US sings India’s tune for Pervez
Standoff stifles little hearts
Last Jaish leader in Pak net
Bound for Delhi, but not on rails
Move over SMS, hello VMS
Calendar with home truths
Wary of Lanka role
Bandh binds sibling states
Calcutta Weather

Washington, Jan. 10: 
Those familiar with the inner working of the Bush administration are calling it the “conversion of Colin Powell”.

With the US secretary of state joining the emerging consensus within the Bush administration on terrorism emanating from within Pakistan, President George W. Bush today assured home minister L.K. Advani that the US will ask General Pervez Musharraf to crack down harder on extremist religious groups targeting India.

Bush, who dropped in on Advani during his meeting with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, told the home minister that he expected Musharraf to “take all necessary steps in fighting terror. He has done it in the case of the Taliban... expects him to do it in the case of India, abandon terror as an instrument of state policy”.

After meeting Advani for 45 minutes yesterday, Powell told reporters about Musharraf’s upcoming address to the nation: “It’s not just the speech. We will be looking to see what additional action he has taken”.

Powell was virtually echoing Advani’s words, which the home minister has repeated in all his meetings here yesterday and today. That the proof of Musharraf’s sincerity as an opponent of terror lies in his actions, not in his words.

Giving credit to Musharraf for moving against terrorists, Powell said: “I believe he has taken quite a bit of action in recent months, but as you well know, the Indians believe more action is required, and we will see what happens in the days and weeks ahead.”

Then he added, significantly: “I think there is room for additional work on his (Musharraf’s) part”.

Powell said he had seen the list of 20 criminals and terrorists whose handover by Pakistan is being sought by India. The secretary said the US had already discussed the list with Musharraf. “I know he is examining it, and I hope he will take appropriate action on the list. But it is in his hands.”

Revealing that he had talked about the list with Advani, Powell added: “I know that the home minister also discussed it with attorney-general (John) Ashcroft earlier.”

Powell’s words after meeting Advani represent a significant shift in the American position that India should acknowledge and respect the anti-terrorist steps taken by Musharraf, which Delhi has called merely “cosmetic”.

That this shift has been articulated by Powell himself is doubly significant because insiders say that among the leading lights of the Bush administration, the secretary of state has been most vocal in tilting towards Islamabad in the post-September 11 scenario.

Indeed, there has been talk here and in the chanceries in Chanakyapuri that Powell’s pronounced sympathy for Musharraf had led to friction between him and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh.

The state department announced yesterday that Powell would travel to India and Pakistan next week. Indications are that he may follow British Prime Minister Tony Blair in stopping over in Afghanistan.

Advani is being credited here with a diplomatic coup both in converting Powell to see India’s point of view and in getting Bush to make the most unequivocal statement yet on Pakistan and terrorism.

“To hear all this... from the highest executive in the country makes all the difference,” Advani said after meeting Bush, who did not repeat the American homily to India in recent weeks that it should take note of Musharraf’s actions against terrorists.

He spelt out at a news conference the bottomline for gauging Pakistan’s sincerity in wanting accommodation with India. Advani set a four-point test: (i) Islamabad must hand over the listed 20; (ii) close training camps and end arms supplies, funding and all direct and indirect assistance to terrorists on Pakistani soil and in areas controlled by it; (iii) stop sending arms and men into Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere; and (iv) make an unambiguous renunciation of terrorism in all its manifestations, wherever it exists, irrespective of the cause it seeks to further.

Advani revealed that in the last three years, 106 cells of the Inter-Services Intelligence had been unearthed in India, outside Jammu and Kashmir. This, he asserted, was evidence that terror was an instrument of Pakistan’s state policy.


Bangalore, Jan. 10: 
Three-month-old Shabbir Hussain is possibly the youngest victim of the standoff between India and Pakistan.

The baby has a serious heart ailment and was to be operated upon by Dr Devi Shetty, a specialist in child heart surgery, at his hospital here. But after transport links between the nuclear neighbours were snapped on New Year’s Day, the operation has been put on hold indefinitely. Shabbir’s parents, who live in Karachi, cannot get visas to India.

Six-month-old Aslam Hasheem, eight-month-old Isha and one-year-old Abdulla Amir, who live in other parts of Pakistan, will also have to wait for their heart surgeries.

