Delhi sidesteps Pak Putin trap
On the offensive after 30 years
Petroleum prices up
Chargesheet filed in massacre
BJP joins Mahajan to cry foul over Tata deal
Coy Narayanan boost for ‘consensus’ Kant
Price hike debut in dry pumps
Death of democracy protest on birthday
Whistle warning in shell-shocked town
Calcutta Weather

 
 
DELHI SIDESTEPS PAK PUTIN TRAP 
 
 
FROM BHARAT BHUSHAN
 
Almaty, June 3: 
A bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf tomorrow will be “unproductive”, national security adviser Brajesh Mishra said today. He, therefore, ruled out any contact with Pakistan at any level in Almaty.

This was in sharp contrast to Musharraf placing high hopes on Russian President Vladimir Putin playing a role in diminishing military tensions. He told reporters this evening that Putin was “a very important personality of the world and a very dynamic and forward-looking leader. And Russia has always been very close to India. Therefore, I think, he has an important position and a role to play in mediating between India and Pakistan.”

India does not think so. Mishra explained the Indian position, saying: “We have come to Almaty for an international conference and we have invested a lot of effort to make it a success. It would be unfortunate to draw attention away from the conference to an unproductive bilateral meeting.”

Second, he said, the Indian position was that it wanted to see whether the promises made by Pakistan were implemented. And third, India’s clear understanding was that Putin was not suggesting a trilateral meeting between Russia, India and Pakistan. He had only suggested separate bilateral meetings with India and Pakistan. While South Asia was no doubt expected to figure in the Vajpayee-Putin talks tomorrow, Mishra said his expectation was that the major emphasis would be on bilateral issues.

Moscow is keen on engaging Pakistan, and Islamabad in recent times has seen visits by a string of Russian delegations. Now that Afghanistan is moving towards stabilisation, Russia is seeking to build bridges with Pakistan and get an economic foothold in infrastructure development in that country. However, it is doubtful whether it has any leverage with Pakistan as of now.

But this does not prevent Pakistan from hoping that Putin could contribute to a de-escalation of tension because of Russia’s influence on India. Pakistan’s minister for information Nisar Memon told reporters this evening that Russia was a good friend not only of India but also of Pakistan. He hoped that the ‘Putin initiative’ would help reduce the tension.

What seems apparent is that while the public statements of Pakistan and India on the need to de-escalate the tension show a remarkable convergence — with both talking of deeds being more important than words in avoiding war — there seems to be a complete divergence on the modalities of doing so.

It is clear that both countries want to avoid war. Both also want to test each other’s sincerity by action rather than by words. India wants to wait to ascertain whether Pakistan is delivering on its promise of curbing infiltration. And Pakistan’s position is that if India does not want war, it should prove so by starting a dialogue with it.

India’s stand was explained by Vajpayee to three dignitaries in bilateral talks today — Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmanov and the chairman of the interim administration in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

Mishra said the Prime Minister told them that Musharraf had made some promises on curbing infiltration and terrorism, which had also been conveyed to India by the US and the UK. He apparently told them that “if these promises are implemented and we can verify them, we will take appropriate steps”.

The emphasis, Mishra added, was on implementation.

   

 
 
ON THE OFFENSIVE AFTER 30 YEARS 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
On the LoC in Rajouri and Poonch, June 3: 
The pounding never stops here.

Unlike in the plains, where both Indian and Pakistani troops blaze away with their machineguns most of the time, barring the occasional firing of mortars or limited artillery shelling, the mountainous region continues to reverberate with the sound of heavy artillery.

Last night, Indian troops pounded Pakistani positions around Poonch town in retaliation to the shelling of Gakhrial, killing a 20-year-old woman and injuring six others.

The heavy artillery exchange along the Line of Control in the mountains has made the lives of as many as six lakh residents uncertain. Poonch, Mendhar, Rajouri and Nowshera border areas are facing the brunt of Pakistani shelling. With hardly any civilian population on the Pakistani side of the LoC, any Indian offensive is met with a barrage of shells directed towards villages from where residents are yet to migrate to safer areas. This has resulted in casualties.

