NEW DELHI: Indian authorities responsible for organizing Islamic pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia are seeking to abolish the VIP quota for Hajj pilgrims.
With more than 200 million Indians professing Islam, the Hindu-majority South Asian nation has the world’s largest Muslim-minority population.
Every year, at least 150,000 Indian Muslims embark on Hajj, a spiritual journey and one of the five pillars of Islam.
While some of them need to wait years for their turn, there are 500 reserve spots annually set aside for top government officials — a practice that is now under review by the Haj Committee of India.
Discussions are still underway.
“We have just taken a decision to abolish the VIP quota, but that decision has not been implemented ... There is no consensus on this issue so far,” S. Muawari Begum, vice chairperson of the committee, told Arab News.
Both Begum and the committee’s chairman, A. P. Abdullakutty, said that ending the preferential treatment for VIP pilgrims would be in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s general approach not to accord special privileges due to higher social status.
“This VIP culture is not good with lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of people waiting for Hajj pilgrimage. This is bad. PM Modi is in favor of ending the VIP culture,” Abdullakutty said, adding that more clarity on the issue was expected soon.
“After extensive discussion with all stakeholders our new policy is prepared ... in a few days’ time a new policy of Hajj would be announced.”
Although the quota of 500 appears to be little compared with the country’s annual Hajj quota, for Muslims the very idea of privileged treatment during Hajj was bizarre.
“When you go for Hajj, everyone is the same there. Everyone is equal there. There is uniformity there. People wear the same clothes, go through the same process of pilgrimage,” Asad Rizvi, an intellectual based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, told Arab News.
“There is no concept of VIP in front of Allah.”
For some, even a few hundred spots would contribute to making the pilgrimage more accessible to all.
“Many people aspire to go for Hajj, but the limited number of spots come in their way,” Zaid Khan, a resident of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, said.
“I am sure more people will get the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia and perform Hajj.”
Asad Shah, an 81-year-old resident of Delhi, was surprised that there even was such a quota.
“If the government abolishes it, I should welcome it,” he said, but hoped that more would be done to help facilitate Muslim pilgrimage.
“Until a few years ago there was a government program where they used to facilitate the Hajj for poor Muslims, chosen through a lottery system. If the government thinks about the welfare of Muslims, then it should restore it.”
India’s Rahul Gandhi says he won't stop asking Modi questions
Gandhi’s Congress party has questioned investments made by state-run firms in Adani companies and the handover of the management of six airports to the group in recent years, even though it had no experience in the sector
Hindenburg’s Jan. 24 report eroded more than $100 billion in the value of the company’s shares
Updated 26 March 2023
NEW DELHI: Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said on Saturday he had been disqualified from parliament because he has been asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi tough questions about his relationship with Gautam Adani, founder of the Adani conglomerate.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party responded saying Gandhi had been punished under the law for a defamatory comment he made in 2019 and it had nothing to do with the Adani issue.
Gandhi, a former president of India’s main opposition Congress party who is still its main leader, lost his parliamentary seat on Friday, a day after a court in the western state of Gujarat convicted him in a defamation case and sentenced him to two years in jail.
The court granted him bail and suspended his jail sentence for 30 days, allowing him to appeal.
The defamation case was filed in connection with comments Gandhi made in a speech that many deemed insulting to Modi. Gandhi’s party and its allies have criticized the court ruling as politically motivated.
“I have been disqualified because the prime minister is scared of my next speech, he is scared of the next speech that is going to come on Adani,” Gandhi told a news conference at the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi.
“They don’t want that speech to be in parliament, that’s the issue,” Gandhi said in his first public comments since the conviction and disqualification.
Gandhi, 52, the scion of a dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, did not elaborate on why Modi might not like his next speech.
Gandhi’s once-dominant Congress controls less than 10 percent of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house and has been decimated by the BJP in two successive general elections, most recently in 2019.
India’s next general election is due by mid-2024 and Gandhi has recently been trying to revive the party’s fortunes.
“I am not scared of this disqualification ... I will continue to ask the question, ‘what is the prime minister’s relationship with Mr.Adani?’,” Gandhi said on Saturday.
Modi’s rivals say the prime minister and the BJP have longstanding ties with the Adani group, going back nearly two decades when Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Gautam Adani is also from Gujarat.
