Second shot at peace in Kashmir
Advani falls in line with PM
Mamata gets 10 for gas, 1 for kerosene
CM confession before masses
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Nov. 19: 
In the second peace overture in four months, the government today announced that a unilateral ceasefire would come into force in Jammu and Kashmir from the onset of the holy month of Ramzan this weekend.

In July, it was the Hizb-ul Mujahideen which had declared a ceasefire and Delhi had reciprocated.

The government has made known that the ceasefire is a gesture to some factions of the militant groups, including the All-Party Hurriyat Conference and the Hizb. However, addressing reporters after a National Democratic Alliance meeting, defence minister George Fernandes did not want to identify the groups the ceasefire was addressed to.

Till late tonight, the Hizb did not react, but the Al-Badr and a former chairman of the Hurriyat rejected the offer.

In a statement, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said: �We have continued our efforts to normalise the situation in the state and to hold talks with all those who are prepared for a dialogue. The holy month of Ramzan, during which Prophet Mohammed exhorted one and all to live in peace and harmony, is soon approaching. The government has, therefore, instructed the security forces not to initiate combat operations against militants in Jammu and Kashmir during this most pious month in the Islamic calendar.��

It appears that at the past few meetings, the Cabinet Committee on Security has been discussing Kashmir with suggestions that the Indian government make one more peace overture, though things went awry last time and led to a spate of killings across the state.

The Vajpayee government is taking a risk because in the last Parliament session it had come under severe attack from the Opposition for having entered into a dialogue with the Hizb and allowing blood to spill in Pahalgam where Amarnath pilgrims were killed.

That the government is making strong overtures to the militants is apparent from the wording of the Prime Minister�s announcement: �During my visit to Srinagar on August 3 this year, I had underscored the need for resolving all issues in the spirit of insaniyat (humanism). Mine was a sincere appeal for cooperation to bring to an end the long trail of violence which has claimed so many precious lives and inflicted untold misery on all sections of the state�s population � Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.�

Government sources said without specifying names that different factions of militant organisations wanted this gesture from Delhi.

The announcement coincides with the marriage of the son of the Hurriyat chairman, Abdul Ghani Lone, with the daughter of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman, Amanullah Khan. This wedding has allowed a number of representatives of different Kashmiri militant groups to come together in Islamabad.

Vajpayee was also among those invited. Pakistan junta leader Pervez Musharraf did not turn up despite intense media speculation. Lone is holding a reception tomorrow where representatives of the Pakistan-backed Lashkar-e-Toiba are also expected.    

New Delhi, Nov. 19: 
There are differences of opinion in the government on whether a unilateral ceasefire should be announced so early in Jammu and Kashmir after July�s aborted peace process.

The matter is believed to have been discussed at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on Friday and L.K. Advani agreed with the decision. But sources said the home minister �was in favour of a different approach�.

They said Advani �went along� with the Prime Minister, but advised Vajpayee to take chief minister Farooq Abdullah into confidence before making the announcement. Vajpayee met Abdullah this morning.

Talks of a government-sponsored ceasefire had been in the air for the past few weeks. The CPM unit of Jammu and Kashmir had been demanding such a step and the Delhi imam is expected to appeal to militant outfits to accept the ceasefire when he visits Srinagar tomorrow.

A day after the CCS meeting, Advani left for a day-long tour of the Rann of Kutch and Mumbai and returned late last night. This morning he discussed the matter again with Vajpayee.

It was decided that the government would issue a statement on reviving the peace process which the Hizb-ul Mujahideen had initiated on July 24 by declaring a ceasefire with security forces. But within days, the talks had been aborted when the Pakistan-based Hizb faction insisted on the inclusion of Pakistan in any tripartite meeting.

Advani differs on initiating a peace process, especially after the failed talks of July, sources said. However, the home minister agreed with the PMO as he may have felt that this was the right moment, with the All-Party Hurriyat Conference virtually facing a split over including Pakistan in talks.

But officials are sceptical whether militant outfits will welcome the ceasefire. The Hizb�s Islamabad-based chief Syed Salahuddin said a week ago that even a government-initiated ceasefire would not be acceptable.

He reiterated his earlier stand that Islamabad be included in any peace talks. The events preceding the Hizb�s declaration of the ceasefire were not shared with the home ministry.

The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had reportedly been working on the Hizb ceasefire from June 1998 and the Intelligence Bureau had been involved since the beginning of this year.    

New Delhi, Nov. 19: 
The Vajpayee government today gave in to Mamata Banerjee�s demand and rolled back the price of kerosene by Re 1 and of cooking gas by Rs 10.

