Vajpayee in Kashmir autonomy gamble
Sonia sniffs stalwart return
Gujarat Cong turns to seers
Pak farewell message
Shell-shocked villagers flee border homes
Mayavati puts BJP before Narayanan
Tiwari for polls

New Delhi, May 25: 
After opening the door on autonomy talks at his Srinagar news conference, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is expected to come up with a more definite pronouncement when he next visits the Valley, probably in June.

The government, it appears, wants to use the autonomy package to ensure the involvement of the maximum number of political outfits active in Jammu and Kashmir in the coming polls.

Though the issue was mooted by the National Conference, the government is hoping to involve all shades of political opinion in the discussions. It is a sop with which the Centre hopes to engage moderate elements in the Hurriyat Conference as well as respected leaders like Shabir Shah and, if possible, people like Majid Dar, the former commander of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen.

The assassination of Abdul Gani Lone has dealt a heavy blow to the government. The Vajpayee regime was hoping that moderates like him would be persuaded to join the Centre�s efforts to find a solution to the nagging dispute without involving Pakistan. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, another voice for peace in the state, could now distance himself from such a process after Lone�s murder.

Though Vajpayee is likely to hold out the promise of talks on autonomy, the discussions will not take place before the elections, scheduled for September.

�The people of the state must first choose their representatives before the government sits down seriously to talk through an autonomy package. We want to involve all shades of political opinion in the discussions,� a senior bureaucrat, involved in structuring the Centre�s Kashmir policy, said. �The leaders must come forward if they are interested in negotiations.�

The government is veering round to the view that some concessions should be given to moderate Kashmiris who need to look over their shoulders at what Islamabad has to say all the time. �It will be a choice they have to make. They can wait endlessly for a tripartite solution to Kashmir, involving India-Pakistan and Kashmiris, or they should try to make the best they can of the current situation,� the official added.

Earlier, K.C. Pant, the government�s point-person on Kashmir, had held preliminary talks with National Conference leaders. The taciturn deputy chairman of the Planning Commission is said to have driven many of the party�s representatives up the wall by his constant stonewalling. It now appears that the Centre was never interested in giving autonomy on a platter to Farooq Abdullah�s ruling party.

The People�s Conference report on autonomy was backed by a resolution of the state Assembly supporting the call. But the Vajpayee government was unwilling to consider the report seriously as some of the clauses harked back to the pre-1953 position. The BJP, as a party, was also opposed to giving Jammu and Kashmir more power than what other states enjoyed.

Home minister L.K. Advani said a firm no. But though he was against going back to the 1953 status, he was not averse to more autonomy in line with the National Democratic Alliance�s manifesto of devolving more power to the states.

There could be some quibbling by the home ministry on taking the clock back to pre-1953, but there is a growing realisation that for a breakthrough in Kashmir some concessions need to be given.


New Delhi, May 25: 
The �feel-good factor� is beginning to pay dividends for the Congress with former finance minister P. Chidambaram knocking on its door for a �homecoming�.

Two other former Union ministers � Ram Vilas Paswan and Arif Mohammad Khan � have also shown interest in joining the country�s oldest political party.

Tamil Nadu Congress unit chief E.V.S. Elangovan said Chidambaram, in the political wilderness for some time, is willing to return to the party. �His return would be nice. He would be a great asset to the party,� Elangovan said at the AICC meeting in New Delhi yesterday.

Elangovan said Chidambaram�s return would coincide with the Tamil Maanila Congress� merger with the parent party in June. At present, Chidambaram heads a breakaway group of TMC while G.K. Vasan, son of the late G.K. Moopanar, is chief of the party.

Tamil Nadu Congress leaders said Chidambaram must have weighed several factors before opening up communication channels with the Congress.

The prevailing political situation, the Gujarat carnage and the BJP�s growing proximity to the ADMK are said to have influenced Chidambaram�s move. There were reports a year ago that the former finance minister would join the BJP.

