United House knocks off job quota cap
Priya pummels Ghani over Panskura poll
BJP jittery as allies lobby for LTTE
Saffron slams Hurriyat split-Kashmir solution
Arun to screen Kargil advice
Tourists cold to holiday hardsell in valley of fea

New Delhi, May 10 
The Lok Sabha today witnessed near unanimity in passing a Constitution amendment Bill, which sought to end the 50-per-cent ceiling on reservation in government jobs in backlog vacancies provided under an official memorandum of 1997, with the government promising to sustain the validity of the increased quota, though it is being challenged in court.

The Constitution (90th amendment) Bill, 2000, was passed by 418 members in favour and a lone MP against it.

Responding to the debate on the issue of reservation for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes, Union law minister Ram Jethmalani assured the Lok Sabha that the government would make all out efforts to ensure that the validity of over 50 per cent reservation, now under challenge in the Supreme Court, is sustained.

The government decided to amend the Constitution so that unfilled vacancies of a year, reserved to be filled in that year, would be considered a separate class to be filled in succeeding years. Such vacancies, the Bill said, would not be considered together with the vacancies of the year in which they are being filled up for determining the ceiling of 50 per cent reservation.

With today�s development, the official memorandum of August 29, 1997, which was issued following a Supreme Court judgment in the Indra Sawhney Vs Union of India case to provide that the 50 per cent limit shall apply to current as well as backlog vacancies and for discontinuation of the special recruitment drive stands negated.

Welcoming the amendment, the Congress and other parties urged the government to make suitable amendments to overrule three other office memoranda, which had an adverse effect on promotion and recruitment of SCs and STs in government jobs.

The House rejected by voice vote the contention of Muslim League MP G.M. Banatwala that the Bill was a �great national betrayal�. Banatwala was the lone MP who opposed the Bill.

During clarification, Jethmalani said the word �backlog� was not being added to the main Bill and was part of the statement of objects and reasons appended to it. Otherwise, the statute could become ambiguous because the law has to apply to SCs, STs as well as OBCs.

Jethmalani said that even if the Supreme Court ruled that the reservation limit should not exceed 50 per cent, the government would take measures to provide a higher percentage of reservation. Minister of state for personnel Vasundhara Raje said the government was also taking steps to undo the adverse effects of four other office memoranda relating to reservation issued in 1997.

During the passage of the Bill, the House witnessed a brief but bitter exchange between Jethmalani and Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress. Interrupting Jethmalani, Aiyar wanted the credit for the 69 per cent reservation policy of the Tamil Nadu government to go to the previous Jayalalitha government. The minister conceded after ADMK leader P.H. Pandian sought to clarify the issue, saying that the credit should go to the government which brought forward the policy.    

New Delhi, May 10 
The war in the West Bengal Congress reached its nadir today with state unit working president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi accusing his state chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury of going back on his words on supporting the Congress nominee for the Panskura bypolls.

Chowdhury, on his part, called on Sonia Gandhi and charged the Das Munshi camp of belittling him in public. Somewhat subdued, he told Sonia he would be going to Midnapore to �strengthen� the party in the district, but gave no commitment to campaign for the party�s candidate.

Das Munshi had shot off a three-page letter to Chowdhury and sent copies to Sonia and CWC members. Chowdhury�s associates promised to give a �befitting reply� tomorrow.

Das Munshi�s missive emphasised four points:

That the Bengal Congress chief had given a verbal undertaking to Sonia in the presence of Pranab Mukherjee to abide by the high command�s decision on Panskura.

In Chowdhury�s presence, Pawan Bansal had called up Pradyut Guha, who recommended Subhankar Sarkar�s name. Later, Chowdhury even signed the form allotting the party symbol to Sarkar.

That Chowdhury should make up his mind on whether he was defending the leadership of Sonia Gandhi or Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Slamming Chowdhury for his refusal to campaign for the Congress nominee, Das Munshi said: �No Congressman having faith in secularism can shut his eyes on the growing activities of the BJP, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP in the name of some comfortable combination to ensure arithmetic victory in elections.�

He also held Somen Mitra responsible for the exit of Mamata Banerjee from the party. �Due to the inaction of some leaders since 1993, we were accused of being a B team of the CPM,� Das Munshi said. �This was the reason which laid the foundation stone of the Trinamul. Now the same leaders are trying to survive under the tonic of mahajot.�

To back up his tirade against Chowdhury, the Congress� chief whip in the Lok Sabha quoted Chowdhury as saying in the meeting: �In Panskura, our position is weak. The candidate may not win. But if the Congress president desires, we shall all abide by it and try to implement the decision of the high command.�

Das Munshi said there was no question of him taking the lead in fielding a candidate from Panskura, since Chowdhury was part of the decision-making process and wondered how the state Congress chief could now wash his hands of and refuse to campaign for the party nominee.

