VHP wrests right of passage and puja
Minority board contests claim
Pak answers Bush with Advani
Asim�s alternative, courtesy Sinha
Green light for temple trains
Demand for army cover on D-day
Seer signals �calm� puja with one brick
Mamata threat to derail Nitish
J&K probe into DNA tamper
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 8: 

Govt set to lift Ayodhya curbs on kar sevaks

A day after it appeared that the Centre had forced a commitment out of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to abide by an eventual court order on Ayodhya, the organisation came close to extracting its pound of flesh by getting an assurance that it would be allowed to hold a symbolic bhoomi pujan on the �undisputed� land on March 15.

The Centre also gave in to the VHP�s demand to remove curbs on the movement of kar sevaks, renamed Ram sevaks, to and from Ayodhya. The assurance was given to the VHP after Union minister of state for home I.D. Swami went to Ayodhya for an assessment.

The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board is expected to come up with its formal response to these developments in its executive meeting on Sunday.

VHP international president Vishnu Hari Dalmiya claimed that the VHP was given to understand that the Centre was �sympathetically� considering handing over the 42 acres of acquired �undisputed� land to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas by June 2.

Bolstered by the reported sops, Dalmiya � the Nyas� treasurer � went back partially on VHP working president Ashok Singhal�s commitment, saying if the court ruled against the trust, he would not guarantee the handover of the disputed site, which houses a makeshift temple with Ram�s idol.

�Our dharmacharyas will decide what to do next,� Dalmiya said, though Singhal had not added this caveat yesterday.

Dalmiya said he was confident that the court�s verdict would be in favour of the temple trust. �The temple will be built on the same spot and the court will give a verdict in our favour,� he stressed.

Government sources said the Prime Minister�s strategists and the Kanchi Sankaracharya, Swami Jayendra Saraswathi, were trying hard to convince Muslim representatives, NDA allies and the Opposition to accept the decision on the symbolic puja.

The seer had reportedly spoken to leaders of the Telugu Desam, the DMK and the Congress to allay their fear that the VHP might use the occasion to reach the barricaded site.

Some allies have said that if the Muslim board did not endorse the plan, they, too, would not accept it. The Trinamul Congress has opposed the puja.

However, official sources were hopeful of selling the proposal. A puja would not mean that the land would be eventually gifted away to the Nyas, the sources said.

Neither would Muslims be denied a role in deciding who owned the undisputed acquired land on the basis of the VHP�s argument that it was a �matter purely between the Nyas and the Centre�, they added. No building or construction material would be allowed on the site, they said.

At last night�s meeting with the Prime Minister, his senior aides, the Sankaracharya and RSS leader Madan Das Devi, Singhal gave an undertaking to honour these conditions. �If the VHP violates its word to the Sankaracharya, the whole movement will suffer a setback,� the official sources said.

The decision to go more than halfway to placate the VHP is a result of Singhal�s insistence that an undertaking on the court�s order would not be a �one-way traffic�. Singhal reportedly asked the Prime Minister if he wished to go down in history as a �Ram bhakt or a Ram drohi�.

The Prime Minister also came under fire from the BJP MPs of Uttar Pradesh. As many as 14 of the 25 members of Parliament wrote a signed letter to him on March 7, warning that if the restrictions were not removed, the people�s patience would run out and they would be forced to revolt.

Such a situation, the MPs threatened, would not only be dangerous for the administration but the �members of a particular community� as well.

�It was a virtual revolt by the Uttar Pradesh MPs against Vajpayee and he could not have ignored the warning bells,� a BJP source said.


New Delhi, March 8: 
Baffled by conflicting signals from the Sankaracharya of Kanchi and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board is preparing to chart out a �holistic dimension� of the Ayodhya dispute at its Sunday meeting instead of restricting itself to evolving a response to the seer�s formula.

Board representatives distanced themselves from the Sankaracharya�s statement that �all concerned� had agreed to a symbolic puja on the acquired land in Ayodhya. �No such understanding was reached during our March 5 meeting,� said board member Kamal Farooqui, who was part of the minority delegation that had called on the pontiff.

Some board members have also threatened to approach the Supreme Court, which today heard a petition for army deployment in Ayodhya.

While the dominant view in the board is against allowing puja around the disputed area, moderates plan to seek a clarification and details of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas� revised plans. A formal resolution, along with a list of counter-proposals and a resolution on the Gujarat situation, would be adopted at the Sunday meeting.

Throughout the day, board members were engaged in consultations with community leaders, including many Parliamentarians. Politicians, cutting across party lines, seemed pessimistic about the talks, but have decided to back the board�s efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement.

