It was a busy day for journalists who covered the controversy over an audio clip of Professor Nirmala Devi of Devanga Arts College in Aruppukottai, who allegedly tried to lure some girl students to perform sexual favours for officials in Madurai Kamaraj University. The 19-minute clip had created a furore because she claims in it that she has access to the Governor of Tamil Nadu. It was against this backdrop that Governor Banwarilal Purohit called a press conference at the Raj Bhavan.
I reached there around 5:30pm, with two colleagues from Manorama News television channel. It was a crowded press conference—correspondents from the national media and regional ones were present. And, they had many questions—the tape controversy, the appointment of a Kannadiga as the vice chancellor of Anna University and the media reports that the Union home ministry was investigating a governor for misconduct.
I was sitting in the first row throughout the press conference. I asked three questions on the allegations of sexual misconduct and on the home ministry probe. He brushed them aside as “nonsense, and baseless allegation”. When a scribe asked him about a woman professor dropping his name in a recorded audio conversation, he said he had not even seen her face. “I attend so many convocations,” he said. “Most of the members are on the dais. They move here and there. What can I do? I have not seen her face till date.”
To the questions on his authority to appoint a one-man committee (retired IAS officer R. Santhanam) to investigate the Aruppukottai incident, he said he had acted as per the Universities Act and the existing guidelines. And, when asked about the absence of women in the commission to investigate a sexual harassment case, despite Supreme Court guidelines, Purohit chose to ignore it. When the correspondent insisted on an answer, he said Santhanam would take in a woman into the panel if required. And, he was furious when a scribe asked if he would cooperate if the commission wanted to investigate him. “Your question is wrong,” he said. “How can you ask this to me?”
When the press conference was almost over, and the governor got up from the chair, a TV reporter asked about the progress of his Tamil learning. Purohit had earlier said that he wanted to learn the language, and was happy to answer the question. “Thamizh oru inimaiyana mozhi (Tamil is a sweet language),” he said. I immediately asked, “Who is your Tamil teacher?” Standing next to me was Lavanya Natarajan of News 7, who also had the same question. He did not reply, but smiled and moved a step forward. I then popped a question which he had not answered earlier: “Sir, you said you were satisfied with the government’s performance. Are you satisfied with the performance of the universities?” He just patted me on my left cheek and walked away.
I was stunned. Lavanya tried to console me. We went to the restroom and I washed my face several times. I was agitated. I did not expect a governor to behave in this manner to a journalist. And, this had happened moments after he had dismissed a barrage of questions on allegations of sexual misconduct against him. I sent an email to him, saying he was wrong and I wanted an explanation.
DMK working president M.K. Stalin and Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi tweeted condemning the governor’s act and expressing their solidarity with me. The journalists’ unions in Chennai stood by me, seeking an unconditional apology from the governor, and a signature campaign was started.
In a reply to my email, Purohit apologised and expressed regret. The letter said: “You had asked a question when we had got up and were proceeding to leave after the close of the Press Conference. I considered that question to be a good one. Therefore, as an act of appreciation for the question that you had posed, I gave a pat on your cheek considering you to be like my granddaughter. It was done with affection and to express my appreciation for your performance as a journalist, since I was also a member of that profession for about 40 years. I do understand from your mail that you are feeling hurt about the incident. I wish to express my regret and my apologies to assuage your sentiments that have been hurt.”
As a journalist, I accept his apology. But, I am not convinced about his contention that he did it to appreciate my question.