In what civil society activists have called a clear case of harassment, Jayaram Venkatesan, the convenor of Arappor Iyakkam has been slapped with a criminal defamation case for speaking up on alleged corruption by Tamil Nadu Minister SP Velumani. Arappor Iyakkam has been at the forefront of highlighting numerous civic issues in Chennai and other districts, often fighting prolonged legal battles with the state.
In a TV debate on a Tamil news channel in December last year, Jayaram Venkatesan had accused the Minister for Municipal Administration SP Velumani of corruption. The accusation pertains to the tenders awarded by the Chennai Corporation. According to Arappor Iyakkam's exposé in September last year, corporation tenders were awarded to a syndicate of six contractors owned and operated by people close to SP Velumani. The group alleges that Vardhan Infrastructure, which was one of the six companies that won bids in Chennai Corporation, won tenders worth 88% of the total value of tenders floated by the corporation to source manpower to staff the Primary Healthcare Centres in Chennai. The NGO also exposed such tenders in Chennai and Coimbatore Corporations, in which the alleged close aides of Velumani alone competed amongst each other and won bids.
The NGO has duly approached the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption and the Madras High Court with the case. When the criminal defamation case came up before the court on Wednesday, the Minister's counsel reportedly argued that the statements made by Jayaram in the debate were 'defamatory, scandalous, disparaging and highly provocative,' arguing that the Minister was an esteemed individual.
Despite the series of threatening roadblocks, the group remains unfazed. Speaking to TNM, Jayaram says that he cannot speak on the case which is subjudice. "This is a way to threaten us. But we are not afraid. We know that if you fight corruption, people can go to any level. They are ready to misuse power as much as possible. The entire police machinery is being used for this purpose," he says.
In addition to the ongoing corruption investigation initiated by them, the group believes they have been targeted ever since they organised ‘Kelu Chennai Kelu' on June 30, a protest for seeking solutions to the water crisis in Chennai. They say that the police seem to be targeting events organised by them with an intent of arm-twisting the activist group. For instance, a group of Arappor volunteers were detained in July for auditing the Kallu Kuttai Lake in Chennai's Taramani area.
While a civil suit was initially filed against the group, the criminal defamation is on the same incident- the television debate. Curiously, the criminal defamation has been filed by the state on a complaint by Chennai Police Commissioner AK Vishwanath.
"They are bound by the Constitution. They cannot foist cases on us. In fact, the police should be happy that we are fighting corruption. They should be on our side. But they seem to be standing with the corrupt." says Jayaram.
In July, a group of eminent civil society activists, lawyers and human rights activists from across the country called on the Tamil Nadu government and Chennai police to withdraw the 'undemocratic attack' on the organisation.
"It appears that the Chennai Police don't want to respect the rule of law and constitutional principles and wants to silence citizen's voices. The situation is so pathetic that even to conduct peaceful agitations and protests, the police routinely reject applications for permission, forcing organisations to approach the High Court. Such anti-democratic acts of the city police, and police highhandedness and abuse of law is deplorable and to be condemned," they said in a statement.