Word-weary Delhi awaits action
Appetiser for Kashmir
Power rate up, arrears next
Diplomatic window still open
Ash springs to the aid of Bhansali
Pakistan under US infiltration scanner
Cross-border shells raze Kathua houses
Troop pullout heat on US
Letter diplomacy with Big III
Calcutta Weather

 
 
WORD-WEARY DELHI AWAITS ACTION 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, May 23: 
India noted the subtle change in Pakistan’s position contained in a statement it issued yesterday with the hint to stop infiltration, but would wait to see if Pervez Musharraf keeps his promise before easing the pressure.

“What is important is not making declarations. Words must be matched by deeds and that has not happened,” Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said.

The stern reminder was accompanied by the Prime Minister attending a meeting of the unified command for the first time since it came into existence in 1996. “My presence at today’s meeting of the command in Srinagar, along with our home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes, is also intended to convey India’s resolve and readiness,” Vajpayee said.

Pakistan placed capital Islamabad on a war footing. “All departments and ministries have been directed to update their contingency plans immediately to deal with any emergency situation,” the official news agency APP said.

After taking the rhetoric up to the highest level since the latest bout of tension began with last week’s attack on the army camp near Jammu with his declaration yesterday that it was time for a “decisive battle”, Vajpayee today indicated that a conflict was not a foregone conclusion.

Asked if war clouds were gathering, he said: “Sometimes lightning can strike even when the sky is clear. I hope there will be no lightning.”

A statement issued by Pakistan after yesterday’s meeting of the National Security Council and the Cabinet had said: “The government will not allow the territory of Pakistan or any territory whose defence is the responsibility of Pakistan to be used for any terrorist activity anywhere in the world.”

In diplomatic circles here, it is being seen as a shift from Pakistan’s earlier stand. In his January 12 address to the nation, Musharraf had promised that Pakistani soil would not be used for terrorist activities. The Indian leadership had feared this to mean asking the jihadis to shift base to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). In subsequent months, this was exactly what happened as new camps sprouted and infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir from across the Line of Control (LoC) continued as before.

“There is definitely a change in the tenor, but it has not yet developed into a full-blown shift in Pakistan’s stand,” a senior official in South Block said. The official argued that in the recent past Pakistan has shifted its stand so many times that India would only believe in its sincerity when it sees an improvement in the ground situation.

The Indian establishment, weary of Pakistan’s profligacy with promises, does not want to create the impression that this time, too, it is buying the assurance. The cautious Indian approach stems from the arrest and subsequent release of key leaders and activists of jihadi groups. This was followed by an increase in infiltration and regrouping of terrorists in PoK.

The attack on an army camp near Jammu and the assassination of Kashmiri leader Abdul Gani Lone in quick succession strengthened India’s suspicion that Pakistan continued to pursue terrorism as part of its foreign policy.

On the Prime Minister’s return to Delhi, the Cabinet Committee on Security met to review Vajpayee’s trip and assess Musharraf’s overture.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said after the meeting: “There was nothing new in what the Pakistan President said yesterday from what he had said in his January 12 speech.”

Like Vajpayee, he emphasised that Islamabad needed to put its words into action to convince Delhi of its intent. Singh said: “The temperature in Delhi is still warm.”

   

 
 
APPETISER FOR KASHMIR 
 
 
FROM SEEMA GUHA AND MUKHTAR AHMAD
 
New Delhi/Srinagar, May 23: 
After boosting the morale of troops by talking of a decisive fight against Pakistan yesterday, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee topped his three-day visit to Kashmir with an effort to win the battle for the hearts of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

He announced a hastily put together Rs 6,165-crore economic package and spiced it with a spoonful of emotional appeal. “I have a message for the people of Jammu and Kashmir: your pain and anguish is mine too.”

The Prime Minister kept the door open on the state government’s demand for more autonomy. “We had not set aside the resolution (passed by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly) on autonomy without giving it a thought. We were ready for talks. We are ready for talks even now,” Vajpayee said in reply to a question on autonomy.

Officials in Delhi said Vajpayee is expected to take up the autonomy issue only after the Assembly elections, scheduled for September.

Vajpayee made it clear that his priority continued to be holding elections in Kashmir. “My government has already said — and I reiterate today — that we are committed to holding free and fair elections in the state.”

The officials said a bigger economic deal is being worked out by the home ministry and the PMO, which is likely to be made public by Vajpayee when he travels to Kashmir again, possibly next month. They said this particular trip was quickly arranged in response to the terrorist strike on the Kaluchak camp.

Vajpayee indicated that today’s package did not shut out the possibility of the Centre examining proposals the state might come up with.

