Eleven months after Nirmala Devi, the main accused in the infamous sex for cash scandal in Madurai Kamaraj University, was arrested by the Tamil Nadu police, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court granted her bail on Tuesday.
Noting that, since the investigation of the case was complete and chargesheet filed and considering the state government’s submission stating no objections, the bench agreed to grant Nirmala Devi bail. While granting the accused bail, the High Court asked the state government if it wanted to impose any conditions. To this, the state government submitted that the accused must not speak to the media, and this request was accepted by the court.
Although no explanation for the gag order on the accused was given in court, sources state that there could be several reasons for the government not wanting the accused to give a statement to the press.
“In February 2019, Assistant Professor V Murugan and former research scholar Karuppusamy - who are the two other accused in the case - were granted bail by the Supreme Court. Following this, Murugan had given exclusive bytes to news channels, Sun TV and Thanthi TV where he said that the case must be investigated by the CBI. This could be a reason that the government does not want Nirmala Devi to address the press. They do not want a repeat of this,” a source inside the Madras High Court told TNM.
Pre-emptive move to not politicise issue?
Another argument is that the government’s gag order on Nirmala Devi is an attempt to nip a potential controversy in the bud, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and the Tamil Nadu bye polls, as Nirmala Devi’s statements could be twisted or misused against the government to suit the interests of opposition parties.
However, critics state that this possible pre-emptive action by the government is against freedom of expression and is not in its place to do so. Speaking to TNM, Saravanan Annadurai, DMK spokesperson and advocate at the Madras High Court said that the gag order on the accused was an attempt to curtail freedom of expression.
“This is a very rare condition to be imposed on an accused who is granted on bail. I don’t understand the rationale behind this gag order. If the investigation of the case is pending and the chargesheet is not yet filed, then asking her to not speak to the media would be reasonable. However, that is not the case here and such a blanket gag order does not augur well for democracy,” Saravana says.
Further he also added that this gag order could indicate that the government was attempting to hide something.
“Why must she (Nirmala Devi) not speak? Who will be affected if she speaks and what is the government worried about? If the condition was to prevent political parties from misusing her statements, then that is the Election Commission’s problem to worry about. The EC must take cognisance of it and there is a proper mechanism in place to avoid such issues. It is not the court or state government’s worry. The government cannot anticipate things and attempt to curb freedom of expression,” he added.
Another senior advocate who TNM spoke to also said that he did not come across such a bail condition on other accused.
‘Media gag on convicts not comparable’
There have been instances where a gag order has been imposed on convicts. In September 2017, AG Perarivalan, one of the seven life term convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case was granted a 30-day parole and an extension after 27 years in confinement. The parole conditions included avoiding press photos and interviews, restrictions from attending public and political functions, staying at his own place in Jolarpet and reporting to the nearest police station every day.
However, the gag order placed on Perarivalan and the one on Nirmala Devi cannot be compared, Saravanan says.
“Perarivalan was a convict, Nirmala Devi is an accused. Further, Perarivalan was on parole and in this case, Nirmala Devi has been granted a bail. Conditions for bail and parole are entirely different. What’s important is that, this bail is granted in a pre-trial stage. The trial for the case has not been begun and hence it does my warrant a gag order. Therefore, I feel the two cases cannot be compared,” he added.
In April 2018, Nirmala Devi, a former Assistant Professor in an arts college in Aruppukkottai, Tamil Nadu, was arrested for attempting to lure girl students to provide sexual favours to ‘higher officials’ of the Madurai Kamaraj University in exchange for money, grades and career opportunities. The scandal came to light when a 19-minute long audio clip of a phone call between Nirmala Devi and the students she was trying to lure went viral. In the clip, Nirmala Devi could be heard telling the students about ‘opportunities’ that awaited them if they agreed to do an ‘assignment’ she was offering them. The students were even promised better marks, money and academic prospects to do the ‘assignment’. Nirmala Devi also alluded to Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit in the conversation.
Along with Nirmala Devi, Assistant Professor V Murugan and former Research Scholar Karuppusamy were named accused number 2 and 3 in the case. The case was investigated by the CB-CID who filed a chargesheet which named the three of them as accused. While Murugan and Karuppusamy were granted bail by the Supreme Court, Nirmala Devi’s bail plea was rejected multiple times by various courts until Tuesday.