The Congress party has questioned investments made by state-run firms in Adani companies and the handover of the management of six airports to the group in recent years, even though it had no experience in the sector.
The Adani group has denied receiving any special favors from the government and government ministers have dismissed such opposition suggestions as “wild allegations”, saying regulators would look into any wrongdoing.
Congress, and its opposition allies have called for a parliamentary investigation.
“The life of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an open book of honesty,” BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad told a news conference called in response to Gandhi’s statements on Saturday.
“We don’t have to defend Adani, BJP never defends Adani, but BJP doesn’t target anyone either,” Prasad said, accusing Gandhi of habitually lying.
A former federal minister, Prasad listed international business deals the Adani group had signed when a Congress-led coalition government ruled India from 2004 to 2014 and its investments in Indian states ruled by Congress.
“So how is Adani group investing 650 billion rupees ($7.89 billion) in a state ruled by your party,” Prasad asked, referring to an announcement by the conglomerate in October that it would invest in the solar power, cement and airport sectors in the western state of Rajasthan, which is ruled by Congress.
Adani’s group is trying to rebuild investor confidence after US short-seller Hindenburg Research accused it of stock manipulation and improper use of tax havens — charges the company has denied.
Hindenburg’s Jan. 24 report eroded more than $100 billion in the value of the company’s shares.
Trump compares investigations into him to ‘Stalinist Russia’
Trump is being investigated by prosecutors in Manhattan for campaign finance violations stemming his alleged payment of hush money to an adult film actress ahead of the 2016 election
Updated 26 March 2023
WACO, Texas: Donald Trump used his first election rally in Waco, Texas, to rail against the prosecutors investigating him, employing dark and conspiratorial language to fire up his base ahead of next year’s Republican primary elections.
Trump told supporters gathered at Waco’s airport on Saturday that the investigations swirling around him were “something straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show.”
“From the beginning it’s been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another,” he said.
The legal threats hanging over the former president were front of mind for some attendees, many of whom flashed signs saying “WITCH HUNT.”
Trump is being investigated by prosecutors in Manhattan for campaign finance violations stemming his alleged payment of hush money to an adult film actress ahead of the 2016 election. A special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice is investigating allegations he hoarded top-secret documents and masterminded a plot seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
Trump held his rally in Waco as the city marked the 30th anniversary of a raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidians religious sect there that resulted in 86 deaths, including four law-enforcement officers. Many right-wing extremists see the raid as a seminal moment of government overreach, and critics saw the rally’s timing as a nod to Trump’s far-right supporters.
A Trump campaign spokesperson said Waco was chosen for what the former president has billed as his first major rally of the 2024 presidential race because it is situated between several major population centers and has the infrastructure to host a large event.
Trump doesn’t just face legal peril. His effort to lock in the Republican nomination faces a potential challenge from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis amid signs that his own support is softening, at least in places like New Hampshire, an early primary battleground.
“I’m not a big fan,” Trump said of DeSantis, accusing of him of plotting to slash social security.
“Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor.”
The former president is seeking to turn the hush money case in New York to his advantage by raising money off it and using it to rally supporters. On Friday, he issued an apocalyptic warning, saying the country faced potential “death & destruction” if he was charged with a crime.
Trump’s escalating rhetoric has repelled at least some within his own party.
“Trump is walking on a high wire without a net, telegraphing that he has nothing to lose and is willing to risk dangerous outcomes to rally support,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Few supporters have heeded his calls to take to the streets to protest his possible indictment in the Manhattan case. Those calls will likely invite closer than normal scrutiny of how many people attend Saturday’s rally — which appeared to have drawn several thousand people.
Matt Schomburg, 45, said he believed the rally was important to energize his supporters for the 2024 race.
“We are so divided as a country and Trump did so many good things for the economy, the border – we’d just love to have his leadership again,” said Schomburg, who works in insurance and is from Houston.
While some pundits had expressed concerns about possible violence, the atmosphere was festive and there were no reports of trouble, although some rallygoers struggled with the heat. Medics were called in to assist one woman who passed out near the media pen.
