Pak proposes three-stage talks structure
Blasphemy charge against Coke
Vajpayee push to labour reform
Vice-President sings PM paean
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Dec. 24: 
In a development that may finally lead to the resumption of Indo-Pakistan dialogue, Islamabad today put forward a �three-stage framework for talks� that will start with stabilising the �ceasefire� along the Line of Control.

The second stage will involve the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference in a dialogue with India and Pakistan, Pakistan foreign minister Abdus Sattar said. The third stage will lead to resumption of talks between Delhi and Islamabad.

Pakistan�s initiative found an echo in the RSS. The Sangh today urged the Centre to start a dialogue with the Pakistan, saying after Islamabad announced restraint along the LoC, the time was ripe. �The government should talk to the militants in Kashmir first and immediately after that, a dialogue with Pakistan needs to be initiated,� RSS spokesman M.G. Vaidya said in Jammu.

Sattar, in an apparent concession to India, said Pakistan would not insist on being present at the talks between India and the Hurriyat leaders. Late tonight, Pervez Musharraf echoed Sattar.

Home minister L.K. Advani, however, made it clear that Delhi would not limit its talks to the Hurriyat alone. It will engage various parties and organisations, including the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, in the process.

Advani told PTI in an interview: �I would like to emphasise that the dialogue with our people in Jammu and Kashmir would naturally have to include all sections like the ruling National Conference, the Congress, the BJP and Leftists and representatives from Jammu and Ladakh.

�If militant organisations like the Hizb-ul Mujahideen are prepared to lay down arms and become part of the dialogue, they are also welcome,� he said. He stressed that this was something the Hurriyat leaders have to realise. �They have been issuing statements as if they are the sole representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.�

Advani said though India was not ruling out the possibility of resuming talks with Pakistan, an assessment would be made after the ceasefire ends on January 26.

Although the home minister merely iterated Delhi�s stated position, the remarks of the Pakistani foreign minister are encouraging. His suggestion of the three-stage framework for talks and the emphasis that the first one should aim at stabilising the ceasefire are significant.

This means Pakistan is willing to keep its side of the bargain by ensuring that shelling across the border does not take place. Since this is usually done to help militants cross into India, it also indicates Islamabad will stop helping armed militants.

Sattar said unlike in the past, Islamabad would not insist on a trilateral dialogue between India, Pakistan and the Hurriyat leaders. He stressed that in the initial stages Islamabad will be content with a dialogue between Delhi and the Hurriyat, though he added that at a later stage Pakistan and Hurriyat leaders would also meet.

Sattar described the dialogue between India and the Hurriyat representatives as a precursor to India-Pakistan talks.

�India should invite Hurriyat leaders for a discussion which will be preparatory to the Pakistan-India dialogue,� Sattar was quoted as saying.

The Hurriyat leaders have expressed their desire to visit Islamabad on January 15.


Lucknow, Dec. 24: 
After the controversy over racial discrimination, Coca-Cola is facing another public storm for an offence it may not even be aware of.

Muslim religious leaders and clerics in Lucknow have issued a fatwa against Coke, asking Muslims in the country and across the world to boycott the fizzy drink as they are �certain� that the words Coca-Cola when held against a mirror reads �No Muhammad No Mecca� in Arabic.

An enraged Maulana Kalbe Jawwad, religious head of the Shias, said: �It is blasphemy. We will ask Muslims in the country and throughout the world to boycott the product until the company withdraws the offending words.�

�This allegation is baseless. We have had this logo since the last 75 years. It doesn�t read like that in Arabic,�� said Coke spokesman Irfan Khan from Mumbai.

Khan was, however, worried that the controversy might take a serious turn because of the involvement of religious leaders.

The maulana said he would ask all practising Muslims to spread the message about the �highly offending� logo.

Corroborating the maulana�s stand, S.R. Azmi Nadvi, Arabic scholar and principal of the renowned Nadwa College in Lucknow, said the words are �against our religion�. �I have looked at it (the logo) and I am sure that it is highly sacrilegious,�� he added.

He said the matter would now be taken up with the Muslim Personal Law Board and the Islamic World Arab League in Mecca.


New Delhi, Dec. 24: 
Top Central ministers have got cracking on the sensitive issue of labour reform, a subject successive governments have dropped like a hot potato since liberalisation began in 1991.

The current push has come from the very top, with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee indicating that labour reform will begin at home. At the opening of Ficci�s annual general meeting, Vajpayee said work to rationalise the government workforce has started.

