When Karunanidhi was at­tacked

FrontLine - - COVER STORY -

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

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