Documentary filmmaker Divya Bharathi was arrested by the Tamil Nadu police on Tuesday for a 2009 FIR filed against her in Madurai.
Divya, a political activist in the state, is well-known for Kakkoos, a searing documentary on manual scavenging which throws light on how the inhuman practice continues to thrive in the country with the connivance of the government and authorities.
The 2009 FIR for which she was arrested was for a protest organised by the All India Students Association (AISA), the student wing of the CPI(ML). Divya, who was an AISA activist and the District Secretary of the organisation in Madurai, was agitating against the poor conditions in which Dalit hostel residents in Madakulam were forced to live.
She was a first year student of law at the time.
"A student of the hostel died because of snakebite. So we were protesting, asking the authorities to improve conditions at the hostel," Divya tells TNM. "Even before this incident, we had been agitating...they were using vessels used in the toilets to serve food. There was no proper compound wall," she says.
Divya recalls the protest as a massive agitation in which at least a thousand students had participated.
"We refused to take the body of the student from the General Hospital where he died. We put forth two demands - one, improve the maintenance at the Dalit hostel and two, give compensation to the family of the student who died," she says.
However, Divya says that the authorities were not interested in listening to the protesters.
"Finally, GH just left the body in front of the hospital and we protested along with it," shares Divya. "This is what happened in December 2009."
At the time, the police filed a case against Divya and others. However, Divya says that she was unaware that such an FIR even existed against her name.
On Tuesday morning, Divya says that she received a call from a woman SI, Vasantha, who told her that the Assistant Commissioner wanted her to meet him at his office. When Divya told her to issue summons and that she'd appear with her advocate, the SI allegedly insisted that she arrive to meet the AC.
"The call only lasted for five minutes," says Divya. "I told her that I was away on work and that it would take me about 45 minutes to reach the city. She said okay, and to call her when I reach the AC's office."
Within a few minutes, however, Divya says that a police team reached her house and instructed her to accompany them.
"I asked them to show me the summons or an arrest warrant but they didn't," she says. "Next, I called my advocate and gave the phone to one of the SIs. They just told my advocate to come and meet me at the appropriate place and cut the call. I didn't even know where they were taking me."
The police took Divya to the court directly.
When she was asked by the court why she had failed to appear in the 2009 case, Divya's advocate responded that there was no summons issued. The public prosecutors, however, argued that she should not be issued bail. "
After the media picked up the incident, about 10 advocates volunteered to appear on my behalf," says Divya.
Finally, she got bail and has been asked to sign at the Mathichiyam police station every day at 10 am for a period of one week.
New interest in an old case
Asked why she feels the police has suddenly taken an interest in the 2009 case, Divya says that she believes it's because of a video she put out recently about the plight of sanitation workers in the Dindigul campus of Anna University, who are forced to practise manual scavenging.
Around 15 workers are employed in the campus on a contract basis, earning a salary of Rs 5000 per month.
In the video shot by Divya, sanitation workers allege that the Dean of the institution, Chitra Selvi, forces them to perform inhumane tasks, including cleaning her home toilets and even putting up with continued sexual harassment by her husband.
Chitra Selvi has been the Dean for the past two years, according to what Divya says in the video, and has made the workers clean feces with bare hands and enter the septic tank without any safety gear.
"I've been facing threats and stiff opposition ever since I released this video," says Divya. "I met the Collector five times regarding this issue but there has been no response. 15 of us went to give the complaint but no action has been taken. Many in this group have been beaten up, and asked to withdraw the complaint."
Divya further adds that Chitra Selvi has now registered a complaint and that the victims who spoke out in the video are being targeted.
"I did not know that Chitra Selvi belongs to the Pallar caste, which comes under Scheduled Castes. I didn't go into all that. I've come to know this only in the last two days," says Divya. "Dr Krishnasamy is now filing a case against Kakkoos film. He's from the Pallar community, too."
Dr Krishnasamy founded the Puthiya Tamilagam party in 1998 as an independent political party to represent Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised groups. The party had defeated the DMK-TMC combine in a few Lok Sabha constituencies in the year of its debut.
While the two major Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, are the main players in the political field in Tamil Nadu, the smaller parties play a significant role in swinging votes and forming coalitions. In the hotbed of caste politics in the state, the PT remains a visible party although Krishnasamy lost his seat in the 2016 State Assembly elections. PT had contested in four seats, in alliance with the DMK.