It was October 23, the day before Diwali, the festival of lights. At 4 am there was a blast, and the alarmed policemen at a checkpost some 200 metres away first thought an electricity transformer had blown. By 4:06 am they had called the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board office and the Coimbatore South Fire Station and rushed to the spot. It was only then that they realised the explosion was not caused by a transformer but a car. By 4:18 am, fire tenders had extinguished the smouldering flames. As it is a sensitive and Muslim-dominated area, the blast site was cordoned off well before 5 am.
The enormity of the incident dawned on the police only after they saw some disturbing material near the mangled remains of the car—a crushed LPG cylinder, a second one in the car’s boot, scattered two-inch-long iron nails, tiny glass marbles, and a black powder-like substance. The charred body of a youth, identified later as A. Jamesha Mubeen (29) of Ukkadam in Coimbatore, lay near the car.
The explosion, at Kottaimedu, created a furore in Tamil Nadu. Even before the smoke could settle, a pack of Hindutva groups erupted with multiple conspiracy theories. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its State president K. Annamalai immediately hurled accusations against the government. It is perhaps the first time in Tamil Nadu that such a sensitive law and order issue has been cold-bloodedly converted into a political slugfest.
At the blast site that morning, the air was thick with pungent smoke; this and the scattered evidence made the police quickly realise that they were looking at a botched terror strike. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin was alerted at about 5 am; the Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) P. Thamaraikannan flew into Coimbatore at 10:20 am, followed by DGP C. Sylendra Babu by noon.
As news of the incident spread like wildfire on social media, the investigation teams on the ground grappled with the clues that were slowly emerging. Within hours of the blast, with the investigation still at a nascent stage and the police yet to make a statement, Annamalai launched a broadside against the State government. The former IPS officer-turned-politician, tweeting a day after the blast, had already concluded that it was a “suicide attack” and a “clear-cut terror act with ISIS links”. He accused the State government of hiding the “truth” from the public and accused the Chief Minister of going “soft on terror” and playing “minority appeasement politics”.
Meanwhile, the Coimbatore Police continued working, aware that the situation could escalate easily into a law and order problem in a city that has been sitting on a powder keg after the 1998 serial bomb blasts that killed 58 persons and injured more than 200.
Connecting the dots
The moment Mubeen’s identification was established from his car registration number, it became easy for the police to locate his residence, which was not far from the blast site. They seized 109 articles from his home—from explosive materials to jehadi literature. With the evidence, the police were able to reconstruct events prior to the blast.
A senior police officer connected with the probe told Frontline that the preliminary investigation pointed to the probability of Mubeen being a “lone wolf” attacker. The police surmised that he could have driven down the explosive-laden Maruti car with the apparent intention of blowing it up near Sri Koniamman temple, a popular place of worship in Coimbatore. What he perhaps did not expect was the presence of a police beat team at that hour at the checkpost near Sangameshwarar temple not far from his target. What happened next has not been established as of now, although it seems apparent that his plan went awry during execution.
Pursuing further leads, the police tracked down five of his accomplices—Mohammad Thalka (25), Mohammad Asarudheen (25), Mohammad Riyaz (27), Feroz Ismail (27), and Mohammad Navaz Ismail (27)—within 24 hours of the blast. The sixth one, Afsar Khan, was apprehended two days later. All of them have been detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Before the police could wind up their preliminary investigation and arrive at some conclusions, Annamalai and social media went into overdrive, with diatribes against the police, the government, and the State intelligence unit.
Stalin’s deft move
Taking into account these developments and the undue pressure exerted on the police, Chief Minister Stalin quickly convened a meeting with senior bureaucrats on October 26 and decided to hand over the case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). A press release stated that the NIA had been called because the case could have “possible international and inter-State ramifications”.
Stalin’s unexpectedly swift move took the wind out of the sails of his detractors who had tried hard to politicise the incident. But even as the BJP officially welcomed the decision, Annamalai kept up his tirade. He claimed that a “specific threat alert” had been sent by Central intelligence agencies (he did not name them) to the Tamil Nadu government on October 18. The State police flatly denied this, saying it was a routine Home Ministry circular sent to all States.
Annamalai alleged that the police had been asked to monitor Mubeen’s movements after the NIA had interrogated him in 2019 in connection with a terror-module case in Coimbatore. The deceased, he said, had links with ISIS and was handled from outside the country. He went on to make a communal claim, saying that 60 per cent of the State Intelligence Wing’s senior officers belonged to one minority religion and were “acting like missionaries and NGOs”.
In fact, Annamalai has been trying to demonise the State Intelligence Wing from the day the DMK government appointed ADGP S. Davidson Devasirvatham as its chief, making the officer the target of his insinuations. He has also accused Devasirvatham of having links with missionaries who he claims are engaged in conversions in Tamil Nadu. He first began attacking the ADGP in 2021 for the fake passports scam in Madurai when Devasirvatham was the City Police Commissioner and the AIADMK was in power. Annamalai even submitted a petition to Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi on the issue. The Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, however, gave Devasirvatham a clean chit.
Next came the death by suicide of a student in a school run by a congregation of nuns near Thanjavur last year. Along with allegations of conversion, the BJP leader claimed that the ADGP had interfered in the case.
In the latest instance, Annamalai claimed that the Coimbatore blast could have been averted but for the failure of the State intelligence unit, which he demanded should be revamped. Along with Devasirvatham, he faulted DGP Sylendra Babu for having “failed in his duty”.