Chidambaram never denied or confirmed the reports, but now his supporters say he is disillusioned with the BJP, particularly after the Gujarat incidents.

Paswan and Arif, too, have sent feelers to Sonia Gandhi. The Congress chief is reportedly keen to draft Paswan, an influential Dalit leader. A section of the Congress is keen on Paswan, given his oratorical skills and grip over Dalit politics.

At present, there are no powerful Dalit leaders in the Congress, forcing Sonia to project listless leaders like Mahabir Prasad, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Mukul Wasnik, Buta Singh and G. Venkatswamy as �national leaders�. But Congress sources said Paswan has set several conditions, including a demand to snap ties with Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar.

In case of Arif, the Congress is facing opposition from the Muslim leadership of the party, namely Salman Khurshid, Ahmad Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Wasim Ahmad. They are opposing Arif�s return on the ground that his �homecoming� would antagonise Muslims �upset� with the leader�s stand on the Shah Bano case.

Arif had resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986, when the late Prime Minister overturned a Supreme Court verdict to reinforce supremacy of the Muslim Personal Law over the civil code.


New Delhi, May 25: 
A day after the Congress resolved to separate religion from politics, its Gujarat unit announced plans to hold a sadhu sammelan in Gandhinagar next month to win over the majority community in the run up to the Assembly polls.

Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee chief Amarsinh Chowdhury said he had invited the Shankaracharya of Dwarka, Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati and other non-Vishwa Hindu Parishad seers to counter the VHP campaign in Gujarat. He said the shankaracharya of Kamakoti, Swami Jayendra Saraswati, will be visiting Gujarat at his invitation on May 30.

Chowdhury said the move is aimed at countering the BJP�s propaganda in Gujarat that it alone represented the Hindus. The sadhu sammelan has been convened by the Shaktisanatan Seva Trust of which Chowdhury is vice-president.

Chowdhury, who is being projected as the Congress� chief ministerial candidate, claimed that the ground level situation had started favouring the Congress. Polarisation between the two communities was disappearing fast, he added.

The GPCC chief showered lavish praise on state security advisor K.P.S. Gill, saying his presence had a sobering effect on many miscreants. �He is upright and even-handed. The minorities have also began to look up to him,� Chowdhury said.

The GPCC chief claimed the state BJP was getting sharply divided on caste lines. �It will ultimately prove fatal for the BJP and state chief minister Narendra Modi,� he said.

While stating that the basis of the Indian Constitution was the principle of strict separation of religion from politics, the AICC political resolution observed, �the fundamentalists of any faith are always on the fringe of any community and must be opposed from both within the outside that community�.

The Congress move to rope in the Shankaracharyas comes in the wake of its internal survey that presented a grim picture. A survey commissioned by the central leadership gave the Congress 60 out 180 seats. But the state unit estimates the tally would go up to 82, nine short of a simple majority.

During the Gujarat carnage, the state Congress remained completely inactive. Many state Congress leaders remained indoors fearing that their stand would draw the wrath of one community or the other.

However, Gujarat is an important territory for the Congress. Senior Congress leaders said a victory or defeat in the state would have a crucial bearing as Narendra Modi and the VHP-RSS-Bajrang Dal combine had made it as a test case.

�If we lose, it would amount to political legitimacy for Modi. The BJP�s stand to defend Modi would be vindicated,� a CWC member said, adding that a defeat for the BJP in Gujarat would deal a crippling blow to the Hindutva forces.

�If we win Gujarat, it would a death blow to the BJP. There will be no stopping for the Congress under Sonia to take charge of Delhi crown,� he said.


New Delhi, May 25: 
One of the last visitors to call on Pakistan high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, hours before he left India, was All-Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Among Hurriyat leaders, Geelani is believed to be the closest to Islamabad. By holding the meeting, Pakistan has sent a strong signal � Islamabad will continue to support the Kashmiri cause, whether New Delhi likes it or not.

