Last bus to Lahore tears families apart
Sonia ready to speak for Atal
America hears battle cry, not guns
Advani warms up for US trip
Nuke-wary Thackeray silent on war
Advani in Ayodhya spot
India, Pak delegates meet in Nepal
Sushma on downsize drive
Bravehearts in battle mode
Private fund for education

New Delhi, Dec. 28: 
It was a different last journey, though tears were shed and hugs exchanged. Different, because Delhi police and Intelligence Bureau sleuths oversaw the parting when the Delhi-Lahore bus left Ambedkar Stadium at 6.30 in the morning on its last journey, at least for some time. Each passenger had a story to tell and all of the stories had an element of tragedy. All 33 passengers on board the Sada-e-Sarhad (call of the border) were leaving India in a hurry to meet the December 31 deadline when train and bus services between the two countries will be snapped.

One was leaving an ailing aunt behind, another going away before a wedding for which she had especially come from Pakistan and still another leaving the last rites of a beloved family member midway.

But the emotional bonding across the Indo-Pak border remained despite the diplomatic offensive launched by the political establishments.

None of the passengers and their relatives exchanged customary pleasantries � �will meet again�, �call up soon� or �write a letter�. Only tears flowed and, once in a while, �Khuda hafiz� (may you be in God�s protection) could be heard.

The bus for Lahore left on a cold, foggy morning with 33 Pakistani nationals, two drivers and security officials. A Delhi police escort jeep drove up to Burari, after which Haryana police took over to see off the half-empty bus till it touched Punjab. The journey marked an abrupt end to a symbol of Indo-Pak friendship.

At Ambedkar stadium today, nobody was talking about Pakistan�s nefarious designs or the terrorist bid to blow up Parliament. There was no discussion on India�s right to retaliate or cripple the Pakistani economy.

Twenty-year-old Irfan Ahmed was leaving an ailing aunt in Meerut. �I may not get to see her again,� he said, barely holding back his tears. Ahmed had a visa valid till January 15.

Shakila had to pull herself out of her sister�s wedding, scheduled for tonight, to get into the bus. �It was a difficult decision but there was no other way I could have made it back to my country.� Shakila was married to a cousin in Pakistan in 1981.

There were first-timers like Shazia, a student from Sindh, who came to see her relatives. �It is a wonderful country, full of nice people. I am sure things are going to be normal. Inshallah,� she said.

Sitting next to her, Farid said: �Amin� (May God let it happen).

For the cash-starved Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), the bus-loss may be irreparable. The Delhi-Lahore bus was extremely popular as passengers from both sides were happy to spend Rs 900 for a comfortable 12-hour journey compared to the Rs 7,000 air-fare or the cumbersome train journey with an eight-hour halt at Attari.

DTC officials said they have written to the foreign ministry requesting it to organise two special trips on January 8 and 15 to help the return of those stranded in remote areas.

�How do you expect someone in Munger district to rush back to Delhi and take the bus today? I am sure there are many cases on both sides where passengers would like to come back. I am sure the respective governments will fulfil a humanitarian request,� a DTC official said.

Like the bus service, the train link too will be snapped. The Samjhauta Express, a legacy of the Simla Agreement, will make its last trip on Sunday.


New Delhi, Dec. 28: 
Sonia Gandhi is keen to chip in as the country�s ambassador to articulate the Indian point of view on the current crisis at international fora.

The leader of the Opposition is waiting in the wings to travel abroad as part of the Vajpayee government�s plans to send out MPs to West Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and America to counter Pakistani propaganda.

Speaking to office-bearers on the Congress� 116th foundation day, Sonia endorsed the Vajpayee government�s move to involve all political parties. She said it was a good idea to pick former Prime Ministers and senior leaders for the exercise.

Sources close to Sonia, however, said she had not received any feelers from the government. If Sonia is offered a diplomatic assignment, she would be only too willing to undertake that, they added.

�Recently, she had gone to the US and addressed the United Nations general assembly on HIV/AIDS. She had articulated the government�s point of view and her speech was greatly appreciated,� a Congress Working Committee member said.

Congress leaders said Sonia�s presence would lend credence to the Indian campaign as she belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi family. There are a number of powerful regimes across the globe which have a lot of regard for the family, they said.

�Take China for instance. The Chinese leadership cannot forget Rajiv Gandhi�s liberal gesture to settle the border dispute. Then there are leaders like Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, King Abdullah, Colonel Gaddafi, Nelson Mandela and Saddam Hussain, who had close links with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. She would be an asset while dealing with these leaders,� a CWC member said.