Manzoor Alam, an influential member of the board, however, sounded optimistic. If the Sankaracharya, the VHP and the government had an open mind on Ayodhya, a breakthrough would come, he claimed. �In all conflict situations, there should be a spirit of give-and-take. There cannot be a settlement tilted in favour of one party,� said Alam, who runs the Centre for Objective Studies.

The board�s overall approach towards the Ayodhya dispute was �proactive, strategic� and aimed at putting an end to the bloodshed, the member said. �We have faith in the Sankaracharya�s sincere efforts. We do not want anyone to stand on false ego. If one side acts sincerely and takes a step forward, we will match it with two steps,� he said.

Alam denied reports of sharp divisions in the board. �The difference of opinion should not be touted as a division. All of us are guided by the collective desire to uphold Muslim interests. It is our top priority,� he said.

However, not all factions are willing to be party to the board�s efforts to take a common stand on Ayodhya. A section of leaders, led by Jama Masjid Shahi Imam Ahmed Bukhari, has refused to accept any �formula� on the puja.


March 8: 
The foreign policy radar beeped today after a pause with a disclosure that President George W. Bush has �personally� told General Pervez Musharraf cross-border terrorism must be stopped to facilitate talks with India.

The revelation, made by a senior US official in Washington, is the strongest yet American endorsement of Delhi�s condition for resuming talks with Pakistan.

The US announcement was followed by two conflicting signals from the General. Pakistan invited home minister L.K. Advani to Islamabad and offered amnesty to extremists jailed in the recent crackdown if they sign a pledge to have no further contact with their groups.

�Bush has personally told Musharraf� and the US ambassador in Pakistan also keeps telling him to stop cross-border terrorism before there can be any meaningful dialogue,� the US official said. �We are in a new day. Pakistan has to make strategic changes, not tactical one. There is no place for cross-border terrorism and even Musharraf had agreed to that.�

The official said the US takes Musharraf �at his word�. �We will be with him if he acts. If he plays games, there will be a problem,� the official said.

Expressing happiness at information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj�s visit to Pakistan, the official said: �It shows that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee does not want to shut off contacts with Pakistan.�

The invitation to Advani was made verbally by Pakistani interior minister Moinuddin Haider through Swaraj.

Delhi was enthused by Bush�s comments but it played down the invitation to Advani and focused on the amnesty offer to imprisoned militants, who include leaders of the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

After the failed Agra summit, Pakistani officials had suggested that Advani had scuttled the talks. Some reports had said Musharraf expressed regret that he did not deal with the �real leader of India� � a clear reference to the home minister.

Advani was again in the news in the height of the controversy over the list of 20 as Pakistan dusted an old case in which he was accused of conspiring against Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

�The invitation extended to Advani may be another attempt to highlight perceptions of a rift between the two senior leaders,� an Indian foreign ministry official said. �Or it may be an attempt to ridicule Advani.�

Delhi said the amnesty offer deal raises �serious questions� about Islamabad�s sincerity in taking effective action against terrorist groups.


Calcutta, March 8: 
At the end of Asim Dasgupta�s �alternative economic path� � spanning 50-odd pages � the finance minister leaves a question hanging tantalisingly in the air. Where is the alternative? And where is the economic path that he has not shown Bengal before?

Somewhere in the middle, there is a heavy hit, though. Dasgupta has slapped a 10 per cent surcharge, taking the cue from Surcharge (Yashwant) Sinha, on sales tax. With this Rs 220-crore blow as the centrepiece of his new tax measures, the finance minister is raising Rs 376 crore as gross additional revenue for 2002-03.

According to Dasgupta, the surcharge has been imposed as an interim measure pending introduction of VAT (value added tax), which Parliament has to clear. He is giving away Rs 25 crore in reliefs � phones will cost less, as will music systems. Traditional industries tea, jute and hosiery get a boost. But next time your kids raise a shindy about visiting Nicco Park or Aquatica and such like bear in mind a 20 per cent entertainment tax.

But raise a toast to the finance minister for not touching liquor, an all-time favourite. �A lot of subtle adjustments have been made while planning the additional taxes so that people are not further burdened after the Union budget,�� the minister said after presenting the budget.

Unlike his Central counterpart, Dasgupta claims to be holding his deficit within the manageable limit of Rs 4 crore, dropping every year by Rs 2 crore since 2000-01.

The finance minister has committed himself to a gradual cleaning up of his books of accounts, as dictated by Sinha in his budget, which tied greater Central assistance to better financial housekeeping.

He has also tied himself to cutting �wasteful� non-plan expenditure, though by a modest Rs 60 crore, while allotting 17 per cent more for the plan outlay at Rs 6,797 crore.

