Fernandes set for soothe-Naidu mission
Governor damper on army call
Pak overture on pullback
Rajya Sabha blow to Laxman
DNA fudge fails to dampen kin
Collective retreat ends Kerala strike
Amma’s package push to development

New Delhi, March 9: 
With the Ayodhya cauldron still boiling and the BJP’s key ally, the Telugu Desam Party, getting restive over the communal conflagration in Gujarat, a worried Atal Bihari Vajpayee is sending NDA convener George Fernandes to Hyderabad to cool Chandrababu Naidu’s temper.

Desam parliamentary party leader K. Yerran Naidu, who visited Godhra and the riot-hit areas of Ahmedabad yesterday as part of the all-party delegation, has accused the state administration of abject failure in protecting people’s lives and properties. He briefed his leader over phone after his return to the capital last night.

Sources said “reports” from Hyderabad indicated that Naidu was unhappy with the way some Sangh parivar hawks were trying to scuttle the Prime Minister’s peace initiative. He is equally peeved with some BJP leaders’ interpretation of Newton’s third law to justify the killing of Muslims in the riots, they added.

Sources said Fernandes may fly to Hyderabad on Sunday to apprise Naidu of the steps taken by Vajpayee to unravel the Ayodhya tangle. The Prime Minister also wants Naidu to back the government’s decision to allow the VHP’s “symbolic” puja, which allies like the the Trinamul Congress have criticised.

The allies have by and large adopted a wait-and-watch policy. NDA sources said they may wait till March 15, when the bhoomi pujan is scheduled, to see how the VHP and the hawks behave and whether the Muslim leadership endorses the steps taken by the Prime Minister.

An alliance leader said: “So far, the Prime Minister is on a perfect course. But we have to see if the hardliners in the saffron camp are out to sabotage his efforts. If the Prime Minister’s hand is forced and if the Muslim leadership opposes the peace initiative, you are heading for trouble. Then we will have to react.”

He said he was surprised by the audacity of 14 BJP MPs from Uttar Pradesh who wrote to Vajpayee criticising his handling of the Ayodhya issue.

Of the BJP’s 25 parliamentarians from the state, only three appear to be backing Vajpayee as 14 chose to wrote the “abusive” letter while the remaining eight are in his ministry, the leader added.

Apart from the Desam, Trinamul is also agitated over the manner in which the hardliners are trying to hijack the agenda. Trinamul chief whip in the Lok Sabha Sudip Bandopadhyay had yesterday opposed the “symbolic” puja.

Samata Party spokesperson Shambu Shrivastava said: “Puja, symbolic or not, should be allowed only with the concurrence of and no objection from leaders of the Muslim community.”

Reacting to the lifting of curbs in Ayodhya, Shrivastava said: “A crowd of kar sevaks or pilgrims should not be allowed to gather there on March 15 as that could prove to be an invitation to a law and order problem.”

He said the political repercussions if the crowd goes out of control and police have to take action or if police remain mute spectators would not be good for the NDA.

Janata Dal (United) spokesperson Mohan Prakash said if reports of the administration seeking army deployment in the temple town were true, the situation was serious. He said the government should not wait till March 15 but send troops now to prevent any untoward incident.

He criticised Union minister of state for home I.D. Swami for rushing to Ayodhya to review security arrangements, but lifting of curbs on the movement of kar sevaks.


Lucknow, March 9: 
Soon after defence minister George Fernandes announced in Delhi that Uttar Pradesh has sought army deployment in Ayodhya, Governor Vishnukant Shastri and the Faizabad administration denied any knowledge of such a request.

The Governor refused to even acknowledge Fernandes’ statement. “I don’t know anything about it. I will be able to talk about it only after I go through the reports,’’ Shastri said. On being pressed, he agreed that “the situation in Ayodhya is not normal”, and that on Friday, the army had been requested to stay on alert. “We have asked them (the army) to be alert, not to be deployed,” Shastri said.

The Governor had called a news conference to explain his “honest” decision to impose President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh and refute Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s allegations of being “unfair and partisan”.

The Faizabad administration, too, has reacted with surprised annoyance. A.K. Gupta, the commissioner, said the army has been alerted but there was “no need” for it in Ayodhya as of now.

“Most of the security restrictions remain in place and Ayodhya is still under prohibitory orders,’’ Gupta said, adding that the administration was well equipped to handle the situation.

Maintaining that alerting the army in certain situations was a matter of routine, Gupta said the administration has not been intimated about easing restrictions as junior home minister I.D. Swami announced in Ayodhya on Friday.

Though the Centre has announced it would ease restrictions on the movement of kar sevaks to Ayodhya, nothing has “come in black and white”. A senior police officer stationed in Ayodhya said: “There is a lot of confusion, the Centre is saying something, the sadhus have been told something and the administration something else.”

Police sources in Ayodhya said trains have not resumed services to Ayodhya-Faizabad as was expected from today.

