Indicting the police

Print edition : June 10, 2000

The final report of the Justice Gokulakrishnan Commission of Inquiry throws light on the communal build-up to the February 1998 serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore.

THE final report of the Justice P.R. Gokulakrishnan Commission of Inquiry, which was set up by the Tamil Nadu Government to inquire into the causes of and circumstances that led to the serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore on February 14, 1998, is a stinging indictment of the Coimbatore police. The report says that "it is definite... the lapse on the part of the police personnel, deputed for surveillance and checks, in discharging their duties more vigorously, vigilantly and intelligently" enabled the Al-Umma "terrorists to execute their dastardly plan of planting bombs" that killed 50 persons and injured 200.

Justice P.R. Gokulakrishnan.-

The commission has concluded that if the police personnel in Coimbatore town and Coimbatore rural district deputed "for surveillance and checks, had been more vigilant before the bomb blasts, the tragic incidents... could have been averted". State and Central agencies had sent several messages alerting the Coimbatore city police to moves by Muslim fundamentalist groups, particularly Al-Umma, to target either police personnel or Hindu leaders during the month of Ramzan. The blasts coincided with the visit of Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani.

According to the commission, there were three human bombs - Amanuallah, Melapalayam Amjath Ali and Rafique alias Shanmugam - at the venue of a public meeting that Advani was scheduled to address. They wore beads round their neck and sported kumkum on their foreheads, to appear like Hindus. As they could not penetrate the police cordon, they left the venue without exploding the bombs they carried to their waist. However, bombs exploded at several other places, striking terror. The explosions took place before Advani, whose flight had been delayed, reached the venue.

According to the report, it has been "categorically established" that Muslim fundamentalist organisations, especially Al-Umma, had hatched "a deep-seated conspiracy" to explode the bombs. The organisation, headed by S.A. Basha, was out "to wreak vengeance" for the death of 18 Muslims killed in police firing and related incidents on November 30 and December 1, 1997, following the murder of a traffic constable, R. Selvaraj, by three Al-Umma members in Coimbatore.

The commission's report, which was tabled in the Assembly on May 18, made several recommendations. It says that apart from Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee, there are other organisations that take the law into their own hands for 'the slightest infraction". It has recommended that "these organisations, the functioning of which are not in the best interests of the nation, should be identified and proscribed." Since communal clashes erupted frequently in Coimbatore and in the southern districts of the State, it suggests that a separate intelligence wing be set up to keep tabs on communal forces. It says that "the mechanical way of communicating alert messages" when a town or an area was communally sensitive "will not suffice to maintain law and order". There must be a method to evaluate the feedback given by lower-level police officers and eliminate any scope for lethargy and complacency, it says.

The report has recommended the revival of the checkposts that Muslims in Coimbatore resented. It points out that the town witnessed two communal upheavals within three months. "In sensitive areas and in areas where it is suspected that the terrorist groups and anti-social elements will have clandestine activities, it is necessary that checkposts are erected to check both infiltration of anti-social elements and the movement of arms and ammunition," it says.

The government said that while it accepted the commission's findings in principle, its specific recommendations would be examined in detail by the departments concerned before suitable orders were issued.

IN an earlier report tabled in the Assembly on November 27, 1998, Justice Gokulakrishnan had said that the seven instances of police firing in Coimbatore on November 30 and December 1, 1997, in which eight Muslims were killed, were "warranted and justified". (While the earlier report said that eight Muslims were killed in the police firing, the latest says that 18 died.) On November 29, 1997, three youths belonging to Al-Umma murdered Selvaraj, and this led to a revolt by police personnel, police firings on "ferocious" and "violent" Muslim mobs, and large-scale rioting and looting of business establishments owned by Muslims. These events culminated in the serial blasts at 17 spots in Coimbatore on February 14, 1998.

The earlier report, which looked into the murder of Selvaraj, the "demonstrations" by policemen, and the firing, said that "in the exceptional circumstances that prevailed then in Coimbatore, the police had to necessarily open fire in order to prevent more casualties not only to the public but the police personnel, and also to avoid excessive and extensive damage to public and private properties." All the seven instances of police firing were therefore seen as warranted and justified. The report said that "belligerent" Muslim mobs, armed with petrol bombs, knives, sickles, swords, wooden logs and so forth, surged ahead and did not heed police warnings to disperse (Frontline, December 18, 1998).

The history of communal tension in Coimbatore has been examined in detail in the final report. The tension began around 1983 when Hindu fundamentalists made virulent and abusive speeches and Muslim fundamentalists retaliated in action. This led to murders of members of both communities.

PLEASANT weather and the abundance of cheap labour helped Coimbatore develop into a flourishing textile town. According to the report, Gujaratis and Marwaris established textile godowns in the city. Simultaneously, many textile mills were set up attracting workers from the outskirts of Coimbatore and from neighbouring Kerala. Muslims constituted the predominant group that came from Kerala. Even before this influx, Muslims living at Kottaimedu in Coimbatore had developed strong links with Kerala. (Kottaimedu is the heartland of the Muslim population in Coimbatore; about 80,000 Muslims, 25,000 Hindus and 4,000 Christians live there.)

