Confrontation in Coimbatore

Print edition : December 13, 1997

Communal clashes, of which Muslims bore the brunt, and a revolt by police personnel have rocked the industrial city.

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Coimbatore Pictures: K. Ananthan

BETWEEN November 29 and December 1, Coimbatore witnessed a communal conflagration unprecedented in the toll it took of life and property in the premier industrial city. Muslims were the most affected. At the end of three days of murder, arson, looting and police firing, 18 Muslims and two Hindus were dead. Scores of textile, watch, footwear, grocery and furniture shops, as also pushcarts, all belonging to members of the minority community, were looted and set ablaze. Some 365 persons were arrested.

An alarming aspect of the sequence of events was a revolt by police personnel that broke out and was used by Hindu extremists to target Muslims.

Police personnel revolted after a traffic constable was stabbed at Kottaimedu on November 29 by Muslim youth. Kottaimedu, in the Ukkadam area, is predominantly Muslim and is a stronghold of Al-Umma, a Muslim fundamentalist organisation. The area had become virtually out of bounds for the police.

Sub-Inspector M. Chandrasekaran, attached to the Bazaar police station, near Kottaimedu, had detained Jehangir, an office-bearer of Al-Umma, and two other Muslim youth travelling on a motor-cycle. Jehangir, who did not carry a driving licence, was detained. Al-Umma State secretary M. Mohammed Ansari went to the police station and demanded his release. Ansari said that Jehangir had left his driving licence at home. There were arguments between Sub-Inspector Chandrasekaran and Ansari.

About an hour later, a group of Muslim youth stabbed 35-year old constable R. Selvaraj. He died in the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital.

With the situation heading towards anarchy following the mutiny by police personnel, the Tamil Nadu Government called in the Army and the Rapid Action Force (RAF) of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The forces reached the city on November 30. Additional Director-General of Police (Law and Order) S. Kumaraswamy arrived in Coimbatore that day.

Personnel of the Central forces in the thick of action. On many occasions, criminals played hide and seek with the forces.-

Some sources, including police sources, sought to link the mutiny to perceived discontent among the police about the manner in which the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government was seen to have handled Muslim extremism in Coimbatore and elsewhere in the State over the past year and more. Speaking to Frontline, some police sources blamed the Government for not allowing the force to take independent action against Al-Umma. They said that four policemen and prison officers had been stabbed or murdered in Coimbatore and Madurai by Muslim extremists in the last 18 months. The sources alleged that government prosecutors did not oppose the bail applications of Muslim extremists who were detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act for their alleged involvement in a 1993 bomb blast at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in Chennai, and for alleged murders and possession of explosives. Sixteen of them, including Al-Umma's founder S.A. Basha, and Ansari, were released in January 1997. According to police sources who spoke to Frontline, the Government had instructed top police officers to go slow in using the National Security Act (NSA) to deal with Muslim fundamentalists.

Tamil Nadu's new Director-General of Police, F.C. Sharma, however, denied that the police in Coimbatore were communal. He said: "When a policeman puts on his uniform, he is a policeman. He does not belong to any other group." On the grievances of the policemen and their revolt, Sharma said: "We must find out why it took place, what should be done so that it does not recur and what could be done to wipe out or reduce their grievances."

Speaking to newspersons in Chennai, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi denied that there was any police revolt in Coimbatore. He also denied that the incidents were a sequel to general dissatisfaction among the police with the DMK Government. He asserted that his Government was not partisan when it came to taking action against any particular group, and said that it would not hesitate to use the NSA.

IN the wake of the murder of the policeman, violence was in the air in Coimbatore on the night of Saturday, November 29. About 15 traffic policemen smashed push-carts operated by Muslim vendors who sell vegetables and fruits at Ukkadam. Hindu extremists soon joined in the action and looted even small shops.

The next day, Sunday, saw an explosion of violence. Traffic policemen and even policemen manning the control room left their posts. Wearing black badges, they sat in a dharna at the Tiruchi Road-Town Hall Road junction and raised slogans. They refused to obey officers who asked them to return to work. Policemen's wives and children took out a procession from the Police Training School to the Police Commissioner's office and shouted slogans.

