Sants blink, give Atal 3 months
Seer sounds minority board
Untold story of a Pak Stinger missile strike
Shadow of politics on Gujarat arrest
Couple lesson for matchmaker
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 4: 
After keeping the country on tenterhooks for over a month, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad today backed off and agreed to give the Centre three months to hand over the “undisputed” land in Ayodhya.

A meeting of the VHP’s Marg Darshak Mandal — its apex decision-making body — decided that on March 15, the deadline it had set for starting temple construction, a “symbolic” puja of the carved stone pillars will be performed.

The new deadline will expire on June 3 after the 100-day poorna ahuti yagna is over.

VHP working president Ashok Singhal, however, denied that it was a climbdown on the part of his organisation. “The Prime Minister never asked me to withdraw any andolan (agitation),” he told reporters after the meeting. “We started a yagna and not an andolan.”

Singhal claimed that the VHP had never intended to begin work on the temple from March 15. “We said we would start the task on any auspicious date after March 12. It could be in April, May or June,” he said.

Though Singhal said he expected the land to be handed over to the temple trust within 100 days, he emphasised that no construction would begin till this was done. “There will be no forcible takeover of land,” he said.

Singhal said his outfit still hoped it would be permitted to tow the pillars to the “undisputed” land. However, sources close to him said if that was not possible, the leaders could agree to a puja on the Karsevakpuram campus, which is 3 km from the contentious site and is used as a training centre for the VHP cadre.

The pillars and other parts of the temple were carved and chiselled in a workshop close to this place.

The VHP apex body’s decision apparently came after the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswathi, offered to intercede with the VHP on the Centre’s behalf and persuade the sants and dharmacharyas to settle for a token ritual.

The sankaracharya is meeting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee over dinner tonight and is expected to get back to Singhal and the sants tomorrow. Sources said Vajpayee, at the “exploratory” meeting, would candidly explain to the Kanchi seer the constitutional and legal difficulties of handing over even a small portion of the land the VHP calls “undisputed”.

“The Prime Minister is bound by his presidential address and the commitment he made at the all-party meeting in which he stated that in no circumstance would status quo ante be disturbed. Whether it is March 15 or June, this position would hold good,” sources close to him said.

The Sankaracharya’s involvement came after the RSS’ efforts at mediation failed. “The RSS had its limitations because its leaders were as much a part of the temple movement as the VHP,” said BJP sources.

The sources also said Vajpayee would convey to the sankaracharya that if the VHP gives a commitment that it would stop kar sevaks from congregating in thousands at Ayodhya by March 15, as the leaders had threatened, it would be allowed to hold a token puja at Karsevakpuram.

Sources close to Vajpayee said the government could even consider lifting the curbs placed on the movement of kar sevaks to and from Ayodhya.

The Centre is still keeping its fingers crossed about March 15. Though VHP leaders were thinking of courting arrest as an “honourable face-saver”, sources close to Vajpayee said it would cause “needless tensions and perhaps pave the way for another bout of confrontation”.

Official sources said the law ministry was still “examining” the status of the various categories of land that come within the Ayodhya site.


New Delhi, March 4: 
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board has received feelers from the Sankaracharya of Kanchi for talks tomorrow to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the Ayodhya dispute.

Board sources said they were willing to meet the seer. “We are open to an exchange of views. In a democratic polity, the doors for dialogue should never be shut,” a board representative said. He, however, added that a breakthrough was unlikely at this juncture.

The talks are likely to be held between the Sankaracharya and Qasim Illyas Rasool, who is a member of the board’s sub-committee on the dispute.

Board sources said they still viewed a court verdict as the most acceptable way of finding a solution. “We are also keen on a negotiated settlement but our experience is that the VHP is unwilling to concede an inch. When they say a masjid near the temple, they mean it should be panchkosi (5 km) away. Such an offer is no offer at all,” a board member said.


New Delhi, March 4: 
An Indian Air Force transporter flying Air Marshal V.K. Bhatia, chief of the western air command,was fired at and hit even as the troops are eyeball-to-eyeball on the border.

Air Marshal Bhatia was flying from New Delhi, headquarters of the western air command, to Kargil, which now has a new landing facility, on February 19 in his An-32. The plane diverted to Leh after being hit on the port side wing while flying in the airspace over Kargil sector.

On a scale of one to 10, one source put the seriousness of the incident at six. A rating of 10 would have meant downing of the aircraft, which would have inevitably led to war. Army chief General S. Padmanabhan is understood to have visited the Kargil sector after the incident.

The government and the defence ministry are tight-lipped on the incident and no official explanation is forthcoming. The news of the attack on the aircraft was broken by a weekly today.

The security establishment is caught with the complexities of the incident. The IAF inform-ed the government and the army immediately. It has started an inquiry headed by Air Marshal A.S. Sekhon, chief of the southern air command.

Preliminary findings are:

The aircraft was hit by a Stinger heat-seeking missile.

The Stinger could have been fired from across the Line of Control, that is Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or from within Indian territory.

The Stinger normally has a range of 3.5 to 4 km in operational conditions. It is fired from a shoulder-fired gun and has an accuracy that gunners reckon with.

The presence of Stingers in the subcontinent is dated from the time the Americans supplied Afghan mujahideen with weapons to fight against Soviet occupation. The mujahideen had made common cause with Kashmiri militants, who have also used the weapons in the past.

Normally a Stinger would down an aircraft. Therefore the possibility that other small arms might have been used still exists. But preliminary inquiries point to the strong possibility of a Stinger having been used. (Did it just “graze” or miss the target in that case?)

