Delhi blesses militants’ summit
Live show of Bengal violence in capital
Atal flies Lucknow over for iftar
Defeated PM in temple truce
Buddha buries Haldia hatchet
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Dec. 19: 
The Hizb-ul Mujahideen field commander in Kashmir, Abdul Majid Dar, is understood to have left for Saudi Arabia yesterday on a commercial flight to attend a special congregation of Kashmiri separatist forces.

Dar’s departure to Saudi Arabia has obviously been aided by the Centre and appears to be part of the government’s efforts to encourage dialogue on Kashmir. Dar was brought over from Srinagar to Delhi a couple of days ago.

At the same time, the Emir of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Jammu and Kashmir, G.M. Bhatt, arrived in the capital from Srinagar today on his way to Saudi Arabia to participate in the negotiations. These developments assume greater significance in the light of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference’s recent decision to officially welcome the government’s unilateral ceasefire.

However, there are now conflicting signals on whether the Hizb leadership based in Pakistan will be present for the talks in Saudi. The Hizb supreme commander, Syed Salahuddin, had announced a couple of days ago from Pakistan that he was headed for the Saudi capital to prepare for a congregation of Kashmiri leaders. However, the Hizb spokesman, Saleem Hashmi, was quoted as saying from Islamabad that there was no such programme.

Several senior Hurriyat leaders have expressed the hope that the government will allow them to go to Pakistan to hold talks with Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders there. Although New Delhi has not made up its mind on whether to allow Hurriyat leaders access to Pakistan, it is apparently prepared to let some of them go to a third country.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself pitched for more broadbased talks on solving the Kashmir problem when he told the Rajya Sabha today that India was prepared to talk to anybody, “including Pakistan”. Vajpayee, of course, iterated that Pakistan had to stop cross-border terrorism and encouragement to militancy in the Valley.

The Prime Minister will make a statement on extending the ceasefire by a month in Parliament tomorrow. The Centre’s assessment is that extension of the ceasefire will prod involved parties to the negotiating table and weaken the hands of militants.

The Centre is keenly watching the attitude of the Hurriyat and the militant groups to the panchayat polls scheduled to be held in Jammu and Kashmir from mid-January. If the Hurriyat gives a no-boycott call, the Centre will take it as a success of its strategy.

The Centre has been reasonably happy with the impact of the current ceasefire — Pakistan has ceased firing across the border and militant activity is registering a decrease — but it is looking for more positive signals from Islamabad and the militant groups based in Pakistan. One of the things New Delhi wanted was for the Musharraf regime to issue an appeal to Kashmiri militant groups to respond constructively to the ceasefire, something that has not happened so far.

Army chief Gen. N. Padmanabhan declined to comment on how far the army had been involved in the decision to extend ceasefire. Padmanabhan has already made himself slightly unpopular with the government by saying immediately after assuming office that the Kashmir issue was a “political problem”.


New Delhi, Dec. 19: 
Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee today brought Bengal’s shame to the capital. She exhibited 10 maimed men and a dozen widows with babies and toddlers — all, she claimed, were victims of Red terror.

The gory human exhibition, perhaps the first of its kind, will continue till December 22, the concluding day of Parliament’s winter session.

The victims from Midnapore and Hooghly districts included Gour Chandra Khanra, whose tongue was slashed allegedly by CPM goons, three whose right legs were chopped off, five others whose hands were severed and one without an eye, lost when hooligans, said to belong to the CPM, fired at his forehead.

Mamata said Khanra’s tongue was chopped off as he was writing anti-CPM graffiti. She said: “Fortunately, or unfortunately, Hitler is not alive today. If so, even he would have been ashamed.”

The victims were made to squat under a shamiana on the lawns of the Constitution Club in the busy Rafi Marg. Each of the victims had a computer printout pinned over his or her shirts and sarees giving details of name, address and the incident in English for the media’s benefit.

Mamata addressed the media after opening the photo-exhibition on the “CPM’s reign of terror”. She took the camera and the soundbite-brigade to the lawn to take shots of the gory scene. A specially-erected hall adjacent had some 40 photographs and cartoons capturing “Marxist brutality”.

Mamata justified the exhibition saying that for several months her party had been apprising the President, the Prime Minister, home minister and NDA leaders of the political violence in Bengal but nothing had been done.

“We brought them here to get justice. We appeal to all political party leaders to visit them,” she said. Describing the situation in the state as “war-like”, Mamata said she would also knock on the doors of the National Human Rights Commission and chairmen of SC/ST and the minorities’ commissions.

