The NIA raids expose that Islamic radicalisation is a real and present danger in Coimbatore but terrorism appears a distant evil.
G Babu Jayakumar
Recently, in a crackdown by the National Investigating Agency (NIA), ‘terror suspects’ were picked up from Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu. The NIA pressed into action after reports established that there were links between the mastermind of the Easter terror attacks in Sri Lanka and operatives in the southern state. The question that popped up in the minds of many people, especially those who had watched with horror a series of bomb blasts across Tamil Nadu’s industrial hub on February 14, 1998, was: Has terror returned to Coimbatore?
Luckily, the NIA action has not revived fear among the local people. While they do not foresee any terror attacks on their city, the people are aware of Islamic radicalisation is slowly gripping the youth in Coimbatore.
Soon after Mohammed Azharudheen, a Facebook friend of Zahran Hashim, the mastermind of the Easter attacks, was arrested, suspicions over the NIA’s claims were raised by people who knew Azharudheen.
Though NIA claimed that Azharudheen was the head of the Coimbatore-based IS-inspired module, local people told the media that he was a soft-spoken, reclusive man. Even the NIA allegation that he managed a Facebook page, KhilafahGFX to propagate IS’ ideology was brushed aside by many. His friends and local youth explain that before Azharudheen took up a job in a travel agency, he was into graphic designing and that KhilafahGFX means Khilafah Graphics.
The Coimbatore District United Jamaat has refused to accept the NIA’s claims, and the Jamaat, along with Islamic outfits such as the Tamil Nadu Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), the People’s Front of India (PFI) and the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, met the city police commissioner to protest the NIA action.
Coimbatore is no longer the tinderbox it used to be, say, as it was in the late nineties. Then there was clear polarisation and Islamic fundamentalism held considerable sway over Muslim youth. In the combing operations following the 12 bomb blasts that killed 58 persons and injured over 200 in 1998, security agencies unearthed 210 gelatine sticks, 540 pipe bombs, 575 petrol bombs, 1,100 electrical detonators and other weapons from several Muslims-dominated localities, such as Kottaimedu.
On the contrary, the searches conducted by the NIA yielded ‘documents’ and ‘evidence’ pointing to Islamic propaganda and alleged roping in of youth through social media into the IS fold. No arms or explosives were found. So, even if indoctrinated individuals from Tamil Nadu might have joined the IS and even travelled to West Asia for arms training, the local Muslim communities do not support terror.
Soon after the Easter terror blasts across Sri Lanka, the Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamaat (TNTJ) openly disowned the Sri Lankan Thowheed Jamaat. TNTJ vice-president Abdhur Rahman said: “We have nothing to do with them.” However, it must be noted that in 2015, TNJT founder P Jainulabideen was invited by the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamaat for an event in their country but was denied entry by the Sri Lankan government.
In the past, the TNJT has taken part in social and political activities in Tamil Nadu, including peaceful agitations against liquor and films they found offensive to Islam, shunning violence and treading the democratic path. In fact, there are over a score of Islamic organisations that are part of the secular landscape of Tamil Nadu and the Muslim community has well integrated with the mainstream society, particularly in Coimbatore after the blasts. This could be a reason why there has not been a single terror attack in Tamil Nadu since 1998.
The recent NIA raids and the protest to it must been seen in this background. Many who continue to believe that local Muslim youth will not indulge in terrorism on Tamil soil see the NIA raids as an event that could polarise the state on communal lines. While the local police do not rule out links between Sri Lanka-based fundamentalists and young local Islamists, many do not agree with the NIA.
One of the reasons many have this confidence about peace in Coimbatore is because of the community-driven initiatives taken to heal hurt sentiments and rebuild ties between various communities. The 1998 blasts not only broke the societal fabric but also adversely affected the local economy. Over the last two decades concerted efforts by civil society and authorities have salvaged the local economy.
Two weeks after the 1998 blasts, there was perceptible collective anger against Muslims, and this anger led to BJP leader CP Radhakrishnan winning the Coimbatore Lok Sabha seat. That anger has dissipated. In the 2019 general election, Radhakrishnan lost to CPI(M)’s PR Natarajan by a margin of over 1.75 lakh votes. This is a clear sign that communal issues do not have the traction it had in 1998. Community leaders and youth are unlikely to destroy this harmony and acceptance they enjoy at the moment. In many ways this successful integration of Muslims into the mainstream in itself acts as a deterrent against Islamic radicalisation.
That said, there is cause for concern. The spread of Wahhabism, a strident form of Islamic thought that was once alien to India, has become a matter of concern for Muslim leaders in Tamil Nadu, who agree that some youth are falling prey for the preaching.
What we see in Coimbatore and the rest of Tamil Nadu is a good example of how mainstreaming of a minority group has contributed to peace and social harmony. The real test will be to see for how long Coimbatore will respect this harmony.G Babu Jayakumar is a senior Chennai-based journalist. Views are personal.LIVE NOW... Video series on How to Double Your Monthly Income... where Rahul Shah, Ex-Swiss Investment Banker and one of India's leading experts on wealth building, reveals his secret strategies for the first time ever. Register here to watch it for FREE.