Pollachi sexual assault case an issue in Tamil Nadu polls
In the heart of Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi, activists and politicians would gather at an office to put their heads together on how to build pressure on bringing the perpetrators of the February 2019 sexual assault case in the town to justice. The meetings drew women and student groups and helped organise protests. K Varadarajan, an orthopaedic surgeon who was actively involved in the campaign, has now been named as opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) candidate from Pollachi for the April 6 assembly polls.
DMK chief MK Stalin has campaigned for Varadarajan and raised the issue of assault, which remains a major poll issue in Pollachi. Varadarajan seeks to wrest the seat from the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) lawmaker and deputy speaker V Jayaraman.
AIADMK has won the Pollachi seat since 2001. It lost the constituency Pollachi is a part of in the 2019 national polls when DMK polled 52% of the votes. This was largely seen as a result of the alleged association of the assault accused with AIADMK.
A group of men allegedly sexually assaulted a 19-year-old college student in a car after befriending her. The men filmed the assault and threatened to leak its video. Four other women also filed complaints of assault. Several women are suspected to have been victims but activists said they were potentially dissuaded after Coimbatore police superintendent R Pandiarajan named the victim to the press and revealed her identity.
“The police are meant to protect victims but revealing their identity pushed back the case,” said C Jothiman of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).
AIDWA has been pressing for investigations to look into suicides of young women over the three years. It suspects the women were also sexually abused and blackmailed.
A police probe found a network of men threatened women after filming their sexual assaults. K Thirunavukarasu, Riswanth, M Satish, T Vasanthakumar, and R Mani were first arrested in connection with the case in 2019.
A group of men allegedly assaulted the brother of the complainant to force them to withdraw the complaint. Bar Nagaraj, an AIADMK functionary, was arrested for his role in the assault and later expelled from the party.
Since the ruling party functionaries were arrested, the government first transferred the case to the Criminal Investigation Department. After much public outrage, the case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which filed a charge sheet in May 2019.
The CBI in January arrested K Arulanantham, 34, Bike Balu, 27, and the AIADMK’s Pollachi students’ wing secretary, Haron Paul, 29. The party expelled Paul after his pictures with minister S P Velumani surfaced on social media.
Residents said the police and government attempted to cover-up the case and that much time was lost before arrests were made despite the evidence.
“If the ruling party continues [in power], victims will not get justice. These are our girls. The anger is not against Jayaraman, who is very powerful and known in the town, but we are angry with his party men,” said a hotelier, who did not wish to be named. “I will vote for the DMK. The doctor [Varadarajan] is a gentleman. His family is rich so he would not be after making money and he is above caste for us.”
A local politician said even those who did not close their shops when former chief minister M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa died shut them in protest against the sexual abuse.
College student S Rincha, who is a first-time voter, said it was not an isolated case of rape, but young women were targeted. “Without the outrage, the issue may have been buried. Those who are concerned about women’s safety will not vote for this government.”
Businessman S Ganesh said people remain angry as the investigations are slow and trial has not begun. “Because they have political connections, they are not being punished. We will all be satisfied only when they receive the harshest punishment.”
M Selvakumar, a cloth trader, said he benefitted from the government’s schemes during the Covid-19 lockdown and the sexual abuse case will not influence his voting choice. “I’m not saying it did not happen, but investigations are going on. [Chief minister] EPS [Edappadi Palaniswami] is doing good things so I want him to continue. Whether it is Jayaraman or someone else, I will vote for anyone who contests for the AIADMK.”
Jayaraman, who has been with AIADMK since the party was founded in 1972, said he offered protection to the complainant, her family and helped them file the case. “[DMK leader] Kanimozhi has come and spoken in their support but has she met them? If they have evidence of the accusations they are making, why have not they submitted it to the CBI? For two years Stalin was sitting opposite me in the assembly, he could have asked me questions directly.”
Jayaram promised justice in the case. “No matter what party the wrongdoers belong to, they will be punished.” He added what he promised he has delivered. “I am accessible,” he said. He added his focus is development, health, and education. Jayaraman said Pollachi has set an example for rainwater harvesting that cost ₹30-crore. “A government arts college is under construction and five out of nine storeys of a government hospital have also been completed.” He added ₹170 crore has been allotted for sewage lines and road expansions.
Varadarajan is contesting his first election after switching over to DMK from Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Varadarajan re-joined the DMK in 2018. His familiarity among the people and clean image is said to be the reason he was given the DMK ticket.
Varadarajan said women’s safety has become questionable in his constituency. “There are more people behind the racket and real culprits are still not under investigation,” Varadarajan said. “When I come to power there will be a thorough investigation and they will receive maximum punishment so that the crime doesn’t repeat anywhere else. There are more women at my campaigns and they’re still living in fear. Families from other districts don’t want to send their daughters to study or work in Pollachi after this incident.”