CPI campaign

The CPI is going all out to ensure the victory of its candidate, former Rajya Sabha MP Gurudas Dasgupta, in Panskura. Not only is Jyoti Basu expected to address a meeting there at the end of this month, the party leadership is trying to rope in former Prime Minister V.P. Singh to add a different flavour to the campaign.    

New Delhi, May 10 
Even as Lankan forces are battling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the BJP is getting increasingly worried about the pro-LTTE activities of some of its allies, especially the MDMK.

At the recent all-party meeting in Parliament on the crisis, MDMK chief Vaiko had demanded that the Centre grant recognition to �Eelam� as a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka. Now he is actively campaigning for lifting of the ban on the outfit.

According to sources, Vaiko is planning to meet Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and senior CPM leaders in West Bengal to solicit their support for getting the ban lifted. The ban ends on May 14. The Centre has decided to extend it.

Yesterday Vaiko � an ardent supporter of LTTE chief V. Prabhakaran � flew to Mumbai for an hour-long talk with Bal Thackeray. According to sources close to Vaiko, the Shiv Sena chief endorsed the demand for �Eelam�, pledging �full support� to the Tigers who, he said, were �fighting for a just cause�. Thackeray also welcomed the Centre�s decision not to send troops to Jaffna.

Asked if the Sena chief agreed to his suggestion of recognising �Eelam�, Vaiko said: �Thackeray has already endorsed it.�

But BJP spokesperson Venkaiah Naidu said there was �no clarity� in the reports quoting Thackeray�s support to Eelam. �We have no proposal from the Shiv Sena on this count. We want the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka to be maintained and the interests of Tamil minorities to be safeguarded,� he said.

Apart from the MDMK, the PMK � another southern ally of the NDA which has sought recognition for �Eelam� as a separate state � and the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal is also backing the demand for lifting the ban. MDMK sources said Vaiko has also talked to Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu. Vaiko, however, denied that he sought Naidu�s support for the �Eelam� cause.

Desam parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu said his party stood by the NDA government�s decision to honour Sri Lanka�s territorial integrity while appreciating Tamil aspirations in the island republic.

Sources in the BJP said a worried leadership is watching the situation, though party leaders were unwilling to say anything that might alienate Vaiko and PMK chief S. Ramadoss. Last year, Prabhakaran�s parents were present at the wedding reception of Vaiko�s daughter in Chennai.

According to Ramadoss, if India has to take the initiative for talks between Sri Lanka and the LTTE, it might have to consider revoking the ban on the outfit. A separate Tamil Eelam, he said, was the only solution for the ethnic strife in the embattled island.    

New Delhi, May 10 
Strongly opposing the suggestion of the Hurriyat Conference to carve Jammu and Kashmir into two to ring in peace, the BJP today said there was no question of dividing the state along religious lines.

Speaking to reporters, party spokesman M. Venkaiah Naidu said Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of the country and the BJP wanted its integrity maintained at all costs.

At a press meet in Srinagar yesterday, Syed Ali Shah Geelani had said that the Hurriyat was willing to accept any solution, �even the division of Jammu and Kashmir, if that emerges as a consensus in the tripartite talks between India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir�. The Hurriyat chairman had also backed a division along religious lines, saying: �We can�t go to the negotiating table with a closed mind.�

Naidu today ruled out any bifurcation, saying: �The country has objections to the Hurriyat suggestion of dividing Jammu and Kashmir, but the setting up of councils for development of the state can be discussed.�

In the Rajya Sabha, home minister L.K. Advani said the government would soon initiate talks with the Hurriyat and other Kashmiri groups, and assured that dialogue would be held within the framework of the Constitution.

�The dialogue is part of a three-pronged strategy to bring back normality in Jammu and Kashmir, which involves proactively tackling militancy, cross-border terrorism and accelerating economic growth,� Advani said.

Former Union home minister and Jammu and Kashmir People�s Democratic Party president Mufti Mohammed Sayeed claimed that there already was �an informal contact� between the Centre and the Hurriyat to resolve the border dispute, and welcomed the start of the political process in the state.

