The CBI investigation into the Pollachi sexual-assault case ignores police cover-up

Members of various Tamil organisations hold placards and raise slogans during a protest against the Pollachi sexual assault case in Chennai, on 15 March 2019. Both the investigations of the Tamil Nadu Police and the CBI are riddled with procedural lapses and inaction, which erases any role of the police or senior members of the AIADMK. PTI
16 March, 2021

On 6 January, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested three men from Pollachi, a town in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district, including a local All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, in a case of sexual assault. The case was filed in February 2019, based on the complaint of a college student who wrote that she had been assaulted by three different men. Over the next two years, the CBI made minimal progress on the case, until the recent arrests. The arrests have come in the run up to Tamil Nadu elections, to be held on 6 April, after the AIADMK made moves to distance itself from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Several activists and political commentators told me that the arrests were an attempt by the CBI and the central government to arm-twist the AIADMK into an alliance with the BJP and get more seats in the seat-sharing process.

In her complaint, the college student from Pollachi wrote that three men had sexually assaulted her, videographed the incident and blackmailed her with it. On 11 March, Nakkheeran, a Tamil-language investigative magazine, reported that it had uncovered several more such videos of the same men and spoken to the survivors of similar incidents in Pollachi. Rajagopal, the editor of Nakkheeran, in a video, said that the three men were closely associated with the ruling AIADMK and had assaulted over 1,100 women, taken similar videos and had been blackmailing them. He also said that the district police had been fully aware of this gang assaulting women, because of previous complaints as well as several women dying by suicide. The police have, however, denied Rajagopal’s report.

After facing stiff criticism, the state government transferred the case to the CBI on 12 March 2019, a day after the Nakkheeran report. Alarmingly, the CBI has not investigated the Pollachi police, which multiple complainants as well as activists claim helped cover-up several hundred sexual assaults by the gang.

Both the investigations of the Tamil Nadu Police and the CBI are riddled with procedural lapses and inaction. For instance, both the CBI and the Tamil Nadu police failed to investigate a string of suicides by women in Pollachi which activists claim were linked to similar blackmail by the gang. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, a member of parliament and the secretary of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s women’s wing, told me that the investigations served to shield members of the AIADMK, erase any role the police had in the cover up of assaults in Pollachi and silence other women who were assaulted by the gang. According to media reports, the Pollachi police did not initially register an FIR based on the survivor’s complaint, and later failed to act on evidence, including examining the phones of the gang, which were given to them by the complainant’s brother. The police also filed poor paperwork leading to the release of an AIADMK member who was arrested in the case.

In a move that activists claim was an attempt to threaten other victims of the gang, the Tamil Nadu government and R Pandiarajan, Coimbatore’s superintendent of police, publicly released the name of the survivor as well as her address on two separate occasions. They also failed to protect the survivor’s family, leading to an attack on her brother by members of the gang. In fact, the CBI even attempted to prematurely close the case regarding the brother’s assault before it was reprimanded by a lower court and asked to continue its investigation. After the initial FIR filed by the CBI, there has not been a single update on the case on the CBI’s website which a former CBI officer told me was highly unusual. The CBI did not make any updates about the recent arrests either.

The 19-year-old college student filed her complaint at the Pollachi East police station on 24 February 2019. In her complaint, she said she was first introduced to two men, K Thirunavukkarasu and N Sabarirajan, by one of her friends earlier that month. After a few days of friendly conversations, the girl got a call on 12 February from Sabarirajan to meet him. She got into a car with Sabarirajan that day, and later two other men, Sathish and Vasanth Kumar, introduced by Sabarirajan as his friends, entered the car. The 19-year-old wrote that once the car reached a deserted place, Sabarirajan suddenly disrobed her and Sathish took a video of this incident. When she resisted, they beat her up and said they would broadcast the video on social media if she did not pay them money whenever they ask her. The men also forcefully took a gold chain she was wearing.