But the railway minister parried repeated questions about whether she would again demand President’s rule, saying: “There are provisions in the Constitution under which the Centre can act to protect minorities and people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes.” Mamata said: “The Centre has moral responsibility to combat this volatile situation.”

She refused to comment on her party’s stand on communalism and the statements of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the Ayodhya issue.

CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee told reporters: “How do we know the truth or otherwise of their (Trinamul) claim?”

In any case, what is the purpose of doing such a show here, unless they are trying to get something from the Centre.”


New Delhi, Dec. 19: 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has hit upon a new way of courting his constituency — by calling the court to his doors. Aware that he has been neglecting Lucknow and unable to travel too frequently to his Awadh kingdom, Vajpayee has been summoning Awadh to New Delhi.

This evening, for instance, he had two planeloads of rozedars flown in from Lucknow to attend his lavish iftar in the Convention Hall of the state-owned Ashoka Hotel. The faithful broke their Ramzan fast, Vajpayee killed two birds with one stone: he pampered a bit of Lucknow and he thumbed his nose at the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid who had issued a fatwa to Muslims against attending the Prime Minister’s iftar.

There were scores of them at the iftar hosted by Vajpayee. Everything was right about the ambience apart from the essential thing: the menu comprised nothing even approaching the delectable excellence of Mughlai or Awadhi cuisine. The biryani, seekh kebabs and chicken curry served was perhaps the most ordinary fare dished out at any VIP iftar function in the capital.

The food may not have won Vajpayee too many new friends in Lucknow but his camp hopes that his gesture of bringing in two planeloads did.

Last week, the Prime Minister had all the new councillors of Lucknow flown into New Delhi. From what The Telegraph learns, this is going to be more and more of a pattern: the Mountain coming to Mohammed.

However, food was not under as close scrutiny at the iftar as the Muslim leaders who thronged this evening’s affair. Maulana Agha Roohi, a well-known Shia clergyman, was there, as was Ghulam Rasool Chishti, sajjadanasheen (chief priest) of the Ajmer dargah.

The diplomatic corps was present in full strength, as was the usual crowd of Delhi’s glitterati and chatterati ranging from herbal queen Shahnaz Hussain to S.M. Asif, chairman of the All India Minorities’ Front, who lost no time in placing a skull cap on Vajpayee’s head.

Another group of Muslims handed over a plaque carrying the holy Quranic verse, “Inallah mas saberin” (Allah is with those who have patience). Perhaps there was an ironic message in this from the Muslim community.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, made a brief appearance to deny the raging talk in Delhi’s political circles that all was not well between the leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. The two crossed paths but barely for all of 10 seconds. Sonia bowed hesitantly, Vajpayee responded sheepishly.

There was no namaste, the usual form of greeting between the Prime Minister and his opposite number on public occasions.


New Delhi, Dec. 19: 
The Congress had the consolation of “disapproving” the BJP standpoint on Ram temple construction in Ayodhya as it sailed through with its censure motion against the government in the Rajya Sabha today.

In his speech, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee described Ram as a national icon, but agreed that the matter be best left in the hands of the court because this issue “divided too much, broke too much”.

The only other option, Vajpayee added, was to get Hindu and Muslim groups to sit at the table for an unconditional dialogue.

The Congress, with support from the Left and the Samajwadi Party among others, won comfortably. Though both camps had several absentees, the motion was adopted by 121 votes to 86, dealing a harmless but embarrassing blow to the BJP.

The Prime Minister conceded ground soon after he rose to speak. “No one doubted the numerical majority of the Opposition in the Upper House. I fail to understand why the Congress insisted on voting,” he said, in a bid to convey the impression that his government was hardly embarrassed by this predictable defeat.

Despite the attempts to play down the Opposition’s emphatic victory, this was the first time that a government has been defeated in the Upper House since 1978.

Legally and constitutionally, the government is accountable to the Lok Sabha. But today’s defeat was a symbolic way of informing the Vajpayee administration that one important arm of Parliament was in disagreement with the government and was even censuring the Prime Minister. Congress chief whip Pranab Mukherjee quoted Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the Rajya Sabha’s first chairman, to insist that the purpose of this House is not to make or unmake a government, but influence it.

In 1978, a motion moved by Congress’ N.K.P. Salve on the conduct of Morarji Desai’s family members had been passed by this House.

During his speech, Vajpayee did not attempt to change his new image of a Hindutva proponent. He went to the extent of describing Ram as “Maryada Purushottam” (The Ideal Man) whose status in society was beyond the ambit of any one religion.