The preamble to the budget has a familiar ring: the customary charges against the Centre for following IMF-WTO-guided liberalisation policies, along with an acceptance of their inevitability, and then the promise of a much-repeated alternative model.

This alternative does not reject the methods being followed in Delhi, but at best seeks to implement a scaled-down version. Delhi, however, has been advised to follow the Dasgupta doctrine.

For instance, on subsidy and disinvestment, the finance minister promises not to wield the axe indiscriminately. He has chosen not to use the word �closure� for sick state-owned companies, saying instead that units which cannot be run profitably may lose their premises to �alternative� industrial use without hurting workers� interests.

Dasgupta�s �alternative� path encompasses the market where he believes reforms have not created conditions for free � the finance minister prefers to call it �equal� � competition. His model sets that as a goal.

The alternative is expected to lead to employment for 7 lakh people in 2002-03.

In recognition of agriculture�s role in expanding employment, the budget proposes to widen the reach of irrigation while highlighting the state�s growth record.

Bengal�s agriculture growth rate at 5.05 per cent has been much higher than the all-India average of 3.08 per cent between 1993-94 and 1999-2000.

In anticipation of a shrinking role for the Centre in the public distribution system, which Sinha has made amply clear, the budget sets aside Rs 300 crore strengthening the system.

Industrial growth rate, too, has been far stronger at 4.6 per cent in the current year than the national rate of 2.3 per cent.

Dasgupta is targeting an 8 per cent growth in the state domestic product for the coming financial year.

Quoting from a study, the budget mentions that the rank of Bengal in terms of realised industrial investment has jumped to the fifth position among states, ahead of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

There could be some good news for Calcutta, the city the ruling CPM has been accused of neglecting because it does not give it votes.

The outlay for urban development is being nearly doubled to Rs 889.6 crore for 2002-03 from an actual estimated expenditure of Rs 464.5 crore in the current year.

Both the Congress and the Trinamul Congress expressed their disappointment with the budget.

�This budget is direction-less and does not offer any concrete proposal to improve production and productivity,� said Pankaj Banerjee, leader of Opposition in the Assembly.

Industry associations welcomed the budget for simplifying procedures relating to sales tax. But they feared that the surcharge on sales tax and turnover tax would hamper industrial prospects in the state.


Lucknow, March 8: 
Union minister of state for home I.D. Swami, who met VHP leaders and senior sadhus in Ayodhya today, said �security restrictions�� would be eased soon, allowing a larger number of kar sevaks to converge on the town for the March 15 programme.

Swami, who held a meeting with the Faizabad administration, is learnt to have assured the sadhus that a symbolic puja would be allowed on March 15.

However, the sadhus have been told that it would not be possible �under the present circumstances�� to transfer any land to the Ram temple trust.

Swami also visited Karsevakpuram today.

The Centre has pledged that the entry of pilgrims and �Ram bhakts� will be unhindered. Beginning tomorrow, trains and buses, which till now were bypassing Ayodhya and Faizabad, will be allowed to stop at the two points. Movement within Ayodhya will also be made easier.

Anxious over the heavy build-up of kar sevaks after the Poorna Ahuti Yagna on February 24, the government had asked the railways to stop train services to Ayodhya and Faizabad till March 15.

�While we will have security restrictions, we also have to ensure that the common man, pilgrims and businesses in Ayodhya do not suffer any more,�� Swami said.

The Union minister, however, added that his job was to prepare a report on the present situation in Ayodhya and it was the Centre that would take the final decision.

The sadhus, led by Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas chief Ramchandra Das Paramhans, have been protesting the barricading of Ayodhya, saying the town has been turned �into a jail�.

Ayodhya residents, too, are seething with anger, with weddings being postponed and cremations being held up. Most blame the VHP for their plight.

While businesses have been badly hit � the temple economy has ground to a halt after the bar on the kar sevaks � Ayodhya has almost fallen off the pilgrimage-tourism map ever since the tense build-up.

The restrictions on the movement of men and material in Ayodhya have also, to a large extent, poured cold water over the VHP�s attempts at whipping up a frenzy among the kar sevaks.

This has been worrying the VHP leadership, especially after the local population has expressed their disinterest in the March 15 programme. Swami�s statement today injected some life into the 500 kar sevaks at Karsevakpuram.

But the local administration, which had swept Ayodhya almost clean of potential trouble-makers once it received the go-ahead from the Centre, is not amused.

A senior bureaucrat who has been monitoring the situation says the eased restrictions can lead to swelling of numbers as March 15 approaches. �Till now, we had succeeded in cornering them, but all that has been undone,�� the official said.