Fearing consequences, she did not tell her family about the incident initially. But Sathish and Vasanth Kumar soon started blackmailing her for money, leading her to confide in her parents. The complaint states that the survivor’s brother then tracked down Thirunavukkarasu and Sabarirajan and got hold of their cell phones, which contained videos of at least three other women that the men had blackmailed. The family submitted their phones to the Pollachi police, along with a complaint of sexual harassment and robbery. The Pollachi East police registered an FIR against the complaint that day, and booked Sabarirajan, Thirunavukkarasu, Sathish and Vasanth Kumar under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. A local journalist, who had reported the case from its inception and had access to the phones, but wished to remain anonymous, told me that the phones contained several more videos that the police entirely failed to investigate.

Sabarirajan, Sathish and Vasanth Kumar were arrested on the same day as the complaint. They were produced before a judicial magistrate in Pollachi, where they were taken into judicial remand. On 10 March, they were taken into police custody.

On 26 February, the woman’s brother lodged another complaint alleging that Thirunavukkarasu’s friends attacked him. After his complaint, the police filed an FIR against four others in his case, named Senthil, Babu, Mani and Rajagopal. The police arrested the four and A Nagarajan—commonly called Bar Nagaraj—an AIADMK member who is a close aid of K Arulanantham, the AIADMK’s Pollachi student-wing secretary. The local journalist who wished to remain anonymous told me that Nagarajan is a close confidante of Pollachi Jayaraman, an AIADMK leader who represents Pollachi in the state legislative assembly and is its speaker. A report in Vikatan, a Tamil news-magazine, noted that the police despite arresting Nagarajan, had failed to name him in the FIR and failed to properly document evidence against him. On these grounds, a Pollachi lower court gave Nagarajan conditional bail almost as soon as he was arrested.

The Vikatan report notes that this was not simply oversight on the police’s part, but likely an attempt to cover-up the role of AIADMK functionaries in the crime. The parliamentary elections were held in April that year. “Police involvement in the cover up of the Pollachi issue majorly started with the release of Bar Nagarajan,” the local journalist said. “He was released because of his political connections. Why was he let out? This shows police is not willing to touch people related to political big wigs.”

On 4 March that year, Thirunavukkarasu, released an audio message that was widely circulated, in which he stated that many others, including politicians and politically connected people, were involved in this case. He appealed to MK Stalin, the president of the DMK, and other opposition parties for support. Stalin did not respond. Thirunavukkarasu was arrested the next day.

Radhika Murugan, the secretary of the Coimbatore wing of the All India Democratic Women’s Association—the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—told me the conduct of the police in this investigation was full of lapses. In sexual assault cases, a 2018 amendment to section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code makes its mandatory for the statement of the victim to be recorded by a female officer. The police violated this section in this case. The case was booked at the Pollachi East station, when it could have been booked at the All Women Police Station near NGM college at Pollachi and her statement was recorded by sub-inspector Rajendra Prasad, a male officer.

On 6 March, Pandiarajan, Coimbatore’s superintendent of police, issued a press release that revealed the name and address of the 19-year-old complainant. Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code prohibits printing or publishing the name or any details of victims of sexual offences that may disclose their identity. “The releasing of the names of the victim in this case is a clear attempt to threaten the victim,” Thirumurugan Gandhi, the coordinator of the May 17 movement—an activists’ collective that led protests against the improper investigation into the Pollachi sexual assault case—told me. Kanimozhi agreed with Gandhi. “The SP revealing the name of the victim was not an unintentional mistake, that was done only to stop other victims from coming forward to complain,” she told me.

“Not just victim protection but also witness protection has to be provided by the state,” Gandhi said. “But in this case, the state not only failed to protect the victim but also revealed the identity which can be seen as the state collaborating with the perpetrators and protecting them. This AIADMK government has failed to protect the safety of children and women in several instances.” He continued, “Victims don’t come forward in sensitive cases because of the fear of social boycott and the police knew this fully well when they released the name. This amounts to protection of the perpetrator which should not be taken lightly.”