“Please save them” is the cry at Narayana Hrudalaya, Dr Shetty’s hospital on the outskirts of the metropolis. “Political issues should not deprive the children of their lives,” said K.S. Vasuki, a spokesperson for the hospital.

“If there is a public outcry, it might move the authorities in Delhi. These infants need to be treated immediately,” he added.

Heart patients from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mauritius flock to Bangalore because treatment here is cheaper. “The same operation in the West or in the Far East would cost Rs 2.5 lakh. We operate patients for about half the amount. If it is the general ward, it will cost only Rs 95,000,” says Vasuki. Most of the patients from outside India come from Bangladesh.

Dr Shetty’s team has so far performed 17,000 heart surgeries across India. “A child is a child, whether he is from Pakistan or India or Bangladesh. One should not prevent patients from getting treatment,” adds Vasuki.

“All the children belong to poor families. They come here as they get the best treatment at an affordable price. They can’t afford to go to other countries for treatment,” said Vasuki.

Worried parents have written to Dr Shetty, telling him they cannot cross the border after rail, road and air travel between the countries has been banned. The surgeon calls the barrier “inhuman”. The shrunk Indian embassy in Pakistan is refusing to entertain the parents’ applications for visas as for now.


Islamabad, Jan. 10: 
One of the last free leaders of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hasan Barki, has been arrested as part of the Pakistani crackdown on militants.

Barki was arrested in Islamabad last night on his arrival from Bahawalpur, where the headquarters of Jaish is based.

Barki had been publicly vowing to press ahead with militant attacks in Kashmir after the arrest of his leader Azhar Masood.

However, keen to lower the expectations of President Pervez Musharraf’s imminent address to the nation, Pakistan insisted that it was not under pressure from the US to act.

But he added that “Pakistan is taking certain actions and Pakistan will continue to take actions against terrorism”.

Pakistan has decided to send Ejaz-ul Haq, son of former military ruler Zia-ul Haq, and Javed Ashraf Qazi, former ISI chief, as special emissaries to brief West Asian leaders on the standoff.

JKLF chief Amanullah Khan said here he was willing to surrender if an international court issued a verdict against him.


New Delhi, Jan. 10: 
As Mamata Banerjee stirred out of poll defeat-imposed political inactivity by participating in the bandh in Bengal today, there were indications of her making a comeback in Delhi, too.

In the next round of Cabinet expansion likely this month-end, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is expected to reinduct the Trinamul leader, but it is unlikely she will get back her old portfolio — railways.

NDA sources said this would be a small expansion, limited only to Mamata and a representative of the PMK.

Though Mamata was keen on getting back railways, a top Cabinet minister with whom she has a good rapport told her that there was no way Nitish Kumar would be asked to give up his ministry for her. “She has been told the railway minister’s post is non-negotiable,” sources said.

It appears the BJP may sacrifice one of its own ministers to make room for Mamata. But party sources stressed that rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu would not be one of them. In the run-up to the last Cabinet expansion it was widely speculated that Naidu would be brought back to the party organisation and the Trinamul leader would get his ministry. But Naidu resisted the pressure brought on him and managed to save his job.

Like the Trinamul, the PMK had also quit the NDA to team up with the ADMK before the Tamil Nadu elections. But after being sidelined by Jayalalithaa, a chastened PMK returned to the NDA.

NDA sources claimed that there was “tremendous” pressure on the Telugu Desam to join the government. But the Desam is expected to decide only after the Uttar Pradesh polls.

Bandh strikeback

Thursday’s Bengal bandh has become a law-enforcement trendsetter with the state government deciding to charge the strike supporters under the Indian Penal Code. Conviction under the IPC carries punishment ranging from a fine to imprisonment.    

Mumbai, Jan. 10: 
If you hate holding the cellphone to your ear as at the other end the hunt goes on for an eternity for the person you want to talk to, VMS is just the thing for you. And if you get lost in the maze of words crammed into a space smaller than a box of matches, say bye-bye to SMS and hello to VMS.

Voice messaging service is here, courtesy Sabeer Bhatia — remember the Hotmail man? — and cellular operator Hutchison Max.

It’s late to arrive in India — the US and Europe got it about five years ago — but from next month, VMS should be available in every area where Hutchison operates: Calcutta (Command), Delhi (Essar) and Mumbai (Orange).

