Pollachi, ringed by palm trees, has a marketplace famous for jaggery. Yet, the town was barely known within even Tamil Nadu until around a week ago, when it came into national spotlight for a case that has shown the dangers young Indian women face as they explore greater freedoms in a conservative society.

On March 11, a blurred video of a young woman crying and begging a group of men not to harm her was posted on the website of a Tamil magazine. The 19-year-old was from Pollachi. She had filed a police complaint on February 25, recounting how a man she had befriended on Facebook ripped off her clothes in a car while his friends filmed her. They threatened to post the video on social media if she did not pay them. They also stole her gold chain before pushing her out of the car.

The video was later removed from the website. By then, the incident had sparked protests across the state, putting pressure on the police to arrest the four accused men on charges of sexual assault and blackmail. As reports emerged linking the accused men to the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a high-decibel political slugfest ensued.

In this din was lost the horror of what had happened: a young woman’s search for freedom and friendship had gone horribly wrong.

This might not be an isolated case. A senior police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Scroll.in that the accused men had surreptitiously shot pictures and videos of several other women who had consensual sex with them, only to blackmail them for money and sex.

A friend of the complainant’s brother who helped the police collect evidence but did not want to be identified said they found explicit pictures of over 200 women on the cell phones of the accused. Of these, four women were known to the complainant’s brother but they refused to file complaints. It did not help that the Tamil Nadu government and the police revealed the name of the complainant, a lapse that possibly dissuaded other women from coming forward.

Students walk towards the bus stand after Pollachi's colleges declared a holiday on March 14. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Reasons for the women’s reluctance to complain go deeper. “This Kongu heartland is so conservative that I would not be surprised if any woman who comes forward to file a complaint about sexual assault is killed,” said CV Kannaki Uthraraj, director of the Tharamari Fertility and Women’s Health in Coimbatore.

Coimbatore is one of the nine districts in the lower Cauvery basin, known as Kongu Nadu or Kongu heartland. In this predominantly agricultural belt, the Kongu Vellala Gounders are the dominant community, forming close to 40% of the population.

“A victim will never share her trauma with her family here,” said Uthraraj.

That is partly because their families themselves want to deny women independence, including the freedom to befriend men, to have romantic and sexual relationships of their choice.

In this social environment, while some organisations have come forward to support the complainant, Scroll.in found that most women in Pollachi have fallen silent.

Culture of silence

On March 14, Anjali, 18, walked out of the Government Arts and Science College in Pollachi without attending classes. Colleges in and around the town had declared a holiday fearing protests from students over the case.

More than 500 policemen had been deployed to quell possible protests. They stood guard near colleges, at the bus stand and drove around chasing away students who stopped by on the road to catch up with their friends.

Anjali, a Computer Application undergraduate clad in churidar-kurta with a dupatta pinned on either side, was reticent about the case. So were her friends. They avoided eye contact and tried to avoid conversation.

CV Kannaki Uthraraj is director of the Thamarai Fertility and Women’s Health in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Photo credit: S Senthalir

“This culture of silence stems from the shame attached to female bodies,” said Geetha Prakash, 34, a dance teacher in Pollachi. “Women in Pollachi are taught to wrap their mundhanai [pallu] around their waist to conceal it,” she said. “This is how conservative this region is. The accused have cleverly used this to their advantage.”

This silence is observed not just in reporting sexual assault or violence but also in conversations around sex and in expressing sexual desires. Even the college-going generation shy away from talking about it. It took about an hour to persuade Anjali and her friends to talk about this subject. Then Anjali said, “Women should not trust anyone blindly and wait for our parents to choose our partners.”

Keeping them apart

An agricultural labourer’s daughter, Anjali travels more than 20 km from her village to attend college in Pollachi. She did her schooling at a girls’ school. In Pollachi, there are separate public higher secondary schools for boys and girls. “In Pollachi, we are too protective of our daughters and exercise control over their mobility till they complete schooling,” said an administrative assistant at a private hospital in the town who asked not to be named. “We escort girls to their schools until they complete Class 12. We keep them under our control.”

