K R Ramaswamy a.k.a. Traffic Ramaswamy rarely finds himself out of work in Chennai, a city that likes its hoardings — and likes them big. The sight of one transforms this frail, 84-year-old retired mill worker into a raging crusader. Armed with a 2011 government order against illegal hoardings, he doesn’t stop till he has pulled it down. Last month, Ramaswamy spent four days in police custody on charges of blocking traffic and threatening a businessman — all this while he was pulling down posters of AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa. He is back tearing the posters since being released on bail.
“On February 11, I was pulling down hoardings of Jayalalithaa on Alagappa road. A police patrol team was watching. Then a car stopped near me and the driver asked how dare I remove Amma’s posters. When I argued, he slapped me,” Ramaswamy told The Sunday Express.The morning after, around 4 am, policemen arrived at Gemini lodge near Kodambakkam — Ramaswamy’s home for the past 10 years — and bundled him into a police van, “without my shirt and spectacles”.
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“Instead of taking me to the police station, they kept going around the city until 7.45 am. Since I didn’t have my glasses, I thought they were taking me out of the city. It’s only when we reached the magistrate’s apartments that I realised we were still in the city,” says Ramaswamy.
The policemen bought him a shirt, but he refused to wear it. At 8 am, they produced Ramaswamy before the magistrate — shirtless. “I learnt that the person who slapped me had filed a complaint against me, saying I had slapped him,” he says.
Four days after his arrest, on February 16, the court of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate granted him bail. On March 21, the Madras High Court pulled up the city police, asking them to submit a report on why the elderly man was arrested at such an odd hour in the day. The court also pulled up Ramaswamy asking why he was pulling down posters when the court was anyway hearing his petition.
However, besides his anti-poster campaign, the 84-year-old is also known for his hard-hitting PILs in the Madras High Court, mostly against footpath encroachments, traffic violations and road widening, thus earning him the moniker ‘Traffic Ramaswamy’. It was his petition in the high court in September last year that led to a probe into the granite mining scam in the state.
Young lawyers say they see him almost every day — either contesting something agitatedly on the court premises or hanging out at the YMCA building opposite that serves as his “office”.
There is a story Ramaswamy is fond of recounting. Sometime in February 2011, he was tearing down hoardings of then Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi in front of the DMK’s headquarters in Chennai. A convoy carrying M K Stalin, then deputy CM and Karunanidhi’s son, had stopped right behind him. Ramaswamy hadn’t stopped, and Stalin had waved his hand as endorsement. Within hours, the government had issued action against illegal hoardings and flexiboards in the city.
Four years and many posters down, Ramaswamy is still at it. A month before his latest act, that landed him in jail, he had pulled down Amma’s posters in front of her Poes Garden residence.
He says he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to posters. “I have torn off posters of DMDK leader Vijayakanth, the PMK’s S Ramadoss and many others.” Last month, during the Srirangam by-election which he incidentally contested, Ramaswamy had removed a hoarding of Narendra Modi at Trichy.
There have been many bumps along the way. The high court recently fined Ramaswamy Rs 25,000 for a petition he filed against Chief Minister O Panneerselvam for “taking orders from Jayalalithaa”.
He has also had to live away from his family. “They are not too happy with my activism,” Ramaswamy, who lives at Gemini lodge, says. “Once, I stopped a group of people from building a temple on a footpath. That upset my family. They were scared they would be harassed so I chose to move out. I have no regrets.”