IT was St Valentine's day. A day marked out for the celebration of love, affection and universal bonhomie. Yet, the textile city of Coimbatore was destined for a riot of darker emotions. At 3.50 pm, just about 10 minutes before BJP leader L.K. Advani was to address a public meeting, a bomb went off at the cycle stand of the Coimbatore railway station killing six people. This was just the beginning of a series of bomb blasts which according to highly-placed sources have a distinct Dawood stamp. In fact, investigations have drawn several parallels between the 1992-93 Bombay blasts and the serial bombs in Coimbatore.
Only, in this case the number of blasts were much more. Five minutes after the first blast, and even before the news could reach the police, another bomb exploded in the heart of the city, killing three people in Rajendra cloth shop. At 3.55, another more powerful bomb went off at Shanmugham Road in the R.S. Puram area, where Advani was scheduled to address the meeting, killing four. At 3.58, a bomb placed in an ambassador 500 yards from the dais killed another nine people. Simultaneous blasts took place near Thiruvengaswamy Road, at Ukkadam and at S.P. Towers.
At 4 pm, a blast at Gandhipuram, the town's busy commercial area, killed four more. As people began running in panic, a powerful bomb went off in the basement parking area in the huge commercial complex of Rajarajeswari Tower. For the next five minutes the city was rocked by the sound of continuous bomb blasts.
At 4.05 pm, another car bomb exploded, this time at the entrance of the general hospital. Two nurses were torn to pieces, a patient was killed and a doctor was seen running in flames. The blast created a crater, four feet in diameter. The site is exactly where a Muslim youth was charred to death by goondas in the earlier riots. Eyewitness to the November carnage say that Muslim youth had vowed to kill 170 people in retaliation to the death of 17.
At 4.10, another explosion took place at the Timber Mart followed by three bombs that shattered the city's Variety Hall. And a blast at Poompugar killed two people. The dark day ended with two more blasts: at 8.30 pm at Karunanidhi Nagar, and at 10 pm in Bazaar Street. Within six hours, Coimbatore had witnessed 27 explosions and the death of 56 people.
The situation was made even worse with rumours that a human bomb was to eliminate Advani. Sangh parivar goondas attacked people at random. Properties belonging to Muslims or members of the United Front were ransacked. The house of M. Ramanathan, who represented Coimbatore in the last Lok Sabha, was assaulted and his car burnt. And at Gandhipuram, an RSS group attacked Hotel RV, owned by the city mayor Gopalakrishnan. The riots were curbed only when the army was brought in. Addressing a press conference, Advani reinforced the claim that there was a human bomb to assassinate him. Though, if he had been the target, the human bomb could have easily reached the dais without the carnage that spread all over the city.
Another rumour doing the rounds was that the entire Muslim population of Coimbatore was aware of the impending blasts and had asked their children to return home before 2 pm. This is unlikely as the blast took place on a second Saturday and all the schools remained closed. The third rumour: because of their advance information, no Muslim-owned pavement shops were open and less than five Muslims visited the general hospital. The truth was that the pavement hawkers had not put up their wares in the months following the November riots. Nor does the general hospital maintain any records of the religion or caste of the out patients.
In a sense, the BJP is cashing in on the tragedy in the same manner in which the AIADMK-Congress did in 1991 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Hindutva forces had entered the Tamil Nadu assembly for the first time by capitalising on the Mandaikadu riots in Kanyakumari in 1984. This time around, the death of these 56 Hindus may help the BJP win a parliamentary seat from Tamil Nadu for the first time.
BJP state general secretary, H. Raja, stresses that the serial bomb was meant to kill Advani. "IB authorities have cautioned Atalji and Advaniji to be careful of human bombs. The high-power BJP team which visited the city has confirmed the presence of a human bomb. The government cannot play down such a risk to national leaders. DMK's pseudo-secularism and vote bank politics is preventing the government from finding out the entire truth," he says. The BJP leader holds the DMK's "soft approach to the Muslim terrorist" as the sole reason for the tragedy.
THE DMK had removed the checkposts outside the Muslim area of Kottaim-edu when it came to power in 1996 on the grounds that it was unfair to treat the entire community as criminals and that it went against the idea of an independent secular nation. Raja is of a different opinion: "If the entire community has become criminal, then we should have the courage to say that they have become criminals. If the security of the country forces the state to barricade a part of the city, then it should be barricaded. If the place of worship becomes the place for storing arms, then it has to be raided." According to Raja, the Kottaimedu area has become the nerve centre for anti-national activities and there should be a thorough check of all houses in the area as these have all become "virtually an arms and ammunition factory".
The BJP leader believes that the entire Muslim community is behind the 'holocaust'. And that they knew about the preparations for the blasts. Their refusal to inform the police, he feels, is an illustration that they abetted the crime.
The ordinary Muslim is caught between extreme forces. Says Zakir Hussain of Kottaimedu: "We face three kinds of threats. First, from the fundamentalists within our community. In 1994, when Koattai Ameer, a leading Janata Dal leader, raised his concern about the methods adopted by some of the Muslim groups, he was killed by our own brothers.
Second: the backlash from the Hindu fanatics. They have issued notices and small booklets asking people not to buy from Muslim shops; not to rent houses or shops to Muslims and to be vigilant about Muslim youth. There are posters urging us to go to Pakistan or Gulf. Third: a large section of the police is communal. They arrest our boys without provocation and beat them up in custody. But for the communalism of the police, the Islamic fundamentalists would not have gained acceptance with our youth."
CPI(M) district committee secretary K.C. Karunakaran agrees. "While at the IPS level the police is secular, at the lower level they have fallen prey to the poison of communalism. The riots in November were engineered by the police," he says.
According to a senior police officer, the bomb blast would have been averted if the police at the ground level had acted in time. "On February 12, there was a message from Chennai to check for potential bombs. The local police deliberately conducted the checks in the wrong places and reported that the situation was under control." The officer added: "The control Chennai can exercise over the Coimbatore police is similar to that of the control New Delhi can exercise over the Northeast. The Janus-faced nature of the Coimbatore police is going to become an unsurmountable problem if the state government does not act at once".
However, subsequent investigations and combing operations have revealed that some of the perpetrators of the carnage are beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu. Says home secretary R. Poornalingam: "We have unearthed a deep-rooted conspiracy. The police have mounted a massive operation and has sought the cooperation of the concerned state governments." Though the government had banned two Islamic groups—Al-Umma and the Jihad Committee—and ordered the arrest of its leaders, some hardcore members slipped out of the state even before the blast. Ansari, general secretary of Al-Umma, is said to have fled to Malaysia through the Kerala-Gulf route.
The route for the explosives appears to be: Bombay, Nagpur, Mangalore, North Kerala, Palghat and finally Coimbatore. The bombs, which look like crude country devices, are in reality sophisticated explosives with timers and auto-explosion mechanisms. All the evidence points to the fact that the serial blasts could not have been carried out by fringe groups, but are part of a larger conspiracy.