The poorer sections among Hindus and Muslims occupied poromboke lands and became pavement hawkers and coolies in the bus stands. As the city grew, wealthy Hindu and Muslim traders in textiles developed business rivalry. This led to hatred, according to the report. "The rich elements in both these communities found it easy to have their own control on the misguided youths in both the communities to unleash hooliganism against each other," it says. There were a number of murders and counter-murders.

According to the report, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition of December 6, 1992, S.A. Basha formed Al-Umma with the objectives of reacting violently whenever Islam "is humiliated"; of destroying Hindu temples on December 6, 1993, the first anniversary of the demolition; of killing "Hindus and Hindu fanatics" and so on. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Basha for his involvement in the bomb blast at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) building in Chennai in August 1993. Subsequently, 16 members of Al-Umma, including Basha and Al-Umma general secretary Mohammed Ansari were detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, or TADA. They were released in January 1997 consequent on the withdrawal of the cases against them. Following the detention of Basha and others under TADA, another "communal" organisation, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), was formed in Coimbatore by Kunnangudi Haneefa, the report says.

Activists of Al-Umma and the TMMK and Hindu organisations of similar nature openly expressed their antagonism, and the situation became volatile, the report says. Al-Umma men behaved in a high-handed manner with the police as obstructions caused by Muslim pavement vendors were removed. Al-Umma took the law into its own hands, ignored the police and held "katta panchayats" (kangaroo courts) at Kottaimedu and other places.

According to the report, the "unlawful activities" of Al-Umma cadres left the police constabulary highly disgruntled. Even as the communal tensions ran high, Selvaraj was murdered. This led to demonstrations by police personnel and firings.

One of the findings of the commission is that Muslim fundamentalist groups, especially Al-Umma, roused the "fanaticism" of Muslim youth through indoctrination and by exhibiting gruesome photographs and videotapes of the bodies of Muslims killed in the police firing.

The report quotes extensively from the confessions made by the accused (Al-Umma cadres arrested for the blasts) to the police. A key accused, Mohammed Ansari, told the three human bombs that they should not be afraid of losing their lives and that they would reach the feet of Allah by dying for the community's cause. The report says Basha asked one of them, Amanullah, whether he could "finish off" Advani. The human bombs were sent "after being motivated and indoctrinated to commit self-sacrifice for the cause of Islam".

On a street in Coimbatore after the serial blasts of February 14, 1998. The Gokulakrishnan Commission of Inquiry blames security lapses for the explosions.-K. ANANTHAN

Another human bomb, Amjath Ali, was instructed to stand near the point where Advani would get off from the car and Amanullah and Rafique were instructed to position themselves near the dais. As they neared the venue, the three of them separated. Amjath Ali could not go near his spot because of police frisking; he was afraid that the bomb would explode on his person. When he left the venue, he concealed the bomb in a bush. It eventually claimed the lives of four Muslim children playing cricket. Amanullah and Rafique did not go near the dais because of the security cordon and metal detectors. While Amanullah and Amjath Ali were arrested, Rafique was killed in a bomb explosion the next day.

The report comes down heavily on the police for their failure to search the Babulal Complex building on Tirumal Street before the blasts even though they had information about the clandestine movement and storing of bombs by "terrorist groups" at an abandoned building near Saravana Metal Mart. If they had searched and combed the nearby area, they would have unearthed the plot by Al-Umma men, arrested the terrorists and seized the bombs prior to February 14. This would have aborted the conspiracy, the report says.

Swift action by the police in the early hours of February 15 led to the unearthing of the plot to create terror in Coimbatore, the arrests of Al-Umma cadres and the seizure of detonators and lethal weapons. "The major part played in this storming operation" by Sub-Inspector M. Chandrasekaran "at the risk of his life" not only saved the lives of police personnel and the public but became "an eye-opener to the Special Investigation Team to nab the terrorists and unearth the concealed bombs", the report says.

Justice Gokulakrishnan also has a word of praise for the then Police Commissioner, Nanjil Kumaran, and Deputy Commissioner of Police, Sandeep Rai Rathore, whose affidavits and evidence "clearly establish" that they sent the necessary alerts. There is appreciation for the excellent work done by Collector G. Santhanam, which led to the quick disposal of thousands of compensation claims. The report also praises the "vigilant measures" taken by Police Commissioner K. Radhakrishnan, which included the unearthing of explosives and weapons, arrests of both Hindu and Muslim culprits, establishing of checkposts, the forming of area peace committees and so on. Such measures boosted people's morale , improved law and order and ensured peace during the Lok Sabha elections in 1999 and allowed the peaceful celebration of Hindu and Muslim festivals, the report observes.

The restoration of peace in Coimbatore was done by police personnel "under the leadership of Radhakrishnan by coordinating with jail authorities, providing security to threatened persons, shifting the fish market, the eviction of hawkers and by even-handed and unbiased action against the accused without any discrimination on grounds of caste, community or religion," the report says.

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