On March 30, over a month after 52-year-old RS Mugilan, Coordinator of Tamil Nadu Environment Protection Movement, went missing from the Egmore station in Chennai, a female social activist in Karur district filed a case of rape against him. As frantic efforts were underway to trace the anti-Sterlite activist, this fresh allegation came as a shock to activists who suspected conspiracy in his sudden disappearance.
Mugilan was finally found on July 7, five months after he went missing, at a railway station in Andhra Pradesh. But any celebrations or relief over his resurfacing were dramatically cut short as he was arrested by the CB-CID for rape.
"He has refused to explain his disappearance to us," says senior lawyer and human rights activist Sudha Ramalingam who filed a habeas corpus petition in the case, “He disappeared right after he exposed the role of senior police officers in the Thoothukudi firing, and as activists, it was our duty to ensure he was not being illegally held. He has been secured now and when he has been accused of rape, he has to face the legal repercussions.
And while Mugilan is yet to reveal how and why he vanished, the woman who accused him of cheating and exploiting her says she’s confident his disappearance was in connection with her allegations.
The 37-year-old who stays in Karur, is an activist herself and belonged to the environmental group that Mugilan was a part of. "The sexual harassment began in 2017, around February," she says, "And I was scared because I see him on the field shouting and raising his voice. As somebody junior to him, I couldn't do much. But later, he promised me that we will get married.
”But wasn't she aware that the activist was already married and had a child? "I knew he was married but I didn't know if he was in touch with his family," she says. "He has never said he is going home or going to meet his wife. In fact, when he went to jail in 2017 for a year, I was the one who visited him and carried his messages to other activists. His wife never even visited him," she adds.
Several activists, when questioned about the allegations against Mugilan, claim that his affair with the complainant was consensual and known within their circles. But the complainant says that the 'affair' came into being due to an imbalance in power.
"I am a woman working under him and trying to learn from him. In this equation, he clearly has more power than I do. This is a case of workplace harassment,” she says. "But after it happened, my family was also isolating me over this, so I trusted him when he said we will get married," she says.
But the most crucial question regarding her complaint has been the timing of it. Speaking to TNM, Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch points out that the complainant has every right to make the above allegations. "The veracity of these allegations, is something that the police have to investigate," he says.
"She knows a number of elders who Mugilan engaged with but did not see fit to raise the issue with them. Why did she not have the courage to go to them? There is evidently a lot of gaps between the incident and the final complaint. This lends to suspicions of an ulterior motive," he adds.
However, others who support the complainant say the activist community needs to back her. "When a woman is making such allegations, the community of activists should support her by isolating the accused till the charge against him is proven to be false," says reputed lyricist Thamarai who has been in touch with the complainant.
"The allegations that she has ulterior motives is absurd. She is not working for the government, police, or sand mafia," says Thamarai. "This woman has left her family and has no stable job because she wants to work for the society. Doesn't she deserve more support from her community of activists?" she asks.
The complainant says she has been pulled up by colleagues over her decision to file a police complaint following Mugilan's disappearance, and has been asked if she was working in tandem with pro-Sterlite forces. "But if anybody's timing should be questioned, it should be Muglian's, " she says.
In December 2018, shortly after Muglian was released from the Palayamkottai prison, he allegedly began to avoid the complainant's calls and messages. "Till he was in jail, we were in touch, but after that he stopped responding to me. I began to tell people who we both know about the harassment and subsequent promises he made," she says.
“It was planned that on February 17, two days after his Sterlite press conference, we would meet with these mutual well-wishers and take a call on the matter. I had hope that it would be resolved. But over that weekend, I learned that he had disappeared. And in my position, I believed that he disappeared to avoid meeting me," she alleges.
As the calls to find the activist grew louder and CB-CID took over, the complainant was called in for questioning. "As an activist myself, I have fought against the police in situations where people's rights were infringed upon," she says, "But here, I had to tell the truth to help them find him. I told them about the sexual harassment, the promise of marriage and the plan to meet him two days after he disappeared.”
After multiple meetings with the CB-CID and advice from a few activists, she says she registered a formal police complaint. The 37-year-old approached the Kulithalai all-women police station in Karur district and complained that Mugilan forced her to have sex with him and then promised that they would get married.
But many activists remain unconvinced by her explanation. "It is common for those who oppose us to use vulgar methods to suppress dissent," says Henri, "If it is a woman, they question her integrity. And if it is a man, they allege rape. The manner in which the CB-CID has changed its narrative, from the search for a 'missing man' to 'rapist' is telling of the agenda behind this."
However, the complainant remains steadfast in her allegations. "It is not easy for a woman to make such a complaint," she says, "And it was not a sudden development as far as I am concerned. I went to the police because all other efforts to reason with him failed."