The Pollachi sexual assault and extortion racket is an ugly blot in the history of Coimbatore, the ‘Manchester of South India’. Even today, the infamous Pollachi sexual assault videos, which contain the crying pleas of helpless women–”Anna adikkathinga anna… Naaney kalatturen..!” (Brother please don’t beat me. I will remove the dress myself), have sent a chill down many a spine across the state of Tamil Nadu.
It was a burning issue in the state and in Coimbatore district when it came to light in 2019. The farmhouse, where the sexual assault was committed on the girls, which were filmed to later blackmail them for sexual favours and money, is ironically located within a kilometer from the temple of Pollachi’s local deity, Maasaani Amman.
One of the many myths surrounding the deity talks of how Maasaani, a married pregnant woman was walking with her husband in search of a ‘maruthuvachi‘ (a village woman who treats ailments) to deliver the baby. On the way, she stops in the middle of a forest unable to bear the labour pain and urges her husband to bring the maruthuvachi to her.
The story goes that an Asura spied Maasaani alone in the forest and captivated by her beauty approaches her with an ill-intention. However, Maasaani’s fervent prayer makes Asura go blind. The shock of the incident leads her to miscarry and she dies. There are many young brave women like her in Tamil tradition who were designated as local deities after their death and Maasaani too was christened as one. People in the region wonder at her “silence” in the face of the atrocities against women in her locality.
Is Pollachi case an election issue?
In the days that followed, with the arrest of Arulanantham, the student’s wing secretary of the AIADMK, who was immediately sacked from his party, the locals here assumed that the Pollachi sexual assault case would turn into a major poll issue in the 2021 Assembly elections.
But, the question now is will this incident really make a dent in AIADMK’s traditional vote bank in the area?
Sivakami (name changed), a resident working in the Maasaani Amman temple does not believe it will have an effect on the voters. “People were talking about the issue vociferously at that time. Now, all the talks have died down. The case is no more an issue here. We need to forget and move on,” she said.
This is the general mood of the people in the Pollachi Lok Sabha constituency, under which six Assembly segments fall. The issue is still fresh in the minds of only a handful of people in the Pollachi Assembly constituency. It has not turned into an election issue in the neighbouring Assembly constituencies such as Valparai, Udumalaipettai and Kinathukkadavu.
However, a local journalist felt that people are still simmering with anger but prefer to keep their views to themselves. “The issue had an immediate fallout in the Lok Sabha elections and in the local body elections. This happened as a normal course of events without DMK having to campaign about it. So it means people are angry about the issue, and they silently registered their anger by voting against AIADMK, even though Gounder candidates contested,” said Vinoth.
Further, he added that people in this region are well-educated and economically developed. “They have an aversion to openly give their views on issues. The culture here is an elite one, people here consider talking loudly as being impolite,” pointed out Vinoth.
According to the scribe, people are still very angry about the issue. “So this time too, we can expect people to silently vote against AIADMK. The DMK has fielded a first-timer named K Varadarajan, who has many advantages. Being an ortho-specialist for 30 years, he has earned the goodwill of the locals here through his service. Moreover, he is a Gounder, whereas the sitting MLA Pollachi V Jayaraman is a Chettiar.”
Saranya, 32, a fancy store employee and a Pollachi resident meanwhile had a different view. She said that while the women above the age of 50 are still loyal to the AIADMK even after the horrific incident, the younger lot had mixed opinions. “Most of the women either young or old are not concerned since they were untouched by it,” she said.
Political commentator Pongalur Manikandan said that the incident basically happened among a small group of youngsters and it turned out some of the youth were affiliated to the AIADMK. “There is no doubt that the perpetrators must be convicted. But making a political party responsible for this whole incident is unfair and not gone down well among the people here,” he said.
Flawed understanding of Tamil culture
The Pollachi incident is not exactly an election issue in the locality itself and neither is it being discussed even in the neighbouring constituencies just a kilometer away from the town. Hence, there is not much conversations about it in constituencies in the western region as well despite the fact that some perpetrators were allegedly related to AIADMK leader, V Jayaraman, the Deputy Speaker.
If this is the situation on the ground, why has it then become a determining factor in this election? One of the reasons probably lies in the imaginative Tamil culture, which was built up over time with liberal input from Tamil cinema.