Such segregation means the children grow up almost unaware of the opposite sex or the world outside their homes and schools. “When we were in school, our world was only school and home,” said Renu, who goes to the Nallamuthu Gounder Mahalingam College. “We are not prepared for the change that comes with entering a college. The world opens up and we are suddenly left alone.”

Geetha Prakash is a dance teacher in Pollachi. Photo credit: S Senthalir

In the last 20 years, higher education institutions have mushroomed in and around Pollachi. There are four arts and science colleges as well as some engineering, polytechnic and paramedical colleges, drawing youngsters from the town and neighbouring villages.

“Until a decade ago, women were sent only to schools that were closer home,” said Uthraraj. “Now the parents are willing to send their children to colleges, which are far from their home, and also buy them cellphones.”

The spread of education has not pulled down the old boundaries, though. If anything, it has only reinforced them. Classrooms and still segregated by sex; boys and girls are not allowed to interact inside college. “If we have to interact with boys, we have to do it in secret,” said Anjali. “We are reprimanded if we are seen talking to them.”

No sex education

Pollachi’s schools and colleges do not have sex education in their curricula, nor are there discussions about menstrual health. “There is nothing called sex education in our schools or colleges,” said Anjali. “And there are no discussions about the subject with parents. They only warn me to be careful going to college. That is all we are ever told.”

In fact, the subject of sex is so taboo even apparently empowered women do not talk about it. “I do not discuss sex with my husband,” said Radha Chinnasamy, assistant professor of English at the Nallamuthu Gounder Mahalingam College. “The topic is not part of discussions even in our peer groups. It is taboo to talk about it.”

Teachers said the “conservative environment” makes it difficult to even break the ice on the subject with their students. “We don’t know how they might receive it, they could get offended,” said C Malathi, also assistant professor of English at the same college. “While we find it easier to talk to our children, it is difficult to discuss this subject in class.”

Radha Chinnasamy, assistant professor of English at the Nallamuthu Gounder Mahalingam College in Pollachi. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Taking to social media

It does not help young women seeking to escape the limits of social behaviour demanded of them that theirs is a small place where almost everybody knows everybody else. “Pollachi town is like a village,” said Sudha, 40, an administrative assistant at a polyclinic. “The town is spread within just a 5-km radius. Beyond, there are only villages. So, if someone sees a girl walking with a man other than a family member, they will question her. Nobody can go unnoticed even in Coimbatore city.”

So, for a degree of privacy, young people have turned to social media, the use of which has grown exponentially as cell phones and mobile internet have become affordable. Since their families want to stay connected with girls travelling to college far from home, they willingly buy them cell phones, no matter their economic status.

“In a community that doesn’t allow dating and caste boundaries are strictly followed, young women are left with only one option: to learn from movies and make friends through social media which provides the required secrecy. Restrictions placed by parents in accessing popular magazines here doesn’t apply to the use of internet,” said Uthraraj. “The youngsters find it safe to connect through social media.”

The sense of safety social media offers can be deceptive, however. It was after all through social media that the sex blackmail racket accused trapped their victims. “The women did not go with those men for money or fame, they went because they trusted them,” said Logamadevi A, assistant professor of Botany at the Nallamuthu Gounder Mahalingam College.

Crimes against women

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, not a single case of crime against women – rape, domestic violence, stalking, demand for dowry or acid attack – was reported in Coimbatore district in 2016. The previous year, only two cases of rape were reported.

But, speaking in confidence, people in Pollachi and surrounding villages speak about “suicides” by women subjected to sexual assault and “murders” of women who broke the caste boundaries in choosing their partners.

In the last six months alone, at least two women in their 20s who had been sexually assaulted committed suicide in Valparai, 64 km from Pollachi in Coimbatore district, claimed an official of a non-governmental organisation who would only speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “We pursued the cases but the family members did not want to register complaints,” the official said. “If our identity is revealed, we cannot continue our work here.”

Some names have been changed on request to protect identities.

Also read: How Tamil Nadu government and police mishandled investigation into Pollachi sex blackmail racket

In Tamil Nadu, ruling AIADMK is accused of shielding men involved in sex blackmail racket