All Hurriyat leaders had been invited to the high commissioner�s farewell reception. However, none of them could make it as they were attending a memorial service for Abdul Gani Lone in Srinagar.

Geelani spent over an hour with Qazi and is likely to have discussed the current military standoff between India and Pakistan and New Delhi�s plans to hold elections in the Valley.

Geelani has been opposed to the elections and was instrumental in getting the Hurriyat leadership to officially declare that it would not take part in the polls.

The Pakistan high commission is expected to be closed down soon after Qazi�s departure. Junior foreign minister Omar Abdullah had indicated this on Thursday. �It is the general belief that the Pakistan high commission is playing a dirty role in India. Money is being brought here in diplomatic bags and distributed among Hurriyat leaders and others,� Abdullah had said, adding that the government �may consider closing down the mission here to deny them such an opportunity�.

Lone successor

The Jammu and Kashmir People�s Conference has decided that Bilal, the eldest son of slain leader Abdul Gani Lone, will represent the party in the executive council of the Hurriyat Conference. The party�s working committee took the decision at a meeting today. Bilal�s younger brother Sajjad will take over the chairmanship of the party.

A five-member supreme council headed by Bilal has also been constituted by the People�s Conference to look after party matters and would be accountable to its working committee.


Baingalar (Samba), May 25: 
On December 23, this village first tasted the horrors of war when nine houses, falling in the enemy line of fire, were either gutted or damaged following a barrage of mortar fire from across the border. Once again on May 17, the village came under heavy shelling and enemy fire.

Baingalar has witnessed four deaths and 21 injuries to its residents due to the Pakistani firing, shelling and mining by Indian troops since December.

Barring a few able-bodied men who have volunteered to stay back, saying they �do not fear death�, the village is empty today.

Facing four major Pakistani posts and bunkers around 100-odd metres away from the Zero Line and 10 km from Vijaypur, Baingalar remains enveloped in a thick sheet of fog created by the intermittent mortar shelling and medium to high calibre fire from across the border.

Till May 14, things were �relatively� quiet on this front. But the Kaluchak massacre turned the lives of the villagers upside down.

�The firing and shelling was of very high intensity right from the beginning. Sixty, 61, 82 and 125-mm mortar bombs rained from across the border forcing men, women and children to flee in panic in tractors, bullock carts and even bicycles. In fact, on anything they could lay their hands on. Some were even carted away to safety on army vehicles,� said a jawan, requesting anonymity.

Huddled together in the State Industrial Development Corporation�s park in Samba, 75-year-old Jaggu Ram recalled the shelling. �Rab shayd asi saaran noo kisi julm di saza de rya hain. December-January te trailer seega. Hun jang seegi (God seems intent on punishing us for some fault of ours. The shells and continuous firing in December-January was a trailer. Now it is war),� he said.

Cheebo Devi, 65, recounted the chaos which led to the death of her friend Kaushalya. �Kaushalya was destined to die in her own village, near the land that her family tilled for generations. We do not know whether we will be as lucky as her. Saanu te pata vi nain ke asi wapas jaa vi sakde hain. Suna hai utthe bhari bambari ho rahi hai (We do not know whether we will be able to go back to our village. I have heard that heavy shelling is still on in the area),� she said, bursting into tears. Cheebo escaped unhurt but her house was completely razed following a direct hit by two mortar bombs.

While mortar fire caused considerable damage to this village, the seven rockets fired by Pakistan led to the exodus of people from the village. Rockets have been sparingly used by both the Indian and the Pakistani army.

In December, over 200 villagers had refused to vacate the village despite request by the army that living there would be dangerous. �We had asked them to go to safer areas and live in shelters provided to them by the government. Instead, they built their own bunkers and sent only the women and children and the old. Even now we had a lot of difficulty in holding some of them from coming back. The firing is so heavy at times that it is difficult for us to even venture out of the trenches. Walking merrily along the road to the border post is a thing of the past,� said an army officer.