He repeated his earlier invitation for talks with all sections of Kashmiris, including the separatist Hurriyat leaders, but ruled out Pakistan’s involvement.

Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat reacted to the package by emphasising that it was more important to get the process of resolving the Kashmir dispute going. “The people of Kashmir have made supreme sacrifices not for a road to be built between Manali and Ladakh or a rail track from Udhampur to Baramullah,” he said.

Both are part of the package announced by Vajpayee.

In response to the talks offer, Bhat said: “He (Vajpayee) has his own agenda and has chosen not to consider the agenda of the Hurriyat. We will have to rise above traditional positions. To achieve a breakthrough Pakistan will have to necessarily be involved in the process.”

On paper the package seems huge, but much of the funds will be spent on ongoing projects stuck for lack of finance. One such is the 287-km Udhampur-Baramullah rail track, a Rs 3,600-crore project that was inaugurated when I.K. Gujral was Prime Minister.

The package mostly deals with projects covering agriculture, railways road improvement, border development and security. An overriding feature is a time-bound pledge to complete several road projects. Two India Reserve Battalions will also be raised in the state in the next two years.

Planning Commission officials said the money will not be released at one go to the state government, but will be earmarked for specific projects.

   

 
 
POWER RATE UP, ARREARS NEXT 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, May 23: 
After three days of incessant power cuts, CESC today announced increased tariffs. The new rates come into effect from the May bill that will reach subscribers in June.

Citing the Calcutta High Court ruling of May 14 for the sharpest hike in tariffs in recent memory, CESC said the current increase would be without the arrears component for now.

The tariff increase, the size of which was also set by a division bench of the high court, will enable the CESC to net an additional Rs 25 crore per month from June.

CESC officials said the utility would shortly take a decision on the collection of arrears as ruled by the court. “We have not decided on it yet,” Manishankar Mukherjee, a spokesman for CESC said, adding that the meter rent, however, would remain unchanged.

The court has allowed CESC to collect arrears with retrospective effect from April 1, 2000, in 36 monthly instalments at a different rate that it has worked out.

Today’s announcement comes nine days after the high court allowed the power utility to increase its tariffs by 17.5 per cent. The hike covers 14 lakh domestic and four lakh industrial and other consumers.

CESC said it had not yet received a copy of the judgment but decided to give effect to the hike because the legal opinion that it collated over the past week suggested that it could do so. “Our lawyers told us to go ahead,” said Mukherjee.

The division bench on May 14 shot down the recommendations of the State Electricity Regulatory Commission, allowing CESC to increase its rates.

CESC sought to temper the tariff-hike, saying that between the end of 1998 and now, the prices of liquified petroleum gas went up by 81 per cent, kerosene by 208 per cent, diesel by 67 per cent and coal by 28 per cent. There has been a 53 per cent, 64 per cent and 133 per cent rise in the prices of rice, wheat and salt, respectively, during the same period, it added.

“For domestic consumers using 25 units to 300 units, the rise in tariff has been between 8 per cent and 11 per cent. Out of CESC’s 18 lakh consumers, about 14 lakh are in the domestic category, consuming less than 300 units a month,” an official of the power utility said.

   

 
 
DIPLOMATIC WINDOW STILL OPEN 
 
 
FROM BHARAT BHUSHAN
 
New Delhi, May 23: 
A window of diplomatic opportunity may still be open to prevent the border tension between India and Pakistan developing into war. Only the West — particularly the US and the UK — can put diplomatic and economic pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to meet India’s concerns and prevent this, officials here believe.

India’s concerns, it is understood, would be met if President Musharraf took four immediate steps to de-escalate military tensions: to disavow cross-border terrorism as a means of pursuing Pakistan’s Kashmir policy; provide a visible means of his intent by immediately stopping infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir; disband the 70-odd camps which have been set up in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to house some 3,000 militants; and stop the public activities of the militant groups engaging in terrorism as well as their funding.

Sources in the government say that taking these steps does not imply Pakistan giving up its position on Kashmir. India only wants Pakistan not to push its Kashmir cause through terrorism.

The Indian position has been that infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir has been going on with the help of the Pakistan security forces who provide logistic support and fire cover to the infiltrators. That infiltration has not only continued but has gone up significantly even when Pakistan’s forces are deployed on the border and along the Line of Control only underlines the Indian case.

If, however, President Musharraf feels that he is not in control of these groups, India thinks that he should say so publicly and dissociate his government from them. Up to now, President Musharraf’s government has refused to act against these militants. “You make a big show of arresting them and then let them go, saying that there is no evidence against them. You refuse to frame charges against them when you should have. You set fire to your own interior ministry building to destroy the evidence against them and then tell the world that you can’t find any evidence. How do you expect anyone to believe you?” an Indian official asked.

