Tamil malaise


Tamil people have repeatedly shown mass hysteria at the slightest inconvenience to their icons. Hundreds have died and yet, so long as regionalism dominates this frenzy will resurface

G Ulaganathan

G Ulaganathan

The author is a senior journalist based in Bangalore and has worked with two major English dailies, the Indian Express and Deccan Herald, He is also a visiting professor to a number of universities and colleges and writes for NYT. Currently, he is Bureau Chief (South) of Parliamentarian

Did Rs 3,500 crore go from the state government coffers in Tamil Nadu when nearly 500 people committed suicide of died from other causes in the wake of former Chief Minister late J Jayalalitha’s illness and then death.

According to the ruling AIADMK sources, nearly 500 people (mostly party workers) died in the wake of the hospitalisation and subsequent death of the party supremo J Jayalalithaa and the party has handed over Rs seven crore to each of these victims’ families.

Though some of them may be genuine suicides, and shock deaths, a majority of them could be natural deaths which local or district level politicos have cynically linked to the party leader’s death. And there are two very good reasons: to first is to show that the party and its leader enjoyed grassroots support; and secondly for local party leaders to make some money; as the families get Rs 4 to 5 crore, the rest is pocketed by middlemen and local party officials.

And yet, is this all dirty politics, or is there a basis to the proverbial grief that grips people in Tamil Nadu when a leader is jailed, loses power or dies?

When did it all begin?

Anti-Hindi Fire

This southern state has been ruled by Dravidian parties since 1967 when Congress lost power in the anti-Hindi agitation provoked by the Indian government’s decision to make Hindi the sole official language after 1965. Many non-Hindi Indian states, who wanted the continued use of English as a link language, were gripped by outrage.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a descendant of Dravidar Kazhagam, led the opposition to Hindi. The latter-day film icon MG Ramachandran was already glamorous and added his sheen to the movement. This would pay rich dividends in the long run.

To allay Tamil fears, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru enacted the Official Languages Act to ensure the continuing use of English beyond 1965. The text of the Act did not satisfy the DMK and increased their scepticism that his assurances might not be honoured by future administrations.

As one travels back in time, January 26, 1965, is a crucial day. That was the day of switching over to Hindi as sole official language and the anti-Hindi movement gained momentum in the then Madras State with increased support from college students. On 25 January, a full-scale riot broke out in the southern city of Madurai. It soon spread all over the state and continued unabated for the next two months, marked by violence, arson, looting, police firing and lathi-charges.

The Congress government in the state called in paramilitary forces. Subsequently, 70 persons died (by official estimates).

To calm the situation, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave assurances that English would continue to be used as the official language as long as the non-Hindi speaking states wanted.

The riots subsided only after Shastri’s assurance, as did the student agitation.

The DMK won the 1967 assembly election and the Congress Party never managed to recapture power. The Official Languages Act was eventually amended in 1967 by the Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi to guarantee the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages.

According to rough unofficial estimates, nearly 500 youngsters gave up their lives then.

Bullet to Ballot

One particular day in January 1967 Madras city was excitingly busy.

The Madras Corporation was preparing to host a grand reception for noted singer M S Subbulakshmi who had just delivered a concert at the United Nations. An election had been announced and the campaign was roaring.

Cricket enthusiasts were hunting for tickets to watch the third test between West Indies and India.

But, critically, for fans of MGR, however, the release of his new film Thaikku Thalaimagan was the most important event in the month. On January 12, they were getting ready to put up festoons and celebrate the release the following day. But things took a different turn that day. To their shock and anger, MGR was shot by fellow actor MR Radha at the former’s residence in St Thomas Mount, around 5 pm.

As he was rushed to Government Royappettah Hospital somewhat a riotous situation developed in Madras. Chanting ‘long live MGR,’ his fans pelted stones and went on a rampage that lasted till about 9 pm. News spread that Radha had tried to commit suicide and was admitted to the same hospital.

A group of MGR fans descended on Radha’s house in St. Thomas Mount and vandalised the property. Prohibitory orders were issued. This is the first time Tamil Nadu tasted violence due to an icon’s life. Anxious fans were on the edge through the night outside the hospital. The shooting case was not as simple as it seemed. The investigation and lengthy trial that followed unfolded a complicated story. The election campaign was in full swing by then and the iconic picture of MGR sitting on a hospital bed with a heavily bandaged neck was widely circulated and DMK trounced Congress to form the new government.

When MGR was hospitalised, many women tonsured their heads and indulged in various acts to pray for his speedy recovery. To many of them it was a personal tragedy and for thousands of youngsters, it was the worst Sankranthi festival in their lives.

Cut to 1984

Now MGR was the undisputed leader of the masses in Tamil Nadu. He was the chief minister and held a complete sway over lakhs of people.

Then something unfortunate happened. He suddenly fell sick and had to be hospitalised. MGR’s illness led to a massive emotional upsurge in the state.

The midnight silence was wrecked by the urgent throb of motorcycle engines racing up the driveway, escorting a pilot jeep and a blue Ambassador.

Out stepped the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MG Ramachandran, accompanied by his wife Janaki. MGR was gasping desperately for breath, his chest heaving as it strained to gulp in air. But even as the hospital was galvanised into sudden frenetic activity, the chief minister was frantically repeating just one instruction in Tamil: “Don’t tell anyone I am here; don’t let anyone know that I have been brought to the hospital.”

