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Grief, tears and fears as India mourns ‘iron lady’ politician

Arun Sankar, AFP | Supporters surround the coffin of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha in Chennai on December 6, 2016.

Hundreds of thousands of people thronged the southern Indian city of Chennai Tuesday to honour their beloved leader, J. Jayalalitha, a former film actress and powerful politician popularly known as "Amma"(mother).


A sea of weeping mourners surged toward the steps of a public hall in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, where Jayalalitha's body, draped in the Indian flag, was kept on a raised platform.

Thousands of police officers formed chains to stop the heaving crowd from surging up the steps. Men and women wept, many shedding tears, some beating their chests with grief while others broke into loud wails. Several mourners fainted from the heat and dehydration. Police said some of them had been keeping vigil outside the Apollo Hospital since the weekend and had then walked to Rajaji Hall at daybreak.

In New Delhi, lawmakers observed a minute's silence Tuesday before both houses of parliament were adjourned for the day in respect for a woman who dominated Indian politics for decades and commanded absolute loyalty from her followers.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the country in mourning Jayalalitha's death, saying her death leaves a "huge void in Indian politics".

Roads leading to Chennai were clogged as people from remote villages poured into the city to catch a last glimpse of their leader.

Hundreds of political leaders and film celebrities are set to attend Jayalalitha's funeral later Tuesday.

The 68-year-old politician had been hospitalised since September, suffering from a fever, dehydration and a respiratory infection. On Sunday, she suffered a heart attack from which she never recovered.

Self-immolation, bodily harm as expressions of grief

A former film star, Jayalalitha was a larger than life figure in Indian politics and leader of the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), one of two political parties that has dominated Tamil Nadu state politics since independence. AIADMK supporters have a history of inflicting self-harm and attempting suicide following the deaths of their leaders who attain cult-like status.

Over the weekend, as news that her condition was worsening spread, thousands of people gathered outside the hospital, praying and fasting for her recovery. Doctors barred visitors, sparking rumours that they were withholding bad news out of fear it could trigger the same outpouring of grief, riots and suicides that followed the death of Jayalalitha's political and acting mentor, M.G. Ramachandran.

There were a few violent incidents outside the hospital as rumours of her death spread, sparking panicked scenes. Focusing on maintaining public order, state authorities ordered seven days of mourning, schools were shut and thousands of police deployed to prevent her supporters from creating public disorder or from harming themselves in grief.

In the past, when Jayalalitha faced political problems such as a jail term for corruption, her loyalists threatened to immolate themselves or lie down in streets for buses to run them over.

Crowds started lining the streets leading to the hospital after midnight local time Tuesday when the news of her death was confirmed.

"She was not only our leader, she was our god," said Paasarai Jeeva, a woman who said she had been camping outside the hospital for a week. 

Laptops, rice and cows to the poor

Jayalalitha was only 13 when she began her film career and quickly became known as a romantic lead, appearing in nearly 150 Tamil-language movies.

She entered politics in the early 1980s, under the guidance of Ramachandran, and after his death in 1987, she declared herself his political heir and took control of the AIADMK party.

She served as Tamil Nadu's chief minister, the highest elected position in the state of 71 million people, for nearly 14 years over five terms beginning in 1991. She regained her office last year after a corruption case against her was overturned by the court.

Jayalalitha endeared herself to the poor and powerless with her policy of giving out handouts. Laptop computers and bicycles to students, spice grinders, free rice and subsidised food to the poor, cows and goats to farm women, enabling them to rise out of rural poverty. She pushed government officials and workers to promote health and education by handing out gold coins and awards to those who exceeded their goals.

Although she was criticised by many who equated her handouts with bribery, she said it was her scheme to wipe out rural poverty. In return, she was loved by the poor who saw her as their charismatic benefactor.

"She was their redeemer. Their saviour," Vasanthi, a well-known Tamil writer and Jayalalitha's biographer, wrote in the Indian Express.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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