|The Special Court delivers its verdict in the cases connected with the 1998 serial bomb blasts that ripped through Coimbatore.|
Al-Umma chief S.A. Basha, Accused Number 1 in the blasts case.
WHEN Special Court (bomb blasts cases) Judge, Coimbatore, K. Uthirapathy told the young and studious-looking Mohammed Basith that he found him guilty of all the charges framed against him in the February 14, 1998 serial blasts cases, the latter looked unfazed; he merely jerked his right shoulder and walked away. Nineteen bomb explosions rocked the industrial city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu on that day, killing 58 persons and injuring about 250. The blasts that were engineered by Al-Umma, a militant Muslim organisation, were the culmination of a series of communal incidents in which Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists targeted each other’s community.
The Final Report (modified charge sheet) in the case describes Basith (accused number five, or A-5) as “the brain/moving force behind the making of different types of ingenious improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with different time-delay mechanisms [such as car bombs, two-wheeler bombs, bag bombs, pushcart bombs, tea can bombs, instantaneous-type mall box bombs/throw-type small box bombs for the suicide squad, etc]”.
Judge Uthirapathy pronounced his verdict on August 1 at the end of five years of trial proceedings. S.A. Basha (A-1), founder-president of Al-Umma, and Mohammed Ansari (A-2), State general secretary of Al-Umma, accepted stoically the finding that they were guilty of two key charges under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy) read with Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder, etc.), and Section 153 A (1) [promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc.]. While a couple of the accused bowed and folded their hands before the Judge when he gave the verdict, at least one accused declared: “I am innocent. I cannot accept this verdict” [of being found guilty].
The Judge set free a key accused, Abdul Nasser Maudany, founder of the People’s Democratic Party in Kerala and former president of the Islamic Sewa Sangh. The Final Report accused him of supplying the “high-grade explosives” used in the Coimbatore blasts. The bearded, spectacled Maudany, who was dressed in white and came to the court room in a wheel chair, did not react when the Judge absolved him of all five charges, including that of criminal conspiracy and causing enmity among different groups on the basis of religion.
The Judge also set free K. Raju alias ‘Army’ Raju, reportedly a deserter from 16 Assam Rifles, through whom Maudany was alleged to have supplied the explosives. Of the 166 accused in the case, the court, on August 1, pronounced 69 persons guilty of offences under IPC Sections 120-B read with Sections 302, 307, 465 (forgery), 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating) and 471 (using as genuine a forged document), the Arms Act, the Explosive Substances Act and the Tamil Nadu Property (Prevention of Damage and Loss) Act, 1992. Eight of the accused (including Maudany) and ‘Army’ Raju, who were not found guilty of any of the charges filed against them, were asked to apply for bail. A few days before he pronounced the verdict, Judge Uthirapathy had granted bail to three of them – A-122 Nowsath, A-123 Sardar alias Saithan and A-165 Sivakumar alias Akkoji alias Abdullah.
The Judge, who deferred his findings against five of the accused, pronounced all of them guilty on August 6.While Sarfudeen and Sikkander Basha were found guilty under IPC Section 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), Ayyappan was found guilty under the Arms Act and the Explosives Substances Act. The Judge found the charge under the Explosive Substances Act proved against Ubaithul Rehman. Uthirapathy ruled that Shafi Ahmed had promoted communal hatred.
Bail applications of 84 accused, found guilty of minor charges, would be taken up later, the Judge said on August 1. He is expected to begin pronouncing the quantum of the sentences from August 16.
The serial bombings, codenamed “Operation Allahu Akbar”, ripped through the prosperous textile city and its suburbs between February 14 and 17, 1998. The blasts began around 4 p.m. on February 14 when L.K. Advani, then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was scheduled to address an election meeting at R.S. Puram in the city. Al-Umma had deployed seven suicide squad members to eliminate Advani. But its plans came a cropper because the suicide squad members were not able to infiltrate the police cordon and go near the dais from where the BJP leader was to speak. Besides, the landing of his aircraft was delayed.
Mohammed Ansari, general secretary of Al-Umma and Accused Number 2.
Meanwhile, the bombs planted by Al-Umma cadre in cars, two-wheelers, pushcarts, tea cans, small boxes, denim and rexine bags, and so on, started exploding in a series all over the city. Several textile shops, offices of travel agencies, a jewellery shop, a marriage hall and shopping complexes owned by Hindus, the BJP’s election offices, the Coimbatore Medical Hospital and a temple were targeted. Property worth Rs.14.5 crore was damaged. Several bombs failed to explode, and these were defused by bomb disposal squads (Frontline, March 20, 1998).
