THE spiral of violence which has affected Coimbatore, culminating in the horrific bomb blasts that killed over 50 people and injured 200 others, is a grim warning for the working class movement in the city and all secular-minded citizens. Coimbatore is a major industrial centre of South India. It is also a bastion of the trade union movement which has a rich history stretching from the 1940s. The Communist-led trade unions have played an important role in shaping the working class movement in the city. Coimbatore has returned Communist leaders like K.R. Ramani and Parvathi Krishnan to the Lok Sabha. The organised working class movement has strong roots in the textile, engineering and other sectors which dominate this dynamic industrial centre. Coimbatore has seen innumerable working class struggles, and a modern industrial culture pervades the outlook of both entrepreneurs and the working class.
It is this centre of flourishing industries and proletarian movements which is now faced with the sinister and destructive threat of communal divisions and religious fundamentalism. The bomb blasts, which wrought havoc in the city on February 14, symbolise the senseless violence that threatens to disrupt the social fabric of the city. While it is true that these bomb attacks have been timed for the elections, they should not be seen in isolation from the chain of events set in motion by a deliberate plan of the communal elements.
The BJP, seizing upon the fact that L.K. Advani was one of the apparent targets of the bomb attacks, has sought to project the Coimbatore events as a result of "vote bank politics" and blamed the DMK Government for its softness towards Muslim fundamentalism. While there is no doubt that this latest act of violence has been perpetrated by the extremist Muslim fundamentalist elements, it is necessary to expose the diabolical plan of the RSS and the Hindutva forces, which have also worked to bring about a communal polarisation in Coimbatore and in other places in Tamil Nadu.
From the early 1980s, the RSS has been planning to penetrate Tamil Nadu, one of the few States which was free from the ideological and political influence of the Hindu communalists. Coimbatore was one of the prime targets selected by the RSS, just as Kanyakumari district and some other pockets in southern Tamil Nadu, where the composition of the population provides the opportunity for creating hatred against the minorities, were targeted.
The RSS set up the Hindu Munnani as its front for its political and communal activities in Tamil Nadu in 1980 and it became active in Coimbatore. For one-and-a-half decades now, the Hindu Munnani has been the platform of the RSS combine. As in many other urban industrial centres the pattern unfolded in a typical way. Religious processions were promoted - such as the Vinayaka Chathurthi procession, which was a new feature in Tamil Nadu. Just as the Ganesh Chathurthi processions in Maharashtra were used as a vehicle for communal mobilisation and propaganda against minorities, these processions sharply escalated tensions. Clashes took place even in Chennai as a result of such processions. (Frontline, October 22, 1993) Significantly, another front organisation set up by the RSS was the Tamil Nadu Hindu Merchants Association. This was used to rally Hindu merchants and to communalise commercial rivalries with Muslim traders.
Inflammatory propaganda from the Hindu Munnani platforms against the minorities and Islam soon led to a response. Muslim fundamentalist organisations, hitherto unheard of, sprang up to counter the RSS-sponsored activities. The Jihad Committee and Al-Umma were products of this communal competition.
In Coimbatore, in August 1989, a Hindu Munnani worker was killed; this was followed by another similar murder in September 1991. In retaliation a Muslim preacher was killed on the same day. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, violence erupted in Muslim-dominated areas marking the emergence of Al-Umma. It was after the demolition of the Babri Masjid that Muslim fundamentalist organisations grew in the State. One of the retaliatory acts was the explosion in the RSS office in Chennai in 1993 in which 11 people were killed.
Coimbatore became a centre for the attacks and counter-attacks of the RSS-led Hindu Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi and Muslim fundamentalist organisations like Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee. After the murder of Palani Baba, the leader of the Jihad Committee, in January 1997, violence broke out in Coimbatore. This was a repetition of the events which took place after the murder of the Hindu Munnani president Rajagopalan in 1993. Once again in September 1997, communal incidents took place.
The culmination of the series of incidents was the unprecedented violence which hit the city for three days between November 29 and December 1, 1997 - just three months back. It was sparked off by the cold-blooded murder of a traffic constable by some extremist Muslim youth. In retaliation, with the police in a state of revolt, three days of murder, arson and loot took place. Eighteen Muslims and two Hindus died. A shocking incident, which occurred in the city General Hospital, reveals the depths of dehumanisation and bestiality which have been injected by the communal poison. Muslims wounded in the riots who were brought to the hospital were waylaid by a mob of Hindu fanatics and three of them were lynched and burnt alive in front of watching policemen. A graphic account of these atrocities has been recorded by a People's Union for Civil Liberties team which visited the city at that time. Shops and business establishments belonging to the minority community were systematically looted and set ablaze.
As usual the provocation by some fundamentalist elements saw the Muslim community bearing the brunt of the retaliation. Once the faith of the minorities in the secular impartiality of the administration is shaken, their alienation grows and fundamentalists get the opportunity to step up their activities. In the case of Coimbatore, there is sufficient indication that Muslim extremist groups are getting help from abroad.
This vicious pogrom on the Muslim community set the background for the bomb blasts, which have now come as an act of revenge. This is disturbingly similar to the events in Mumbai in 1993 when after the large-scale riots against the minority community and police atrocities, the bomb blasts came in retaliation.
To ignore all these developments and to harp only on one aspect of the situation, that Muslim fundamentalists are on the rampage, is what the BJP and the RSS combine finds convenient to project. Their culpability in creating the conditions for the horrific communal violence in Coimbatore is direct and has to be exposed.
There has been a general view that the prevalence of the Dravidian movement and its ideology will be able to prevent the growth of communalism in Tamil Nadu. But this is a mistaken understanding of the new situation both in Tamil Nadu and the rest of the country. The communal virus has already affected Tamil Nadu and it will require sustained and intensive efforts to eliminate it. The BJP's alliance with the AIADMK will provide it with further opportunities to spread the RSS ideology in the State. The RSS tactic of setting up front organisations which use religious festivals and other occasions to spew hatred against minorities and then engineer riots is a modus operandi which has been seen in many urban centres such as Hyderabad, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jamshedpur and Rourkela, time and again. This leads to the disruption of working class unity.
For the working class movement and the democratic forces in Coimbatore and in Tamil Nadu, the warning signals are clear from this terrible episode. The danger posed to the working class movement by vicious communalism has been brought out in stark terms. Unless these forces are fought and beaten back, the working class movement will suffer a severe disruption. What happened in Mumbai in the late 1960s with the rise of the Shiv Sena underlines how reactionary communalism will serve the interests of the ruling classes in disrupting and dividing the working class. This is the real class essence of the developments in Coimbatore. Already there are disturbing reports that a section of the Coimbatore industrialists are financing the BJP candidate unlike in the past when they used to back bourgeois parties which had secular credentials.
In February 1997, trade unions took the initiative to organise a big procession and intervene to restore peace in the city when communal incidents took place. There is a conscious working class section which is backed by a powerful democratic movement in and around Coimbatore. The Communist parties and the Left are a significant force in the area. They have to take up this challenge posed by both majority and minority communalism and carry forward the fight against these forces both by stepping up the class-based movements and a relentless political-ideological battle to rally the people and to isolate these forces which have still to strike deep roots among the people.
Prakash Karat is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).