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The Rediff Special/A Ganesh Nadar

Fear over the city

Coimbatore violence Three weeks ago, communal violence scarred Coimbatore and claimed 23 lives.

Such religious mayhem had not been seen in Tamil Nadu before -- and for the first time in the state's history, the army was called in to quell the rioting. A Ganesh Nadar visited Coimbatore this week to find out what went wrong in this, the most prosperous of Tamil towns.

To the visitor, Coimbatore appears normal, with everyday existence moving at the pace common to most prosperous Indian cities. But beneath that face lurks tension, visceral tension.

Even before a traffic policeman was killed in the heart of the city last month, sparking off mayhem and murder -- that claimed 23 lives and so rattled the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government that it summoned the army, for the first time in Tamil Nadu's history -- tensions were running high.

A poster war was the catalyst for this confrontation. The Al-Umma and Tamil Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, both Muslim fundamentalist organisations, had put up posters in the town, describing December 6 as a 'Black Day;' this poster war was matched by the Hindu fundamentalists whose posters asked for the fifth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition to be celebrated in the city.

On Saturday, November 29, a peace meeting was called at the B-2 police station. All the political parties condemned what they felt was a particularly distasteful Al-Umma poster. They wanted the Muslim organisation to remove the offending poster, but Al-Umma refused. They wanted all the banners, posters and graffiti relating to the December 6, 1992 demolition to be removed, not just this one poster. The police then decided to remove that particular poster itself. The police party was accompanied by representatives from both the adversaries.

That evening Sub Inspector Chandrasekhar, who was attached to the B-1 police station along with a constable, stopped vehicles and examined their papers. This is a normal procedure undertaken by the police once a month. A trio on a two wheeler was stopped by the sub-inspector. The trio were drunk and refused to pay the fine for violating the law.

They were taken to the police station and a case was booked against them. As the trio did not pay the fine, their vehicle was impounded at the police station. Soon after, a group of Al-Umma activists descended on the police station and demanded that the vehicle be released. When the police refused to give in, an altercation arose and then subsided.

A kilometre away, a 30-year-old traffic constable named Selvaraj was on duty. He was assaulted, allegedly by Muslim militants with knives and swords. He died on the way to hospital.

The police chased the militants all the way to the Muslim quarter of Kottaimadu, but did not enter the area. When the cops were stoned they opened fire. The injured were brought to the Government Hospital.

On Sunday morning a large crowd converged on the hospital. The Hindutva brigade was well represented inside the hospital. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Makkal Party were all present. They said they had come to lay wreaths on the slain constable's body.

HMP state secretary Arjun Sampath and his youth wing president Athiradi Anandan began conducting a meeting inside the hospital.

Policemen with black bands sat on the road outside the hospital. The police wanted protection. The police commissioner stood at the hospital gate.

The police's intelligence wing warned Dhandapani, the local DMK MLA, not to come to the hospital as the atmosphere was surcharged. The politician ignored the caveat and arrived at the hospital nevertheless. A constable says he called the MLA's son and told him to take his father away, "but he kept standing there, talking continuously into his cellular phone."

Suddenly, there was a shout from the crowd. ''He is the cause of all this." The crowd rushed in and assaulted Dhandapani. B-2 station Inspector Ramasamy rescued the MLA from the irate crowd, but not before the MLA's car was smashed. The crowd inside ran bersek. Thereafter, four Muslims, who had been admitted with bullet wounds, were hacked to death inside the hospital.

While one group of policemen protested outside the hospital, another large group of policemen surrounded the Kottaimadu area. Al-Umma activists were trapped inside the Muslim quarter. There were no policemen left to guard the city.

It was a call for chaos.

Local hoods ran amok on Sunday and Monday. Armed youth in groups of 25 to 50 moved around Comibatore. The Muslim shops -- even though many of them had Hindu names -- were identified and broken into. After the cash box and most of the goods on display had been taken away, the shop was set on fire.

Shobha Textiles, the biggest cloth store in Coimbatore, was razed to the ground. Hindu activists allege that its proprietor was the Al-Umma's biggest financer. Al-Umma denies the allegation as it has denied everything else in the past.

The saffron brigade, it is alleged, directed the riots from a safe distance. ''It was public retaliation, what can we do?" their leaders say, shrugging their shoulders. The police have so far arrested only those leaders who were inside the hospital.

Sampath and Anandan have since been shifted to the Salem jail. HMP sources say,"in Coimbatore they are not safe even in jail. The Al-Umma has issued a fatwa against them.''

This correspondent could not verify the claim as the telephone at the Al-Umma office has been disconnected and its secretary Ansari could not be located.

After two days of chaos, the army, Central Reserve Police Force and the state Swift Action Force descended on the city at 8.30 am on December 2. By Wednesday the streets were quiet. An uneasy calm reigned.

Coimbatore violence A fortnight later, the police force is still demoralised, particularly at the lower levels. Says one constable, "When we stand on duty we expect the public to co-operate with us, we expect the public to protect us. When Selvaraj was attacked if the public had only screamed 'Catch them,' the attackers would have fled. But no! the public just watched. My wife is telling me to resign. She says become a coolie. I don't mind daily wages, I want my husband alive."

Adds another constable, "When Karunanidhi became chief minister, the first thing he said was 'The Tamil Nadu police do not have any liver. How does he expect us to work after calling us spineless?''

"Whatever her faults Jayalalitha did not allow the Al-Umma to grow. They were confined to their own areas," interjects in another constable.

'The Al-Umma has finally united the Hindus'

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