THE whole nation is “shell-shocked hearing the cry of [the] hapless girl who landed in very precarious circumstances”, because of a person “whom she believed as a friend only to be surrounded by perverted culprits”. This is what Justices N. Kirubakaran and S.S. Sundar of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court wrote in their March 15 order on a writ petition with regard to the sexual abuse, extortion and blackmail of women by a gang of youths in Pollachi town in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu.
The petitioner had sought a court order to the State “to issue a suitable direction to all social media networks operating in the country to restrain from publishing and circulating videos pertaining to heinous crimes such as rapes” after widespread and indiscriminate sharing of the videos of victims in the Pollachi scandal hit social networks. A public interest litigation petition demanding a court-monitored inquiry into the issue has been filed before the Madras High Court, while another one seeking the protection of the victim’s identity has been filed before the Supreme Court.
Calling its perpetrators “sadist sex offenders”, the judges said that the incident had shown that “there are more perverted culprits roaming around luring innocent young women and girls”. The bench warned that the incident “should be an eye-opener and everyone should do some soul-searching” and make the effort to prevent the occurrence of such incidents in any part of the country.
The hideous sex racket and the cover-up came to light when a video clip of the girl pleading with her abusers, calling them “ anna ” (brother), to leave her unharmed went viral on social media. The clip created public outrage across the State, with activists, students, social groups and political leaders coming to the victim’s defence and demanding stringent action against the criminals. The subsequent police investigation brought out a scandal of sleaze and sex involving the exploitation of dozens of hapless and innocent women, from college-going teens to housewives and working women.
The video clip with audio only was uploaded on social media, with the images blurred, by the Tamil weekly magazine Nakheeran recently, triggering a wave of protests. The impassioned pleas of the hapless girl possibly struck a chord with those who viewed the video. Allegations of the involvement of a few local politicians belonging to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) only increased public anger. Acting quickly since it is election season, the State government transferred the case from the Pollachi police to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) and later to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
The 19-year-old victim, a college student, and her brother preferred a complaint with the Pollachi East Police Station on February 24 that her friend N. Sabarirajan aka Rishwanth, along with his friends K. Thirunavukkarasu, T. Vasanthakumar and N. Sathish, all in their mid twenties, sexually assaulted her in a car on February 12 and blackmailed her. One of them, the complaint stated, made a video recording of the incident and blackmailed her when she refused to oblige them. The gang also beat her and then stole her gold chain.
On the basis of the complaint, Sabarirajan, Sathish and Vasanthakumar were arrested on February 25. Thirunavukkarasu, said to be the mastermind, remained elusive and was arrested near Pollachi only in the first week of March. The Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Pollachi subdivision, K. Jayaraman, told the media that Thirunavukkarasu, a moneylender, had fled to Tirupati on the advice of a woman friend in Salem. The police confiscated the mobile phones of all the arrested persons.
Since the victim had not preferred a rape complaint, the police, the DSP claimed, had registered cases against the four accused under Sections 354 (A) [sexual harassment] and 354 (B) [assault] of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) read with Section 66 (E) of the Information Technology Act and Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act. However, as public protests gained strength, with people across the State taking to the streets, Coimbatore District Collector K. Rajamani, on the recommendation of Coimbatore Rural Superintendent of Police R. Pandiarajan, detained the four youths under the Goondas Act. They have been lodged in the Coimbatore Central Prison.
Organised sex scandal
Investigations showed that this was no ordinary scandal of a lone innocent girl being trapped by a friend but an organised sex racket run by the four-member gang and its back-up lobby, which apparently includes powerful political interests in the Pollachi region. It turns out that they had lured over 50 women on social media, mainly Facebook, over a period of five years or so. The gang exploited the girls and women systematically by resorting to blackmail in order to force them to dispense sexual favours. The alleged involvement of a few politicians in the crime has made it all the more volatile.
The modus operandi of the gang was to befriend innocent girls on social media, woo them and get them to share their personal information. The gang used the personal information to ensnare them emotionally before exploiting them sexually at a farmhouse owned by Thirunavukkarasu at Makkinampatti near Pollachi. The gang made video recordings of the girls and used the videos to blackmail them for its nefarious activities. The victims included girls from Chennai, Coimbatore, Salem and other parts of Tamil Nadu.
In a separate incident, but linked to the scandal, one person, “Bar” A. Nagaraj (28), and four of his friends, T. Senthil (25), P. Babu (26), K. Vasanthakumar (20) and R. Manivannan, were arrested for assaulting the brother of the girl for preferring the police complaint against Sabarirajan and his friends. Nagaraj, suspected to be a vital link between the gang and a few politically powerful persons, was the secretary of the AIADMK’s Amma Peravai in the 34th ward in Pollachi municipality. The public anger against the gang grew and a group of people ransacked his bar attached to a TASMAC shop in Pollachi. The AIADMK suspended “Bar” Nagaraj from the party for indulging in anti-party activities.
Meanwhile, rumours started doing the rounds in Pollachi town and on social media that the son of the Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly and Pollachi MLA (AIADMK), Pollachi V. Jayaraman, was a friend of the accused. This put the ruling party in a fix. Jayaraman dismissed the criticisms and denied the allegation as “baseless and politically motivated”. “Neither I nor my family is involved in this,” he said. After the allegation about the involvement of politicians surfaced on social media, the complainant and her brother were heard saying in an audio clip that it was Jayaraman who had helped them in the case.
