Crime capital

Print edition : July 22, 2016

The body of Swathi being carried away from the Nungambakkam railway station on June 24. Photo: R. Ragu

S. Swathi. Photo: By Special Arrangement

P. Ramkumar, the accused in the Swathi murder, at the Tenkasi government hospital.

A series of murders in Tamil Nadu in June, including that of a young woman on a railway platform in Chennai, shatters the State’s image as a “garden of peace”.

ON April 9, at a public meeting at the Island Grounds in Chennai, which signalled the start of her campaign for election to the Assembly held in May, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said: “Law and order is maintained very well [in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital]. Chennai is a very safe city. Of all the cities in India, Chennai is the safest city. It is not my argument that Chennai is particularly a safe city for women, an all-India survey says so. A study by the Centre says this.” In the same speech, she claimed that “my reign [from 2011 to 2016] was the golden age for women”.

In the Assembly election held on May 16, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), of which Jayalalithaa is the general secretary, was voted to power for another five-year term. She became Chief Minister again on May 23. Within 40 days of her taking over as Chief Minister, a series of murders, targeting women, convulsed Chennai. Earlier, on May 8, Rohini Premkumari, an oncologist, was found murdered in her home in Egmore in the heart of Chennai. The assailants had hit her on the head with an iron rod.

It was a week of bloodshed from June 19 to 26, with numerous murders taking place in Chennai and Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts. Most of the victims were women. From June 22 to 26, seven women were murdered, six of them in Chennai and the seventh in Tirunelveli district. Besides, a young woman committed suicide in Salem after a morphed picture of hers was posted on her Facebook wall. However, what caught the national attention was the brutal murder of 24-year-old S. Swathi, a software engineer employed in Infosys, around 6.45 a.m. on the platform of the Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai on June 24.

About 15 minutes earlier, her father, K. Santhanagopalakrishnan, had dropped her at the railway station on his two-wheeler. Swathi was waiting on the platform to catch an electric train to travel to her office located at Mahindra World City in Paranur, when the assailant swung a specially made weapon at her from behind. Reports said that as she lay writhing on the platform, nobody came to her help. Her body lay there till 9 a.m. Her handbag lay near her body. The police, who arrived at the railway station around 9 a.m., recovered her identity card from the bag. A constable knocked on the family’s flat located on South Gangai Amman Kovil Street, Choolaimedu, near the Nungambakkam railway station. It was heartrending to see her father Santhanagopalakrishnan break down on seeing his daughter’s body lying on the platform.

The police achieved a breakthrough on July 1 night when they zeroed in on 22-year-old P. Ramkumar, who was hiding in the backyard of his house at Panpozhi village near Meenakshipuram, about 60 km from Tirunelveli town. After committing the murder on June 24, he had gone home where his parents lived and never stepped out. When the police surrounded his home at 11 p.m., he tried to commit suicide by slashing his throat with a knife. He was rushed to the government hospital at Tenkasi town and later shifted to the Government Medical College Hospital at Tirunelveli. Ramkumar is a graduate engineer who completed his B.E. from an engineering college at Alankulam in Tirunelveli district. He came to Chennai looking for a job and was staying in a lodge on Eighth Street, Sourashtra Nagar, close to Swathi’s house. Informed police sources said the motive for the murder was unrequited love.

However, T.K. Rajendran, Commissioner of Police, Chennai, who addressed a press conference on July 2, said “the motive behind the crime will be known during the investigation”. When a reporter asked him whether the crime was committed “out of passion”, he reiterated that the motive would unravel only during the investigation. “There is no other accused,” he asserted.

Answering questions on how the police were able to apprehend Ramkumar, Rajendran said: “Our teams were able to zero-in on him after a thorough investigation. Our teams fanned out in Choolaimedu and Nungambakkam and on the Infosys campus.” People not only from across Tamil Nadu but also from other States provided information to the police. Swathi’s parents cooperated with them.

A lot of footage from several CCTV cameras was studied. Thousands of phone calls made in the Choolaimedu area before and after the crime was committed were analysed.