“When we open fire, it is directed at Pakistani gun and infantry positions. We have had a lot of success in silencing some gun positions. In retaliation, the Pakistanis pound our villages. Those who are relatively well-off, have migrated. The very poor have chosen to stay put and exposed themselves to a situation that can only be termed dangerous,” an army officer at Bhimber Gali said.

Pakistani forces enjoy a strategic advantage over Indian positions in most areas beginning from Akhnoor to Kargil. But wherever Indian troops have an edge, they are using it to the best of their abilities.

“Our troops have been shelling Pakistani positions with pinpoint accuracy. We have been causing them considerable damage. But as is their habit, they don’t publicise the damage caused to them. On our part, we are very open. They are not. They are getting battered and shelling our villages in retaliation, not our positions,” a major in Nowshera said.

For the first time since 1971, Indian troops have been the first to go on the offensive along the LoC.

“By going on the offensive does not mean we are the aggressors. On the contrary, we have to defend our positions and we can only do that if we resort to heavy shelling in the treacherous terrain where survival is a 24-hour-a-day job,” a senior army officer explained.

That Indian troops are faced with a gigantic task along the LoC can be gauged from the fact that all Pakistani posts overlook Indian position and towns. “There are areas where the Pakistanis have a clear view for over 15 km and are monitoring every movement. The road that you took to come here can be shelled by them any time and with ease,” an army officer told this correspondent at Bhimber Gali.

Soldiers, however, are taking all this with a smile. “Desh ka raksha hai. Dar nahi hai (It’s a question of protecting the country. There is no fear),” said Gopalaswamy from Coimbatore. “Is baar Pakistan ko lesson sikhayenge (This time we will teach Pakistan a lesson).”

Every shell fired from across the LoC is hitting the civilian population. Indian troops are either not targeting villages or there are none along the LoC. “Pakistani villages are located deep inside their territory. If we want we can destroy them by using heavy guns. But our war is not against innocents. It would be a different situation if a full scale war is declared,” an army officer in Mendhar said.

Pakistani troops, located in advantageous points in Rajouri and Poonch have been shelling even areas that had been considered “safe”. Those who had migrated from forward areas to the outskirts of the two townships now say they plan to shift further away. “After Poonch was shelled last week, areas even 25 km away are not safe. We do not know how many times we will be uprooted,” said Shamsher, who had five months ago taken shelter in what was then termed a “safe sanctuary”.

Today, Poonch town is but a shadow of what it was. The Pakistanis have proved they can raze it if they want to.

Most border villages along the Jammu-Poonch sector resemble a war zone with numerous army check-posts and endless frisking.

   

 
 
PETROLEUM PRICES UP 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, June 3: 
Petrol prices will go up by about Rs 2.50 a litre from midnight while diesel will be costlier by Rs 1.50, with minor variations across cities because of differences in local taxes. However, there has been no increase in the prices of cooking gas and kerosene.

The hike was announced today by petroleum minister Ram Naik after a meeting with state-run oil companies and an understanding he arrived at with the finance ministry.

Yashwant Sinha’s department agreed to reduce excise duties by 2 per cent on both the fuels, taking away part of the sting of a 25 per cent increase in global crude prices. While excise on petrol will come down to 30 per cent, diesel will now attract a rate of 14 per cent.

“We agreed to share the burden of global price increases by reducing excise and increasing retail prices somewhat,” Naik said.

The revision was inevitable, as global crude oil prices had shot up from US $ 19.58 a barrel in February to over $ 25 by the end of May. Previous retail prices of petroleum products had been fixed on the assumption that global crude prices would average around $ 20 a barrel.

Petrol will now retail in Calcutta for Rs 29.39 a litre, which means a Rs 2.40 increase. Diesel will sell for Rs 18.38, an increase of Rs 1.41 a litre.

In Delhi, petrol will sell at Rs 28.94 a litre, a hike of Rs 2.40, and diesel at Rs 17.99, a Rs 1.40 increase. In Chennai, the prices will be Rs 31.05 for petrol and Rs 19.63 for diesel.