If the Stinger aimed at the Bhatia’s plane was fired from within Indian territory, it means all the heights of Kargil have not been cleared since 1999’s Operation Vijay.

As the crow flies, Kargil town is about 3.5 km from the LoC. Fixed-wing aircraft like the An-32 usually fly on a route and at a height that is beyond the range of Pakistani guns and keep a distance of at least 5 km — usually more — from the LoC.

IAF planes also carry devices to throw heat-seeking missiles off-target, but these are not necessarily fool-proof. The devices create an alternative source of heat at a point away from the aircraft. It is not known if the An-32 was carrying such a device.

IAF sources said Air Marshal Bhatia was flying on a specific assignment and it was not a “routine” flight.


Ahmedabad, March 4: 
Allegations of political witch-hunt muddled the investigation into the Godhra carnage as it emerged that the arrested prime suspect had toppled the BJP’s nominee to snatch the municipal president’s post.

A tussle has broken out over the political affiliation of Mohammad Hussain Kolota, who was arrested yesterday. and remanded in 10 days’ police custody today. The Congress today denied reports that Kolota was a partyman.

Senior leader Kamal Nath said Kolota, Godhra municipality president, had no links with the Congress. “As a matter of fact, he fought against the Congress and won as an Independent. It can be verified in the gazette,” Nath said.

An advocate by profession, 45-year-old Kolota was emerging as one of the most powerful leaders of Godhra.

A measure of his influence was on display when he contested the municipal election as an Independent and defeated the candidates of both the Congress and the BJP.

Ten months ago, Kolota pulled off a coup in the municipality, overthrowing BJP leader Raju Darji as president. The no-confidence motion — the first such against a sitting president in Godhra — was supported by the Congress.

A grateful Kolota then started calling himself a Congressman, party leaders said.

The police said they have evidence showing his involvement in the train carnage but have not made it public so far. Some residents of Godhra said they were not aware of Kolota having a criminal history.

Godhra MLA Rajendrasingh Patel said Kolota was being victimised because he ousted the BJP from the municipality’s leadership. He alleged that Darji was instrumental in getting Kolota arrested.

“It was Darji who gave the police his name, after which Kolota had to go underground,” the MLA added.

Darji denied the charge. “It (the ouster) is an old story. I had nothing to do with the arrest. He was identified by railway officials,” Darji said.

Kolota was arrested from his friend’s house where he was hiding and virtually surrendered when the police found him on the fourth floor of the house.

The BJP insisted that Kolota was affiliated to the Congress and claimed that four councillors arrested earlier were Congress members. “Because the arrest in the massacre is too embarrassing for the Congress, it has disowned him,’’ said a senior BJP leader.


Ahmedabad, March 4: 
Their love story had outraged many, though not the VHP which blessed their marriage. Last week, it saved some lives.

On Thursday, when the VHP had called a bandh, Sanjay and Sanjana (nee Sajida, who changed her religion to marry Sanjay) Kadia were at the National Handloom Expo 2002, trying to protect their stall from possible attacks. Then the killings — in retaliation to the attack on the train at Godhra — started. The mob descended on the handloom fair in the afternoon.

The fair at the University Ground was an easy target. Not only were the stall-owners, a medley of traders and craftsmen who move from fair to fair all over the country, unprepared for the attack, there were many members from the minority community among them.

As the mob, shouting “India zindabad, Pakistan murdabad”, set fire to the rolls of fabrics, burned everything down and threatened to slit the throat of anybody they suspected of being “anti-Hindu”, Sanjay, with encouragement from Sanjana, swung into action.

The young couple had become friendly with many of the stall-owners. As the possible victims stood trembling, Sanjay sneaked out with four or five of them and bundled all of them on his one scooter and took them home to his small flat in Vyas Vadi. He came back, again piled four or five of them on his scooter, and went home.

Sanjay carried 20 people to safety. “Every time I came back, I saw attacks going on in the streets,” Sanjay said.

Sixteen of the people he had rescued stayed over in his flat. The remaining four, all of them Hindus, were put in the “safer” neighbourhood of his mother’s flat. The tradesmen stayed the night, huddled in one room, till one of the couple’s acquaintances threatened to inform the VHP.

The Kadias called the police and the “rescued” were dropped at five in the morning, under cover of darkness, to the safety of a relief camp. “We taught them to shout Jai Ram in case there was any trouble. We were prepared to put tikas on their foreheads,” Sanjana said.

The traders, mostly from Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, got the few sarees and clothes that could be retrieved from the burnt ground today. The ones from Hyderabad are leaving for Mumbai tonight.

“Sanjayji was a god-send. He saved our lives,” said Mohammad Ismail, a cotton cloth merchant from Hyderabad who has lost Rs 5.5 lakh at the fair. Mohammad Afsar, his companion at the relief camp, blesses the Kadias with tears in his eyes.

“I don’t know how I did it,” Sanjay said. But it fits in with his previous act, his marriage with Sanjana.

Sanjay and Sanjana, then Sajida, met while they were studying law. They fell in love, but both sets of parents were enraged. Sanjay and Sajida were disowned.

Ironically, the VHP had a hand in their “secular” mission. “Contacts” in the parishad helped them to get married at Arya Samaj, after Sajida became Sanjana. “I had always wanted to become Hindu. I had wanted the two of us to follow one religion,” Sanjana said. Sanjay admits having been close to the VHP before he met Sanjana.

“Religion doesn’t make any difference,” he said, as he sat surrounded by the remaining bundles of cloth retrieved from the fair. He thinks of ways to reach them to the rightful owners, as Sanjana goes inside to look after their one-and-a-half-year-old son.




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