Pervez picks dove for Kashmir
Another attack and war: Advani
Untold airport story of 13/12
Bandh hit or flop, Mamata is a loser
Armies play border ‘chess’
Varsity bar on student polls
Delhi sees signs of win-win situation
Falling crude saves oil tax blow
Twins pad up for global tour
Calcutta Weather

Islamabad, Jan. 9: 
Pervez Musharraf today appointed a moderate to head a committee on Kashmir and imposed a security clampdown as the countdown began to an address to the nation the world is waiting for.

Section 144 was enforced in Islamabad, barring people from carrying firearms in the capital territory for the next two months.

The move, which came amid reports that the government is planning to ban five jihadi outfits and mount a widespread swoop, is being seen as an attempt to counter a possible backlash.

Musharraf, who is preparing for his biggest speech since he rallied behind the US for its war against the Taliban, today put off his weekly Cabinet meeting by a day. The meeting tomorrow will discuss the government’s crackdown on militants, following which the President is expected to address the nation.

The government has re-constituted a National Committee on Kashmir and appointed as its head Mohammad Abdul Qayyum Khan, a former president of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who had been sidelined for not supporting militancy.

Khan struck to his moderate views today, saying: “I am opposed to violence as a means to achieve right to self-determination.” He added that peace should be a given a chance to resolve the Kashmir problem.

Khan said this was the first time a Kashmiri leader has been appointed the head of the committee, which was inactive during the past two years.

Khan had fallen foul of the Pakistani establishment for praising Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s peace initiatives, including the Ramzan ceasefire. Though his Muslim Conference Party secured a majority in the PoK elections last year, Qayyum could not take over as Prime Minister.

Responding to hints from the Pakistan army, the party elected his junior, Sikander Hayat, to the post and nominated General (retired) Mohammad Anwar Khan as president. Anwar Khan was not even a member of the party.

The names of other committee members will be announced shortly and Musharraf will address its first meeting, scheduled for January 15.

An official announcement said the committee would project the Kashmir issue at the international level and mobilise world opinion to settle it according to UN resolutions. Pakistan has again sought the UN Security Council’s intervention to ease the tension on the border.

The formation of the committee coincides with the crackdown on militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba, operating in Kashmir.

Senior aides said Musharraf would explain to his people through the address the need to crack down on extremist religious violence. “He will obviously tell the people what this level of extremism and violence was leading us to,” a military official said.

“He may ask them to take a look at what is good for the future of Pakistan and Pakistani society,” he said, adding that the speech could be tough on what he called an extremist minority that was resorting to violence and intimidation.

But others tried to play down speculation of a ground-breaking address by Musharraf, saying it was now difficult for the military ruler to manoeuvre without appearing to respond directly to pressure from New Delhi to close down militant groups active in Kashmir.

“He had wanted to move in a certain direction, but now he could be seen as acting under pressure,” said a senior aide.


Washington, Jan. 9: 
Home minister L.K. Advani began whirlwind talks at the highest levels of the Bush administration today by cautioning Americans that five faceless terrorists causing another incident akin to the December 13 attack on Parliament could plunge South Asia into war.

Making out a strong case on behalf of India on the world stage since December 13, the burden of Advani’s argument with attorney-general John Ashcroft, secretary of state Colin Powell and others today was as follows.

Unless General Pervez Musharraf can convince New Delhi that he is serious about putting down terrorism directed against India, another attack like the one on Parliament will be blamed on Musharraf by Indian public opinion even if his government did not organise or facilitate it.

Musharraf’s steps against Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and other terrorist outfits can carry conviction in India only if he backs it up, as a starting point, by actually handing over at least some of the criminals listed by India.

Musharraf has so far absolved his country of any responsibility for terrorist incidents in India. If he is to be believed, not a single Pakistani has done anything to hurt India.

Puncturing a big hole in Musharraf’s self-proclaimed alibis to avert a conflict and continue the low intensity war to bleed India with these arguments, Advani asked the US not to harp only on public opinion in Pakistan and about Musharraf’s domestic compulsions.

India, too, has similar compulsions, the home minister told Ashcroft, his host here, and Powell, who is scheduled to leave on January 15 on a tour that will take him to Delhi and Islamabad.