The village has seen at least one serious injury. Apart from the Indian border post, the telephone tower of the only line in the village continues to be the favourite target of the Pakistanis. Reason: the Tricolour that continues to flutter on top of it. But the teashop besides it, a favourite with the soldiers and villagers, has shut down. The 100 metres from the shop to the border post lies empty � it falls directly in the Pakistani line of fire.

Today, the village is eerily quiet. Those who have stayed behind move cautiously. Apart from the birds chirping and the occasional sound of an army jeep or truck, the rat-a-tat of machine guns and the wafting voice of a muezzin in a mosque on the other side of the border are the only sounds heard.

�We are scared of living there now. Till May 17, the men used to sleep in their houses with children doing routine jobs and helping the army in some of its chores. For past three months, men used to sleep in their houses at night and the women and children used to leave their camps in the morning to help them. But we will not live there any more,� said Bimla Devi.


New Delhi, May 25: 
The Bahujan Samaj Party will not back President K.R. Narayanan if he decides to run for a second term.

�The BSP is not just a party for Dalits. We have made a commitment to the BJP to support its presidential candidate and we will honour it,� Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayavati said at a press conference today � her first in the capital since assuming power on May 3.

Without leaving any room for speculation, the BSP leader said her party�s support for the BJP�s presidential nominee was one of the terms of �agreement� between her party and the BJP, which are now sharing power in Uttar Pradesh.

Asked why the BSP, which claims to be a party for Dalits, is refusing to support Narayanan, a Dalit candidate, for a second term, Mayavati shot back: �We want to honour the upper castes also if they have merit. Our aim is to establish a just and egalitarian society free from caste exploitation.�

During the one-and-a-half hour press conference, Mayavati went ballistic over arch rival and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. The BJP, with whom Mayavati had run into deep trouble in the past, seems at present to be the chief minister�s �close lieutenant�. It was enemy No. 1 Mulayam, whom she put in her direct line of fire.

Mulayam, the chief minister accused, is acting like a self appointed �custodian� of the entire Muslim community. On the other hand, she gave the BJP virtually a clean chit on every issue that recently made the Opposition roar and the BJP squirm.

Even on the Gujarat violence, the BSP chief refused to blame the BJP for its role at the Centre and in the state.

It is clear that the newly-appointed chief minister does not want to tread on the BJP�s toes so soon � a reason why she soft-pedalled on all issues sensitive to the BJP. Asked if she would rectify the errors in the chargesheet on the Babri Masjid demolition, Mayavati said: �I have just assumed office. I cannot given an answer till I seek legal opinion on the matter.�

After being prodded further on her party�s stand on the chargesheet, the BSP leader insisted that she now holds a �responsible� office and cannot make an �irresponsible� move.

�My party will support whatever decision the government takes in the matter,� she said.

To Mulayam, she held out a clear warning. �Mulayam�s non-Muslim MLAs are thinking of quitting his party after he tried so hard to wean away the BSP�s Muslim MLAs. I do not have to provoke Mulayam�s MLAs � they are themselves doing some introspection,� said Mayavati.

In her tirade against the Samajwadi Party, she put the onus of communal tension on Mulayam, saying he is trying to �divide� the people by playing his Muslim card. �It is against the Constitution of India,� underlined the BSP leader.

Mayavati dodged a question on whether the BJP was communal. Instead, she blamed Mulayam some more. �He is now accusing me of allying with a communal party while he had in the past shared power with the Jan Sangh. Was it communal then?� asked the chief minister.


New Delhi, May 25: 
Uttaranchal chief minister Narain Dutt Tiwari has decided to contest the Assembly byelections from Ram Nagar in a bid to scotch speculation that he was trying to join the race for the post of President or Vice-President.

Four sitting MLAs from Haldwani, Jageshwar, Kashipur and Ram Nagar had offered to vacate their seats so that Tiwari could contest. Sources close to the veteran leader said he has zeroed in on Ram Nagar, where he launched new schemes after taking over as chief minister of the newly-created state.


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