But look at the tourists’ figures. It is abysmal,” regrets Gopinath, blaming bureaucracy and lack of tourism-friendly attitude.

India gets two to three million tourists from abroad annually as against 60 million tourists in China and 14 million tourists at Niagra Falls. Kerala and Goa are the only two states which boasts of eco-tourism, says Gopinath.

Deccan Aviation’s main clientele are captains of industry, NRIs and foreigners. One could add rich honeymooners to the list. Deccan Aviation has a honeymoon special to Kabini, Coorg and Cochin.

Mustafa Hussain, a businessman from Mumbai, sprung a surprise on his newly-wed wife, Mohak Bhingara.

A day after their marriage early this year, Mustafa brought Mohak to Bangalore, where they took off on a honeymoon ride in a flower-bedecked helicopter over Mysore Palace before landing at the Cauvery fishing camp resort. “It was fabulous. I could not believe it,” an ecstatic Mohak told pilot Jayanth Poovaiah, who flew the chopper.


Chandigarh, Dec. 9: 
The recent visit of Sukhbir, son of chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, to the residence of senior Panthic Morcha leader Ravi Inder Singh, has sparked speculation of a reunion in the Akali camp.

Ravi Inder, a vociferous Badal critic, switched loyalty to Gurcharan Singh Tohra after the latter was unceremoniously removed as chief of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) two years ago. Tohra had been SGPC chief for more than two decades.

Though both Sukhbir and Ravi Inder have denied discussing unity, the presence of Panthic Morcha convener Sarabjot Singh has added fuel to the speculation that Badal and Tohra are likely to join hands in the next couple of weeks.

Sukhbir insists he was visiting his aunt, who was staying with Ravi Inder.

With polls less than three months away and star campaigner Badal confined to bed for at least another month with a fractured thigh bone, senior Akali leaders have been pressing Badal to bury his differences with Tohra. “There is no way other than to strive for unity to defeat the Congress in the polls,” a senior Akali leader said. People have lost faith in the Akalis because of growing corruption and infighting, he added.

“There is the perception that this government has left the Congress miles behind as far as corruption is concerned. Even leaders who proclaim their loyalty to Badal know that it would be difficult for the party to win in the polls. Even ally BJP has started making noises that unity among Akali factions is a must,” the leader added.


Mumbai, Dec. 9: 
Ram Raj is doing what the likes of Kanshi Ram have failed to achieve: using conversion as a political weapon for the Dalits.

“The BJP government through its anti-poor policies has spelled doom for the Dalits. The longer it stays in power, the more Dalits will embrace Buddhism,” said Ram Raj, an Indian Revenue Service officer who rattled the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government last month by converting tens of thousands of Dalits to Buddhism in the face of strong protests by the Sangh parivar.

But Ram Raj, who changed his name to Udit Raj along with his religion, says his fight is not just against the right-wing parties but also those who claim to represent the Dalits.

“What have these Dalit leaders done for Dalits?” he asked, referring to Bahujan Samaj Party chief Kanshi Ram. “They have never addressed the real issues.”

Dalit leaders have survived by “mouthing” what B.R. Ambedkar had said on the pitiable living and social conditions of the Dalits, he said. “They did nothing but criticise the Hindu upper castes. Their sole aim is to rally the Dalits behind for votes and not to solve their problems.”

Had these Dalit leaders done their “jobs, I would not have been here today”, Raj said. “There is a big vacuum and I am trying to fill that.”

Like other Dalit leaders, Ram Raj, a joint commissioner of income-tax who has the photo of Ambedkar embossed on his business card, too swears by Ambedkar, but says he is different.

“What sets me apart is that I never indulge in what they do. I do not criticise the Hindu upper caste people. I am fighting an ideological and cultural battle for the Dalits,” he said.

The 1988-batch IRS officer got into Dalit politics in 1997. “I don’t know how it all happened. But I am a product of circumstances.”

Four years later, he is chairman of the All India Confederation of SC and ST Organisations and president of the Lord Buddha Club, an organisation of neo-Buddhists.

Ram Raj says he wanted to wipe off the caste system from the face of the country, but also wants reservations to continue.

“Reservation should actually be extended to private enterprises, since under the new economic policies, there will be fewer government units in (the) coming years,” he said.

“I have definite agenda, unlike other Dalit leaders,” he said, adding that he was working out a plan to improve the lot of the Dalits through education.

After the “success” of the November conversion in the capital, he says his job as an income-tax officer meant nothing to him and that he was ready to quit. “I have been on leave for the last four years. I will leave my job any time. I cannot go back there and betray my people,” Ram Raj said.

He has no plans of launching a political party but wouldn’t like to speculate on the future. “Only (the) future will tell my future,” he said.


Bhuj, Dec. 9: 
Ten months after the January 26 earthquake, the lofty promise of rebuilding this town “125 per cent” better and more magnificent than before is turning out to be a cruel joke.

It is the same story in Anjar, Bhachau and Rapar where thousands continue to be homeless for the lack of “micro level town planning”, entrusted to the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, Ahmedabad. The CEPT is likely to take at least another four months to complete this assignment.

For chief minister Narendra Modi, this is a matter of concern as Modi replaced Keshubhai Patel for his inept handling of the post-quake situation.

As the first anniversary of the quake draws near, Modi is under tremendous pressure to show, in his own words, “some visible development”. As a result, he has served an impossible deadline — December 31 — for the completion of rehabilitation work, which is yet to begin.

During his recent visit to Kutch, Modi asked district collector and chief of the Bhuj Development Authority, H.N. Chhibar to speed up rehabilitation so that there was some visible development by December 31.

But Chhibar says the deadline applies to the rural areas where people have received government financial assistance to rebuild their homes with the help of NGOs.

Considering that three lakh homes were to be built in rural and urban Kutch and more than 9,000 families were to be shifted in this town alone, the proposed deadline is an impossible target.

“We are working day and night to ensure visible development,” Chhibar said, claiming that 26 per cent of the homes were near completion while the remaining was “in the pipeline”.

The Gujarat Urban Development Corporation has identified three sites where allotment of plots would begin once infrastructure facilities have been installed. As per the new town development plan, the Bhuj Development Authority will start giving construction permission for areas outside the city from January.

But those unwilling to move out from the old site would have to wait another four months, till the legal process of town planning is completed, Chhibar said.


Kathmandu, Dec. 9: 
Maoist rebels destroyed a communications tower of Nepal Electricity authority in Rolpa district last night, killing four army men and losing 50 to 60 of their own men during the fierce gun-fight.

Several army men were injured in the attack, reports received from the Maoist-strong district said today.

However, a defence ministry statement claimed that the army foiled the attack and managed to save the tower. The statement also said that about 50 to 60 bodies of the rebels at the fighting site.

The ministry said that the “terrorists” used sophisticated weapons looted from the Dang barracks late last month.

Some of the weapons — three LMGs and some others — were recovered by the army during the fighting, the statement said. The attack on the tower has disrupted communications in three districts, said an official.




Maximum: 31.2°C (+4)
Minimum: 16.3°C (+1)



Relative humidity

Max: 96%
Min: 40%

Sunrise: 6.11 am

Sunset: 4.48 pm


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 17°C

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