CHENNAI: The ‘bloody horror’ that an otherwise peaceful city of Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu, once known as ‘Manchester of the South’ for its solid textile industry base, witnessed on February 14, 1998 with powerful bomb blasts rocking the city on that day is too chilling for a recall even now.
There could not have been a more apt, moving, profound summation of the totality of the circumstances and its normative import for humanity at large of this huge terror attack than in the words of then Madras High Court Judge, Justice Prabha Sridevan, who wrote towards the end of her landmark judgment in the bomb blasts appeal case in December 2009 thus: “Violence is always a comma, never a full stop.”
A division bench led by her and including Justice M Sathyanarayanan had heard the appeals when 30 of those convicted in the case by the trial court on August 1, 2007, appealed against that order in the High court.
The moral of this terrible tragedy, a hugely complex case that shook Tamil Nadu after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, at the end of the day was quite simple: Hatred and revenge only trigger a vicious cycle, benefitting none. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as Gandhi said.
Ms. Prabha Sridevan’s judgment captures the sociology and ethnography of the mindless yet targeted communal violence, for whatever reasons, in a realistic, humane way. It is worth recalling her words, over two decades after that horrendous tragedy: “The Trial Court pronounced the judgment in that case on August 1, 2007. Thus a trial, which had a sweep of unprecedented magnitude, came to an end. But it inflicted wounds on all, barring none. The wounds still remain.”
First the tragedy and its genesis: Of various accounts one heard that fateful day when initially 12 bombs exploded in different places in Coimbatore amid the Lok Sabha election campaign - they reportedly went off between 3-50 pm and 4-30 pm. One blast was somewhere near a dais at R.S. Puram where the BJP’s then President L K Advani was to address an election rally on February 14 evening.
As a Correspondent for an upcountry daily covering the elections, I was then at Tiruchy that day. On hearing the news and after making some phone calls to my friends, I rushed to the telegraph office in Srirangam to file my first report and then extensively covered a joint rally by Advani and Jayalalithaa in Tiruchy that night, after Advani was advised to leave the bombs-ravaged Coimbatore. One could instantly sense the mood of the voters was grim and unforgiving. The rest, as they say, is history.
As the details emerged later, the serial blasts using “high intensity explosive devices (IED)” in and around Coimbatore, was targeting Mr. Advani. The prosecution case was that the banned Muslim fundamentalist outfit, Al-Umma, headed by S.A. Basha and the first accused in this hideous case, had planned the detonations by groups of well tasked out cadres to coincide with Mr. Advani's visit that day and he himself was “planned to be targeted by a suicide squad”.
Apart from the explosion at R.S. Puram, the bombs that went off initially were at pre-identified locales including the BJP office in Coimbatore, one nasty explosion at the General Hospital, on Bazar Street where retail textile outfits of a particular community were allegedly targeted and so on.
Coimbatore was out of bounds for the next four days at least, with sporadic explosions continuing at various other places for the next two days - one on Tirumal street in the early hours of Feb 15 was by all accounts a huge disaster-. Police were also recovering explosives from different places till Feb 17. And the death toll in all, over those days was put by the Police as 58 persons killed and about 250 persons injured, while private and public property to the tune of Rs.4.37 crore were damaged in looting and arson.
On that very night of February 14, 1998, in a dumbfounded Chennai, the DMK government then led by M Karunanidhi, ringed in by all-round opposition pressure, at once banned ‘Al-Umma’ amid cries of delayed action. Arrests were made in quick succession including the alleged kingpins, S A Basha and his kin Mohamed Ansari (second accused). Scores of Muslim youth from Ukkadam area, said to be locus of the Al-Umma group, were picked up that night itself.
A special investigation team that probed the blasts eventually filed a ‘final report’ on May 5, 1999, with 180 persons charged with serious offences before the trial court headed by Judge Mr. Uthirapathy. Of them, 166 accused faced the trial as several were either missing or wanted, with one of the accused arrested as late as 2018. The trial court had an incredibly unenviable task with 1,300 witnesses examined on the prosecution side in a secure enclosure within the Coimbatore central prison, 1,731 exhibits marked and 480 material objects produced.
Judge Uthirapathy, who displayed monumental patience and dignity in the face of multiple adversity and tantrums thrown up by the accused persons during the hearings, had in his order in August 2007, acquitted only four, including the well known Kerala-based PDP leader Abdul Naser Madhani. The rest were all convicted and sentenced to various terms. Led by S.A. Basha and Ansari, the trial judge awarded life sentences to 39 accused, one person got 13 years, while the rest got varying terms from three to seven years. As several of the accused had already spent the sentence duration during the long-drawn trial, they were released by the trial court.
The crux of the prosecution case was that ‘communal tension was growing’ already in Coimbatore city. However, it gained momentum after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, in December 1992. The late 1980s’, following the Meenakshipuram conversions where Dalits converted to Islam, some Hindu outfits began flexing their muscles over Ganesh Chaturti processions.
That period also saw the growth of some Muslim fundamentalist organisations, notably around Al-Umma. S.A. Basha himself was first arrested in November 1993 in connection with the bomb blast at the RSS office in Chennai and released in February 1997, the prosecution said. Provocative speeches by a Muslim preacher Palani Baba, were also adding fuel to the fire amid a rash of bomb blast cases in places like Nagapattinam. In this backdrop, the Babri Masjid demolition came as a flashpoint. The prosecution charged Al-Umma with having formed “teams of young men to become martyrs in the cause of Islam.”
The immediate trigger, so to say, for the Coimbatore serial blasts, which involved procuring high density explosives, assembling and making bombs at various places in the suburbs of the textile city, came with the killing of a police constable Selvaraj on November 30, 1997, allegedly at the hands of Al-Umma cadres.
The prosecution said in “brutal retaliation”, 18 Muslims were killed in Coimbatore. Photos and video clips of those persons were distributed “to incite feelings of revenge and violence and which (eventually) took the form of the (serial) blasts on February 14, 1998,” the prosecution elaborated.
The trial court also alluded to “emergence of factions and groups” within the prison among the accused persons during their prolonged incarceration. There were factions around S.A. Basha, Mohammed Ansari and so on, which resulted in a “great damage in shaping their defence, conduct of trial and choosing of lawyers.” Many witnesses were examined “in the absence of the connected accused persons”. Considering all these factors, the trial court said it, despite the nature of the crime, it decided to “decline ordering capital sentence”.
When 30 of the accused went on appeal later in the Madras High Court, Justice Prabha Sridevan, has considered all these in detail in their final judgment, after which the life sentence to 18 of the key accused were affirmed by the HC, even as the division bench allowed the appeals by 22 others and set them free as the charges had not been proved against them. The High Court also had to confront a strange predicament, that several of these accused persons were released by the Governor’s remission powers then, even when the appeals case was going on.
No wonder that Justice Prabha Sridevan concludes her verdict observing that it was an extraordinarily unusual case. In dealing with the victims’ cries for greater punishment for those against whom charges were proved, she empathised with the criers as it was natural given the extent of carnage. The Judge also noted that in the death of the 18 young men (the Muslim youth), “the community felt wounded and angered.”
However, Justice Sridevan, quoting from the words of a Nazi victim, said in the judgment: “what the victims do, does not change what happened. And the best thing about the remedy of forgiveness is that there are no side effects and everybody can afford it.”
Looking back at the Coimbatore serial blasts and their fallout in its totality, two decades after that painful catastrophe, what emerges is that fundamentalist claims from any side and the violence that ensues is no solution to anything, more so in a complex inter-dependent world today....