Political storm brews over Pollachi scandal

The February 12, 2019 sexual assault of a 19-year old in Pollachi by four men, and the graphic videos of the gang rape of other young women by the same group of men that surfaced earlier this month have shocked Tamil Nadu. Pollachi’s pain is bigger.
Members of various Tamil organisations hold placards and raise slogans during a protest against the Pollachi sex scandal, in Chennai, Friday, March 15, 2019.(PTI photo)
Members of various Tamil organisations hold placards and raise slogans during a protest against the Pollachi sex scandal, in Chennai, Friday, March 15, 2019.(PTI photo)
Updated on Mar 25, 2019 10:11 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByTR Vivek

The February 12, 2019 sexual assault of a 19-year old in Pollachi by four men, and the graphic videos of the gang rape of other young women by the same group of men that surfaced earlier this month have shocked Tamil Nadu. Pollachi’s pain is bigger. Media speculation of the existence of nearly a thousand such “rape-porn” videos shot by the men, involving more than 300 young women over the past seven years, has dented the self-esteem of this small town, 40km south of Coimbatore.

There’s nothing to suggest, based on reports from the police, locals, and even the families of some of the arrested men, that the numbers are anywhere close. Still, that doesn’t lessen the crime of the young men. Nor the effect it has had in idyllic Pollachi.

Pollachi, with a population of 100,000, prided itself on its low crime rate. It
is best known for its vast coconut plantations, and as the Tamil film industry’s favourite location outside of Chennai and its studios. It’s an ideal base camp
for tourists headed towards the Palakkad pass to the west, the Anamalai forest reserve, the hill stations of Udumalpet, Valparai, or pilgrimage hill town
of Palani.

Now, columns of lathi-wielding policemen, and a bus full of better armed riot police, line Pollachi’s main square, at whose axis sits a silver-painted statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Newspaper vendors, restaurant waiters and tea
shop owners are reticent to strike up a conversation about the sex racket. Questions are parried; it’s almost as if the locals have made a compact to remain quiet. Multiple teams of investigating police officers from across the district have booked into the few big hotels in
the vicinity.

Persistence, accompanied with the intent to offer more business, can pump-prime conversations; shortly thereafter, their anger boils over. “The boys should be shot in full public view and hung upside down right in front of the Gandhi statue,” is the prevailing sentiment.

There’s outrage, confusion and collective shame — all at once.

Seeking political capital

It is this soup of emotions the opposition led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) seeks to profit from when Pollachi, and Tamil Nadu, go to vote for the Lok Sabha Elections on April 18. Even more crucial for the DMK are the by-elections for 18 assembly seats to be held simultaneously, necessitated by the defection of legislators from the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to VK Sasikala’s breakaway faction, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), headed by her nephew TTV Dhinakaran.

If the DMK can win a dozen of these assembly seats, it can topple the AIADMK government and wrest power after eight long years. The western Tamil Nadu region, also known as Kongu Nadu, where Pollachi lies, is a traditional stronghold of the AIADMK. Under late party chief J Jayalalithaa, the party not only won every LS seat in 2014 here, but also restricted the DMK to a mere seven seats out of 38 in the 2016 assembly elections. An AIADMK weakened by a sensational case in the Kongu belt could well mean a rout for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Tamil Nadu.

Ergo, the DMK not only claims government incompetence in preventing the crime but connivance of AIADMK brass, including Pollachi V Jayaraman, the local MLA and deputy speaker of Tamil Nadu assembly. The DMK alleges the four “serial rapists” have direct links with senior AIADMK functionaries. And it claims Jayaraman’s son is a part of the wider “sex-and-extortion” ring. Under relentless political fire in election season, the government was forced to hand the case over to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) first, and then, with that wing of the state machinery too deemed insufficiently independent of local string-pulling, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Rumours and conspiracy theories fly faster in Pollachi now than waters from the nearby Aaliyar dam at this time of the year. Here’s a brief account of the sex racket pieced together from detailed conversations with senior investigating officers, the complainant’s lawyer and her friends and family, and the families of the four accused men in Pollachi.

