Snub to US on religious emissary
Shivaji heirs cross swords
Army wins J&K power game
From theatre of war to tourist haven
56 % polling

New Delhi, Sept. 11 
Changing tack to show the domestic audience that it would not brook diktats on internal matters, the government today rejected a US proposal to send a senior official here to assess the status of religious minorities.

India?s reply, that it is in no mood to encourage any ?intrusive exercise on how we conduct our affairs?, indicates the fine balance South Block is trying to strike in its dealings with Washington.

Though smarting under a US state department report criticising Hindutva organisations, including the ruling BJP, for their attitude towards religious minorities, the government had kept quiet yesterday as US officials explained that ?too much should not be read into the report?.

The shift from that silence to this afternoon?s strong statement shows while New Delhi would not be engaged in a face-off with Washington on every issue, it will also not hesitate to tell the US when to lay off. The tough stand comes with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections as well.

The Congress is already accusing the government of keeping the country in the dark about the dialogue with the US on religious freedom. The state department report cites eight instances where the US formally raised the issue with BJP leaders.

The Clinton administration said in Washington yesterday that its ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Robert Sieple, will visit New Delhi before the end of the year to discuss with the Indian government ?the status of respect for religious freedom which had deteriorated? in the past two years.

Referring to the statement, foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said: ?India has no plans or intention to invite such an official to the country or to engage in discussion with any foreign government or agency on these matters.?

He said the Constitution guaranteed absolute religious freedom to citizens, reflecting India?s well-known social traditions of tolerance and respect for all religions. ?Together, these elements provide a strong framework for a secular and democratic polity in a country rich in cultural, lingual and ethnic diversities,? Jassal said. ?These rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and justiciable in accordance with the laws of the land. They are protected by the judiciary and effectively enforced by the executive authorities.?

The spokesman said those who concerned themselves with monitoring religious freedom would be well advised to ?focus their efforts on countries which remain under the pall of bigotry and intolerance, where religious minorities are discriminated against by law and their freedoms progressively curtailed?. The remarks were made obviously with Pakistan in mind.    

Mumbai, Sept. 11 
Chhatrapati Shivaji would not have been proud of what happened in Maharashtra?s western sugar belt today.

In Satara, in the heart of Sharad Pawar territory, Udayan Raje Bhonsale, a descendant of the Shivaji family and BJP nominee for the Satara Assembly constituency, was arrested after his uncle and electoral rival, Abhay Raj Bhonsale, complained that his election agent was murdered last night by a gang of Udayan?s supporters.

More than the Shiv Sena, Sharad Pawar has been trying to take over the mantle of Maratha pride. Abhay Raj Bhonsale is Pawar?s prot?g? in Satara and it was he who lodged the complaint against his nephew for last night?s violence. Satara police admitted that a little before dawn, Udayan ? minister of state for revenue ? and his men waylaid the vehicle of Sharad Lewe, former Congress corporator of Satara and now with the NCP.

The police agreed that Udayan and his accomplices attacked Lewe and his driver with swords and hockey sticks. Lewe later died in hospital.

Maharashtra has not witnessed violence of this nature during the last few polls. Udayan was arrested under multiple charges after the FIR was lodged. Four of his accomplices were also arrested from different parts of Satara town.

With the town tense, the police were under pressure to calm things down. Udayan was freed on bail. NCP state president and Pawar aide Chhagan Bhujbal complained that the police let Udayan go under instructions from Gopinath Munde, the BJP?s deputy chief minister and state home minister.

?Munde exerted pressure on the police to free Udayan. He was seen roaming around Satara in the afternoon. We have lodged a strong complaint against the BJP, especially Munde, with the Election Commission,? Bhujbal said.

The Satara Assembly seat has become crucial after Pawar decided that former Congress MP Abhay Raj Bhonsale would contest and help strengthen the NCP?s base in Maharashtra. To ward off Abhay Raj?s influence in the area, the BJP thinktank in the state ? brothers-in-law Munde and Pramod Mahajan ? decided that Udayan Raj would have to be pitted against his uncle.

The move helped neutralise the advantage Abhay Raj enjoyed because he was a descendant of the Shivaji family.

A few thousands gathered at the funeral of the NCP activist. Udayan was arrested again only after NCP activists raised a hue and cry. Bhujbal said the police decided to act after NCP activists sat on dharna.

Munde defended Udayan Raje. The minister said Udayan was not present at the scene of the crime. ?He was arrested because he was named by the complainant as the prime accused. He will be presented in court. I have not interfered at all in this case,? Munde said. Udayan is now in Satara jail.

Udayan has often flirted with danger. Two years ago, he was arrested on charges of kidnapping. He had abducted the president of the Satara zilla parishad and his supporters to prevent them from voting.

The chief electoral officer of the state, D.K. Shankaran, said the turnout was not affected. The constituency recorded an average 5 per cent polling. He denied that Udayan had cast his vote after being arrested. He insisted that his vote was cast before the arrest.    

Srinagar, Sept. 11 
Farooq Abdullah has had his way in getting back two former security advisers. Both the commanders of the two army corps stationed in the state, Lt General Kishen Pal, general officer of 15 Corps and Lt Gen Khanna, his counterpart in 16 Corps, have been re-appointed security advisers to Abdullah.

They replace Lt Gen. Avtar Singh, director-general of the Rashtriya Rifles, who was appointed when the army moved out of counter-insurgency operations during the Kargil war.

