Exorcising the imaginary demon

A major task before peacemakers in Kovai, Tamil Nadu, is to counter the pernicious propaganda that all Muslims are ‘foreigners’, ‘Pakistanis’


Suspicions bordering on hate, impelling persons to the edges of irrationality, have marked all the violence carried out in the name of faith, defined as communalism in the South Asian context. Irrational and partisan behaviour has been observed in not just the man and woman on the street but have, since the early eighties (especially) permeated and affected, the conduct of men in uniform — the Indian policeman. 

It is this absence of neutrality, witnessed as irrational bias, that violates basic tenets of rigorous training and also the oath of allegiance to the secular Indian Constitution that every public servant is bound to swear. Such behaviour, unfortunately, guided the actions of some sections of the Coimbatore (now renamed Kovai) police in November 1997. These actions resulted in unpardonable misdemeanours against sections of the Muslim minority. (See CC, February 1998).

The actions of the Kovai police had been severely condemned in February 1994, too. In a detailed investigation report, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) had named two senior officers, Thiru Ganesan, the then commissioner of police, Kovai and the then ACP, Thiru Masanamuthu, for “brutal and unlawful attacks on Muslims”. 

In November 1997, aggressive behaviour of the city’s police against some young Muslims was enough to heighten tensions to a fever pitch. The news of one police constable being attacked and killed, allegedly by members of a fanatical outfit, Al Ummah, was enough for the police to go on a revenge rampage. They not only arrested the leader of the group, SA Basha, but also vent their fury against innocent and ordinary members of the Muslim community living in Coimbatore. Three days of hell followed, with the police actively conniving with members of the Hindu fanatical outfit, Hindu Munnani and the RSS.

After police highhandedness came the large scale, and indiscriminate arrests of many innocent ordinary members of the Muslim community. An independent fact–finding team subsequently found that the police was also guilty of ill–treatment, torture and abuse of the victims, leading to further alienation among the minority section of the population.

This is when Abu Backer, a citizen of this town, known hitherto for it’s flourishing textile industry and significant working class population, got involved with the issue of police brutality and partisan behaviour that is so critically linked to myths and stereotypes labelled on to the minority community. He did this through the local unit of the PUCL, of which he was an executive committee member since 1993. 
He, along with a few others, strove hard at a time when suspicions between people had severed deep connections to keep the communication links between ordinary members of the two major communities open, to press for dialogue. Backer, working in a highly polarised environment had a one point agenda – to isolate the politicised elements of both these communities and reach out through constant efforts to touch, to shake and even to shame ordinary Hindus and Muslims from falling for the political trap of hatred and division.

Here follows the account of Abu Backer in his own words:
It was not easy at the time to remind people of our abiding, everyday links because two partisan groups on both sides were bent on articulating difference. But today despite those schisms, Coimbatore is close to normal once again.’

It is surprising and shocking even, but the sad fact is that many of our fellow citizens actually believe that Muslims are outsiders, they are foreigners. It is a measure of the success of motivated propaganda, of course. But it therefore becomes necessary to systematically and painstakingly disabuse ordinary people of these notions. This is actually what we did! We showed how all of us were converts of a few generations, born of this soil, the only difference between us being that we had chosen an alternate faith. I was surprised how shocked people were when they were told the truth.

Another misconception that is widespread is the Indian Muslim’s cursed and alleged link to Pakistan. We constantly hear refrains of, “Go back to Pakistan”, especially during communal aggression or violence. These are, I think the two main crosses that we have to bear. 

In November 1997, the murder of a police constable by some Muslim youth escalated into a full-scale riot in Coimbatore. The violence, interestingly, was not between Hindus and Muslims. It was between two distinct groups trying to project themselves as the sole spokespersons of their respective communities – Hindus and Muslims. They are the Hindu Munnani that has it’s ideological moorings in the RSS and has been ominously visible in Tamil Nadu since 1981 (especially after the nation–wide hue and cry following the Meenakshipuram conversions) and the Al Ummah. 

Unfortunately, large sections of the media, too, projected it as a communal riot. We formed an investigation team and published a report. Mr Masanamuthu, the then DCP of Coimbatore, was found to be guilty of articulating rabidly anti–Muslim sentiments and actually acting on these. This man has had a history of partisan behaviour (documented in 1994, too). Yet, he continues to wear and flout his uniform.
Inevitably almost, what followed the callous police–Muslim violence of November 1997 were the bomb blasts that ripped the city on February 14, 1998. The blasts heightened the division between ordinary Hindus and Muslims.

