Blasts at Jehovah's Witnesses gathering in Kerala's Kalamassery: Alarm bells that didn't ring

Though the incident triggered suspicions of an organised extremist attack, it later emerged that it was the handiwork of Dominic Martin, an estranged member of the same group.
Preliminary investigation suggests that IEDs (improvised Explosive Devices) were used to trigger the Kalamassery blasts. (Photo | A Sanesh)
Preliminary investigation suggests that IEDs (improvised Explosive Devices) were used to trigger the Kalamassery blasts. (Photo | A Sanesh)

KOCHI:  How can one person commit such a gruesome crime?” Though it was spokesperson of a political party C Krishnakumar who posed this before the government, the question is on everyone’s lips in Kochi, perhaps even Kerala. Three blasts rocked a crowded prayer meeting of the Christian group Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kalamassery on Sunday morning, killing three and injuring scores of others.

Though the incident triggered suspicions of an organised extremist attack, it later emerged that it was the handiwork of Dominic Martin, an estranged member of the same group. Shortly after the incident, the 50-year-old posted a video on social media claiming responsibility for the explosions. In it, he explains that he was forced to take the extreme step after it dawned on him that the group was likely a “nefarious organisation spreading anti-national teachings.”

After placing the explosives at the Kalamassery hall around 7am, Dominic travelled north, stopping at a lodge in Koratty to shoot the video before continuing onward. Later that day, a little after 2pm, the Kochi native surrendered before the Kodakara police station in Thrissur.

During interrogation, it came to light that Dominic had used 50 ‘gundu’ (firecracker) and eight litres of petrol to make the bomb. Apparently, he had purchased firecrackers from a shop in Tripunithura and learned how to make an electric detonator by way of YouTube videos. The total cost incurred to cause the havoc was a surprisingly low Rs 3,000.

pic | a sanesh
pic | a sanesh

This is not the first incident to rock Kochi. In 2005, a Tamil-Nadu government-owned bus was set ablaze, and its driver was held at gunpoint near HMT Colony in Kalamassery. In 2009, a blast occurred on the first floor of Ernakulam Collectorate. But unlike Sunday’s incident, these were more of a “scare tactic” than an elaborate plot “to kill and to maim.”

A closer inspection of the lead-up to the blast reveals several weak points where alarm bells could have likely rang but didn’t. One: the sale of firecrackers and petrol. According to Dominic, he had bought firecrackers from a single shop in Tripunithura. Though the sale and use of firecrackers is common in Kerala, especially now, given how Diwali is just around the corner, there should have been systems in place to ensure that each sale is recorded and the buyer’s details collected. Also, it should be so that a sale of that quantity is only permitted if the buyer also presents a clearance from the police. Dominic buying eight litres of petrol, too, should have been flagged.

Two: browsing for bombs. Given the volatile political climate in view of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the police should have been actively scouring the internet for anomalies. Had that been the case, two things would have grabbed  attention the moment it  transpired – former Hamas chief Khaled Mashal giving a virtual public address to Kerala at an event in Malappuram and Dominic privately searching for videos on how to make a bomb. Sadly, neither event was flagged by the Cyber Cell.

Three: the easing of the law on Sunday mornings. There is a misconception that this time is also an off-time for crimes. Police presence in a city like Kochi, which is struggling to free itself from crime’s vice grip, is not felt until well into the day. While the general, unsaid explanation is that most crimes happen in the evening-to-night time frame, recent incidents have revealed that there’s no ideal time for crimes. What applies to the police is also true for other organisations and establishments.

Four: booking lodges. The former dens of mishaps and malice have had the police gaze for years now. Yet, despite this, not a lot of reform has transpired at these establishments. Even today, most lodges are guilty of laxity of rules when it comes to who boards the room and with whom. While the Koratty lodge must be commended for keeping proper records (according to them, Dominic had checked in at 10.45am and left 10 minutes later), given how the man’s demeanour had given off wrong vibes (as they had reported to the police) should have been enough incentive to alert the police proactively. Remember: the news of the blast was on every TV screen at this time.

Five: strangers in the neighbourhoods. The man, who was a foreman in Dubai, was staying on rent at a home in Thammanam, Kochi, since his return to Kerala two months ago. There should have been more checks in place to understand who the tenant really is. Similar is the case across the city. Hostels and hotels mushrooming across the city, even in residential areas, are fast becoming a hub of nefarious activity in the wake of an abandonment of laws. This unrestricted rise of such establishments has turned what were once closely-knit societies into strange neighbourhoods.

With Dominic surrendering on Sunday, the people of Kochi have heaved a big sigh of relief. Indeed, Monday saw normalcy returning, though authorities had urged all to be cautious. However, a casual approach would be to our peril. According to retired Crime Branch SP R K Jayaraj, Dominic’s public video and subsequent surrender could be ploys to divert attention to him. “It’s too early to tell, but I don’t quite buy Dominic’s theory. From what I gathered, it is likely not a one-man show. It is too complex for that,” the former officer says.

Could there be more such incidents in the future? With how Kochi is transforming, the shadows that development casts are long, and dark forces are gathering in its shade narcotics, flesh trade, gang wars, and more. TNIE had recently examined whether Kerala Police was equipped enough to tackle the enormity of cases that fall into its lap. No, says  Jayaraj .

The former officer urges an overhaul of the entire force. “Police today are slaving away, registering petty cases and achieving targets. Why don’t we let AI do that? This alone would take a lot of stress away from them and free up time to do some actual, meaningful police work. This city is changing. We must be ready,” Jayaraj says.

This means increased cyber surveillance, more night patrols, better-equipped teams and facilities, and an empowered Commissionerate. “Ultimately, it also means public participation,” the former SP adds. “For that, the police should be welcoming of the citizens’ suggestions and ideas, not a thorn. Also, the people of Kochi should pro-actively work with the officers to ensure their city and their homes are safe.”

Sunday’s blast at Kalamassery convention centre should not have happened. There were five points in the lead-up when it could have been thwarted. Sadly, no alarm bells rang. Now, as the shadows loom over Kochi, experts urge that things should radically change, and there is no room for complacency

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