But social activists have a different tale to narrate. They claimed that the youths could not have operated with impunity for so long in a small, sleepy agrarian town such as Pollachi without any backing. “In fact, the powerful few in Pollachi have been working for weeks to prevent the information from leaking to the public,” said a member of the Students’ Federation of India. Outfits such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association and the Democratic Youth Federation of India had been protesting in Pollachi and Coimbatore town 15 days before the scandal came to light. “No one, including the police, took us seriously then,” he said.
The suspicion in the minds of the general public that the entire issue has a bigger and more sinister dimension was strengthened when R. Pandiarajan, the Coimbatore Rural SP, revealed the name of the victim at a media meeting. Although he reportedly apologised for the “slip”, which the Madras High Court condemned strongly, the government, too, unabashedly repeated the mistake when it mentioned the victim’s name in its G.O. transferring the case to the CBI. The SP told the media that no politician was involved in the racket.
This faux pas of a senior officer of the rank of SP at the nascent stage of the investigation led to suspicion among the public. The disclosure of the name of the victim, lawyers and activists feared, was akin to victim-shaming and would deter other girls and women from coming forward to prefer complaints. “Further, it is illegal and judicial contempt to reveal the name of a victim in a sexual exploitation case,” said a Chennai-based senior advocate. She wondered how a senior police officer could be so insensitive in an ultra-sensitive case such as this one. “It is an intentional abuse of power,” she insisted.
Court restores sanity
The strong order from the Madurai Bench on the issue restored some semblance of sanity in the State machinery in its handling of the case. The court did not mince words when it came down heavily on the government and the police. The bench was highly critical of the role of the Pollachi police. The judges said that the brother of the complainant had confiscated the mobile phones of the accused, which contained incriminating videos, and handed them over to the police. Yet, the video clips are said to have reached social media. “But for the police role, this would not have reached social media,” observed the judges.
Pointing out that the videos exhibit the identity of the victims, thus violating their basic right to privacy and dignity guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, the bench directed the Central government and the Secretary, Internet Service Providers Association of India, New Delhi, “to prohibit the circulation of scandalous videos in connection with the Pollachi sex scandal”. They pointed out that although the victim gave the complaint in the hope that her identity would be protected, the police had failed to protect her identity by disclosing it to the media.
“This court finds even in G.O. Ms. No. 169 Home Department dated 13-3-2019 issued by the State government transferring the case from CB-CID to CBI, the name of the victim girl along with her brother name and college name…,” it said. The disclosure of the identity of the victim, the judges said, was contrary to Section 228 (A) of the IPC and the Supreme Court’s directions. The officials of the Tamil Nadu government, the judges averred, had failed to understand the objective behind the directions of the Supreme Court and Section 228 (A) of the IPC, which directed everyone to avoid any reference to the identity of a victim of sexual abuse.
They further directed the State government to withdraw G.O No. 169 and issue a fresh one without naming the victim. They pointed out that it was unfortunate that the SP had informed the media about the specific number of videos he had received and the number of accused in the preliminary investigation, which had prompted many to share the videos in the public domain. They called the conduct of the SP “irresponsible” and asked the government to take disciplinary action against him.
The bench said that since the victim’s name had been disclosed, great damage had been caused to her, and therefore, she had to be compensated by the State government. “Hence, at least a sum of Rs.25,00,000 has to be paid to the victim,” they said. The judges asked the State government to give psychological counselling to the victims without the knowledge of others in any town/place other than Pollachi so that their identities would be safeguarded.
The judges said that the Pollachi incident would prove that children, especially girl children, were not shown the required love and affection in their families and it was time parents spent quality time with children so that they would not be misled by others. “It is the duty of parents to keep a vigil on children, both boys and girls, in the interest of everybody, only to prevent them [from] becoming victims,” they advised.
As it is election time, the issue has turned into a political slugfest. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M.K. Stalin accused the AIADMK of influencing the investigation. It was clear that the DMK sees here an opportunity to exploit the issue politically though it claims that as an opposition party it has the moral right to take up issues of public interest. Pollachi is one of the eight parliamentary constituencies in the State where the DMK and the AIADMK are in direct contest. The State goes to the polls on April 18. Pollachi Jayaraman is the AIADMK’s election coordinator for the seat.
In order to embarrass the AIADMK further, the DMK staged a protest demonstration in Pollachi on March 12 to condemn the incident, with the party’s Member of Parliament Kanimozhi leading it. She criticised the police for revealing the name of the victim and claimed that it would deter other victims from coming forward. She slammed Pandiarajan for revealing the name. “There is a larger network of criminals,” she claimed. She said the government had ordered a CB-CID inquiry and subsequently transferred the case to the CBI only because public anger erupted across the State. The DMK, she said, would insist on a High Court-monitored CBI inquiry.
Meanwhile, Jayaraman submitted a petition to the Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, T.K. Rajendiran, recently asking him to take action against Sabareesan, son-in-law of Stalin, for spreading canards against him and his family on social media, and Gopal, Editor of Nakheeran, for linking his family to the crime. On the basis of his complaint, the cybercrime police registered a first information report against Sabareesan under IPC Sections 153 (provocation with intent to cause riots), 469 (forgery to harm reputation), 471 (forged electronic records as genuine) and 505 (1) a, b, c (spreading false information). Gopal was summoned for inquiry.
In recent times, Tamil Nadu has not witnessed a scandal of this magnitude involving sex, perversion and politics. Naturally, the whole State is watching the developments with alarm.