Behind the Coimbatore tragedy

Competitive communalism and the failure of state policy to respond to grievances and danger signals are to blame for the most deadly terrorist attack that Tamil Nadu has witnessed.

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

On West Sambandam Road in Coimbatore, bodies of two victims of one of the 13 bomb explosions that rocked the city on February 14.-

On West Sambandam Road in Coimbatore, bodies of two victims of one of the 13 bomb explosions that rocked the city on February 14.-

ON February 14, Coimbatore was subjected to the most devastating attack of terrorist bombings Tamil Nadu has ever witnessed. The attack, blamed on Muslim fundamentalist groups, came barely three months after 18 Muslims were killed in the city in November-December 1997 in a pogrom unleashed by a section of the police in concert with Hindu militants following the killing of a police constable, allegedly by three Muslim youth.

On Saturday, February 14, forty-six persons - 35 men, 10 women and one child - were killed and over 200 injured in 13 bomb attacks in 11 places, all of them within a 12-km radius. Ten more persons were killed in the next few days: six suspected Muslim fundamentalists died following a police raid on their hideout in Tirumal Street on February 15, and four teenaged Muslim boys died following a stray blast in Al-Ameen Colony on February 17.

The first of the serial bombs on February 14 exploded at 3.50 p.m. on Shanmugham Road in R.S. Puram, barely 100 metres from the venue of an election meeting that was to be addressed by Bharatiya Janata Party president L.K. Advani. Over the next 40 minutes, blasts were reported on West Sambandam Road, Gani Rowther Street at Ukkadam, at a textile showroom on Big Bazaar Street, a shopping complex near the main bus stand at Gandhipuram, the vehicle parking lot at the Coimbatore Junction railway station, the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital (CMCH), a travel agency (owned by a local BJP leader) on V.K.K. Menon Road, a jewellery shop on Oppanakara Street, a BJP election office at Ratnapuri near Sivananda Colony and a temple at Kurichikulam.

The explosives used were gelatin sticks; these were activated by timer devices. They were concealed in cars, motorcycles, bicycles, the sideboxes of two-wheelers, denim and rexine bags, and - in one case - a cart loaded with pineapples. Several bombs that failed to detonate were defused by the bomb disposal squad sof the Army, the National Security Guards and the Tamil Nadu Commando School. An abandoned car laden with a horrifying 70 kg of explosives, discovered on East Lokamanya Street in R.S. Puram, close to the BJP meeting venue, gave cause for much anxiety for days until the complicated device was dismantled.

Police sources blamed the blasts on Al-Umma, a Muslim fundamentalist organisation that has its base in Kottaimedu, a predominantly Muslim area in Coimbatore. The sources said the bombings were an act of reprisal for the death of 18 Muslims in the communal riots and police firing in November-December 1997. The police are also investigating the possible involvement of the Jihad Committee, another Muslim fundamentalist organisation.

Within hours of the blasts, the Tamil Nadu Government banned Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee. Al-Umma founder-president S.A. Basha and 12 other members of the organisation were arrested in Chennai; explosive materials and weapons were seized from his house in Triplicane, Chennai. Leaders of the Jihad Committee and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) were arrested in a State-wide crackdown. Among those arrested were Jihad Committee president R.M. Haniffa, general secretary Mohammed Haniffa, student wing secretary Akram Khan, TMMK president and college lecturer M.H. Jawahirulla and treasurer G.M. Pakkar. Over the next few days, over 100 activists of the three organisations were arrested at Keezhakkarai, Devakottai, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, Nagercoil, Melapalayam and Udumalpet. About 1,000 others were detained as a precautionary measure. In Coimbatore district, nine persons were arrested; 528 others - 326 Hindus and 202 Muslims - were detained as a precautionary measure.

In Coimbatore, joint combing operations undertaken for days after the blasts by the police, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and the Swift Action Force (SAF) in Kottaimedu, Tirumal Street, N.H. Road, Vincent Road, Ukkadam, Al-Ameen Colony, Majeed Colony, Salamath Nagar and Saramedu yielded a huge haul of explosives and deadly weapons: 210 gelatin sticks, 540 pipe bombs, 575 petrol bombs, 1,100 electrical detonators and a large number of knives, swords, pickaxes and sickles.