Tamil journalists who picked up the story were also threatened by members of the AIADMK. On 11 March, Nakkheeran released blurred videos taken of previous cases of sexual assault by the gang, which they claimed showed Nagarajan. Nagarajan was expelled from the AIADMK on the day the videos were released. The local reporter who wished to remain anonymous told me that when Arul Kumar, a reporter of Nakkheeran, attempted to contact Jayaraman by phone on 5 March, Jayaraman threatened him with dire consequences if he reported the story. On 15 March, the Chennai Cyber Crime Police summoned Rajagopal, Nakkheeran’s founding editor, based on a complaint by Jayaraman. Four days later, the Chennai Police’s central crime branch also issued a summon to Rajagopal, but The Hindu reported that he refused to appear claiming that the crime branch had no locus standi in the case. Jayaraman did not respond to queries.

During a press conference held the day after Jayaraman allegedly threatened Arul Kumar, Pandiarajan, the superintendent of police, repeatedly said that no political party or party members were involved in the case. “There is no connection to any political party or leaders in this case,” he said. “There are only four videos and not 1,100 as claimed.” He went on to say that anyone, “spreading such rumours about political involvement will be taken to task.”

Journalists as well as retired police officers told me that this was a claim that Pandiarajan should not have made before a thorough investigation of the case. “How can the police officer claim that there are no political connections when the investigation was in an infant stage,” G Thilakavathi, a retired Indian Police Services officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre, said. “There were lot of news saying that politicians’ sons are involved. And this officer says there is no connection at the initial stage itself. He said it four times.”

According to media reports Pandiarajan had not even visited Pollachi at the time. He visited the area only four days after the press conference. In the press conference, Pandiarajan, while still denying the Nakkheeran report, said that the gang had been sexually assaulting women and taking videos for seven years.

“We have reliable information that 58 women between the ages of 18 and 23 died by suicide in Pollachi in the past three years,” Radhika told me. “Many of these cases likely happened because of similar incidents by this same gang. But the police completely failed to take any action in these cases because of the relationship the gang had with the AIADMK.” Radhika said that Pollachi is a small town, with a population of slightly more than 90,000, and it was highly unlikely that the police would not have even heard of similar crimes happening to over a thousand women. “There were a few suicides which were not even officially recorded,” the local reporter told me. “This is mainly because the police incite fear in the parents. In one of these cases, I personally knew that the parents requested the police and they were allowed to bury the girl’s body even without a case being registered. This is how power works and the police help in the cover up.”

On 12 March 2019, facing mounting public criticism over the handling of the cases, the Tamil Nadu government decided to transfer both the sexual-assault case and the case filed by the complainant’s brother to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department, and then to the CBI, on the same day. However, in the government order that formalised the transfer, TK Rajendran, Tamil Nadu’s then director general of police, again revealed the name of the survivor. “Revealing a victim’s name by the state government could amount to the state government itself collaborating with the perpetrator,” Thirumurugan told me. “Who are they trying to protect through such intimidations?” The DGP’s office did not respond to questions emailed to it.

Three days later, N Kirubakaran, a judge of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court also reprimanded the government for revealing the survivor’s name. “The State Government ought to have shown some care at least to avoid reference to the identity of the victim girls,” his order stated. “It is stated that more than 100 girls are victimized and thousands of incriminating videos have been taken. Those affected persons may not have the courage to give a complaint to the police fearing exposure of the identity of the individual victim. The purpose of non-disclosure of identity has not been understood by the officials, who are responsible even for issuing the Government Order.” His order also questioned Pandiarajan’s claim that only four women were assaulted by the gang.

Kirubakaran also reprimanded the police for leaking the videos which were uploaded onto social media and got circulated widely. The order noted that the brother of the initial complainant had given the cell phones of the accused, which contained the videos, to the police. It noted that the videos were uploaded onto social media only after this. “But for the police role, this would not have reached the social media,” the order read.

