Saturday, Dec 03, 2022

Rumours of ‘sex videos’, political links, protests leave TN’s Pollachi town shaken

The DMK has attempted to cash in on the case, with no less than Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi addressing a rally in Pollachi, calling for a probe into the suicides of seven to eight young women in the town over the past few years.

Pollachi, DMK, Tamil Nadu, AIDMK, kanimozhi, pollachi sexual assault, Tamil Nadu police, MK Stalin, Lok Sabha elections, Lok Sabha elections 2019, India News, Indian Express A students’ protest demanding government action in the Pollachi sexual assault, in Madurai. File

Late in February, when three men were arrested in Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi for allegedly sexually abusing a college student and trying to film her, the town responded as expected, with shock. Two men who had befriended her through WhatsApp a few months ago had picked her up in a car on a state highway, near the Unjavelampatti bus stop, barely 5 km outside the main city, not far from a couple of colleges. But by early March, what could have been just another sordid crime had sparked an incensed protest in the town as social media outrage poured into the streets too, students and women’s organisations staging demonstrations that appeared to be increasingly embarrassing for the Tamil Nadu government.

Now, nearly a month since the police complaint was filed, the police have overcome some mortifying gaffes including revealing the name of the victim and complainant; four men are in judicial custody. And yet, Pollachi continues to protest.

Also read | Pollachi sexual assault case transferred to CBI; order reveals identity of victim

This Tuesday, trade associations across the town decided to keep shops closed. The law and order machinery refused permissions for protest marches, but small groups gathered nevertheless. A lawyers’ collective in Coimbatore protested, as did various students’ organisations in the district. Through the week, a large posse of policemen and policewomen continued to keep a watchful eye in the town’s central areas — something seemed to have shaken the little town of about 95,000 people out of a conservative tranquil.

Subscriber Only Stories
UPSC Essentials| Weekly news express with MCQs : Project GIB, Remittances...Premium
Delhi Confidential: Why CJI Chandrachud says children should be taught as...Premium
Shaped by war: Ukraine artist to showcase work at Kochi-Muziris BiennalePremium
Most drones crossing border originate from Pak Rangers outposts: AgenciesPremium

Three men were arrested, their phones bearing alleged evidence of other women being abused and secretly filmed. A few days later, the fourth accused, alleged ‘kingpin’ Thirunavukarasu, was picked up after police monitored his movements in south India. As at least three ‘leaked’ videos from their phones made their way to TV channels and the Internet, local media reported that a few hundred women were victims of an organised racket of sexual abuse, blackmail and extortion.

Their technique was ostensibly to befriend women through Facebook or other social media platforms, lure them and engage in sexual activity with or without their consent, while others filmed the abuse. Rumours abound in Pollachi that some were married women, that one woman’s husband paid an exorbitant sum to keep the matter under wraps, and that the men sold some videos to porn sites — but the salacious gossip remains unevidenced.

Unsurprisingly, not a single woman has come forward as a second complainant despite a dedicated police helpline. Interrogation of the accused revealed that the men may have lured and blackmailed women for money and sexual favours since 2013, but the February 12 victim’s details were revealed, so most feel other victims’ hesitation is therefore understandable.


But the ferment in Pollachi is not on account of the crime alone, brazen and grisly as it was. Suddenly, the claim that ‘600′ young women had been abused by the ‘gang’ meant all manner of opinions on Pollachi’s girls were the order of the day. “They’re saying on Facebook that nobody should marry girls from Pollachi,” said one 20-year-old college student in the town. “And on the other side my parents want to marry me off – it’s as if they’re afraid of what we may be doing on social media.” Across the city, while there’s unanimity on the demand for an impartial and thorough probe into the case, equally common are the questions and doubts about the victims’ intentions.

The inclination to shame the victim angers Kalki Subramaniam no end. The Pollachi-based transgender activist, who participated in protests in recent weeks, told The Indian Express in Pollachi, “The victim-blaming goes on and on, all these opinions asking why girls are hanging out with boys, why they’re befriending boys on Facebook, why they want boyfriends, why they’re getting into these friends’ cars… It’s a tragedy in our culture, to weaken women by blaming victims,” Subramaniam said.

Also read | Tamil Nadu: Over 50 women befriended on Facebook, sexually harassed by 4-member gang: cops


In fact, Pollachi’s youngsters concede they are on Tinder even if they won’t admit to swiping for a hook-up. Young men don’t deny the town has a small party scene, patronised largely by wealthy scions of agro-business families. One doctor said she sees youngsters smoking weed openly, another prominent Pollachi resident recounted a run-in with a young man swigging from a liquor bottle in a forested area – on being admonished, he dropped a politician’s name.

