Pollachi assault, drought and Keezhadi findings: Events that defined TN in 2019

As the year ends, we look back at the events that shaped the discourse in Tamil Nadu over the course of 2019.
Pollachi assault, drought and Keezhadi findings: Events that defined TN in 2019
Pollachi assault, drought and Keezhadi findings: Events that defined TN in 2019
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2019 has been an eventful year for Tamil Nadu from the politically scandalous sexual assault and extortion case in Pollachi to a widespread drought-like situation in the state capital Chennai. Perhaps the state would be best known for voting for the Opposition in what was a decisive victory for the incumbent BJP government and being at the forefront of dissenting against the Modi government. Even as Tamil Nadu hogged the global spotlight with the ‘only-you-possible’ pray for Nesamani phenomenon, here’s a look back at the year that was:

1. Pollachi sexual assault and extortion

The year began with the bravery of a 19-year-old sexual assault survivor from Pollachi, Coimbatore whose complaint against four men, including an acquaintance, brought to light a sexual abuse and extortion racket that involved members of the ruling AIADMK in the state. Police arrested five men who regularly lured women online and sexually assaulted them, secretly filming and blackmailing them later.  If the sex was consensual, the men would threaten to upload the videos on the internet or circulate them through WhatsApp, unless the women gave them sexual favours, along with money and other valuables. The woman's complaint prompted a massive debate in the state over consent as well as the criminal carelessness of the police in lawfully protecting the identity of the survivor. The case was subsequently transferred to the CBI and the probe agency has filed its chargesheet in the case.

2. Water scarcity in Chennai

Chennai, the sixth largest city in India and the state capital, was faced with severe water scarcity in the summer months, drawing international attention to the drought-like situation. Along with its neighbouring districts, Chennai suffered a devastating flood in 2015, followed by three years of crippling drought. Piped water supply in many parts of the city ground to a halt in summer 2019 as the four main reservoirs around the city went bone dry; with tanker lorries frequently stretched and threatening a strike. Residents were forced to ration water while workplaces asked its employees to work from home. Despite the Madras High Court, NGOs and several citizen groups crying themselves hoarse on the need to save water bodies and prevent unauthorised constructions, the government's inaction finally led to a train being sanctioned to bring water from Vellore district to the city. Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio drew attention to the crisis exacerbated by climate change.

(Water train from Vellore to Chennai)

3. DMK sweeps Lok Sabha seats, AIADMK holds fort 

In a decisive anti-saffron mandate, Tamil Nadu bucked the national wave and voted overwhelmingly in favour of the DMK and its allies in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls which saw the Modi government return at the Centre for a second term. The opposition party from the state became the third largest in the Lok Sabha with 38 MPs, unseating the AIADMK in all but one seat. However, in the Assembly bye-elections conducted simultaneously, AIADMK, the ruling party in the state managed to quite literally hold onto Fort St George, the seat of power, winning nine of 22 seats. The much-anticipated polls also saw RK Nagar MLA and AMMK chief TTV Dhinakaran’s prospects sinking without a trace.

4. Pray for Nesamani

In a uniquely Tamil Nadu phenomenon, a Twitter trend— #Pray_for_Nesamani put the global spotlight on the state and its celebrated comic actor Vadivelu after a Pakistan-based Facebook page called Civil Engineering Learners posed a question, “What is the name of the tool in your country?” with a picture of a hammer. An overenthusiastic Vadivelu fan was quick to connect the hammer with a scene from the 2001 film Friends, in which Vadivelu plays Contractor Nesamani who ends up with an injury because one of his inept assistants (actor Ramesh Kanna) drops a hammer on his head. The scene and soon the hashtag became a cultural phenomenon with actors, politicians and brands pitching in to keep the joke going. The phenomenon was sustained majorly by the powerhouse actor's clout among Tamil cinema fans and the love for cinema in the state. Coming close on the heels of Narendra Modi's swearing in for a second term as Prime Minister, the hashtag was also used to take digs at the BJP and its leaders anointing themselves chowkidar (watchmen). 

