Nation faces trial by fire
VHP blows hot and cold at Atal
Some gham, yes; lagaan, no
Pak poll jolt to Bush, Pervez
BJP empire loses Goa
Jaya kicks off, seeks Delhi funds
Sonia plays safe, hands crown to Tiwari
Leh officer signals bowout
Throw them out, cries CPM
Calcutta Weather

Ahmedabad, Feb. 27: 
Ayodhya returned to haunt the nation through a grisly tragedy in which 58 passengers were charred to death when a mob torched a train carrying kar sevaks in Gujarat this morning.

The mob, near Godhra station, allegedly took objection to “provocative slogans” by the kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, where Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists are gathering in thousands to build the Ram temple. The Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati Express was coming from Faizabad.

The incident fuelled sporadic clashes in the state, where two persons were stabbed to death after police fired to control turbulent crowds. Shock waves rippled across all of India as news of the attack spread, with police being put on alert in several states, including Bengal.

Ayodhya was sitting on a powder keg, as the two sides in the temple dispute traded ominous warnings. A police official said there were intelligence reports of subversives entering the town in the garb of kar sevaks.

A stunned Union government directed Uttar Pradesh to stop kar sevaks from entering Ayodhya, as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced the biggest internal challenge of his reign set against the dark backdrop of the Babri masjid demolition a decade ago.

Ayodhya confronted another Prime Minister in an uncanny coincidence today with P.V. Narasimha Rao making his concluding appearance before the Liberhan Commission inquiring into the demolition.

Vajpayee appealed to the VHP to call off the temple agitation but was rebuffed. “I appeal to the VHP to stop their agitation and help the government in maintaining peace and brotherhood in the country,” he said.

The VHP has called a bandh in Gujarat tomorrow and in Maharashtra and Rajasthan on March 1.

The RSS rallied behind the Prime Minister, pleading for restraint. Joint general secretary Madan Das Devi said: “The tolerance of the Hindu society is a litmus test. Instead of taking the law into their hands, people should cooperate with the state government in dealing with the serious situation.”

Home minister L.K. Advani — eyewitness to December 6, 1992 — issued a strong warning to the VHP. Advani said in a statement that the assembly of thousands of kar sevaks in Ayodhya could lead to defiance of court orders and warned the outfit that the government would not hesitate to take action to maintain law and order.

Uttar Pradesh now has only a caretaker government. The administration has been instructed to clamp down on ticket-less travellers as the activists are mostly taking trains to reach Ayodhya. The railways have been asked to stop group reservations on trains to Ayodhya. Nearly 30,000 kar sevaks have already gathered there.

Hours after the morning attack at 7.30, the police were still pulling charred bodies burnt beyond recognition from a blackened carriage of the Sabarmati Express, named after Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace.

“I heard screams for help as I came out of the house. I saw a huge ball of fire,” said Rakesh Kimani, 18, who lives nearby. “I saw... people putting out their hands and heads through the windows trying to escape. It was a horrible sight.”

Why the mob, which witnesses said numbered several hundred, attacked the train was not immediately clear. But one police officer said the passengers were shouting slogans that could be interpreted by some as provocative. One official, who declined to be named, said some passengers had got into a fight with platform vendors, when the train stopped at Godhra station, after refusing to pay them.

Armed with sticks, petrol and diesel, the mob attacked the train soon after it left the station and locked the doors of the three coaches before setting them on fire. Railway police fired 24 rounds to stop the crowd. Otherwise, a senior official said, the entire train would have been torched.

Indefinite curfew has been clamped and shoot-at-sight orders issued in Godhra after clashes broke out. The eastern Gujarat town of 300,000, which has a large minority population, was shuttered and the streets were largely deserted.

Besides the two stabbings, mobs also tried to set ablaze two buses in Ahmedabad, police said. “These incidents are possibly in retaliation to the train incident. We have beefed up security across the city,” police commissioner P.C. Pande said.

Godhra deputy superintendent Rajiv Bhargav reached the station with a police force even as fire engines battled the blaze. But coach No. 6, carrying over 80 passengers, was already gutted.

VHP joint general secretary Jaydeep Patel, who reached Godhra this evening, said 25 women and 14 children were among the 58 killed. Five persons have been reported missing.

“At the moment, it is difficult to tell the exact number of people who are missing,” said state health minister Ashok Bhatt, the first to reach Godhra.