Does the statement issued by Pakistan after the meeting of the National Security Council and the Musharraf Cabinet signify a change in its position on cross-border terrorism?

Indian officials believe that the inclusion of PoK, referred to as “any territory whose defence is the responsibility of Pakistan”, also in areas from where terrorism would not be allowed is a break from the past.

However, they were not clear whether the intent that “no organisation in Pakistan would be allowed to indulge in terrorism in the name of Kashmir” included Kashmiri militant organisations from the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir operating from Pakistan.

Whether diplomacy could still help defuse India-Pakistan tensions remains to be seen. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that India and Pakistan by virtue of being nuclear powers are not their own masters when it comes to going to war. The world is intervening to prevent war. For India, too, war is the last option.

The Indian government has been in constant dialogue with the US on this issue. National security adviser Brajesh Mishra has been in touch with his US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice. The last he talked to her was after the assassination of the moderate Hurriyat Conference leader Abdul Gani Lone. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been trying to contact the Indian defence minister.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw is coming to the region next Wednesday with the sole purpose of trying to de-escalate tensions. His visit will be followed by that of US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. He is scheduled to come to India on June 7, but this date may be brought forward. Chris Patten, the European Commissioner, is expected in the capital this evening.

Through this hectic diplomatic activity, President Musharraf would have to be persuaded to take substantive and credible steps to stop cross-border terrorism before India can rethink its present posture. If diplomatic means do not work, then, as is evident, India is ready to act militarily.

   

 
 
ASH SPRINGS TO THE AID OF BHANSALI 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
Cannes, May 23: 
Many Bengali expressions have been included in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s much awaited Devdas, which had its world premiere in Cannes today.

At a news conference after the press screening, Bhansali said that snatches of Bengali had been included in a Hindi film, based on the 1917 novel of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, “to bring that essence, to bring that flavour, to bring that sound”.

Expressions like Eesh (Oh), Arey, bandhu (Hey, friend), Baba, aayto raag (My goodness, you are so angry), Boka (You fool), Kamon aacho (How are you?), Khoob mishti (How sweet), Aamar shona (My precious), along with women wearing cream saris with red borders and a liberal supply of shondesh are an attempt to give the film an authentic period and cultural feel.

A Durga puja scene is very Bengali, though the accompanying singing and dancing is pure Hindi cinema.

Bhansali confirmed that with a budget of Rs 50 crore, Devdas was the most expensive film that has ever been made in India.

The sets were created and built by Nitin Desai and the film shot over 275 days, “most of them at night”. The budget is certainly reflected in a film that is visually stunning, with the aristocratic life of Bengal brought to life on the Hindi screen with spectacular scenes.

The West may find the Bollywood genre mystifying but they are bound to be impressed with the colour and sheer lavishness of Bhansali’s film.

The all-important critical reaction to Devdas, the first Bollywood movie to get an official screening at the Cannes Film Festival, now in its 55th year, will not be known until the reviews come out. The earliest will not be until tomorrow morning.

The general consensus among those who watched the film today was that Shah Rukh Khan has turned in a powerful performance as Devdas.

Madhuri Dixit is also memorable in her role as Chandramukhi. Had Devdas been a Hollywood movie, some journalists would probably have tipped Shah Rukh for an Oscar, and perhaps Madhuri as well.

Bhansali has reinterpreted the original novel, so that the adult Devdas returns, not from Calcutta, but from London after an absence of 13 years as a trained lawyer.

“I wanted to separate Devdas from Paro,” he said. “I wanted to expand the space between the two of them. Their romance would become more interesting of an Oxford returned boy and a girl in the village.”

At the press conference, Aishwarya Rai, who plays Paro, had to step in when the director was quizzed about what seemed a politically embarrassing line. When Paro’s hand in marriage is rejected by Devdas’ family, the former’s mother shouts vengefully: “May all your children be daughters!”

In today’s climate, this struck a jarring note. Bhansali defended the line, pointing out that Paro’s mother felt “her own daughter was humiliated. It was necessary that Devdas’ family experienced what it is to humiliate a daughter.”

At this point, Shah Rukh commented: “The novel is set in the 1940s. That kind of curse was more prevalent at that time.”

Aishwarya, looking very much like a former Miss World, leapt to assist Bhansali. “The curse was not to run down a female child,” she argued. “It was to tell them that you should experience humiliation.”