Aside from his attacks on law enforcement and DeSantis, Trump’s speech was largely devoted to prosecuting old grievances and making extreme claims about his enemies. Several times Trump repeated the false claim that his election loss in 2020 was due to a systemic fraud orchestrated by the Democrats.
Trump painted the stakes of the next election in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “demonic forces” trying to demolish the country, which he said was at risk of falling into a “lawless abyss” unless he is voted back into the White House. He described some American officials and senior US politicians — including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell — as a bigger threat to America than China or Russia.
“Either the Deep State destroys America or we destroy the Deep State,” Trump said.
Kyiv says ‘managing to stabilize’ battle for Bakhmut
The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Monday that his forces were in control of around 70 percent of the city
Updated 26 March 2023
BEIJING: Ukraine said its forces were “managing to stabilize” the situation around Bakhmut, a now-destroyed city that has seen the longest battle of the Russian invasion.
Bakhmut — which once had an estimated population of around 70,000 people — has been virtually emptied of civilians over months of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
The frontline situation is “the toughest in the Bakhmut direction,” the head of Ukraine’s armed forces Valery Zaluzhny said after a phone call with Britain’s Chief of the Defense Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin.
“Due to the tremendous efforts of the Defense Forces, we are managing to stabilize the situation,” Zaluzhny said on Facebook.
Russian forces have been posting painstakingly incremental gains around the city, whose symbolic importance surpassed any military significance as the battle dragged on.
Bakhmut has been virtually emptied of civilians over months of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
According to the British Defense Ministry’s latest intelligence update on Saturday, Russia’s assault on Bakhmut “has largely stalled.”
“This is likely primarily a result of extreme attrition of the Russian forces,” the British statement read, adding that in the battle Ukraine had also “suffered heavy casualties.”
Senior Ukrainian military commander Oleksandr Syrsky said Thursday that a counter-attack could be launched soon against “exhausted” Russian forces near Bakhmut.
Syrsky’s statement came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he had visited Ukrainian forces near the Bakhmut frontline Wednesday.
The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Monday that his forces were in control of around 70 percent of the city.
Meanwhile, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has expressed concern to China over any provision of lethal aid to support Russia in its war against Ukraine during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart.
Her press office on Saturday detailed Mahuta’s cautionary remarks in Beijing, days after Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his trip to Moscow, a warm affair in which Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin praised each other and spoke of a profound friendship.
Mahuta’s four-day trip, which began Wednesday, was the first made by a New Zealand foreign minister to Beijing since 2018 but it came at an awkward time as Xi visited Moscow the same week to give Putin a diplomatic boost after the International Criminal Court said it wants to put him on trial for alleged war crimes.
On the Ukraine war, Mahuta reiterated her government’s condemnation of Moscow’s “illegal invasion” to her counterpart Qin Gang.
Scars of war and occupation run deep in Ukraine’s once bustling Izium
City in Kharkiv province fell to the Russians in March, only to be recaptured by Ukrainian forces in September
With 1,000 civilians dead and 80 percent of the infrastructure wrecked, the devastation visited on Izium speaks for itself
Updated 26 March 2023
IZIUM: A once bustling city with a population of around 44,000, Izium sits on the Donets River in Ukraine’s Kharkiv province. It grew rapidly after the Second World War following its liberation from German forces, becoming known for its many churches and cathedrals and a meeting point called Lenin Square, which was renamed John Lennon Square in February 2016.
These days, however, the streets of Izium are eerily quiet except for the speakers blasting out news in its main square. For many residents, it is their only way of knowing what is happening around them.
The 10,000 residents who remain live among destroyed Russian tanks and chunks of shrapnel. The city’s main bridge lies reduced to ruins. With their owners displaced or killed in the conflict, homeless pets wander the streets in search of food.
Eighty years after being destroyed by one war, Izium struggles with the ravages of another: the invasion of Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24, 2022, and the subsequent occupation.
Within a fortnight, on March 4 to be precise, Russian forces had captured Izium, which became a strategic command point for them. But six months later, in a stunning reversal of military fortune, the flag of Ukraine was hoisted over the city after a fierce counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.
The recapture of Izium deprived Russia of the opportunity to use the city as a key base and resupply route for its forces in eastern Ukraine. But with 1,000 civilians killed and 80 percent of the infrastructure wrecked, the damage and destruction visited on Izium in the space of just one year speaks for itself.