Chief minister Narendra Modi said a high-level committee would probe the incident. He said the attack was “pre-planned and the incident seems to be a terrorist activity”. Modi announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to relatives of those killed.

Home minister Gordhan Zadhaphia described the incident as “organised crime” and said 40 people were arrested.


New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has rejected the Centre’s appeal to call off the Ayodhya programme but the possibility of a rethink was kept flickering after VHP leader Ashok Singhal met the Prime Minister this evening.

The VHP insisted in public that it would press ahead with the plan to build the temple, but sources said a meeting of sants and dharmacharyas could be advanced to review the programme.

Such a meeting was scheduled for March 14, the eve of the proposed launch of temple construction. “Only our sants and dharmacharyas are competent to make and unmake decisions,” a VHP source said.

At the meeting with Singhal, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani said they were keen to ensure that Godhra was not repeated in other parts of the country.

The leaders also conveyed their fears that the VHP’s continuing buildup of kar sevaks could fan communal flames in other places, including Ayodhya. Official sources described Singhal’s meeting with Vajpayee as “inconclusive”.

In Ayodhya, the Ram Janmabhoomi Trust chief, Ram Chandra Paramhans, said that “it was too late to postpone or stop this agitation”.

But Paramhans added that a review was possible “only in the event of an external attack on India”. The Centre’s crisis-managers have suggested that the Godhra incident could be an “external conspiracy” hatched by the ISI.

VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore declared in Delhi that “we will start moving the carved pillars to the site at 1415 hours on March 15”. Referring to Advani’s warning of possible action, Kishore said: “This is a threat and not an appeal. Advani has forgotten his rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya. If he wants to behave like the home minister and test us, we will respond to him as home minister.”

The official sources said the meeting between Singhal and Vajpayee was arranged at the instance of VHP leader soon after Kishore’s outburst.

Singhal was accompanied by Madan Das Devi, RSS’ joint general secretary in charge of its political wing, and Rama Jois, a former high court judge who provides legal assistance to the VHP.

Besides Vajpayee and Advani, defence minister and NDA convener George Fernandes as well as law minister Arun Jaitley were present at the meeting.

VHP sources said the mood was “tense” and Singhal cut short Jaitley’s submission on the legal hassles of handing over the “undisputed” land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas to enable it to start construction.

Singhal demanded an immediate resolution of the issue as Vajpayee repeated his appeal to call off the temple programme.

Devi, who had tried to build bridges between the VHP and the Prime Minister, is learnt to have shared with Singhal the Centre’s suspicion of the ISI’s role in the Godhra carnage.

It is believed that Devi was trying to impress upon Singhal to disperse the kar sevaks and help the Centre contain the fallout of Godhra.

Singhal said if this had to be done, he would need a face-saver. “If the government gives a concrete assurance within 15 to 20 days, the matter of handing over the acquired land would be sorted out. The VHP could even defer its agitation. But we need a tangible face-saver for the purpose and will not yield to emotional blackmail of how important it was to keep Vajpayee in power,” a VHP source said.


New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
The promo said: It’s all about loving your parents. All the sneak previews for Yashwant Sinha’s annual performance tomorrow are saying the opposite: You may have to do more than just love your parents.

Businessmen would still prefer Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham — the shed tears, feel good movie about the Great Indian Family — from the finance minister, none of whose budgets has been without the Bollywood touch. Because the alternative — never mind if it was a bigger hit — is Lagaan (tax).

That’s a hit they, and those who will have to love their pensioner parents and come up with a little supporting cash now and then when the interest rate on small savings go down, can afford to miss.

Last year’s Chori Chori, Chupke Chupke budget was an opening-week blockbuster that turned out to be a flop later. Industry, battered by a never-ending Bollywoodic slowdown saga, is in no mood for an encore of that kind of high on promises, low on delivery exercise this time.

We have been through a ghastly year of gham and, please, save Lagaan for the March 24 Oscars. That’s the appeal on every tremulous business lip, gone blue with the recession chill.

And that’s what they’re most likely to get. The year before CCCC, Sinha had rolled out Hum Saath Saath Hain, appealing to Indians to pick up the Kargil bill. Farther back, his budget proposals — topped by a heartfelt promise, not kept, to make education free and compulsory at the primary level — had come Dil Se.

