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Activist Piyush Manush faces allegations of sexual harassment
Activist Piyush Manush faces allegations of sexual harassment
Crime

#MeToo Arrives Amidst Tamil Nadu’s Activists

Following the charges of rape against environmental activist Mugilan, another activist Piyush Manush is under the lens

Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar

On July 08, environmental activist Piyush Manush, aka Piyush Sethia, took to doing a Facebook live to air his views on the controversy surrounding the case of activist Mugilan, currently charged with rape of a fellow activist.

In that video, Piyush said in Tamil – “I am very happy that Mugilan is back safe and happy…

Kiruba Munusamy wrote an article saying all kinds of things – that I steal bamboo, that I never filed RTI applications, that I haven’t gone to jail. She adds a line at the end saying Piyush told me owls will not have sex with only one person like humans. There is nothing else – she doesn’t say that I pulled her hands or feet, nothing. That post goes viral because someone abused her over her colour. This article comes in Times Tamil. Now an article written by Thamarai about Mugilan appears in the same Times Tamil. See the pattern…

I have raised my voice against Jaggi Vasudev. Jaggi gives the friends of this same Kiruba Munusamy 1.75 acres land inside his ashram. Let us ask Kiruba Munusamy. I have already sent her a message regarding this, she has not denied it. Okay never mind - that is her business.

But we are seeing the same pattern in the Mugilan case now. Even if they had had sex, it was consensual sex. How will you call it rape? He will come out of this case, Supreme Court strictures are very clear…

The only reason we are alive is because of the affection that the public shows us. Otherwise the government would have cut us into pieces by now. Show your affection to Mugilan because that is his strength. It is also my strength. The only thing government has is false propaganda….

As far as his personal life is concerned, Mugilan’s wife will take care and she will punish him.”

The video triggered a lashback on July 10 from Supreme Court lawyer Kiruba Munusamy on social media.

What she wrote on Twitter and on Facebook was a reiteration of what she had already publicised three years ago.

Kiruba had, on 18 July 2016 itself, posted a detailed message on Facebook, a week or so after Piyush Manush had been arrested and beaten by police for protesting against a flyover project in Salem.

The post, which is in Tamil, speaks about sexual harassment allegedly meted out to Kiruba by the activist when she worked for him as a young law student in Salem.

The Lede reached out to both Kiruba Munusamy and Piyush Manush with interview requests.

Kiruba spoke to The Lede at length over phone from Delhi.

Piyush Manush’s responses have been added to the end of this story.

Kiruba’s Story

“I was in my third year of law college in Salem,” began Kiruba. This was in 2006-07. “We were living in the slums and slowly we moved out to upper caste localities. We stayed in a housing board apartment. My eldest sister is a homeopathy doctor, my second sister is an engineer and I am a lawyer,” she said.

Kiruba Munusamy has alleged that Piyush Manush sexually harassed her
Kiruba Munusamy has alleged that Piyush Manush sexually harassed her

Born into a Dalit family, Kiruba says they had to live constantly under fear of being attacked on the premise of caste. “We would lie about our caste and say we belong to a dominant caste if anyone asked,” she recalled. “My parents were very clear – they wanted all three daughters to get a good education and they single mindedly went about it. There was no talk of marriage for any of us until we graduated,” she said.

In third year there were only two hours of classes and so she decided to get a part time job to help pay for her text books. “My friend Karkivelan saw that I was interested in Ambedkarite philosophy so he took me to a human rights seminar at the Raghavachari Hall in Salem. I met Piyush Sethia and Poomozhi there for the first time,” she recalled.

Poomozhi is an activist himself.

Karkivelan then told Kiruba about a part time job working in Piyush Sethia’s office for a salary of Rs 2000 a month. The job involved filing RTI applications and typing up documents, sending emails on Piyush’s behalf. Kiruba says she was also asked to collect photographs for exhibitions and accompany school children on a bus tour to see how sewage was polluting fresh water in the city of Salem.

