Chennai (India): The stench from the audio file that has rocked Tamil Nadu since Sunday has reached the Raj Bhavan in Chennai. Within 48 hours, Governor Banwarilal Purohit has taken note of the sexual favours that were sought by an assistant professor of Devanga Arts college in Virudhunagar, affiliated to the Madurai Kamaraj University and ordered a probe by a retired IAS officer, R Santhanam. The report is to be submitted before 30 April.
So far, so good. But look beyond what seems to be a smokescreen and you will be surprised to know that the governor has given himself a clean chit even before the probe has commenced. This, despite Professor Nirmala Devi making a specific reference to the governor in the audio file.
During the 20-minute-long conversation that Nirmala Devi holds with four of her BSc (Maths) third year students over speakerphone, she lures them for sex work, offering them an “opportunity”. She asks them to “adjust with higher officials”, promising financial support, even a monthly salary and all kinds of academic help. She specifically refers to the video of the meeting the governor recently addressed at the University, offering that as evidence of her access to people in powerful positions. In Tamil, she says, “Governor thatha illai”.
Now, there are two ways this sentence can be possibly interpreted. One is to say the governor is not an old man (the word ‘thatha’ being used in a colloquial way), thereby hinting at something. The other is to refer to the Governor as ‘grandfather’ (thatha) in a respectful manner and say he is not involved. Purohit has been given the latter explanation by Raj Bhavan officials.
More so, when Nirmala Devi’s claims seem to suggest some level of compromise inside the University, where the governor is the chancellor. On the contrary, Purohit dismisses the allegations of “sexual misconduct” as baseless, claiming he has never seen the face of the lady in question.
Adopting a patronising tone for most part of the interaction, Purohit bristled at questions that asked how the committee could not include the governor in the investigation and to top it, submit the report to Raj Bhavan, which is the institution under a cloud.
“I am 78 years old. I am your senior. I have great grandchildren too. I am so lucky. Never say this to me,” he said, dismissing the charge, saying even a bird cannot come near him without permission as he is always surrounded by his team. Purohit clearly has not heard of how the Raj Bhavan in a neighbouring state was misused by a veteran governor. That it is important for this high office to remain untainted in public perception.
The facts of the case point to a sordid saga of sleaze within the Tamil Nadu education system, with a professor willing to pimp her students to someone high-profile and well-connected politically. She dissuades them from discussing the issue with their parents while promising that doing what she suggested will take them to the next level in life. Even after the girls tell the professor that they are not interested, Nirmala Devi does not give up and continues with her attempt to brainwash them. She even claims that “they tested me a lot” before giving her “this assignment”.
Two days after the students complained to the college authorities on 19 March, Nirmala Devi was suspended. But it was not until the tape that went public on 15 April, that protests broke out at the institute and a police case was filed. Subsequently, the government ordered a CID inquiry but the Opposition is demanding that the CBI should probe the matter involving the high and the mighty. Purohit has stood his ground, claiming it is his right to order an independent investigation as the chancellor of the University.
When asked about the terms of reference of the Santhanam committee, the governor’s reply was evasive. “A to Z, everything, he can travel everywhere,” he replied.
One may argue that if Purohit had anything to hide, he would not have submitted himself to sharp questions from the media. The governor obviously wanted to send the message that he had no skeletons in his cupboard. More so because the CPM has already demanded the recall of the governor. But the manner in which he has kept Raj Bhavan out of bounds of the Santhanam committee with his ‘I am clean’ narrative, Purohit has not covered his office with glory.
The silver lining is that Santhanam is a bureaucrat with an impeccable reputation for probity. His peers say that he can be expected to do an honest job, without getting influenced. Santhanam may just be the person needed to launch the Swachh University Abhiyan in Tamil Nadu.