Coimbatore is a quiet city except for when it is not. The day before Diwali, on 23 October, an LPG cylinder went off in a car, parked in front of Sangameswarar Temple in Kottaimedu, leading to a probe by Tamil Nadu Police that revealed alleged terror links. Six persons have so far been arrested in the case.
But for several residents, the blast investigation brought back old memories of unrest and loss caused by the communal riots of 1997, in which 18 people were killed, and the serial blasts of 1998, in which over 50 were killed.
In the recent blast Jamesha Mubin, 29, who was the driver of the car, was charred to death. The state police’s investigation unearthed 75 kilograms of potassium nitrate, aluminum powder, and charcoal from his home, indicating that Mubin, allegedly, planned the blast. Coimbatore town since then has seen a thorough state police probe and also the presence of National Investigation Agency sleuths who have been conducting searches across the city since 31 October.
Speaking to The Quint, S Thirumurthy, 68, of RS Puram, who survived three Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) that went off near him in 1998, said, “It is sad that this is happening all over again. People are worried.” Remembering 1997 riots, in which he lost a young friend, Abdul Hakkim, 60, told The Quint, "It was a dark time. I lost a young friend, who was burnt alive when he went to meet his father at a nearby government hospital. We do not want those times to come back."
Here’s a look at what survivors of the 1997 riots and the 1998 bombings, that killed over over 70 people, including women and children, had to say about the recent incident. They also spoke to The Quint on the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) statements on the recent car blast case and Tamil Nadu Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government’s response to it all.
To start with, it was on 14 February 1998, the day the then Home Minister and BJP leader LK Advani visited Coimbatore, that the 11 bombs went off in different locations in the city. Just two months ago in November-December 1997, three-day-long communal riots had engulfed Coimbatore.
Bearing Witness to Communal Tension in Coimbatore
Since 23 October 2022, Coimbatore has seen many BJP-led calls to transfer the car blast case to the NIA. Most active has been Coimbatore's BJP MLA, Vanathi Srinivasan and TN BJP President K Annamalai.
However, for S Lokanath, who had once supported Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) of Vaiko (V Gopalaswamy) which was sympathetic to the BJP, the new blast seemed like a “small case” when compared to what had happened in 1998.
It was from Lokanath’s hardware shop that the electricity line to power LK Advani’s stage, set in the heart of RS Puram, was drawn, he recalled.
“Ever since the car blast happened, the BJP has been extra active in Coimbatore. I had moved past the blasts of 1998, but what happened recently has brought back memories of communal tension in the city. It is not a good feeling,” Lokanath said, adding that he does not support either MDMK or the BJP anymore.
On 14 February 1998, right before Advani could reach the spot where he was scheduled to speak, three bombs went off in RS Puram’s West Sambandam Road, DB Road, and Shamugham Chettiyar Road. Lokanath, from close proximity, had heard the loud blasts and seen the rush of terrified people running away from the blast sites in panic.
“For those who have lived after seeing severed limbs on the road, this is a small case where no lives of innocents were lost, thankfully. But we are worried that it may get out of hand and lead to further tensions,” the 60-year-old said.
In 1998, the blasts led to widespread searches in Muslim dominated areas in the city and the banning of an Islamic outfit Al Umma. In connection with the case, 53 people including Al Umma’s leader SA Basha, were convicted in 2007. One other accused, Abdul Nazar Madani of Kerala’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), went on to serve a jail term and house arrest which lasted close to one decade, till he was acquitted in 2007.
The serial blasts were, allegedly, a retaliation for communal riots in which 18 Muslims had been killed between 29 November and 1 December 1997.
"The riots, in which innocents were killed, set Coimbatore back by 20 years. The blasts ruined lives further. Many people lost their belongings and their businesses and they never came up in life," says Abdul Hakkim, a 60-year-old resident. He claims to have witnessed police inaction as a riotous mob attacked Muslims at the time.
"So far, in the recent car blast case, the police have taken proactive action and maintained peace," Hakkim stressed.
The 1997 riots were triggered after the stabbing of a police official, allegedly by the members of the radical Islamic outfit Al Umma. A generation of youth in Coimbatore have grown up in the presence of police and paramilitary personnel who were first deployed in the city in 1997-98 to quell communal tension. "Children of that generation still think of security forces as a part of their lives. I am one such child," M Abbas, a 40-year-old IT professional, said.
Abbas said Coimbatore's population has been living in fear ever since the news about the car blast case broke. "We are worried that something worse could happen," he said.
One of the locations where the 1998 blasts took place, RS Puram, is now a booming commercial area, with swanky apparel shops lining either sides of the road. However, for those who have been following the recent car blast case closely, some of the locations bring different memories.
One KRS Bakery Which No More Is
In West Sambandam Road, there once stood KRS Bakery – a known local haunt. One of the serial blasts was triggered by explosive material hidden in a small push-cart positioned right next to bakery. Today, new commercial establishments have come up in its place.
“The bakery functioned for years even after the blast but eventually it closed down. I was standing in the lane, just some 300 meters away, when the bomb went off. I ran for my life. For days together, the place remained closed and police patrols kept up vigilance in the locality."S Thirumurthy, 1998 Eyewitness
As many as 15 people were killed in the blast near KRS Bakery. Thirumuthy seemed worried about recent events and kept checking a pocket telephone book for a number. Scribbled in the book was the name of his friend, Saleem, who had lost his brother to the blast.
Standing near a Communist Party of India (Marxist) flag, which is a common sight in RS Puram, Thirumuthy, the 68-year-old retired car driver, said he no longer trusts any political party. “Now, every other political party has their own agenda to safeguard when it comes to such unfortunate events. They either try to save their skin or try to capitalize it,” he rued.
After the recent blast, Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government wrote to the Centre to seek the support of NIA in the blast investigation. Meanwhile, the Opposition parties in TN – the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the BJP – have been accusing the state police of intelligence failure. According to Coimbatore Police which was investigating the case till the NIA took over, the blast was planned by seven persons, all of whom were radicalised youth.
Y Abdul Mallik, a local businessman and farmer, said, "No one would want those troubled times to come back. Such trouble brings good fortune to no one, except a select group of political leaders." Mallik, who is now 40, had witnessed the violence in 1997.
Standing near West Sambandam Road, a group of youngsters listened silently to the older generation speaking of the 1998 bomb blast, almost in disbelief. VS Senthil, who runs a bakery nearby said, “It has to be understood that in Coimbatore, Hindus and Muslims live as if they belong to the same family. Over the last 20 years, there have been no problems that may have created tensions between groups.” Coimbatore, however, is a communally sensitive area according to the city police, who have been vigilant ever since the recent blast took place.
A Textile Shop, A Fractured Memory
For Mahender Singh, a Rajasthani whose family had set up a textile shop in RS Puram in the 1970s, a personal memory is attached to the blast. The floor of his shop has a horizontal fissure, cemented over to conceal what the 1998 blast had wrecked.
“We just cemented over this dent without levelling the floor. The dent was caused by the intensity of the blast that took place just meters away. I was present in the shop when it happened,” Singh who calls Coimbatore his home, said.
He said that those who planned the recent blast should be stringently punished. “No one should play with the lives of others,” Singh added. Even before the NIA took over the case, the accused were booked under relevant sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
Mahender Singh, however, wanted security beefed up in the city. “In Coimbatore, 1998 should not repeat,” he stressed. The police have increased the frequency of beat patrols and have also been holding meetings with different communities in the city to maintain peace.