Over a period of 48 hours this week, Vidyashree Dharmaraj, chief editor of the Covai Post, received at least 200 abusive calls on her mobile phone. “Be careful or we will finish you,” threatened a male voice. Her phone was also kept buzzing with voice notes sent on WhatsApp, one of which said, “We won’t leave you alone.”
On Sunday morning, the Coimbatore-based digital news organisation had published an article about a peculiar temple ritual performed in Madurai’s Vellalur village. Every year in September, seven pre-pubescent girls are selected to reside in Yezhaikaatha Amman temple for a fortnight without any garments covering their torsos. They are “offerings” to the Amman goddess, and for two weeks they are considered to be little goddesses themselves. Caste Hindus from around 62 villages in the region participate in the ritual.
With only a silk cloth tied around their waists and hair left loose, the girls are left willingly by their parents at the temple under the care of the priest, the Covai Post reported. On the last two days of the festival, they are decked with jewellery and paraded bare-chested before large crowds that throng the temple to catch a glimpse of them.
After the article was published, the collector of Madurai sent a team of officers to investigate the practice. When word spread that this visit was prompted by an article on the Covai Post, Dharmaraj and senior journalist AR Meyammai, who reported the story, began receiving a barrage of abusive calls, starting Monday evening. There have also been attempts to hack their website.
“The last two days have been a real nightmare,” said Dharmaraj.
The moment trolls began pouring onto her Facebook page, Meyammai deactivated her account. “But even before I could do so, someone downloaded my cover image and sent it to my editor,” said Meyammai. “I don’t know what they are going to do with it.”
Meyammai has stopped taking calls. “I am waiting for the dust to settle,” she said. Having reported extensively from the region, she knew the story would elicit a strong reaction from the caste Hindu community. “It is a very sensitive issue because it involves a very volatile caste group, culture, religion, and girl children,” she said. But both Meyammai and Dharmaraj felt this was a matter that needed to be reported since they believed the girls were vulnerable to exploitation. What is more, said Dharmaraj, the children and their mothers might be afraid to speak up.
After Meyammai’s number became inaccessible, Dharmaraj’s mobile number and the Covai Post’s landline were flooded with calls. “I tried reasoning with a few of them, but they were not willing to listen,” said Dharmaraj.
On Tuesday, when the trolls became increasingly abusive, Dharmaraj lodged a complaint with the cyber cell of the Madurai police. But since the more abusive calls and threats were made using Voice over Internet Protocol, a technology that allows voice calls to be made anonymously through the internet, the cyber cell said it was difficult to trace them. Although the number of abusive calls started to decline by Wednesday morning, the Covai Post staff are still wary. “One of the voice messages said ‘Wait for the temple festival to get over, then we will come for you,’” Dharmaraj said.
Children as goddesses
Every year, on the first day of the ritual, parents bring their daughters as offerings to the Amman goddess. Of them, the priest handpicks seven girls, the Covai Post reported. Although only girls who have not yet reached puberty are eligible, the news portal reported, three of the girls this year were in class 8 and two each in class 7 and class 5. For 15 days, the children took medical leave from school and lived under the care of the priest at the temple. The male relatives of their family stayed around the temple to provide security.
Although the ritual has been covered by Tamil news channels in the past, none have taken the human rights approach, said Meyammai. “They have usually reported the ritual in a matter-of-fact way,” she said. “Some have even hailed them as goddesses.”