Sonia invokes Vaastu to spirit away death
Mamata set to spare passengers
Delhi douses testfire fears
Mixed signal from Advani
New US regime sees Delhi as peacekeeper
KLO hitmen in police net
Top mine officers face bribe arrest
Fake note racket
KPP resists R-Day boycott
Naxalites for judicial probe

New Delhi, Jan. 18: 
Sonia Gandhi is using extra-terrestrial methods to ward off evil after death snatched away three senior Congress leaders within a year.

The Congress chief summoned Vaastu Shastra experts to mark the location of the podium and seating arrangements for the audience at the Palace ground in Bangalore, where the Congress plenary session will start on Valentine�s Day. A yagna has been performed on the grounds.

Ironically, the venue has been dedicated to Rajiv Gandhi as a tribute to the former Prime Minister�s fondness for the scientific temper and his stress on modernisation and information technology.

The preparations are on at a hectic pace. Karnakata chief minister S.M. Krishna and other senior Congress leaders have been visiting the ground everyday and on each trip they are accompanied by top astrologers and Vaastu Shastra experts. One Vaastu expert, Krishnamurthy, has even suggested the exact spot for Sonia that will ensure a smooth tenure, glory and the most sought-after prize � power for the Congress president.

Sources close to Sonia explained her obsession with astrology and Vaastu. �She is a believer and follows Indian customs and tradition. Whatever we are doing is with her blessing, knowledge and approval,� said a Congress functionary part of the preparations.

The Bangalore session may have an extra significance for Sonia. At the 1969 session here, Indira Gandhi faced the most formidable challenge when the party split over the contest for the President�s job between V.V. Giri and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy. �So why take a chance?� asked a Sonia-manager, though dissidence within the party is dying out.

A section of the party is, however, uncomfortable over Sonia�s growing dependence on soothsayers, swamis and other religious heads who are given appointments on priority basis. �She has given orders that babas, fakirs and sadhus should be given easy access as she needs their blessings,� a 10 Janpath insider said.

He said Sonia receives these godmen and accepts their offerings that range from wristbands, charms and prasad.

It is for astrological reasons that Sonia has not named the new Congress Working Committee (CWC). The formation got further delayed on account of the tragic demise of Jitendra Prasada, but the period till January 14 was considered �inauspicious� due to Makar Sankranti.

The composition of Sonia�s new team is slated to be announced after Friday or Monday � as both these days are reportedly �auspicious�.

Sonia has asked Manmohan Singh to draft the party�s economic resolution and packed the committee with pro-reforms leaders like Murli Deora, Kamal Nath, Jairam Ramesh.


New Delhi, Jan. 18: 
Mamata Banerjee is trying her best to give the electorate another populist railway budget and has vehemently opposed any hike in passenger fares. She told ministry officials as much while discussing budget proposals at her residence yesterday.

Highly placed government sources said she had made it clear to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in December that there should not be any pressure on her to increase the fares.

Vajpayee had not given her any assurance but it is unlikely that he will turn down her request unless the finance ministry and the planning commission are determined to scuttle the move.

Today, sources close to Mamata confirmed that she had conveyed to Vajpayee that the common man should not be burde- ned with an enhanced fare structure.

Mamata, however, was tight-lipped about her discussions with the railway officials and the Prime Minister.

Even if the railways increased the fare by 20 per cent it could mop up a pittance of Rs 400 crore. The railways could easily mobilise an equal amount through other means without resorting to a fare hike, Mamata said.

When she assumed charge, the railway deficit was at Rs 1100 crore whereas now there is a surplus of Rs 1572 crore, Mamata claimed. The diesel price hike had forced the railway to absorb Rs 475 crore, she added.

Government sources said they understand Mamata�s predicament. She will be leading the Trinamul-BJP combine to the Assembly polls in Bengal later in the year.

Now that she is almost saying that she will stand by the BJP and not realign with the Congress, it is likely that her demand will be given a green signal by the Prime Minister�s Office.

However, finance minister, Yashwant Sinha and the planning commission do not agree with Mamata�s views.

They want resources to be mobilised under all heads and, according to them, even going by Mamata�s figures, a sum of Rs 400 crore, to be raised from hiked passenger fares, should not be ignored.

Mamata was not invited in any of the reforms consultations that Vajpayee had with Cabinet colleagues.

In the second round of dialogue, which the Prime Minister had at his residence last evening, the absentees included the railway minister and communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan. Neither were invited.

Others who did not attend the meeting were Sharad Yadav (civil aviation minister) and Nitish Kumar (agriculture).


New Delhi, Jan. 18: 
Even as criticism over the Agni II testfire trickled in from some parts of the world, India today tried to allay fears that it was embarking on an arms race and said though it was faced with a �very unusual security situation�, it remained committed to maximum possible restraint and would act as a responsible nuclear power.

Officially, India did not respond to Pakistan�s proposal that the two sides enter into a regional restraint agreement. But senior officials in South Block said if Pakistan was keen on restraint, it should try to implement the confidence-building-measures agreed to in the Lahore Declaration.

�Restraint, yes, but it should not mean parity as Pakistan is perhaps intending,� an official of the foreign ministry said. He argued that Delhi�s security concerns were not limited to Islamabad and went beyond. Hence, India could not accept an arrangement which called for nuclear and missile parity between the two sides.

The feeling in South Block is that Pakistan, which has acquired its Shaheen II missile � with a possible range of 2000-plus km � from China, will not have the political courage to testfire it.

Experts argue that if Pakistan were to testfire Shaheen II, it might bring further international pressure on the already-isolated military regime. By reviving the proposal for regional restraint instead, Islamabad is seeking to take the diplomatic high ground.

China was muted in its response to the testfire, unwilling to start a fresh controversy involving India. The foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said China hoped to see peace and stability and would not like an arms race in the region. The surface-to surface missile with a range of 2,000 km can strike any target in the Pakistani and Chinese capitals.

Japan and Australia were the two countries critical of the second test-firing of Agni-II. Both countries, though not nuclear powers, come under the United States security umbrella. Japan is likely to enjoy further benefits if and when the proposed American Theatre Missile Defence system �- a shield which knocks off incoming missile carrying nuclear warheads �- comes into existence.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao was quoted by a news agency in Beijing as saying �China, together with the international community, hopes to see peace and stability in the region. We are unwilling to see any form of arms race in the region.�

Asked to comment on the testing of the missile that has a range of 2,000 km, Zhu said: �We have taken note that India launched a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapon�. He added that the Chinese position on the nuclear question in South Asia was �consistent and clear�, referring to the UN Security Council resolution that calls on India and Pakistan to renounce the development of nuclear weapons.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said India�s security preparedeness was based on �maximum restraint and a sense of responsibility�. Defence minister George Fernandes stressed the Agni II testfire was not meant to heighten tension in the region nor was India trying to escalate the arms race in South Asia.


New Delhi, Jan. 18: 
Without taking any decisive stand, home minister L.K. Advani today spoke for peace in Kashmir, implying he was not averse to the ceasefire being extended for the third month.

Speaking to reporters in North Block, Advani said it was after a long time that Kashmir was experiencing relative calm and that the international community had recognised that India�s stand was in favour of peace. He said the decision on extending the truce will be taken around January 26.

But the home minister hinted that the recent spate of attacks � from the Lashkar-e-Toiba raid on Red Fort to today�s massacre in Pulwama � could not have taken place without the support of the Pakistani establishment. �Such terrorist attacks are not possible without support from the Pakistan army and the ISI,� he said.

Advani added that there was an opinion in the government that the security forces should be given the upper hand. �(There are questions) on why the security forces should not be allowed to continue with the counter-terrorist measures. They had gained an upper hand before the ceasefire was declared in November,� Advani said.

Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah today said the ceasefire should be discontinued if the attacks against security forces and killing of innocents persons went on.

He met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the Kashmir situation minutes before reports of the two blasts in Kashmir, that claimed six lives, reached Delhi. Abdullah expressed his doubts about the All-Party Hurriyat Conference leadership being able to achieve anything if they were allowed to travel to Pakistan.

The Prime Minister reportedly had wanted to meet Abdullah before deciding on the ceasefire extension and issuing passports to the Hurriyat leaders. With serious reservations about pro-Pakistan hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani among them, the government has been dithering on allowing the Hurriyat leaders to travel to Pakistan.

The Hurriyat and the ruling National Conference have not had the best of relations in recent months, especially after the release of the Hurriyat leaders, about whose political clout Abdullah had raised doubts in the past.

�What they can do and achieve in Pakistan is a mystery. Why don�t they condemn all these terrorist attacks first? Their intention will become quite clear only then,� the chief minister said.

It was obvious that Abdullah was playing with the divisions in the Hurriyat leadership. He also strengthened the home ministry�s belief that a divided Hurriyat with hardliners like Geelani can fall prey to Pakistani strategies in Islamabad.

Abdullah said it was for the Centre to decide if passports should be given to the Hurriyat leaders and that he had no say in the matter. He claimed these �so-called� leaders were often in touch with the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi.


Washington, Jan. 18: 
In his first official statement after being designated US secretary of state, General Colin Powell yesterday stopped short of a commitment to lift sanctions on India, but promised to review all of them on taking office.

But more significantly, he envisaged a peace-keeping role for New Delhi in the Indian Ocean region even as it was made clear that the Bush administration would not ignore �our friends� in Pakistan.

Appearing on the opening day of his two-day confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Powell described India as �a country that should grow more and more focussed in the lens of our foreign policy�.

In a 24-page written deposition before the committee, he said: �We must deal more wisely with the world�s largest democracy. Soon to be the most populous country in the world, India has the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean area and its periphery. We need to work harder and more consistently to assist India in this endeavour, while not neglecting our friends in Pakistan�.

He continued: �As you know, this is a delicate process in the midst of what by any accurate account would be labelled an arms race between these two countries.

Recently, however, there have been encouraging signs, including India�s extended moratorium on operations in Kashmir and Pakistan�s restraint along the line of control�.

On the prickly issue of the nuclearisation of South Asia, Powell said: �We have to do what we can to constrain their nuclear programme at this time. We have to help them with economic development so they can handle this increased population.�

The secretary of state-designate said the Bush administration did not plan to send the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) back to the Senate for ratification. But nor did the US plan any more nuclear tests.

Typically for someone who served in several Republican administrations during the Cold War, Powell said: �During the Cold War period and even when I was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (we) didn�t have to think much about India. They were somewhere else, trapped in another kind of world to us...But now it�s all opened up and it is the soon-to-be largest country by population on the face of the earth, and it is a powerful country and it is a nuclear-armed country.�

The retired general�s comments on the sanctions did not come voluntarily, but in reply to questions by Senator Sam Brownback, who has been vigorously campaigning on Capitol Hill for a repeal of the restrictions imposed after the nuclear tests in May 1998.

�With respect to the sanctions,� Powell said, �I�ve discovered one thing over the last several weeks as I�ve prepared for this job, is that there is a wide range of sanctions and certifications and various constraints. And what I�m really going to have to do before I answer your question directly is to get into office and, with my other colleagues in the administration, review all of these sanctions�.

He remarked that �I certainly agree with you (Brownback) that India has to be a high priority for foreign policy activities of the US�. The promised review, he said, would enable the incoming administration to determine �whether this is the time to move forward and remove the remaining sanctions that are in place... especially with respect to India. But I am not in a position to make that commitment now�.


Siliguri, Jan. 18: 
The Cooch Behar police claimed to have made yet another breakthrough in establishing the existence of the nexus between the militant Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) with the arrest of two �confirmed� hardcore north Bengal separatists in Assam last week.