Sonia was planning to visit China on a Communist Party invitation in September 2001 but had to cancel it after the September 11 attack on the US. Congress leaders said she is now planning a January trip to the country.

The Congress party today supported the steps taken by government as part of its diplomatic offensive against Pakistan. Spokesman Jaipal Reddy said: �We think these steps are justified.� However, the Congress was not too happy with the US response. �The US is making right noises but taking no effective steps. For us, December 13 is as important as September 11 is for the US.�


Washington, Dec. 28: 
US secretary of state Colin Powell�s �assurance� to General Pervez Musharraf and foreign minister Abdus Sattar last week that India will not attack Pakistan was not based on any undertaking given to Washington by New Delhi.

On the contrary, it is a sober reflection of the assessment of the sub-continental military situation here, which is vital for America�s own war effort in Afghanistan.

Powell, a retired general who has interrupted his Christmas vacation to defuse tension between India and Pakistan, has concluded that since Indian military preparations are being made in public, it is unlikely that New Delhi�s objective is to go to war.

Sources here said Powell has pointed out to his colleagues in the administration that India is publicising every one of its military moves, including the deployment of missiles and their location. This is not the way an army prepares for war, he is said to have told colleagues.

Powell�s view is that the real target of India�s military preparations is Washington. The Americans believe that India is creating a situation where Washington is forced to apply the same amount of pressure on Musharraf that forced him on September 19, in an address to the nation, to make a U-turn on the Taliban. This time, the U-turn would have to be on anti-Indian terror outfits.

Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, his counterpart at the Pentagon, are aware that there are hawks at the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi who are counselling Musharraf to launch a pre-emptive strike to seize a large part of Indian territory as a bargaining chip in the event of a full-scale war with India.

The public expression of worry at the Pentagon yesterday over diversion of Pakistani forces from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and protection for US forces and installations in Pakistan was made precisely with this in mind.

Military analysts here said the US would do its utmost to prevent Pakistan army�s 11 and 12 corps, located at Peshawar and Quetta, from being moved closer to the Indian border.

Nearly one-sixth of Pakistan�s six-lakh strong army is now either combing the border with Afghanistan for al Qaida and the Taliban or protecting US forces in their territory.

In November, Washington said it would give Islamabad $73 million for such work on the border. An additional incentive for Pakistan would be the reimbursement of the entire cost of $400 million for this effort.

Rumsfeld said at his briefing yesterday: �The Pakistan situation is an important one. They (Pakistanis) have not yet moved forces from the Afghan border, and that is very encouraging to us, They must have seven or eight, nine battalions along the Pakistan-Afghan border.�


New Delhi, Dec 28: 
Prime Ministerial hopeful L.K. Advani will begin the new year with a crucial visit to the US, beginning possibly on January 8.

In Washington, he will have his first one-on-one interaction with the Republican leadership and get an opportunity to present India�s case against Pakistan.

Advani will meet secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleeza Rice and other top officials. A call on President George W. Bush is also on the cards though there has been no official confirmation.Calling the attack on Indian Parliament an �outrage� against the entire democratic world, Britain today asked Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to put a stop to the operations of Jaish e-Mohammad and Lashkar e-Toiba. These terrorist groups have no place in a modern society, London said.

Expressing deep concern at the recent deterioration in relations between India and Pakistan, British foreign secretary Jack Straw said the Parliament attack was �an outrage not only against India but against the entire democratic world�.

Since the December 13 terrorist strike on Parliament, Advani�s public profile has gone up steadily. As the man in charge of internal security, he has been in the driver�s seat, pushing for a hard line against Islamabad, but relying mainly on diplomacy to force President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on terrorists.

This time, Advani is completely in tune with the rest of the Prime Minister�s men on India�s strategy. New Delhi firmly believes Washington holds the key. Both foreign minister Jaswant Singh and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra know the US is best placed to get Musharraf to toe India�s line.

Unlike during the Kandahar hijack, when Advani�s was the minority voice speaking out against a bargain with terrorists, this time the entire Cabinet is speaking in one voice.

The home minister today justified denying overflights to PIA planes, and scaling down of Pakistani mission staff.

The home minister�s US trip was planned much before the terror strikes but since then the Indian and US views on terrorism have coincided.

Advani will take this opportunity to get a handle on diplomacy. He has made his mark in domestic politics but is little known outside. As a man who aspires to take over from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he needs to spread his wings beyond the country.


