Delhi sees political signal in Hizbul gesture
Congress turns up pitch for killings probe
Sangh suspects police plot
‘Non-veg’ tea strained out
Sonia dilemma on Ghani step-down
Stone shortage chisels away 300-yr skill

New Delhi, Aug. 7 
It is too early to conjecture what the Hizbul Mujahideen stands to gain from the ceasefire and peace talks it initiated last month, but sections of the Vajpayee administration believe that the militant organisation is keen on entering the political process in Jammu and Kashmir.

Officials said the Hizbul appears to have diluted its original strident stand of azaadi (independence) from both India and Pakistan over the past few months and even the Majlis-e-Shoora’s meeting in the beginning of this year, when it first met to discuss whether a ceasefire should be declared, skirted the issue. The Majlis, the supreme decision-making body of the militant outfit, felt that peace should be given a chance in Jammu and Kashmir because the “people were feeling stifled” and that “there was growing perception that Mujahids are bloodthirsty terrorists”.

Indirect hints that the Hizbul was interested in entering the political process in the Valley were dropped when secretary Kamal Pande and other senior officials of the home ministry met Hizbul negotiators, including two senior-level commanders and associates of the organisation’s deputy supreme commander Abdul Majeed Dar, in Srinagar on Friday.

The government believes that Hizbul chief Syed Salahuddin’s call for inclusion of Pakistan in the tripartite talks is sheer rhetoric. “Majeed Dar commands as much as 70 per cent support among Hizbul cadre in the Valley and the organisation would not have taken a decision unless it was sure of what it wanted to achieve and how it wanted the talks to progress,” a senior official said.

Although Indian security agencies had been in touch with the Hizbul leadership at least three to four months ago, the Vajpayee government was made aware of the Hizbul decision to declare a ceasefire around July 17. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and top officials, including the army chief, discussed the matter and gave the go-ahead to accept the ceasefire and peace talks.

“There was no harm in talking to them. But it was conveyed to us by those in touch with the Hizbul leadership that its commanders had spoken to Pakistani authorities and the ISI and sought their approval,” a top government source said.

However, he added: “The Pakistanis were taken aback when the Centre accepted the Hizbul’s offer.”

There are doubts, however, when the Hizbul leaders based in Kashmir feel themselves stifled by the political atmosphere in Islamabad and also have “to let off steam” against Vajpayee and Delhi from time to time.

The Hizbul, the government is aware, had received support from the ISI in the past and the militant leaders cannot walk out now without braving bullets from rival extremist groups.

These groups are fighting the “jehad” in Kashmir, with funds flowing clandestinely from other nations who see only the “Islamic cause” behind Kashmir.    

New Delhi, Aug. 7 
An upbeat Congress led by Sonia Gandhi today crippled Lok Sabha proceedings by turning up the heat for a judicial inquiry into the massacre of nearly 100 people in Jammu and Kashmir last week.

Though the government put up a feeble resistance saying such a probe will demoralise the security forces, the Congress did find the going tough with the Samajwadi Party and the CPM differing with it on a judicial inquiry.

As the main Opposition party paralysed the House, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan belatedly argued that provisions of the Commission Of Inquiry Act did not permit such a probe in matters relating to Jammu and Kashmir. The Congress countered Mahajan’s argument and accused the government of “snatching a fig leaf to cover when it stood totally exposed”. AICC general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad said the Centre could institute a judicial inquiry as the matter related to cross-border terrorism and national security.

Deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Madhavrao Scindia said an executive inquiry would not suffice in view of “conflicting statements” by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and defence minister George Fernandes on the issue of security lapses.

The demand for a judicial probe into “Black Tuesday” has become a political tool with the Congress bent on pinning down the government on the alleged security lapses. The Centre is equally determined to prevent it as the political fallout of such an inquiry could be embarrassing. Though the Congress did succeed in stalling the House, the Opposition was divided with the CPM and the Samajwadi Party disagreeing on the demand for a judicial probe.

But the CPI supported it when Indrajit Gupta said home minister L.K. Advani had admitted to security lapses last Friday and that a judicial probe was necessary to get to the bottom of the tragedy.

Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi adjourned the House for the day when Congress members trooped into the Well with their demand.

