Activists and social welfare workers across Tamil Nadu are up in arms after policemen in Salem reportedly beat up prominent environmental activist Piyush Sethia in jail on Friday.
Sethia was arrested on July 8 after chaining himself to a road-roller in protest against the ongoing construction of the Mulvadi bridge in Salem. Police charged him with criminal intimidation under Section 506(2), disobedience of an order duly promulgated by a public servant, wrongful restraint and wrongful confinement.
On Thursday, his bail plea was rejected after the police said that he had a dozen similar cases against him, and a sedition case dating from 2012. Section 506(2) is also a non-bailable offence.
Following the rejection of his bail plea, he was allegedly beaten for half-an-hour. But his supporters and well-wishers are not sure whether it was authorities at Salem jail or other policemen who attacked him.
“We are 100% certain that Piyush has been brutally beaten by the police,” said Suresh Kumar, an activists with the Salem’s Citizen’s Forum (SCF), a civic organisation that has spearheaded numerous campaigns in defence of the environment over the years.
“This is evidence of a vindictive, high-handed attitude on the part of the police and the administration,” said Madhumita Datta, a scholar and member of the Chennai Cooperative. “The response is completely disproportionate to the protest Piyush undertook. He’s being physically and mentally abused.”
Salem jail officials have denied all allegations of custodial violence, and have said that Sethia has been unharmed.
However, a voice recording accessed by Hindustan Times shows a different side to the story.
In the voice recording, a jailer in the Salem Central Jail first says that he “doesn’t know what happened”, before saying that an internal inquiry is currently being conducted.
“It’s clear that they are making an example out of Piyush as a warning to others,” Datta said. Piyush’s alleged mistreatment is “completely unacceptable”, she added.
Known as Salem’s ‘Green Warrior’, Sethia is a prominent environmental rights activist and founder of the SCF. A veteran activist, the 40-year-old has spearheaded green campaigns across Salem district for more than a decade, as well as fighting on behalf of ST groups.
He was charged with sedition after marching against human rights violations in Chhattisgarh.
Supporters of Sethia have approached the sessions court that is scheduled to hear their plea on Monday.
Others have taken to social media to drum up support for the activist.
In an email to Tamil Nadu’s home secretary, which is being circulated via social media, fellow activist Kavita Kuruganti wrote: “Your detention of activists obviously puts an enormous dent in your credibility and image. Release Piyush immediately please. We urge you to take personal interest in this, intervene immediately and ensure that the citizens’ issues are heard out properly and Piyush is out.”