On 12 February, a 19-year-old woman agreed to meet Sabarirajan, 25, an acquaintance, near a textile mill in Pollachi. When they met at the agreed location, she found Tirunavukkarasu, 26, also not unknown to her, sitting in his car. Just when the three of them decided to drive down to a restaurant for a snack and a chat, two other men, Sathish and Vasanthakumar, forced themselves into the car. While inside the car, the four men tried to remove her shirt , and click pictures and videos. When she started screaming, and with the fear of being spotted in daylight by passersby, they yanked the gold chain off her neck, threw her out of the car and sped away. In a couple of days, the woman mustered up the courage to recount to her family the ordeal. Her brother then teamed up with his friends to avenge her dishonour. It wasn’t hard to pin Tirunavukkararsu down, given the two families are from similar social strata. And in a place like Pollachi, no one’s a stranger. Tirunavukkarasu and his friends, outnumbered by the brother and his men were beaten up and their phones seized. While the phones contained no pictures or videos of the woman, there were three videos of three different women being sexually assaulted by the four men. The brother and his friends made copies of the content just in case it might come in handy sometime in the future. Even after the brawl, they had no plans of reporting the case to the police, to protect the family reputation and the girl’s identity.

Enter Bar Nagaraj

Their pride battered and bodies bruised, Tirunavukkararasu and friends, after a day or two in the hospital, launched a retaliatory attack on the brother, with a battalion bolstered by Bar Nagaraj and his henchmen. Nagaraj, 26, was the secretary of the 34th ward of Pollachi’s Amma Peravai, an AIADMK-affiliated youth organisation. He ran an unlicensed drinking room or bar abutting a liquor outlet run by the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) in the town. Fearing this loop of violence slipping out of control, the brother and sister sought out Palanisamy, a fellow caste big-wig and well-connected businessman in the neighbouring town of Malamichampatti. According to their lawyer S, Gopalakrishnan, Palanisamy arranged for the family to meet the Pollachi MLA Jayaraman (helpfully of the same caste as the interlocutor, and such connections matter most) and lay out their case.

“It was in fact Jayaraman, who some claim is shielding the accused, who helped the girl’s family to approach the police and file a formal complaint on 24 February,” says Gopalakrishnan.

On 26 February, the woman’s family filed another complaint against Bar Nagaraj, his accomplice Mani and the four sexual assault accused for physical intimidation. The four accused remain under arrest, with their bail application rejected and no lawyer in the district willing to represent them. Only Bar Nagaraj is out on bail. The AIADMK claims that it has revoked his membership of the party as soon as his name featured in the saga. Some of the locals along with members of the fringe Tamil nationalist party, Naam Tamilar, trashed Nagraj’s bar.

According to the police, Sabarirajan an engineering graduate, and Tirunavukkarasu, an MBA, have a large circle of young, college-student friends. WhatsApp chats and Facebook conversations with college girls often led to sexual encounters at Tirunavukkarasu’s farmhouse, some 15 km from Pollachi. Sathish and Vasanthakumar would discreetly film the acts, the police add. The evidence caught on camera was not only an easy way of extorting money, but also a blackmailing tool to help them get introduced to more of their women friends.

A state of faux pas

Sitting in his rabbit warren-like office in a rundown complex near the Coimbatore railway station, Gopalakrishnan, is a reed-thin lawyer whose phone hasn’t stopped buzzing for the past few days. Journalists are eager to seek his client’s confirmation of some of the lurid accounts going around. He has switched the television off. Breathless TV reporters palm off gossip as gospel. “I’m amazed at some of the claims media has made. If there are indeed several hundred victims, it will help our cause enormously if even two or three of them come out and speak to the investigators. But the manner the case is being covered, I fear they’ll be too scared,” he says. According to him, the mistake the brother and his friends made was not instantly approaching the police once they got hold of the rape videos. The delay might have given the accused time to intimidate other victims, he explains. Also, with multiple people in possession of the videos, a leak was inevitable.

