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Centre smells Pakistan move to taint Mufti govt

New Delhi, March 24: The Centre believes this morning’s massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pundits is an attempt by militants to discredit Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the popular chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who poses a threat to Pakistan’s interests in the state.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani will visit the massacre site tomorrow for an on-the-spot assessment of the situation. Worried about the likely repercussions of the massacre on minorities, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security this morning.

Apart from Vajpayee and Advani, defence minister George Fernandes and foreign minister Yashwant Sinha were present at the meeting. The committee reviewed the situation in Kashmir and decided to closely monitor events in the state.

“Government of India condemns the incident in strongest possible terms,” Sinha said after the committee meeting. “The government would put the situation under review and take whatever steps necessary to meet it,” he said.

The committee is aware of the dangers of Mufti’s attempts to win back Kashmiris. It knows his mantra of applying the healing touch to Kashmir’s wounds is the best thing to happen in the state after the polls last year.

As a result, despite having arch rival the Congress in coalition with Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party, the BJP-led Centre has fully backed the state administration. Even the Centre’s interlocutor in the Kashmir talks, N.N. Vohra, is considered close to Mufti.

The Centre, keen to exploit the goodwill generated by the free and fair Assembly polls, is aware that the massacre is Pakistan’s attempt to disrupt the cordial ties between Srinagar and New Delhi.

The Centre believes Pakistan wants to discredit Mufti and put him on a collision course with the Vajpayee government. If this agenda fails, Pakistan’s other option is to put Mufti in a position where his political base is destroyed, so that he turns against the popular mood and becomes New Delhi’s “stooge” — a kind of Farooq Abdullah clone, disliked by Kashmiris as Delhi’s yes-man in Srinagar.

“Either way, Pakistan and the terrorist groups want to strike against Mufti, who poses a real danger to its interests,” a home ministry official said. “Our attempt is to ensure Pakistan’s gameplan does not succeed.”

But many in the BJP believe that Mufti’s “soft” approach towards militants has led to the current situation. They want the Centre to pull up the state and ask Mufti to adopt a much tougher stance against militants. Early today, there was talk the BJP would call for the state government’s dismissal.

When the BJP finally came out with a statement, it was watered down at the insistence of the Centre, which is in no mood to let down Mufti. “He is doing a good job, but a healing touch must not be confused with a soft approach to terrorists,” the Central official said.

Advani is likely to ask Mufti tomorrow to strengthen the administration and ensure that terrorists are not handled with kid gloves. Senior government officials said the killing of Kashmiri Pundits, a day after pro-peace Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar’s, is a “setback” to the Centre’s peace push.

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