As details of each new seizure emerged, the city of 1.1 million people (according to the 1991 Census) was gripped by fear and anxiety - and the chilling realisation of the enormity of the threat it faced. For more than a decade now, Hindutva organisations have been on a systematic campaign to promote Hindu communalism as a political mobilisation strategy. The Hindu Munnani and other members of the Sangh Parivar have in recent years attempted to grow politically by stepping up attacks on the minority community in Coimbatore and the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. In response, hardcore Muslim fundamentalist forces have entered the fray in a dangerous way. That such forces are receiving assistance from foreign forces inimical to India’s unity is clearly indicated. The communal propaganda of the Sangh Parivar and the Muslim fundamentalist response have communalised the atmosphere in the city, much to the detriment of its secular traditions and its long history of class-based movements.

WITHIN hours of the explosions, Hindu communalists set fire to shops and establishments owned by Muslims. Activists of the BJP and its alliance partner in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, tore down election hoardings put up by rival parties - the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI. In some places, offices of the CPI(M) were attacked. There were also reports of retaliatory attacks on shops owned by Hindus or Christians. The Government deployed the Army, the CRPF, the RAF and the SAF in the city the same day.

The bomb attacks were in many ways similar to the serial bombings in Mumbai on March 12, 1993. As in Mumbai in 1993, the serial explosions in Coimbatore came within three months of a major communal crisis, the brunt of which was borne by Muslims. Three days of murder, arson, looting and police firing in Coimbatore, between November 29 and December 1, 1997, resulted in the death of 18 Muslims and two Hindus and the destruction of property worth crores of rupees, much of which belonged to members of the minority community (Frontline, December 26, 1997).

Another point of similarity was that a section of the police force in both cities had become communalised over the years. During the November-December riots in Coimbatore, for instance, there was a serious revolt in the police ranks after constable R. Selvaraj was stabbed to death allegedly by three Muslim youth. Hindu fundamentalists used the security vacuum to target Muslims. A fact-finding team of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) later reported that a section of the police, ganging up with Hindu militants, went on an orgy of destruction against shops and establishments owned by Muslims and then on a murderous rampage that left 18 Muslims dead, several injured and a large number traumatised and alienated. Frontline also independently reviewed video evidence of what really happened in Coimbatore in November-December 1997.

R.S. PURAM in Coimbatore, where Advani’s election meeting was to be held, is an upmarket, largely residential locality. A dais had been put up at the intersection of D.B. Road and T.V. Swamy Road. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had addressed a DMK election meeting from the same place a week earlier, and although the local unit of the BJP criticised the DMK’s choice of venue for Karunanidhi’s meeting, it sought permission to hold its meeting at the same venue and did not accede to a police request to consider an alternative, more secure, venue.

By 3.30 p.m. on February 14, half an hour after the meeting was to have begun, a big crowd had gathered to hear Advani. But the BJP leader’s special flight from Thiruvananthapuram was delayed. Newspersons who had gathered at the airport were told that Advani’s flight would land at 4.05 p.m., some two and a half hours behind schedule. At 3.53 p.m. a police wireless set at the airport crackled to life to break the news that there had been a bomb explosion and that 15 persons had been injured. Minutes later, police officers at the airport were instructed by Commissioner of Police Nanjil G. Kumaran not to allow, for reasons of security, the VIP’s convoy to enter the city.

Soon after Advani’s plane landed at 4.15 p.m., police officers informed him that police permission for the BJP meeting had been withdrawn following the blasts and advised him not to venture into the city. Advani insisted on visiting the injured at the CMCH. After meeting some of the injured, he left for Tiruchi, where he addressed a joint election meeting with Jayalalitha, general secretary of its alliance partner AIADMK .

Newspersons who raced back to Coimbatore unaware that there had been a dozen more blasts were witnesses to scenes of widespread panic. On the roads leading to the BJP meeting venue, a sea of footwear testified to a stampede out of the area following the blasts.

V. Giriraj, 30, a BJP activist, recalled that at about 4 p.m., when he and his friends were walking down West Sambandam Road towards the meeting venue, there was a deafening blast. Giriraj was thrown down by the impact and covered with shrapnel. “Both my friends were blown to pieces,” he said. Giriraj claimed that when he gathered himself up, he heard someone shout, “Advani has escaped.” He then got into a tempo and was taken to hospital, he said.

Six persons, including a woman who ran a roadside eatery, died in the blast on West Sambandam Road which left a 1.5-foot-deep crater in the road. Many vehicles in the neighbourhood, including a BJP propaganda car, were twisted out of shape. So powerful was the explosion that windowpanes on the third and fourth floors of a nearby multi-storeyed building were shattered. On Shanmugham Road, gelatin sticks planted in the sidebox of a motorcycle exploded, reducing a police van, a car and an autorickshaw to a mass of mangled metal.

