Pollachi sexual assault case: Questions about police's conduct at press conference, nature of investigation loom large

Pollachi is Tamil Nadu’s mini-Kodambakam. Its picturesque natural scenery with forests, hills, green rolling fields and rivers is the perfect setting for “village” movies, song sequences and ad films. Think beautiful, innocent heroines, dashing heroes, and villainous villains. Thevar Magan, Chinna Gounder, Murattu Kaalai, Kizhakku Vaasal, Bombay and the evergreen 60s romantic comedy Kaadhalika Neram Illai ('No time to love') were all evocative blockbusters which were shot right here.

But not many know about Pollachi's underbelly. A month ago, a 19-year-old college girl opened a can of worms when she went to the police to lodge a complaint. A gang of four young men had stripped and assaulted her in a moving car and recorded the incident. They were now blackmailing her. The sordid story, which has been unfolding since she courageously lodged a complaint, has left the town shell-shocked.

The survivor had befriended Sabarirajan, also known as Riswandh, a civil engineer, on Facebook. On one occasion, she set out to go with him on what she thought would be a carefree sight-seeing trip. He drove her to a secluded spot near a forest where three of his friends — Thirunavukkarasu, Vasanthakumar and Sathish — got into the car.

She screamed and cried aloud, and they dumped her on the road after taking away her gold and other valuables. In her complaint to the police, she said they did not rape her but took pictures of her after stripping her, and physically assaulted her. After this, they started blackmailing her, threatening to circulate her pictures and video. When the blackmail became unbearable, she complained to her brother, who accosted the perpetrators and asked them to erase his sister’s video. They refused. Two days after the police complaint was lodged, the survivor's brother was beaten up by four people, one of whom — Nagaraj — was a youth member of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Soon, all four perpetrators were arrested. By the time the cell phones of the four were confiscated by the police, they had erased quite a few videos. However, the police did find half a dozen more such assault videos on their phones. The phones were sent to forensic experts in the hope that more data could be retrieved.

Pollachi sexual assault case: Questions about polices conduct at press conference, nature of investigation loom large

Representational image. AFP

Confession videos from some of the perpetrators emerged after they were taken into custody. There was also a video from the main accused, Thirunavukkarasu, recorded just before he was arrested in which he said that most of the girls “worked” for him. There was also an audio clip in which he said the case should be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), since the videos contained sensitive information about top politicians. The other videos contained recognisable visuals of the perpetrators assaulting girls.

In their very first press conference, the police revealed the survivor's personal details, which is not only against the law, but also puts the complainant in danger. Since it is suspected that the gang consists of more than the four men arrested, it puts the survivor in a very vulnerable position.

Small towns everywhere across the country are more conservative in their attitudes towards women. Pollachi is no exception. In fact, the Gounders, who are the dominant group in this area, have a reputation of being conservative and fierce when it comes to guarding family reputations. Even though most of the survivors are educated and working women, they still live in circles where everyone knows everyone else, and publicly identifying a survivor could create major tensions within and outside the family.

In this case, when the survivor was identified in public, she and her family also became vulnerable to attack by other as-yet unidentified members of the blackmailing gang, who may still be at large. By publicly identifying her, the police have effectively scared away any other survivors who may have considered registering complaints.

Within days, all the political parties got involved. Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) chief actor Kamal Haasan filed a police complaint. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Kanimozhi took out a march in protest at Pollachi. She suggested that the police had leaked the survivor’s name because they were they trying to silence other survivors who might otherwise have come forward. The ruling AIAIDMK expelled Nagaraj. Other parties took out protest marches, and college students in Pollachi clashed with the police when they sat in protest.

But many questions still remained unanswered.

Why had not even one of the other 60 survivors, who are suspected to have been assaulted over the last seven years, filed a police complaint? Were they terrorised by the blackmailers? Did they not trust the police? Did they fear social ostracism?

How did this blackmailing racket flourish for so many years without the police having any inkling of it? Did the other women never speak about it, even to their own families?

Even if some of the sexual acts were consensual as the perpetrators have claimed, can consent, which is got through deceit or duress, be called consensual? Did the women know they were being filmed by these exploiters?

According to a detailed explainer of the case in The News Minute, Riswandh would usually lure the young women. He would take them “to a secluded house or hotel and either force himself on them or convince them to have sex. All the while, his accomplices – hidden from view – would shoot the act on a camera. If it was sexual assault, one of the accomplices would barge in and pretend to be a saviour, while the other men continued to shoot the video.”

The Pollachi case is a complicated one and needs investigation by a team which is cyber-savvy as well as incorruptible. The politicians are already hovering around, waiting to pounce. As for the survivors, no one else has come forward so far, to testify. When one of the survivors identified in a video was approached by the police, she refused and her entire family threatened to commit suicide if they were asked to testify.

The case has now been handed over to the CBI because, according to the government order, the investigation will involve tackling technical issues like analysing Facebook data, IP logs/addresses and internet usage logs. But will the team have women investigators who can interact sensitively with the survivors and encourage them to come out with their stories? Winning the trust of the survivors is a very important first step.

The survivors of the Pollachi case were trapped by strangers who befriended them over social media. Though it opened up a brand new world to the educated young in this conservative corner of Tamil Nadu, social media is evidently being misused too.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 13:21:08 IST

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