Editor's note: Tamil Nadu’s political parties are fighting each other mainly for one section of the electorate this year. This election is all about how the youth will vote. Over 60 lakh youngsters will ink their fingers in May and with little ideological baggage, an aspirational and determined youth is calling the politician’s bluff on a number of issues. In this series, Firstpost compiles what the Tamil youth want, if only the politicians would listen. This is part two of a four-part series on #TN2016: The Anger of the Youth.
Baby-faced R Venkatesh blinks rapidly while speaking, giving the listener the impression of watching someone unable to yet fully comprehend the world. That is perhaps partly true for the 22-year-old lad from Thideer Nagar in Trichy, a slum comprising illegal encroachments of migrants from across the state. Venkatesh has dreams of building his own house – he wants to be a rich man, he says, with a shy smile – while continuing to drive a Tata Ace which he has been doing for the past three years.
“I failed in tenth standard and never went back to school,” he told FirstPost. “Padippu varalai (I had no aptitude for studies),” he grinned. He faces grinding poverty at home – Venkatesh’s father is a ‘pandal’ renter, providing ‘shamianas’ (large tents) for weddings and funerals. In a good month, he manages to make Rs 500 a day for 15 days. Business though, is usually erratic, leaving the family of six hungry often. Young Venkatesh wanted to break this cycle of poverty. Scouting for jobs, he came across an ‘agent’ who offered to get him a job as a driver in the Gulf for a fee of Rs 2 lakhs. Venkatesh agreed and asked his mother to arrange the initial Rs 50,000 from a local moneylender.
“There was a small fight in our area in mid-2015,” recalled Venkatesh. “I was standing with my friends, talking and joking around, when suddenly the police came and rounded us up. We were taken to the local station and cases were slapped on us under Sections 110 (of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) bond for good behaviour for petty offences) and 75 (of the Madras City Police Act pertaining to maintaining public peace). The case was wrongly filed. I had not taken part in any fight. I told the police this but they still lodged the case. It is yet to come up in court,” he added.
Due to this case, Venkatesh’s passport application process is stuck in limbo. He says the agent has told him to come back after the case is over in court. For Venkatesh, it is back to the Tata Ace, terrible poverty and no way of escaping this vicious cycle.
Complaints of arbitrary police action, as in the case of Venkatesh, abound in the urban slums of Tamil Nadu. No records are available with the state police on how many cases have been filed under these sections, which are most often used on youngsters like Venkatesh.
In 2015, a Tamil film called ‘Visaranai’ (Enquiry) was released, based on a real life experience of police brutality and harassment. Directed by Vetrimaran, this film went on to become a hit, highlighting the reality of how innocent youngsters are victimised by the system and the subsequent loss of innocence of these youth. Activists agree that police excess and arbitrariness is a stark reality, pushing youngsters back into a life of poverty and crime.
“Invariably when any crime happens, slum dwellers are picked up,” said V Suresh, National General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. “These are people living on the margins of society who find it tough to have proper documentation to prove their innocence. The police believe in beating first and then talking. There are lots of cases like this of innocent youngsters being targeted. First suspects in any crime are invariably young boys from the slums. If you haven’t done anything and you’re thrown into jail 3-4 times, you’ll end up thinking I might as well do something, commit some crime. It is a vicious cycle of criminalisation. Very few police officials have the guts to buck the politicians to put institutional reforms in place,” he said.
Activists point to the incarceration trends in America and the race differentiation inherent in the system to show how a particular section of the populace is more vulnerable to being targeted and stereotyped by the police. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organisation based in the US, African Americans and Hispanics made up 58% of all prisoners in the US in 2008, even though this section comprises only roughly one quarter of the population. The organisation analyses data to show how African Americans are jailed at nearly six times the rate of whites.
In India too, argue activists, slum dwellers and minorities could well be targeted unfairly. The case though is yet to be made out definitively, thanks to a lack of data.
The Tamil Nadu police denies these allegations. “We as police have nothing malafide against any particular section, our action is purely guided on merit,” said a senior police official in the state on condition of anonymity. “If a person has already committed a crime or has the potential to commit a crime, we take action. This is purely for security purposes and preventive in nature at times. The police force has nothing against any segment of the population, whether they are in slums or any other place. If there is such an issue, we will have to seriously look into it and take corrective action, if such activities are happening,” he said.
Fear of the khaki
But the reality is that life in a slum is lived in constant fear of the khakis. Such as these friends and neighbours, C Rajamurugan and M Srinivasan, hailing from a slum along the banks of the Korai river, who say they have been victimised unnecessarily for the past three years.
Rajamurugan, a 26-year-old BE (Computer Science) graduate, works at an IT company based in Chennai and is conducting placement training for students at a college near his native town Trichy. Six months ago, Rajamurugan says he was returning home after buying dinner for his friend Srini, when cops suddenly picked him up and took him to the station.
“I showed them my ID card but they did not relent,” he said. “They kept me there for hours. They picked me up simply because I was going back home late in that area,” he alleged. Rajamurugan also alleges that about two weeks ago, police once again picked him up when he was finishing a cup of tea on the roadside. “They made us sit for six hours in the station, threatening to file Section 110 and Section 75,” he said, shaking his head.
Srinivasan, 27, alleges that he was beaten badly while offering prayers at a pandal during Vinayaka Chaturthi in September last year. “Because I was wearing a white veshti (dhoti) and a white shirt, they thought I was some small time katchikaaran (party member),” he told FirstPost. “It was a case of mistaken identity and they released me once they realised that. My shirt was full of blood because they had beaten me so badly,” he said. Srinivasan drives an autorickshaw for a livelihood and has completed schooling up to the eighth standard. “I have lost faith in God now after this,” he said, miserably.
As urban slums turn into roiling dense congested masses of humans, the youth of the state want to get out of the claustrophobic, vicious cycle of poverty, crime and corruption. The next government of the state would do well indeed, to focus more on allowing and enabling such youngsters to carry on with their lives in a normal manner.
The author tweets @sandhyaravishan.
Read part one here.