�Now the fear of a larger build-up on March 15 is even more potent. In a charged atmosphere, it doesn�t take too long for people to take matters into their own hands,�� he added.

The VHP had announced that it is expecting close to 2 lakh kar sevaks in Ayodhya on March 15.


New Delhi, March 8: 
The Supreme Court will decide on March 13 whether to order deployment of the army in Ayodhya, where the VHP is planning to hold a symbolic puja on March 15.

Two petitioners in the original plaint in the dispute, Mohammad Aslam Bhure and Mohammad Hashim, today approached the court seeking two separate orders: to deploy the army and haul up VHP chief Ashok Singhal and others for criminal contempt.

A division bench of Justices G.B. Pattanaik and K.G. Balakrishnan posted the contempt matter to March 15 while a hearing on army deployment was scheduled for March 13.

Appearing for Bhure, counsel M.M. Kashyap contended that worse would happen now than what had happened in December 1992 (demolition of the Babri masjid). He justified it likening the situation with Gujarat.

�My lords, if army could be, and rightly so, deployed in Gujarat, it should be done in Ayodhya, too, as the issue is same and would soon spread to the entire country.�

At this Justice Pattanaik observed: �It (the Gujarat incidents) has not spread to the whole of the country. Let�s see (about violation of status quo in Ayodhya) about contempt.�

In 1993, the Union government promulgated the Ayodhya Act to acquire about 67.703 acres of land and the apex court in 1994 had upheld its constitutional validity when challenged by a batch of petitions.

On May 10, 1996, the court, on a petition had held that �status quo� should prevail in Ayodhya. This is interpreted by the petitioners that the Hindu groups should not perform any puja or whatsoever, including entering the area.

The Hindu groups contend that the �so-called status quo� related only to the 2.75 acres of disputed land and any yagna or puja or prayers could be conducted in other areas. The 2.75 acres is the bone of contention between the two parties.

Bhure�s petition also demands seizure of stones, pillars and other temple building material stored at Karsevakpuram, a few km from the disputed site.

It also sought a direction to the Uttar Pradesh government to �restrain the kar sevaks from reaching Ayodhya and detain them till March 15.

On the other hand, Mohammad Hashim�s counsel, Shakeel Ahmed Syeed contended that Singhal, Acharya Giriraj Kishore and a host of leaders have committed contempt of court by violating the status quo order of the government.

Both the petitioners were in the original plaint as well and had in the past brought several petitions in the Ayodhya matter, including the one on which status quo was ordered in May 1996.

Shakil Ahmed also wants contempt proceedings against Uttar Pradesh caretaker chief minister Rajnath Singh.

The counsel pointed out that earlier, the then chief minister, Kalyan Singh, was sent to jail on a day�s token imprisonment on grounds that �it was not merely the positive act of violation but also surreptitious and indirect aid to circumvention and violation of the orders that were equally impermissible�.

On this ground, now Rajnath should go to jail, the petitioner argued.


Chennai, March 8: 
The Sankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswathi, said today a symbolic, �one-brick� bhoomi pujan would be conducted in a corner of the undisputed land at Ayodhya on March 15 and hinted at a consensus between Muslim and Hindu organisations.

He said a �no-objection� from some minority organisations was expected on March 10. Some other representative bodies are expected to do so by March 13, he added.

�Permission� was expected �any time� from the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government, besides the Ayodhya municipality, to perform the puja �with one brick, in a calm and unostentatious manner�, the seer said at Chennai airport.

Hence, the puja would take place on March 15 as planned on the land that is outside the purview of the law suit and for which full compensation had been paid to the erstwhile owners, the Sankaracharya said on arrival from Ahmedabad on a chartered flight.

The seer said this was one critical aspect of the three-point formula hammered out after consultations with representatives of Hindu and Muslim organisations.

The next step will be to commence, by June 2, the handing over to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, the undisputed land acquired for building a Ram temple. This will be done after consultations with representatives of both religions and all parties.

The third strand towards resolving the deadlock was that status quo would be maintained until the courts decided on the ownership of the disputed site where the demolished masjid stood. Representatives of both religions have agreed to accept the court�s verdict terming the formula a �significant step forward� in ensuring harmony among the groups.

A conducive climate has been created to ward off a �tense, crisis-ridden and dangerous situation� over the Ayodhya issue, as a result of his hectic parleys in Delhi with representatives of Hindus and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, the seer claimed.

Everyone should take forward the efforts to resolve the dispute �unitedly�, he emphasised. �This is our desire,� he said, adding it is time for �patience and restraint�.