On D.B. Road, explosives hidden in a fruit cart failed to explode; several hours later, the bomb disposal squad of the State police exploded these gelatin sticks on the spot after having cleared the area of people.

THE medical fraternity in Coimbatore faced the crisis situation following the serial blasts with exemplary professionalism. Private initiative joined hands with the Government in providing relief to the blast victims.

As a stream of victims, bleeding and in a state of shock, poured in, private hospitals, many of which are run by charitable trusts, opened their gates unreservedly and tended to them. Hurriedly assembled teams of doctors, nurses and paramedical staff provided efficient and quick treatment to the traumatised victims. The CMCH, the G. Kuppuswamy Naidu Memorial Hospital (GKNMH), the K.G. Hospital and the Ramakrishna Hospital did selfless service in treating the injured, sometimes free of cost. The State Government later announced that it would bear the entire medical expenses of the victims.

Resident Medical Officer, GKNMH, Dr.(Col). T. B. Ramakrishnan, said that the first of the injured persons was brought in at 4.45 p.m. on February 14. In the next 45 minutes, 43 injured persons were brought in. Dr. Ramakrishnan recalled: “One person’s head was split in two. Another had lost his eye - his eyeball had fallen out. A third had had his abdomen ripped apart.”

Sterling examples of professional conduct came to light. Dr. Srilatha, a former Junior Medical Officer at the hospital, was visiting a relative who had been admitted when the blast victims started pouring in; she volunteered to help the other doctors even after she heard that her father was missing since the blasts went off and that her family was searching for him. A day later she learnt that her father had been killed in an explosion.

Solaiammal, a saleswoman at the textile showroom on Big Bazaar Street where a bomb went off, recalled that minutes before the explosion, four men who had made some purchases had deposited a bag with her, promising to return in five minutes. Minutes later the bag exploded, setting the entire shop on fire.

K.G. Hospital, located close to the CMCH, received a large number of bomb blast victims. Dr. V.P. Shanmughasun-daram assembled a team of 15 doctors and eight consultants, supported by paramedical staff, to attend to the injured. According to Dr. Shanmughasun-daram, the first victim was brought to the hospital around 4.15 p.m. Even as he was being treated for burn injuries, many more injured persons were brought in by whatever mode of transport was available. The vehicles deposited the injured at the hospital entrance and rushed back to bring more of the injured.

The doctors worked swiftly to prevent the condition of the victims from worsening. The hospital reception area presented a gory, heart-rending sight. The injured, many with severe burn injuries, were wailing in agony; others were bleeding profusely and required immediate medical attention. Six of the injured were dead on arrival and their bodies were removed to the mortuary.

Among those who are receiving treatment at the hospital is Sub-Inspector M. Chandrasekhar, who was a member of a police party that raided a hideout of suspected militants on Tirumal Street early on February 15. When the militants hurled bombs at the raiding party from inside a room, Chandrasekhar slammed the door; the bomb bounced back into the room killing six militants.

K.G. Hospital chairman Dr. G. Bakthavathsalam said that the hospital had treated over 100 bomb blast victims; 55 had been discharged; 50 were still under observation and 10 were in ICU. Five of those who were brought in died.

POLICE sources said that some of the bombs appeared to have been intended to kill BJP supporters at the meeting venue and destroy establishments owned by saffron activists; others appeared to have been timed to cut off the escape routes of those fleeing from the blasts and cause widespread panic. The bombing at the CMCH, however, appeared to have been an act of vengeance; on November 30, 1997, Hindu communalists had lynched and burnt to death some of the Muslims who had been injured in police firing and had come to the hospital for treatment.

Police sources, however, discounted reports that Advani was the target of a “human bomb”. Advani had quoted State-level BJP leaders as saying that an Assistant Commissioner of Police who was on security duty at the BJP meeting venue had told them that a “suspicious-looking” person had been sighted near the dais. Advani said that when the man was challenged by the police, he ran into a bylane shouting, “Advani has escaped”, and blew himself up. This version, police investigation has now made clear, was a figment of somebody’s imagination.

On February 21, Director-General of Police F.C. Sharma said that evidence available did not point to the presence of a human bomb near the venue. He added pointedly that the Assistant Commissioner on security duty at the venue had denied having seen any “suspicious-looking” person. Sharma pointed out that elaborate security arrangements - “almost at the level of a serving Prime Minister” - had been made during Advani’s visit to the State on February 14.