Activists told me that there were several leads in the investigation that the CBI failed to follow up in 2019 and 2020. “If this crime was happening over years, we demanded an investigation into the suicides of the girls from 2016 to 2019 at least,” K Bala Bharathi, a former MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told me. “We have been raising this demand to look into these suicides right from the day this case unfolded. Has the CBI looked into this? What action has been taken on the audio released by one of the accused Thirunavukkarasu in which he describes the clear collusion of senior AIADMK leaders?” Kanimozhi also pointed to the complete absence of an investigation into senior AIADMK members who were close to the gang. “Two years since this crime happened and there was no action against any political leaders who were alleged to be involved,” she said. “The police are trying to hide things because people associated with AIADMK are involved.”

The CBI made no further arrests in the case for nearly two years after this. On 24 January 2020, the CBI submitted a closure report in the case of assault against the initial complainant’s brother, saying they lacked any evidence for further investigation in the case. A Coimbatore court rejected the closure report, and asked the CBI to investigate the case further. An officer who was previously with the CBI in Tamil Nadu told me that it was unusual that there has not been a single update on the case on the CBI’s website after the initial FIR was filed. “When I was there with the CBI in Tamil Nadu, we routinely posted updates for every case, even the small ones,” he said. “It seems puzzling to me that for a case that got such widespread attention they haven’t put up a single update, though there are no specific rules that require them to.”

On 6 January 2021, nearly two years after they were handed the cases, the CBI arrested three more men, including K Arulanantham, the AIADMK’s Pollachi student-wing secretary who is known to be close to Jayaraman. Five days later, The Hindu reported that three women had given a statement to a magistrate naming three men in relation to this case. None of the reports about the statements mention when they were given. They had also named T Haron Paul, a 29-year-old and P Babu, a 27-year-old, both of whom are AIADMK cadre and run a bike dealership. Radhika told me that AIDWA had named Paul in a complaint that they had submitted to the police back in 2019, and that both the Tamil Nadu Police and the CBI had failed to investigate him till now.

“Only after pressure from various organisations this case was transferred to CBI,” Bharathi told me. “Now after CBI arrested three people, though it’s delayed, we welcome it. But what about the five who were arrested earlier and what happened to the confessions made by them? What action was taken on their confessions made?” On 11 January, the CBI took Paul into their custody, while arguing that they did not need to take Arulanantham and Babu into custody. Arulanantham and Babu remain in judicial custody. It is unclear why the CBI, after nearly two years of investigation, did not seek the custody of Arulanantham and Babu.

On 6 January, following his arrest, AIADMK expelled Arulanantham from the party. A joint statement issued by Edappadi K Palaniswami, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, and O Panneer Selvam, the deputy chief minister and AIADMK co-ordinator, quoted by the New Indian Express says, “Arulanandam has been removed from all responsibilities of the party including the primary membership as he has acted against the ideals of the AIADMK and in a way which would bring disrepute to the party.” Palaniswami and Panneer Selvam did not respond to queries that were emailed to them.

On 19 February, Arul Kumar reported for Nakkheeran that the CBI had seized a car, based on a statement by Arulanantham. The Nakkeeran report states that the car the CBI seized belongs to James Raja, an ex-councillor of the AIADMK.  The report quotes an anonymous CBI source that Arulanantham said this was the car used by them to lure girls and later harass them. “We used to lure girls from the garment store owned by Sathish, take them to lonely spots in Palghat road,” Nakkheeran quotes Arulanantham as telling the CBI. “One of us will kiss the girl when the girl least expects and one of us will take a picture. We will use the picture to blackmail the girl. We used to send the girls to big shots and earn money out of this. Krishnakumar”—the former Pollachi Municipal Chairman, who is a member of the AIADMK—“used to come to a mahal in Palghat road where he used to be with girls.” The local journalist told me that Raja and Krishnakumar are also reported to be close to Jayaraman.