Residents of Mumbai will have to buy their fuel at the highest rate because of high local taxes. Petrol will sell for Rs 33.47 and diesel for Rs 22.85.

Anticipating the price hike, which the government had warned about on Saturday, petrol pump owners in many parts of the country hung up “No Stock” boards.

Naik told reporters that prices would be increased or decreased or kept steady after review meetings with oil companies every fortnight. “From now on, prices will follow global trends,” he said.

The finance ministry, which had earlier this year armed itself with a law allowing it to ratchet up or bring down prices, will also review the situation every three months and step up or reduce duties.

Higher oil prices will trigger lower tax rates here while plummeting oil prices will mean higher excise duties. This, the government hopes, will help reduce the impact of the volatile global market on Indian prices, reducing the need for drastic changes in retail rates here.

Naik indicated that if global oil markets turned more volatile than anticipated, the finance ministry would hold more frequent reviews.

For every $ 1 rise in crude prices, retail prices of petrol and diesel, unless absorbed partly or fully by tax changes, should go up by 64 paise and 58 paise a litre, respectively.

The government will pay oil companies about Rs 2,000 crore as compensation for the notional loss they had incurred during the last two months when crude oil prices were rising but retail prices were kept steady on a government directive.

   

 
 
CHARGESHEET FILED IN MASSACRE 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, June 3: 
Police today filed the first chargesheet in the violence that followed the Godhra massacre, accusing 48 people of involvement in burning alive of over three dozen people at Gulbarg Society here.

Former Congress MP Ehsaan Jafri was among those killed that day, a day after the Godhra carnage.

Of the 48 people against whom the crime branch today filed the chargesheet, 25 have been arrested and the remaining are absconding. Police inspector K.S. Erda filed the chargesheet after recording the statements of 380 people. The major charges against the accused are murder, rape, looting, arson and attack on the police.

According to the chargesheet, the mob that attacked Jafri and other residents of Gulbarg Society gathered with petrol bombs, knives and swords.

The former MP had made frantic calls to his friends in the Congress, the police and to capital Gandhinagar, seeking help. But help did not arrive.

Jafri was hacked and burnt. Over 30 people who had taken shelter in Jafri’s house were burnt alive.

   

 
 
BJP JOINS MAHAJAN TO CRY FOUL OVER TATA DEAL 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, June 3: 
The BJP today slammed the government’s decision to divest its equity holding in Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited to Tata Telecom, saying it defeated the “very spirit of disinvestment of PSUs”.

The party — which has consistently endorsed the Centre’s disinvestment policy — warned that the decision could “strengthen the hands of those who are opposed to (the) economic reform process”.

“The real objective behind (the) disinvestment policy is to strengthen the existing PSUs by providing functional autonomy. In fact, the government has started divesting its equity holding from some of the profit-making units such as VSNL with the hope that buyers from the private sector would strengthen such units by injecting professional management along with resource contribution,” the BJP’s economic affairs cell said in a statement.

The strongly-worded statement noted that a “bad precedence” has been set by a business house “known for its ethics”. “In fact, this may send a wrong signal. People may start looking at (the) disinvestment process as an opportunity to siphon off fund(s) from PSUs,” it said.

The BJP’s main grouse against Tata Telecom was that it siphoned off the Rs 1,200-crore cash reserve acquired from VSNL to shore up an allied company called Tata Teleservices instead of using it in VSNL. “If a company reputed for its business ethics can do this, what about those companies which don’t believe in ethical practices? To what extent will they go? Cash-starved business houses may misuse the disinvestment process to acquire cash-rich PSUs,” said economic cell convener Jagdish Shettigar at a news conference.

Information technology minister Pramod Mahajan had voiced an identical objection recently when he said: “Look at what they (the Tatas) are doing with my money.”

Asked whether a company could be faulted for utilising the surplus cash reserve it acquired after a deal has been cemented, Shettigar said: “Legally they are in a position to divert resources to another company but we are questioning the spirit behind disinvestment.” BJP sources said the Tatas might return the surplus money to the government to bury the controversy.

