A time of troubles

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

Despite manifestations of growing evidence of fundamentalist and extremist activity on both sides over a period of time, there was a difficult-to-understand failure on the part of the Government to crack down on the organisations behind the communal mischief.

IS Tamil Nadu, especially Coimbatore, being targeted by Hindu fundamentalists and Muslim militants with a vengeance? If the serial bomb explosions, coming in the wake of outbreaks of communal violence that can no longer be characterised as sporadic, suggest "yes", the reasons for the State proving such fertile ground are by no means clear. The fact is that Coimbatore has acquired a worrying recent record of communal tension and incidents, which started with incidents of stabbing and counter-stabbing in the late 1980s. This violence was capped by the death of 18 Muslims in police and Hindu Makkal Katchi violence in November-December 1997 and the death of 46 Hindus in the serial blasts on February 14.

What is surprising is that the last two rounds of bloodletting have taken place in this premier industrial and textile city of Tamil Nadu, known for its large working class population and a rich history of trade union movement and Left activities. K. Ramani, 82-year- old veteran trade unionist, four times Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator from Coimbatore East and a former Lok Sabha member, said: "There are no specific reasons for this communal violence (happening in Coimbatore)... Coimbatore has had no tradition of communal violence." Vote- bank politics was one of the contributory reasons, he noted.

Ramani, who has been living in Coimbatore for more than 60 years, said that no communal clashes took place between Hindus and Muslims in the city from the 1940s to the 1970s. Hindus and Muslims lived in amity. Besides, Kottaimedu had produced a number of Congress leaders from among Muslims during the freedom struggle, Ramani recalled. (Kottaimedu is now the nursery of Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee, which were banned by the Tamil Nadu Government on February 14.)

C.S. Ramaswamy, 70, an activist of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), blamed the lumpenisation of politics for the present plight of Coimbatore. He said: "The real tension began with the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. It was after that the mutual distrust (between the two communities) grew day by day." He added: "Coimbatore is a working class centre. So developments like this are harmful to its growth... There is a tendency to use the minorities as vote-banks." Ramaswamy lives on West Sambandam Road in R.S. Puram. His house was just a few metres away from the spot where a bomb went off on that road, killing six persons.

Informed political leaders and police officers expressed the view that the November-December violence of last year and the bomb blasts on February 14 could have been averted if the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government had acted in time.

Although indications and evidence pointing to fundamentalist, extremist activities on both sides were growing, there was a difficult-to-understand failure to crack down on the organisations behind the communal mischief. During the Jayalalitha administration, the activities of the Hindu Munnani, the Hindu Makkal Katchi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) increased but went unchecked. On the other side, Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee came up as fundamentalist answers to Hindu militancy. Al-Umma especially has for some time been suspected to be involved in the deadly explosions that hit the offices of the RSS and the Hindu Munnani and were also aimed at other targets. Following the murder of a traffic constable by some Muslim youth in November 1997, militants belonging to Hindu fundamentalist organisations joined a communalised section of the police force to unleash a murderous pogrom on innocent Muslims in Coimbatore.The DMK Government, perhaps with an eye on electoral factors, adopted a soft policy towards fundamentalist organisations on both sides.

The complacent policy continued even after Tamil Nadu police commandos, following a tip-off, seized a huge cache of explosives (gelatin sticks), detonators, iron pipes, PVC pipes, alarm clocks, cables, wires, soldering equipment, saws and testers, all of which are used in the making of bombs. The seizure took place from a house at Kodungaiyur, a suburb of Chennai, on March 11, 1997. The police arrested two fundamentalists belonging to the Al-Umma group: Mohammed Khan alias Sirajuddin (26) and Shahul Hameed alias Aftar (22). Mohammed Khan is the brother of S.A. Basha, one of the founders of Al-Umma.

