On November 9, two young transwomen came by the Pondy Bazaar police station in Chennai’s Thyagaraya Nagar neighbourhood in search of their 28-year-old friend, Tara. It was 5 am. A few hours earlier, they had seen her arguing with some policemen in front of the station and urged her to come away with them. But Tara had not listened to them.
Aarti and Diya found their friend at the police station, lying on the ground with burn marks all over her body. With the help of the police, they took her to the nearby Kilpauk government hospital but she did not make it.
Before she died, another friend shot a video of Tara at the hospital. In it, Tara said the police had confiscated her scooter and when she wanted it back, they had harassed her and told her to commit suicide. The friend then asked her, “What did you pour over yourself?” She replied, “Petrol.”
Bad blood with police
Tara lived in North Chennai, in accommodation provided by the government for transgender people. She was also a sex worker, frequenting Thyagaraya Nagar and nearby areas for work, said social activist Sutha, adding that she was like a mother to Tara.
It had only been a year since Tara’s family had started accepting her as a woman. “She faced a really tough life and was forced to behave like a man for many years,” said Jaya, the general manager of Sahodaran, an intervention centre for the community. “Her rapport with her family had only just improved.”
Like Tara, many members of the transgender community trawl the streets of Central Chennai at night, soliciting customers. According to Jaya, this area has been a prostitution hub for years. And this has led to friction between law enforcement agencies and the transgender community. “In this particular area, because there are a number of sex workers, the police officers and transgenders do not have a good relationship,” said Sutha.
The police blamed the community for the clashes. “They wear a lot of make-up and stand on the streets right at the heart of the city,” said P Saravanan, deputy commissioner of police, Thyagaraya Nagar. “They stop the public and even loot them. We have told them many times not to do so. With the help of NGOs, we have tried to give them another livelihood. But they don’t have any interest in all that. Instead, they spend Rs 750 to Rs 1,000 just on make-up.”
It was this friction that led to the incident on November 9. Tara was passing by the police station on her two-wheeler in the early hours when some policemen stopped her. They took away her mobile phone and her scooter, asking her to go home and come back for it the next morning. Tara protested, demanding that they return her phone at least.
That morning, the police, too, took two videos that captured some of their interaction with Tara. In the first video, she repeatedly tells the policemen that she has done no wrong. “You know me sir, if I had done anything wrong, I would have accepted it,” she pleads. She is then seen walking away, saying she will commit suicide and the police will be answerable to the media and the government.
In the second video, Tara is heard denying her involvement is something. “I am not the kind of person who does that,” she says. A policeman then asks her why she hit a sub-inspector with a stone. She denies that as well. The policeman then accuses her of being drunk. “Me? Drunk?” she hits back. “You were the one who pulled aside my vehicle.” A policeman can be heard telling Tara to tie her sari properly. While attempting to do so, she falls to the ground, at which a policeman accuses her of making a scene while another hurls an abuse at her.
According to the police, Tara came back after a short while, having poured petrol on herself. She sat down in front of the police station, calm and collected, and began fiddling with a lighter, after which her sari caught fire.
Several members of the transgender community said they did not believe that Tara had immolated herself. “How did she get the petrol to pour over herself?” asked Sasha, an activist at Chennai Dost, a community for gay, lesbian and bisexual people. “None of the petrol pumps were working that night because of the Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes being scrapped.”
Sasha said that when they asked to see CCTV footage of Tara’s death, they were told the camera had not been working since October 27. But many activists did not believe this, pointing to newspapers reports that said the police were monitoring the area through surveillance cameras for Diwali, which was on October 29.
However, many activists also said they did not believe the police had killed Tara. “I am sure the police did not kill her,” said Sutha. “Many people say that they did, but I don’t believe it. I train police officers in dealing with transgenders. They do have sympathy for them, and hope for them to come out of sex work.”
But Sutha raised questions about the policemen’s treatment of Tara, asking why they had taken away her phone and spoken disrespectfully to her.
Another activist, Sharan, said the police could have prevented Tara’s death. “They could have prevented it by returning her phone, or by arresting her and taking her in,” he said. “Or they could have sent her immediately to the hospital. If the police had handled the situation on humanitarian grounds, it would have been resolved much earlier.”
The activists also said they were made more suspicious of the police by their attempts to hide facts. Sasha, an activist, said she and a few others were made to stand outside the police station for hours when they went to find out what had happened to Tara. They also alleged that a layer of cement had been scooped out of the place where Tara had allegedly immolated herself. Some of them went to file a complaint at the office of the police commissioner.
Protests and clashes
There was more trouble ahead as members of the transgender and LGBTIQ community gathered outside the hospital on hearing about Tara’s death. “For one and a half days, different groups would start agitating and we had to pacify each of them,” said deputy commissioner Saravanan. “One group was suspicious about us filing an FIR in the same police station in which she died. Another asked us to live telecast the post-mortem. For every step we took, there was so much suspicion. The whole day, we had to keep pacifying them.”
On November 10, when Tara’s body was to be returned to her family, over a hundred transgender people gathered at the hospital and double the number of policemen to deal with them. “There was so much rage among people at the time the body was returned,” said Jaya. Tara’s family and community members refused to take back the body, threatening to move court and demanding a fresh autopsy.
A scuffle between a transgender person and a policeman resulted in a lathicharge by the police that lasted 10 minutes. “They came down so heavily on many people,” said Sasha. “Many transgender people who had gone through a lot of surgery were falling down bleeding, unable to get up.”
Jaya said the police also caught Tara’s brother and uncle by their collars and made them sign forms to take the body home.
“They were exceeding the limit,” Saravanan said in defence of the police action. “People from outside Chennai were coming in and creating chaos. They were all highly unorganised, so we had to take action to disperse the crowd.”
Fear in the community
Tara’s death and the events thereafter have heightened tensions between the transgender community and the police. Several transgender groups from across the country have come to Chennai to join the protest against the alleged police brutality and insensitivity. They want the culprits behind Tara’s death to be punished, compensation for her family and strict instructions to the police to stop harassing the community. The solidarity groups have organised a demonstration in Chennai on November 23.
But in the midst of this outpouring of support from outside, transgenders in the city are now wary of stepping out in public spaces. “In Chennai, there is a situation of uncertainty now,” said the activist Sharan. “Everybody is a little scared to go outside.”
Sasha said they were not protesting against the police but fighting for justice. However, she is now worried the community may not be able to protect itself while doing so.
“At one point in time, people of this community thought that Chennai was the city in which one would get the most protection,” said Sasha. “That’s the truth. From Kerala or Karnataka, transgender people would come to Chennai. But now, the way the police are treating us is horrible. Now, many transgenders are scared to step out in case they get arrested.”