According to wisecracks in his North Block office, this time the finance minister could well pick the Amitabh Bachchan-Shah Rukh Khan starrer K3G to slogan his sometimes pleasure, sometimes pain budget.

First the gham. Yesterday’s Economic Survey and earlier budget leaks make it clear that interest rates on government-run small savings schemes will be cut.

This could trigger a similar lowering of bank deposit rates. A voluntary retirement scheme and moves to shut down unviable public sector units are also expected.

It may be curtains for Chori Chori, Chupke Chupke that clever companies and individuals indulge in perfectly legally by using various tax exemptions.

Flop budgets are prompting new thinking about blockbuster formulas. Why not try to fan a little inflation to tickle growth? Expect no revelation of this in the budget, but do be ready for some heavy-duty spending on roads, irrigation, power, education and healthcare. Some 60-65 per cent of the budget outlay could go into these developmental sectors.

Tired of waiting to hear the cash tills ringing, recession-rocked India Inc had better brace for some gham in a lowering of customs duties that could mean more imports and more competition for local products. Some excise and customs exemptions and rebates are also on the editing block.

Norms for calculating the much-reviled minimum alternate tax imposed on companies which declare zero profits and yet pay dividend are likely to be made stiffer.

But Sinha may well gamble a little a la P. Chidambaram, the United Front finance Minister who carved a place for himself in North Block history by gambling heavily on higher revenue collections through sharply lower taxes and failed miserably. And there lies the khushi.

This budget may see an increase in the upper limit of the income slab, paying the lowest tax level of 10 per cent, from Rs 60,000 to Rs 75,000-80,000.

Similarly, the slab for taxpayers paying at 20 per cent could go up from Rs 60,001 to Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 75,001-80,001 to Rs 1.8-2 lakh. The highest slab of 30 per cent will then be imposed on those earning incomes of more than Rs 1,80,000-Rs 2 lakh instead of those earning more than Rs 1.5 lakh.


Washington, Feb. 27: 
Americans have been rattled by a Gallup poll which reveals that an overwhelming 80 per cent of respondents in Pakistan, Washington’s closest ally in the war against terrorism, think that the US-led military action in Afghanistan was morally not justifable.

An even larger number — 86 per cent — do not believe that Arabs carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. Sixty eight per cent of Pakistanis have an unfavourable opinion of the US and 58 per cent of respondents said they disliked President George W Bush.

The poll edged out other news on TV channels here all of yesterday after Gallup released its findings. It flies in the face of the Bush administration’s confident assertions that Pervez Musharraf has the backing of his people in fighting the al Qaida and the Taliban and in supporting the US.

Gallup interviewed 2,043 Pakistanis for the survey and claimed a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points. As startling as the survey’s findings on Pakistan was its results from Kuwait. Sixty three per cent of Kuwaitis said they can’t stand Bush, whose father helped liberate the Gulf emirate in 1991.

Gallup made allowances for a margin of error of plus or minus four per cent. In Kuwait, only 11 per cent of respondents said Arabs carried out the September 11 attacks and 69 per cent said the war in Afghanistan could not be justified.

It was cold comfort to the Americans that only 41 per cent of Kuwaitis polled had an unfavourable opinion of the US with 31 per cent undecided and another 28 per cent viewing America with favour.

These findings are part of a wider poll covering 10,000 people in nine Muslim countries spread out from Indonesia to Morocco.

It was released by Gallup on a day when the Bush administration suffered a serious setback to its global campaign against terrorism. Yesterday, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was forced to eat crow and disband the Pentagon’s “Office of Strategic Influence” which was created to provide news items — even false ones — to foreign journalists as disinformation to influence opinion overseas.

The decision followed an expose by The New York Times, which argued that falsehoods spread abroad by the new office would flood back into the US in this age of multi-media and mislead Americans. Rumsfeld said at his daily press briefing yesterday that “the office has clearly been so damaged that it is pretty clear to me that it could not function effectively. So it is being closed down”.

The tightly-knit office, which was believed to have had a whopping budget of $100 million, was the Pentagon’s response to worries that the US was not getting enough support from the overseas public, especially in Muslim countries, for its foreign policy.

The Gallup poll justifies these worst fears within the administration. Saudi Arabia did not allow some of the 120 questions in the survey to be asked of respondents in the kingdom.

For instance, the queries about whether Saudis liked Bush or of Arab responsibility in the September 11 attacks were omitted from the Saudi questionnaire.

