Savukku Shankar's arrest sparks debate in Tamil Nadu on custodial treatment and free speech | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Savukku Shankar's arrest sparks debate in Tamil Nadu on custodial treatment and free speech

May 27, 2024 08:30 AM IST

Shankar, who gained fame on YouTube for his criticism of the MK Stalin government, was arrested for derogatory remarks against female police officers.

It has been almost three weeks since Tamil Nadu police detained YouTuber Achimuthu Shankar, alias "Savukku" Shankar, for making disparaging remarks about female police officers, even going to the extent of accusing them of providing "sexual favours" to senior officers in exchange for promotions. On May 4, a special investigation team of the Coimbatore City police detained Shankar from his native Theni by acting on a complaint filed by sub-inspector K Sukanya.

Shankar being taken around Tamil Nadu as part of evidence gathering in the cases against him, accompanied by an all-women team of police personnel.(KA Shaji) PREMIUM
Shankar being taken around Tamil Nadu as part of evidence gathering in the cases against him, accompanied by an all-women team of police personnel.(KA Shaji)

For many Tamilians, Shankar is an anti-corruption campaigner known for his vehement criticism of the state's leading politicians, mainly chief minister MK Stalin, his wife Durga, and his son and minister Udhayanidhi Stalin.

The case against Shankar

Shankar was arrested on May 4 by the Coimbatore police for his alleged derogatory remarks against women police personnel in an interview with RedPix, a Tamil YouTube channel. He was arrested on multiple charges including making defamatory remarks against women, possession of ganja, and forging documents. Shankar was slapped with the stringent Goondas Act, ensuring detention for up to one year without bail.

Days later, RedPix editor Felix Gerald was also arrested.

Shankar first gained public attention in 2008 when he leaked audio recordings exposing alleged illegal wiretapping practices by law enforcement agencies in Tamil Nadu, resulting in the resignation of a DMK minister. Following his arrest and release, he emerged as a vocal critic of corruption.

He then started Savukku Media (meaning whip in Tamil), comprised of a web portal and a YouTube channel. Over the years, Shankar has amassed a significant following on YouTube for his commentary on political issues.

The controversy surrounding Shankar’s arrest

After his arrest in Theni, Shankar was being transported through a police vehicle towards Coimbatore. However, the vehicle was involved in an accident at Dharapuram near Tirupur, and the YouTuber allegedly sustained several injuries. However, he would later claim that the police refused to provide him with treatment except first aid, arguing the wounds were minor. He was then carted off to judicial custody.

The very next day, his counsel, K. Gopalakrishnan, told media persons that the jail officials had subjected the YouTuber to custodial torture. The counsel alleged that the jail officials had assaulted Shankar with plastic pipes wrapped in cloth on the night of May 4.

Following the allegations of abuse, Shankar’s arrest has raised critical questions in Tamil Nadu over an individual’s right to expression, and social accountability of YouTubers. While a section of society hails the police action against Shankar as a move to ensure the accountability of social media platform users, others are raising the issue of custodial torture without showing regard for basic human rights.

Interestingly, whenever Shankar was taken around in the state as part of evidence gathering in the cases against him, he was accompanied by an all-women team of police personnel.

The high court’s stance on Shankar’s arrest

The Madras high court, which expressed concern over the arbitrary manner in which Shankar was arrested, made public its displeasure over the “highly disparaging terms” in which he described Stalin and other political leaders in his YouTube videos.

A vacation bench of justices G.R. Swaminathan and P.B. Balaji heard the case on May 23. Critical of Shankar’s remarks towards women, justice Swaminathan said, "The dignity of a woman is paramount, and unfortunately, he crossed that rubicon. He even addressed the honourable chief minister in singular. Therefore, he should be ready to file a memo with a list of don'ts."

Meanwhile, in an affidavit filed in Madras HC, the counsel representing Shankar’s mother A Kamala, fighting the case on behalf of her son, alleged that her son had been detained with mala fide intention as he was a strong critic of the state government and the police. Her counsel added that multiple cases were imposed on her son to incarcerate him and alleged that the prison authorities had brutally attacked her son.

Shankar later reiterated the counsel’s claims, telling reporters that the state government was attempting “to finish him off”.

Activists chime in over Shankar’s alleged custodial torture

In response to Shankar's custodial torture claims," the Madurai-based rights organisation Joint Action Against Custodial Torture (JAACT) stated that it would soon approach the high court and demand the transfer of Shankar from the Coimbatore Central Prison to another jail in the state.

Talking to Hindustan Times, Henry Tiphagne, the convener of JAACT, claimed that it has been confirmed from reliable sources that Shankar was “brutally tortured.” Tiphagne stressed that proper investigation followed by prosecution and trial would ultimately bring out the truth and ensure justice.

However, he noted that Shankar's "derogatory and disrespectful remarks” against women working in the police were "unpardonable". "JAACT strongly condemns the comments he made. JAACT is also aware of his history of humiliating, degrading and belittling various human rights defenders who have led important struggles for the protection of human rights in Tamil Nadu," he said.

Tiphagne also condemned Gerald's arrest for airing the interview with Shankar and alleged that his arrest from Delhi without a warrant or transit warrant, and his present incarceration are sufficient proof of gross violation of the applicable laws.

Shankar’s vehement criticism of Stalin’s government leads to divisive opinions

Shankar’s so-called crusade against alleged corruption in the Stalin government led him to announce that he would contest against Udhayanidhi Stalin in the 2026 Assembly elections.

Many appear to be conflicted over his arrest. Despite his derogatory remarks and detainment, former chief minister and AIADMK supremo Edappady Palaniswamy strongly defended Shankar.

Meanwhile, M Thiruvenkidam, a Chenani-based social activist, said, "He claims he is a whistle-blowing journalist. I am sure he is not practising journalism, but the way he was arrested must not be encouraged. The visuals of him emerging with a fractured arm in a sling is quite frightening.”

"In Tamil Nadu, Shankar is not the first person to be arrested for comments on social media in the recent past. Perhaps the government believes it can use Shankar as an example. The right way to deal with him was to slap him with defamation cases. By arresting him, the ruling party has shown that its accusations of highhandedness against the Bharatiya Janata Party ring hollow," points out Thiruvenkidam.

“Successive governments under both DMK and AIADMK have always taken a stand against critical reporting by mainstream media. Those journalists who dared to expose high-level corruption and nepotism were silenced using defamation cases and other governmental actions. People with questionable credentials like Shankar are attempting to occupy that space vacated by the mainstream media fearing prosecution,'' says Tiphagne.

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