Today’s Izium is something akin to a minefield. Residents walk the streets carefully, but safety is never guaranteed. They say the occupying soldiers left behind several types of mines hidden all over the city — alongside the river, on the streets, in front of houses, and in the woods.
Banners with the word “MINES” painted in large red letters can be found on every other street. One stands outside the city’s main hospital.
The Ukrainian government claims that Russian forces carried out 476 missile attacks on Izium, an unprecedented number even by the standards of a war characterized by heavy shelling.
At one point, Dr. Yuriy Kuznetsov, a local trauma surgeon, was the only doctor left in Izium.
“The sight of the Russian tanks rolling in through the city’s bridge remains a vivid memory. I evacuated my wife and children to safety, but I had to remain behind to take care of my bedridden mother and my disabled brother,” he told Arab News from his office in the hospital.
During the occupation, he said, the hospital faced shortages of both medicine and staff. “We tried our best to operate successfully. Our X-ray machine broke down, so at times, I had to rely on my knowledge to treat the patients. We also ran low on anesthesia. Some patients couldn’t be saved,” Kuznetsov said.
At the height of Russian control over Izium, Kuznetsov recalled, the hospital received up to 100 wounded civilians a day. The hospital building itself was partially demolished, forcing the few remaining staff to turn the basement corridors into operating rooms.
Medical workers had to rely largely on private medical donations and on the coronavirus medications they had stocked up on during the pandemic.
Electricity, though, was not a problem, according to Kuznetsov.
“We were treating those with previous ailments, wounded civilians, and mothers in labor, and we had a small generator that kept us afloat,” he told Arab News.
While the hospital is being rebuilt, Kuznetsov said, the medical workers, including himself, are forced to live in small rooms along a corridor, their homes having long been destroyed. They suffer from varying degrees of depression.
Kuznetsov said he has not seen his family for a year and now spends his days treating landmine victims.
Senior Russian officials and diplomats have repeatedly defended what they call “the special military operation” in Ukraine and rejected accusations of criminal violence against civilians.
“The special military operation takes place in accordance with the fundamental provisions of the UN Charter, which gives states the right for legitimate self-defense in the event of a threat of use of force, which we have exercised,” Sergei Kozlov, the Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote in an Arab News op-ed in February.
“As you can see, Russia follows the true spirit of international law, not some kind of ‘rules-based order,’ arbitrarily introduced by the West and its henchmen.”
Five km away from the city center, in a silent pine forest, lies a grim reminder of Izium’s darkest days. More than 440 people, only a tiny percentage of whom were said to be soldiers, lie buried in makeshift graves with wooden crosses planted atop each one. Some crosses have names and times of death listed, while others have only numbers.
The mass graves were discovered on the return of Ukrainian forces to Izium in September 2022. Bodies that were exhumed showed signs of torture. Several had their hands tied, and one had a rope around his neck. Other victims’ skulls contain several bullets.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Pesko dismissed the allegations as a “lie” and said Russia “will, of course, defend the truth in this case.”
A team of both international and Ukrainian investigators now has the painstaking work of identifying the victims. Many families eagerly wait to find out the fate of their loved ones and give them a proper burial.
At Izium’s Auto Stop Cafe, Olga Alekseychuk makes food and serves coffee. The cafe belongs to her relatives, who offered her the job of looking after it.
“It’s a pity to have lost our homes,” she told Arab News. “The winter of the occupation was very difficult to deal with. We kept warm by wearing many layers of clothes and by boiling water and huddling near the pot.”
From 5 to 11 p.m., Alekseychuk said, she and her family hid in their basement to keep safe; at times, they spent entire nights there.
“This war ruined countless lives, and it is not yet over. The Russians left, but we now face a mine problem. Just a few days ago, a friend’s wife stepped on one. Luckily, she survived, but she suffered very bad injuries,” she said.
Alekseychuk said the life the people of Izium knew is over. “We now lead primitive lives. It is almost a luxury to have a Wi-Fi connection. People are walking around like zombies — no money, no jobs, no homes.”
Her sentiment was echoed by a woman who runs a small food kiosk nearby. The woman, who did not want to give her name, told Arab News she practically lived in her basement and had taken to boiling water to keep warm with her son. They survived on canned food.
