This is not a bad movie. Or a dime novel. This is real and it is happening in Tamil Nadu now.
It is difficult to describe the life led over the past five years. Rearview mirrors are a boon. Noting down vehicle numbers has become a habit. Slowing down suddenly, allowing vehicles to overtake, taking sudden turns without the indicator, sometimes zooming through dark streets hoping no one would wander onto the road—all are second nature now.
And when I walk, I look over my shoulder constantly. I note faces, clothes, any small eccentricities in walk or appearance. I shy away from quiet streets, preferring the noisy and dusty main roads instead.
In the past five years, life has become one of abundant caution for my family and myself. We keep each other informed of our every movement. We call each other regularly despite being in the same city—Chennai. But we are all agreed on one thing: the story of illegal beach sand mining must be told. It must be followed and tracked and the exposés must continue.
The background of the vengeance wreaked by the miners of southern Tamil Nadu for my reportage on alleged illegal beach sand mining is known. I had written about it in my four–part series in The Wire. The narrative stopped there in The Wire but the threats, harassment and attempts to intimidate did not.
Two recent episodes have thrown up the power of the miners. One, an incident wherein a blogger who calls himself a “whistle-blower” wrote a defamatory post about me (the same allegations made by the miners) and added to his blog CCTV visuals of me meeting a source at a coffee shop in Chennai. The blogger is notorious for half-baked information, “leaked” documents, rabid comments and is overall defamatory in nature. He targets individuals at will and writes false derogatory posts about them. He was a former employee of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption and has been suspended allegedly for leaking sensitive information to the media.
This blogger has many supporters and friends within the Tamil Nadu journalist fraternity. A number of journalists keep him happy since he serves up titbits of gossip about politicians and police officers, which some journalists do not have access to. They want his plants in order to justify their salaries. Many others are afraid of him and his vicious slander and prefer not to take a stand. The blogger is not a journalist or a “Julian Assange”—as he has been referred to—by any stretch of the imagination. He is simply a vile rabble-rouser who delights in and abuses the power and protection he gets from a section of the Tamil Nadu police.
This “gentleman” and I have never met. We have not spoken to each other. I do not know him at all, although he appears to have been following my activities for a long time. I am not his friend. I am not afraid of him either. But our paths finally crossed this month.
The blog post with the CCTV visuals was published on August 24. I had no idea about it till a few weeks after it was published, a well-wisher who came upon it sent me the link. (I have purposefully not provided a link to the blog to avoid circulating it further.)
I was amused at his post until I saw the CCTV visuals. It was a clear breach of my privacy. It was a smear campaign. And the contents of his blog post—glorifying a miner—showed clearly as to who was behind it.
I did not react immediately. I first contacted the owners of the café and asked them how CCTV visuals of me visiting their café had gone to this blogger. They informed me that their staff does not know how to download CCTV footage and that only one trusted member of the staff handles the hard disc where the footage is stored. He too has no idea how to download the footage.
The owners went on to tell me about how a year ago, two policemen from the local Abhiramapuram police station had arrived, saying they were tracking a politician’s relative and had taken away the hard disc with them. Another time the police had asked to look at their CCTV footage to trace the case of a chain snatcher who had run across the road outside the café.
“We have never given any footage to anyone except the police,” said one of the owners. “We have to co-operate with the police, right?”
Right. But then what if the police take the CCTV visuals and hand over some parts of those to a muckraking blogger? Then it becomes a violation of my fundamental right to privacy—that too by those sworn to protect it!
Having spoken with my wonderful lawyer, the bright young Gautam Raman, I filed a police complaint with the Commissioner of Police, AK Viswanathan, who assured me that he would look into the issue and hand the case over to the City Crime Branch.
Nothing happened for two days, except for the blogger’s furious rants over my complaint against him to the police. I ignored it.
But on the morning of September 27 though, I was nonplussed. I was getting ready to hit the road on my motorbike. The petrol tube had been cut and a piece of it removed from the vehicle. “Petrol thieves,” I thought, fuming. After all, petrol has become a precious commodity. I had filled my tank the previous day so I checked to see how much petrol had gone. The fuel indicator showed a full tank. Surprised, I opened the tank cover to check if the fuel indicator was acting up. But no, the tank was filled to the brim.
This was not a petty theft. My husband and I looked through the footage from the CCTV installed at our residence. This CCTV too was installed following earlier threats from the mining mafia.
What we found was creepy. At 11.43 pm on the night of September 26, two unidentified people on a bike—the rider was wearing a helmet—stopped near our house. They messed around with a bottle, tore up a rag, then fiddled with my motorbike and left. Five minutes later though, funnily enough, they reappeared, removed the bottle from next to my bike and sped off again.
I communicated all of this to the Police Commissioner who advised me to file yet another complaint at the local Kumaran Nagar police station. I did as he said. Cops came and went, I told the story at least 20 times to 10 different police personnel. They increased patrols around the area where we live. One night, two policemen sat outside our gate throughout, though I did not ask for police protection.
But in the midst of this entire episode, a few points stood out for me.
1. That the police in the state is so deeply entangled with the mining mafia that safety for those who oppose them is only a concept.
2. That no FIR will be filed on any of my complaints despite me asking for action against the miners.
3. That the police will allow their “friends” like the blogger to continue his campaign of harassment, regardless of what rule or law he breaks. This support from the police is seemingly absolute.
4. That the state government will remain a mute spectator to attacks on a journalist.
5. That in times of such crises, people you have never met rise to the occasion and offer support. Like journalist Geeta Seshu in Mumbai whom I have never met but who drafted and sent a letter in support of me to the Commissioner of Police, Chennai, with close to 100 signatures. And of course, this group of almost 100 people who signed her letter, despite never having met me or spoken to me.
6. That in times of crisis, the “stars” of south Indian journalism fall silent and continue to remain so. Why? Perhaps out of friendship, perhaps out of fear.
The jury is out now on what will happen next. I am moving on to a new story, watching my back every step of the way. I will continue to track the alleged illegal beach sand mining case in the Madras High Court and I will continue to write on every new development. I do not expect a positive outcome from my complaints or from the complicit police.
I have been subject to a variety of threats and harassment from the miners. My mobile number was put out on social media and people exhorted others “not” to call me. Of course, many called and abused me. I have been issued rape threats. I have been informed by the miners and their associates that they have engaged “5 detective agencies” to follow me wherever I go and take photographs and videos. My name was included in an official report of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests by officials at the behest of the miners, slandering and defaming me while giving a clean chit to the miners. It was many months later that the Tamil Nadu government decided to admit in the Madras High Court that they do not stand by that report. The ministry, however, is yet to take a stand on a clearly fudged report.
I have been accused of taking money from the miners’ rivals. I have been accused of being a spy for a political party. I have been accused of being a “pimp” who sends young girls to senior officers. The only thing I am yet to become is a CIA agent and a cheerleader of Donald Trump. Thankfully things have not deteriorated to that level.
My well-wishers and friends have stood by me silently, sending individual messages of support. I am indeed grateful to them. Many have asked me to stay silent—silence is the best way to douse the situation and speaking out will only escalate things, they said. Some told me the blogger has done all of this in a bid to seek publicity for himself.
But then again, when my rights have been violated, when I am unsafe, when I am forced to watch my back every step I take—why on earth should I be silent? Let the violators and the criminals stay silent. I shall certainly not. Especially when in noise lies my only safety.