Interestingly, from the 1980s to early 2000s, Pollachi has been the hotspot for the Tamil film industry. That was the time when rural themed stories had a good run in the box offices. Due to its lush paddy fields, spacious coconut fields, scenic water bodies, Pollachi has always been the first choice of the filmmakers to shoot films here, with Gobi Chettipalayam in Erode district coming a close second.
Most of these films, celebrated so-called elements of Tamil culture – a rapist should marry the victim to “save” her, or if a woman lost her virginity she should commit suicide and a woman should always support her husband even if he does wrong, etc.
“These kinds of films made our people believe that what’s shown in films is our true culture. But the reality is opposite,” observed Namakkal-based Tamil litterateur Po Velsamy.
In the historic records documented by the British of the Kongu region and from books written by Indian writers, one can understand the kind of culture that prevailed in the state of Tamil Nadu in the past, he said.
In the book Administration and Social Life under the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur, the author KM Venkataramaiah writes that daughters were sold for prostitution and religious conversions in return for monetary benefits, said Velsamy, adding that while good looking girls were introduced to prostitution, others were married off.
Interestingly, selling girls for prostitution was also ostensibly practised in the Kongu region. According to another book Kongu Vellalar Seppettu Pattayangal, archeologist S Rasu, claimed that copper plate inscriptions shows Devadasis (courtesans) were called as Kulamaanikki and the tradition of ‘pottu kattudhal’ thrived ( in which a girl was given to temple, where she was expected to enthrall people through her dance and music).
“The cinematic portrayal of chastity therefore is baseless. However, due to these imaginative narratives, people believed that there would anger over the Pollachi incident and that will impact the elections,” Velsamy added.
Why women vote for AIADMK
It is to be noted that the Pollachi assembly segment, traditionally is an AIADMK bastion because of its candidate Pollachi Jayaraman. He is a man who allegedly fulfills his promises, according to the locals. But not only Pollachi, western Tamil Nadu have always extended its support to ‘two leaves’ because of Amma – the ‘Jayalalithaa’ factor.
Being a woman, Jayalalithaa was able to garner the votes of women here. The number of women voters are substantially high here but will they still vote for AIADMK sans a woman leader remains to be seen.
“Jayalalithaa died, so what? Sexual assault occurred, so what? I will still vote for ‘rettai ilai’. It is our family tradition to vote for AIADMK,” said Sivakami.
Velsamy gives another rationale behind the voting pattern of women here. According to him, the former Chief Minister, MGR’s charisma had an impact on women here too.
“Many women imagined MGR as their husband, when he ruled over the silver screen. Based on this, writer Jayakanthan has even written a book titled Cinemavukku Pona Siththaalu,” he pointed out.
According to Velsamy, contrary to the popular notion, Jayalalithaa did not attract votes for her personality, she was just part of MGR’s legacy. “She shared MGR’s limelight. That’s all. The women generally vote for whoever contests in the ‘two leaves’ symbol,” he said.
The DMK too is not riding a popularity wave here. Manikandan said the late DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s role during the farmers protest against hiking the power tariff rates in the 1970s goes against them. “Three farmers were killed in police firing at Perumanallur village (which is now under Tirupur district) and this incident still remains in the minds of people here,” he said.
The Kongu belt is already antagonistic towards DMK, and now A Raja’s comment has further fuelled the anger of Gounders. Manikandan said that while other parts of the state view Raja’s comment from the women’s angle, western TN is seeing it from a caste angle.
“The Gounders here feel that Edappadi Palaniswami, a Gounder, has been hurt by the slur made by Raja, a scheduled caste. If the same comment had been made by a DMK Gounder, it could have not created this level of furore,” he said.
Can AIADMK bank on Raja’s comment, given as it is used as a tool by both AIADMK and BJP candidates across the state to counter DMKs attempts to make Pollachi case an election issue in western Tamil Nadu?
“The traditional women voters vote for AIADMK, because they are more conscious about caste than men. They think that if DMK comes to power, the scheduled caste people will get an upper hand. They don’t think independently and are heavily influenced by their families,” said Sai S Sureshkumar, a researcher who has extensively studied about western Tamil Nadu.
Moreover, first-time voters and young voters are supporting actor Kamal Hassan and Seeman. “So their votes will actually split the votes of DMK but will not affect the AIADMK vote bank,” added Sureshkumar.
Manikandan concurs with him. The western region is made up of voters who are career-oriented, and the issues of sexual assault and sexist remarks have low takers among the youth. “Young people are desperate for a change. Kamal Hassan has been received among them well” he said.