Lt Gen. Avtar Singh had replaced both Lt Gen. Pal and Lt Gen. Khanna as security advisers. They will now be the principal decision-makers on security issues in the absence of the chief minister.

The re-appointment is being considered significant as it will downplay the clout of state chief secretary Ashok Jaitly who acted as the chairman of the Unified Headquarters in the chief minister?s absence.

The Unified Headquarters, which includes representatives of the army, the paramilitary forces, state police, central and state intelligence agencies and the Special Operations Group, sets down anti-terrorism guidelines. It coordinates all operations against militants.

Agreeing that the reappointment of the two generals will place the civil administration in a secondary role, sources said the decision will ?most certainly? give the army the final say in anti-insurgency operations. It will also allow the army to call the shots in deploying forces.

This has piqued a section of the state administration which had become used to having the upper hand since the Kargil war.

When Operation Vijay was launched, the units of 15 and 16 Corps were moved to the warfront, leaving huge gaps in the security grid. Taking advantage of the vacuum, an estimated 1,200 foreign-trained militants infiltrated into Doda, Rajouri, Poonch, Udhampur and Kupwara districts.

Following that, most attacks on security personnel took place last month, forcing the Union home ministry and the Unified Headquarters to step up their anti-militant activities.

After the army moved to the border, cracks began to appear in the headquarters. All the agencies bickered against each other over who should be in command. Even a few days before the elections, the army refused to rejoin counter-insurgency operations.

The BSF refused to bow down before the army. The other forces and intelligence agencies followed suit, creating problems for the Unified Headquarters. ?The headquarters may be okay as a concept, but unless there is no co-ordination, it remains useless,? a top official said.    

Srinagar, Sept. 11 
For nearly two months they were mesmerised by ?the war on the roof of the world?. Now they are on their way there, to see, touch and smell the land that was too beautiful to let go.

Kargil, the theatre of war, is the latest happening tourist spot.

At 8.15 am on Friday, a white-and-green State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) bus set off from Srinagar with the first lot of 25 tourists ? 11 from Bengal ? to Kargil.

?Kargil should be on the tourist map like Gulmarg and Pahalgam. My Kashmir trip will be incomplete without a visit to Kargil, where our jawans laid down their lives for the country,? said Bibhuti Bhusan Pramanik, who is from Diamond Harbour.

Almost half way between Srinagar (234 km) and Leh (204 km), Kargil (9,000 ft) used to be little more than an overnight halt for most tourists. Before the insurgency in Kashmir escalated, European, American and Japanese tourists used Kargil as the take-off point for treks to the Zanskar Valley and the Nun-Kun peaks (about 21,000 ft). But with many countries warning tourists against visiting Kashmir, there is almost no traffic from the West.

But the war and the hardsell by travel agents has made the tourist want to be where the soldier was during the conflict. They want to see the arid, inhospitable terrain, the smoky ridges, the heights from which the ?enemy? often fired at Indian soldiers shinnying up the incline.

?My only purpose of visiting Kashmir was to visit Drass and see Tiger Hill, places where our jawans fought to recapture territory,? said B. Pramanik.

Dal Lake, shikara rides and the Lidder river gushing in Pahalgam is pass?. What is in is the 234-km route the SRTC bus is taking: Srinagar-Sonemarg-Zojila-Matayen-Pandrass-Drass-Kaksar-Kargil. Even the names resonate with the monstrous anger of guns.

The ?battle zone? begins at Captan Mod, just before Zoji La, where the army runs a temple for all soldiers to pray in.

All along the route the highway is marked by the insignia of war: regimental logos on barren hillsides, tombstones and, just before Kargil town, a memorial to an army signalman ? killed in the 1971 conflict ? where soldiers pay homage with tots of rum.

The Kargil festival also began on Friday, but almost none of the tourists from Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra who filled the first bus were interested in the cultural programmes. For them it is the war zone or nothing.

?The response has been spontaneous, particularly from Bengal. Eleven of the 25 passengers are from Bengal. Next year, the rush will be bigger,? said Abdul Hamid, managing director of SRTC, which has launched ?tourism to Kargil? packages.

This year, though, there is not much to lose: the road may close in October with the first snowfall. After a 12-hour journey, the bus halts in Kargil. The travellers will be put up in either of two hotels ? Siachen and D?Zojila ? in Kargil town or in tourist bungalows.

Before Kargil the tourists will stop in Drass in a lush valley at 10,660 feet, where the army has a brigade headquarter. Tiger Hill, Phelong and the Tololing ridge reverberate with tales of heroism. The villages near Drass are still deserted. ?It is beautiful, an area of mountains and ridges,? says Hamid. But the tourists were not interested in the beauty. ?We will salute our soldiers,? said Pervez Khan, a resident of Barrackpore.

This is adventure tourism with a difference: the adventure lies in the images in the mind. The lucky tourist can hope to return with a piece of shrapnel as a souvenir.    

The second phase of the Lok Sabha polls ended desultorily today, with voters showing the same lack of interest as in the first phase which concluded last Sunday. The voting percentage was 56.22. ?Polling was practically incident-free in the The second phase of the Lok Sabha polls ended desultorily today, with voters showing the same lack of interest as in the first phase which concluded last Sunday. The voting percentage was 56.22.

?Polling was practically incident-free in the 123 Lok Sabha constituencies that went to elections today,? said Subhash Pani, deputy election commissioner.

The turnout was 65 per cent in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, 63 per cent in Karnataka, 52 per cent in Tamil Nadu, 54 per cent in Madhya Pradesh and 50 per cent in Maharashtra.    


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