Another of Bhansali’s changes is that he has managed a meeting between Paro and Chandramukhi, two women in love with the same man. He has allowed his leading ladies some strongly feminist dialogue, thereby justifying his claim that the movie is a “women’s film”.

Will the movie achieve a crossover?

There is certainly a lot of interest in Cannes with Today’s Screen International publishing a spectacular still of Aishwarya from the film.

   

 
 
PAKISTAN UNDER US INFILTRATION SCANNER 
 
 
BY OUR BUREAU WITH AGENCY REPORTS
 
May 23: 
From Canada to the United Kingdom, the international chorus for Pakistan to stop sending militants across the Line of Control into India is growing with the US sounding the warning that it was watching if infiltration had dropped.

In a statement issued yesterday, Pakistan had indicated that it would not allow terrorist activity from its soil and from territory controlled by it, meaning occupied Kashmir.

US state department spokesman Philip Reeker called for an end to infiltration and said Washington is conducting its own, careful assessment whether it had gone down or not, indicating that President Pervez Musharraf was under surveillance.

It was also apparent that the international community is asking India to resume the talks as a concession to Musharraf in exchange for Islamabad keeping its word to stop infiltration.

Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair enunciated the quid pro quo the international community expects from India. “It is essential in the end that Pakistan stops support for any form of terrorism in Kashmir or anywhere else in the region and that at the same time India is prepared to offer a proper system of dialogue to resolve all issues, including disputes over Kashmir,” he said.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw is expected in South Asia next week. He will be followed by US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who is leaving for the subcontinent on June 4.

Both will carry a message of restraint for India and an exhortation for Pakistan to come good on its promise.

“The situation is a tense one,” US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, referring to the stepped-up exchange of fire on the border. “There is no question but that the entire administration has been in touch with associates in Pakistan and in India,” he said.

His efforts to keep in “touch”, however, got stuck in bad phone lines. Rumsfeld said he had tried to phone George Fernandes, but the Indian defence minister’s attempt to call back failed.

The phone kept ringing for Musharraf, though. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and US secretary of state Colin Powell spoke to him.

In New York, a spokesman for Annan said the secretary-general told the Pakistan President: “There can be no tolerance for acts of terrorism, especially across the Line of Control.”

Behind the sabre-rattling that has marked the past week, the Indian government has been quietly using a scheduled visit of the defence secretary, Yogendra Narain, to the US to convince Washington of Delhi’s urgency.

Defence ministry sources said Narain and the Indian delegation harped on the May 14 attack on the Kaluchak army camp to tell the US Musharraf was doing little to stop infiltration, which had increased.

If Musharraf does carry through his promise to end infiltration, the pressure on India to reopen talks will escalate.

For now, though, the Pakistani general will have to put up with promptings from as far away as Canada. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley said: “The Pakistanis must take serious efforts to prevent incursions from their territory into the district that is in dispute.”

   

 
 
CROSS-BORDER SHELLS RAZE KATHUA HOUSES 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Jammu, May 23: 
The Pakistan army has opened a new front here with more than 100 houses being gutted and 20,000 people forced to flee following heavy shelling and 80 mm mortar fire in Kathua district from across the border since yesterday.

Heavy shelling and “high calibre” fire have been reported from Manyari, Pansar, Bobiyan Gujru Chak, Kadyala and Rathua, army sources said. Manyari comes within the Hiranagar sector on the international border.

The Pakistan army has been resorting to heavy firing and shelling since the May 14 attack on a Jammu military camp and a Himachal Roadways bus that resulted in the death of 34 people, including women and children.

The border district of Kathua had remained relatively quiet despite the growing tension between India and Pakistan. But the peace was shattered yesterday afternoon after a Pakistani shell landed in Manyari and set a house ablaze. The Indian army fired back in retaliation.

However, instead of targeting military posts and bunkers, the Pakistani army continued to rain shells on the villages.

“I was loading wheat on my cart when I heard a whistling sound followed by a loud bang. My horse went berserk as the shell exploded nearby and the cart overturned. A couple of minutes later it began raining shells. House after house began going up in flames. A shell even landed inside a bunker built by us for our safety and destroyed it. The fire kept on spreading. Fire-tenders rushed by the army were of no use because of the continued shelling. Some nearby villages, which were not targeted, also have been gutted because of the spreading fire. This is the first time the Pakistani army has targeted our village so ruthlessly,” said Kunj Lal on the Jammu-Pathankot highway.

Sarkar ko ab aakhri faisla karna hoga. Pakistan ke saath yudh karna padega. Yeh roz roz ka marna band karna hoga (The government must take a final decision now, go to war with Pakistan. This daily killing must come to an end),” he added.

