When Karunanidhi was attacked
IT was a stifling April in 1996. If the port town of Tuticorin [Thoothukudi now] was baking in the sun, the rural region around it was literally in flames. Discontent was brewing in Tuticorin town over Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant that was about to go on stream, and ranged against each other were fishermen, who were against the plant, and the Nadar community, which supported the plant.
In addition, a series of murders and incidents of arson and looting linked to caste clashes had rocked villages in the district, especially in areas around Deivaseyalpuram and nearby Vallanadu, and in neighbouring Tirunelveli district. The violence involved two dominant groups, the Dalit Pallars and the Maravas, a land-owning most backward group, and a number of lives had been lost. When Chief Minister Jayalalithaa came to assuage the frayed tempers, Dalits greeted her with black flags and empty villages.
Against this backdrop came the 1996 general elections. Many political leaders stayed away from the two volatile districts, not willing to take the risk, especially after the hostile reception that the Chief Minister received. So, candidates of constituencies in these districts were left to sweat it out on their own.
But DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, a sprightly 72 then, chose to campaign in these districts for his alliance, which included G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). Just a week earlier, Jayalalithaa had visited the districts again, seeking votes for the AIADMK. She skipped major pockets and faced bursts of anger in many Dalit-dominated habitations. At a village near Sankarankoil, she faced the fury of people, who threw all sorts of things at her campaign vehicle despite the heavy police security around her.
Karunanidhi arrived in Tuticorin on April 19. Along with him was The Hindu’s Special Correspondent R. Parthasarathy, who covered the DMK beat in Chennai. This writer was the paper’s correspondent in Tuticorin then. At 9 a.m., Karunanidhi came out of his hotel to begin his day-long tour from Tuticorin to Tirunelveli by
raided his house during that time. Sometimes his wife Dayalu Ammal was summoned. At other times, his other wife, Rajathi Ammal, was summoned to the I-T office. Many a day, Karunanidhi’s daughter, Kanimozhi, came home to find there was no one around: her father was busy trying to figure out which DMK men were arrested on that day at the party office, and her mother was answering questions at the I-T office. The driver would take her to the I-T office in Nungambakkam in Chennai, where she would wait late into the evening.
Karunanidhi came out largely unscathed from the I-T scrutiny because he had not amassed personal wealth. He could prove that he bought the Gopalapuram road. In the van with him were his daughter Kanimozhi; the party’s Tuticorin district secretary, N. Periyasamy, Parthasarathy and this correspondent. This was before the era of 24-hour satellite TV channels. In fact, not even a photographer accompanied the convoy of around 10 vehicles that included a van with his security guards and a pilot car with two constables in it.
After covering some important points, the convoy proceeded towards Deivaseyalpuram and Vallanadu en route Tirunelveli. Knots of party cadre with flags gathered on road sides to greet him. It was around 11 a.m. when the convoy neared Vallanadu, a tiny hamlet in the Vallanadu Pass, where a group of people stood carrying DMK flags. The driver veered the van to the side as was the practice so that Karunanidhi could receive shawls and garlands from the waiting crowd in the van itself.
In a flash, the crowd turned violent and attacked the van and other vehicles in the convoy with logs, iron rods, bricks and stones. A few in the crowd hacked the van with sickles and other dangerous weapons. The glass windows of the van were smashed and a stone hit Karunanidhi’s shoulder. The attack was totally unexpected and it took a few minutes for everyone to react.
But the DMK leader remained seated where he was, without moving an inch. He watched the attackers coming and covered his face when splintered glass flew in all directions. While Kanimozhi blocked the broken window with her hands from behind Karunanidhi, Periyasamy jumped out and stood beside the van, shouldering a few blows. This correspondent ducked below the seats to escape the flying missiles from outside.
It seemed about five minutes or so before Karunanidhi’s personal securitymen, a team of 10, and committed party cadre, rushed out from their vans and launched a counterattack. They formed a ring around the van and fought back the crowd, which outnumbered them. A few of them sustained serious injuries. Meanwhile, the van driver, showing presence of mind, reversed the fairly large vehicle to make a sharp U-turn in
house with the earnings from his cinema-related work. That experience possibly was responsible for his decision not to chase money—though the same cannot be said of many people close to him. At his death, he owned only what he had declared during his election in 2016, and this was a pathetic amount by a politician’s standards. Also, he had willed away the Gopalapuram house. He wanted it converted into a hospital after his death. Quite a few politicians and journalists unfamiliar with Tamil Nadu were taken aback by this fact. Some are still digging to find his money.
Even after the Emergency, Karunanidhi was out in the political wilderness because of MGR. Unfazed, he