Parallels with Mumbai, 1992-93

Print edition : March 07, 1998

IN many important respects, events in Coimbatore in 1997-98 followed, on a smaller scale, the pattern of events in Mumbai in 1992-93. Both industrial cities, they were subjected to communal propaganda for more than a decade. (While Hindu fundamentalist organisations carried on this process of communalisation on a more sustained basis, Muslim fundamentalist organisations and speakers also contributed to the tension in Coimbatore.) In both cities, incidents that were well within the competence of the police and civil administration to control (that is, tension following the death of two head-load workers and the arson in Radhabai Chawl in January 1993 in Mumbai and the killing of constable Selvaraj in Coimbatore in November 1997) were used as a pretext for large-scale and savage attacks on the Muslim masses of the cities. In both cities, large sections of the police force were communalised and colluded with Hindu communalists in the attacks on Muslims. In both cities, within three months of communal violence in which the Muslim masses were the worst sufferers, hard-core Muslim fundamentalists responded by detonating a series of bombs that killed, maimed and injured innocent people and worsened communal and civil tension immeasurably. And in both cases, it is almost certain that the persons who organised the bombings received assistance from abroad.

As in Mumbai in 1992-93, the primary victims of the communal violence of November 1997 in Coimbatore - in terms of lives lost, people injured in attacks by the police and communal rioters and property looted and destroyed - were the city's Muslims. To read the report by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), which focusses on the anti-Muslim aspect of the communal violence in Coimbatore between November 29 and December 1, 1997, is to relive, in part and on a smaller scale, the horrors of Mumbai in 1992-93. The report describes in detail the "shooting spree" that took place on November 30, in which 17 Muslims were killed and more than 100 injured. It describes also the different ways in which individual Muslims, caught by a mob, were singled out for killing. In Mumbai in 1992-93 as well, riot victims died in terrible ways: they were victims of police bullets, of beatings, of attacks with knives, choppers, acid and jagged pieces of broken glass. Many were killed and then burnt, their corpses rendered unrecognisable.

The report describes the looting and arson that occurred as having been "systematic, pre-planned and abetted". Muslim shops and homes and the makeshift establishments of Muslim pavement vendors were destroyed and people were encouraged to loot and burn. According to the report, the execution of the campaign of arson and loot was, "to a large extent, clinically precise". When two Muslim-owned shops were separated by a Hindu-owned shop, the Hindu-owned shop "remained unscathed". Compare this with Frontline's report on Mumbai in 1993: "A prominent feature of the riots was that gangs... worked to a plan, systematically identifying Muslim homes, shops and establishments, and destroying them." (Frontline, February 12, 1993).

In Coimbatore and Mumbai, Muslims were attacked in public hospitals. (In Coimbatore, the premises of a hospital were also the location of a terrorist bomb explosion on February 14.) In Coimbatore, the PUCL reports, the Hindu Munnani asked Hindus to buy goods only from Hindu-owned shops; in Mumbai on January 20, 1993, bulletin boards that asked people not to give custom to "anti-national" (read Muslim) establishments or commercial vehicles appeared in different parts of the city.

Mumbai, March 12, 1993.-

It is unsurprising that in their response to the bomb blasts in Coimbatore, the BJP and other Hindutva organisations have blacked out their own role in the communalisation of the city. There is a precedent for this as well: on March 15, 1993, two days after the bomb blasts in Mumbai, L.K. Advani denied that the bomb attacks were a consequence of communal riots.

A feature of the communalisation of Indian politics has been the increasing communalisation of sections of the police in different parts of the country. The press and the judiciary have noted this; so too, of course, have the minorities, who are the main victims of such communalisation. During the first phase of the communal violence of 1992-93 in Mumbai, the police were in direct confrontation with Muslims protesting against the destruction of the Babri Masjid. In the second phase, the police stood widely accused of collusion with Hindutva rioters - of direct collusion, of failing to take action against Hindu rioters and of failing utterly to protect the victims of violence. Perhaps the most striking feature of the PUCL report on Coimbatore is its description of the part played by sections of the police force in anti-Muslim violence. Police persons have been accused of abetting violence and, in some cases, of instigating it; the report also brings out the consistent failure of the police in Coimbatore to differentiate between hard-core Muslim fundamentalists and criminals and the broad mass of innocent Muslims in the city.

In 1993, responding to the bomb blasts in Mumbai, a Frontline editorial said: "The ugly truth is that communalism begets communalism; majority and minority communalism and fundamentalism feed on each other; there is a challenge and a response; and the politics of revenge and reprisals and competitive savagery take over." That observation is as true of Coimbatore in 1998 as it was of Mumbai in 1993.

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