Mumbai, Dec. 28: 
Bal Thackeray, for once, is quiet.

As war cries ring across the country, the Shiv Sena chief, who has always clamoured for the strongest possible action against Pakistan, is keeping his counsel. And for good reason.

�Balasaheb doesn�t want to be blamed for any nuclear war if it ever comes to that. The situation is too serious and he doesn�t want to be held responsible for any eventuality,� a Thackeray confidant said.

The Sena chief is in full favour of giving the nuclear neighbour a �fitting reply� for backing the terrorists who attacked Parliament. �But he feels it is for the government to decide what action it would take,� the Sena leader said.

Thackeray�s fear of enemy nukes is shared by ally BJP as well, at least in private.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said yesterday that India did not want to rush into a war because Pakistan was �not as weak and defenceless as Afghanistan�.

Mahajan, a confidant of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said India had to take into account Pakistan�s nuclear capability before launching any strike.

Thackeray, however, was all for a diplomatic offensive against Pakistan for harbouring Kashmiri separatists and backing their covert operations in India.

The Sena chief gave Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Nirupam the go-ahead to raise the issue in Parliament on December 19. .

Addressing the Rajya Sabha on December 19, Nirupam said the Centre should recall its high commissioner from Islamabad and halt train and bus services between the countries. Nirupam asked L.K. Advani to bar Pakistan from using Indian air space.

Advani called Nirupam to his office the next morning and told him that the government had taken his suggestion seriously. .

Sena sources said Thackeray was happy that the Centre had accepted almost all the suggestions Nirupam had made except to deny river waters to Pakistan.


New Delhi, Dec. 28: 
The Ram temple card appears to have outlived its utility for its creator L.K. Advani. The Union home minister�s dilemma on how to handle the card � flash it with aplomb or tuck it away discreetly � was obvious in his two-day deposition before the Liberhan Commission inquiring into the Babri Masjid demolition.

After comparing the Ram �movement� with the Dandi March and describing it as a second �freedom struggle�, Advani told the commission on Wednesday that the events of December 6, 1992 were a �big setback� to the BJP. The party was committed to the rule of law and did not want a temple using force, he said.

Advani was also at pains to stress that the movement was not meant to exploit the Hindu psyche or cobble together a Hindu vote bank.

In a rare admission by a leader of a party which refused to recognise the existence of the caste structure and propagated the view that Hindus were an undivided people, he said: �Hindu society is not monolithic. The varieties of castes and creed, linguistic groups and the tribal sections are totally distinct from the rest.�

But what has led to the turnaround in Advani�s temple stance?

First, the realisation that the law of diminishing returns applied as much to the temple slogan as any other political slogan. Despite the VHP�s repeated efforts to resurrect the issue, BJP sources admitted that none of its programmes have made any impression even on traditional Hindutva voters.

There was even an admission that the temple�s overt politicisation had disenchanted the BJP�s committed followers who genuinely believed in the slogans the movement threw up. This section felt that had the leadership owned up to the demolition, instead of acting coy and speaking in different voices, its credibility vis-�-vis Hindutva would have remained intact.

Second, Advani�s turnaround can be attributed to his efforts to enhance his own appeal. Sources close to the home minister said he has finally acknowledged the impracticality of ruling India on the basis of a �narrow and divisive� ideology. Advani has accepted the secular mantra, which he had once labelled as �pseudo-secularism�, as the only practical credo by which India could be held together, the sources said.

Third, with the BJP openly embracing Mandal and going several steps ahead of V.P. Singh by legislating quotas within quotas in Uttar Pradesh, sources said it no longer made sense to talk of an �undivided� Hindu society. �The mandir card was relevant in the Mandal era when reservations threatened to divide Hindus. Now that Mandal has become a fact of life and we have accepted it fully, there�s no point projecting the temple card as a great unifier of the Hindu samaj,� said sources.

Fourth, in Uttar Pradesh, the epicentre of the temple-mosque dispute, other issues had gained precedence.

�The temple no longer makes sense to a farmer who�s left holding his paddy and sugarcane crops for want of buyers and a proper procurement price. If we talk about it, farmers ask �will a Ram temple fill our stomach?�� said a member of the Kisan Morcha.


Kathmandu, Dec. 28: 
In the backdrop of a diplomatic Indo-Pak war taut with apprehensions, officials from India, Pakistan and five other Saarc countries met today for the 27th meeting of its programming committee, leading to the 11th regional summit from January 4.