Once the service starts, a Hutchison subscriber will only need to punch in a four-digit number to be announced soon, then tap out the number to be called and leave the message. “It has the benefits of SMS plus all the impact and emotion that voice allows,” said Bhatia.

The tieup with Bhatia’s Televoice, which is offering the software, was announced by Asim Ghosh, managing director of Hutchison Max Telecom, at a joint news conference.

“There are times when a voice message is preferable to interrupting or speaking live with the recipient. The power of this partnership is to provide this important voice messaging service to every Hutchison cellular subscriber so that he/she can communicate around the nation and around the globe simply, quickly and effectively”.

And, cheaply. For instance, Hutchison customers will be able to send voice messages to any phone in the US at a cost of Rs 5.99 per minute.

A phone call to the US costs Rs 48 a minute at peak time. Messages, by the way, can be sent to cellular as well as fixed phones, provided they are touch tone.

Within the country, voice messages can be sent between Hutchison subscribers in Orange, Essar and Command networks at a cost of Rs 2.99 per minute, including airtime charges.

If the VMS catches the fancy of users, other cellular operators could follow suit.

“Besides being inexpensive, the service is also unobtrusive as it can be delivered at a convenient time of the day,” Ghosh said.

Which is why Hutchison’s immediate target is the non-resident Indian residing in a different time zone.

A month after the service to the US and Canada starts, the UK will join the network and immediately thereafter Dubai and Australia, Bhatia said. Subscribers — pre- and post-paid — won’t need to have an ISD connection to be able to send across messages.

The inspiration behind launching the service could well have come from the over five lakh SMS messages 50 per cent of Hutchison’s subscribers exchange on an average day, which peaked at over three million on New Year’s day.

Messages can be replied to and are delivered as a return voice message, just like the SMS, Bhatia said.

“VMS can convey a greeting or a thought. It adds to the power of the SMS, as it shows your emotion. This service will over time become very popular,” he said.

Experience indicates a promising future. About 75 per cent of all phone calls fails to locate the right information or person the first time. According to a survey, about 30-60 per cent of telephone calls does not require a conversation.

And VMS is almost like a conversation without the waiting. Like SMS, the message travels almost in real time.

For Bhatia, this is the second attempt to find a winner after he sold Hotmail to Microsoft for $50 million., which he floated thereafter, bombed.

Televoice, the company that will digitise the messages and despatch them over the Internet, will be using a software developed by Navinmail, in which the former Hotmail owner has taken a stake.

The recipient can access the message at a time of his choice. No more embarrassing interruptions by rrring, rrring.

A survey says 67 per cent of all calls is less important than the work they interrupt and 75 per cent of the messages taken for colleagues is either inaccurate or forgotten to be passed on.


New Delhi, Jan. 10: 
After Kerala, it was Delhi.

Delhi Tourism Development Corporation released a calendar today, 10 days into the new year, to promote the capital as a tourist destination.

But Union tourism and culture minister Jagmohan, who released the calendar in the presence of Delhi chief minister Shiela Dixit, ripped its veneer to show the warts.

It is not enough to distribute beautiful calendars as a symbol of our cultural heritage, the minister said. What is more important is to clean up the act and manage our tourist destinations more efficiently so that they make a better impact on the foreign traveller, he added.

The calendar carries reproductions of seven Satish Gujral paintings. Members of the travel industry and the capital’s cultural and social lions were present in today’s function.

Kerala tourism had earlier commissioned M.F. Husain and Yusuf Arakkal to produce a portfolio of paintings projecting Kerala, the tourist destination.

The Delhi tourism calendar carries six paintings and one on the cover. The works focus on “colour” in life in India. The calendar celebrates the 51st annual conference of Pata, a forum of travel industry representatives of the Asia-Pacific region, to be held in Delhi between April 10 and 14.

The limited edition of 3,000 calendars, most of which have been sent to the Government of India tourist offices all over the world, will be distributed among leading tourism professionals. The tourist offices will have to buy a calendar for Rs 300.

Delhi tourism officials said the calendar was the most potent way to project India’s potential in cultural tourism. In the function, Shiela Dixit, too, spoke on the need to promote the artistic and cultural heritage of the country.

A calendar with reproductions of paintings by a leading artist has a greater shelf life and brand recall in the world market, the officials felt.


New Delhi and Chennai, Jan. 10: 
Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have formally approached India for permission to allow the Tigers’ chief negotiator Anton Balasingham to come to Chennai ahead of a fresh round of peace talks with Colombo.