�Yes, I think there is an informal contact between the parties,� Mufti said in Srinagar. �As far as my assessment goes, the offer of dialogue to the Hurriyat Conference is a serious move and not a step to befool the world.�

Discounting reports that the offer of dialogue was at the behest of the US, he said the proposal had been made because of a change in the perception of the Centre about �ground realities� in Kashmir.

Mufti said the dialogue offer had vindicated his party�s stand that talks were the only way out. He said the BJP government had been thought that previous governments were soft on the militants and had, therefore, adopted a tough pro-active policy which proved counter-productive.    

New Delhi, May 10 
Minister of state for defence in the Rajiv Gandhi government Arun Singh is again back in the reckoning of the Vajpayee government.

Arun Singh, who had been brought in to assist foreign minister Jaswant Singh during the Kargil crisis last year, had gone into hibernation soon after his assignment at South Block ended. At that time he had drawn a token salary of Re 1. He has now been named as chairman of the group of experts which will deliberate on defence-related recommendations of the Kargil review committee and accordingly submit his suggestions to the Group of Ministers led by home minister L.K. Advani.

This was decided at a meeting of the group whose other members are defence minister George Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and finance minister Yashwant Sinha. This evening�s meeting was also attended by National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, Cabinet secretary Prabhat Kumar and National Security Council secretary and Joint Intelligence Committee chairman Satish Chandra.

The group identified some specific recommendations of the Kargil review committee, which had submitted its report on January 7 this year, and these will be referred to the ministries of defence and home affairs for immediate processing and implementation. The group had met very briefly last week but could not take a final decision on the names of the members of the four task forces because of the Sri Lanka crisis.

The ministers also released the names of three chairpersons who will head task forces on intelligence management and its reorganisation, internal security and border management.    

Srinagar, May 10 
�In Paradise everything is perfect, including the price�, blares a government advertisement asking tourists to return to the valley they had deserted for the past decade.

With the state starved of cash, the government is sparing no effort at trumpeting the all-is-okay campaign, with chief minister Farooq Abdullah taking the lead.

A little after noon a few days ago, Abdullah surprised the few visitors around by stopping over at the city�s upmarket Ahdoo�s restaurant, accompanied only by a friend. The usually omnipresent securitymen were absent: the chief minister even drove his Tata Safari.

He mingled with the tourists, cracked a few jokes and feasted on the mouth-watering kebabs, all an effort to build up the image that the paradise is back to normal.

The people do not think so: they believe Abdullah is living in a fool�s paradise. �Till the next incident, Kashmir is normal. No one can assure security to tourists. But we say visitors have not faced any problem,� said Abdul Rauf, a tour operator.

Agreed an official in the tourism department. �Last year it was Kargil which badly affected the flow of tourists. This year the massacre of Sikhs in Chattisingpora was a setback,� he said.

Thousands of local residents involved in the trade � hotel owners, taxi and tour operators, shikarawallahs, handicraft sellers � say that inspite of the discounted tariffs, the tourists are staying away at a time when the rest of the country is reeling under the heat wave.

�During April-May, thousands of tourists from Gujarat and Maharashtra throng the valley. This year, only a few have come so far. But we are hopeful,� said a tour operator.

Mohammed Ashraf, director-general of tourism who is on an overdrive trying to revive tourism, believes the �flow will increase now that leading tour operators from other places have visited the valley and spoken to their local counterparts�.

�Our role is that of a facilitator, promoter and regulator. The commercial activities are best run by the private sector,� he said.

Ashraf is confident his efforts will pay dividends. �I am expecting a lot of tourists from West Bengal this year,� he said.

Not everybody, though, is willing to share Ashraf�s optimism. Said a police officer: �I hope tourists return to Kashmir. But you cannot lure visitors when there are suicide strikes and car bombs go off in crowded areas.�

Abdul Rashid, owner of a houseboat, laughs at the government�s slogans claiming it�s paradise once more. �I have been sitting idle for the past few days. Tourism has not picked up despite our best efforts,� he lamented. �All these,� he said, pointing to the decked up shikaras bobbing on the Dal Lake, �are empty. There is no work this year.�

To lure tourists, shikara owners are offering a 30 per cent discount along with attractive packages, taxi operators have announced a 20 per cent cut in rates, the hotel tariff have been lowered.

But for tourists, these are not enough: all they want is a fearless valley. Until then, paradise will not be perfect.    


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