Farooq leash on autonomy overdrive
Vaiko invite worries Vajpayee
Sonia panel ploy to block challengers
Delhi Archbishop dies in Poland
Basu set for dream trip to Israel

Srinagar, June 21 
Even as he threatened to introduce a resolution on autonomy in the Assembly with one hand, chief minister Farooq Abdullah today put the brakes on the resolution with the other, seeking instead, a “national debate” on the issue before the Assembly adopted it.

Amid heated exchanges in the surcharged House, Abdullah said: “We have the majority and we can pass the autonomy resolution. But for our sincerity to hold a dialogue, the motion would have been adopted on our strength in the Assembly. Discussion is the essence of democracy. This is the real strength of India where such a proposition is possible. Here lies the difference between our country and Pakistan where such a thing is not possible.”

Abdullah’s plea for a debate is, perhaps, a step back from the high rhetoric with which the National Conference had opened the special session of the Assembly. On the eve of the session and on its first working day yesterday, National Conference members had demanded that a resolution be passed in the current session.

The party’s urgency on the issue — widely interpreted as Abdullah’s bid to seize the initiative at a time when the Centre is hinting at talks with the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) — was opposed by both Congress and BJP legislators, who walked out of the House yesterday. The autonomy demand is also being opposed.

But today’s statement by Abdullah makes it plain that the National Conference, too, believes it would be ill-advised to bull through with the resolution even though it continues to wield the threat of passing it. Abdullah made his concern clear when he virtually admitted he was worried about the proposed Centre-Hurriyat talks.

“Syed Ali Shah Geelani now says that the Hurriyat is ready for dialogue. Okay. But listen to us also. If we are wrong, please point it out,” he told the Assembly.

The chief minister has been upset about the Centre going behind his back to establish links with militant and separatist outfits, especially since he is a coalition partner in the NDA government at the Centre.

Earlier, the BJP’s Piara Singh surprised everyone by charging some National Conference members in the Assembly of being anti-Abdullah. “In connivance with the Hurriyat leadership, 22 MLAs in the National Conference are trying to dislodge your government,” he told the chief minister. There was, however, no reaction from the ruling party MLAs.

Opposing restoration of autonomy, Singh said Article 370 was becoming a big hurdle in the state’s development. Pointing out that mass rigging in the 1987 elections was the root cause of militancy in the state, he said: “The government’s all-out efforts should be to stamp out militancy first and later discuss autonomy after the gun is silenced.”

Congress MP from Ladakh Tsering Dorjee said Ladakhis do not want autonomy. “You cannot sell autonomy to the people of Ladakh and Jammu,” he said.    

New Delhi, June 21 
Tiger sympathiser and MDMK chief Vaiko has plunged the Prime Minister and top leaders of the ruling coalition between the devil and the deep sea, inviting them for a two-day “Tamil awakening” conference in Erode starting July 1.

While the leaders cannot outright refuse to attend the conference called by their ally, they also cannot risk being present there. Intelligence reports have suggested that the meet could adopt a resolution calling for a separate homeland for the Lankan Tamils, and that some speakers could pitch for the LTTE.

This is in contrast to the Centre’s stated policy on Sri Lanka that a solution to the ethnic strife must be found within the territorial integrity of the island-nation.

Vaiko yesterday personally called on A.B. Vajpayee to hand him the invite for the conference. He also sent out invitations to home minister L.K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes and Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi.

BJP sources said their leaders could attend the meeting only if Vaiko gave an undertaking not to vent pro-LTTE sentiment. Top leaders will prevail on the MDMK chief to consider the constraints of the BJP and the government.

Any overt plug for the Tigers at the conference will come as an embarrassment for the BJP, especially if there is a Union minister attending. Only today, the Tamil Nadu Congress demanded that the government ban the MDMK and PMK for their avowed support to the Tamil Tigers.

Political observers say it is naive to expect that a “Tamil awakening” conference will keep silent on the “persecution” of Tamils in Sri Lanka. But Vaiko is hopeful that barring Vajpayee, the other leaders will attend the meet.