But there was no reflection of the escalating tension between the neighbours on the talks table. Nepalese foreign ministry joint secretary Pushkar Rajbhandari actually described the vibes between the officials as cordial. �There was no animosity at all between them (the Indian and Pakistani delegates) during the meeting.�

On the Indian ban on Pakistani flights using its airspace from January 1 and the shadow it has cast on the attendance of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in the summit, Rajbhandari said �the situation has not arisen as yet� for Kathmandu to urge Delhi to make an exception.

The day began with outgoing committee chairperson Sarala Fernando handing over the chair to Nepal�s Gyan Chandra Acharya, a joint secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs.

The programming committee, a notch below the foreign secretaries�, decides the agenda to be endorsed by the standing committee (foreign secretary-level) and by the Saarc Council of (Foreign) Ministers.

Today, the panel reviewed the progress made by the seven technical committees and five regional centres of the Saarc and the projects conceived with the aid of the Saarc-Japan Special Fund, formed with a Rs 50 lakh Japanese contribution for projects in the region. The committee also discussed a proposal to increase the emoluments of employees in the regional centres.

The programming committee that would sit for a concluding day tomorrow is working on the report to be presented to the standing committee. The standing committee will sit for its three-day meeting from Sunday. The council of ministers will meet for two days after that.

But within a week of the summit, the Himalayan kingdom was rocked by blasts triggered by suspected Maoist rebels.

Three government vehicles were damaged in Ekantkuna of Lalitpur district when two socket bombs went off. Police sources said the bombs were fitted in vehicles parked inside the irrigation department premises.

Some three weeks ago, a Tibetan carpet showroom was damaged in a powerful explosion that killed two persons and injured two.


New Delhi, Dec 28: 
Caught between a cost-cutting exercise and convergence, a hardpressed Sushma Swaraj today began to trim flab in her information and broadcasting ministry, barely six months after an outright rejection of such ideas.

But try as she might under pressure from the Prime Minister�s Office and the finance ministry, information and broadcasting officials� repeated internal assessments castigate the recommendations of the expenditure reforms committee as �lopsided� and �unrealistic�.

Information and broadcasting secretary Pawan Chopra summoned heads of all media units today and asked them to identify surplus staff in their departments. But the officials were unwilling.

It was pointed out that the recommendations of the committee, headed by K.P. Geethakrishnan, if implemented, would result in a net saving of a paltry Rs 70 crore but a possible loss of livelihood for thousands.

Swaraj�s authority is under serious threat of dilution. The finance ministry, with the PMO on its side, wants her to hack the size of her ministry, closing down and/or winding up some of its crucial units. Also hanging like the Sword of Damocles� is the convergence Bill that has been tabled and will come up for discussion in the next Parliament session. If passed, it will effectively take away control of broadcasting and invest a super commission with the powers.

The report had proposed that the ministry trim its staff of 7,779 (excluding Prasar Bharati which is �autonomous�), to 5,880 � a slash of 75 per cent. It also estimates that if its recommendations are accepted, the Centre�s wage bill for the ministry � now put at Rs 726 crore � will be slashed by half.

In July, Swaraj sought to guard her fiefdom with gusto, dashing off a 150-page rebuttal of the report. Finance minister Yashwant Singh had committed during his budget presentation that the recommendations will be implemented this year.

But now the finance ministry has effectively rejected her �rejections�. It has practically threatened that budgetary allocations for her ministry for the coming year could be jeopardised unless the recommendations were accepted. As if to drive home the point, it has also got the PMO on its side. The PMO is also understood to have set a deadline for the ministry to come out with how it intends to implement the proposals.

It has been asked to inform the department of personnel training its pool of surplus personnel. Later, the department will formulate a voluntary retirement scheme that is likely to be offered to surplus staff. If the scheme is not acceptable for a year, the surplus staff might be asked to take compulsory retirement.

The recommendations apply to six ministries and departments but the first target is clearly the information and broadcasting ministry. The other offices are � the department of economic affairs, the ministry of coal, the department of heavy industry, the department of public enterprises and the ministry of small scale industries.

The committee has suggested closing down of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Films Division, Children�s Film Society, Song & drama Division, Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity, Directorate of Field Publicity, disinvest (or wind up) National Film Development Corporation and close down four branches of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications (Kottayam, Jhabua, Dimapur and Dhenkanal) and abolish senior posts in the ministry.


