The activist community in Tamil Nadu is troubled, tense & wary of what stand to take
When environmental activist Mugilan literally gave himself up to the police in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, a big sigh of relief washed over activists in Tamil Nadu.
Thank goodness, he was alive, said many. But soon enough, unease set in.
Mugilan went missing on February 15, soon after he released a documentary on the Tuticorin firing alleging that senior police officers were complicit in the acts of arson at the District Collector’s office, purportedly done by goons hired by Sterlite.
In the firings of May 2018, 13 people were killed when the police opened fire on people protesting against the Sterlite copper smelting plant.
Shortly after his disappearance, human rights activist Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch moved the Madras High Court with a habeas corpus petition demanding that the police find and produce Mugilan. The apprehension was that Mugilan might be in the clandestine custody of the police over his expose and his past activism.
The case was transferred to the CB-CID, an elite investigation unit of the Tamil Nadu police and a month after the activist went missing, a status report was filed by them which hinted at personal reasons for his absence.
As The Lede had reported earlier, the personal angle was that of a consensual romantic relationship between Mugilan and another activist. The CB-CID status report filed before the Madras High Court spoke of a live-in relationship which had allegedly gone sour. The report stated that as Mugilan had allegedly reneged on his promise of marriage to the woman, she had threatened to “expose” him. Mugilan though is already married and has a son in his twenties.
On 06 July, Mugilan surfaced dramatically in Tirupati. According to the CB-CID, at around 10.30 am, he jumped onto the railway tracks in front of the Mannargudi Express in the temple town, raising slogans against the central and state governments.
The Railway Police Force picked him up and escorted him to Katpadi railway station in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu by 7.25 pm the same evening by the Katpadi Passenger Express.
A CB-CID team awaited Mugilan in Vellore. He was handed over to the team by around 10.30 pm, medical check done and brought to the CB-CID office in the wee hours of 07 July. There he was charged under Sections 417 (punishment for cheating) and 376 (punishment for rape) read with Section 4 of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Of Women's Harassment Act (penalty for harassment of women).
But the usually voluble activist community in Tamil Nadu has maintained an almost eerie silence on the issue of Mugilan, especially after his return.
Senior lawyer Sudha Ramalingam who filed the habeas corpus petition on behalf of Henri Tiphagne was unwilling to comment on the issue further than to say she was relieved that Mugilan is safe.
“My concern was only the habeas corpus petition, we do not know anything beyond that,” she told The Lede. “He went missing after a sensational expose of senior policemen’s complicity in the Tuticorin shooting, so naturally we were worried.
I met him and spoke to him, He did not tell me anything. He did not say where he had been or what had happened.
Now that he has come back and is safe, our role is over. Now it is between the state, the complainant and the defense,” she added, refusing to comment on the rape charges against Mugilan.
The Lede spoke to a number of activists who have worked with and know Mugilan well. Most of them refused to speak on record due to the “sensitive nature” of the issue.
“He has put us all in a spot,” said one activist who did not wish to be named. “He has let down all of us who rooted for him.”
Many others expressed their doubts over the woman’s charges against Mugilan.
“I somehow feel that there is a hand behind these charges, some vested interests,” said another activist, on condition of anonymity. “Why did she file the complaint so late? Something is wrong,” he said.
Mugilan though does have his uneasy defenders. Like Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch who pointed to loopholes in the case.
“One of Mugilan’s colleagues from Karur who accompanied him to Chennai had nothing to do with the expose but he told us he stood outside the Chennai Press Club because he was supposed to stand guard to ensure the woman did not create a problem. We did not make it public at the time,” he told The Lede.
“It is due to this that my colleagues met her just to find out what she had to say and whether she knew anything. She told them - I am also anxious about what happened to him. She has communicated along similar lines to us at least three times prior to the FIR being registered. This is one of the reasons why we wonder if it (the FIR) was motivated,” he said.
Tiphagne continued – “If somebody does not speak from February to April there could be some suspicion about a complaint that was filed after the CB-CID took control. Without wanting to discredit the complaint or the complainant, we felt the six weeks of silence on the part of the lady is a question mark,” he argued.