The Congress upped the ante as soon as Zero Hour began, Leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi made an intervention and rejected Samajwadi chief Mulayam Yadav’s claim that her party had violated an understanding worked out between the Prime Minister and Opposition leaders on Friday. Mahajan, however, clarified that Sonia, who had accompanied the Prime Minister to Pahalgam, was not party to an informal arrangement under which Vajpayee was to make a statement on Kashmir today.

Sonia was seen asking party backbenchers to protest loud and firm. She also did not prevent them from rushing to the Well, an action which defied the party’s own code of conduct. Congress floor managers justified the violation on grounds of the “seriousness of the issue”.    

New Delhi, Aug. 7 
Amid mounting pressure from the Congress for a judicial probe into the Kashmir killings, the BJP-led government today faced an assault from the Sangh parivar which suspects police hand in the massacre of nearly 100 people last week.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has asked the Centre to ensure the security of pilgrims to Amarnath and fix the responsibility for the “ghastly massacre” on those found guilty.

While agency reports have quoted the RSS as demanding that the Centre should smash terrorist camps in Pakistan and occupied-Kashmir, the VHP has gone a step further and insinuated that the “guilty” were not just the terrorists but members of the Jammu and Kashmir police as well.

The treasury members, who were pinned down by a vociferous Opposition led by the Congress which forced two adjournments, were left squirming in their seats when they had to face an embarrassing attack from a ruling party MP.

BJP member Ram Nagina Mishra lashed out at the security forces for being “inhuman” and “stealing jewellery from the dead bodies of the pilgrims”. He called for an “impartial inquiry” into the “police atrocities”.

In a letter to home minister L.K. Advani, VHP president Vishnu Hari Dalmia has stressed that the security infrastructure for Amarnath pilgrims should be taken over by the Centre from the Jammu and Kashmir government.

Alleging that the role of the state police was “suspicious”, Dalmia said: “It won’t be surprising if the police personnel of the state government had connived with terrorists in this killing operation. It is also significant that the terrorists appeared in the uniform of the state police.”

The VHP chief demanded “deterrent punishment” to the guilty police personnel for what they allegedly did and emphasised that in future the Centre should take responsibility for providing security to Amarnath pilgrims and entrust the job to organisations such as the CRPF, BSF, ITBP, Rapid Action Force or the army.

This is the not the first time that Advani has come in the VHP’s line of fire. In his first stint as home minister, the Sangh outfit had set a six-month deadline for him to straighten things out in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh after a spate of terrorist attacks.

A section of the Congress has already demanded Advani’s resignation for the massacre. With the VHP, too, targeting him, Parliament was rife with rumours that the home minister had offered to resign but the Prime Minister had rejected it.

Government sources denied the rumour, saying: “It is in his nature to get distressed over such incidents but he will not take any such precipitate step. Atalji will not allow him to do any such thing. Atalji and Advaniji will continue to function as a team and not separately.”    

New Delhi, Aug. 7 
Tea will remain a vegetarian drink. Asserting that “flavours of animal origin” have never been used in the manufacture of tea, the Centre today said it had made sure the beverage would stay vegetarian.

Union health minister C.P. Thakur stressed: “Flavoured tea has in the past always been an entirely vegetarian product and will continue to be so in future also.”

The Centre has changed two rules in the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act to ensure that no animal flavours can be used in tea. The changes were incorporated on August 2 after media reports that flavours of “animal origin” were being used by tea manufacturers made some people jittery.

With the Sangh parivar taking up the issue and animal rights activists like Maneka Gandhi threatening to join the bandwagon of protesters, the government was under intense pressure to set the controversy at rest.

Scrambling to straighten the record, the health ministry clarified that prior to an amendment of October 11, 1999 in the food Act, only a few “vegetarian” flavours were permitted in the manufacture. Some new flavours were allowed after the amendment because “there was a demand from the tea industry that, with the increasing variety of niche products in the market, there was a need to be more flexibile about the flavours”. The limited list of specific flavours permissible for tea was then deleted.

The amendment made tea subject to the general provisions for flavours in the food Act, that applies to all products for which there are no specific provisions.

The government agreed that under the Act, products could be flavoured with substances of vegetable or animal origin.    