The majority of respondents in all the nine Muslim states condemned the terrorist attacks against the US, but that did not dilute their anti-American feelings.

Those polled variously described the US as “ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased”.


Panaji, Feb. 27: 
The BJP today recommended dissolution of the Goa Assembly, fearing a revolt in the party demoralised by the poor showing in Uttar Pradesh.

Taking everyone by surprise, chief minister Manohar Parrikar said his Cabinet had opted to dissolve the House, plunging the 40-member Assembly into uncertainty. He cl-aimed Governor Md Fazal, a former bureaucrat close to the BJP, had accepted the decision.

This leaves the BJP with governments in just three states — Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.

Parrikar told reporters the decision was aimed at coping with attempts to “destabilise his government”. It was not clear whether any MLA had defected from the BJP or were contemplating such a move.

But the Opposition, led by the Congress, went into a huddle soon after. Congress leader Nirmala Sawant kept mum, promised to “talk later”.

Political observers believe Parrikar’s gambit is aimed at blunting the horse-trading instincts of the new BJP members, mostly Congressmen who were lured to the BJP, by calling for fresh elections, in which he hopes to do better than before. His optimism could spring from the fact that a BJP stratagem had left the Opposition fragmented.

The BJP ruled Goa for roughly 16 months from October 2000 to February 2002. It seized power after encouraging defections from several parties, including its former allies made up of Congress defectors led by Francisco Sardinha. The BJP had won just 10 seats.

The BJP’s stint in power was marked by the dominance of the chief minister. Some politicians had even taken potshots at Parrikar, calling him a “one-man government”.


Chennai, Feb. 27: 
Chief minister-designate Jayalalithaa today sought financial assistance, preferably grants, from the NDA government to help Tamil Nadu overcome a serious financial crisis while reiterating the ADMK’s policy of “issue-based support” to the Centre.

The ADMK leader, who paid a 20-minute courtesy visit to Governor P.S. Ramamohan Rao, said her party did not believe in a confrontationist stance against the Centre “just for the sake of opposing”.

“We have differences on certain issues, but I urge the Centre to extend a helping hand by way of some special fiscal accommodation,” Jayalalithaa said a day before finance minister Yashwant Sinha presents the Union budget.

Jayalalithaa had started speaking the language of moderation since last night. While responding to the railway budget, she did not slam the Centre despite her reservations against it. Instead, Jayalalithaa urged the railway minister to reduce the passenger fare hikes to a “moderate level in the interest of the common man”.

Jayalalithaa also called on Opposition parties in the state, including the DMK and the Left, to set aside political animosities and “cooperate with us in making our state the number one in the country”.

DMK chief M. Karunanidhi responded promptly, stating at a press conference that he had never adopted a “negativistic stance” against Jayalalithaa. “In fact, I was the first to congratulate her on her Andipatti electoral victory on her birthday,” he said.

Karunanidhi also toned down protest against electoral irregularities at the Andipatti byelection and said he was not averse to all MPs from Tamil Nadu meeting to discuss the state’s fiscal crisis and collectively seeking Central assistance.

Karunanidhi echoed Jayalalithaa’s demand that the upward revision in rail passenger fares be reconsidered. Tamil Nadu’s needs have not been met in the railway budget and the DMK MPs will take up the issue with the Centre, he said. But he ruled out chances of the BJP’s debacle in Uttar Pradesh creating any “cracks” in the NDA.

Answering a reporter’s query, Jayalalithaa ruled out changing Speaker K. Kalimuthu. “There is no such plan,” she shot back, when told there were reports Kalimuthu could be drafted into her new ministry. But the minister list is still in the making, she added, declining to go into details whether her new ministry would be a small one to signal fiscal austerity at the top.

The chief minister-designate said that there were no legal hurdles as of now to her occupying the top post, but she had still not submitted the list of ministers to the Governor.


New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
In a day of flip-flops, Congress president Sonia Gandhi today named veteran leader Narain Dutt Tiwari as the new chief minister of Uttaranchal, triggering off protests in the hill state.

Thirty-six Congress MLAs were vertically divided on Sonia’s initial choice of state party chief Harish Rawat on grounds of his inexperience, caste and regional equations. They argued that Rawat, a trade union leader, had no administrative experience compared to Tiwari’s towering personality and imposing CV of having been the three-time chief minister of undivided Uttar Pradesh and former Union minister for finance, industry, and external affairs. Rawat, a thakur from Kumaon region, was unacceptable to MLAs hailing from Garhwal.

