The media shorthand for the situation is “the Pollachi case”, but with possibly hundreds of people directly affected by it, it might be better to call it the Pollachi crisis. A violent scheme in the town, in which women were lured, filmed while being assaulted, then blackmailed, was exposed recently when the brother of a survivor pursued her assailants. The police were alerted upon discovering the videos on their phones. The number of women who have been assaulted is estimated to be as high as 200, partly based on one of the five accused claiming that “99 women” consented to sexual encounters (Did they consent to being recorded? Did they consent without coercion? If not, it’s still assault).

The organised nature of the racket has induced widespread horror, but the reality is that the violation-and-extortion method is not uncommon in the digital era. It happens in less organised ways too, mostly by abusers exploiting the fact that women (and all queer people) have a precarious standing in our society, especially when found to have exerted agency or challenged patriarchal morality. Blackmail cannot happen otherwise. The societal rot goes so deep that photos of a sister of one of the accused were circulated with calls to rape her. Those seemingly outraged by the crimes of this racket actively encouraged further crimes, revealing how little they understand or care for the personhood, autonomy and right to safety (which is completely different from right to protection) of women.

I drew a distinction between victim and survivor, just as I drew a distinction between safety and protection, because the quantum of damage inflicted is almost certainly larger than what we know. Reports say police are reopening investigations into women’s suicides in the region over the past year because there may be a link. Given the entrenched societal misogyny, it’s likely that certain cases within this larger crisis reached such a harrowing conclusion.

It’s equally likely that the families of victims, having internalised that misogyny and thus only able to reach for its lexicon, will use terms like “love failure” or “spoiled her/her life” to explain events. It’s similar to how the original media shorthand for the crisis was not even “Pollachi case” but “Pollachi sex scandal”, as though an affair coming to light and criminal assault can both be described using the same tabloid terminology. The inability to distinguish between violation and sex – an inability that can trickle all the way down to survivors themselves, who may or may not have unlearned misogynistic conditioning – is what allowed this crisis, and others like it, to occur in the first place.

Because ultimately, “the Pollachi crisis” is also a misnomer, for it’s not restricted to Pollachi alone. The crisis in its broadest scope envelopes us all, and makes vividly clear how boasts about South India, or Tamil Nadu, being safe (or comparatively safer) for women are purposefully illusory. If hundreds of women were silenced by just five men, imagine the bigger picture. The façade of safety is maintained through denial and complicity at every level. And define “safety”. Once again, let me remind you that it isn’t the same as “protection”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.