Over the next two weeks, the matinee idol turned politician’s health went through several ups and downs. He came off the critical list every few days, only to suffer a fresh setback.

It was not just the doctors who were on tenterhooks but the entire state government machinery and about four crore Tamilians and millions outside the state. Experts were flown in from the United States and Japan to look at the patient, special planes were made to stand by on three occasions in case MGR had to be flown abroad for surgery, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself paid a quick visit.

Self-immolation spree

Fanatical followers of the matinee idol burnt themselves to death (13, according to one count) or slashed themselves with razor blades in frenzy. Hundreds of telegrams poured in daily, with prayers, offers of kidneys and in some cases threats of dire consequences if the doctors did not rescue their “God”.

One telegram told the Apollo doctors that the sender would not eat till they told him that MGR was safe.

Crowds from a slum next to the hospital kept up a round-the-clock vigil from tree-tops overlooking the hospital entrance. The police hurriedly erected wooden barricades at the head of the hospital’s approach road, 200 yards away, to keep the crowds at bay.

A visitors’ book in the lobby had its pages quickly filled with the signatures of anxious well-wishers. Women, in sarees adorned in red, white and black, the colours of MGR’s political party, the AIADMK brought prasad from temples across the state. And in virtually every place of worship, the devout offered prayers and supplications for the VIP patient’s speedy recovery.

It was a scale of mass idolatry never before witnessed in the country. Posters went up on walls and in buses, praying for MGR’s recovery. As cabinet ministers made Apollo their headquarters, the state’s administration virtually ground to a halt. In the immediate aftermath of MGR’s illness, AIADMK politicians were even seen weeping unashamedly in the hospital. For close to a decade, the man had stridden like a colossus on the twin worlds of cinema and politics. His off-screen activities like distributing food and clothes to the poor had earned him a special affection bordering on worship.

One observer said if he merely sipped a glass of orange juice offered to him at a public meeting, the rest of the liquid would be diluted in buckets of water, which would then be passed around for his fans to drink as theertham (or holy water). Though there is no logical correlation between killing oneself and fighting for a political demand, these young people are celebrated as ‘martyrs’ by the parties to which they belong, or parties which have embraced the causes for which they claimed to be ‘sacrificing’ their lives (See box: Fans of Hysteria).

Take the case of Vignesh, a 26-year-old. He was not even born when the tussle over Cauvery water between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka broke out. He had no direct stake in the decision at which the Supreme Court was to arrive a few days later. Yet he chose to commit suicide. Another young girl, Senkodi set herself on fire in front of the tehsil office in Kanchipuram, demanding the commuting of the death penalty for the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case. She was 20 years old. She would have been a few months old when Rajiv Gandhi was killed.

These youths were not martyrs. They were led to believe that their suicides would have an impact on the issues for which they were fighting.

Paying in Blood

Things reached extreme levels of blind loyalty in the last decade, especially after Jayalalithaa assumed power. She was twice imprisoned, and on her 56th birthday, a painter used his own blood to paint 56 portraits of her. Fans have variously chopped off their fingers, cut off their tongues, nailed themselves to crosses, and walked on hot coals to demonstrate their adoration. In person, she came across as intelligent, well-educated, articulate, and rational. She lived like a recluse but much of her popularity stemmed from her populist and pro-poor schemes like free laptops, mixies, fans, bicycles, and gold to poor unmarried girls.

But easily her most wildly popular scheme was also the simplest: the over 250 “Amma Canteens” all over the state where poor people can walk in and get a hot, nutritious meal for less than Rs 10

She cleverly exploited this colossal popularity, and the emotional volatility of many Tamil voters. Earlier, 16 people committed suicide or died of cardiac arrest across Tamil Nadu after a special court in Bangalore convicted her in the Rs 66.65 crore disproportionate assets case and sentenced her to four years in prison.

Two people, including a Class 12 student, attempted self-immolation and were hospitalised with severe burns. Another ardent AIADMK supporter chopped off his little finger in Tirupur.

AIADMK spokesperson CR Saraswathi says the reactions of grief “shows the relationship people share” with Jayalalithaa. “Everyone in the state sees Amma as their mother,” she said. In Tiruchi district in Tamil Nadu, crazy fans built a temple for popular actress Khusbhoo. Called ‘Khusbambigai Deivalayam’ (Pristine Shrine for Goddess Khusbhoo) it was later razed down by protesters following her statement on the need for taking precautions during pre-marital sex in 2005.

Milk on Rajinikanth

Tamil Nadu’s top heroes like Rajinikanth, Vijay and Ajith are worshipped as demi-gods today. Fans garland their posters and throw flowers, coins and cash notes when their heroes appear on a screen in frenzy imitating rituals of temple worship.

Outside Tamil Nadu, only Telugu film star-turned-politician NT Rama Rao commanded such following especially because he was an icon, especially for playing roles in films as Lord Krishna. During his election campaign, supporters showcased large images from his films in his avatar as Krishna.

For movie stars, such hero worship and crazy antics seem to affirm their popularity among fans. Rationalists may call it crazy, but for their ardent fans in South India, politicians and movie stars are both gods-- worthy of worship.

So is this terrible legacy go away anytime soon? No, says an expert, so long as regional parties rule. These parties have no policies, no programme, just cultivating suicidal affection through populism and personal glamour.


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