Soon, violence erupted at Ukkadam, Raja Street and Eswaran Kovil Street. Groups of Muslims and Hindus faced each other, throwing stones, soda-water bottles and petrol bombs. Policemen opened fire, reportedly targeting Muslims. About ten Muslim youth were killed. Business establishments of Muslims at R.S. Puram, Selvapuram, R.G. Road, Oppanakara Street, Variety Hall Road, Raja Street, Big Bazaar Street and Ukkadam came under planned attack. Shobha Cloth Centre, a three-storeyed textile shop owned by a Muslim, was looted and set ablaze. The building collapsed. Other shops selling ready-made dresses, watches, footwear, furniture and cycles were looted and burnt. The looters sold saris, shirts, chappals and watches. What they could not take away with them were heaped on the street and made a bonfire of. Pavement stalls were smashed up. Mosques as well as temples were attacked.

A large number of policemen assembled outside the hospital where the constable's body was. Hindu Munnani and Hindu Makkal Katchi activists were present in strength. When DMK legislator for Coimbatore West C.T. Dhandapani and his son C.T.D. Ravi arrived, a mob of Hindu extremists beat them up, while the police looked on. Dhandapani received head injuries and was hospitalised. His car and another car were set ablaze.

When Muslim youth injured in police firing were brought to the hospital, the mob turned their wrath on them. Several Muslims were stabbed or lynched to death. Petrol was poured on Habib Rehman, 21, and he was set on fire. The police did not intervene, and he died. Ayub Khan, who was injured on the head in police firing near Kottaimedu, went to the hospital, where a crowd gave him chase. He was saved by a ward boy who locked him up in a store room for hours.

It is noteworthy that there were no clashes between Muslims and Hindus in congested Kottaimedu itself, where about 30,000 Muslims, 17,000 Hindus including Dalits and 6,000 Christians live. No temple or mosque came under attack here.

The Army and the RAF arrived on the night of November 30. Yet that night, and the next morning, criminals looted shops in by-lanes, playing hide and seek with Army personnel.

Normal life in Coimbatore was paralysed until December 3. Shops, restaurants, markets and business establishments remained closed. Taxis, autorickshaws and buses did not operate. On December 2, the bodies of 17 Muslims, which were kept in a school at Kottaimedu, were taken out in a procession and buried. The situation returned to normal on December 4.

Women constables of the Rapid Action Force and a senior citizen.-

That day, when newspersons drove through the congested lanes of Kottaimedu, an uneasy calm prevailed. Muslim youth were gathered in groups in different places. A few shops were opened for business. Posters were put up that urged Muslims to unite.

The president of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), M.H. Jawahirullah, a lecturer in Islamiah College, Vaniyambadi, said that the TMMK did not believe in violence and that its objective was to defend the rights of Muslims in a democratic manner. He condemned the murder of Selvaraj. He said that Hindutva forces, including the Hindu Munnani and the Hindu Makkal Katchi, had used the murder of Selvaraj to join the police to create mayhem. He added that the aim of the violence was to smash the "economic prosperity of Muslims" and that property worth crores of rupees was destroyed.

The TMMK was founded on August 15, 1995. Police sources said that it is a moderate organisation compared to Al-Umma.

Jawahirullah said that in Kottaimedu itself no Hindu was touched. He said: "When the bodies of the 17 Muslims were taken for burial, Hindus cried." He demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the incidents.

Al-Umma secretary Ansari said that when he went to the Bazaar police station to seek the release of Jehangir, Sub-Inspector Chandrasekaran "roundly cursed me." He claimed that he was beaten up inside the station. He added: "When a big crowd was gathering, constable Selvaraj was murdered." He alleged that the police had foisted cases on the three Muslim youth who were arrested for the murder of Selvaraj. According to him, the police used the murder to "wreak wholesale vengeance" against Muslims. (Those arrested for the murder of Selvaraj were Mohammed Shaffi, 21, of Saramedu, Asiq of N.H.Road and Abbas, 20, of Pothanur). Ansari denied that the DMK Government was biased towards Muslims. He said: "It is the Sangh parivar that says that we have taken the law into our own hands. The DMK is doing what should be done according to law." He claimed that Al-Umma was not a militant organisation.

According to Ansari, friction developed between Al-Umma and the police because Al-Umma had been mediating in local disputes. It had solved problems between Hindus and Muslims in financial and other matters.