Public opinion in India has been distrustful of Musharraf’s action against terrorists so far. In a democracy, Advani said, it is difficult to defy public opinion. The Americans ought to know that better than anyone else.

Advani also handed Ashcroft a list of 42 terrorists operating from Pakistan. The list includes names of the 20 criminals given to Musharraf as well as 14 Taliban leaders believed to have fled to Pakistan.

Sources privy to today’s talks said Advani gave a concise exposition of Indian fears, suspicions and demands. The Indian side believes Advani’s arguments will have a strong effect on the Bush administration which sees the need to avert war in South Asia as paramount to Washington’s current self-interest.

Delhi’s expectations are that after talking to Advani, the Bush administration will put greater pressure on Musharraf to accommodate some of India’s demands. Advani’s visit here may, therefore, provide the key to defusing the current tension between Delhi and Islamabad.


Calcutta, Jan. 9: 
When the entire country was on a red alert against possible terrorist strikes on vital installations barely one-and-a-half hours after Parliament was attacked on December 13, police officials at the airport here were trying to help two persons, travelling with forged documents, clear immigration.

About to board a Royal Jordan flight to Amman, the duo — one a woman — had links with an international arms racket. The attempt failed as the “contact” at immigration counter No. 4 was replaced at the last moment by the deputy commissioner of police, security control organisation, following a tip-off from the Union home ministry. The two persons were caught and their interrogation opened the lid on a police-criminal nexus at Calcutta’s Netaji Subhas International Airport.

Two separate inquiries are on. While a high-level probe is being carried out by the home ministry, another is being led by the superintendent of police, airport, O.P. Gupta.

Around 1.25 pm on December 13, sub-inspector Sushil Biswas of airport police, under alleged instructions from DSP (administration) Nirmal Kumar Das, escorted the two persons, Vikhabhai Prahladdas Patel and Lilaben Patel, to the immigration wing of the international terminal, requesting that they be cleared as they were “SP saheb’s friends”.

The DSP himself had allegedly arrived at the terminal around 1 pm and asked some policemen posted at the immigration counter to “clear” the Patels.

However, all plans went awry when the DC, security control organisation, P.K. Chatterjee, went to the immigration wing after being tipped off and asked the sub-inspector on duty at counter 4, Atindra Mondal, to leave.

Finding counter 4 empty, the Patels proceeded to the next. A mere look at the passports revealed they were fake. The Patels later confessed to paying Rs 6 lakh in advance to middlemen for getting their trip fixed.

“They were caught red-handed as a glance revealed that their passports were forged and they had assumed the names and addresses of a Bengali couple from Krishnagar,” said an intelligence official.

As soon as the passports were declared forged, Chatterjee, who was hovering nearby, caught hold of sub-inspector Biswas and asked him why he was helping the Patels.

Caught on the wrong foot, Biswas grew nervous and told Chatterjee that he was working under the instruction of the DSP. “I only did what a police officer is supposed to do and I have told whatever I had to to the SP. Now, it is up to them to take action,” said Chatterjee, refusing to disclose details.

Both Das, the DSP, and Biswas, the sub-inspector, said they were “innocent and being framed”. “I was away on VIP duty on December 13, I have nothing to do with the case,” said Das.

Investigations revealed that the Gujarati duo were travelling to Amman, from where they were supposed to take an arms consignment to the US.


Calcutta, Jan. 9: 
If bad politics is all about defending the indefensible, Mamata Banerjee has confirmed her bad patch once again by deciding to support today’s bandh call. As this would be perceived as her first major offensive against Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee since last May’s electoral defeat, it was crucial that she did not begin the new battle as a loser.

But there is no way the bandh can throw her up as a winner. Bandhs have become so irrelevant in the fast-changing economic and political climate that even the Marxists, the original sinners, now desperately try to avoid them. The bandh, called by small ginger groups like the SUCI and some Naxalite factions, can succeed in halting work and transport to some degree or fail to do so. Ironically, it is not her bandh -- she has only lent it “moral support” -- but its success or failure will be laid at her door because the small parties are not strong enough to disrupt public life on their own. And she can gain little either way.

