Despite Chief Minister M.K. Stalin transferring the concerned officer, questions linger about police inaction and press freedom.
In an incident with few parallels in Tamil Nadu recently, a journalist was chased down a road in the State’s western district of Tiruppur and hacked with swords and knives on January 24, even as the journalist was on his mobile phone pleading with the local police for protection. The incident happened in Palladam town barely a kilometre from a local police station even after the journalist, Nesa Prabhu, had first alerted the police four hours before. He is currently being treated at a private hospital in Coimbatore.
In a short audio note accessed by several journalists after the incident, Nesa Prabhu—who is a broadcast journalist—is heard repeatedly calling up the police helpline and requesting help, between 5 pm and 9 pm. The journalist sounded terrified, but the police refused to do anything. At one point, a policeman is heard telling the journalist that he would inform the Inspector in charge of the police station. Nesa Prabhu’s last words before the attack were: “They have come sir, my life is over.”
One local journalist claimed that when Nesa Prabhu called the police around 5 pm, they asked him to visit the police station and proffer a complaint. In a later conversation, also recorded on Nesa Prabhu’s phone, he tells the police that the assailants were on two vehicles—one two-wheeler and another four-wheeler—-and that. In one conversation, Nesa Prabhu says there were four people in the two vehicles but some time later in another conversation, he says that six people were chasing him, all young. Both vehicles did not have number plates.
No progress so far
The Tamil Nadu police are usually alert when they notice a vehicle without a number plate. According to a former police officer who had served in Tamil Nadu’s western districts, police officers were instructed to stop unregistered vehicles and make a report of these immediately, which they followed. As a result, a vehicle could not cross towns or a large stretch of a highway without having a clear number plate.
Though the main thoroughfares across most towns in Tamil Nadu are fitted with CCTV and despite the police asking residents to affix CCTVs facing the road in their houses and apartments, there was no progress in the case nearly 24 hours after the incident. CCTV footage from a local petrol filling station has been handed over to the police too.
One journalist said that one story by Nesa Prabhu that could have agitated some local politicians was related to a local bar operating far beyond the specified hours. Though this is not uncommon in bars across the State, it is rarely reported on because of the powerful cartel of bar owners and local politicians. Tamil Nadu’s liquor trade—wholesale and retail—is controlled by the State-run entity, TASMAC, but the bars are run by powerful lobbies.
Journalists protested against the attack and held demonstrations. They demanded the arrest of those responsible and action against police personnel who treated the entire episode as a joke. In an attempt to assuage them, the police claimed that four special teams have been formed to nab the assailants.
Leaders of most political parties expressed shock over the attack and pilloried the government’s handling of the law and order in the State. Edappadi K. Palaniswami, former Chief Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, condemned the inaction of the police even though the reporter had called them up and warned them. “Even though I have been pointing out that the people were living in fear due to the poor law and order situation in Tamil Nadu, no action has been taken to shore it up. This is the result of that neglect,” he said. He demanded that the government create a conducive environment for journalists to work without fear.
Telangana Governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, who was previously the BJP’s Tamil Nadu State unit president, posted on X that she “strongly condemned the attack”. Referring to the incident, she said: “Freedom of press and transparent neutral media are under threat. Failure to protect the media person is regrettable. Journalists are pillars of democracy and their life must be safeguarded. Hoping for a swift investigation and justice.” Union Minister L. Murugan visited the journalist at the hospital.
Following the outrage, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, who is also in charge of the Home department, condemned the attack and ordered the transfer of the erring Inspector of Police to the vacancy reserve list. He also sanctioned Rs.3 lakh towards the treatment of the journalist.
But concerns remain over the Tamil Nadu Police, where it has been observed that instead of suspending those responsible for the gross dereliction of duty, the government machinery has merely moved one Inspector in charge of the police station to the vacancy reserve. In the recent past, the department had shockingly revoked the suspension of an IPS officer who illegally and sadistically tortured locals in a police station in Ambasamudram in southern Tamil Nadu.