Within hours of the blasts, the State government headed by M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) banned Al-Umma and the All-India Jihad Committee, another extremist Muslim organisation. Basha and 12 members of Al-Umma were arrested in Chennai the same day. Leaders of the Jihad Committee and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TNMMK) were arrested in a Statewide crackdown. The police blamed the explosions on Al-Umma, which had its base at Kottaimedu, a Muslim-majority area in Coimbatore.
In a White Paper tabled in the Assembly on April 23, 1998, Karunanidhi announced that his government would set up a Special Court in consultation with the Madras High Court to try the cases connected with the bomb blasts. The White Paper said the blasts were carried out “as a measure of revenge for the losses suffered by the Muslims” between November 29 and December 2, 1997, when 18 Muslims and four Hindus were killed in clashes after Al-Umma men stabbed to death a traffic police constable R. Selvaraj, at Ukkadam in Coimbatore. The Muslims were killed in communal riots and police firings, mostly at Kottaimedu. Property belonging to Muslims was set on fire at several places.
(Following the murder of constable Selvaraj, the Coimbatore Police revolted, and the Army was called out to restore order.)
According to the White Paper, the killing of Selvaraj and the death of 18 Muslims were “the cause for the bomb blasts in February 1998”. It found fault with the senior police officers then posted in Coimbatore for failing to prevent the explosions even after the government had sent them several messages about Muslim extremists’ plans to set off bombs. It provided a list of alerts that the State government had sent (Frontline, May 22, 1998).
According to the White Paper, the events that sullied Tamil Nadu’s reputation as “a shining example of communal harmony” began in 1983. Conflicts erupted when men belonging to one religion objected to processions of another passing in front of their places of worship.
Abusive platform speeches were made by both sides. Things came to a head after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. This “greatly upset the Muslims in Tamil Nadu and led to the spread of religious fundamentalism”, it added. In this backdrop, explosions took place in Chennai, at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) building in August 1993 (18 persons were killed in this incident) and at the Hindu Munnani office in April 1995. Then came the murder of Selvaraj, the consequent police firing on Muslims at Kottaimedu and the blasts executed by Al-Umma.
The Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) of the Tamil Nadu Police was entrusted with the investigation of the cases connected with the blasts. Param Vir Singh, then Inspector-General of Police, led the investigation, which took the CB-CID team to several States. After a thorough investigation, the CB-CID filed a preliminary charge sheet (Final Report) on September 28, 1998, naming 168 persons as the accused. On May 5, 1999, the CB-CID filed the modified charge sheet, which clubbed 41 cases into one. A case relating to a combing operation by the police at Tirumal Street in Coimbatore in which eight Al-Umma men were killed was made the “mother case”.
The modified Final Report said the blasts and the post-blasts violence were “planned and executed by the Al-Umma headed by S.A. Basha as a brutal answer/retaliation for the killing of 18 Muslims in communal riots and police firings and extensive damage to Muslim properties running into crores of rupees during the three days following the stabbing to death of a traffic police constable Selvaraj at Ukkadam, Coimbatore, on November 29, 1997, night by Al-Umma cadre”. It added: “Although such was the immediate cause for the shocking/gruesome occurrences, they were really the culmination of a long series of communal/fundamentalist violence that had afflicted Coimbatore and rather the entire State of Tamil Nadu over the preceding several years from 1983.”
The modified Final Report also said the explosions “primarily targeted Hindu congregations and Hindu establishments and L.K. Advani”. The BJP leader was “targeted by suicide squad members armed with instantaneous type of box bombs tied to their waists and throw type small box bombs”. But their plans could not fructify.
Abdul Nasser Maudany, founder of the People’s Democratic Party in Kerala, has been absolved of all the five charges against him.
The trial began on March 7, 2002. Of the168 persons accused in the cases, Riaz-ur-Rehman, who owned Indian Explosives Limited, Mysore, turned an approver. His manager Mohammed Dasthagir died in judicial custody. That left 166 accused.
A highlight of the case was that all the accused were placed in judicial custody since 1998 at the Central Prison, Coimbatore, and only three of the 166 were granted bail, that too a few days before the August 1 verdict.
When Judge Uthirapathy told Maudany that none of the charges against him had been proved and asked him to apply for bail, his lawyers demanded that he be set free immediately. “When you have concluded that he is not guilty, where is the need for him to apply for bail?” asked P. Tirumalai Rajan, defence counsel. The Judge replied: “I have neither convicted him nor acquitted him.” Tirumalai Rajan argued that once Maudany “is not found guilty, there ends the matter”.
The Judge replied, “The matter does not end there. There is a procedure. You kindly make an application [for bail].” But counsel asserted, “If the accused is not found guilty, there is no need to file a bail application.” (The court procedures require an application for granting bail until the acquittal proceedings are recorded.)
Later in the day, Maudany applied for bail, which was granted. As he drove out of the Central Prison, he told mediapersons that he would work for a better relationship between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. “I will also provide every possible legal aid to the other accused in the case,” he said.