“So far as the government is concerned these are just press reports, there has been no movement on the ground. All the speculation has no basis,” a senior Indian diplomat said.

The diplomat would not speculate what the Vajpayee government’s reaction would be, if the Tigers or the Sri Lankans were to make a request.

Having burnt its fingers once in Sri Lanka, India would be wary of having anything to do with the peace talks, except to be supportive of the efforts. Offering a temporary home for Balasingham will give another opportunity to the Tigers to entrench themselves in Tamil Nadu.

The LTTE was banned in India following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Tiger chief V. Prabhakaran is one of the accused in the case.

The LTTE is South Asia’s first “terrorist” group, engineering assassinations, suicide attacks and bomb blasts. The Tigers have killed some of the most high-profile politicians in Sri Lanka, including former President Premadasa, defence minister Lalith Athulatmudali, his successor Ranjan Wijeratna and land minister Gamini Dissanayake.

At a time when the Vajpayee government is leading an anti-terrorist campaign, welcoming a leader of a banned outfit may raise a number of eyebrows, including that of the main Opposition, the Congress.

The Tigers could have floated this idea as a trial balloon to see the reaction in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, where people turned hostile to the LTTE’s violent ways after hosting its activists for nearly a decade.

The reaction so far from Tamil Nadu is unlikely to please the LTTE. ADMK chief Jayalalitha has been cool to the idea. In fact, her party’s government has written to the Prime Minister against any move to permit LTTE’s “presence in any form in India, especially in Tamil Nadu”.

In his letter to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, chief minister O. Panneerselvam has opposed the possibility of LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham recommencing peace talks with the Sri Lankan government from India.

“The LTTE has a lot of potential for posing a great danger to the very security and integrity of our nation as it is capable of encouraging terrorist activities throughout Tamil Nadu and in other parts of the country as well,” the letter says.

Saying Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the state was still fresh in people’s minds, Panneerselvan has written that they have not forgotten the LTTE’s “violent and subversive activities” in the state. The outfit should not be given “a toe-hold, let alone a foot-hold” even for peace talks, says the letter.

It is “too dangerous” to allow LTTE presence in the state, the chief minister has written.


Thiruvananthapuram, Jan. 10: 
When a bandh holds Bengal to ransom, can political twin Kerala be far behind?

Government offices and schools across the southern state came to a standstill today to oppose more or less the same factor that pushed the eastern sibling into the shutdown: belt-tightening.

But roles did reverse, reflecting the political fortunes of the communists whose strongholds have shrunk to Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

If the ruling communists were at the receiving end of the bandh in Bengal, they were among those at the forefront of the token strike in Kerala.

The irony was striking: In Bengal, the Left was opposing the bandh against steeper power and education rates. In Kerala, it was enforcing one to oppose the Congress-led government’s unparalleled austerity measures to avert impending bankruptcy.

Had it been in power, Kerala’s Left, ousted last year in one the worst electoral debacles in the state, would probably have pushed the non-populist measures with same vigour shown by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Bengal.

But Bhattacharjee’s place is occupied in Kerala by Congressman A.K. Antony, who shares with the Bengal chief minister a squeaky-clean reputation and a willingness to change with the times.

Antony’s office, too, could not escape the strike, sprung to protest an unprecedented decision to defer salary payment by 15 days in March and April. This is the first time the government has decided to default on salaries.

The state Cabinet had taken other harsh decisions, too, yesterday, triggering a two-hour strike. They included proposals to downsize staff and close down uneconomic schools with less than 100 children. Antony, known for politeness, had to sit out a two-hour blockade of his car in the secretariat on Wednesday.

Today, not a single government office in the state functioned. All employees’ unions, including those affiliated to the ruling Congress, participated in the strike. But, like in Bengal, the CPM has a stranglehold on the employees in Kerala.

Leaders of the unions claimed that all employees joined the strike. Kerala has about 5 lakh government employees, including school teachers. But it is not clear whether the strike would go on indefinitely. A section of employees has reportedly suggested such a course of action.

The government has responded to the strike with tough words and by cutting the day’s salary of striking employees. Antony – the government did not enough funds to pick up his air fare when he assumed power -- said the employees should see reason and realise the inevitability of cost cutting measures.

He added that the government would not retract its decisions.




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