Diesel and petrol prices have not been touched.

After a meeting of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, its convener and defence minister George Fernandes said the cutback would cost the exchequer an additional Rs 139 crore a month, adding up to Rs 1,668 crore a year.

The formal announcement will be made by petroleum minister Ram Naik, when Parliament meets on Tuesday. No official business is expected to be transacted tomorrow when the House reconvenes for the winter session, the first day being reserved for obituary references.

Fernandes kept repeating that though the government would have to somehow raise funds from other sources to bear this additional burden, Mamata was not the only person who had demanded a rollback.

The railway minister and her colleague, Ajit Kumar Panja, put in their papers early October shortly after the government announced the price increases but they withdrew the resignations when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee promised her a rollback.

She has waited for a month and a half for the day the rollback would be announced, Vajpayee having put her patience to test by iterating his promise but not coming through with the decision.

At the NDA meeting today, Mamata appears to have acted with restraint, not pressing for a higher cut than what has been granted. She is aware that crude oil has been ruling at $35 in the past week, way beyond the $30-31 level it had hit when the government announced the petroleum price revision.

The extent of reduction of Re 1 per litre of kerosene and Rs 10 per cylinder of cooking gas has been doing the rounds for some time. Naik will announce in Parliament from when the cuts will come into effect.

It was the Prime Minister who raised the issue at today�s meeting and moved the resolution on the rollback. He also pointed out that since Parliament would be in session from tomorrow, it would be improper to make an announcement today.

Mamata gave no indication of her attitude to the price cut. Leaving the Prime Minister�s Race Course residence without having dinner, she did not respond to questions outside the gate. She simply said: �Let an official announcement be made first.�

From what her aides said, it was clear Mamata knows this is the best the government could have done in the circumstances.

Fernandes said after the meeting that Mamata was not the only NDA member to demand softening of the petroleum price blow. �I can tell you that DMK MPs had come and met the Prime Minister and told him that this hike was too steep. I had been under pressure from various Samata Party MPs myself who were demanding that the prices be brought down substantially.�

Picking up the cue in Hyderabad, Telugu Desam leader Yerran Naidu said his party wanted a 50 per cent reduction in petroleum prices.

Mamata possibly did not react today because she first wants to gauge the popular response to the reduction. Or, since Parliament is convening tomorrow, she may not have wanted to make a statement that would go against parliamentary etiquette.    

Calcutta, Nov. 19: 
Striking a favourite pose of Mamata Banerjee and slipping into Jyoti Basu�s self-introspection mode, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today sought to touch a chord among the masses by conceding that the government�s performance in education and health was unsatisfactory.

�Though 70 per cent of the people in our state are getting treatment in government hospitals, I am sorry to say that anyone will feel bad when he visits a government hospital. Sometimes, I also think whether these hospitals are clean enough for human habitation,� Bhattacharjee told a meeting � his first in Calcutta since he became chief minister.

Bhattacharjee said he was also disturbed by the condition of the state-run schools. �These days, teachers need not worry about their salary. But they are giving enough reasons to guardians to complain about poor standards,� he said.

The chief minister had chosen with care the meeting�s venue � Jadavpur, his constituency � and said so. �Immediately after the party asked me to become the chief minister, I told the leadership that I should visit Jadavpur first because I am your representative,� Bhattacharjee told the audience on the jam-packed Garia College grounds.

Keen to confound critics who describe him as an aloof leader with little mass appeal, Bhattacharjee today opened his speech with a style and substance strikingly similar to that of his challenger Mamata Banerjee. His opening line: �My pronam to the elders, respect to party colleagues and love to children.�

The meeting also scotched speculation that Bhattacharjee might shift his constituency to a �safer seat�. On the other hand, he told the gathering that he would visit Jadavpur again.

Bhattacharjee accused Mamata of �indulging in the Panskura Line, which is nothing but instigating political clashes in the districts�.

�Many people in Midnapore, Hooghly and Bankura have become victims of Mamata�s politics of hooliganism and I asked the district magistrate and superintendent of police in Midnapore to make necessary arrangements so that such people can return to their homes safely. But Mamata has imported some of them and is forcing them to stay near the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Calcutta,� he said.

The chief minister said he wanted to discuss the issue with Mamata but she refused to meet him. �I don�t know why,� Bhattacharjee said.

He also tried to step out of Basu�s shadow. �Jyoti Basu is a great leader and a noble person. I doubt whether the country has any other leader of his stature. But I must say that in a party like ours, we function on the basis of a specific programme and we will face the next polls with the same programme.�    



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