The day when Coimbatore Exploded

Finally, when everything was over, the city looked like a post-apocalyptic ghost-town for days. Roads remained blockaded, shutters were down on businesses and few people dared roam the streets. When normalcy did arrive to the city a little later, it had that jaded quality of someone who had seen something dreadful; a deep gash in its psyche that would always shine with that brilliant, grotesque red.

My earliest and clear memory of it all was at the school assembly toward the end of 1997. I was in tenth standard. Someone announced that one of our teachers was dead and that we would spend a few moments in respective silence. When the silence ended, the buzz in the assembly began. You cannot expect hundreds of boys baking in hot sun to keep quiet when a bombshell has been dropped.

A little later, I would learn that my teacher had been murdered; slashed multiple times, to be precise, while he was coming back after dropping his son at the city railway-station early in the morning. This was just one among a series of killings that marked a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Coimbatore that winter of 97.

The violence that hit Coimbatore was the culmination of simmering discontent and growing animosity between Hindus and Muslims that had long regarded each other warily. It was also the result of some deft manipulation by organizations on either side which stood to gain from it.

Growing up, I was already aware of the other city, Ukkadam, for instance, that was the Muslim part of Coimbatore: Being told to be careful when driving or passing through, experiencing sights and sounds that were different and the disconnect of never ever having to move around these places in the normal course of life. It was Mieville’s Ul Qoma to the Bezel of other areas, part of a splintered duality that constituted a fragile whole. Integration had never fully happened.

The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 became, however, the devious rallying call for the extremist groups trying to dig their claws deeper into the Muslim community. The RSS and the assorted Hindu extremist groups also became more vociferous in the meantime.

Dark storm clouds had been gathering for a while in the horizon.

Tamilnadu, which had been spared of the magnitude of communal tension seen in Mumbai and some places in the north, had begun to witness an increasing communal discord.

Eventually, it was a one small trigger — like it always is — that propelled the descent into madness that winter. Some youth stabbed a police constable. As it happened the youth were Muslim and the constable was Hindu. The ticking bomb of communal violence exploded. All hell broke loose in the days that followed.

The November Mayhem

Had it been a case of citizens (or goons) being involved in the stabbing, perhaps, the police may have brought the whole thing under control quickly. However, the fact that a cop was stabbed created the perfect recipe for a conflagration that would be remembered for decades to come.

The city (and state) police had long held a deep resentment at the previous political establishment for having played vote-bank politics and clipped their wings in their attempts to rein in extremism.

They rose in rebellion. With violence in the air, the police rallied around each other and entered Ukkadam. They raided roadside shops and decimated them. Reports suggest that Hindu extremists joined the fray and there was unabashed looting and burning of many small shops in the area.

It was the 29th of November.

The next day saw a mutiny from the city police. They staged a dharna, entering and walking through Ukkadam and proceeded toward Government Hospital. Around that time, several Muslim youth began protesting in Ukkadam about the cop’s raid of the previous evening. Hindu fundamentalists protested elsewhere in the city.

The air crackled with murder.

Amidst all this, insidious forces were spreading rumors on both sides that there was an imminent attack by members of the opposite community.

A series of skirmishes began and parts of the city became a battleground. The police, a large section of whom were already protesting and staying away from duty, joined in battle, in the name of crowd control. The result was catastrophic. The arguably indiscriminate police firing that day resulted in a death-toll of 20, majority of them Muslims. Shoba cloth center, a popular textile shop that had been part of Coimbatore’s commercial landscape as long as I knew it, was burned down to the ground that day. Hundreds of other shops were looted, burned and viciously attacked. It was field day for criminal elements from both sides to wreak havoc.

Much later, reports would emerge on how the Hindus and Muslims had actually helped each other during this strife. In the tightly packed Kottimedu area, where about 30,000 Muslims lived alongside 17,000 Hindus and a few thousand Christians and Dalits, there was no attack on a temple or a mosque. In the Government hospital, a few Hindu doctors and nurses had helped a hurt Muslim man escape the clutches of rabid Hindu Munnani members that had chased him through the corridors with intent to kill. Hindus had cried when the bodies of nearly 17 Muslims killed in the mayhem of November 30, was carried in a procession for burial. Yet, a group of maniacal goons was all it took to break a fragile, peaceful balance that had existed.

The last day in the November of 1997 saw the Army & RAF arrive at Coimbatore and slowly the situation eased to normalcy by December 4.

Little did everyone know that this was just a teaser to the horror that was yet to strike Coimbatore.

The February Horror

I studied in a convent school called Lisieux, located in a quiet, residential area called Saibaba Colony — a place with libraries, bakeries and quiet lanes lined with lush trees.

Growing up, it was the place I liked going to. On vacations, I would visit a library there. My sister, armed with just enough money, would cajole me to take her to the bakeries there to buy cakes, mini-pizzas and puffs. In the basement of a commercial complex there, I indulged in building a collection of pirated movies & games. In the browsing centers here was my first taste of the internet in its various forms (ahem!).

But essentially, my view of Coimbatore was defined by the fun, interesting places I had gone as a kid. There was the VOC park, where we visited the zoo and played in the grounds. Here, I tasted my first chat from a road-side chatwalla. I’ve seen countless movies in the spectacular theaters in the city. Race course, with its rich manicured bushes and stately trees, Gandhipuram, which beat as the heart of the city, Oppanakara street, with its micro lanes, wholesale traders and choking bustle of commerce were all parts of the anatomy of a city that was a living entity.

