Thursday, June 2, 2011


The young man seemed to be in a hurry. It was late afternoon on Valentine’s Day, and looking at the young man hurrying away from the bus stand, one would have thought he was just another college kid late for a date. It was only if you walked up real close to him as he rushed past you that you would have caught the glimmer of cold steel in his eyes. Shocked, you might have wondered if it was hate that you saw in those eyes until you saw the furrowed brow, the clenched jaws and the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down and it was then that you knew it was hate and doubt streaked with fear and anger. You walked on, lost in thought of where and whys of the look in those eyes when suddenly your feet freeze. The ground below your feet shakes and shudders and in front of your eyes, a little further away to the right, you see the ball of fire explode. A split second later you hear the deafening roar of doom followed by the sound of glass shattering, car alarms screaming and the loud leaping of your heart. And then come the screams, of shock and disbelief, and of agony and anguish… Stunned, you wonder which way to go, what to do, and then on an impulse you turn to look at the young man who just walked past you… and you see him walking away from you. He was easy to find, the only moving figure on a street where every other person was rooted to the ground, numbed by the shock of the moment. Soon, that man is lost in the lanes of the city…

Shamsuddin had done as he was told. He had ‘delivered the package’ as instructed and then walked away from the ‘site’ without looking back or making eye contact with anybody. It wasn’t easy. He knew that every person he was walking past might soon be walking his last. There were men, women and children. Poor vegetable vendors were haggling with middle-class homemakers. Within minutes this would all be gone. Shamsuddin knew it and it wasn’t an easy thing to know…

He knew his way around here though. It was the route he took on his way back from school. He had been a good student… one of the very best in all Coimbatore, his mother used to say. He had wanted to become a police officer. But it was a dream that turned bad and bitter for Shamsuddin.

Five years ago, on this very street, while a fifteen year-old Shamsuddin was on his way back from school, a police van blocked his path and rough hands bundled him into the vehicle and he was taken away to the police station to be questioned for crimes he had never committed.

Tortured, beaten and then released only to be arrested again and again, Shamsuddin had entered the police station a broken boy but emerged from it a hardened man. Memories of the humiliation he suffered made it easy for him to walk away from the death and devastation that he knew was about to ensue that fateful Valentine’s Day in Coimbatore in 1998. He knew that the only crime he had committed until then was to be a Muslim. But today he would change all that… finally his voice would be heard

Shamsuddin, now in his mid 30s and serving time, was arrested in the aftermath of the Coimbatore blasts, this time for a crime he had committed. His story was told to me by one of the India’s best and brightest – a man who retired recently from one of the top seats in India’s premier investigative agency and was at the time in charge of the investigations that followed the serial blasts in Coimbatore.

On the 14th of February, 1998, a series of 13 bombs exploded in the prosperous southern Indian city of Coimbatore, killing 46 people and injuring and maiming more than 200 and destroying property worth many crores. A Muslim organisation, Al Umma, was found responsible for the carnage and immediately banned. The Tamil Nadu police apprehended a number of Umma activists and tried to get them to talk. But nothing worked, not even third degree methods. It was at this stage that the investigative officer in our story took over the reins of the investigation. His methods shocked the establishment. He disallowed the use of force and torture during investigations and instead tried to talk to the accused. People like Shamsuddin were spoken to with dignity and respect. He must have touched a chord with them for it was then that they started talking… many like Shamsuddin and even SA Basha, the head of Al Umma, shed unhappy tears and opened their hearts to the officer. They spoke of hurt and anger, of repression and regret and a need to be heard. The officer recounted how Basha had told him, “Had we been heard, our concerns addressed, maybe things wouldn’t have come to such a pass.”

This story however, is not an attempt to vindicate the crimes of Shamsuddin and Basha and others like them who have unleashed lethal violence on unsuspecting innocents to right their own wrongs or even give voice to their own pain through the agonized cries of their victims.

Nay, this tale from Coimbatore is but a mere allegory to that law of history and nature that W.H. Auden once warned us of when he wrote: “I and the public know, what all school children learn/Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” And if that be so, then perhaps from Belzebub to Basha, the very nature of evil stems from a sense of alienation and injustice. Until we address the pain and the anguish of those who are hurting, we could kill every Osama and hang every Kasab and yet Evil would remain an undying immortal…


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