There was no crackdown, let alone ban, on Al-Umma even after a powerful blast ripped apart a rice mill called the Mohammadiya Mill at Saliyamangalam, near Thanjavur, on February 8, revealing the lethal cargo stored in the mill. Here, the police seized about 84 gelatin sticks, 50 kg of sulphur, 11.5 kg of ammonium nitrate, 100 detonators, two country pistols, and bottles containing nitric and sulphuric acid. The owner of the mill, Abdul Hameed, and his son, Abdul Khader, were arrested. Abdul Khader was seriously injured in the blast. Police investigation revealed that Abdul Khader was connected to some Muslim extremist organisations. The police arrested two others, Abdul Kuthose, 51, and Abdul Saleem, 41, both belonging to Madurai district, in connection with the blast. But this action came more than a week after the serial blasts in Coimbatore. Another opportunity to take preventive action, in a significant political and legal way, was lost.

Then came the seizure of about 1,000 detonators packed in cardboard boxes at Vepery in Chennai on February 10. After this, the police arrested Amanullah who had arrived in Chennai by the Kovai Express, a train from Coimbatore. He confessed that he had dumped the detonators in a dustbin at Vepery. Two days earlier, the police had seized 750 electric detonators, two non-electric detonators and clocks fitted with wires from a cyclist at Tambaram, a Chennai suburb.

These indications and warnings of big trouble failed to make the State Government act firmly. It was a significant failure of preventive action. When the Tamil Nadu Government - shaken out of its complacency by the serial bomb explosions - moved to proscribe Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee, it was "like locking the stables after the horses have bolted," in the words of a police officer.

THE growth of the Hindu Munnani and its later offshoot, the Hindu Makkal Katchi (Hindu People's Party), and their Muslim counterparts, Al-Umma and Jihad Committee, is thus essentially a tale of vote-bank politics played by both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the DMK. The Hindu Munnani and Al-Umma grew, feeding on each other's mischief.

The real beginnings of communal trouble in Tamil Nadu should be traced to the Hindu Munnani, founded in 1980 by Rama Gopalan, an RSS activist. The AIADMK Government led by Jayalalitha was partial towards his activities and Rama Gopalan, in turn, became her "devotee", a police officer told Frontline. When Rama Gopalan adopted a soft line towards the Jayalalitha Government, it was not to the liking of the young Arjun Sampath, a cable television operator from Kempatty Colony, close to Kottaimedu, Coimbatore. So Arjun Sampath, "Adhiradi" Anandan and Saravanan broke away and formed the Hindu Makkal Katchi in 1993. According to informed sources, the police intelligence wing played a contributory role in splitting the Hindu Munnani.

Al-Umma also suffered a split. M.H. Jawahirulla, one of its original founders along with S.A. Basha and Ahmed Pasha, left the organisation to found the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) on August 15, 1995. Ahmed Pasha said he had dissociated himself from Al-Umma because he was fed up with its "cult of violence".

The genesis of the communal violence in Coimbatore can be traced to the assault on Tirukovilur Sundaram, a Hindu fundamentalist, at R.S. Puram in 1981. Some Muslims assaulted him because he used to make provocative speeches against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. Basha himself assaulted Rama Gopalan at Madurai railway station. Militant Hindu Munnani elements like Moogambikai Mani and Koodangulam Selvaraj also specialised in reviling Islam. The passions roused by these activities and speeches led to the founding of Al-Umma.

Ahmed Pasha said that in the 1980s, the Hindu Munnani held a conference in Coimbatore, in which Tirukovilur Sundaram stood out in abusing Islam. Pasha and Basha came together to start Al-Umma, and Jawahirullah joined them. It was Jawahirulla who selected the name Al-Umma which connoted the "Followers of the Prophet". According to Pasha, the group decided to fight in a democratic manner those who abused Islam.

When a Muslim platform speaker called Abdul Latheef ridiculed Hinduism, he was murdered. Hindu fundamentalists killed another Muslim called Hakeem from Kerala. In retaliation, a Hindu Munnani activist called Veera Ganesh was stabbed to death in Coimbatore on August 30, 1989. Another Hindu Munnani platform speaker called Veera Siva alias Veera Sivakumar was murdered on September 5, 1991. Within 45 minutes of this murder, a Muslim preacher was killed in R.S. Puram.