What he did want to convey in his speech was that he had followed a consistent line throughout his life. He spoke of a poem he had penned when he was in the tenth standard in which he had tried to explore his Hindu identity.

Vajpayee reiterated that the destruction of the Babri masjid was wrong, but the demand for a Ram temple was an “andolan” (movement) that could not be viewed alongside other issues.

In contrast with his Lok Sabha speech, Vajpayee was eager to defend the three chargesheeted ministers. Describing L.K. Advani as a very “capable” minister, he said there was “not a single charge of corruption and misuse of power” against him. Vajpayee invited the Opposition for talks on formulating a code of conduct for ministers, saying the “parameters should be uniform”. “You can’t have one norm in Bihar and one in Delhi,” he said.


Calcutta, Dec. 19: 
In a very public display of bonhomie, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and NRI industrialist Purnendu Chatterjee today showed that three can tango to secure the future of the troubled Rs 5170 crore Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd.

The petrochemicals project — the showpiece of Bengal’s industrial renaissance — has been riven by dissension between the three promoters: the West Bengal government, The Chatterjee Group, and the Tatas.

“There is no difference of opinion among the three promoters. There are no differences with Purnendu. We will all work together for HPL,” Bhattacharjee said after a visit to Chembiotek, the biotechnology unit that Chatterjee is setting up at Salt Lake.

Signalling that there was no acrimony in the relations with the NRI investor, the chief minister said Chatterjee would be granted another plot of land if he wanted to set up a research-oriented unit in the state.

Chatterjee has been at loggerheads with the Bengal government over his suggestions to bring down HPL’s Rs 4000-crore debt burden.

Bhattacharjee and Chatterjee had discussions at Writers’ Buildings early in the morning, paving the way for a rapprochement to resolve the sticking points that have plagued the working of HPL. Finance minister Asim Dasgupta, who has so far been handling the project on behalf of the government, was not present at any of these talks.

Today’s discussions were crucial since the promoters have been keen to bury the hatchet and present a united front when they approach the Industrial Development Bank of India to request an interest waiver and a reschedulement of debt. HPL owes IDBI Rs 962 crore which was taken as a bridge loan to meet the costs of setting up the project.

Government sources said the financial institutions had indicated that they would not reschedule loans unless the promoters stopped bickering among themselves.

“The company is now focusing on effective loan management. We can now go to the FIs and ask for the interest waiver,” sources added.

The promoters have not yet decided how to rope in Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) as a partner. “It has not been decided whether to bring in IOC as an equity partner or not,” Bhattacharjee said.

Sources acquainted with the developments said three options are being considered. “They (IOC) may enter into a processing arrangement with HPL, secondly, they can enter into a marketing tieup and, lastly, they may come in as a minority equity partner.”

These options will be discussed at HPL’s board meeting on Thursday. IOC’s board of directors will be meeting on December 22 where this issue is likely to taken up.

Chatterjee insisted that even if IOC came in as an equity partner, the shareholding pattern would be structured in a manner that the combined stakes of the West Bengal government and IOC would not exceed 50 per cent.

All these options will be discussed at HPL’s board meeting on Thursday. IOC’s board of directors will be meeting on December 22 where this issue is likely to taken up.

HPL’s project cost has been pegged at Rs 5,170 crore, of which Rs 2000 crore is the equity. It was decided that the three promoters would initially bring in Rs 1010 crore and another Rs 969 crore would be mopped up through a public issue. The debt component of the project was set at Rs 3,170 crore. But due to sluggish market conditions, HPL failed to come out with a public issue and instead secured a Rs 962-crore loan from IDBI.

This raised the debt burden of the company to Rs 4000 crore and changed the debt-equity ratio from 1.6:1 to 4.2: 1. It was also decided at its board meeting in early September that the three promoters would provide Rs 500 crore to ease the loan burden of HPL. It was decided that promoters would bring in money in two stages.

As part of the second stage funding, the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation has already paid Rs 107 crore and the Tatas Rs 36 crore. The Chatterjee group is yet to put in money.

Asked why he was holding back the funds, Chatterjee told The Telegraph, “I should first know how the loan will be managed. I would like to know the financial nitty-gritty before I commit the funds. However, I am happy that the state government has decided to work hand-in-hand.”

He added: “Our cost of money is high. This has to be brought down. We are negotiating the same with IOC and IDBI, which is keen to help us reduce the cost of funds.”




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