BJP sources admitted that today’s statement was issued at the behest of the “government”, but refused to say who was behind it. Shettigar was careful not to draw disinvestment minister Arun Shourie into a controversy and attacked only the Tatas. But a senior party functionary criticised Shourie for not inserting a clause in the VSNL deal to thwart what he called the “immediate misuse of surplus assets and cash reserves”.

BJP sources said a caveat had been inserted in major disinvestment deals struck by the government in the recent past — like Balco and ITDC Hotels. This, they pointed out, was done to check the sale of moveable and immovable assets and shares within a stipulated time frame so that the PSU in question would be the immediate beneficiary.

“We are finding out why this was not followed in the case of VSNL, whether it was on account of oversight due to inexperience or something more,” said the BJP functionary. “And if sufficient evidence is found, the disinvestment minister should be made to answer why this was allowed to happen.”

A section of the BJP was also unhappy with Shourie for reportedly saying at a national executive that too much fuss should not be made about giving away surplus assets that came with a PSU.

The feeling was that being too gung-ho about disinvestment might hurt the BJP’s long-term political interests and cost the party whatever little base it has among the working class.

Some in the BJP were upset with the speculation that Shourie was considered a replacement for finance minister Yashwant Sinha if the need arose. If indeed there was a grain of truth in the rumour, party sources noted with glee that the VSNL “controversy” should set it at rest.

   

 
 
COY NARAYANAN BOOST FOR ‘CONSENSUS’ KANT 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, June 3: 
The Congress has begun looking for a “face-saving” formula for the presidential polls in the absence of a clear indication from Rashtrapati Bhavan. However, in the fluid political situation, a lot would depend on President K.R. Narayanan’s next move.

The Congress leadership is veering round to the view that if the President bows out of the race, the consensus and unanimity mantra would be a better course than forcing a contest on who should move to Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Opposition’s move to insist on a contest suffered a setback following the Samajwadi Party’s decision to insist on a consensus and the Left’s tacit support to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s line of thinking.

With today’s developments, the prospects of Vice-President Krishan Kant emerging as a consensus choice have gone up considerably though the Congress continues to be less than enthusiastic about him.

Kant has succeeded in bagging the Samajwadi Party’s support in the last 48 hours. The Left leadership has also changed tune saying it was not “averse” to Kant as much as the other NDA nominee, P.C. Alexander. Congress leaders said they would prefer Kant to Alexander and described him as the “best among worst candidates.”

There are two other factors in Kant’s favour. Successive Vice-Presidents have moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan since 1987. It started with R. Venkataraman. Shankar Dayal Sharma succeeded him in 1992 and five years later, there was a consensus on Narayanan taking a similar course.

Second, Kant has the backing of TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu whose support is crucial in the electoral college.

However, the “trade-off” between the Opposition and the ruling coalition may not be smooth as both sides are set to clash over the post of Vice-President that would fall vacant in case Kant moves to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kant’s term comes to an end in August.

The BJP feels the post of Vice-President should go to it if a person who has not “lived or been brought up” in the BJP bags the post of President. The BJP has already short-listed several names, including Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Vishnu Kant Shastri, Viren Shah and Sikandar Bakht.

On the other hand, the Congress is busy making calculations that in case Kant or an NDA nominee moves to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the post of Vice-President should be given to it. This would be in keeping with the Lok Sabha tradition, according to which the Speaker comes from the ruling coalition, the deputy Speaker is from the main Opposition party.

There are many vice-presidential aspirants such as Najma Heptullah and Pranab Mukherjee. Some Congress leaders want Sonia Gandhi to consider Manmohan Singh and Arjun Singh instead of Heptullah and Mukherjee because of their track record, political weight and loyalty.

The Congress today said it expected Narayanan to indicate his mind on its offer of support for a second term before the presidential poll schedule is announced.