Cooch Behar superintendent of police Kailash Chandra Meena said: �We have taken into remand for questioning two hardcore KLO militants arrested by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Bijai area of Assam�s Bongaigaon district last week. The CRPF arrested Arun Burman (21) and Niranjan Das (19) along with a Bodo militant as they were trying to sneak into Assam from a Ulfa hideout in Bhutan last week.�

Meena said the two men, now in the custody of the Cooch Behar police, had �confessed� that they were trained in the use of arms at the Ulfa camp tucked away in Bhutan�s Fifshu forests, north of Kumargramduar in Jalpaiguri district on the Assam-West Bengal-Bhutan tri-junction.

�We had been after these militants as we suspect that they were involved in several KLO strikes in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts in the past few months. Though the CRPF did not recover any weapons, they were obviously out on a strike operation.�

While Burman is a resident of Uttar Chikliguri in Alipurduar subdivision of Jalpaiguri, bordering Cooch Behar, Das hails from Chengmari in Kumargramduar block of Alipurduar. During interrogation, they told the police that they were part of a 60-strong batch of KLO and Ulfa cadre which received advanced arms training between April 15 to July 15, 1999 at the Assam outfit�s Nichula �area command�.

The Nichula base is a day�s walk from Kalikhola on the Indo-Bhutan border north of Uttar Haldibari. Though the arrested insurgents could not give the exact location of the camp, they maintain it is around 8 km north of �Allay busty� inside the Fifshu jungle.

The KLO militants also admitted that their elusive �commander-in-chief� Jeevan Singh alias Tushar Roy, also a resident of Uttar Haldibari, was present at the �induction day� in March 1999 and at the �passing out parade� on July 15, 1999.

In December 2000, the district police had arrested three suspected KLO militants in their first breakthrough in establishing the KLO�s links with the Ulfa.

The rebels � Lalan Das (19), Chakra Das (21) and Naresh Chandra Burman (25) � had confessed that they were part of the 1999 batch of cadre who underwent training at the Ulfa camp.

�So far we have apprehended eight of the 30 KLO insurgents who trained alongside an equal number of Ulfa cadre in the use of AK assault rifles, 9 mm guns and universal machine guns. They also received training in hand-to-hand combat and jungle warfare.�

The police believe that the two men had been sent on a mission to carry out operations in the run-up to Republic Day. Both the KLO and Ulfa have called for a boycott of the celebrations in their respective areas of influence.

�Further grilling may reveal more on the organisation�s plans to strike during Republic Day. We have concrete information that the arrested KLO men are hardcore hitmen,� Meena said.


Asansol, Jan. 18: 
An arrest warrant has been issued against two top officers of the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute for allegedly demanding bribes from a local businessman.

The additional chief judicial magistrate issued the arrest order yesterday after a case was lodged by the businessman on January 9.

A case was lodged in Kulti police station against the chairman and former managing director, Risish Chandra Goyel, and the chief general manager (purchase), Lalit Jain on the basis of a complaint filed by Ramanuj Kumar Singh, owner of a fuel company in Salanpur area.

The trader alleged that the two men had demanded a bribe of Rs 5 lakh from him in exchange for issuing a despatch order for the supply of �E�-grade linkage coal for his factory.


Bolpur, Jan. 18: 
Two fake currency dealers were arrested by the district police at Illambazar today.

A couple of cow traders, S.K. Entaz (45) and S.K. Minarul (42), were nabbed at Ranitala in Murshidabad when they tried to issue fake notes after buying cows from the market at Illambazar.

The other traders suspected something was amiss and they confronted the two men.

Sensing trouble, Entaz and Minarul tried to flee but they were chased by the other traders who handed them over to the police.

After sustained interrogation through the night, the men were formally arrested today. Fake currency of 100 and 500-rupee denomination amounting to Rs 1.05 lakh was recovered from them.