The Tamil Hindu newspaper reported that one of the brother’s friends may have sold them to the magazine Nakkheeran for ~40,000. Now that CBI is handling the case, Gopalakrishnan wants the creation of a media-free zone with triple-layered security for victims to testify without fear.

In the meantime, there have been large protests across the state — in Trichy, Madurai, Salem and Chennai — against the government’s mishandling of the case and its alleged protection of the accused, organized by students and opposition parties.

On March 16, the DMK, its allies and left-wing women’s organisations formed a mile-long human chain around Pollachi’s Gandhi statue. The protesters demanded the arrest of not just Pollachi Jayaraman, but his son, the Coimbatore superintendent of police R Pandiarajan, and even chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami.

The Tamil Nadu government, for its part, has made a mess of investigating this case. The seeds of doubt were sown early by the Coimbatore SP Pandiarajan when at a media briefing, he declared unequivocally that no politicians were involved. Pandiarajan’s widespread unpopularity doesn’t help. In 2017, as an additional deputy superintendent of police in Tiruppur, he slapped a woman protesting against TASMAC shops, in full public view. On another occasion, Pandiarajan made public the complainant’s identity.

As did the Tamil Nadu government in its notification transferring the case to CBI. The Madurai bench of the Madras high court has ordered the state to pay her ~25 lakh in compensation.

Manic media

Pollachi’s colonial-style sub-collector’s office and the adjoining court rooms haven’t seen such frenzied activity ever. It’s a convenient hub for politicians of all colours to hand over petitions to local authorities to investigate sundry political rivals, and meet the 70-odd members of the local press corps.

It’s the best time for a photo-op or to sneak in a soundbyte on one of the two dozen Tamil news channels. Most prominent among visitors on the day is DMK’s southern Coimbatore district in-charge Thendral Selvaraj. The large contingent of his supporters are turned out in lily-white veshtis with red-and-black party flag borders. In the pocket of shirts in translucent white fabric, there’s a photograph of DMK chief MK Stalin, lest anyone doubt their fealty.

Many of them claim the gang of four filmed their sexual acts with young women and used the videos to blackmail them into sleeping with AIADMK leaders. And that these clips provided viewing pleasure for some of the party functionaries hooked on to voyeur porn. How do politicians know?

Their friends in the media say so. How does the media know? Their political sources have told them so. The allegations seem to mirror the script of a 2008 Tamil film Alibhabha in which an ageing, but powerful politician runs a kidnapping racket to be able to witness young men rape school girls.

It’s fast turned into a trial whose narrative is shaped by the prurience of the media. As a result, everyone directly involved in the case—the accused and the complainant--deal in the currency of WhatsApp videos. Tirunavukkarasu, when evading arrest released a video claiming his innocence. The lady whom the four tried to assault put out an audio clip confirming the help offered by the Pollachi MLA Jayaraman and denying the involvement of politicians. Her clean chit for Jayaraman in the recorded message adds to the suspicion that it was scripted. Not to be outdone, the police too selectively leaked “confessional” videos of the four accused during interrogation to prove their efficiency, and ring-fence the ruling party from the case. The case itself hit the national headlines when the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran published the rape video on its YouTube channel and urged people through its social media handles to “go see it”. Known for its muckraking brand of journalism, Nakkheeran makes no attempt to hide its proximity to the DMK. In a subsequent “explainer” video, its editor R Gopal claimed direct and incontrovertible evidence of ADMK’s involvement. Politics aside, his journalistic decision to air the video in “public interest” can be described as dodgy at best.

With a bushy handlebar moustache fashioned after the one sported by forest brigand Veerappan, Gopal says he would have let journalism down if he had decided against publishing the clip. “When I first saw the video I could not sleep for three days. It was like watching a group of wild animals devouring dead meat. If we hadn’t put it out, the police would have completely hushed up the case. It has stirred the conscience of the whole country. That fact that you, a journalist writing for a large national daily, are talking to me about the issue is proof that I made the right call.”

