‘Savukku’ Shankar’s arrest: Strong message to government critics in Tamil Nadu?

Shankar is not by a long shot the first person to be arrested for comments on social media. Even harmless memes have landed people in jail.

ByDr Sumanth Raman

Published May 12, 2024 | 9:00 AMUpdatedMay 12, 2024 | 1:36 PM

Goondas Act on YouTuber 'Savukku' Shankar

For a party that has constantly accused the BJP of throttling freedom, including the freedom of speech, the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu has shown remarkable willingness to use the same playbook to curb dissent.

The arrest of journalist, activist and Youtuber Achimuthu Shankar, better known as “Savukku” Shankar (Savukku means whip in Tamil), and Felix Gerald, the man who interviewed him recently — when he spoke in a derogatory and defamatory manner about women police personnel — has again drawn attention to how governments irrespective of their political ideology approach the freedom of speech.

Shankar has been a thorn in the flesh of the ruling DMK for almost two years now.

Earlier, he went after the then-ruling AIADMK, and once the DMK came to power, after a brief honeymoon, he started targeting them through his social media interviews and posts. Shankar has been abusive and defamatory and has liberally slandered people in his videos, which have a viewership of several lakhs each.

He has also used personal attacks, targeted the private lives of the first family of the state and many others and has not pulled his punches in targeting senior bureaucrats, police officers of the state and judges.

Defamation cases were definitely in order, but in Tamil Nadu, as in many other states, ruling parties have little patience for the process of law. If they can arrest, they will, and Sankar is now in jail.

Earlier also, his defamatory speeches had landed him in prison when the courts took up suo-moto contempt proceedings against him for his remarks against a judge.

At last count, Savukku  Shankar faced seven cases filed in different parts of the state. Besides defamation, there is also a case related to the possession of ganja.

Also read: Arrest sparks debate on free speech

Controversial to the core

An FIR by a lady journalist six years ago has also been acted upon. He has been arrested in many of these cases while already in prison and now faces prolonged incarceration.

Shankar started his career in the Tamil Nadu Police Department as an administrative staff member, a job he got when his father died while in service.

In 2008, the police arrested him for allegedly leaking audio transcripts of a conversation between an ADGP and a then-minister that cost the minister her job. A few years later, he claimed he leaked transcripts of conversations between a senior police officer and DMK party leaders in the 2G case.

He has relentlessly pursued corruption cases against the powerful, often producing documents that embarrassed the politicians in power in AIADMK and the DMK.

However, his unrestrained tongue, the cavalier manner in which he slandered people without producing evidence, and his foray into people’s personal lives made him a prime target for the ruling government and many other politicians, bureaucrats, and policemen. The police, whose shenanigans he regularly called out on his YouTube channel, appeared determined to get him.

After they get him, they appear to have a flood of cases filed against him.

Shankar’s lawyer also alleged that he was subjected to custodial violence in Coimbatore jail, resulting in a fracture of the arm. He was allegedly denied treatment until the court ordered it.

Even though the prison authorities denied the torture charge, the fact remains that they took him to Coimbatore Medical College Hospital for treatment with his arm in a sling and a cast.

Shankar is not by a long shot the first person to be arrested for comments on social media. Even harmless memes have landed people in jail.

Most of the leading social media figures associated with the BJP have faced at least one stint in jail on flimsy charges.

Related: Will continue to expose DMK, says Shankar

Media in Tamil Nadu

Those from the ruling party side who have said as much or worse have largely been spared.

It is unclear if Chief Minister MK Stalin ordered or was even aware of the crackdown on social media users and journalists. In Tamil Nadu, the media is mostly an extension of the ruling party’s propaganda machine, and there is little space for dissent. Even though that has been the case for decades, the trend has become more pronounced now.

The media does not break stories and shows zero interest in investigative journalism; unearthing corruption is strictly forbidden. So, in all fairness, the likes of Shankar virtually play the role the mainstream media should have played (minus the defamation and slander, of course).

The popularity and fame might have gone to his head. Or perhaps he thought that his sources in the police and government would save him. Savukku Shankar seems to have miscalculated the determination of the ruling administration to get him.

Felix Gerald of the Red Pix Youtube channel, the interviewer for many of Shankar’s videos, including where he spoke in a defamatory manner against women police in the state, also stands detained, with the police picking him up in Delhi.

Perhaps the government believes it can use Shankar as an example to those who may be critical of it. The right way to have dealt with him would have been to slap him with defamation cases, but by arresting him, the ruling party has shown that its accusations of high-handedness against the BJP ring hollow.

The space for dissent in Tamil Nadu was already small. It has shrunk further.

(Dr Sumanth Raman is a health innovation specialist and television personality, an avid quizzer, sports commentator, columnist and political analyst. Views are personal.)