Hurriyat sets Pak visit date
Onus on parties in women�s Bill salvage plan
Sonia in Bofors challenge
Guess who was not invited to iftar
Mamata stage draws Big Two
24-year-old sin visits army
Calcutta weather

Srinagar, Dec. 21: 
The separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference decided today to send a delegation to Islamabad for talks with the Pakistani government and leaders of militant groups active in Kashmir.

�If the Indian government issues us the travel documents and clears our visit, the delegation will leave for Pakistan on January 15,� Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat said.

In Delhi, the government reacted cautiously, saying an official response would be given tomorrow, but there were indications that at least some of the Hurriyat leaders would be allowed to go.

�After all, the government is serious about the ceasefire and talks with Pakistan. It will be an inch-by-inch process and giving permission to Hurriyat leaders will form part of that process,� an official said.

The decision to send the delegation to Pakistan was taken after a seven-hour meeting, which was attended by all Hurriyat executive members. The meeting was held at the residence of former chairman Moulvi Omar Farooq.

In a statement after the meeting, the Hurriyat said: �The ceasefire extension by the government of India and the withdrawal of troops to barracks from the Line of Control are praiseworthy.�

�This is a positive development, which will finally lead to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute,� the statement in Urdu said.

The Hurriyat said: �The purpose of our visit to Pakistan is to initiate the political process by holding discussions with leaders of various militant groups active in Kashmir.�

Bhat said the executive would finalise the names of the members to visit Pakistan. �The executive will meet in the second week of next month to finalise the names and other details of the visit.�

The government will want to have a say in the composition of the team and is likely to insist on having Bhat, Abdul Ghani Lone and Yasin Malik, who form the moderate core of the Kashmiri leadership. But in the continuing season of goodwill gestures, it may even allow a pro-Pakistan leader like Syed Ahmed Shah Geelani to be part of the team.

By setting a date for travelling to Pakistan, the Hurriyat has given enough time to the Centre to take a favourable view. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has already been on record saying that the government would consider any request to visit Pakistan.

During its stay, if allowed by the Centre, delegation members will meet �government people, leaders of various religious groups, human rights activists� and �our boys with guns�, Bhat said.

�We will try to convince them about solving the problem politically,� he said and hastened to add: �Their apprehensions are grounded in history. Their apprehensions are to be dispelled�.

�We will plead our case with the boys in the interest of peace and resolution of the Kashmir problem permanently,� he said. �We all have to make sacrifices. India, Pakistan and the people � all have to make sacrifices to resolve the dispute once for all.�

He said: �Pakistan has taken positive steps towards normalising the situation.� Bhat invoked the threat of a nuclear war, underlining the urgency of choosing the �path of peace�. Bhat said �the Hurriyat is one... there are no differences�. �We will take this struggle to its logical conclusion.�

Combat dress sale ban

The government has banned the manufacture and sale of combat clothing in Srinagar following suicide attacks by militants wearing battledress, adds Reuters. The ban will be in place for two months.


New Delhi, Dec. 21: 
The Centre today indicated it is willing to consider amending the Representation of People�s Act to make it mandatory for all recognised parties to pick at least 33 per cent women while shortlisting candidates for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

In an all-party meeting convened by the Lok Sabha Speaker, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said the Election Commission had given a �good suggestion� and �we should discuss it�. NDA sources said Vajpayee had stressed on finding some way to resolve the impasse over the women�s Bill.

The sources added that former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had floated the EC�s proposal as the �basis for a discussion to evolve an all-party consensus�.

While maintaining that the demand for a sub-quota for women from backward castes and minorities was a �genuine one�, the sources quoted Chandra Shekhar as saying: �If the Bill is passed in its present form, it will create a lot of heartburn. The EC�s proposal can be the basis for a discussion to evolve a consensus.�

Home minister L.K. Advani, deputed by Vajpayee over a month ago to create a consensus on the Bill as it exists now, appeared to go along with Chandra Shekhar. �Chandra Shekharji�s proposal can be considered because if there is all-party consensus on the EC�s suggestion, it can be the basis for a consensus on women�s reservation too,� he is learnt to have said.