In addition to the physical damage on a colossal scale, life in Izium remains blighted by anguish and trauma months after the departure of the occupying troops.
“The memories they’ve created for us will never leave us. My mental health problems spiraled after the occupiers left. I was in survival mode while they were here,” Alekseychuk said.
“Now I don’t know how to readjust back to normal life, which isn’t normal at all anymore.”
On a recent day, a group of teenage girls sat near the food kiosk. They said that during the six months of occupation, they had spent their time playing cards and board games while being confined to their homes.
There was nothing else to do, they told Arab News. Nevertheless, they were happy simply to have their internet connection back.
The cost of Izium’s reconstruction is yet to be determined, with some experts saying it could run into hundreds of millions of dollars.
While some small businesses have reopened, the economic revival of the city is still a long way off.
Most citizens expect financial assistance from Ukraine’s government, but how the authorities intend to decide on the allocation of funds remains unclear, especially given that most of its budget is still earmarked for fighting off Russian forces.
As for the citizens of Izium, they are waiting not only for the reconstruction of their city, but of their lives too.
“Everybody needs mental health services now,” the food kiosk owner said.
Putin says Russia will station tactical nukes in Belarus
Putin said the move was triggered by Britain’s decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium
The Russian leader earlier made a false claim that the rounds have nuclear components
Updated 26 March 2023
MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans on Saturday to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, a warning to the West as it steps up military support for Ukraine.
Putin said the move was triggered by Britain’s decision this past week to provide Ukraine with armor-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium. The Russian leader earlier made a false claim that the rounds have nuclear components.
He subsequently toned down his language, but insisted in a state television interview broadcast Saturday night that the ammunition posed an additional danger to both troops and civilians in Ukraine.
Tactical nuclear weapons are intended for use on the battlefield, unlike more powerful, longer-range strategic nuclear weapons. Russia plans to maintain control over the ones it plans to Belarus, and construction of storage facilities for them will be completed by July 1, Putin said.
Putin didn’t say how many nuclear weapons Russia would keep in Belarus. The US government believes Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which include bombs that can be carried by tactical aircraft, warheads for short-range missiles and artillery rounds.
In his interview, Putin argued that by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the lead of the United States, noting that the US has nuclear weapons based in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkiye.
“We are doing what they have been doing for decades, stationing them in certain allied countries, preparing the launch platforms and training their crews,” Putin said. “We are going to do the same thing.”
Russia has stored its tactical nuclear weapons at dedicated depots on its territory, and moving part of the arsenal to a storage facility in Belarus would up the ante in the Ukrainian conflict by placing them closer to the Russian aircraft and missiles already stationed there.
Some hawkish commentators in Russia long have urged the Kremlin to put the tactical nuclear weapons close to the weapons to send a signal to the West about the readiness to use them.
Putin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has long asked for the nuclear weapons as a counter to NATO. Belarus shares borders with three NATO members — Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — and Russia used its territory as a staging ground to send troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Putin noted that Russia helped modernize Belarusian military aircraft last year to make them capable of carrying nuclear warheads. He said 10 such planes were ready to go. He said nuclear weapons also could be launched by the Iskander short-range missiles that Russia provided to Belarus last year.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is living in exile, said the agreement to transfer the tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus “underlines the threat to regional security” from Lukashenko’s regime.
“Europe won’t be safe until Belarus dictator is removed & brought before tribunal to face justice for crimes against our country & Ukraine,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote in English on Twitter.
While discussing in his state TV interview the depleted uranium rounds that Britain promised to ship to Ukraine, Putin charged the ammunition would leave a radioactive trace and contaminate agricultural land.
“Those weapons are harmful not just for combatants, but also for the people living in those territories and for the environment,” he said.
Putin added that Russia has vast stockpiles of similar ammunition but so far has refrained from using them.
Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process needed to create nuclear weapons. The rounds can’t generate a nuclear reaction but they do emit low levels of radiation. The UN nuclear watchdog has warned of the possible dangers of exposure.
Such rounds were developed by the US during the Cold War to destroy Soviet tanks, including the same T-72 tanks that Ukraine now faces in its push to break through a stalemate in the east.