What about his claims of 250 victims and the existence of 1,100 videos?

“Look, that is the number claimed by the complainant’s brother. He has handed over all the videos to the police. The police are systematically destroying such evidence.” Gopal’s claim, which runs counter to the official complaint, could not be independently verified.

Can men as young as Tirunavukkarasu, in a small town like Pollachi, really be as politically influential as it is claimed they are? Do they have the financial means to bribe officials to the tune of crores of rupees, to run unfettered a sex-and-blackmail racket for seven years as alleged?

Tirunavukkarasu’s single-storey house in Makkinampatti village, 5 km from Pollachi, is hard to miss. It’s painted in vastu-compliant mango yellow. Plus, there’s a media melee outside. A team of CB-CID officers have gone in to quiz his family and look for more clues. Most of the houses in Makkinampatti are fairly new and well spread out. In almost every backyard is a lush moringa tree. Neighbours, mostly housewives, stand in small huddles waiting as patiently as the journalists for something dramatic to happen. Tirunavukkarasu’s father is a money lender, euphemistically called “finance business” in these parts, and also deals in used cars. The money lending business and the frequent visits to borrowers makes Tirunavukkarasu instantly recognisable in Pollachi. This reporter’s young cab driver says they were once Facebook friends. Not anymore.

The many cars usually parked outside the yellow house are now gone. The neighbours say most of the stuff in the house was packed off within a day or two of Tirunavukkarasu’s arrest. In hushed tones, they talk about the family’s increased affluence in past few years. They’ve even bought another house down the road. One middle-aged woman suggests he has a knack of getting tangled in “affairs”. A young girl once created a scene claiming to have been cheated by him and asked to be married. Everyone is keen to offer an authentic vignette of his evil past. A reporter from a media house known to do the DMK’s bidding, provides live running commentary, with granular details, of the events taking place inside Tirunavukkarasu’s house for the viewers. “The police are carefully examining all electronic gadgets including pen drives, laptops, external disks, tablets and phones,” he says. Never mind the fact that he’s been at this reporter’s side for some three hours, at a safe distance of 50 metres from the house, cordoned off by policemen. When asked if he has an informant inside, he replies with a sheepish smile, borrowing a popular Tamil film comedy line “Arasiyalla idhellam sadharanamappa.” (In politics, all this is par for the course.)

The price of perversion

Thirty-year-old Sathish, one of the four accused, runs a readymade apparel store called Joker in Pollachi’s market street. In the leaked videos, his face is the most clearly visible. The Suleswaranpatti village, where he lives, has considerably less evidence of prosperity than Tirunavukkarasu’s neighbourhood in Makkinampatti. Farmers on the road towards Suleswaranpatti have put shallots (sambar onions in this part of the country) out to dry in the open. Directions to Sathish’s beige house in a small lane are easy to get. Everyone knows its location now. His father Mariappan, who makes a living selling blouse pieces from the back of a bicycle, is asleep in the verandah. In a corner, soft toys lie in a heap. Sathish’s wife and their two children, four years, and eight months old, were taken away by his wife’s parents when the videos went viral. The wife has vowed never to see Sathish or his parents ever again. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the clip. How can I say it wasn’t him? The scar on his hand was there, the silver waist-string was there. We don’t know whether to live or die. I wonder what evil spirit possessed him,” says Sathish’s mother, frail, clad in a Nylex saree, and completely broken. Satish studied only up to class XII, and his parents set up the small apparel showroom for him with a Rs 15 lakh loan from their eldest son, who works in Qatar. “I never had any inkling that he was up to destroying lives of women. He didn’t even smoke or drink. In fact, he would fight with his father when he had a drink or lit a beedi in his presence,” says the mother.

Her troubles have compounded. Her daughter is married to her daughter-in-law’s brother. “My daughter’s life too is now derailed,” she sobs.

There’s little hope for life in Pollachi to get back on track anytime soon — at least not until the bruising election
season is over.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021