The sadhus are unhappy with the way the Centre is handling the situation in Ayodhya. Hinting at a growing rift between the VHP and the sadhus, Ramchandra Paramhans, chairman of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, said: “I may not take part in the March 15 programme, I haven’t decided anything as yet.’’ On being asked if everything was going fine with the March 15 programme, Paramhans said: “Ask (VHP president) Ashok Singhal.”

Some senior sadhus associated with the mandir movement are reported to be unhappy with the Sankaracharya of Kanchi involving the Muslim Personal Law Board in the dispute.

“We had stated long ago that the March 15 programme would be peaceful and non-violent. Are we not allowed to do puja in our own land? The board should have nothing to do with our programme’’ a sadhu said.


New Delhi, March 9: 
Pakistan today offered to hold military-level talks with India for reciprocal troop withdrawal from the border with Islamabad taking the first step.

The military regime also said it was not averse to a treaty with Delhi under which wanted criminals could be extradited.

Pakistan foreign minister Abdus Sattar told Indian reporters in Islamabad that efforts by friendly countries had defused tensions between the neighbours and, if necessary, there could be military-level talks for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces first followed by India.

The suggestion came amid stepped-up defence contacts by Pakistan with France and China for a range of weapon systems, including French-built Mirage planes and submarines.

Asked why Pakistan on its own could not withdraw troops first, he said the prevailing “mistrust” between the two countries was coming in the way. Islamabad had earlier proposed simultaneous withdrawal of troops followed by commencement of bilateral talks.

Sattar’s offer of talks followed yesterday’s surprise invitation by interior minister Moinudeen Haider to home minister L.K. Advani to visit Islamabad to sort out all contentious issues.

But Advani turned down the invitation, despite a noticeable softening of voice as he recalled his early days in Karachi. “My birthplace is there. I had spent the first 20 years of my life there. It is natural for me to feel happy when I get an invitation to go there. I had visited it only once in 1978 in the last 50 years,” Advani said.

The home minister said he was grateful for the invitation but echoed the government line on resuming negotiations. India feels President Pervez Musharraf should act instead of repeatedly inviting Indian leaders to meaningless discussions. Delhi wants Pakistan to hand over the criminals and terrorists who figure on the list of 20 it had forwarded to Islamabad.

Information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj, who is in Islamabad, however, denied reports that Haider had extended an invitation for Advani when he met her. “The news is not true,” Swaraj said, adding that she had not met Haider during the Saarc information ministers’ conference.

Bangla honours dead

Bangladesh today honoured three soldiers of the Bangladesh Rifles border guards who died in clashes with India, according to a PTI report. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia gave the BDR Padak to the families of the three soldiers who “died during their fight against the enemy forces in (northern) Padua and Baraibari frontiers”.


New Delhi, March 9: 
Bangaru Laxman, who quit as the BJP president after the Tehelka expose, suffered another blow today when he was not renominated to the Rajya Sabha.

K. Jana Krishnamurthi, who succeeded Laxman as the BJP chief, will fill his place from the Gujarat quota.

The BJP’s best-known “Muslim face” until recently, Sikandar Bakht, too, failed to make it to the list of nominees after serving two terms. Party general secretary Maya Singh, who has been nominated from Madhya Pradesh, replaced Bakht.

However, the sulking Shatrughan Sinha was given a second term from Bihar after he had served several quit notices to the BJP leadership. Sinha’s renomination, admitted party sources, was an acknowledgement of his skills as a “star” campaigner and crowd-puller.

The BJP released a list today of seven of the 10 candidates it will nominate to the Rajya Sabha after a meeting of its central election committee this morning.

Asked if Laxman was dropped because of Tehelka, Krishnamurthi said: “The Tehelka hearings are on. Moreover, he has already served a term.”

BJP sources said that of the three seats in the Gujarat quota, the state unit had indicated they would spare one for a central nominee and the other two for those from within the state.

Expressing surprise at his nomination from Gujarat, Krishnamurthi ruled out quitting as party president and joining the government.

“I will complete my full term. There is still more than one year left. I did not think I would go to the Rajya Sabha. This would also help better coordination between the government and the party,” he said.

“I assure you I am not going into the ministry,” he added.

While Union shipping minister Ved Prakash Goyal was renominated to the Upper House from Maharashtra, former state BJP chief Suryabhan Vahadane lost out.

Other nominations by the party included D.K. Tara Devi Siddharta, a minister in the Narasimha Rao government who had joined the BJP before the 1999 elections. Sources said she had emerged as a consensus choice in the faction-ridden Karnataka unit.

The other two new BJP candidates for the Rajya Sabha are Suresh Bharadwaj from Himachal Pradesh and Surendra Kumar Lath from Orissa.


Srinagar, March 9: 
Rajo Bano and Rafiqa have given blood a couple of times, but wouldn’t mind doing so again — if that brings the culprits to book.

Neither of the women know what DNA testing is all about or how that could ever help identify the culprits. Those details are not important to them.