“The RTI applications would all be sent in my name,” said Kiruba. “I found it odd but initially did not resist. Piyush then asked me to go meet the then Salem Mayor Rekha Priyadarshini and confront her about solid waste management. I knew the Mayor well because her sister and I are childhood friends. I was afraid to go. I thought she might scold me for daring to confront her and might tell my parents.

We had given up eating beef for 20-odd years simply because we wanted to live in better lodgings and study and come up in life. My parents had made sure nothing would interfere with our education.

Now what would happen if the police came to our house if I confronted the Mayor? I was very worried that I might lose all that I had been working so hard for,” she said.

A week or so after joining Piyush’s office, her second meeting with Poomozhi took place. He arrived at Piyush’s office and stood staring at her. “Before he left, he showed signs as if to say call me. I called him after work. He said to me – be careful with him. During protests he will be there for the media then he will escape arrest. He has privilege, he is from a big family,” recounted Kiruba.

After this conversation, Kiruba says she stopped putting her name on RTI applications.

Kiruba had decided to leave the workplace. She says she wanted to collect her first month’s salary and then resign. Salary though did not arrive on time.

The Proposition

In the interim, as she was awaiting payment, Piyush asked her to accompany him to a school in Dharmapuri for a project. Both of them drove down and upon return, she says, Piyush sprung a shock.

“He said you are looking good today,” said Kiruba. “Then he said – and I don’t remember his exact words – that he and I should have sex. I very innocently told him – Sir, I am sorry I will have this kind of relationship only with the person I marry. He then told me – only owls will have one partner for their lifetime. Humans are like dogs, they can fuck anybody they want,” she said.

Kiruba says she was shocked into silence and went home. She did not go back to the office. “After two days I called up Piyush and said exams are coming and my parents are asking me to stop working so please give me my salary. He asked for my account number. I said I did not have an account and that I would ask my parents and give it to him. I did not say anything to anyone about the incident at that time – I was afraid of being shamed for going to Dharmapuri with him in the first place,” she recalled.

After a month, Piyush got in touch with Kiruba again. “He called me and said can I come and see you? Are you at home. I told him, yes, I am at home but my parents are not around and it would not look good and I disconnected the call.”

By June 2008, Kiruba had said goodbye to Salem, moved to Chennai and joined a legal office. “I met Karkivelan at the Madras High Court and shouted at him for not telling me about the kind of person Piyush was. He laughed and said I knew all this would happen but I thought you are a strong girl and you can handle him,” she recounted.

Subsequently Piyush attempted to contact Kiruba via Facebook Messenger, leaving his number for her to call him back on. Kiruba says she did not respond, she did not wish to be in contact with him.

#MeToo Arrives Amidst Tamil Nadu’s Activists

In July 2016, Piyush was arrested during the protest over the Salem flyover. “He became a hero overnight and was celebrated by the media,” said Kiruba who was practicing at the Supreme Court by then.

“I was angry that a person who claimed to be an environmental activist was actually a businessman who dealt in bamboo furniture, in land development and solicited investments in his organic farming business. I wanted people to know that he was no hero – that he had sexually harassed me and other women as well.”

She went public on Facebook with her story.

And then came the abuses. Kiruba was body-shamed and supporters of Piyush called her “black with a burnt face”. One troll even said no one would want to have a physical relationship with someone who looked like her. They discussed Piyush’s “taste” in women and stated that it would not extend to the likes of Kiruba.

Furious, Kiruba attempted to file a cyber crime complaint at the Karol Bagh police station in Delhi near her residence. The police there told her they could not understand the posts which were in Tamil and told her to go to Chennai instead.

Kiruba arrived in Chennai and filed a complaint. “The policeman who took my complaint sat me down and adviced me not to pursue this. He told me – you’re a lawyer, you’re saying Piyush is a fraud, let him be, don’t do this.

Cyber crime complaint receipt 
Cyber crime complaint receipt 

I fought with the policeman. He then told me that all the abusive comments had been deleted from my Facebook account. I don’t know how they did it.