Echoes of booming artillery no longer reverberate in the myriad hills and forests of Chhotanagpur. The men in Olive Green � bravehearts of the infantry � have oiled their sniper rifles well. The rat-a-tat-tat has been saved for the windy deserts of Rajasthan, icy heights of Kashmir and the desolate expanse of the Rann of Kutch. They have been falling in at the railway platforms of Ranchi Road, Ranchi, Tatisilwai, Hatia and Namkum over the past few days. The queues seem to be unending.

Around 400 jawans have so far left the base camp at Sonari in Jamshedpur to take up positions along the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan. Four trucks loaded with ammo moved from the camp at Sonari on Wednesday night, sources said.

The frontiers, under threat again with the rising tension between India and Pakistan, beckon them. Jharkhand is bidding a proud farewell to the Gorkhas, Assamese, Sikhs, Biharis, Sappers and the Gunners.

Huddled in a corner of Ranchi railway station is a group of young Indians. They wish to gift flowers to the soldiers. They are hesitant because of the stoic expression on the jawans� faces. One of the more confident ones takes a step ahead: �Jai Hind, saab. Can we... err... apply tilak on your forehead?� The soldier gives a broad grin. The youths jump with excitement. �Jeet kar aana (Come back victorious),� they shout in unison. Onlookers hold their heads high. Some feel a lump rising in their throats. The troops are moving out, ready for battle, if it comes to that.

The queue inside the adjoining shed of the movement control office (MCO) is long. A camouflaged Gypsy screeches to a halt outside. �CO (commanding officer) saab has come,� a jawan tells another. Crisp salutes greet the six-foot colonel, who looks fighting fit. He strides ahead to the MCO�s counter and tells his aide: �We are moving out tonight. Koi shaque (any doubts)?� No questions are asked. �Fauj hamesha taiyyar rahti hai,� says a non-commissioned officer.

Railway officials confirm that many trains loaded with men in uniform have already Jharkhand. �There are no timings. These are special trains plying according to the army�s schedule,� said an official.

A few kilometres away, silence prevails at the Namkum railway station. The station manager looks busy, charting out movement orders. Through the gaps between the wagons of a stranded goods train can be seen glimpses of massive guns.

Over a dozen artillery guzzlers, with their barrels lowered, wait to be loaded. Atop the guns, jawans are enjoying their siesta. A few yards ahead, armed sentries are guarding a huge mountain of ammo that has to be despatched to the border. A squad of officers has already inspected the wagons in which these have to be loaded. �All of this is routine,� says one of them.


New Delhi, Dec. 28: 
The Union human resources development ministry is planning an education fund, Bharat Shiksha Kosh, for corporates, NRIs, state governments and individuals who want to make a contribution to better education in India.

At its last meeting, the Union Cabinet cleared a proposal to set up the fund aimed to bridge the financial gap between the requirements in education and the available budgetary support.

Donations to the fund, which the human resources ministry plans to kickstart with a one-time government contribution of Rs 1 crore, can be made in any sector � primary, secondary or higher education.

Contributions can be made in cash or kind and will be free from income tax and FCRA provisions.

�There are corporate bodies or individuals who may want to perpetuate their name. They can donate money for a classroom, a laboratory, software or any part of education they wish to finance,� said a ministry official. According to the fund�s guidelines, a person can also sponsor particular educational activities or a child. Prizes, scholarships and chairs can also be instituted in the name of the sponsors.

A couple of years ago, the Centre had tried out the same experiment in the field of culture. A fund was set up to attract private and corporate investments. But it did not make much headway. �This time the issue is different. Education is a priority for most people,� said an official.

There are many NRIs who want to make a contribution to education but are apprehensive of the money being misappropriated and misutilised, he added. Such apprehensions, the ministry expects, will disappear once there is an official fund.

The fund will be managed by a society registered under Societies Registration Act with enough flexibility. A general body headed by human resources minister Murli Manohar Joshi will determine its policies and oversee functions. Other members will include officers and eminent persons from the corporate sector, private education foundations and voluntary organisations.

For over two decades, Central governments have been promising a 6 per cent GDP allocation to education. At present, the amount stands at 3.8 per cent.

The idea of an education fund, according to the ministry sources, was mooted by Joshi himself. He has been fighting with finance minister Yashwant Sinha for a substantial increase in the budgetary allocation for education, they said.

In the last session of Parliament, the Centre passed the Education Fundamental Right Bill, which means a substantive addition to budgetary allocations for primary education. The government also launched Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, a programme for universalisation of elementary education. The Shiksha Kosh would mean more funds to the sector.

The government, it appears, believes more than ever that it would not be able to meet its targets unless private and corporate sources were tapped in right earnest.


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