On February 22, the State Government asked the one-man Commission comprising Justice P.R. Gokulakrishnan to inquire into “the events that created the circumstances for the bomb blasts on February 14”, “whether there was a conspiracy behind the incidents and if so, who were the individuals and organisations involved”, and related matters. Justice Gokulakrishnan, who is already inquiring into the communal violence and police firing in Coimbatore in November-December 1997, will see whether there is a link between the two episodes. The Commission has also been requested “to probe the allegation that one or more human bombs were present near the venue of the BJP leader, Mr. L.K. Advani’s proposed meeting with the intention to kill or maim him.” It will inquire “whether preventive steps could have been taken to avert the incidents” and make recommendations to prevent the recurrence of such incidents in the future.

On February 18, the State Government had claimed that “a deep-rooted conspiracy” had been unearthed and that the conspirators’ identity had been established. A Government press release said that “some of the perpetrators of these terrorist activities are beyond” Tamil Nadu’s borders, “in some other States of India.” But Home Secretary R. Poornalingam and DGP Sharma declined to reveal the identity of the group since the investigation was at a “delicate stage”.

The arrest of nine persons in Kalathode, near Thrissur, Kerala, on February 18 for their suspected involvement in the serial bomb blasts, however, was one pointer to the nature of the inter-State links.

CHIEF MINISTER Karunanidhi, who was addressing an election meeting in Chennai at the time of the blasts, held discussions with Chief Secretary K.A. Nambiar and DGP Sharma immediately afterwards. The crackdown on Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee followed. Simultaneously, in Coimbatore, the Army, the CRPF, the RAF and the SAF were deployed to put down arson attacks by Hindu militants.

On February 15, Karunanidhi and Tamil Maanila Congress president G.K. Moopanar visited Coimbatore and called on the injured at the CMCH. Karunanidhi was moved to tears when nursing students and relatives of blast victims narrated the tragedy to him.

Earlier on February 15, the police, acting on intelligence reports, raided an Al-Umma hideout on Tirumal Street. Six Al-Umma activists were killed and three policemen were injured when the terrorists threw bombs at the police party. Eight other Al-Umma activists were arrested. Police sources said that their interrogation would reveal Al-Umma’s links with the ISI and some groups in West Asia.

Over the next few days, joint combing operations by the police, the Army, the CRPF, the RAF and the SAF in Al-Umma strongholds yielded a huge haul of explosives and weapons. Bombs were recovered from the most unlikely places: in a dargah on Tirumal Street, right next to the tomb of a Muslim saint; and inside a water-drum in a marriage hall, also on Tirumal Street. The drum had a nine-volt battery and a detonator; one of its handles had a rotary switch with which to activate the bomb.

Acting on a tip-off, officials recovered 200 gelatin sticks, 500 petrol bombs and about 1,000 detonators, concealed in gunny bags and aluminium vessels, from a shop on Tirumal Street.

On February 17, four teenaged Muslim boys were killed in a blast in Al-Ameen Colony. While residents of the area claimed that the four had stumbled on a bomb while trying to retrieve a lost cricket ball from a shrub, the police said that the boys had been carrying a bomb away from their house fearing a raid.

FOR days after the explosions, Coimbatore looked like a town deserted; business establishments, shops and roadside stalls remained closed and few people ventured out. Hotels refused admission to guests. Wild rumours of fresh bomb attacks spread. In middle-class localities, residents formed vigilante groups. Anyone new to a neighbourhood was watched closely. In one extreme case, residents of Valankulam gave chase when they saw a stranger with a suitcase; the man jumped into a nearby pond. Thereafter, persons in the neighbourhood kept up a torch-light vigil beside the pond, waiting for him to emerge. It needed intervention by Nanjil Kumaran to calm them down.

At R.S. Puram, where several bombs had gone off, roads in some neighbourhoods were barricaded and “outsiders” were denied parking space for their cars. All this had more than a little to do with the car bomb discovered on East Lokamanya Road in R.S. Puram. For four days, attention was riveted on it. Residents in the locality moved out even as bomb disposal experts prepared to defuse the explosive.

A sandbag buffer was built around the car and fire tenders were near at hand. The Army, the CRPF, the RAF and the police cordoned off a wide area around the car. No traffic was allowed on the road, and the only persons present were some 200 policemen, fire fighters, paramilitary forces, newspersons and press photographers, who kept up a four-day vigil.

Inspector-General of Police (Operations) Jagan M. Seshadri held several rounds of crisis-management discussions with Major Ivor Goldsmith of the NSG, New Delhi, Captain Sanjay Chawla of the Bombay Engineering Group (BEG), Pune, and members of the Tamil Nadu Commando School.