The killer was aware that her father dropped her near the station every day around 6.30 a.m., when the station is not usually crowded. She always sat on a particular bench on platform number 2 because the women’s compartment of electric trains would halt opposite it. Close to the bench is a telephone booth. There is a railway catering stall, a shop selling newspapers, and another stall, all situated in a row near the phone booth. On the fateful day, Swathi was perhaps sitting on the bench. She saw somebody move behind her, and as she turned back to look, the assailant hit her on her right jaw, neck and head with his machete-like weapon. He then sprinted down the platform towards Kodambakkam side, ran along the railway track for about 50 metres and threw the weapon near three white-painted pillar boxes installed for signalling. He then scaled a wall along the Railway Border Road, which runs parallel to the track. But he cut his hand on the glass pieces embedded on the top of the wall and disappeared. The police found bloodstains on the wall.

An important clue to his identity emerged when it was discovered that a closed circuit camera installed by a private firm, which is located on Railway Border Road and offers various courses, had captured pictures of the assailant walking along the road with his backpack before he reached the railway station and committed the murder. He was wearing dark trousers and a checked shirt and was walking along the compound wall abutting the railway track. More footage of his, after he committed the crime, became available from cameras installed in a house on Seventh Cross Street, Sourashtra Nagar. The footage shows him checking his hands for injuries, probably sustained when he scaled the compound wall. The footage shows him entering Eighth Cross Street and disappearing.

Swathi’s murder shook Chennai, especially women. It took place in daylight on an open railway platform where at least a few dozen people would have been waiting to catch their trains. But, as her father told reporters, nobody came to her rescue. Nobody chased the assailant either. Nobody bothered to inform the police about the crime or call the ambulance (it was learnt later that the police reportedly received two phone calls about the crime). A police officer said: “People just watched the injured girl bleeding and writhing in pain till the police arrived at the spot. Many who saw the girl bleeding to death took a train and escaped” ( Daily Thanthi DT Next, June 26). Her body was not covered for a long time after the incident. “So many trains would have passed by on both the platforms and yet no one came forward to cover the body till a senior police official arrived at 9 a.m.,” said Swathi’s uncle K. Govindaraj ( The Hindu, June 26, 2016).

Again, on June 24, four women belonging to one family were murdered in the heart of Chennai. Chinnaraj, a 35-year-old man, murdered his wife, Pandiammal (38), and her three daughters from her previous marriage, in their cramped home on Muthu Street in Royapettah, close to the Royapettah police station. Chinnaraj clubbed them to death with an iron rod and stayed with the bodies for two days in the closed house. He strangled the youngest daughter, a schoolgirl, with the wire of an electric iron. Raja Bahadur, the houseowner, alerted the police after a stench started emanating from the house. The police found Chinnaraj sleeping on the Marina beach, behind the Light House. He had parked his scooter nearby and that gave him away. Chinnaraj told the police that after he committed the four murders, he wanted to drown himself in the Bay of Bengal but did not have the courage to do so.

Lack of coordination

Even as anger swept through Chennai over Swathi’s and a string of other bloody murders, the Government Railway Police (GRP) and the Chennai city police were at loggerheads as to who should investigate Swathi’s murder because it took place on a railway platform. A top police official reportedly told an English newspaper that although railway stations did not fall under the jurisdiction of the city police, he had offered help to the GRP in investigating the crime.

Indeed, reports in various newspapers about the lack of coordination between the Chennai city police and the GRP bothered a Division Bench comprising Justice S. Nagamuthu and V. Bharathidasan of the Madras High Court so much that on June 27 the two judges, suo motu, summoned the Public Prosecutor, S. Shanmugavelayutham, and asked him to submit the details of such discord, if any, to the court. They gave the police two days to crack the crime. “If we feel that there is any slackening in the probe even after two days, we will take suo motu proceedings with permission from the Chief Justice,” they said. They slammed the police for letting Swathi’s body lie uncovered on the platform for two hours. They asked the Public Prosecutor: “Where were your police officers? Even a dead person has got a right to dignity under the Constitution. Why was the girl’s body lying like an exhibit for more than two hours? It speaks volumes. Why should it take so much of time to complete the formalities?”

In the afternoon, the Public Prosecutor informed the judges that the Director General of Police had transferred the case from the GRP to the city police and that a team, headed by K.P.S. Devaraj, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Nungambakkam, had been formed to crack the crime. He denied that there was a lack of coordination between the GRP and the city police. Later, eight teams were assigned to the case.

