THE serial bomb explosions that rocked Coimbatore on February 14, revealed at once the organisational strength of the communal outfits behind them as well as the weakness of the local police.
Tamil Nadu's glorious record of communal amity has been marred by recurrent violence in the recent past. Fundamentalists of different hues have attempted to inflame passions. After the Sangh Parivar demolished the Babri Masjid, the situation worsened. The bomb blast in the RSS building in Chennai in August 1993 and the murder of Hindu Munnani State president P. Rajagopalan in Madurai in October 1994 and that of Jihad Committee chief Palani Baba in January 1997 at Pollachi near Coimbatore showed that certain shadowy groups had developed the capability to strike with impunity.
An unholy nexus appears to have developed between a section of the police and a group of Hindu fundamentalists in the industrial city. There is telling evidence of this in a video documentary produced by the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK). It deals with the riots that occurred between November 29 and December 1, 1997. The TMMK has been active in the area for some time. Even after making allowance for its partisanship, there is much material of evidentiary value in the documentary.
Trouble started on the night of November 29 after a police constable, R. Selvaraj, was killed, by some Muslim youth. The circumstances of the crime and the motive behind it remain obscure. It touched off an orgy of violence by police personnel. They were joined by Hindu communalists in criminal acts including arson. The rioting left 19 persons dead and about 1,000 families homeless. A large number of platform shops belonging to Muslims were destroyed.
The feature-length documentary opens with a gruesome sequence of mutilated bodies of victims of the carnage. The mass funeral scenes that follow are notable for the restraint and sobriety of the orations. The speakers took care not to paint everybody with the same brush. They noted that there were officials who had acted in an exemplary manner.
The most valuable part of the documentary is the voluminous taped testimony that chronicles the events that followed the killing of the constable. Many of those interviewed are ordinary people whose accounts have the ring of truth. The role of the policemen that emerges from these accounts is clearly reminiscent of that of Uttar Pradesh's Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), which had at one time achieved notoriety as a communalised force.
The unruly action of policemen cannot be explained away as a spontaneous response to the killing of a colleague. The platform shopkeepers' version that policemen were wreaking vengeance on them for having stopped payment of "mamool" at the instance of the TMMK cannot be dismissed out of hand.
The interviews pieced together in the documentary were videotaped in early December 1997, within two weeks of the riots. Apart from the Muslim victims of rioting, several Hindus living in the neighbourhood and public men were also interviewed. A 12-member team of the Tamil Nadu unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties visited Coimbatore from December 22 to 25 and gathered evidence. Their report confirms much of what the documentary reports.
A baffling aspect of the serial bomb blasts was that the miscreants targeted the Coimbatore Medical College Government Hospital. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, while deploring the event, had pointed out that even combatants in war normally spared hospitals. Could it be that Karunanidhi was not in the know of the events of November 30 when policemen and Hindu fundamentalists battered to death some riot victims who were brought to the hospital for treatment? The November 30 crime cannot, of course, be taken as justification for the February 14 crime. The authorities who failed to act convincingly against the perpetrators of the earlier crime cannot be absolved of responsibility for the later crime, which would appear to be an ill-conceived act of retaliation.