But doubt does rankle – doubt over whether Mugilan was indeed guilty of what the lady said.
“The law should take its own course in whatever it is,” said Tiphagne. “It is upto Mugilan to defend himself in the allegations that have been levelled at him.
We believe that his wife and son do not believe in this relationship. None of us who have stayed with Mugilan in Madurai or in Chennai have had any iota of doubt about his integrity,” he adds.
“I am happy that he has surfaced. I am happy that there are no physical marks of torture as far as my counsel could see. As a genuine human rights defender I can only hope that he will be brought before the court so that he can speak and clarify what happened to him. Until then we will all suffer from this lack of clarity,” he admitted.
With a section of the Tamil media going to town over rumours of Mugilan’s alleged womanising and character assassination, many activists are livid. They are asking themselves whether this could happen to them if they were arrested on trumped up charges.
SP Udayakumar, known for his leadership of the anti-nuclear power plant protests in Idinthakarai, is one such. He too admits his confusion and doubt over Mugilan’s case but he states that he felt the need to support the activist especially when the media was tarnishing his image.
“I myself was not sure how to react to this whole episode because there were different versions. We were not sure what was going on. So finally we took a stand that whatever had happened, it is the state’s responsibility to find him and bring him back. Now that he has been found, I am quite happy and relieved that he is alive and well.
But now only he can speak and say what has happened to him. He has said that he will speak only to the judge. Maybe he is afraid to talk to the police because they might twist his statements, so he is insisting on talking only to the judge,” said Udayakumar.
Udayakumar echoes the doubts of Tiphagne about the veracity of the charges filed by the lady against Mugilan and its timing.
“I have a suspicion that she is working for some vested interests in the police. But I don’t want to intervene in all that, let the police investigate and bring the truth out,” he added.
Udayakumar feels that Mugilan’s case has caused harm to the entire activist community in Tamil Nadu.
“From now on, when we take the bag and walk out, our neighbours will be looking at us, wondering where we are going and what we are going to do,” he said.
“This undermines the credibility of activists and the struggles that we have all gone through over so many decades.
I feel very sorry that Mugilan and the woman have made this happen. The activist community has taken a beating. I wish Mugilan had been careful with his behaviour and his choice of friends.
The next time something happens to an activist no one is going to bother. They are going to think that he/she is upto no good.”
Udayakumar also feels that the turmoil amongst the activist community and their silence is simply due to lack of information.
“In fact when Mugilan was missing, many people were ambiguous about the whole thing. Even now people are still ambiguous. I really hope he tells the complete version and the whole issue is resolved as soon as possible,” he said.
The question of whether rape charges against Mugilan, in the event of a consensual relationship gone sour, is fair, is another talking point amongst activists.
“That is another problem,” said SP Udayakumar. “If these charges are true then Mugilan must face the law. But if they are being used to fix him, then it must be opposed and fought.”
The Supreme Court in April 2019 had ruled that sex on the false promise of marriage would be deemed as rape.
The same court had also ruled in January that consensual sex amongst live-in partners would not be tantamount to rape if the man could not, for reasons beyond his control, marry the woman as promised.
“Everyone including the lady knew that Mugilan was married and has a son of marriageable age,” said SP Udayakumar. “How can it be rape? Even if he forced himself on her, she could have come forward and told us immediately afterward and we would have supported her,” he said.
What actually transpired between Mugilan and the lady though is bound to unravel only once the court hearings get underway.
“I will speak for human rights defenders only and I refer to them when I call them public figures,” continued Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch.
“Public figures need to ensure that their public lives and personal lives match completely. As far as I am concerned, there is no concept of a private life for human rights defenders.
So whatever you are, whatever you preach in public, you must practice within your family, with your colleagues, with your juniors, your students.
It is hypocrisy if there is a mismatch in the public and private life of human rights defenders,” he said.
Hypocrisy though assumes a variety of forms – from patriarchy and misogyny to class and caste discrimination, the activist community of Tamil Nadu is no exception to the failings of the rest of its citizens.