On February 24, the Pollachi West police station in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, filed a First Information Report following a sexual harassment complaint by a 19-year-old college student. According to a statement issued by the police on February 28, three men – N Satish, N Sabarirajan and T Vasanthakumar – were arrested in connection with the alleged offence the following day. One Thirunavukkarasu was absconding.
The case exploded into a political war last week after the Tamil magazine Nakkeeran released a video in which several men were seen assaulting a woman. The magazine identified the men as those booked on February 24 and alleged that there were over 1,000 such videos featuring multiple women.
The video caused outrage across Tamil Nadu, with students and workers of political parties taking to the streets to demand stringent action against the perpetrators.
Over the last 10 days, forgetting that they were handling a sensitive matter involving the lives and identities of young women, the police and the government have acted callously while trying to dispel allegations that the criminals had links to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. They were severely reprimanded for this by the Madras High Court on Friday. The court also ordered the government to pay an interim compensation of Rs 25 lakh to the complainant, whose identity was compromised in official statements.
If this wasn’t enough, the police acted with curious urgency, making declarations about the outcome of the case even before a proper investigation had begun. The government later transferred the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, but not before severe damage was done to the cause of justice.
Police’s callous attitude
The FIR was filed 12 days after the incident. The police put the delay down to the woman taking time to file her complaint. According to media reports, she did not inform her family immediately about the assault on February 12, fearing reprimand. However, the accused had made a video of the assault and they started blackmailing her, threatening to post it online if she did not pay them. It was then, according to the media reports, that she confided in her family. Her brother, along with some friends, tracked down one of the accused men and thrashed him. He also took the man’s cell phone on which he allegedly found multiple videos of women being assaulted by the gang.
On March 1, Coimbatore Superintendent of Police R Pandiarajan, who last year was criticised for assaulting an elderly woman during a protest, held a press conference where he callously revealed the complainant’s identity. This invited strong criticism. But instead of learning from the mistake, the police again identified the woman in a statement on March 6 and even mentioned the locality she lived in.
After the FIR was registered and the accused held, a gang which included AIADMK functionary ‘Bar’ Nagaraj assaulted the victim’s brother. Nagaraj was arrested with two other men but he obtained bail.
Thirunavukkarasu, the fourth member of the gang which assaulted the woman, was arrested on March 5. A few days earlier, he had released a video in which he alleged the involvement of politicians in the sex blackmail racket and sought the Opposition’s help as there was a threat to his life.
Curiously, the police had not sought custody of the three men held on February 25 when they were produced in court. It was only after the media slammed the police for this that they asked for Thirunavukkarasu’s custody. Again, it was only when the video of the assault appeared in the media that the state decided to slap the Goondas Act on the accused.
Flouting the law
Opposition parties accused the ruling AIADMK, particularly Pollachi legislator V Jayaraman, of trying to shield the accused. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanimozhi charged that the police deliberately identified the young woman to scare away other victims who might have come forward. Jayaraman refuted this as also the allegation that his son was friends with the accused men. He claimed it was at his instance that the complaint was filed in the first place.
On March 11, Pandiarajan detailed the action taken in the matter. Curiously, without even being prompted, he dismissed claims the gang had political connections. This preemptive declaration by the police before a proper interrogation had begun was slammed by political parties and led to protests in Pollachi.
This did not prevent the government from violating the law yet again. On March 13, the home department released an order transferring the case to the CBI that named the complainant and the college where she studied. This even after the woman had petitioned the district collector to ensure her identity was not revealed either by the police or the media. The government’s order was in direct violation of the Supreme Court’s direction, issued in November 2018, that the identity of a sexual harassment victim must not be revealed under any circumstances.
As a penalty for this, the High Court on Friday directed the government to pay Rs 25 lakh to the woman, and withdraw the home department’s order identifying her and issue a fresh order. It also ordered disciplinary action against the superintendent of police. “There should be soul-searching by everybody concerned here,” the court said.