Muslim businessmen felt threatened when Hindu Munnani speakers appealed to Hindus not to patronise Muslim-owned shops. Even worse, the Hindu Munnani organised Hindu traders into associations.

According to a police officer, when the Hindu Munnani posed a threat to their business, Muslim businessmen nurtured Basha, who began his career as a footpath trader in Ukkadam and Oppanakkara areas. When more stabbings and counter-stabbings took place, youth on either side of the divide joined the Hindu Munnani or Al-Umma. Thus, communal polarisation grew in an industrial city long known for its traditions of amity.

IT was then that vote-bank politics came into play. With the DMK perceived to be "pro-Muslim," the Jayalalitha Government (1991 to 1996), tilting towards Hindutva, backed the Hindu Munnani in its activities such as organising Vinayaka Chathurthi processions, Ram Jyoti yatras and so forth in Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai and other places. Simultaneously, Kottaimedu in Coimbatore became a hot-bed of Al-Umma and Jihad Committee activities.

At that time, two tough police officers, Coimbatore Police Commissioner G. Ganesan and Deputy Commissioner (Law and Order) D. Radhakrishna Raja, were in charge. Al-Umma hideouts in Kottaimedu were raided and a large quantity of explosives and arms was seized. In a growingly strident atmosphere, opinion was divided on the attitude of these "no-nonsense" police officers. While some hailed them for taking "impartial action" against any stirring of communal trouble, a February 1994 report by a fact-finding team of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) criticised them for being harsh towards Muslims and even harbouring "deep-rooted anti-Muslim feelings". The situation worsened qualitatively after the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. (In fact, the temperature had been raised gradually with shilanyas and the rath yatra undertaken by Bharatiya Janata Party president L.K. Advani.) After the demolition, violence broke out in Kottaimedu and other Muslim-dominated areas. Some temples were burnt and tea stalls owned by Hindus attacked.

On August 8, 1993, a bomb exploded in the RSS office at Chetput, Chennai, killing 11 persons. S.A. Basha and 15 others were arrested under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act for their alleged involvement in the blast and for possession of lethal weapons. The other hardcore Al-Umma activists who were arrested included its firebrand State secretary M. Mohammed Ansari, Mujibur Rehman, Ojir, Mohammed Aslam, Siraj alias Auto Siraj and Ahmed Pasha.

In December 1993, there was violence during the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Kottaimedu was fast turning into a trouble spot. The complaint heard widely was that extremist Muslim youth from Kottaimedu used to indulge in violence elsewhere and return to their safehouses in the settlement, which has a crisscross of lanes and by-lanes. Consequently, the police erected five checkposts in and around Kottaimedu, and a few near Iqbal Thidal, N.H. Road and Vincent Road, all Muslim-majority areas. The police claimed that the checkposts were meant to prevent the entry of explosives and weapons into Kottaimedu; to apprehend Muslim militants when they returned to the settlement after committing crimes elsewhere; and to protect the mass of innocent Muslims. However, since Muslim boys and youth were frisked here, resentment grew in the community that it was being humiliated and oppressed.

Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Tamil Nadu Assembly were held in April 1996. In response to the widely articulated grievances among Muslims, who form about 7 per cent of Coimbatore's population, DMK candidate for the city's Lok Sabha seat, M. Ramanathan, promised that if the DMK was returned to power, the hated Kottaimedu checkposts would be removed. As the trends showed that the DMK-Tamil Maanila Congress alliance was headed for a landslide win, Muslim youth tore down the checkposts in Kottaimedu. Two police constables manning them were stabbed; one of them suffered serious injuries in the abdomen. A Left leader observed: "Top DMK men developed contacts with Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee in a big way in Kottaimedu. This was a big mistake." Towards the end of 1996, G. Bhoopalan, a warder in the Coimbatore Central Prison, was killed, allegedly by Muslim militants, in a petrol bomb attack in the prison.