“Congress president Sonia Gandhi has made an offer of support to the incumbent President who has said he will consider it with an open mind. He has not indicated his mind either way. We expect an indication will come at an appropriate time from him,” Congress spokesman Anand Sharma said.

To a specific query whether Sonia would have another meeting with Narayanan to know his mind, Sharma said: “We expect he will revert.”

   

 
 
PRICE HIKE DEBUT IN DRY PUMPS 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, June 3: 
The spectre of dry fuel pumps haunted the city as reports of a petroleum price hike triggered panic purchase amid accusations that the oil companies had stopped supply.

The major pump owners’ organisation, the West Bengal Petroleum Dealers’ Association, said 60 per cent of the 317 petrol pumps would be dry by tomorrow. Some dealers said they were forced to refuse customers and hang “no oil” signs today as they had run out of stock.

Dealers blamed the oil majors for the crisis. Secretary of the petroleum dealers’ association Bidyut Halder said the four oil companies — HP, Indian Oil, IBP and BP — did not supply petroleum to pumps today. “The vehicles carrying petrol and diesel did not roll out of the oil installations on Monday, leading to the crisis,’’ he alleged.

Halder said the oil companies supplied only 175 to 180 tankers of oil to city petrol pumps against the usual daily quota of 300 vehicles. “Most petrol pumps received much less petrol and diesel,’’ he added.

The situation was compounded as there was no supply on Sunday, a holiday. But pumps had remained open and done business. “On Monday, when we did not receive any supply from the companies, our stock of petrol and diesel began to deplete,’’ Halder said.

According to A. Pal Choudhury of Lake Service Station, there was a queue of customers but he was unable to meet the demand as stocks had touched tank-bottom.

Lakshmi Service Station in Beleghata has run dry while Kalighat Service Station faced a crisis on Monday afternoon, forcing the owner to suspend business in the evening.

Halder said he had convened an emergency meeting of the association tomorrow to chalk a future course of action.

The oil companies said the decision to stop supply was taken at the highest level in Delhi. “It was an unanimous decision taken by the senior officers of four oil companies. The idea is to prevent hoarding by dealers,” an IOC official said.

Oil officials said they had noticed during the previous price hike that dealers sold their old stock at new prices. Allaying fears over supply, HP general manager Subhankar Biswas said depots will open early tomorrow and petrol and diesel will be supplied to all pumps as usual.

   

 
 
DEATH OF DEMOCRACY PROTEST ON BIRTHDAY 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, June 3: 
DMK patriarch Muthuvel Karunanidhi today cancelled his 79th birthday celebrations to protest against “the murder of democracy” in Tamil Nadu during the recent Saidapet byelection, even as DMK MPs and MLAs went on a day’s token fast in Delhi and PMK leader S. Ramadoss courted arrest.

The DMK chief said he “shut the door to birthday bouquets” to drive home to the people of Tamil Nadu the “threat posed to democracy” from the way the Saidapet byelection was “totally rigged”.

Karunanidhi said “no” to all functions meticulously planned over three days to celebrate his birthday, except for a function last night to release a compilation of his earlier poems, titled Meesai Mulaitha Vaidhil (When One’s Moustache Begins to Sprout).

“We in the DMK have seen politics of various hues, from showing black flags to Pandit Nehru, differing a great deal with stalwarts like Periyar and Rajaji, defying Congress leaders like Kamaraj and Bakthavatsalam and taking on Mrs Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, besides having to fight my once-good-friend, MGR,” he said. “But never has politics sunk to such low levels as it is now in Tamil Nadu.” Karunanidhi said that nearly 70 per cent of the booths in Saidapet were allegedly “captured” by the ruling dispensation.

While several leaders conveyed their greetings to him at his residence this morning, including defence minister George Fernandes who called from Singapore, the usually bustling Anna Arivalayam, the party headquarters, wore a deserted look as Karunanidhi remained indoors to keep his word.

The Prime Minister, the home minister, the foreign minister and former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar and I.K. Gujral had already sent their birthday greetings to “Kaliagnar” in advance.

