Over the past few days, Tamil Nadu has been shocked over the sexual assault of a college student from Pollachi town and a wider network that is suspected to operate such crimes on a regular basis, comprising politically-connected men. While the incident came to light in February after the survivor approached the police, the discovery of a video purportedly belonging to the crime network provoked renewed social media outrage, forcing political parties and a wider section of the media to take note. Even as the case may be recommended for a transfer to the CBI by the state government, the actions of the Coimbatore Superintendent of Police warrant scrutiny.
Revealing identity of survivor
On March 1, Coimbatore SP R Pandiarajan held a televised press conference, where the police officer revealed the identity of the survivor. Mentioning her by name, he proceeded to give out developments regarding the case. Not learning from the SP’s mistake, which is an offence punishable by law, the police department erred again. On March 6, the police released a statement to the press, illegally identifying the survivor with details including her name, educational background and locality.
On Tuesday, the survivor submitted a petition to the Coimbatore District Collector, requesting the protection of her identity. “Sir, nobody, including political parties, media and electronic media, should use my name based on what happened to me. If they do, they are adding to my mental trauma and humiliation. They are, thereby, responsible for the consequences of such actions. The justice I deserve should not be re-directed by political parties for their political opportunism. They should not hamper justice. I humbly request that action be taken on those spreading false messages regarding this,” she wrote.
Widening the mandate of existing provisions that disallow publication of names of survivors, in December last year, the Supreme Court ruled that no person can print or publish in print, electronic, social media, etc. the name of the victim or even in a remote manner disclose any facts which can lead to the victim being identified and which should make her identity known to the public at large. Further, the court directed police officials not to publish FIRs filed in cases of rape and sexual assault.
Despite the law making it clear that the identity of survivors and victims of sexual violence must be protected at all times, the Coimbatore district police chief's insensitivity must be questioned. It may be recalled that this was the same police officer who slapped a woman anti-TASMAC protester in 2017, which led to clashes between the police and protestors.
Speaking to TNM, senior advocate and activist Sudha Ramalingam points out that such acts lead to the intimidation and silencing of survivors. “The law should be widely interpreted to protect the victim. No one can reveal their names. Cases should be filed on those who reveal the identity of victims. The duty of the police is to protect the victims in a silent manner.”
When asked about the police department’s failure to protect the identity of the victim and the women reluctant to come forward on account of this lapse, the SP curtly said on Monday, "This was a mistake, we regret it."
Investigation on, but political links ruled out?
Further, the senior policeman held an unusual press conference on Monday, ruling out any political links to the crime, despite admitting that the investigation was still underway. Without the conclusion of investigation, the officer seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no ‘political heirs’ were involved in the crime. “News with ulterior motive is being spread that politicians and others connected to them are involved in this case. Those are false.” he said.
When asked how he ruled out the involvement of politically connected persons when one of the accused in the physical assault of the survivor's brother belonged to the AIADMK when the crime was committed, the SP said that Nagaraj was merely a friend of the four accused in the case of sexual assault. “The investigation only relates to the four arrested accused,” he asserted. This, despite the fact that investigating officers had told TNM earlier that they were probing a wider network given the fact that they suspected the men had been doing this for seven years.