Activists told me that Pandiarajan has had a murky track record in previous investigations of crimes against women. On 14 May 2011, when Pandiarajan was the deputy superintendent of police in Theni district, two college students, Ezhilmudhalvan and Kasthuri, were reported missing in the Suruli forest area in Theni district. Kasthuri’s family had immediately filed a missing-person report at the Theni police station. The police had information about their location from Kasthuri’s friend, who had been with her shortly before. According to media reports, both the police and the forest department did not pursue this case seriously. Five days later, the forest department found the dead bodies of Ezhilmudhalvan and Kasthuri inside a cave. On 22 May 2011, the police arrested a man called Kattavellai—alias Divakar—who confessed to the rape and murder of the two students.

 It was widely reported that the allegations against Kattavellai and all the witnesses were slowly dropped by the police in the coming months and the course of the case was reversed. A report in the weekly magazine Vikatan said, “Complaints were raised that the person responsible was Uthamapalaiyam DSP Pandiarajan, who was the investigating officer at the time.” The case was later transferred to the CB-CID because the parents filed a complaint that the police investigation is not fair. Pandiarajan was soon transferred.

In April 2017, Pandiarajan, then ADSP of Tirupur again came into the media limelight when he slapped a woman who was part of a protest against the state government setting up a state-run liquor store in their locality. Following protests against Pandiarajan, a departmental inquiry was initiated against him. Pandiarajan did not respond to questions over email and did not pick up multiple calls.

The arrests of Arulanantham, Paul and Babu have come in the run up to Tamil Nadu elections this year after the AIADMK has made moves to antagonise the BJP, its ally as part of the National Democratic Alliance. In several incidents over the past year, the AIADMK have taken actions hostile to the BJP’s interests in the state. On 27 August 2020, the BJP in Coimbatore held a function to felicitate K Annamalai, a retired IPS officer who had been inducted into the party only days before and was expected to be the face of the BJP’s campaign in the state. The next day, the Coimbatore police booked four senior BJP leaders at the event, including state general secretary GK Selvakumar, state treasurer SR Sekar, district president R Nandhakumar, and Annamalai, on charges of unlawful assembly and under the Epidemic Diseases Act. Four days later, when L Murugan, the BJP’s state chief was holding a function to induct several new members into the party, including a history-sheeter called “Red Hills” Surya, the police arrested two BJP members and questioned Murugan.

In November 2020, the BJP’s state unit announced it was going to organise a vel yathra, a march across various temples in the state, mimicking the VHP’s rath yathra prior to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The vel yathra was scheduled to end on 6 December, on the anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Several AIADMK leaders opposed the move. C Ponnaiyan, a veteran AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu culture minister, said in a press conference, “AIADMK was not afraid of the BJP-ruled Centre. We are a Dravidian movement, and our ideologies are different from that of the BJP. We want all religions and its peoples—be it Hindus, Christians, or Muslims. This political party that is organising the Vel Yatra has no popularity among the public in Tamil Nadu.” The state government refused to give permission to the vel yathra and on its first day booked 135 members of the BJP. Murugan, who was to lead the yathra, was detained every day of the march until he prematurely called it off.

Leaders of the AIADMK have also been outspoken about not surrendering space to the BJP in the upcoming state elections. Following the BJP’s campaign to criticise the Dravidian movement and its founder EV Ramasami—commonly referred to as Periyar—KP Munusamy, an MP and deputy coordinator of the AIADMK said, “Since 1967 … Dravidian rule has ensured that no national party can enter Tamil Nadu.” He continued, “Some blacklegs, some national parties, some opportunists, a community and a group which have been determined to finish off the Dravidian movement and its leaders from the days of Periyar are carrying on a campaign that Tamil Nadu has been destroyed during the 50-year-long rule of the Dravidian movement.” At a meeting which was presided by Palaniswami, Munusamy said, “Whether national or regional parties come in, the government will be headed by the AIADMK. There is no scope for a coalition government and there is no need for it. If any party comes to us with that intention, I urge you to rethink.”