A senior gynaecologist and obstetrician based in Pollachi, Dr C V Kannaki Uthraraj, sees it as a clash of cultures. Among the forerunners of IVF and fertility treatments in South India, Dr Uthraraj said it is increasingly apparent that a conservative society thrust into an Internet and social media era is thrashing about, unable to adapt effectively. “Women of the older generation may have not been very highly educated, while their daughters are in a modern world where smartphone and social media open for them different new opportunities. Parents often don’t know how to tackle this. A culture of openness and honesty between these two generations must be encouraged.” At a recent meeting of doctors in the city, discussions veered towards the need to counsel parents on how to respond to new realities.

Meanwhile, three weeks since it began to circulate on social media, one of the leaked videos continues to be shared on Facebook, WhatsApp and TikTok. The blurred image and the audio are both equally disturbing, a young woman seen wearing leggings below a bare waist, her hands shielding her upper body. She cowers, stepping from side to side in panic, shuddering as she pleads in Tamil, “Please anna, don’t hit me, don’t hit me.” Multiple men are in the room, one holding what appears to be a belt. “I trusted you as a friend, why are you doing this,” she is heard pleading with her assailant, whom she addresses as Rishwandh.

“This case is all that pops up when you do an Internet search for Pollachi,” says Pravin Shanmughanandam. “It’s tragic.” Four years ago, when Shanmughanandam and Keerthana Balaji launched Pollachi Papyrus, a magazine and blog on the little known wonders of the town and its verdant surroundings, a Google search for their town drew nothing of note. Their blog and related hospitality venture altered that dramatically, but their blog is now once again overtaken by the search for the Pollachi ‘sex videos’.

Around the former ‘zamins’ – fiefdoms of the feudal zamindars, some of them minor native princes – land ownership patterns have undergone a slow transformation over the decades. Large tracts of agricultural land owned by native agricultural families have changed hands, leaving scores of families with no ancestral property but enjoying a cash-rich, urban lifestyle elsewhere. Meanwhile, coconut replaced paddy as the region’s top crop, auguring all manner of lifestyle changes for large agriculturists. In Shanmughanandam’s words, they’re “wealthy landlords, well-travelled and well-read, sitting in their farms and reading Harvard Business Review or cooking a dish they saw on Masterchef”. Eating out is now a fad in Pollachi, unlike in most other Tier Two towns. Where nobody dreamt of owning an Audi 25 years back, youngsters now zip around in BMWs. Barely has a new model been announced that it’s on Pollachi’s roads, he says. School kids are hooked on to tablet devices, with little to no monitoring of their online activity. “And alongside this slow erosion of traditional lifestyles, a culture of corruption has seeped into every aspect.”


As cultivators and agro-businessmen are beholden to one or the other party, the local political bigiwgs’ control over the small but relatively wealthy town’s people, processes and institutions is complete. Nobody is surprised that first one and then the other party’s members were insinuated to be linked with the four accused. The editor of Nakhheeran, which released the videos and who claimed Deputy Speaker and AIADMK MLA from Pollachi V Jayaraman’s sons are associated with the accused, has now moved court seeking anticipatory bail in a defamation case filed by Jayaraman. Jayaraman rubbished the allegations, but a junior AIADMK functionary accused of being among those who assaulted the complainant’s brother was sacked. More political mud-slinging is anticipated – before he was arrested, Thirunavukarasu reportedly sought political protection to name others involved. The latest development is that main accused Thirunavukarasu has reportedly told investigators while in custody that he was with a local Congress leader on February 12, the day of the incident in the car.

Expectedly, the DMK has attempted to cash in on the case, with no less than Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi addressing a rally in Pollachi, calling for a probe into the suicides of seven to eight young women in the town over the past few years. Thousands of DMK cadres including many from outside Pollachi attended, as did members of DMK allies Congress, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and some others.


Also read | Pollachi sexual harassment case: NCW asks TN DGP take appropriate action against accused

Dr R Mahendran, vice-president of Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam and rumoured to be a likely candidate against a BJP contender in the western Tamil Nadu region, says it is inevitable that the Pollachi case will feature prominently in the election campaign. A physician who has established a successful vanilla cultivation and agro-business in Pollachi, Dr Mahendran told The Indian Express, “There was always enough against the ruling party and its alliance with the BJP to make people have a very negative view, but this incident has definitely added a lot to the fact that the ruling party is one that influences institutions.” He continued, “The manner in which a senior policeman identified the victim, and then a government order identified her as well adds fuel to the fire in people’s minds.”


The smaller parties have raised the pitch too. K Mahalingam, taluka secretary of the CPM, said all trade unions had supported Tuesday’s closure of shops. “It is a protest by all parties,” he told The Indian Express. The Pattali Makkal Katchi joined the Tuesday strike as well.

One more video that went viral is of a group of men punching, kicking and repeatedly attacking Thirunavukarasu and Sabarirajan with a stick, all the time screaming at the duo, calling them drunk on money and forcing them to describe their crimes. Thirunavukarasu’s family runs a money-lending business and he is said to have helped set up car deals. But the suburb of Chinnampalayam, where some of the abuse is said to have taken place in a ‘farmhouse’, is not exactly a bucolic getaway. Set 6 km away from the main town, it is home to a middle class population, with one or two sprawling properties built to resemble palatial mansions, other homes all independent structures but smaller, built to accommodate a Nano or a large sedan in the compound, each one sporting the rice-powder line drawing kolam on the macadam outside. The addresses of two other accused, Makinampatti and Achipatti, semi-rural villages on the outskirts, are not very different.