I insisted that I wanted action to be taken. He told me how to retain my reputation as a lawyer,” she said.

In 2017 Piyush sent another message to Kiruba via Facebook messenger implying that she was involved in procuring 1.75 acres of land from the Isha Foundation for her friends.

“Piyush is not on my friend’s list so I did not see that notification until much later,” claimed Kiruba. “Now he says I did not respond to him, therefore I am guilty as charged. The friends he is talking about are Poomozhi and one other person. I have met Poomozhi only twice as I told you earlier. I have not been in contact with either Poomozhi or the other person and I have no idea what this land deal is all about,” she said.

“Piyush has not responded to my charges of sexual harassment,” continued Kiruba. “He said in an interview in Puthiya Thalaimurai (a Tamil news channel) that if he had behaved harshly with his employees, he was sorry. But he has not clarified the sexual harassment charge. He has not apologised.

I am sure he will deny it – it is natural for him to deny. But he has no right to question my ideology and integrity. He is trying to paint me as a corporate or government stooge and I will not stand for it. If he were a real activist as he claims, he will not malign my work.”

Kiruba is also angry with the tight male tribe of activists who, despite knowing about this episode, have chosen to stay silent, even while she drew flak for speaking up.

“All these Periyar-Ambedkarites, Leftist groups who protest for everything – no one supported a fellow activist when all that abuse came. Women activists too have not supported me, they maintain silence. Some advice me not to write about him and make him a big shot. But people need to know who they are hailing or following. This cannot go on,” she said.

Piyush Manush's Responses

Piyush Manush responded to The Lede’s queries and to allegations against him by Kiruba Munusamy. Here is what he had to say.

“With regard to the accusations of sexual misconduct, theft of bamboo, financial malpractices and disproportionate accumulation of wealth that Kiruba Munusamy has made against me, I am open to an enquiry either by police, court or by an independent and fair panel with members recommended by Kiruba Munusamy.

While in prison as the bail was applied (on 19 July 2016) by Monika (Piyush’s wife), Kiruba wrote the post and it landed on the judge’s table presented by the public prosecutor.

After a few days her associates accept a land gifted by Jaggi (Vasudev). Her associates’ action against a school supporting our work as shared by Kiruba - Poomozhi whom she now denies having association with.

In several videos that she has aired she is giving different versions. In your article there is a different version.

She claimed in Nakkheeran (Tamil magazine) that she did not have any contact with me after she left the job except for seeking salary which I denied.

A new angle comes in your article that I wanted to go to her home.

She claims in an interview that she deleted me as a Facebook friend. (But...)

#MeToo Arrives Amidst Tamil Nadu’s Activists

In the original article she claims (she was) working with us for a few months. Now she claims one month with no salary paid.

With regard to the recent sexual accusation she claims that I proposed to her and on denial by her I uttered that owl story. But in the article written in 2016 while I was in prison and the beating was brought out by my wife, she produced the article in which only the dialogue is mentioned and her understanding the meaning much later. (Here Piyush is referring to Kiruba’s FB post in 2016)

Her contradictions would be brought out only when an enquiry is conducted.

I have been arrested earlier many times. Multiple cases have been filed against me prior to 2016.

Regarding the sexual harassment charge - whether she proposed or I proposed, none can prove or disprove.

Rest of the charges that are listed in the article needs to be listed and proved by her.

The Vedanta case filed in 2008 was RTI work by me. The Jindal Kanja Malai RTI won us the hill.

She came to Salem while I was in prison, organised meeting with comrades and asked them not to protest for me.

All said and done the enquiry to be constituted would bring out the truth.

With regard to her claim in the video released that I did not condemn her abusers. Here is my post in FB posted in 2016 as soon as I came out of prison - a response to her allegations and also the condemnation against the trolls.

REPLY TO CERTAIN ALLEGATIONS AGAINST ME 24 July, 2016 The person who has made allegations against me worked with...

Posted by Piyush Manush on Sunday, July 24, 2016

(This story has been updated with responses from activist Piyush Manush)