5. Dissent 

Tamil Nadu stood up for itself and its countrywide counterparts this year with strong objections, protests and rallies against the policies of the central government. From the original draft of the National Education Policy which recommended mandatory Hindi in non-Hindi speaking states (revised following outrage) to the abrogation of Article 370 and the lockdown of eight million Kashmiris and the valley’s political leaders to the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Registry (NPR)— voices from Tamil Nadu rang loud and clear. However, the state stopped short on other key issues like the historic slowdown facing the economy and the NIA Bill which is accused of targeting minorities, especially Muslim youth, in addition to infringing upon the rights of the police in states.

(Kolam protest against the CAA in Chennai)

6. Keezhadi findings

The fifth phase of the excavations at the historic Keezhadi site in Tamil Nadu's Sivagangai district in September this year determined a possible link between the scripts of the Indus Valley Civilisation and Tamil Brahmi, the precursor to Tamil of the modern era. The end of the Indus Valley Civilization is speculated to have culminated in a southern migration and it has been proposed that the civilization itself was Dravidian. The similar-looking graffiti is expected to fill the gap between the two scripts. Another major discovery was the presence of an urban civilisation in Tamil Nadu that was contemporary to the Gangetic plain civilisation. This could mean that the Sangam era, considered the golden age of the Tamils, could have begun earlier than previously thought.

(Comparison of Keezhadi graffiti and Indus signs)

7. Subhasri’s death

The menace of banners, hoardings and flags in Tamil Nadu claimed yet another life this year: 23-year-old Subhasri Ravi. The young techie was on her way home via the Thoraipakkam- Pallavaram road in Chennai and was killed when a hoarding erected on the road’s divider fell on her, making her lose balance. A tanker lorry rammed into the woman. The hoardings had been erected on either side of the road and on the divider by AIADMK functionary S Jayagopal to announce his son’s wedding, which was attended by Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam. Once again, the young woman’s death sparked massive outrage against political parties that all too frequently indulge in sycophantic excesses on the state's roads. With Jayagopal absconding and getting arrested after a manhunt, the family has sought compensation from the state. The incident prompted the AIADMK, DMK, PMK and AMMK to urge cadres not to use banners.

8. Modi Xi summit 

Tamil Nadu played host to the second informal Indo-China summit in October this year with widely broadcasted tête-à-têtes between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. The two-day summit saw the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) temporarily shut down tourism in the historic town, with stringent checks on residents. The high profile meeting of the two heads of state also witnessed unexplained arrests of Tibetan activists as well as students from India’s northeastern states studying in Chennai.

9. Fight to save Sujith

October this year was marked by an entire state hoping against hope for the rescue of Sujith, the two-year-old boy from Tamil Nadu's Trichy district who fell into a borewell and was subsequently retrieved dead after three days. With massive rescue operations fighting the rainy weather and millions glued onto their TV screens, the fight to save the child proved futile, dashing the hopes of his parents and little brother as well as Tamil Nadu. His death finally pushed the government to order all unused borewells in the state to be covered or closed. Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami asked district collectors across the state to ensure that borewell guidelines were being followed for digging.

(Fight to rescue Sujith)

10. Justice for Fathima Latheef

In November this year, the state woke up to the shocking suicide of young IIT Madras student Fathima Latheef. The first year student of the Department of Humanities and Social Studies from Kollam, Kerala had taken her life in her hostel room on November 9. Her parents had alleged that she had been pushed to take the extreme step owing to harassment from her professors. The case, which was initially probed by the Chennai city police was shifted to the Central Crime Branch. Following her death, student protests within and outside the campus demanded answers on the allegations of casteism and Islamophobia at the premier institute.

11. Mettupalayam wall collapse

17 Dalits were crushed to death in Mettupalayam, Coimbatore following the collapse of an illegal compound wall during the rains, built to discriminate against the Dalit residents by Sivasubramaniam, the owner of the plot in the area. Families of the deceased have alleged that the height of the wall was raised as the owner wanted to restrict access of the Dalit residents to his plot. Anti-caste activists termed it an untouchability wall even as Opposition leaders demanded new homes and compensation the grieving families.

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