Coimbatore, April 23: While elections can mean many things to many people, in the modern city of Coimbatore which is fast turning into a metropolis, it is linked with the hopes of freedom among some 200 odd Muslim men who are lodged in various prisons under various charges, awaiting a final judgment of their trial in court.
Of them some 167 are accused in the sensational Coimbatore serial bomb blast that rocked the city famous for cotton in Februrary 1998. Of them, many were picked up in the middle of the night from their homes on 14 February 1998 when the bombs went off during the visit of BJP leader Mr LK Advani to campaign for the parliamentary election.
The men were picked up from their homes, supposedly “for a routine inquiry.” Some of them were just about 18 to 27 years old, rarely was there one in his 30s.
Eight years later, their families still do no understand what hit them. The police on that night, not only took away an earning member who provided for them but also the hope of a better life.
Noorjahan, mother of an undertrial, Abbas, can hardly hold her tears when she talks of her son. “My son was 18 years old. He was working temporarily in a lathe work shop awaiting the results of the IT polytechnic exam he had completed. Police came on a Saturday night and told us that they were taking him and would let him off after inquiry. We never thought he would be gone for 8 years. We were foolish then to have let police take our son,” says Noorjahan, of Sai Baba Koil street, KK Nagar, Coimbatore, hardly containing the tears.
The street incidentally has the distinction of having the maximum number of undertrials, totaling 41, imprisoned for eight years, without evidence cropping up against them.
“We are losing our faith that our sons will ever come out. We ask everyone from policemen to the lawyers. All of them assure us that our children would be released soon. At times even our sons tell us that. We have heard it so many times that we have stopped believing,” says Kursheed, mother of Barkath, (23 when arrested) a temporary tanker lorry driver who worked for the Indian Oil Corporation.
“They said they would just inquire and took them away. When we went to see them in Trichy, where they were lodged the next day, they could not even walk up to us. They were soiled in blood. They were asking us for a change of dress feeling ashamed,” cries Kursheed shuddering. She has now taken to cooking and selling idlies for a living. “My daughter-in-law has taken a job in an electrical parts company,” says Kursheed.
Madhar Bi’s both sons, Ibrahim (21 when arrested), a coolie and Khader Sharif (32 at the time of arrest) a painter are in prison, so are Kadhar Bani’s son Abbas (23 during the arrest). Kasim Bi’s son who is 30 years old now, was a car driver when he was arrested. Basheer was just 16 years old and worked as a car mechanic when he was arrested. Rameeja, wife of Hasan (27 when arrested) says she would be stopping her elder son Nowshad’s schooling with this year and send him to a workshop as she cannot support his education any longer. “When I last met him in prison, he said, he would be out after this election. I was told the same thing during the last election,” says Rameeja.
Zahra Bi’s family is hard hit. While her son-in-law Mohammed Ali (30 now), an auto driver, was taken into custody, her young sister’s son Basheer (32 now), also an auto driver, and her younger brother Jameesha (30 years now), a carpenter, were taken into prison.
“Mohammed Ali should not have come home that night. He came inorder to return the auto to the owner in view of the blasts happening. The police who were rounding up young men from the street took him into custody,” says Zahra Bi. Hatheeja is waiting for the return of her son, Akbar, who was 18 when he left. She works as a house maid and strings a measure of flowers for Rs 2, making about Rs 8 per day and saves whatever she can to for the trip to prison. “I meet him at least twice a month. Whenever I go, I need Rs 300 to buy coupons for tea and other items and give him Rs 50,” says Hatheeja.
The families even recount an instance of a youth Ashraf from Kerala, who had come to visit his aunt, and was taken to prison along with his cousin Jabbar, on that night. “Let them take the culprits and punish them. But why innocents? Young men are wasting away in the prison,” says Noorjahan, wiping away a tear.
“A good number of the accused do not have any evidence against them. During the course of the trial not a single witness deposed against them. The chief investigating officer, Mr Rajashekaran, himself has said in court that they had no role in the blasts and did not take part in the conspiracy,” says Mr M H Jawaharullah, president of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), which has been spearheading the cause of the languishing prisoners for several years now.
The Coimbatore serial bomb blast, which claimed 58 lives and left 250 injured in February 1998 had an echo in the state Assembly in May, 1998. Mr M Karunanidhi, disclosed that Al-umma and People’s Democratic Party, were behind the blasts, the seeds of discontent was sown in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. The immediate provocation for the blasts, however, were the communal riots which killed 18 Muslims and destruction of Muslim property, following the murder of a police constable Mr R Selvaraj in November 1997.
“Against these accused, CPC and the Indian Arms Act have been invoked. Under the circumstance, pending a court trial, they must, at least be let off on bail. Even in the event of some of them being proved guilty they would have exceeded their punishment period under the law,” says Mr Jawaharullah.
“Our sons are asking us what we have done to get them out and are asking us to question the politicians who come asking for our votes,” says Noorjahan.
Incidentally, M Kannappan, the MDMK candidate was the first one to come to the street seeking votes, a couple of days back. The people of the area ghearoed him seeking an answer. “He merely told us that it was his duty to come asking for votes. You have a right to not vote for me, he said and moved away, led by police,” recalled Noorjahan.
Says Rameeja: “My husband says he would be out after the election,” and many in the locality say those are the words of those in prison.
The TMMK activists who pin more hopes on a change of government bringing a reprive for the prisoners, are particularly angry with the state’s conduct in court. Whenever a bail plea is moved, the public prosecutor opposes it, say the activists. The TMMK, which terms the Chief Minister as a “representative of the Sangh Parivar,” is consequently supporting the DMK led alliance in this election. The activists strongly believe that only a change in government would help matters.
Legally the case against the 167 accused in the bomb blast case is nearing an end.
A judgment is likely in about three months after examination of the pending 20 defence witnesses, says Mr Jawahirullah.
“The issue is not whether the accused are guilty or not. There is no grounds to deny the 160 odd persons bail. Another 50 Muslims are held under suspicion in connection with bomb blasts in May 1999 without granting bail all these years, incidentally,” points out Mr Jawahirullah.
“Miss Jayalalitha’s period was marked by gross injustices. Even the State Human Rights Commission chairperson, Mr Sambandam, had pointed out that the condition of these prisoners in the jail was bad. We have spoken to the DMK and Mr Karunanidhi has promised justice,
” he says.
Statesman News Service