29-year-old Balachandar and 61-year-old Kumar were just ordinary Chennai citizens who were arrested and remanded to judicial custody on Sunday for seeking details of an ongoing civic project in their neighbourhood in Chitlapakkam.
On Friday, the two received a hero’s welcome outside the Puzhal prison after they were released on conditional bail.
A group of residents and volunteers of NGO Chitlapakkam Rising gathered outside Puzhal prison, holding a banner with pictures of Balachander and Kumar along with the text that read: “Sculptors of the society, welcome!”
They also started shouting slogans like “Question is our right, answer is your duty,” “We will continue to ask” and “We will ask for the work order.” Chants of “Bala, who went to prison; Kumar, who went to prison - long live” were also heard.
As the two walked out at around 10.30 am on Friday, they were greeted with loud cheers and claps, hugs of relief and layers of felicitation shawls.
While Balachandar wore a relieved and resolute face, 61-year-old Kumar looked evidently careworn and befuddled.
A few hours after his release, Balachander, who is fondly called Bala, spoke to TNM. “It was really hard for my family for the first few days. But later, they held a bold stance, confident that their son went to jail for a genuine cause,” he said.
While Kumar could not be contacted, Bala says, “The first four days, Kumar sir was in shock. Later, however, he was fine.”
As there was no official order from the police at the time of the arrest, the families were in the dark, Bala says.
“In fact, for the first two days, Kumar sir’s wife was under the impression that 50 people were jailed. It was only later she learnt that only two of us were imprisoned. Kumar sir and I were called to the station on Saturday for an enquiry. However, there was no enquiry and we were kept in police custody overnight. On Sunday morning, we were remanded in judicial custody.”
A member of Chitlapakkam Rising, Balachandar added, “While imprisonment with baseless charges is a setback, we will not slow down and we will use this as a lesson to prepare us better for our initiatives to restore Chitlapakkam lake and ensure more money is spent in its rejuvenation.”
In addition to Balachandar and Kumar, two other residents, Sunil and Sivakumar, were named in the complaint filed by a municipal official.
Speaking to TNM, Jayaram Venkatesan of Chennai-based Arappor Iyakkam, who was instrumental in applying for the bail, said, “We had applied for bail on Monday; however, the case came up for hearing at the Magistrate court in Tambaram only on Thursday. We thought it would be rejected and were ready to apply to Chengalpettu court. We also applied for anticipatory bail for Sivakumar, which was granted by the Madras High Court.”
Out of conditional bail, Kumar and Balachandar will now have to appear at the Manimangalam police station to sign every day twice a week.
“However, we are yet to receive the order,” said Balachandar, a cab driver.
Soon after the arrest on October 21, the Chitlapakkam Town Panchayat had put up a board of the work order on every street. “This was the work order these residents had asked for. Instead, they were jailed,” notes Jayaram.
On October 19 and 20, Kumar, Balachandar and a few other residents had asked the Assistant Executive Engineer for the work order for the stormwater project and the road digging the civic body was carrying out on Sethunarayanan Street and Ramanan Street in Chitlapakkam.
While one of them was recording the conversation and clicking pictures, the official snatched the phone. The residents managed to retrieve the phone from the official after approaching the Chitlapakkam police station. However, a few hours later, Balachandar, Kumar, Sunil and Sivakumar were called to the station based on a complaint filed by the AEE, alleging rioting and assault. They were booked under various sections of Indian Penal Code. While Sunil went on a business trip on Friday night, Sivakumar had left for a trip by Saturday afternoon, after the incident.
As the next step, Chitlapakkam Rising volunteers will move the Madras High Court to quash the FIR filed by Chitlapakkam panchayat officials. “That is the legal step. Simultaneously, being an anti-corruption organisation, Arapoor Iyakkam will question the organisational loot and the management of public money by the Greater Chennai Corporation and other municipals bodies. We have been noting similar patterns, as in Chitlapakkam, in other areas, including Palikkaranai,” adds Jayaram.