She has thus landed herself in another pretty mess by committing herself to the bandh. Bandhs, imposed by force and fear, have rarely been a barometer of public support. To avoid its failure, her supporters have to do precisely the kind of messy things that gave her a negative image and cost her the elections. The more she does to succeed in this first new battle, the more her disruptive image will stick. The gainer clearly is her adversary, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who will paint her as the spoilsport in Bengal’s new leap forward for economic reform.

In fact, her support to the bandh has begged more questions than it has answered even for her own people.

If she felt so strongly about the issues on which the bandh has been called, they are asking: Why didn’t she call it herself? If it fails, she, and not the SUCI, stands to lose. If it turns violent to succeed, she takes the blame. If the bandh once again blacklists Bengal for investors, she, and not the ruling Marxists, would be projected as the villain.

If it is difficult to see how she benefits from the bandh plunge, it is not so difficult to see why she chose to take it. Having lost the polls, her place in the Union Cabinet and also public esteem by doing another somersault to go back to the BJP, Mamata suddenly found herself in a vacuum she had never known.

The void could have been filled by a return to the Cabinet. But luck was not on her side yet. The December 13 attack on Parliament and the subsequent heightening of India-Pakistan hostilities stumped her chances of an early return to power in New Delhi.

So she decided to return to the streets in Calcutta, which made her political career once upon a time. As the principal opposition party in Bengal, she has every right — and obligation — to oppose government decisions which she found harmful to public interest.

The increases in electricity, hospital and education charges have been criticised even by some of the CPM’s partners in the ruling Left Front.

Even her party had organised a few street-shows recently on these issues with no great signs of large public support. These shows should have told her that old spectator sports no longer draw large crowds. Instead of learning from these failed shows, she has committed herself to yet another old show that repels the people most, particularly in the new milieu. Not only is her timing bad, her method looks mad.

There could not have been a worse beginning for Mamata’s new campaign.


New Delhi, Jan. 9: 
In a series of moves and counter-moves, the Indian and Pakistani armies are making tactical shifts in the position of their units along the international border.

“It is like a game of chess, where both parties are positioning their troops in anticipation of a strike,” observed a former major-general, analysing the moves.

The two armies are now almost fully mobilised. Along the international boundary, they are at least 5 km away from the “zero line”.

Many of the moves along the border are a fallout of the tension along the Line of Control (LoC), where the two armies are eyeball-to-eyeball. Shelling along the LoC, particularly in Poonch, has been high “but not at abnormal levels”.

The Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) have resumed their weekly hotline contact and it can be assumed that they will also note a sudden escalation in tension along the LoC and take steps accordingly.

In the Poonch region, the Pakistani army has control of significant heights. Repeated transgressions across the LoC in the area by unmanned aerial vehicles — a UAV was reported to have crossed into Indian airspace and then flown back to Pakistan even today — have raised suspicions that Pakistani forces are apprehending an offensive. “UAVs are used with increasing frequency when armies prepare for operations,” said an officer.

Should there be a flare-up in the fighting along the western side of the LoC — an escalation on the northern stretch of the LoC (Mushkoh-Drass-Kargil-Batalik) is more remote in this season because the heights are under snow — the possibility of the conflict spiralling out of control exists.

However, it cannot be said that operations along the LoC will necessarily have a fallout elsewhere along the international boundary. That was not the case during the 1999 Kargil war.

It is in this background that Indian strategists have been carefully monitoring the position of the Army Reserve South (ARS) by Pakistan. The ARS is one of the two Pakistani strike forces. Over the past week, the ARS has been positioned along the Indus west bank.

If Indian monitors catch the ARS crossing the river, it will be cause for serious concern. Also, its point of crossing the river will lead watchers to conclude where the ARS could attack — north, on the border with Punjab, or south, on the border with Rajasthan. India, too, has deployed all three of its strike corps.


Ranchi, Jan. 9: 
Ranchi University has triggered a debate by being the first to rule out elections to students’ unions.

“Holding student union elections will be the last item on our agenda. We do not have the time to spare for such a thing. As a teacher, I have experienced that these unions serve little purpose,” vice-chancellor L.C.C.N. Shahdeo said.