The conference was earlier slated for June 5, but was put off after pressure from Karunanidhi, who has been trying to water down the agenda. The chief minister —- who has been blowing hot and cold on the Lanka issue —- is in a spot because he cannot afford to ignore the pro-Tiger sentiments of the PMK and MDMK.

Vaiko has also invited the chief ministers of Jammu & Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab. All three are likely to attend, but have not confirmed their participation.

The MDMK leader yesterday told the Prime Minister that the Lanka government was systematically targeting Tamil civilians in the Jaffna peninsula. He also said that Colombo was acquring weapons from Pakistan for use against the Tamils, and that the Lanka army chief would visit Islamabad to strike the deals.    

New Delhi, June 21 
Congress president Sonia Gandhi has unleashed a “committee raj” in the party, setting up panels in virtually all states as a solution to disquiet in the party.

In the states going to Assembly polls next year, like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam, Sonia is appointing PCC level co-ordination committees, campaign committees and working/vice-presidents. The Congress-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Maharashtra will have manifesto implementation committees as well.

The move to pack the party with panels is aimed at consolidating Sonia’s position within the Congress as organisational polls draw close. Sonia’s strategists plan to accommodate all warring factions in these state-level committees, nipping the possibility of the emergence of a credible challenger to her leadership. Sonia recently admitted that she had no option but to pack party leaders in panels as they had an “unending hunger for power”.

The Congress chief has appointed more than a hundred committees since she took over as president in March 1998, out-scoring P.V. Narasimha Rao who had a penchant for setting up panels. In the last two years, many Sonia-appointed committees have existed merely on paper while reports of task force, ethics, relief work and Panchmarhi implementation committees are gathering dust in the outhouses of the AICC headquarters at 24 Akbar road.

Sonia yesterday summoned Uttar Pradesh party chief Salman Khursheed, AICC general secretary Sushil Shinde and secretary Ramesh Chenithela to tone up the state unit. There is a proposal to appoint five working presidents. The names of Indira Haridesh (Uttarakhand), Ram Naresh Yadav, Jagdambika Pal, Chowdhury Yashpal, Ranjit Singh Judeo and Ammar Rizvi are doing the rounds.

Another view gaining ground is the setting-up of a state co-ordination panel. The committee, of Narain Dutt Tiwari, Mohsina Kidwai and Jitendra Prasada, would “guide and advise” the UPCC.

In Bengal, Sonia plans to set up a campaign committee for the Assembly polls. She is keeping a tab on political developments in the state and if the demand for a mahajot is revived after the Calcutta municipal polls, she may appoint A.B.A Ghani Khan Chowdhury as head of the campaign panel.

The chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka have been asked to set up manifesto implementation panels, which will include, along with them, the state party chief, senior ministers and other important party functionaries.

IGNCA head

Noted jurist L.M. Singhvi was elected president of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts by the trustees of the reconstituted body at a meeting here, the first since Sonia Gandhi was removed in January.    

New Delhi, June 21 
Delhi Archbishop and president of the powerful Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (CBCI) Alan de Lastic died in a car accident in Poland in the wee hours today. The archbishop, who was at forefront of the church campaign against fundamentalist attacks on Christian institutions across the country, had left for Rome on June 12.

Church officials said the 71-year-old de Lastic apparently died of shock at Krakow after his car swerved to save a cyclist, who was killed.

After the mishap, the driver had got off the car to offer prayers at the cyclist’s body. He returned to find de Lastic dead on the front seat, Donald D’Souza, CBCI deputy secretary-general, told reporters.

De Lastic was returning to Warsaw from Krakow, where he visited a shrine of Virgin Mary, popularly known as “black Madona”, when the accident occurred. His body has been kept in a nearby hospital and will be flown to India tomorrow for the last rites, the date for which was yet to be finalised, D’Souza said. Polish bishops will accompany the body.