What incensed the Hindu Makkal Katchi in Coimbatore was the release on bail of the 16 Al-Umma men who had been detained under TADA for their alleged involvement in the RSS building blast and for possession of weapons. They were released in January 1997 when the State Government prosecutor did not oppose their bail. A police officer recalled the scene: "When they were released, they were taken to Kottaimedu in a big procession from the Coimbatore Central Prison in a convoy of cars - as if they were freedom fighters." But Ahmed Pasha, who was also in prison for three and a half years and suffered much, dissociated himself from Al-Umma. He said he was disgusted with its violent ways.

With Al-Umma leaders back in Kottaimedu, "kangaroo courts" surfaced - evidence of fundamentalist ascendancy in civil society. They intervened in civil disputes and extracted money from the disputants. A seasoned Al-Umma watcher said: "Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee started collecting taxes from Muslims in Kottaimedu. Al-Umma men prevented them from paying taxes to the Coimbatore Corporation. Extortions from businessmen ran into lakhs of rupees. Muslim women were told not to watch evening show films in cinema halls. But the innocent Muslims were unable to resist them because they were murderers." Complaints began to be heard that on account of such fundamentalist and extremist activities, Kottaimedu was out-of-bounds for the local police. With illegally acquired money, Al-Umma men began to lead a luxurious life-style. They dressed in imported clothes and wore sneakers. They zipped about in motorbikes.

Other Muslim organisations, bordering on fundamentalism, sprang up: the Jamaithul Ahlul Quran and Hadis (JAQH), the Sunnat Jamaat Peravai (Association) and the Sunnat Jamaat Ilaignar Peravai (Youth Association). The last two are said to be conservative and law-abiding. The TMKK had already been launched in 1995. Informed sources said that although Al-Umma and the TMMK had functional differences, they were quick to come together on issues which were seen to "affect Muslim interests". Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee also worked in tandem on certain issues.

The murder of Palani Baba, founder of the Jihad Committee and a rabid demagogue, at Pollachi near Coimbatore on January 28, 1997, inflamed the atmosphere. RSS men from Kerala were accused of murdering him. The killing sparked violence in Coimbatore, which observed a bandh on January 30. The TMMK took out a procession the next day and the Collectorate was stoned. Three Hindus were murdered. R.M. Hanifa took over the leadership of the Jihad Committee, and he even advised Muslims to carry knives for self-defence.

In September 1997, after strident objections were raised against two Muslims "driving dangerously on a motorcycle," five Hindus were murdered, allegedly by Al-Umma men, at Selvapuram, Coimbatore. Quick action by Radhakrishna Raja, who had returned to Coimbatore as Police Commissioner, averted further trouble and there was no Hindu-Muslim violence. Between September 7 and 10, the Hindu Munnani and the Hindu Makkal Katchi took out separate Vinayaka Chathurthi processions. The same month, an Assistant Jailer at the Madurai Central Prison, S. Jayaprakash, was brutally murdered because he apparently monitored the mail addressed to Shahul Hameed, who had been detained under TADA for his alleged involvement in the RSS building bomb blast. (Three Hindus, a medical practitioner, Dr. Selvakumar, a tailor, Sankar, and a flower vendor, Kannappan, had been murdered at the "Muslim stronghold" of Melapalayam, near Tirunelveli in August.)

The TMMK made big plans to take out a procession in Chennai on December 6, 1997, the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, which was to be observed as a 'black day.' The police initially gave permission for the procession but withdrew it later. Posters and graffiti appeared in Chennai, Coimbatore and elsewhere with the message that the masjid would be rebuilt in Ayodhya. That signalled a poster war in Coimbatore. Not to be outdone, Al-Umma put up posters claiming that the day was observed as a "day of sorrow". The Hindu Munnani and the Hindu Makkal Katchi brought out posters saying that the day would be observed as "a victory day because the symbol of shame had been done away with." The atmosphere was incendiary.

It took but a single violent incident to cause a major explosion on November 29, 1997, when Sub-Inspector M. Chandrasekaran of the Bazaar police station demanded the driving licence from two Muslims proceeding on a motorbike; the person who was in the front seat said he had left behind the licence at home. The two youth were detained in the police station. Al-Umma State secretary M. Mohammed Ansari came to the police station and demanded the release of the two men. Some distance away, traffic constable R. Selvaraj, who had nothing to do with this incident, was stabbed to death by three Muslim youth.