The men confessed that they had been working at the behest of one Mainul in Murshidabad, who is the kingpin of this racket.

Mainul is a trans-border smuggler and deals in fake currency. Sujit Kumar Sarkar, subdivision police officer of Bolpur, said: �We got information that some racketeers of fake currency are very active. Their main target are these types of haats. We have already issued instructions to the cow traders of Illambazar and Sainthia to be on their guard against fake notes.�


Siliguri, Jan. 18: 
In an effort to distance itself from the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), the Kamtapur People�s Party (KPP) has decided to resist any attempt to disrupt the Republic Day celebrations and will instead observe the day as Ekta (unity) Diwas.

The KLO, along with most of the Northeast militant groups, has given a call to boycott the January 26 celebrations.

Criticising the threat issued by the militant groups, KPP chief Atul Roy said: �We will resist any attempt to disrupt the party�s programmes on Republic Day, which the KPP will observe as Ekta Diwas.

�Party activists have been instructed to ensure that no one disrupts the celebration in the name of Kamtapuris.�

Some 14 militant organisations of the Northeast along with the KLO have issued a �solidarity statement� to boycott the Republic Day functions. The groups are distributing leaflets in the Kamtapuri hub of Kumargramduar in Jalpaiguri district, on the Assam border, urging people to stay away from the celebrations and �observe a general strike� in protest against the �illegal occupation of their region�.

Apart from the KLO and Ulfa, militant organisations such as the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) have given the boycott call.

�To all the people in our respective regions, these are events that symbolises their (read Indian) colonial bondage under the repressive Indian occupation,� the leaflets say.

Urging the people to shun the boycott call, Roy said: �The KPP will also observe the day to promote harmony and amity. The party activists in north Bengal have been instructed to observe Republic Day at all KPP offices in their respective areas.�

Reiterating that the KPP is a democratic organisation striving for the development of the region and the sons-of-the soil of north Bengal, Roy rubbished the allegation that his group was disowning the KLO to gain political mileage.

�I have challenged the state government and the police administration to establish our alleged links with the militant KLO.�

Till now they have not been able to prove anything,� he said.

Earlier, senior state government officials and CPM leaders, including chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had alleged that the KPP is hand-in-glove with the KLO, which they said was the armed wing of the separatist party.


Calcutta, Jan. 18: 
The CPI(ML) today demanded a judicial inquiry into the alleged massacre at Chhoto Angaria in Midnapore district.

Addressing a news conference, CPI(ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya said that the spiralling violence in Bengal, especially in Midnapore district, portends a dangerous trend in the state�s politics.

�The Chhoto Angaria incident has only tarnished the state government�s image and given a handle to anti-Left forces in the state,� Bhattacharya said.

He added that the CPI(ML) central committee met in Ranchi from January 12-14 and resolved to launch a nationwide campaign to organise a determined secular democratic resistance against the BJP�s renewed bid to rake up the Ayodhya issue.

�It is imperative to prevent the construction of a Ram temple on the plot where the Babri masjid stood till December 6, 1992. To prevent the VHP from vitiating the atmosphere further, the saffron outfit should immediately be banned,� he said.

Bhattacharya felt that the mandir-masjid controversy could be put to rest by declaring the Babri masjid as a national monument.

The CPI(ML) general secretary said that among the five states going to the polls in April-May, the party was concerned about the situation in Assam and West Bengal.

Bhattacharya said the Baranagar mill violence underlined the desperate situation of jute workers in the state where normal industrial relations had been overshadowed by a �reign of predatory loot and terror�.

�But, instead of addressing the real crisis, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee-led West Bengal government seems to be bent on silencing the workers through increased terror and repression. It is ironic that the government now openly embraced the Andhra line of appeasement of foreign investors while rural Bengal is witnessing the beginning of an actual reversal of the much hyped land reforms and Operation Barga,� he said.

A people�s conference against globalisation and for democracy will be held in Delhi from March 21-23, he said.


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