TWENTY-SIX years of his son’s life, and all it came down to was 15 seconds of indiscretion. A month after his son K Venkataraman committed suicide, 57-year-old Kanniyappan, a mid-day meal cook at a government primary school in Thalavedu village, still breaks down at the thought. Those 15 seconds caused two deaths. If one reason was old caste tensions, the other was a social media app that this village located about 100 km from Chennai was just becoming aware of: TikTok.
Sometime in the last week of January 2019, after having had a little too much to drink, Venkataraman and friend Vijay, 17, who belonged to a remote village on the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border, shot a video together on Venkataraman’s phone with him abusing Dalits and threatening to “butcher” them. Venkataraman belonged to the dominant OBC Vanniyar caste, which has a history of violence against Dalits in the state. On February 21, nearly a month later, the video surfaced on TikTok, the short-video app — allegedly uploaded by a third person, who had got hold of it through Vijay. Within a day, the video spread, including to a nearby Dalit colony.
Early morning on February 22, dozens of Dalit youths stormed Venkataraman’s house. As police rushed in to prevent violence, Venkataraman fled and, the next day, killed Vijay for leaking the video. A week later, he surrendered. Soon after he came out on bail in July, Venkataraman committed suicide.
“Twenty-six years… how much I struggled for him,” says a sobbing Kanniyappan, adding that his son’s death has left his family shattered and his wife with mental issues. They have two other children, including a son who works at a factory and a daughter who is married.
Lamenting the price paid by Venkataraman for “the mistake of shooting a video when drunk”, Kanniyappan adds, “All those Dalits who were angry with Venkataraman had known me for several years (Kanniyappan earlier worked at a Dalit colony school). They could have at least told me (about the video)… Even the village leader (of the Vanniyar colony) knew about the video before it was uploaded but kept silent. There were people on both sides who made it a caste issue. We never had caste problems before… I cook for children from both communities, they eat together.”
While his son was a sympathiser of the PMK, a political party whose main support base is the Vanniyar community, Kanniyappan says it meant nothing.
Mahesh S, who was friends with Venkataraman, Vijay as well as the youth who allegedly uploaded the video, says, “This tag that Venkataraman was a PMK man made everyone think he hated Dalits. But he was just a sympathiser, he never even went for party work… We are all daily-wage workers. Dalits and Vanniyars are both farm labourers. We have been living in different colonies for generations but there is no room for hatred. It would have been a non-issue had the TikTok video not been uploaded on local WhatsApp groups. We watch YouTube for news, we have WhatsApp groups, but we had never heard of TikTok before this incident.”
P Saravanan, the Deputy Inspector of the Tiruttani Police Station who was present when Venkataraman came to surrender, says there may have been another reason the 26-year-old went after Vijay. “Venkataraman had an earlier case registered against him under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He felt he would now be convicted in both.”
Still, Venkataraman’s suicide came as a surprise, adds the police officer. “He had been coming to the station every day as part of the bail condition… Probably he regretted what he had done.”
At the Dalit colony too, the incident was the first time they heard of TikTok. Says R Ravichandran, who works at a shop in Tiruttani town, “I am told the video came on WhatsApp groups. Video files were shared, not the TiKTok link. Otherwise, no one would have noticed.”
Like him, most Dalit youths in the colony work at small factories and industries in the neighbourhood.
Thalavedu’s may have been the most extreme case, but TikTok has seen other controversies in Tamil Nadu. An inspector general-rank officer posted in western Tamil Nadu, who didn’t want to be identified, says, “Seven people were arrested in January and February for posting videos mocking police. They were seemingly harmless but we had no option as they came to the police station to shoot the videos. They were given bail after we had verified their backgrounds.”
Incendiary videos along caste lines are a constant headache, police add.
Having been the subject of several videos mocking her in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, BJP Tamil Nadu president Tamilisai Soundararajan is among those who backs the demand to ban it. State Information Technology Minister M Manikandan had said in February that they would seek the help of the Centre for a ban.
However, a ban imposed by the Madras High Court on TikTok in April — calling it “dangerous for children” — had lasted only three weeks, with an amicus curiae advising that rights of legitimate users must be protected. The case is pending before the court now.
A TikTok spokesperson told The Sunday Express that it does not endorse content that violates its ‘Community Guidelines’, and that in India, between July 2018 and April 2019, the company had removed over six million videos on those grounds. “TikTok is committed to propel India’s creative economy… (It) empowers its users across the… country to showcase their creative expression, talent, and skills through their videos,” the spokesperson added.