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More than murder, a public discourse most foul

July 20, 2016 17:45 IST

The public discourse surrounding the murder of Infosys techie Swathi begs for sanity. Sadly, there are no takers for it in Tamil Nadu as conspiracy theories -- some communally explosive -- keep cropping up. R Ramasubramanian reports.

The brutal killing of 24-year-old Swathi, an Infosys techie, has polarised Tamil Nadu -- its polity, media and social life -- like never before.

Swathi's murder on June 24 morning at the Nungambakkam railway station in Chennai when she was waiting to catch the morning train to go to her office, received wide coverage both in the local and national media.

The police, who were clueless and somewhat lethargic for the first few days, swung into action after a division bench of the Madras high court took suo motu cognisance of the murder.

The case, which was initially investigated by the Government Railway Police, was transferred to the Chennai police on June 27 afternoon, of course after getting a rap from the court.

On July 2, the Chennai police arrested Ramkumar, a 24-year-old Dalit boy from Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district and charged him with murdering Swathi and then fleeing to his village.

At the time of his arrest, the police claimed that Ramkumar tried to commit suicide by slitting his throat with a blade. Ramkumar, who was immediately admitted to the ICU at the Tirunelveli Government Hospital, was later shifted to Chennai and produced before a magistrate and remanded to judicial custody. He was later taken into "police custody" for three days for further interrogation.

On the day of the arrest, while confirming officially that they have indeed nabbed the "killer", Chennai Police Commissioner T K Rajendran said Ramkumar acted alone in executing the murder.

Though the commissioner refused to divulge any other detail -- especially the motive behind the gruesome killing -- the local media went ahead and published stories that during his police custody, Ramkumar has confessed that he had done this heinous act because Swathi simply ignored his proposal and scolded him in foul language.

There is a third character in this tragic drama, and he is 24-year-old Mohammed Bhilal Siddique.

Reportedly a friend of Swathi, the police brought him in at the time of Ramkumar’s custodial interrogation and placed him face to face with the alleged killer to ascertain the truth.

Media reports suggested that Siddique, who belongs to a middle-class family, was known to Swathi for quite some time and both of them studied or worked together.

Local media reports also suggested that Swathi's family did not relish this acquaintance and discouraged her from further interactions.

The whole story got a nasty twist when two prominent Tamil film personalities -- Y G Mahendran and S Ve Sekhar -- in their Facebook postings suggested that one Bilal Malik was Swathi's original killer. The name too seemed to have been carefully chosen; a person by the name Bilal Malik was a murder accused in another case, and was already in prison.

Angered by this, a Muslim outfit -- a few hours after the post went viral -- approached the Chennai police commissioner demanding action against the actors, claiming that they were instigating communal violence in the state.

Under mounting pressure from several quarters, the Facebook posting was withdrawn and Mahendran expressed his regret about the whole incident.

But the controversy refused to die down and on July 18 it took an ugly turn.

Thol Thirumavalavan, ex-MP and leader of Dalit outfit Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, in an interview to a local Tamil news channel said there were reasons to believe that Swathi’s murder could be a case of honour killing.

"I have credible information that Swathi, a Brahmin, was observing Ramzan fast and about to get converted in to Islam. This angle must be probed," the Dalit leader claimed.

As expected, the statement triggered an uproar.

H Raja, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, demanded the immediate arrest of Thirumavalavan for creating communal tensions and also withholding information from the police.

He went a step further and added... "Our information is otherwise. It was (Swathi's friend) Bhilal Siddique who wanted to convert to Hinduism and for this he had started getting having vegetarian food.”

On July 18, a little known women's outfit with an open tilt towards the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP petitioned the Chennai police commissioner to immediately arrest Thirumavalavan for "usurping communal passions".

With the police not coming out with clear-cut answers for several unanswered questions, it was a field day for the local media and of course for the scores of "social media tigers".

The plethora of theories included: 'The NIA is investigating the case as the killing could have been linked to some sort of sleeper cell activities'; 'honour killing as those close to Swathi did not like her getting married to a Muslim'; 'the killing was done by the other side -- the boy's  -- because the girl refused to convert'; 'Ramkumar was only a hired killer, as the actual instigator was rejected by her' etc.

Swathi's Facebook page was blocked a couple of days after her murder.

However, Ramkumar's Facebook page, which had been dysfunctional since August 2015, suddenly resurrected on July 18.

A 20-minute video posted on his page punches holes in the police theory and raises several interesting questions. But it is not clear how Ramkumar’s Facebook page could have been re-activated when he is behind bars. It is also not clear who blocked Swathi’s page because the police say they had not done it.

With each passing day, the situation is getting murkier and new theories are being floated at regular intervals.

A report in an English daily suggested that the Chennai police are planning to get a gag order from the high court on this case like the one the CBI got in the Aarushi Talwar case. Though no media house or any journalist body in the state has reacted to this suggestion, it has its own takers.

"The developments are nauseating. A Facebook posting from two actors suggesting a Muslim as the killer was the trigger. Then the other side started speaking that that the Swathi's murder could be an honour killing and now it is free for all," M G Deivasayam, former chief secretary of Haryana and an IAS officer, told

"Both sides should be blamed for this. The media has started harassing the judiciary like never before and this is the situation throughout the country. I will support it if the police approach the high court and get a gag order on such irresponsible coverage. Whether it's honour killing or not, a murder is a murder and if anyone has any information about the case he or she should give it to the police instead of rushing to the media,” he said.

A senior retired police officer, on condition of anonymity, said: "This is a sensitive case. The girl killed belonged to the Brahmin community and the boy is arrested a Dalit and the third character is a Muslim. Just imagine the pressure on the government and the police. A small trigger can lead to a lot of nasty things. I am not passing any value judgment on the whole incident and the culpability of the accused, because that is up to the courts to decide. I only want every stakeholder in this case and the media to keep this in mind while talking or writing about this murder and the investigations.”

Saner words indeed, but alas, there are few takers for this in Tamil Nadu today. Until some other issue crops up, Swathi's murder will continue to dominate both the media and the public discourse. 

R Ramasubramanian in Chennai