Labour ministry sources said the message has been sent out that the government does not wish to wait for the recommendations of the Second Labour Commission, due in the second half of next year, before untying complex labour laws. The quest now is to find a politically palatable language of reform. The lead time the government is giving itself is four months, till April 2001, when all quantitative restrictions on imports will be lifted.

The move follows several representations from domestic industry for a level playing field. Industrialists who fear their businesses can be wiped out by imports argue that cumbersome laws are rendering them ineffective in the face of competition. Indian businesses, led by the Confederation of Indian Industry, are arguing that labour laws are biased against unorganised labour and protect only about 12 million organised workers out of a workforce of more than 370 million.

In notes CII representatives have circulated among a group of ministers that is believed to be charting a roadmap for labour reform, the industry grouping has identified specific laws and clauses that have to be amended/dispensed with to give managements more flexibility.

CII has suggested changes to four main laws: the Industrial Disputes Act, the Factories Act, the Contract Labour Act and the Trade Unions Act. Among its recommendations are: change the name of the Industrial Disputes Act to Employee Relations Act, amend Section 66 of the Factories Act so that women employees can be asked to stay at work beyond 7 pm, particularly in the infotech sector, legislate to allow contract labour to continue despite a Supreme Court advice to abolish contract labour and rules curbing multiplicity of trade unions.

Illustrating how labour laws tie down Indian industry, CII has cited the instance of Bharat Radiators Limited. Till the 1990s, the company had a factory licence to produce up to 36,000 automotive radiators. It was a single source for Premier Automobiles Limited (Fiat India).

Post-liberalisation, Bharat Radiators� competition includes Magnetti Marelli. Magnetti Marelli has a turnover of more than 4.1 million Euros (about Rs 12,250 crore), 25,600 employees, including research and development staff of 2,200, and industrial facilities in at least 18 countries, one in India, too. Fiat India today procures radiators from Magnetti Marelli. Bharat Radiators, which had traditionally high overhead costs, is going under.

Some of the laws are anachronistic. Like, contract labour is increasingly becoming popular with companies outsourcing many of their non-basic activities like gardening, cleaning and security.

Labour market reforms, however, are unlikely to get the support the government must have to legislate.

Constituents of the ruling coalition, too, are reluctant to touch labour laws, including a senior minister deeply involved in the process.

But the Centre�s enthusiasm to rush matters through almost defies political arithmetic. The support of the Left has been discounted, of course. But industry still feels that with a little help, the government can still work round the Congress by convincing it of the need for a social security net for workers who will inevitably be rendered surplus.


New Delhi, Dec. 24: 
Departing from etiquette, Vice-President Krishan Kant has penned a piece for RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya in which he has heaped praise on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

The issue is carrying a number of laudatory articles on Vajpayee on the occasion of his birthday tomorrow. Apart from the Vice-President, the contributors include senior Congress leader N.D. Tiwari and a few journalists.

In a statement today, Panchajanya claimed that the articles were written by �desh ke bibhinna netayo� cutting across ideological and party lines. It said that Kant has appreciated the �fact� that the Prime Minister is �ever ready for the politics of coalition and believes in carrying everyone along with him�. The Vice-President has said: �To fight is easy, to travel with everybody is very difficult. Atalji is always willing to give this difficult task a try.�

Kant�s article raised eyebrows in the Opposition with many wondering whether he should have written it. A section of the Congress is unhappy that the Sangh is trying to woo the Vice-President, who is responding right back. Some Congressmen are also peeved that the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptullah, has been bestowed the Ojaswini award by an RSS platform.

Kant is not the first Vice-President to praise a Prime Minister � it is his pulpit that has raised questions. �Why write in the RSS mouthpiece?� asked a Congressman. The timing of the article has also sparked comments. Critics were quick to point out that the Prime Minister�s image as the perfect coalition leader took a beating after his pro-Ayodhya statement earlier this month that made several of his allies jittery.

In the article, Kant � who will present himself at 7 Race Course Road tomorrow to congratulate the Prime Minister � recalled that in 1989 he had organised a conference on the criminalisation of politics, one of the earliest such discussions on the issue.

Pandit Kamalapati Tripathi, the veteran Uttar Pradesh-based Congress leader, had chaired the conference. Among others present were E.M.S. Namboodiripad, Vishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandra Sekhar. Vajpayee also attended the conference and his �marmasparshi bhasan� (touching speech) caused tears to flow like �Ganga ke neer� (the water of the Ganges).




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