Hindu Munnani district organiser M.G. Raja and Hindu Makkal Katchi State general secretary Arjun Sampath blamed the DMK Government for not having checked the activities of certain groups which, they said, led to violence. Bharatiya Janata Party district president G. Bhoopathi alleged that the DMK Government was backing the Al-Umma.

After a round of arson and violence in downtown Coimbatore. Property worth crores of rupees was estimated to have been destroyed, and the main losers were Muslims.-

THE first communal murder in Coimbatore in recent times took place on August 30, 1989 when a Hindu Munnani activist, Veera Ganesh, was stabbed. Another Hindu Munnani platform speaker, Veera Siva alias Sivakumar, was murdered on September 5, 1991. Both used political platforms to make provocative speeches against Islam. About 45 minutes after the murder of Veera Siva, a Muslim preacher was found murdered at R.S. Puram. But there was no rioting or looting then. Two no-nonsense police officers, City Police Commissioner G. Ganesan and Deputy Commissioner (Law and Order) D. Radhakrishna Raja, were in charge. Sources in Coimbatore recall that the two officers helped put down communal elements among both Muslims and Hindus.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, violence erupted in Kottaimedu and other Muslim dominated areas. Some temples were burnt. Tea stalls run by Hindus were also targeted. This brought into the open the existence of the Al-Umma. Nevertheless, the situation was contained without any major flare-up.

In August 1993, a bomb was set off in the RSS office in Chennai and 11 persons were killed. One among the accused in the blast case was Al-Umma founder S.A. Basha, who was arrested under TADA. Ansari was arrested on charges of possessing gelatine sticks.

In December 1993, on the first anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, there was violence. Kottaimedu was fast turning into a trouble-spot. The police erected five checkposts in and around Kottaimedu, and a few near Iqbal Thidal, N.H. Road and Vincent Road, all Muslim-dominated areas. According to the police, the checkposts had two purposes: to isolate these trouble-prone areas and to protect Muslims. In practice, these were places at which the police frisked Muslim "suspects", and Muslims perceived these checkposts to be an affront to their dignity.

Resentment built up against the then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Government led by Jayalalitha. Even as the results of the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly and the Lok Sabha held in April 1996 were being announced, Muslims in Kottaimedu and other areas smashed the checkposts. Police constable Jothikrishnan was stabbed at Kottaimedu. Towards the end of 1996, G. Bhoopalan, a warder at Coimbatore Central Prison, was killed in a petrol bomb attack. No arrests have been made till now.

The situation took a turn for the worse with the murder of Palani Baba, founder of the Jihad Committee, who used public platforms to make inflammatory speeches against Hinduism and Hindus. He was murdered at Pollachi, near Coimbatore, on January 28, 1997. The killing sparked off violence in Coimbatore. There was a bandh on January 30. Members of the TMMK took out a procession on January 31 and the Collectorate was stoned. Three Hindus were murdered. The DMK Government asked Radhakrishna Raja to take over as Coimbatore Police Commissioner from January 31, and, under his leadership, the situation came under control.

In September 1997, violence broke out again. An incident involving an altercation regarding a speeding motorcycle triggered the violence. According to the police, four Hindus wetre killed on September 1 and 2. The situation was brought under control again; Radhakrishna Raja held peace meetings in which both the major communities took part. At one meeting, a DMK legislator was reportedly sore with Radhakrishna Raja for not releasing some Muslim youth who had been taken into preventive custody.

Between September 7 and 10, the Hindu Munnani and the Hindu Makkal Katchi took out separate Vinayaka Chathurthi processions. A couple of weeks later, Radhakrishna Raja was transferred to Chennai.

In September, an assistant jailer at the Madurai Central Prison, S. Jayaprakash, was murdered as he was on his way to the prison from his home on his bicycle. Jayaprakash apparently used to monitor mail addressed to Shahul Hameed, who had been detained under TADA for his alleged involvement in the RSS office blast. At Melapalayam in Tiruneveli, three Hindus, including Dr. Selvakumar, a medical practitioner, Sankar, a tailor and Kannappan, a flower vendor, were stabbed to death in August.

DGP Sharma told reporters in Coimbatore on December 3: "The situation is absolutely normal. You have seen it on the roads. We will maintain law and order fairly, firmly and impartially."

The State Government has appointed a one-man commission consisting of the former Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court, P.R. Gokulakrishnan, to inquire into the violence.

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