The Tamil Nadu Police reacted sharply to his statements. In a press release on October 29, the State police charged him with “continuously indulging in a defamatory campaign against the Tamil Nadu Police even as the probe in the case was on”. The note said that the politician was trying “to divert the investigation”. Rubbishing his claims, the police “requested the former Karnataka Police officer not to tarnish the name of Tamil Nadu Police by spreading false news”.
In turn, Annamalai claimed he had documentary proof of intelligence failure and uploaded some screenshots on his Twitter timeline to back up his claims. Interestingly, however, he soon began to laud the Tamil Nadu Police for their swift response to the blast. “I am not against the entire Tamil Nadu Police but [only] those two officers,” he said.
A second surprise player who emerged was Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi. At a function in a private educational institution in Coimbatore on October 28, Ravi expressed displeasure over the delay in handing over the probe to the NIA. In a tweet from his official handle, he said he was concerned about the “possible destruction of crucial evidence” in the case. He went on to praise the Tamil Nadu Police, which had established within hours that the blast was a botched terror attack, but he accused the State government of “soft pedalling”.
In response, Stalin sent a subtle message by organising a felicitation function for 58 police personnel, including Coimbatore City Police Commissioner V. Balakrishnan, for their meticulous work in the investigation. Stalin congratulated them for quickly securing the site for evidence collection, for their thorough investigation, and for the vigilant patrolling that prevented any moves to create panic in the city.
The Tamil Nadu Police, however, remain unhappy about the attempts to defame them. A senior police officer connected with the probe told Frontline: “While the probe is in progress, can any police officer or investigating agency divulge details? It is the first time someone other than the police has intervened while a probe is on. Had we buckled under the enormous pressure to disclose probe details, Mubeen’s accomplices would have escaped.”
The NIA’s first information report (FIR), almost similar to the one the Coimbatore police registered, listed 109 articles seized from Mubeen’s house. These included potassium nitrate, nitrogylcerin, red phosphorus, high explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), sulphur, batteries, wires, iron nails, and literature on Islamist ideology and jehad. The accused were taken to the NIA Special Court in Poonamallee, Chennai, which remanded them to judicial custody. On November 10, the NIA carried out raids at 45 locations in Tamil Nadu, including Chennai, Coimbatore, Thanjavur, Tirunelveli, and Ramanathapuram. Coimbatore had 20 of these locations.
Blast, bandh, and politics
On October 31, the BJP’s Coimbatore unit issued a call for bandh demanding that the government “put down terrorism with an iron hand”. Vanathi Srinivasan, Coimbatore South MLA, described the bandh as a democratic show of protest. The people of Coimbatore, however, had a different opinion. The nightmarish memories of the 1998 serial bomb blasts still haunt them, and the city has suffered heavily trying to revive and recapture its syncretic culture.
“We do not want 1998 to be repeated. Now we need peace and amity. After the pandemic, we are still struggling to regrow our businesses,” said a member of a Coimbatore-based textile merchants’ association. Equally, the members of all Jamaaths stayed away from Mubeen’s last rites to express their displeasure and condemned the blast. They insisted that nobody should be allowed to exploit the situation to foment interfaith disharmony.
A Coimbatore citizen filed a PIL petition in the Madras High Court against the bandh call alleging that BJP functionaries “were pressuring traders, industries and educational institutions” to down their shutters in Coimbatore. Annamalai quickly sensed the public mood, and when the case came up for hearing, he told the court through his counsel that “he had not given any call for a bandh in Coimbatore on October 31”. The bandh was called off.
Various political parties have condemned the BJP’s accusations against the State police and the government. Their members have stated that any attempt to create an ecosystem that maligns the State and its police on such a sensitive issue should not be encouraged. The CPI(M) and the CPI called it an attempt to destroy the religious amity established in Coimbatore after 1998. CPI(M) State secretary K. Balakrishnan placed the blame of intelligence failure at the doorsteps of Central intelligence agencies. “If the person involved in the car blast was under NIA surveillance in 2019, how can it shrug off its responsibility?” he asked.
The Congress, the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) condemned the blast and urged the government to take tough action against anyone who attempted to disturb the communal harmony rebuilt painstakingly in the Textile City. The only party to toe the BJP line was the AIADMK, whose leaders, Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam, blamed the blast on a law and order failure.
The DMK entrusted the job of countering the accusations to Electricity Minister V. Senthil Balaji, who, at a press conference on October 28, asked the BJP to stop creating panic. He pointed out that Mubeen was identified within 12 hours of the blast and that five alleged accomplices were arrested within 24 hours. The government had ensured that Coimbatore celebrated Diwali as usual, he said, asking Annamalai to hand over evidence, if any, to the NIA and not to the media.
The political storm around the blast has abated for the time being. The NIA is now pursuing the case, chasing leads across Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As of now, the FIR filed by the Tamil Nadu Police has not been updated nor any further arrests made. The blast’s political fallout, however, has claimed one more casualty—a demoralised State police.
- The October 23 explosion at Kottaimedu in Coimbatore has created a political furore in Tamil Nadu with Hindutva groups coming up with multiple conspiracy theories.
- With the investigation still at a nascent stage and the police yet to make a statement, State BJP president K. Annamalai launched a broadside against the State government. The former IPS officer-turned-politician tweeted that it was a “suicide attack” and a “clear-cut terror act with ISIS links”. He blamed it on intelligence failure too.
- On October 26, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin decided to hand over the case to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Stalin’s unexpectedly swift move took the wind out of the sails of his detractors who had tried hard to politicise the incident.
- The Tamil Nadu Police reacted sharply to Annamalai’s statements and charged him with “continuously indulging in a defamatory campaign against the Tamil Nadu Police even as the probe in the case was on”.
- Various political parties have condemned the BJP’s accusations against the State police and the government.