The CBCI said it has lost an “extraordinary and charismatic leader in him”. “He gave leadership not only to the Catholic community in India, but to all Christians in the country,” said Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios of Thiruvananthapuram.

De Lastic’s untimely end comes at a time when he was leading the protest against fanatical attacks on Christians. He had met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee a few days ago, urging him to end the “hate campaign”.

He was born on September 24, 1929, in the Mandalay district of Myanmar (then India).

On May 27, 1979, de Lastic was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of Calcutta by Pope John Paul II in Rome. Mother Teresa, with whom he worked closely, was present at the ceremony.

After his early education in Myanmar, he came to India in 1942. He finished schooling in St. Michael’s High School, Kurji, after a brief stint at St. Xavier’s, Patna, and then came to Calcutta and worked for five years as an apprentice engineer in the Garden Reach workshops.

Instead of taking up a job as a junior marine engineer, he answered the call of Jesus Christ and began preparing for priesthood. After higher theological studies at Allahabad, Rome and Dublin, he joined as assistant parish priest and principal of St. Xavier’s Junior Technical School, Basanti, West Bengal.

He held the post of principal of St. Antony’s High School, Calcutta, and rector of Morning Star College, Barrackpore, before joining as personal secretary to the Archbishop of Calcutta. Then he went on to become the Vicar-General of Calcutta.

In 1984, he was appointed Bishop of Lucknow, a post he held till his appointment as Archbishop of Delhi on January 27, 1991. He was re-elected president of the CBCI for a second term in January 2000.

President K.R. Narayanan has expressed grief at the archbishop’s sudden death.    

New Delhi, June 21 
Jyoti Basu, the country’s longest-serving communist chief minister, will soon get a chance to see how “real communism” works when he visits an Israeli kibbutz during his trip to the West Asian country early next month.

Though he arrives in Israel on June 29, a day before foreign minister Jaswant Singh is scheduled to reach there for a four-day tour, the official part of Basu’s visit only begins after Singh leaves on July 3.

Apparently, it is Basu’s “long-cherished dream” to visit Israel. But when Israeli authorities offered to host him, the dates clashed with Singh’s visit. Though South Block was initially reluctant to agree to the back-to-back visits, Singh himself intervened to clear the dates.

Basu, who will lead a high-level delegation from the state, will meet a host of senior leaders, including President Ezer Weizmann. He will visit Jerusalem and tour the kibbutz and the progress made by the Israelis in the sphere of “drip-irrigation”.

The veteran leader has, however, so far not sought any appointment with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It is also not clear whether he will visit Gaza.

But the visit — which comes a few weeks after that of Congress leader and Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Najma Heptullah — makes one point clear: that cutting across party lines, Indian leaders are keen to strengthen relations with Tel Aviv. Heptullah’s visit was followed by that of home minister L.K. Advani.

Satisfied with the turn of events — Israeli ambassador to Delhi Yahoyada Haim, who is wrapping up his four-year tenure — said: “Four high-level visits from a country in one month is any ambassador’s dream.” He added that it was an indication that even at the political level, bilateral relations were gaining momentum.

Though it is not admitted publicly, the depth in the bilateral ties has come after the BJP-led coalition assumed power.

Though the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime normalised diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 when the two sides decided to upgrade their missions to the ambassador’s level, interactions in the past eight years have been limited basically to economic and cultural ties.

While cooperation on defence matters is something everybody speculates on, there are rarely enough details. Israel, which is under pressure from America for selling the Falcon advanced reconnaissance aircraft to China, is reluctant to talk about its discussions with India regarding military hardware. “We will spoil the case the moment we talk about it,” Haim said.

But it is the Indian foreign minister’s visit which the Israelis are looking forward to as it would give a political direction to future bilateral relations.

Advani’s Tel Aviv visit was important from Delhi’s point of view. The home minister had gone there to draw upon Israel’s experience in dealing with counter-terrorism. But the political statements will come out during Singh’s parleys with the Israeli leadership, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak.    


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