The Madras High Court put the State government on notice again the next day when Justice N. Kirubakaran raised 15 questions in a letter that he wrote to the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, and wanted the government to respond to them. In the letter, he wanted the High Court to take up, suo motu, a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on the issue. His questions related to the non-installation of CCTV cameras in important and strategic locations such as bus stands, railway stations, hospitals, shopping malls, beach roads and so on; the failure to provide sufficient funds to set up CCTV cameras with modern, integrated control rooms; police vacancies that have not been filled up; and the need for the Railway Ministry to provide compensation for Swathi’s family. The absence of a CCTV camera at the Nungambakkam railway station rankled Justice Kirubakaran so much that he said that Swathi died like an orphan in the midst of a so-called “civilised society”. Why should the Union Home Ministry not direct all the States to pass a legislation such as the Andhra Pradesh Public Safety (Measures) Enforcement Act, 2013, compelling private establishments to install CCTV cameras on the streets, he asked.

The first Bench of Chief Justice Kaul and Justice R. Mahadevan issued notices to the Union and State governments and posted further hearing in the case to August 4.

From all accounts, Swathi was a good-natured person always willing to help others. Her sister, S. Nithya, narrated how Swathi waded through knee-deep water during the floods in Chennai in December 2015 to distribute food packets in nearby areas which were affected by the floods ( The Hindu, June 26, 2016). She finished her schooling from Good Shepherd Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Nungambakkam, and graduated in Computer Science and Technology from Dhanalakshmi College of Engineering, Tambaram, about 28 km from Chennai. She joined Infosys in July 2014 and underwent training on its Mysore campus before being posted at the Infosys office at the Mahindra World City campus, about 45 km from Nungambakkam.

Groundswell of anger

The series of murders in Chennai, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin caused a groundswell of anger against the ruling establishment and led to a feeling of insecurity among women, especially those who travel in trains. People spontaneously mourned Swathi’s death by lighting candles near the bench where she was killed. They put up posters with the question, “Are we deaf and dumb?”, a pointed query directed at the inaction of people who were present on the platform and their failure to attend to Swathi’s body. More candlelight vigils were organised in different parts of Chennai to pay tributes to Swathi.

Murders, incidents of chain-snatching, robberies and burglaries have become the norm in Chennai since 2011, tarnishing its image as a safe city for women. As a wag sarcastically said: “If “Madras (Chennai) was known as the medical capital of India, it has now become the murder capital.”

Political parties did not fail to repeatedly highlight the numerous murders and robberies that have taken place since Jayalalithaa took office in 2011. In a statement issued on April 9, M. Karunanidhi, president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and former Chief Minister, said that 9,948 murders and one lakh robberies and thefts had taken place in Tamil Nadu during Jayalalithaa’s rule from 2011 to the end of 2015. “Seven murders and 70 robberies are taking place every day in Tamil Nadu. The situation is so bad that not a day passes without murders and robberies. Crimes against women have spiked. In the past three years, 2,335 women have been subjected to sexual violence. More than 20,000 crimes have been committed against women,” said Karunanidhi in the statement. He quoted a report from the Bureau of Police Research and Development to point out that Tamil Nadu, of all the States in India, saw the highest number of agitations. In the last four and a half years, 21,232 demonstrations/agitations had taken place in the State, he said, quoting the report.

The series of murders led politicians to take jibes at Jayalalithaa’s claim that “Tamil Nadu is a garden of peace”. M.K. Stalin, DMK treasurer and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, met Swathi’s parents in their home. Stalin, who listed the number of murders that had taken place in Chennai and its suburbs from May 2016, alleged that Chennai was transforming into “a metropolis of murders”.

S. Ramadoss, founder, Pattali Makkal Katchi, asserted that it was “an irrefutable truth that the atrocities of mercenary killer gangs had increased manifold in Tamil Nadu”. The law and order situation in the State had worsened within a month of the AIADMK returning to power, he said. Four advocates had been murdered in Chennai in the past three weeks and six women had been killed in a single day (June 24), Ramadoss said.

Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its State president Tamilisai Soundararajan, held a demonstration in Chennai to condemn Swathi’s murder and to protest against the worsening law and order situation in the city. “The law and order situation has deteriorated in Tamil Nadu,” Tamilisai Soundararajan said.

She alleged that “a culture of professional killings” had gripped the State. “Neither the Chief Minister nor her representatives met Swathi’s family. It is painful that the Chief Minister has not even issued a statement condemning Swathi’s murder,” she said.

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