Party leaders said Sonia sensed trouble from Satpal Maharaj, Vijay Bahugna and Indira Hardesh and opted for Tiwari to ward off a showdown in the Uttaranchal Congress legislature party. Maharaj had made it clear to Sonia that he would accept anyone but Rawat.

When Ambika Soni announced Tiwari’s name, Rawat was missing but was allegedly present somewhere in the party headquarters. Later he appeared before the media, on the verge of breaking into tears.

AICC general secretary in charge of Uttaranchal, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is said to have lobbied hard for Rawat. But CWC stalwarts Arjun Singh, Motilal Vora, Mohsina Kidwai, Natwar Singh and Makhanlal Fotedar favoured Tiwari.

The Brahmin lobby in the Congress told Sonia that Tiwari’s appointment would serve as a “positive signal” to Brahmins in north India and help the party in the next round of general elections, slated for 2004.


New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
The commander of the newest Indian army corps, the Leh-based 14 corps in charge of Siachen, Kargil, Dras and Mushkoh, Lt Gen. Arjun Ray, has sought premature retirement from service.

In January, Lt Gen. Kapil Vij, commander of the 2 Corps, one of the three strike formations of the army deployed in Operation Parakram — the massing of troops on the border – went on leave and the chief of staff of the army training command (Artrac), Shimla, Lt Gen. Bhupender Singh Thakur, was asked to take charge. Lt Gen. Vij is subsequently said to have been attached to Artrac as chief of staff.

Defence sources said the movement of senior army officers even as the army is on high alert would not impact on the mobilisation. There are two other army corps in Jammu and Kashmir — 15 and 16. A corps of the Indian army can have 50,000 men on its rolls. Lt Gen. Ray’s 14 corps mans the Line of Control in Ladakh with both Pakistan and China.

Lt Gen. Ray’s request to be relieved does indicate that there is a dearth of places in which to fit senior officers. Lt Gen. Ray, from the elite mechanised infantry force, has sought retirement more than a year before he reaches the age of superannuation. A highly decorated officer, Ray was on temporary duty in military intelligence overseeing “psychological operations” during the 1999 Kargil war. He was said to be in the running for the post of chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency, proposed by the Kargil review committee in the structure to be headed by a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

Though the defence ministry and the Cabinet have, in principle, accepted the recommendation, they are yet to implement it and work out a formula for the CDS hierarchy. Indications are the Cabinet will settle for a 5:3:2 ratio, meaning three officers of the air force and two of the navy for every five slots for the army.

The issue of promotions and placements in the army will become even more crucial in March-April, when a few more officers of lieutenant general rank are due for retirement and at least three major generals, whose promotions have been approved, are due for placement. Among those retiring will be Lt Gen. Surjit Singh Sangra, GoC of the western command, which shares much of the responsibility for the border build-up along with the southern and northern commands.


New Delhi, Feb. 27: 
Refusing to buy the Centre’s assurance on maintaining status quo at Ayodhya, the CPM today demanded immediate eviction of kar sevaks from the disputed site.

“This is exactly what happened in 1992. We were really disappointed at the way the Prime Minister and the home minister spoke yesterday,” said CPM MP Somnath Chatterjee.

According to him, Atal Bihari Vajpayee told yesterday’s all-party meeting there was nothing to worry about since “constructing a temple would take longer than demolishing a structure”. He underlined the fact that the Prime Minister’s flock in the NDA had urged the Centre to clamp down on kar sevaks.

A CPM delegation met President K.R. Narayanan this evening to express concern over Ayodhya and to urge him to advise the Uttar Pradesh Governor to appoint Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav as chief minister. The Opposition may also stall House proceedings after the budget is passed tomorrow if it is not satisfied with the government’s response.

“The government can use military force to evict kar sevaks from the area. This is nothing but terrorism,” Chatterjee said.

On the eve of the Babri masjid demolition, the BJP top brass, including L.K Advani, had assured Narasimha Rao that the movement would not spin out of control — an assurance that fell through on December 6 when the mosque was pulled down.




Maximum: 30.3°C (-1)
Minimum: 21.3°C (+3)



Relative Humidity

Maximum: 78%,
Minimum: 26%

Sunrise: 6.04 am

Sunset: 5.34 pm


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperaturelikely to be around 19°C

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