But, what raised eyebrows was the warm message from CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan congratulating Karunanidhi on his 79th birthday. This comes just a week after the DMK leader said at a function here that the “distance” separating the communists and his party “cannot be permanent”.

   

 
 
WHISTLE WARNING IN SHELL-SHOCKED TOWN 
 
 
FROM GAJINDER SINGH
 
Poonch, June 3: 
After having braved the heavy shelling last week that led to the death of four persons, including a woman and a child, Poonch town is putting into place an early warning and alert system.

“While there has been no shelling on the town for some time, we are taking no chances. We have sought more ambulances and fire brigades. The local hospital authorities have been asked to report for emergency duty at short notice,” deputy commissioner Ejaz Iqbal said.

The district administration has also held meetings with welfare committees to explain to them steps that need to be taken in case Pakistan starts shelling the town again. “The local citizens’ committees are building trenches and bunkers. Pakistani forces on the hills are keeping constant watch on the town,” Iqbal said.

The people of Poonch who faced the shelling “bravely” have also devised their own early warning and alert system.

“People in the first area to be hit will warn the adjoining area by blowing whistles. The chain will continue all over the town alerting everyone to move into bunkers,” said Harjit Singh, a resident.

The district administration fears that the town could face another round of pounding. “The shelling in Poonch seems to be following a particular pattern – that is, whenever a foreign dignitary arrives for peace talks with Pakistan,” a top district official said. “We are expecting more trouble during the visit of US officials in the coming days.”

From today, the district administration has also started using loudspeakers to educate citizens on steps to be taken during shelling. The people have also been asked not to gather in places that have been shelled.

Mar jaayenge lekin Poonch nahin chhodenge,” said Harbans Singh, a shop-owner. He had a providential escape on Wednesday when a shell landed on a truck next to his shop, which sells masalas. His 16-year-old son Jaspreet suffered splinter injuries on his left hand and had to be hospitalised. It was the first shell to rock the town in 30 years.

The next target was the middle of the town where the telephone exchange is located. The shell missed it, but destroyed Nain Singh’s bedroom. The walls, which have developed cracks, would have to be rebuilt. The district administration would bear the cost. The shells were fired mostly from the Raja Rani Pakistani post.

Police have intensified patrolling on the hills surrounding Poonch town. “The continuous shelling of villages all along the Line of Control in the district we believe is aimed at pushing in terrorists from across the border. Some terrorists have been killed. Police are scouring the area and have been engaging the terrorists wherever they are located,” said SSP Kamal Saini.

The district administration has provided shelter to over 22,000 people from 33 affected villages. “As many as 3,452 families have been registered by us. Even those brave enough to trek back to their razed houses continue to be registered so that they can come back if shelled again. In any case, people come and go. We are looking after them,” a district official said. His statement was corroborated by a trip to the camp set up for migrants.

Pakistani shelling normally begins at 6 pm in villages located in the mountains on the LoC. But Poonch today is quiet. “Kabhi bhi gola- bari shuru ho sakti hai,” said Ved Khajuria, who had come to buy vegetables in the marked near the bus stand.

The heavy shelling in Poonch has also brought Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs closer to each other. The Hindus and Muslims had earlier started drifting apart with the growing tension between India and Pakistan.

“It is normal for Hindus and Muslims in this part of the region to drift apart in times of war. But they should not be blamed. It is normal human behaviour. Those injured in the shelling, about 25 of them, survived only because some Hindu or Muslim saved them. The bonds have become stronger now,” said Altaf Hussain, a vegetable vendor. Sikhs and Hindus comprise 80 per cent of the population in Poonch. The rest are Muslims.

Despite the shelling, Poonch residents show no signs of panic. Business is as usual but the town wears a deserted look by 8 pm because of security reasons. The people are ready to face any challenge, even another barrage of shells.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 38.4°C (+3)
Minimum: 28.4°C (+1)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative Humidity

Maximum:89%,
Minimum: 46%

Sunrise: 4.55 am

Sunset: 6.14 pm

Today

Partly cloudy sky, with possibility of development of thunderclouds towards afternoon or evening
   
 

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