Surrounded by waterfalls and mountains, filled with people speaking a sing-song uber-politeness and offering a pleasant spring-like weather through the year, Coimbatore, I would realize later, was as idyllic as one could find a city to grow up in.

Perhaps, that’s what shocked everyone the most when this was shattered in 1998. Had it been a city that’s been ravaged in the past, perhaps, we’d have all moved on like it was normal businesses. But the way it shattered the quiet, tranquility of the city was petrifying.

February 14, 4.20 PM, 1998

That evening was hot but it didn’t matter. Four of us, living in the same colony, were involved in an intense game of gully-cricket — a daily ritual. Sometimes the group would bloat with more people joining in from the neighboring streets. So, when one of my friends from the neighboring street turned into ours and began huffing towards us rapidly, we’d thought nothing was amiss until he was close enough to gasp that a bomb had exploded in the city.

Not many things were capable of stopping our cricket game but that statement did. With our hearts thumping wildly, we congregated around him like flies to fruit. An explosion had gone off in Rajarajeshwari tower said the bearer of grim news. Later, we would learn that the bomb had gone off in the basement of the tower and thankfully, the casualties had been minimal.

But an evening of horror was just beginning for us.

Our cricket was forgotten and we were huddled in front of the TV. It was second Saturday and so thankfully my parents were at home. So were most other parents in the area.

In those days, news filtered through with alarming slowness but the news was already filled with reports of the bomb blasts. First, they said there had been 6 blasts across the city. The sheer number shocked us. It felt like that whole city was under attack by an invisible army.

Many of them were places I visited on a regular basis: The railway station, Rajendra cloth shop, Shamnugananda road and the fourth in the basement of Rajarajeshwari tower near Gandhipuram. Most of these were part of the city’s commercial blood vein — the beating pulse of what defined Coimbatore.

Then the count kept increasing. The excessiveness of the horror made it all surreal. By 6 PM that day, there had been ten bomb blasts in Coimbatore.

For my parents, for whom this city was woven deep into their lives, the hurt and incredulity was immense. First, there was shock and then a deep angst at the helplessness. When, late into the evening, the bombs kept exploding (there were 12 in all), it turned into a quiet, seething anger.

And fear.

Fear gripped us like nothing ever before. There was a haunted (and hunted) look on my parents’ face. The next few nights were extremely tense. Sleep was hard to come as my Dad watched out for strangers skulking in the night to lay more bombs in our locality.

That night of November 30, my Dad saw someone walk through the dark, deserted roads at 1 AM in the morning. He switched on the lights in the porch and the person ran away. Then, other porch lights had also come on and an hour long conversation of worried neighbors happened till the wee hours in the morning.

It was decided that people in the colony would start patrolling in the night. That was just one of the thousands of such citizen patrols that started all around Coimbatore. After the initial shock, the citizens rose strongly to safeguard their homes and the parts of the city they lived in.

The new day saw the world wake up to the horror that had cut through the city. The BBC was reporting on the blasts. The death count stood at 35 and the injury count kept rising. When it was all over close to 60 people had died and nearly 200 people were seriously injured.

The reasons, politics & religion as always, started to flow around the horror. The blasts were intended to target an LK Advani rally that was scheduled for the previous evening in the city. It was also meant to target the Hindu areas and the commercial arteries of the city. Revenge for Babri Masjid. Or the communal conflagration that happened months before. Or something long in the works. No one knew clearly.

The central reserve force, rapid action force and swift action force all landed in Coimbatore and began combing the city for explosives. A huge haul of explosives and deadly weapons was found. They also prevented a major communal conflagration from starting in the city that could have turned ugly.

Yet we shivered in fear inside our homes.

But as we sat in our homes, the biggest ticking bomb, quite literally arrived on February 16, when nearly 70 kilograms of armed explosives were found in a parked car in RS Puram — one of Coimbatore prime residential and commercial areas. It took the forces four tense days to dismantle the device. Had that exploded, it would have decimated a large part of the city like none of the other bombs did.

The Aftermath

There were two indelible images from the sequence of events in Coimbatore during that week. One was watching, over news, the image of the citizens lifting the commandos on their shoulders for a victory parade after they had dismantled the massive bomb. It was a truly cinematic moment.

The other indelible image is the heroes’ farewell that the commandos and security team received when they boarded the train to leave the city. It gave me goosebumps.

The city commissioner of police, K Radhakrishnan, who was brought to restore calm to city in the immediate after math did such an admirable job that he received ‘The President of India’s police medal for distinguished service’ more than ten years later. He would made a presentation in Vienna in 2008 on how to police a ‘multi-religious’ society.

Politically, the incident changed a lot of things. The ruling party was seen as having been too soft on fundamentalist groups and they were promptly routed in the following election. Between the 1993 horror of Mumbai blasts and one like this across the country, BJP found a cross-country voice and began to look like a national party to reckon with. They found power at the center in 1998 and then again in 1999 for a full term.

But the saddest aftermath was how this left Coimbatore permanently crippled. After 18 long years, Coimbatore may have emerged out of the repercussions of those four months, but the city’s rapid march as a major commercial power in the country was halted by the brutal impact the blasts created. It had all the ingredients to become a leading city in the country (great education infra, solid middle class, entrepreneurs in droves and a pluralistic society which loved commerce).

But in the aftermath, many businesses went bust. Real estate fell. And new investors became scared to invest in the city.