Jharkhand is one of two states, Bihar being the other, where students’ elections have not been held for almost 20 years.

Ranchi University has lent a deaf ear to the persistent demand from various student organisations for holding union elections.

Except Vinoba Bhave University, Hazaribagh, which conducted student union elections in 1995, the others — Ranchi University, Sidhu Kanhu University, Dumka, and Birsa Agricultural University, Ranchi — have been silent on the issue.

Ranchi University last held student union elections in 1983 when the Hazaribagh and Dumka universities were part of it.

Breaking its silence in December 1999, Ranchi University released a notification that it would conduct student union elections in a month. But nothing was done.

The state vice-president of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Rangnath Singh Divakar, lashed out at the authorities of the university and some student organisations.

“The university neither withdrew the December 1999 notification nor issued a fresh one. It simply kept mum, but not for nothing. Some other student groups, which were apprehensive of their poor performance after the ABVP’s success in Vinoba Bhave university’s student union polls in 1995, supported the move,” Divakar said.

“There must be an official forum for the students, not only to express their pent-up feelings but also to register their protest whenever they need to do so. An elected student union is the ideal platform for the students to express their views and offer suggestions to university officials,” the student leader added.

The students’ organisations alleged that the university was misusing the students’ welfare fund.

National Students’ Union of India secretary at Ranchi University Ajay Rai said: “A university is for the students and because of the students. The fee which is charged towards the students’ welfare fund is used either to pay teachers’ salaries or is put under other university expenditure but never used for the purpose it is collected for. Students cannot register their protest in the absence of a proper forum. They feel their voice is gagged.”

Vice-chancellor Shahdeo scoffed at the charge. “No student body has come to me regarding student union polls since I assumed charge. Their allegation of fraudulently spending students’ welfare fund holds no ground. Students’ union polls are low on our priority list but if students approach me, we will certainly think over the issue,” he said.


New Delhi, Jan. 9: 
It is bad news for terrorists in Kashmir, irrespective of whether it is war or peace that Pervez Musharraf speaks of in his address to the nation.

If the Pakistan President offers an olive branch to India and cracks down on militants, it will demoralise the separatists further. If he adopts a tough posture leading to a flare-up, the rebels would be the first targets of Indian security forces.

“Either way, terrorists active in Kashmir will suffer,” a key aide of the Prime Minister said. “Increasingly, the world is coming round to the view that there is no place for terrorism and violence in civil society.”

As Delhi keeps its ears cocked for signals from Musharraf’s address — likely in the next 48 hours — South Block is veering around to the view that irrespective of the tenor, he will not be able to boost the sagging morale of terrorists active in Kashmir. “The terrorists have realised that a military solution to Kashmir is becoming increasingly difficult to attain under the prevailing circumstances,” the aide said.

Sources said the September 11 terrorist strikes on America have created a situation in which almost all nations have closed ranks against the scourge.

Musharraf had tried to draw a distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters in his speech at the just-concluded Saarc summit in Kathmandu. But India’s displeasure, articulated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee — the handshake with Musharraf notwithstanding — made world leaders send a blunt message to the military ruler: to publicly denounce terrorism.

Two days ago, it was British Prime Minister Tony Blair who told Musharraf some home truths during closed-door interactions with him. Yesterday, US President George W. Bush left little room for speculation as to what Washington and other key world leaders expected the military ruler to do.

There are expectations that Musharraf will try his best to send out positive signals to avert another war in the volatile region. “If it is good news for Delhi, it will be bad news for the terrorists,” the aide said.

Indian officials believe that Musharraf is very much in control of the various terrorist outfits operating from his country. “He can put the tap on or off whenever he wants,” said the Prime Minister’s aide.

India does not believe that Musharraf’s position will be jeopardised if he takes action against the terrorist groups.

“This is what the general wants to tell the whole world and is an excuse not to take our demands for a genuine crackdown seriously,” the aide added.

Delhi is, however, hopeful that international pressure would help the Pakistani leader change his mind. Sources said that if Musharraf continues to find excuses for not taking action against the terrorists, Delhi would have to rethink its options.


