Widening the divide
Harassment, humiliation and illegal detention of a large number of Coimbatore�s Muslims continues even after numerous organisations in the city spontaneously observed an �Anti-terrorism Week� to demonstrate that the large majority of people from the community are opposed to violence
Five months after the anti-Muslim carnage in Coimbatore instigated by the RSS- sponsored Hindu Munnani, and in which the police acted in a brazen communal manner (see CC, February 1998), the situation continues to be a nightmare for Muslims. While the perpetrators of the December riots roam scot�free, an entire community is having to suffer daily indignities, and worse, because of the Februrary 14 bomb blasts in which a few were involved. "Investigations" in connection with the bomb blasts is a convenient cover.
Following in the footsteps of the Mumbai and Maharashtra police, that brutalised innocent family members of those alleged accused in the serial bomb blasts (that followed the anti�Muslim pogrom in the metropolis in January 1993) in March 1993, the Coimbatore police has branded the entire Muslim community as "anti�national" for the conduct of a misguided few. This has heightened the sense of alienation, despair and outrage even further.
Young school and college�going students, including two young boys due to appear for their final examinations, have been selectively detained by the local police. Unfair detentions, humiliating house searches, insulting and provocative remarks, seem to be a part of deliberate police policy. This despite the fact that many local Muslim organisations, were quick to distance themselves from the terrorist acts. An anti�terrorism week between March 7 and March 14 organised under the banner of the Federation of Coimbatore All Muslim Organisations has been of little help in changing police behaviour.
On April 23 Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi tabled a �white paper� on the February 14, 1998 Coimbatore serial blasts in the state Assembly. The blasts, according to this document, were carried out in "revenge against losses suffered by Muslims" during November 29, 1997 in which 22 persons, including 19 Muslims, were killed in "communal violence" following the murder of constable Selvaraj.
But the document completely glosses over the police brutalities, killing of innocents, and their involvement in arson assisted by communal elements like the Hindu Munnani. At its executive council meeting held at Pondicherry on April 26, the Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry chapters of the People�s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) strongly condemned this omission.
On the night of February 14 itself, in Kottaimedu � a residential area with 90 per cent Muslims � a group of youngsters reminded of the police brutalities last November panicked and ran for cover on seeing the police enter their area.
They were chased to their homes, the doors broken open and 75 youth arrested them on charges that they had assembled in support of Al-Umma. They were stripped in the police van, beaten up and told, "you Muslim dogs should be blasted by bombs". They were in custody for three days in Singanallur police station, beaten by inspector Murali (indicted by the PUCL for his role in the November violence) of B�1 Big Bazar police station and remanded only on the fourth day. They were charged with inciting communal violence (Sec.151, CrPC) and also as a preventive measure (section 7 (I) of the CLA Act).
In one of the homes in Kottaimedu a boy who was picked up had his hand broken by the police while under illegal custody. He was let out after being warned to keep his mouth shut. The family has chosen to heed the warning and has already spent Rs. 20,000 on his medical treatment
Karunanidhi Nagar is a slum area in Coimbatore. At about 9 p.m. on February 14, a complaint by a Hindu Munnani member was registered in by the B�3 Police station. The man who incidentally was one of the aggressors during the November 1997 carnage, claimed that pipe bombs were thrown at the homes of Hindus residents and the BJP office by one Iliyas and a hundred other Al�Umma members because of which a woman lost one leg.
On the basis of this complaint, 35 Muslims were arrested. They were taken to a marriage hall and beaten up in front of the Hindu Munnani members. Later, they were charged under the Explosives Act and lodged in Tiruchirappalli Central Jail and denied bail. Mubarak Ali (31) under regular treatment for seizure disorder (his last visit to the doctor was on February 11) was one of those picked up.
On the early morning of February 15 in Thirumal Street, the police went
to catch a gang allegedly involved in the blasts. A bomb is supposed to have been thrown at the raiding party. One of them, SI Chandrasekharan of B�1 police station, reportedly showed a great presence of mind and closed the door resulting in the bomb blasting in the room itself killing six terrorists instantly. Those killed are said to have jumped from the adjacent building and taken refuge in the toilet. This incident was widely publicised by the media doling out kudos and the SI was later honoured for his act of bravery.
However, there are a number of obvious giveaways which the media has ignored, preferring to stick to the police version. The room in which this incident occurred is a crude toilet without a roof, (8 feet X 4 feet) constructed on a terrace. The door is made of a zinc sheet held by thin wooden frames. An explosion, that is supposed to have led to the instant death of six, strangely did hardly any damage to a flimsy door. Moreover, a small plastic bucket inside the toilet has not been damaged, nor are there any signs of blast on the walls of the toilet or on the dead bodies.
The eight houses in this building where the incident occurred houses were ransacked, televisions and fridges smashed. Almost all the male members from the building were arrested, kept in preventive custody and released only days later. Sacks of sand (stocked there for construction purposes) that were shown as explosives on television telecast, as a "major explosive haul," still remain in the building!
Mohamed Riyaz (state basket ball player) studying in standard 11 in the CSI Higher Secondary School (along with his father Shahul Hamid) were arrested. So was Raja Sarfudeen (son of Mohamed Ali) aged 13 studying in standard VIII of the same school. They were charged under sections 147, 148, 307 of the IPC and sections 3 and 5 of the Explosives Substance Act. Section 307 which is for �attempt to murder� has been subsequently converted to section 302 � �murder�.
Certificates from the school headmaster confirming that the students had attended school up to February 13 were produced in the court to press for their release. But the boys were refused bail even for giving their examination.
The Muslim majority Kottaimedu area in Coimbatore has become the focus of attention especially by the media, being stereotyped as the "nerve centre" of terrorism. The deliberate stereotyping defies reality considering that there have been no incidents of communal violence in Kottaimedu. No bombs have been recovered by the police from this area to date. The place has been largely peaceful without any major incidents of violence. Only 10 per cent of the residents in this area are Hindus and they continue to enjoy peace and security here. The four temples here have never come under attack. Kottaimedu remains an outstanding example of continued Hindu-Muslim amity despite all that has happened in the city.
Yet there are eight entry points to the area where check posts have been set up and in six spots there are regular police beats. After the pressure put by the Hindu Munnani and the BJP to set up a police station inside Kottai-medu to check and monitor terrorism, police are currently searching for a place to set it up. Repeated house�to�house searches have become routine. The insensitive searches and police presence at the instigation of Hindu communal outfits have been counter�productive. The behaviour of the police heightens alienation rather than diffuse it. Moreover, it reinforces the feeling that the authorities are acting as agents of Hindu communal organisations.
The Federation of Coimbatore All Muslim Organisations has formally taken up this insensitive and partisan action with the higher authorities. When questioned, the deputy commissioner of police justified the police conduct saying that it was a state�wide exercise that affects �all people� and is necessary due to the growing tendencies towards violence. The problem with the exercise is that it is being conducted in a highly partisan way in Kottaimedu.
M. Mohamed Abubacker
(The writer is a senior advocate and a civil liberties activist from Coimbatore).