The exposé of an elaborate racket thriving on sexual abuse, harassment, intimidation, blackmail and violation of privacy and targeting nearly 60 women has raised serious questions and shaken Tamil society in the lead-up to the Lok Sabha polls.
Since February 24, Pollachi in Coimbatore has been at the centre of this shocking case which came to light after one women filed a police complaint, developments of which are being keenly followed by the state government, its police, the National Women’s Commission, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the women of the state.
While many groups are alleging excessive and unnecessary politicisation of the case, there is no denying the fact that one of the five men named in the charge sheet worked for the ruling party, AIADMK, or, dismiss the callous lapse committed by the Pollachi Superintendent of Police who revealed the survivor’s name at a press briefing, against every law to protect the identity of the victim.
Meanwhile, the streets of Chennai, Coimbatore, Thanjavur, and Tiruppur districts continue to rankle with massive protests led by the political opposition, students, lawyers, and women’s rights groups, with furious demands for better protection of women and stringent punishment for all those accused, starting with immediate arrest.
Here’s what happened
In a drama that continues to unfold and tease the possibility of an expansive racket, the case pivots around a 19-year-old survivor who admitted to her family late February, to being blackmailed by a group of men. The entire case was built around the evidence that the survivor’s brother got hold of.
The extorters included two acquaintances, Sabarirajan and Thirunavukkarasu, who allegedly lured her into a car on February 12 under the pretext of talking in private, then went on to disrobe her, force themselves on her, and film her. Two other men, Sathish and Vasanthakumar had joined them by then. According to the survivor’s testimony, the men also snatched her gold necklace and threatened her into obedience. The consequences of rejecting them sexual favours and money, or if she went to the police or told anyone, would be dire: they would upload the video on the internet.
After days of living with the shame and guilt, the survivor revealed the incident to her family. This was followed by the victim’s brother tracking the perpetrators down, and confiscating their cell phones containing videos of at least three other women who may have been blackmailed.
The family submitted this to the Pollachi police, along with a complaint of sexual harassment and robbery.
Who are the alleged perpetrators?
Sabarirajan alias Riswandh is a 25-year-old civil engineer in Pollachi. Thirunavukkarasu is a 26-year-old financier. Vasanthakumar works for Thirunavukkarasu to collect money from clients. Sathish is the owner of a readymade garments shop in Pollachi.
Based on the videos, a pattern has been established with regard to their modus operandi. These men would usually befriend women on Facebook, lure them to a secluded hotel or house, and either force themselves on the unsuspecting victims, or convince them to have sex. In either case, one of them would film the act, which would later be used to blackmail for sex, money or other valuables.
If the sex was consensual, the men would threaten to upload the videos on the internet or circulate them through WhatsApp, unless the women gave them sexual favours.
What have they been charged with?
The police filed an FIR on February 24 against Sabarirajan, Thirunavukkarasu, Sathish, and Vasanthkumar under sections 354A (sexual harassment), 354B (assault or use of criminal force against woman with intent to disrobe), and 394 (robbery) of the IPC; section 66E of the IT Act (violation of privacy); and section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Women Act (sexual harassment).
All five men are now out on bail.
Who are the accomplices?
After they were named in the FIR, four men suspected to be friends of Thirunavukkarasu and Sabarirajan assaulted the victim’s brother on February 25, allegedly issuing death threats if anything were to happen to the accused.
A separate FIR was registered by the Pollachi police in this case, under section 341, 294(b), 323, 324, and 506(2) of the IPC, against these accomplices—Senthil, Babu, Mani, and Vasanthkumar. They were named in the complaint along with a fifth person ‘Bar’ Nagaraj, an AIADMK functionary who has now been expelled by the party.
Is there enough evidence?
The videos are key to revealing a massive racket reportedly run by more than four men, with some media reports suggesting that the rot runs higher up into the political circles.
Thirunavukkarasu is clearly visible in one of the videos, while several of the women in the videos refer to Sabarirajan/Riswandh by name.
Asked about the possibility of other videos being deleted—possibly by main accused Thirunavukkarasu, who was absconding for around 10 days before being caught—the officer said: “If videos were deleted, we will retrieve it. Mobiles have been sent for forensic examination”.
The police are still establishing the identities of the perpetrators and have asked other victims to come forward with their experiences with these men.
The lawyer of the survivor claimed to have recovered three videos from the cell phones they seized from two of the accused men. There are media reports and estimates that there are anywhere between 50 and 200 victims of this racket, but the ballpark figure has not been confirmed yet, for lack of other testimonies.
So, why have they not been arrested yet?
According to NDTV, the police have not applied for the custody of the arrested men—a time reserved for questioning of the accused. Further, by naming the survivor, the police have caused further harm to the ongoing investigation.
Opposition leader Kanimozhi (DMK) lashed out at the authorities’ incompetence and irresponsibility. “The name of the survivor in this case was revealed only to silence the other women and prevent them from coming out in the open and complaining,” she addressed a rally on Tuesday.
The AIADMK has come under criticism for the alleged involvement of Nagaraj. While Tamil Magazine Nakkheeran’s editor Nakkheeran Gopal claimed the involvement of Tamil Nadu Deputy Speaker Pollachi Jayaraman’s sons in the racket, Jayaraman not only denied the allegations but reportedly supported the victim and her brother from the beginning. The heavy hand of politics cannot be ruled out entirely.
DMK chief MK Stalin has said, “It is a shame that the Chief Minister E Palaniswami and his deputy, O Panneerselvam, have not said anything on this,” Mr Stalin said. “Invoking Goondas Act (a state law) raises doubts on whether it is an attempt to technically help the accused. Recent women suicides in the area ought to be re-investigated.”
The survivor’s brother has alleged excessive polarisation and politicisation of the issue due to the announcement of the Lok Sabha poll dates.
What’s next and why this case matters
The state police have also faced backlash on account of several other lapses—from tracing survivors, pinpointing the number of accused, to failing to curb the circulation of said videos over WhatsApp. The four videos which serve as evidence, were on the phones retrieved by the victim’s brother and seized the police.
The murky details of the case are not clear yet, neither is the reason for the law enforcement authorities’ lackadaisical response to the main accused. Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of the National Women’s Commission, meanwhile, wrote to the police asking for a report on the action taken in the case. Advocates practising in Coimbatore staged a demonstration seeking an inquiry committee, with a woman judge of the Madras High Court as its head to probe the case.
On Wednesday, the state government decided to hand over the investigation to CBI. The nodal probe agency has an onerous task ahead: undoing the mistakes of the state police. It remains to be seen, however, if a court-monitored trial will follow.
Given the lapses in the collection of evidence and treatment of alleged perpetrators, the case is headed towards being another textbook example of how due process fails victims when it comes to sexual assault, and especially if there are powerful persons and incompetent investigators involved.
It also underscores the disdain with which we treat women’s bodies despite the #MeToo movement, undermine their choices and freedom, and points to a glaring lack of respect for a survivor’s right to anonymity.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius