BJP begins damage control exercise

NEW DELHI JULY 3. The Bharatiya Janata Party today started a damage-control exercise after its Gujarat unit was virtually forced to indefinitely postpone its proposed `gaurav yatra,' even as the Congress saw the decision as a "victory for the democratic and liberal forces in the country.''

The BJP tried to make out that a "fine balance'' had to be maintained between the "need for public order'' while "not curtailing political freedom.'' But the Opposition parties — the Congress, the CPI (M-L) and others — felt that the BJP's about-turn was the result of pressure mounted by the National Human Rights Commission, Opposition parties, non-governmental organisations and several eminent personalities from all walks of life.

The BJP spokesperson, Arun Jaitley, emphasised that the decision to postpone the yatras was taken "after consultations between the state and central leaderships.''

The implication was that the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had not asked the Deputy Prime Minister, L. K. Advani, to get the State to put off the yatras in view of the apprehension that these could lead to a fresh round of communal violence. But Jaipal Reddy, Congress spokesperson, recalled that it was the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, who had written to the Prime Minister, pointing out the dangerous potential of the yatras when more than 10,000 riot victims were still in relief camps.

Stoutly defending the yatra plans of the Gujarat Government, Mr. Jaitley said that these were conceived as a "positive political campaign'' to "restore the prestige and dignity of the State,'' particularly when there had been a "campaign of calumny against it.'' It was not made clear what "prestige'' and "dignity'' the yatras were to underline when the State had witnessed the cold-blooded murder of some 2000 men, women and children in the recent communal frenzy.

Instead, he said "no religious issue was involved, `gaurav' (pride) of Gujarat is dear to both the majority and the minority communities''. The party did not recall that the Prime Minister himself had described the Gujarat happenings as a "national shame."

After the National Human Rights Commission made its observations and expressed fears of renewed violence, the BJP leadership had decided to put off the yatras. "We did not want to unnecessarily give a handle to our political opponents to exploit the situation... the restoration of peace and normality in the State was our topmost priority.''

At the same time, Mr. Jaitley's view was that despite the riots there had been no curtailment of legitimate political activity — Ms. Gandhi had been allowed to hold rallies, the party had organised demonstrations, and "curtailment of political activity would itself have not been a healthy sign.'' If the State unit had stopped Ms. Gandhi from addressing rallies, then it would have been seen as an attack on political freedom.

The BJP reacted with caution to a report that forensic examination of the bogies of the Sabarmati Express, which were set on fire at Godhra, pointed to inflammable material being sprayed on the bogies from inside the compartments.

Mr. Jaitley said that a criminal investigation was on, "let these investigations reveal what the truth is''.

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