The media, too, has a responsibility in this regard, the seer said. If the media highlighted only the positive aspects, �half the problems will be over�, he added. �One hundred per cent, we want a united Hindu-Muslim effort to resolve this issue,� the seer said.

The Sankaracharya said there were only three parties to the dispute � the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas, important Muslim organisations and the government. Coordination among these parties alone will ensure a substantial movement towards clinching the issue, he added.

Expressing concern at the turmoil in Gujarat after a visit to the state yesterday, the seer said normality was fast returning to riot-hit areas. The need of the hour is �unity and peace� and people should �live as human beings and not turn into animals�.

�That was the crux of my message in helping to restore calm in Gujarat.�


New Delhi, March 8: 
Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee today met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and threatened to vote against the railway budget as her successor Nitish Kumar had drastically slashed funds for projects in Bengal sanctioned by her.

Sources said Mamata objected to the combined plan cut from Rs 1,100 crore to Rs 350 crore for Bengal in the current budget and told Vajpayee that funds for projects announced in Parliament should not have been given such treatment.

After a railway minister announced certain projects in the House, it was not proper for another to renege on it, she said.

Mamata told Vajpayee that MPs from several states were equally upset and had requested her to take up the matter with him. Sources said Vajpayee assured her that he would look into the matter.

Immediately after Kumar presented his budget on February 26, Mamata had criticised it saying �it is a positive budget for the business class and a negative one for the common man�.

Accusing Kumar of resorting to �cheap� options, Mamata claimed she tried to generate revenue from non-traditional sources as railway minister.

Mamata also protested against the Narendra Modi government�s double standards and discrimination in awarding compensation for those killed in Godhra and Gujarat. The same amount should be paid to all victims, she demanded. The Prime Minister has agreed, said Trinamul leader Sudip Bandopadhyay.

Maintaining that the court verdict must be honoured by all in the Aydohya dispute, Mamata told Vajpayee: �You are leader of the country and you should ensure that communal harmony is not ruined�.

Mamata had called on the Prime Minister with her MPs in tow to brief him about the situation in Gujarat.

A Trinamul delegation comprising Akbar Ali Khondakar, B.K. Sarkar, Ranjit Panja and Dinesh Diwedi had yesterday visited the riot-ravaged state.

Mamata said after the meeting: �The people are not happy with the present situation.� The party will send a detailed report to home minister L.K. Advani.

Party sources said the team noted that the people had lost faith in the state administration and wanted the army to stay longer. Some people even demanded Modi�s resignation.

People were at a loss to understand why the Godhra carnage did not have a fallout in the immediate vicinity but in far away Ahmedabad and other areas.

Bandopadhyay said they also took up the �anti-people� general budget, especially the hike in LPG and kerosene prices and cut in of small savings interest rates.


Srinagar, March 8: 
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah today announced an inquiry into the allegations involving fudged DNA samples of the next of kin of five civilians killed as �foreign terrorists� in Pathribal in the wake of the Chattisinghpora Sikh massacre.

�I learnt from newspaper reports that the DNA samples sent to Hyderabad and Calcutta of the five persons killed in Pathribal in Anantnag had turned out to be spurious,� Farooq said in a suo motu statement in the Assembly today.

Retired high court judge Justice G.A. Kuchay would inquire into the circumstances under which the fake samples were sent and submit a report in two months, Farooq said. The report will be tabled in the Assembly.

The decision to wind up the Justice Pandian Commission inquiring into the killing of eight protesters only added to Farooq�s embarrassment. The former high court judge had requested the government to include the Pathribal killings within the ambit of his probe. Pandian had withdrawn from the commission after the government refused.

According to highly placed sources, Farooq not only reinstated the police officers involved in the Pathribal massacre but also offered them plum postings.

On March 25, 2000 the police had said: �Five foreign terrorists involved in the Sikh massacre at Chattisinghpora were killed in an encounter at Panchthalan Pathribal.�

�The terrorists killed were involved in the Sikh massacre. The operation was supervised by Brigadier Bajaj and Farooq Khan, SSP Anantnag,� said a police handout.

Today, Farooq said: �All those involved in (the) collection and sending of fake samples would be suspended, and if found guilty of indulging in a cover up, would be dismissed from service and prosecuted. (That) this fact had not come to the notice of my government till the publication of the report is extremely disturbing.

�When the killings took place after the carnage against Sikhs in Chattisinghpora, there had been some suspicions of foul play. I had visited Anantnag and assured the people that justice would be done.�

The chief minister apologised to the House on behalf of the government. �I feel ashamed that there were agencies and institutions that could possibly behave in such an atrocious manner.�

The state government will not balk at acting against even Central security forces if they are found involved in this �most unfortunate episode�, Farooq assured.




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