Kathua district officials said over 100 houses had been destroyed in the Pakistani shelling. “Many villages have been destroyed in the fire that spread from Manyari. We have no reports of any civilian casualties yet, but there is loss of cattle and crop,” said an official.

   

 
 
TROOP PULLOUT HEAT ON US 
 
 
FROM IDREES BAKHTIAR
 
Islamabad, May 23: 
As President Pervez Musharraf indicated his readiness to check infiltration, a section of his aides struck a strident note to force the US step up its diplomatic initiative to rein in India.

Information minister Nisar Memon has said Pakistan is considering a proposal to withdraw its forces from the western border, where they are on the lookout for al Qaida operatives on the run from US forces, and might call back its peacekeeping troops, numbering 4,000, from Sierra Leone.

Pakistan also called on the UN to pressure India to begin talks. Foreign minister Abdul Sattar wrote to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, seeking his help to defuse the “explosive” situation.

Musharraf sought to boost the morale of the troops and the citizens by saying that while Pakistan stood for peace, its “valiant armed forces were totally prepared to respond effectively to any attempt at aggression”.

Addressing a special joint chiefs of staff committee meeting held in Rawalpindi today, the President expressed his fullest satisfaction with the operational preparedness of the three services, officials said.

Reviving a threat Pakistan had issued when India began its troop build-up after the December 13 attack on Parliament, Memon said Pakistan would withdraw some troops from the Afghan border. “We cannot leave our eastern border unattended. We will have to weaken our strength on the western border,” he said.

Memon made it clear that the withdrawal of troops from the Afghan border would make the porous border even more vulnerable. “The threat of the terrorism on the west -- we will have to live with it with a little bit of reduction in forces. So that at least the threat of war from India can be contained on our eastern borders and the LoC (Line of Control),” he said.

The threat came at a time when the Americans have expressed fears that al Qaida activists might try to sneak into Pakistan. In fact, it is because of the American demand that Pakistan has deployed a large number of its troops on the western border.

   

 
 
LETTER DIPLOMACY WITH BIG III 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, May 23: 
Atal Bihari Vajpayee has written to George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair explaining India’s position in the standoff with Pakistan and underlining that Delhi’s patience is running out in the face of continuing violence sponsored by Islamabad.

The Prime Minister’s letter to the American and Russian Presidents and the British Prime Minister is an attempt to convince the world that India’s troops build-up along the border was part of the global fight against terrorism and as legitimate as the fight elsewhere in the world.

The Prime Minister’s aides, however, said the letters he has written to the three world leaders were in response to the strong message of condemnation that he received from them about the terrorist attack in Jammu and the warmth and understanding that they have shown for the Indian stand on terrorism.

European Union commissioner for external relations Chris Patten arrived here this evening from Islamabad to talk to the leaderships of India and Pakistan to reduce the growing tension in the region.

Patten, who has held a series of meetings with President Pervez Musharraf and other senior Pakistani officials, is also scheduled to meet foreign minister Jaswant Singh tomorrow.

But with his remarks in Islamabad today, Patten has already indicated that he believed much in what the Indian leaders had been saying about Musharraf not doing enough to fight terrorism in Pakistan and territories under its control.

The leaderships in the US, Britain and Russia have been in touch with Delhi and Islamabad since last week’s terrorist strike at Kaluchak on the outskirts of Jammu city in a bid to try and de-escalate the tension in South Asia.

Though the text of Vajpayee’s letter was not released, sources said the Prime Minister mentioned the increase in infiltration across the Line of Control and the number of terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, and the murder of Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone.

It is an attempt on Delhi’s part to keep up the diplomatic pressure on Pakistan and to make it clear that as a democratically elected leader, Vajpayee will have to act decisively to defend the country and its citizens from the Pakistan-sponsored terrorists.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw is also due to arrive here next week and there is a possibility that US deputy secretary Richard Armitage will be here early next month to try and defuse the situation.

Indian officials see this shuttle diplomacy by the West as a vindication of its position on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. They claim that this is yet another example of the international community’s doubts over the Pakistan President’s sincerity in fighting terrorism.

However, South Block has not been too amused over the European Union’s resolution on the current tension in the region which has put the blame squarely between the nuclear twins and asked them to take immediate steps to scale down the tension and resume dialogue.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 37.1°C (+1)
Minimum: 23.4°C (-4)

Rainfall

17.8 mm

Relative Humidity

Max: 89%
Min: 61%

Sunrise: 4.56 am

Sunset: 6.11 pm

Today

Possibility of rain, accompanied by thunder, in some parts
   
 

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