New Delhi, Jan. 9: 
The government is planning to raise excise on diesel and petrol, but retail prices are likely to remain unchanged as the tax hike will be offset by lower international crude prices.

The excise on kerosene and cooking gas is likely to remain unchanged. The government is likely to more than double the excise on diesel from the current level of 16 per cent, making the first use of the emergency enabling provision that the Union Cabinet passed yesterday.

The provision allows the government to increase excise on goods or services by more than twice its normal rate in the case of an emergency.

However, the government will be hard-pressed to explain the “emergency situation” behind the move to raise the excise on diesel and petrol which is designed to partly bridge the burgeoning oil pool deficit which is running at Rs 12,000 crore.

The deficit is created because the government does not compensate the state-run oil companies the difference between the international price of oil and the price at which they are sold in the country.

Excise on petrol may also be raised, but this will probably not be to the extent that will require the use of the enabling provision. The government aims to mop up some Rs 2,000 crore through these measures.

“It (an excise hike on petro-products) can be a means to capture the benefits of lower crude prices in a way that does not affect retail prices,” economic affairs secretary C.M. Vasudevan told reporters today. This, he said, would be used to part-bridge the oil pool deficit.

The price of a barrel of crude for February delivery slid 57 cents in early deals to $21.45 today. As all oil product retail pricing and other budgetary calculations have been made on the basis of a $25-26 a barrel, this means a dip of $4-5 from the mean price. This is a sum that can be mopped up through taxation.

A senior finance ministry official said, “Petrol is already heavily taxed at 32 per cent excise plus 8 per cent special excise…. However, diesel is taxed at 16 per cent and priced at about Rs 10 lower per litre than petrol. This offers an adequate opportunity for raising taxes on diesel without really hitting consumers hard.”

Cooking gas and kerosene are taxed at a lower rate of 8 per cent, but are not likely to be touched. Although the petroleum ministry has not yet received a green signal, officials are understood to be working on the presumption of a duty hike on petrol and diesel, which are priced above the import parity levels. These fuels will be freed from price controls from April 1.

The rest of the oil pool deficit will be bridged through the issue of seven-year bonds by state-run oil companies as part of a plan that was finalised at a recent meeting between petroleum minister Ram Naik and finance minister Yashwant Sinha.


New Delhi, Jan. 9: 
As India finalises the team that will visit countries across the globe to mobilise support against cross-border terrorism, Pakistan has decided to send one of its own to blunt any media advantage New Delhi might secure.

The Centre is setting up a 40-member parliamentary delegation to visit a dozen countries. The decision to send a team was taken at a meeting with Opposition parties convened by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on December 30.

Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Manmohan Singh, CPM leader Somnath Chaterjee and BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra will be part of the all-party delegation. No ministers will figure in it, sources said. The names of all 40 members, their destinations and dates of journey will be finalised in a couple of days.

The MPs would visit the US, the UK, Germany, Malaysia, Indonesia and West Asian countries, Malhotra said.

Not to be outdone, Pakistan has decided to send a team of politicians to world capitals to explain its position on the stand-off with India and seek their support for peaceful settlement of issues.

Foreign office spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan was quoted as saying that the government was on the verge of finalising details of the delegation and its destinations.

Presidents and Speakers of national assemblies of around 25 countries have condemned the December 13 terrorist attack on Parliament. In separate messages to Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, they have said the strike was an “assault on democracy, justice, human rights and freedom of humanity.”

Presidents of the national assemblies of Austria, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Jordan, Bangladesh, Mangolia, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal, Zambia, Thailand, Tibet and Bhutan have sent messages to the Speaker.

The leaders said there was no place for terrorism in civilised societies and that political issues could be settled only through peaceful and democratic means, a statement from the Speaker’s office said.

“Such actions against symbols of representative democracy amount to an attack against all Parliaments,” said Ferdinando Casini, President of House of Deputies of Republic of Italy.

“Terrorism is a constant threat to freedom, which is why it often attacks those of us who represent the wishes of our citizens,” said Louise Fernandes, Speaker of Congress of Deputies of Spain.

Michael Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain, said: “There can be no justification for such terrorism.”




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