By Kahini Iyer Mar. 13, 2019
Police in Tamil Nadu say that more than 50 women have been sexually abused by a four-member gang in Pollachi. Yet the plight of the survivors has gone unnoticed and reported sparingly by the mainstream media.
There’s a lot going on in Tamil Nadu right now. With the Lok Sabha elections next month, Congress President Rahul Gandhi stopped by on Wednesday to address a college in Chennai on his campaign tour. It’s an especially important state for Gandhi, who has allied with the regional opposition, DMK. His speech touched upon issues of funding for education, employment, and how women are respected more in South India.
Call it irony or ignorance, but Gandhi failed to mention the real scandal that has rocked the state for the last few weeks – a scandal that saw thousands of students protesting: The revelation of a coordinated sexual assault ring that has been targeting young women in the town of Pollachi. According to local police, “one of the men from a gang would befriend a woman on social media and lure her to some secluded place, where he would be joined by other friends.” The whole group would then overpower and sexually assault her, taking videos and pictures to use as fodder for blackmail.
Pollachi Deputy Superintendent Jeyaram believes that the gang has been active for the past seven years. The incidents finally caught the attention of the police when a 19-year-old victim made a complaint in February. She reported that four men tried to remove her clothes in a moving car and then threatened to make a video of the sexual assault public if she did not give them money.
While there’s no exact number on how many were involved in the Pollachi gang, the 19-year-old’s complaint led to the arrest of four men – all in their 20s – who were booked on Wednesday under the Goondas Act. Tamil Nadu has now transferred the investigation to the CBI. As for the gang’s victims? Police say that more than 50 women have been abused and blackmailed and have urged more women to share their stories. So far, only a few have approached them but are reluctant to file a formal complaint, fearing consequences. In fact, days after the 19-year-old went to the police, her brother was attacked and threatened, allegedly by A Nagarajan, a cadre member of the ruling AIADMK.
The DMK was quick to accuse Nagarajan of masterminding the crime. Although the AIADMK has denied the accusation, they did expel Nagaraj from the party the very same day. DMK MP Kanimozhi even took the police to task for playing politics, saying that the “police delayed the arrest of the accused and leaked the names of the victims to stop more women from lodging complaints against the perpetrators”. Additionally, last week, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) claimed that one of the alleged perpetrators, named Karuppasamy, is still roaming free. The AIDWA has also called for examinations into past suicides to ascertain whether women had been victims of the Pollachi gang.
What the ongoing Pollachi investigation really needs is more evidence. Many believe that there must have been more than four members in the gang, and District Superintendent Pandiarajan has suggested that at least a dozen more perpetrators are at large. On the other hand, fake news, such as a rumour that one of the accused was out on bail, has already been muddying the waters. And the media has in some cases been doing the work of the perpetrators, with one Tamil publication going so far as releasing a video of one of the victims where she can be seen begging her captors not to hurt her.
Clearly, the Pollachi case is uncommonly convoluted, and the scale of the crimes committed has shaken Tamil Nadu. But what about the rest of India — where reporting on the sex abuse scandal has been largely absent? The outrage too has been restricted to the state and sections of social media. Are our hashtags and protests only restricted for women in big cities?
Pollachi has suffered the same fate that so often befalls smaller towns and their women and girls. Even as we read daily reports of crimes against women in Mumbai and Delhi, the victims of Pollachi have gone unnoticed for months, in a phenomenon that The Guardian calls making the crime “invisible”. In the article, political analyst Priya Virmani points to the case of a Dalit girl in small-town Kerala whose brutal rape and murder in 2016 went uninvestigated for two months. And ingrained in our memories is last year’s rape and murder of an eight-year-old Kashmiri girl in Kathua, whose body was discovered in January. Despite the communal tensions that coloured the case, it was not until April, when the trial had begun, that Kathua hit national headlines. “There is a stark difference in how rapes in the country’s teeming metropolises are investigated and reported compared with those in smaller cities, towns and villages,” she writes.
The outrage too has been restricted to Tamil Nadu and sections of social media.
India’s #MeToo movement also faces a similar problem. Though a big win for women in the country, it focuses on urban, cosmopolitan women and has not percolated to our smaller towns and villages, where rapes and incidents of abuse are higher.
Virmani concludes in her article with a powerful thought. “India can’t afford to be geographically selective if it is to tackle these shocking crimes.” And this selectivity does not apply only to politicians and the media. The apathy comes from all of us who refuse to care about women who are not from the “right” city or class.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.