The former Prime Minister seems to have bailed out the government in more ways than one. BJP sources said Chandra Shekhar had been �persuaded� by party leaders to moot the formula to give it a veneer of �objectivity� and make it easy for both the ruling coalition and the Opposition to accept it without a hitch.

The proposal also helped the leaders paper over differences in their own ranks on a sub quota for backward caste women within the 33 per cent reservation slot, the BJP sources added.

But the Congress has rejected the EC�s formula out of hand. NDA sources said party president Sonia Gandhi had said in the all-party meeting that the Congress had turned down the idea when the EC had floated it.

Women�s organisations, too, were quick to oppose the EC�s suggestion, terming it a �kind of political match-fixing against women�. They accused the government of �doublespeak�.

They also handed a letter to the Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, pointing out that the EC�s proposal was the �latest diversionary suggestion� against ensuring one-third representation for women.

It was signed, among others, by Jyotsna Chatterji of the Joint Women�s Programme, Brinda Karat of the All-India Democratic Women�s Association and Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women .

While Balayogi got away with just a letter, Vajpayee faced the anger of women MPs in the Rajya Sabha who surrounded him after the House adjourned. Cutting across party lines, they shouted: �We demand the women�s reservation Bill.� But Vajpayee, keeping cool, quipped that he could not possibly withdraw the Bill from the Lok Sabha and bring it to the Upper House.

The Lok Sabha was adjourned twice over the Bill without transacting any business.


New Delhi, Dec. 21: 
If Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had chosen an iftar to raise the Ayodhya controversy, Congress president Sonia Gandhi too opted for an iftar to return the Bofors fire, asking the government to come up with �proof� about the link between Ottavio Quattrocchi and the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Not just Sonia�s bravado on Bofors, the presence of Mamata Banerjee at Sonia�s iftar cheered many in the Congress, who termed the Trinamul chief�s gesture a �homecoming�. Mamata, however, made it a point to mention that she could not go to Vajpayee�s do due to �preoccupation�. Harkishen Singh Surjeet, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ranjan Yadav sat with Sonia at one table, breaking bread and discussing the emerging political scenario in view of Bofors and Ayodhya.

Sonia, who avoided referring to Quattrocchi�s arrest in the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) general body meet, sought to clear the air on her links with the controversial Italian businessman wanted in the Bofors case. Speaking to reporters, Sonia said: �For the last 16 years they are raising the Bofors issue. Let the government investigate and come up with proof.� An aggressive Sonia said she had full faith in her late husband�s words when he had said on the floor of the House that neither he nor any member of his family was involved in the Bofors payoff.

After saying what she had to say, Sonia played the role of hostess to perfection, handing plates to Laloo, Surjeet, Muslim clerics and members of the diplomatic corps. Present on the occasion were the creme de la creme of the Muslim society, including Syed Shahabuddin, herbal queen Shahnaz Hussain and actor Akbar Khan.

The food served at her iftar was by far the best dished out at any VIP iftar in the capital. Lucknow�s famous tunde ke kabab was a great hit with ethnic delicacies such as doodh jalebi, rabri and a range of Mughlai preparations.

Earlier in the day, Sonia asked the NDA�s secular constituents to decide how far they would go along with the BJP, which had a hidden agenda. Addressing the CPP meet, Sonia said: �We leave it to the conscience of the secular elements in the NDA to determine how long a rope they intend to give to the BJP leadership whose hidden agenda has come out of the closet and put on public display.�

Justifying the Congress� insistence on the resignation of the three ministers chargesheeted in the Babri masjid demolition case, she said the issue has now come on the nation�s agenda. The Congress chief pointed out that even the NDA allies have been pushed on the defensive. She expressed apprehension that the Prime Minister�s rejection of the resignation demand would encourage �lawless and extremist elements� in the Sangh parivar.

�The inept handling of the Babri masjid-Ayodhya controversy by Vajpayee showed beyond a shadow of doubt that the Prime Minister is, indeed, a swayamsevak of 60 years standing who is committed to the philosophy of the Sangh parivar,� Sonia said.