All they know is that a grave injustice was done when their next of kin were killed as “foreign terrorists” at Pathribal a day after 34 Sikhs were massacred at Chattisinghpora in Anantnag in March 2000.

“I will give more blood. Thousand times if needed. I only want justice,” said Bano, mother of Zahoor Dalal who went missing with Juma Khan, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, Juma Khan and Mohammad Youssuf Malik a day after the Chattisinghpora massacre.

Bano went to Srinagar yesterday to give blood samples for the second time for DNA testing following reports of a fudge. The first time was two years ago.

“The police came to my house and asked us to accompany them. I first refused, but when they insisted, I had to accompany them. I was taken with Rafiqa, sister of Juma Khan, to Srinagar medical college, where they collected our samples,” Bano said.

“We left but to our surprise another police party took us back to the medical college where they collected more blood samples…. Who knows, they may again repeat and fudge our samples. Allah exposed them. I have great faith in Almighty Allah,” Bano said.

After reports of a DNA sample fudge, chief minister Farooq Abdullah had to tender an apology in the Assembly yesterday. Abdullah ordered a probe by a retired high court judge and suspended the officials involved in collecting the blood samples.

Dr Balbir Kaur, head of the forensic science department at the government medical college in Srinagar, and her team collected the samples in the presence of Jammu range police chief P.L. Gupta.

However, Kaur said in her defence: “We had only collected the samples…. After sealing it properly, they were handed over to the investigating officer.”

The state police are sending the samples to Calcutta and Hyderabad today.


Thiruvananthapuram, March 9: 
Kerala today heaved a sigh of relief after the government struck a deal with its employees and teachers to end their month-long strike against cost-cutting measures.

On a day of fast-paced developments that involved a series of meetings, the Congress-led United Democratic Front government decided give in on two major demands while the employees agreed not to push hard on several others.

The government agreed to allow the employees to compound 50 per cent of their pension benefits, a facility that had been taken away when the austerity drive was announced in January. The state also agreed to discuss within the next 12 months a proposal to reverse the termination of leave surrender facility to the employees.

On their part, the employees decided not to press for the rollback of several decisions like closure of “non-profitable” schools, downsizing of staff and deferment of salary disbursal by 15 days in March and April.

The initiative to end the 32-day standoff came from the government, which last evening invited the striking employees for talks after a special meeting of the Cabinet.

Several factors influenced the climbdown after the government realised that all central trade unions active in the state, barring the Congress-affiliated Intuc, were supporting the strike.

This was evident from the general solidarity strike they called on Monday. Then doctors and nurses also struck work on Tuesday. Both the strikes were successful. The anti-Antony lobby in the Congress was also becoming increasingly vociferous in its support to the employees.

The party high command had deputed general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad to intervene after the troubles within the Congress threatened to snowball. Azad, who arrived on Wednesday, met leaders of the party and other UDF constituents and finally persuaded them to call the striking workers to the negotiating table.

Throughout last month, the government, and Antony, in particular, had stuck to the position that there could be no compromise unless the workers called off their agitation.

The strike seems to have created a clutch of winners. The employees and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front, which supported them, can claim victory because till yesterday, the government was adamant in its refusal to hold talks.

The government can take comfort from the fact that it has not compromised on the main cost-cutting measures, while the anti-Antony faction is satisfied that the standoff forced the high command to intervene and end Antony’s unyielding attitude.


Chennai, March 9: 
Jayalalithaa unveiled a 15-point programme for the state’s all-round development on the first day of the budget session after the DMK boycotted the Governor’s address and walked out, but not before M. Karunanidhi had marked his attendance on the House register.

Before Governor P.S. Ramamohan Rao began his customary speech, DMK leader K. Anbazhagan read out a statement protesting against the steep hike in bus fares, the removal of the Kannagi statue from the Marina Beach and the alleged irregularities in the recent Andipatti bypoll. He then led a walkout.

But the DMK members’ brief presence was marked by drama as Karunanidhi attended the Assembly for the first time since it was constituted in May. He said any “sudden decision” had an element of surprise in it, but declined to go into whether he will continue to attend the House.

A sarcastic Jayalalithaa later told reporters: “Mr Karunanidhi need not fear anything and nobody will do anything to him; he can freely participate in the House proceedings without resorting to such a gimmick of putting in a one-minute presence in the Assembly.”

Jayalalithaa’s package, though five points fewer than that of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s famous 20-point programme, has a wider sweep. The package is backed by her resolve to go ahead with the economic reforms and phased privatisation of bus transport in the state.

The programme, called the “road map for this government in the next four years” by the Governor, envisages an “evergreen revolution” to raise farm productivity in perpetuity by saving every drop of rain with the slogan “more crop per drop”. The various aspects the package touches makes the chief minister’s message clear: the government will pursue a development agenda despite the funds crunch.

The Governor’s address, outlining the policy thrust in several areas, was firm in giving the highest priority to maintenance of law and order. He also put the state government’s seal on the Centre’s anti-terror legislation.


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