After three nerve-wracking days, commandos of the NSG and the BEG opened the doors, the bonnet and the boot of the car on February 18; inside the car was a deadly payload - about 70 kg of gelatin explosives. As the commandos gingerly extracted the bombs, using a remote pulley system, and stacked them onto a truck (in which they were later taken to the Madukkarai Shooting Range and detonated), a big cheer went up; the newspersons, policemen and fire-fighters who had been eyewitnesses to the drama rushed to greet the commandos.

The bomb disposal experts declined to give details of their operation for security reasons. Jagan Seshadri said that the wiring had been done with expertise, but the bomb had failed to detonate owing to a minor defect. He called the four-day operation “the most challenging, tension-packed and talked-about bomb disposal operation of its kind.”

The successful dismantling of the car bomb marked a turnaround in the morale of the people of Coimbatore. The fear that had gripped the city for well over four days, and which had mounted with each new haul of explosives, lifted. Coimbatore breathed easy once again. Jubilant residents of R.S. Puram bore on their shoulders the commandos who had fearlessly carried out the high-risk dismantling operation and treated them to a victory parade that would have done war heroes proud.

A felicitation ceremony in honour of the security team was hosted by the residents of R.S. Puram, Rotarians, the Rajasthani Sangh (whose members had kept up a steady supply of food - morning, noon and night - for the bomb disposal squad, the newspersons and the firefighters for those four days), the Shree Coimbatore Gujarati Samaj, industrialist-members of the Coimbatore chapter of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Coimbatore Hoteliers’ Association and the Coimbatore District Small Industries Association. Men and women, young and old, presented shawls and bouquets. V. Raja Kumar, former president of Rotary Club East, Coimbatore, thanked the intrepid officers and their team. Thanks were also extended to Minister for Forests Pongalur N. Palanisamy, Nanjil Kumaran, Coimbatore Collector G. Santhanam, Jagan Seshadri and Inspector-General of Police (Enforcement) A.I. Ravi Arumugam.

MOST political leaders and parties expressed shock and revulsion over the blasts: the BJP-AIADMK combine, however, sought immediately to gain political mileage from the episode. In a statement issued from New Delhi, Advani said he was the target of the blasts and that terrorism, “a war by proxy, a war without borders”, had “reached every home and street.” Speaking to newspersons in Coimbatore, he said the DMK Government’s “vote bank politics” was the main reason for the rise of the “bomb culture” in Tamil Nadu in general and Coimbatore in particular. The blasts had confirmed the BJP’s assessment that the State Government machinery had failed, he alleged.

AIADMK general secretary Jayalalitha demanded that Karunanidhi own “moral responsibility” for the blasts and resign. “Bombs are exploding in all parts of the State almost every day,” she claimed with self-evident exaggeration. “Even Punjab and other northern States are calm now, but Tamil Nadu is burning,” she alleged.

President K.R. Narayanan and Prime Minister I.K. Gujral expressed shock over the bombings. DMK president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said the blasts were part of a conspiracy by foreign forces to disrupt the electoral process. Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta and CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet too said that they suspected a foreign hand behind the blasts. Gupta blamed the ISI for attempting to disrupt the election process in India. Union Home Secretary B.P. Singh too said that some foreign forces who did not want an impartial and fair elections to be completed were trying to cause large-scale trouble in India.

Following a report from the Union Home Ministry on the security situation in Coimbatore, polling in the Coimbatore Lok Sabha constituency was postponed from February 22 to 28.

THE crackdown initiated by the Tamil Nadu Government following the blasts was doubtless effective, but it could not absolve it of the criticism that it had failed to prevent the terrorist attack by acting on intelligence reports and following up on earlier seizures of explosives. It seems fair to state that the DMK Government failed to differentiate between the large mass of innocent Muslims and the small number of fundamentalist Muslim leaders who have exploited and preyed on the feelings of insecurity among innocent Muslims. It should have shown a greater sense of urgency in isolating the hard core of Muslim fundamentalists and taking action against them.

Equally important, however, is the role of Hindu fundamentalism in the sequence of developments that culminated in the Coimbatore bomb attacks. Especially worrying, in the context of the urgent need to combat communalism and fundamentalist terrorism, is the communalisation of the police force in Coimbatore. While improved police intelligence and the enforcement of adequate security measures are critical for the restoration of public confidence in the law and order machinery in the short run, the long-term task of combating communalism and religious fundamentalism is as difficult as it is exceptionally important.

With additional inputs from R.Y. Narayanan and L.N. Revathy.
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