Meanwhile, the solitary complainant in the case is on the mend at home, according to her lawyer R Gopalakrishnan of Coimbatore. Her brother, employed with a private company, has returned to work, as have her parents. “Our main intention in filing the case was that other victims may come forward,” said Gopalakrishnan, on behalf of the victim’s brother. According to the CB-CID in Coimbatore, the attempt will be to prepare a strong chargesheet. Forensic tests on the cellphones seized from the accused – reportedly Android devices with videos on a cloud account – will determine how many clips were recorded by the accused. Back in Pollachi, trans-activist Subramaniam said she and others in Pollachi are trying to form a network of Pollachians who will take proactive measure to spread awareness among young girls on how to tackle sexual abuse.

Slowly, Pollachi will forget this case, though its portents seem to suggest more in the future.

POLLACHI * As per the Census of 2011, the area within Pollachi’s municipal boundaries is home to 90,180 people. The sex ratio is 1012 women to every 1000 men, against the Tamil Nadu state average of 996 per 1000. Literacy levels are better too than the state average, at 89.85 per cent, against 80.09 per cent. Male literacy is 93.89 per cent, female literacy 85.88 per cent.

* Located in the rich Coimbatore district, Pollachi is steeped in history and surrounded by natural beauty. The verdant slopes around Pollachi city are a favourite location for Bollywood and Tamil movie shoots. By some accounts, the name Pollachi comes from Pozhil Vaitchi, which translates as the land blessed with beauty. It is set along the Palakkad Gap, the historical mountain pass in the Western Ghats that was key to migration into Kerala and for trade routes from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, its ports and thereon to the west.


* Feb 12: The complainant in the case is allegedly attacked in a car by four men, including her social media acquaintance Sabarirajan and his friend Thirunavikarasu.

* Feb 24: Police register a case based on a complaint by the woman and her brother. FIR filed against Sabarirajan, Thirunavukarasu, Sathish and Vasanthkumar under Sections 354 A (sexual harassment), 354 B (assault or use of criminal force against woman) and 394 (robbery) of the IPC, along with Section 66 E of the IT Act (violation of privacy); and Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Women Act. Later, sections of the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Forest-offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Slum-grabbers and Video Pirates Act (called the Goondas Act) also added.

* Feb 27: Pollachi East police also arrest three others for assaulting the complainant’s brother. They are identified as Senthil, Babu and Vasanthkumar.

* March 1: Coimbatore (Rural) Superintendent of Police R Pandiarajan refers to the complainant by name during a press conference.

* Early March: Some video-clips purportedly from the cellphones of the accused are leaked and begin to circulate on social media.

* March 7: Alleged leader of the gang Thirunavukarasu arrested as he returns home.

* March 11: Tamil magazine Nakkheeran releases blurred videos purportedly leaked from the cellphones of the accused. Nakkheeran Editor R Gopal also issues a 22-minute monologue on the case, repeated referring to the accused as ‘dogs’, and also alleges that Deputy Speaker and Pollachi’s AIADMK MLA V Jayaraman, known as Pollachi Jayaraman, and his sons, were connected to the accused. The video clips from the phones and Gopal’s video both go viral.

* March 11-13: While Jayaraman denies any link with the case, AIADMK functionary A Nagaraj, known as ‘Bar’ Nagaraj after a TASMAC outlet he owns, is found to be associated with the four accused. He is allegedly among a group of men who assaulted the complainant’s brother before the police complaint was filed. AIADMK sacks Nagaraj.

* March 12: TN government announces that the case will be transferred to the CB-CID in Coimbatore.

* March 13: DMK Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi travels to Pollachi and addresses a rally despite permissions being denied by police. The large rally sees participation from DMK allies Congress, MDMK and some Left parties.

* March 13: Meanwhile, TN government releases an order transferring the case to CBI, and once again identifies the complainant by her name.

* March 14: Bar Nagaraj’s TASMAC unit near Pollachi is trashed by a mob.

* March 15: PIL filed by social organisations in Supreme Court seeking action against Coimbatore (Rural) SP R Pandiarajan for revealing the complainant’s identity. It also seeks an impartial probe by CBI. Meanwhile, the Madras High Court orders the Union government to take down from websites and social media all videos leaked from the cellphones of the accused. It orders Rs 25 lakh ex-gratia to be paid by the TN government to the victim for having compromised her privacy.

* March 16-19: Protests continue, including by students and women’s organisations in Pollachi, lawyers in Coimbatore. Shopkeepers observe a one-day bandh.

First published on: 25-03-2019 at 04:53:04 am
Next Story

Trinamool MP Abhishek Banerjee’s wife caught in row, Customs files complaint against police

Latest Comment
Post Comment
Read Comments