Yoganantham was the last of the four siblings of a farmer’s family in Kadathur Agragaram in Attayampatti village in Salem district. He was 33 years old when he ended his life. A postgraduate in computer science, the youth had lost his parents at a young age and was living with his unmarried elder sister. His two other sisters were married and living nearby. After having worked at a private firm for a few years, he chose to take care of the lands and cattle that his parents had left in the village.
Life was peaceful and stress-free. His only companion was his mobile phone. Nothing amiss was noted in his character. The youth’s sisters had started looking for a bride for him. Things were coming together and marriage talks were in their final stage. On September 29, 2020, he was found lying unconscious in his room. He was rushed to a hospital at Salem, where, after a few hours, he passed away.
The medical report claimed that he had consumed poison, a deadly mix of rat poison and pesticides. Unfortunately, he happened to be the second victim in the State; Nitish Kumar, 22, of Chennai, died by suicide in July apparently because he lost money in online rummy.
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Yoganantham’s family was in shock. His sisters and in-laws wanted to forget his death as it was an unnatural death, as far as village custom is concerned. While his sisters refused to talk or share any information about his suicide, one of the in-laws came forward to speak to Frontline, especially on the trauma and anguish besides the collective shame the family endured after his death. For them, gambling was as much taboo as drinking liquor.
Usually in a village where naming and shaming was widely prevalent, this incident of a youth gambling on borrowed money was enough to keep tongues wagging for long. Yoganantham had allegedly borrowed a lot of money from friends, neighbours, and relatives. His death had brought scores of people, known and unknown, to his house, not to condole his death but to demand the money he reportedly borrowed from them.
“It ran into a few lakhs, we were told. Totally shattered, we were not able to face any of our relatives and villagers. We were unaware of his obsession for the game. In fact, the family got to know about his addiction only after his suicide. He left no note,” said Vijayakumar, husband of one of his sisters. “We have told the Attayampatti Police who registered the case to keep the loan sharks away from us since we are left with nothing. We are farmers with small holdings. In fact, we do not know until now how much money he had borrowed and from whom.”
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After his death, the police analysed his mobile phone, and found online rummy and loan apps, which enticed him to take money as loans for the game. It contained recorded conversations between him and online lenders who blackmailed him.
“Police told us that he was trapped by the faceless gangs based somewhere in north India who intimidated and harassed him round the clock to repay the money he had taken through the apps. The gang had threatened him of morphing his photos in sleazy visuals and sending them to his relatives and friends. Unable to bear the torture and mental agony, he died by suicide,” Vijayakumar said.
Vijayakumar said there was no communication either from the government or the police about the status of the case so far. “Neither have we received any compensation,” he claimed.
Harassment and abuse
A 29-year-old youth from Chennai, who survived a suicide attempt after consuming rat poison also faced similar harassment and abuses by gangs that operate online lending apps. His uncle, who preferred anonymity, told Frontline that he accepted a loan of Rs.3,000 from an app.
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When he could not repay it during the COVID-19 period as he was also unemployed then, the gang running the app had threatened to post morphed photos of him on social media, which drove him to attempt suicide. Fortunately, he survived as he was rushed to a hospital, where he was also given counselling for three days.
Similarly, another youth died by hanging in Madurai after he lost Rs.5 lakh in an online rummy game in February 2022. A native of Salem, he was staying in a rented house in Tahsildar Nagar in Madurai. Harassed by online loan apps, he ended his life, as he was not able to send money to his family. The “loan recovery gangs” had sent morphed pictures of him to his friends’ WhatsApp groups.
In fact, in many cases of victims and survivors, the main reason to end their lives was the harassment they faced from these rogue loan app operators, mainly based in Hyderabad and in north India. A senior police official said that the victims, after having exhausted all their regular sources, would become easy targets for these apps.
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“They pop up while playing. The algorithm works in such a way that it can easily identify those who are broke and addicted. Once trapped, there is no escape. These apps employ gangs, both men and women, to abuse, intimidate, and blackmail the victims,’ he said.
It is said that Google has pulled out many such predatory loan-providing apps from its Play Store after a spate of complaints from stakeholders. But they still resurface with different names and identities. Legal experts pointed out that once the Special Act was in place, there could be some regulation of such applications.
Justice K. Chandru (retired) of Madras High Court, who headed the Tamil Nadu government panel on online rummy and has again been appointed as a one-man committee to review the status of the Juvenile Homes across the State, told Frontline that a penal law would have its powers to control the online game within the State. “But our panel on rummy had not taken up the compensation aspect,” he said.