Even as Tamil Nadu is in the throes of a sex scandal that has smeared the highest levels of government and higher education, the sheer courage of the women who spoke up has gone largely unnoticed.
It was an audio recording from March, where Nirmala Devi, a college professor allegedly attempted to lure women students into sex work in return for academic and financial gain, that eventually trapped her and led to her arrest on Monday. She boasted of ‘access’ to the Governor and promised a monthly income. All this and more for a ‘good opportunity’ that was awaiting them. Despite the students categorically rejecting Nirmala Devi's ‘offer’, the professor continued to hound them over WhatsApp.
On March 15, four women students of the Devanga College of Arts in Virudhunagar walked into the women's welfare committee of the institution that provides them with “information on rights and personal hygiene” and told a faculty member that they had been hounded and badgered by Assistant Professor Nirmala Devi of the Mathematics Department. This is the only recourse they had in a college that had failed to constitute the Internal Complaints Committee as mandated by law.
A full six days later, the Professor was suspended on March 21 by the Principal of the college- a fact that students of the college were not even aware of.
TNM caught up with M Thangapandian, an advocate who published the notorious audio recording on Aruppukottai Arangal, a Facebook page that deals with local social issues. He says, “A few of the students’ friends approached me because they realised the college was trying to suppress the suspension. They know I’m an advocate so they were able to approach me. And a lot of youngsters follow our Facebook page so this could be addressed in a genuine manner. We thought we would dig deeper and find out who the powerful in this story are.”
Thangapandian tells us that as soon as he published the audio recording, it was picked up first by the Tamil magazine Nakkeeran. “Aruppukkottai gets 1000 copies of the magazine. That week’s edition was entirely bought out by the college so no one would be able to read it.”
One of the students’ parents approached Thangapandian, who reassured them that they would get justice. “With the kind of media attention the issue has gotten, their families are very nervous.”
The families even requested the media for privacy through Thangapandian.
The students, however, fear for their future and how this would affect them as students of the college. “After the story broke and before Nirmala Devi was arrested, the students were called by the college management and ‘counselled’. They have been asked to say that it was only Nirmala Devi who approached them and no names of the management must be taken.”
In yet another blow to their privacy and total disregard for the great personal risk at which they had spoken up, the college mentions them by name in the official complaint to the police. “The students or their families were not consulted. The students didn’t want their names mentioned anywhere. They took it to the principal and it was meant to be a complaint on behalf of the college,” says Thangapandian.
Making a plea on behalf of the students, Thangapandian says, “Their phones have been confiscated and their families are being monitored so it is important to understand what they are going through.”