Mosque blast

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

The Mecca Masjid, a day after the explosion.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The Mecca Masjid, a day after the explosion.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

The terrorist strike and the police firing on May 18 stun Hyderabad, but the city soon takes the events in its stride.

HISTORY repeated itself at the state-maintained Mecca Masjid in the Old City of Hyderabad on May 18 when a Malegaon-type explosion claimed nine lives during Friday prayers. Five more people were killed in police firing subsequently as angry survivors rushing out of the mosque went on the rampage.

A highly sophisticated bomb with deadly RDX and TNT (tri-nitro toluene) went off with a deafening noise at 1.22 p.m. as 10,000 people were offering the Juma namaz at the historic mosque, located close to Charminar, one of the major landmarks of Hyderabad. The incident had many echoes of the explosion that claimed 38 lives at a graveyard on the occasion of Shab-e-Barat in the textile town of Malegaon in Nasik district of Maharashtra on September 8 last year.

The Malegaon explosion also took place on a Friday, at 1-50 p.m. Casualties were limited in the Hyderabad incident as the marble platform under which the bomb had been placed absorbed the impact of the blast. Another improvised explosive device (IED) fitted with a mobile phone was found on the premises. Had it exploded, the death toll would have been much higher because the device was located in an open space.

The 400-year-old Mecca Masjid was completed during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The 80-foot-tall structure is said to have taken 77 years to build. The platform under which the bomb had been hidden was made of an antique marble sheet and was the place for visitors to sit and enjoy the visual treat of the grand edifice. Four of those killed in the blast were praying in the last row of worshippers gathered in the courtyard ahead of the platform; they died on the spot. Five died of injuries later.

Most of the worshippers ran for their lives after the explosion, but a few remained to prevent the entry of the police, who ultimately forced their way into the premises by using water cannons. The bomb disposal squad recovered 300 gm of RDX and TNT after defusing the unexploded IED. The SIM card in the mobile phone attached to the bomb did not significantly help the investigation as the chip was reportedly deactivated last year.

The police lobbed teargas shells and opened fire as they came under attack from frenzied mobs in the lanes and bylanes around the Mecca Masjid. The situation turned volatile at a petrol bunk near Shah Ali Banda, which a mob attempted to set on fire. It was here that the police aimed their weapons directly at the crowd. However, Muslim leaders, citing television footage, alleged that policemen in riot gear fired at people who were lifting bodies and shifting the injured. As news of the disturbances spread, shops downed shutters and the Andhra Pradesh Road Transport Corporation withdrew services. The roads in the Old City wore a deserted look as police reinforcements and the Rapid Action Force (RAF) took control in anticipation of a backlash.

Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy cut short his stay in New Delhi and rushed to Hyderabad, where officials briefed him at the airport. Later, a hostile crowd shouted him down at the Osmania General Hospital, where some of the injured were admitted.

The Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), which has one Member in Parliament and five legislators representing the constituencies covering the Old City, gave a call for a bandh the next day. It drew a good response and affected the turnout on the first day of ijtima (congregation) of the Tableegi Jamaat (a reformist movement), at Pahadi Sharif on the city outskirts. The three-day event, which was organised on a major scale for the first time in over a decade, had been expected to attract hundreds of thousands of Muslims from all over the State; a pandal spread over 18 lakh square metres had been erected for the congregation.

The situation in the city was under control on the day after the blast, laying to rest apprehensions of communal polarisation and violence of the kind that claimed over 200 lives in one spell in 1990. The government drew up contingency plans and sought paramilitary forces from the Centre, including six companies of the RAF. However, barring one incident of stone-throwing at the police by people returning after the funeral of one of the victims of Friday's incident, Saturday passed off peacefully. This was possible because members of both communities showed remarkable restraint. The State Cabinet held an emergency meeting that evening and thanked people.

The police also ensured that post-mortem examinations of the victims were conducted overnight, and persuaded the bereaved families to complete the rites early.

Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who reached the city on May 19, said the Central and State governments had intelligence reports of a possible terror strike but did not expect an attack at the Mecca Masjid, from where security was withdrawn three years ago. (The Chief Minister said that this was because clerics and community elders had objected to the presence of security personnel at a place of worship.) Intelligence agencies stepped up security for leaders and offices of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad last month, acting on reports of the presence of a suicide bomber in the city.

The MIM demanded the suspension of four police officers involved in the firing after the explosion and sought a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigation into the blast. Muslim leaders said the police firing was more heinous than the terror strike and expressed fears that investigations by the local police would not be impartial. Asaduddin Owaisi, MIM Member of Parliament, justified the demand for a CBI probe saying that the agency was investigating the blasts at Malegaon and at Nanded, where two Bajrang Dal activists were killed while allegedly making bombs.

There was some initial uncertainty about the possibility of a CBI probe, with Patil saying that the Central agency would be overburdened if requests for investigation into such incidents poured in from all parts of the country. However, the State government decided to seek the CBI's help with a view to instilling confidence in the minority community. It also ordered a judicial inquiry into the firing.

Bomb experts of the National Security Guard, Delhi, and anti-terrorist squads of Maharashtra and Karnataka coordinated the investigation by the police, which did not yield any tangible result 10 days after the explosion. A young man was picked up from Jalna in Maharashtra, but police did not have any evidence to link him to the blast.

The government announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs.5 lakh to the next of kin of every victim of the blast and the police firing, in addition to the Rs.1 lakh announced by the Prime Minister's Office, and Rs.1 lakh by the Telugu Desam Party.

Protests and rallies were organised all over the State in the wake of the blast and firing but nowhere did they lead to violence, except at Kamareddy town in Nizamabad district where nine people suffered stab injuries. In Hyderabad, thousands of police personnel kept vigil at Mecca Masjid and in rest of the Old City on the Friday following the blast, but there were no major untoward incidents. The government decided to install 20 closed-circuit TV cameras and six door-frame metal detectors at the mosque to beef up security.

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