New Delhi, Aug. 7 
Sonia Gandhi is reluctant to replace West Bengal Congress chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury with Abdul Ghafoor.

The Congress president is under pressure from within the party to retain Chowdhury because of his seniority and loyalty to the leadership. Congress sources said Sonia has received reports from the state that an abrupt change of guard would lead to a split in the already divided unit. They said a number of leaders have made it clear that if Chowdhury is sacked, they would leave the party.

Amid hectic behind-the-scenes activities, a meeting between Sonia and Chowdhury was called off today, even as general secretary in charge of West Bengal Prabha Rau issued a circular asserting the need for unity. The meeting has been scheduled for tomorrow.

A senior AICC functionary, however, played down the significance of the meeting, saying there was nothing unusual about it. Sonia, he said, was meeting all state chiefs as part of a “routine exercise”. According to party sources, Sonia has asked Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kamal Nath to “streamline” the Bengal unit. Azad is for Chowdhury’s continuation.

Party leaders close to Sonia said if Chowdhury is replaced, it would be an “honourable exit”, indicating that he would either be asked to head the state-level campaign committee or made the special invitee to the Congress Working Committee.

In that case, Chowdhury would have a major say in the selection of his successor. It would also mean that Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the state unit working chief and a known Chowdhury detractor, would have to lose his job. “We are working on some formula to streamline and tone up functioning of the state unit. There are demands to revamp the PCC executive and replace some district chiefs. The question is whether to have an ad hoc committee and make changes or wait till the completion of party polls,” a senior AICC functionary said.    

Miamatpur (Gaya), Aug. 7 
Seventy-year-old Birju Ram shields his face against the lashing rain as he scrapes the uneven rock-face for a loose slab of stone.

An hour’s toil with the pickaxe yields a few boulders and mounds of rain-soaked earth. Birju Ram turns away in disgust.

Stone slabs are hard to come by these days as indiscriminate quarrying has reduced the sandstone, iron and quartzite hills of Gaya, Nalanda and Rajgir to pulp. The slopes are littered with cave-like amphitheatres filled with rain water.

Even the historic Barabar Hills, one of Gaya’s major tourist attractions, has not been spared. The barren mountain, once a repository of stones rich in iron content, is now a mass of abandoned quarries and ferrous-laced earth.

Paucity of stones has robbed artisans like Birju Ram of their livelihood. Over 3,000 backward stonemasons in Miamatpur, Patharkatti and Khukri along the Gaya-Nalanda highway on the periphery of the Barabar Hills are finding it difficult to sustain their 300-year-old tradition.

The artisans — skilled in carving intricate stone miniatures of all the 17 reincarnations of Gautam Buddha and icons of stupas, viharas, praying monks and replicas of the Bodh Gaya temple — form the backbone of the thriving artefact trade in Bodh Gaya.

“We supply the local emporia with 70 per cent of the artefacts,” says Birju, who has been in the trade for the past 50 years.

But supplies have dwindled of late. Dearth of raw material have affected output and a mason can now carve only one “figurine’’ in two weeks. Prices of stone artefacts have skyrocketed and a 5-by-4-inch statue of the “meditating Buddha” now costs between Rs 470 to Rs 800 as against Rs 250 last year.

According to Bodh Gaya temple authorities, South-east Asians, who comprise bulk of the pilgrims to the shrine, are willing to pay much more for “locally-made stone icons of Buddha’’ but statues have become scarce.

Many artisans are seeking recourse to wood but the medium, as Laxman Paswan says, “fails to do justice to the Lord”. Moreover, a government ban on felling also makes it difficult to procure wood locally.

Since January this year, the artisans have started importing “stone” from Palamau and Singhbhum. “We get two truckloads a week and each consignment costs us Rs 3,000,’’ says Birju Ram, who heads a local consortium of artisans. The stones are then divided among nearly 3,500 masons.

But a series of heists on the Ranchi-Patna highway has resulted in the loss of nearly 550 kg of stones in June-July. “The situation is precarious and we are finding it difficult to procure artefacts. Wood is a poor substitute as stone has been in use for centuries,’’ says Arvind Kumar Sinha, an emporium owner in Bodh Gaya.    


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