Several journalists and political commentators from the state told me that the sudden renewal of the CBI investigation was an attempt by the central government to coerce the AIADMK. “Action is taken only after two years, which by itself raises questions about how the investigation is handled,” Jen Ram, a senior journalist who hosts political talk shows, told me. “The BJP is trying to project an image that no matter who the culprits are, even if it happens to be an ally, they are only concerned about justice. Otherwise, the widespread opinion about it is that the BJP is trying to strong arm AIADMK. It is the common assumption, though we cannot state it for sure.” Thirumurugan said, “It’s widely said that even the recent arrests are politically motivated, how can we expect justice from a state which is totally insensitive about victims and women safety?”

The local reporter who wished to remain anonymous told me that it was a public secret that the CBI often acted for the political will of the party ruling in Delhi. “Regarding these latest arrests, there is definitely a political motivation and the BJP is using this case and the gutka scam case to threaten the AIADMK.” He was referring to a CBI case involving a chewing tobacco company paying C Vijaya Baskar, the state’s health minister, several crore rupees in kickbacks to ensure the manufacture, storage and sale of gutka, which is banned in the Tamil Nadu. “But the point is even with political motives only people who did wrong can be arrested and these accused are definitely associated with these crimes,” the reporter said.

I Ra Murugavel, an author and political commentator from Coimbatore, echoed Ram. “There is a widespread assumption that BJP is trying to bully AIADMK in Coimbatore which is considered to be AIADMK’s fort,” he said. “Both the chief minister and SP Velumani”—one of the AIADMK’s senior-most leaders in the region—“will not be willing to give up their hold in this region. BJP may be using the carrot and stick model to gain what they want. There should have been more arrests by now when there was an open accusation against AIADMK big wigs in Pollachi. Since that has not happened and CBI arresting the accused at this point makes us think that the accusation against BJP might be true and they are trying to use this to maintain their image and also for political gains.”

“The BJP is using the CBI to gets its things done and on the other hand, people belonging to AIADMK are involved,” Kanimozhi said. “It is really sad that both parties are using such a case and both are not genuinely concerned about the hundreds of women affected because of this.” She told me that to get justice for victims in sexual harassment and assault cases, government institutions needed to first be gender sensitised. “Police officers need to be trained on how to treat victims,” she said. “Only if the victims become confident of the institutions, will they come forward to file complaints in the first place. The way the CBI and Pollachi police have handled this investigation led in the opposite direction.”

On 28 February, a week after the CBI seized the car that Nakkheeran claimed belongs to Raja, the AIADMK announced its alliance with the BJP for the legislative elections. The BJP, a party which has only won five seats in the history of the state, were given 20 seats in the alliance.

Activists and journalists who are closely following the CBI investigation told me that despite the string of recent arrests made by them, there seems to be no investigation of the role the Pollachi police might have played in either helping the gang, or in covering up the crime. This is despite the many key procedural mistakes by the police which allowed for the release of several key accused, particularly those who were close to the AIADMK, and also made it tougher for survivors of the gang to inform the police.

G Saraswathi, a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties—a civil-rights organisation—said, “In a town like Pollachi how can the police not know what was happening?” She continued, “The police were hand in glove with the perpetrators because as most reports claim there are lot of big people involved in this case. What took so long to take action in such an important case involving the lives of so many women? Why hasn’t the CBI pursued this at all?”

Radhika said that the AIDWA had previously named all three of the recently arrested men as prime suspects yet the police and CBI had not followed up. “The accused arrested by the CBI now are those people whom we complained about initially,” Radhika told me. “The police did not take any action then. All these people are related to the AIADMK. There were a lot of suicides of women which should be investigated too. Since this has been happening for a few years AIDWA has raised doubts about the involvement of police officers in the cover up. We also have submitted these concerns to the court.” Vijaya Vaishnavi, the head of the anti-corruption branch of the Chennai CBI which investigated this case did not respond to emailed queries about lapses in the investigation and allegations of a political motive in it.