Suddenly all Muslims were being held responsible for the actions of two small, fanatical groups, the Al Ummah and Al Jehad. Between the two, they had only 185 members, but the whole community was dubbed terrorists!  More than 40 innocent people from Karunanidhinagar were illegally detained. Another 100 persons were detained ostensibly under another preventive detention provision. 

Each one of these persons was subsequently acquitted. Who pays the price for this gross violation of rights and slur on their character? There was not a single case of conviction from among those indiscriminately arrested. Imagine the deep hurt that was meted out to sections of the Muslim population.

Especially after the bomb blasts, we organised ourselves under the banner of the Federation of All Muslim Jamaat. We represented the victims in the Gokulakrishnan Commission investigating the communal violence and the blasts. Even today, the harassment of the minority community by the police and administration has not entirely stopped. Many persons remain charge-sheeted though they are innocent.

The irony is that a significant section of the Muslim community is being victimised for the actions of a few. The unfair victimisation is due to the prevalence of a widespread anti–Muslim bias. The ultimate irony is that we still need to constantly speak up and disassociate ourselves from acts of vandalism and terrorism carried out by a few in the name of our faith!

When the blasts took place, it was through the Federation of All Muslim Jamaat that we organised an ‘Anti–terrorism Week’. We put out slogans and posters on the streets, including some created by Communalism Combat, to show that we are part of the national, social fabric, that we are Indians. It was ordinary Muslim shop keepers, small traders on the streets of Kovai who sponsored large hoardings carrying these messages that claimed rationality and reminded people of the communal harmony that was being sorely tested and tried. 

We printed posters and organised relief for the victims of the bomb blasts, many of whom were Hindus. We even collected Rs 50,000 from the Muslim community for the family of constable Selvaraj who had been so unfortunately killed, but the money was unfortunately refused.

Today, Coimbatore is quite calm. There are no provocative speeches from either side. The Hindu Munnani, which had become active here after the Meenakshipuram conversions in 1982, has also been restrained due to strict vigilance by the police.

It was the conversions in 1982 that brought these forces to Coimbatore and Tamil Nadu. After the Meenakshipuram conversions, the Munnani leader, Thiru Ramagopalan organised a convention in Coimbatore. Ironically, the only language that was commandeered to oppose conversions was the hurling of abuse against Muslims and the Prophet of Islam! 

This was successfully used by Basha to counterpose Muslim fanaticism and narrow–mindedness and the Al Ummah was born. There could not be a clearer link between the two brands of fanaticism. We have lived and seen through the clear nexus, we have witnessed how ordinary Hindus and Muslims of Kovai have been victimised by both the different brands of fanaticism.

Our work was concerned with re-establishing confidence and trust between the two communities. The rift is never between ordinary people. Yet we fall victim to the engineered suspicion and hatred. The bomb blasts in Coimbatore succeeded in causing a huge rift between ordinary people of different faiths. This is a painful reality to live with, a bitter pill to swallow.

It is this reality that jostles us into continued work in the social sphere even now. It is important for more and more Muslims to be visibly involved in the public and social sphere. In Tamil Nadu at least, I feel there are not enough of us. If we were present in sufficient number, committed and involved in human rights, development, labour or gender issues that concern all communities, our interventions when suspicions run high and hatred reigns can be more effective and more meaningful.

Today, apart from a consistent crusade for rational dialogue and harmony between communities, one of my other priorities is working with an educational society for Muslims — the Tamil Kalvi Sehvai Maiyyam. There is a lot of illiteracy among young Muslims, youngsters have no formal degrees, and the number of school dropouts is very high. Such a situation is ripe for fanatical outfits to benefit from. 

Through whatever else that one does in the social sphere, to work for communal harmony, rationality and dialogue in today’s India is a must. This is necessary because when something flares up between two fundamentalist/fanatical groups, we must be visible and present, prepared to show that the flare–up is only between two small and marginalised sections, not between all Hindus and Muslims.

It is important for ordinary people with conviction to stand up and speak out. How else will the rifts that are being so cynically created, be healed? 

(As told to Communalism Combat)

Archived from Communalism Combat, September 2001, Anniversary Issue (8th) Year 8  No. 71, Cover Story 3




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