This enraged the policemen, who went about toppling footpath shops and fruit carts belonging to Muslim traders, who were also beaten up. Hindu extremists from nearby Kempatty Colony pitched in and looted even petty shops. The next day, policemen in Coimbatore rebelled. They walked out of their stations and sat in a dharna. Their wives took out a procession, demanding protection for their husbands. The police personnel refused to go back to work. It was a virtual revolt. The Army and the Central Reserve Police Force had to be called in.

In Kottaimedu and elsewhere, 18 Muslims were killed, most them shot dead by policemen or hacked down in a brutal communal pogrom. Meanwhile, members of the Hindu Makkal Katchi armed with deadly weapons, went about looting shops owned by Muslims, taking advantage of the absence of policemen. Hindu extremists also beat to death a couple of Muslims and burnt alive a Muslim youth. They looted shops that sold textiles, furniture, footwear and electronic goods. The most harrowing scenes were at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital where some injured Muslims, or those who accompanied them, were lynched to death.

A PUCL report describes how a section of the police force, ganging up with Hindu militants, behaved in an outrageously communal and unlawful manner, for which there has been no official attempt to bring them to book. It said a police officer, along with 20 policemen, was seen shooting at Muslims without receiving orders to do so. It added: "Muslim boys who came running to see their relatives' or friends' shops being ransacked or burnt were shot at without any reason. One Abu Backer Siddique, aged a mere 13 years, was killed on the spot by a bullet landing close to his chest."

On December 6, 1997, bombs went off in three trains that originated from Chennai the previous night, resulting in the death of nine passengers and injuries to 70. The trains were the Pandyan Express, the Cheran Express and the Alleppey Express. A note found in the name of the "Islamic Defence Force of Kerala" in a coach in the Alleppey Express claimed that the blast was to protest against the Government's failure to punish those responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In January 1998, a bomb went off under the Anna flyover in Chennai. The bomb was placed there allegedly by the Jihad Committee.

A police officer called the Islamic Defence Force of Kerala "a carbon copy/sister concern of Al-Umma." The two oganisations were ideologically on the same wavelength. While the TMMK was popular among the Muslims of Coimbatore, Al-Umma, which had fewer members, was an "effective force," he noted. While the Hindu Makkal Katchi, led by Arjun Sampath, was strapped for cash, the Hindu Munnani had a lot of funds, he added. Sampath was said to be more ideologically committed to Hindutva than Rama Gopalan.

Arjun Sampath was earlier general secretary of the Coimbatore district unit of the BJP but was expelled from the party. He is now in the Vellore Central Prison. He was remanded to judicial custody after the police arrested him under Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the Indian Penal Code for assaulting DMK MLA C.T. Dhandapani on November 30, 1997. Dhandapani had come to see the injured Muslims at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital.

In a front-paged report titled "Prior warning not taken seriously", The Hindu (February 19, 1998) offered specific details about the failure of the State authorities and the Coimbatore police to act on intelligence warnings. State intelligence had sent a communication to Coim-batore police officials on January 31 on the possibility of fundamentalist elements resorting to violence during the presence of L.K. Advani in the city. A second communication, sent on February 12, two days before the serial explosions, detailed steps to be taken such as organising raids on suspected militant hideouts and places where explosive were stored and conducting vehicle checks in known sensitive areas. The explosion and police seizure of sophisticated explosives in a rice mill near Thanjavur, barely 18 km from where Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi was camping at the time, heightened intelligence anxieties. But probably because the Government had an eye on Muslim votes, there was no crackdown - and no ban on Al-Umma.

CPI(M) leader Ramani pointed out that the earlier communal violence was confined to stabbing and retaliatory stabbing, which was bad enough. However, there were no large-scale Hindu-Muslim clashes. But what happened in November-December 1997 and on February 14 was horrendous communal violence and terrorist strikes for which there has been no precedent in this part of the country.

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