New Delhi, Dec. 21: 
The Prime Minister was left wondering this evening why he had not been invited to leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi�s iftar.

Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, had invited Sonia and she had turned up for a brief while at Hotel Ashoka earlier this week. The Prime Minister would also have remembered that Sonia had not sent him a get-well card to Breach Candy Hospital where he underwent a knee operation.

The Congress tried to suggest that the iftar had been organised by Sonia as party chief and not as leader of the Opposition, which was why the event was held at its headquarters at 24 Akbar Road and not at 10 Janpath.

It pointed out that BJP president Bangaru Laxman had not invited Sonia to his iftar either. Congress sources insisted that not inviting Vajpayee was no reflection of a lack of �courtesy� on Sonia�s part as, like Laxman�s, this too was an exclusively party affair.

But with the issue having taken on sentimental overtones, BJP leaders wondered what Laloo Yadav and CPM general secretary H.S. Surjeet were doing at the iftar. Congress leaders justified their presence, saying the two are allies of the Congress. The BJP�s counter-argument was that Laxman had not called allies to his iftar yesterday.

The Prime Minister appears to be hurt that Sonia had chosen to ignore him and his party, but had invited Mamata Banerjee, who belongs very much in the Congress� opponent camp. Mamata did not attend Vajpayee�s iftar, but was present at Sonia�s.

At Hotel Ashoka, Vajpayee and Sonia hardly spoke to each other. They are bound to exchange even fewer words if the misunderstanding continues to grow.


New Delhi, Dec. 21: 
Mamata Banerjee�s roadshow featuring victims of clashes in West Bengal had more high-profile visitors today.

Home minister L.K. Advani, defence minister George Fernandes and Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi visited the maimed men and widows who have been squatting on the Constitution Club lawns for the past three days.

Both Advani and Fernandes used the visit to launch an election campaign against the CPM, exhorting the people to vote out the Marxists.

Fernandes congratulated Mamata for bringing the people to Delhi as it would help the entire world witness Red terror.

The defence minister suggested that a special court be set up �to try those who committed atrocities on women�. Neither Advani nor Fernandes spoke of Central intervention.


New Delhi, Dec. 21: 
The Samba spy scandal, one of the most explosive espionage cases in independent India, blew up in the military establishment�s face today as a court quashed charges against two officers found guilty in a court martial.

The Samba scandal broke in 1976 when two sepoys were arrested on charges of spying for Pakistan. They later charged two captains, who were eventually named the main accused by Military Intelligence. In the sweeping crackdown that followed, as many as 50 soldiers were arrested and dismissed. But the sepoys who named the captains were reinstated.

The scandal derived its name from Samba, a frontline sector in Jammu and Kashmir, from where the first two soldiers were arrested.

Almost a quarter century later, Delhi High Court today ordered the government to grant all service benefits to the officers, including Capt. R.S. Rathaur and Capt. A. K. Rana.

In a scathing indictment of the government and the army, the court said: �They think they are a law unto themselves and whatever they say must be accepted as the last word. The whole bundle of facts in the instant batch of cases would appear to be a pot-boiler to project the image of the Military Intelligence Directorate.�

The bench declared that the court martial order against the officers was null and void and held that there was no evidence to court martial them. �We are clearly of the view that the government and the army have not placed before us any material justifying the action,� the court said.

The captains were arrested in 1978 and court martial proceedings were initiated against them. Among those arrested and summarily dismissed from service were seven other officers. They had moved the high court for relief.

The seven officers are: R.K. Midha, M.R. Rajwani and S.P. Sharma (all majors), Arun Sharma, Kulwant Singh, Vijay Kumar Dhawan and J.S.Yadav (captains).

The bench gave a clean chit to the officers and the two captains and said: �We are of the view that there is no other conclusion possible except to say that the orders, which are subject matters of the writs and appeals by the petitioner, are merely camouflaged and passed for extraneous reasons under the cloak of innocuous form of orders of termination.�




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