Outpouring of grief over Tamil Nadu chief J Jayalalithaa's death

The sudden death of Tamil Nadu's chief minister unleashes a public outpouring of grief from thousands of her supporters.
Mourners at the Rajaji Hall in the state capital Chennai yesterday, where Ms Jayalalithaa's body was lying in state before the casket was taken in a funeral procession to her final resting place at Marina Beach.
Mourners at the Rajaji Hall in the state capital Chennai yesterday, where Ms Jayalalithaa's body was lying in state before the casket was taken in a funeral procession to her final resting place at Marina Beach.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hundreds of thousands gather to bid their last farewell to actor-turned-politician Jayalalithaa

In a mass outpouring of grief, supporters beat their chests in despair or wept openly yesterday as they paid their last respects to popular Indian politician J. Jayalalithaa, who was revered by many in the southern Tamil Nadu state.

The actress-turned-politician died in a Chennai hospital on Monday night after suffering cardiac arrest, 74 days after she was admitted with a lung infection.

Hundreds of thousands gathered to bid farewell to the 68-year-old leader - affectionately called Amma, or mother - whose body was kept in an open casket draped with the Indian flag at Rajaji Hall in the state capital Chennai. The casket was later taken in a funeral procession to her final resting place at Marina Beach in Chennai. People lined the streets along the 3km route.

In a surprise decision, Ms Jayalalithaa, a Brahmin, was buried and not cremated next to the memorial of her mentor M.G. Ramachandran. Hindu rituals were carried out before the burial, said All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party members.

Ms Jayalalithaa was among India's most powerful political figures. But her death has brought uncertainty about the future of her party and governance of the state. Still, Tamil Nadu remained peaceful yesterday with no reports of violence.


Her death is regarded as a serious setback for the ruling AIADMK, which this year won elections solely on her popularity.

In a sign of Ms Jayalalithaa's stamp on Indian politics, political leaders from across India, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, attended the funeral, capping the end of an extraordinary life spanning politics and films. Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also flew in to pay his respects. He laid a wreath at the funeral.

He also wrote to the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr O. Panneerselvam, to convey Singapore's deepest condolences.

Separately, in a statement on Indian television, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said: "J. Jayalalithaa was a fighter and till the last moment she fought against the cruelty of disease and sufferings. All other battles she won. But perhaps everybody is to lose one battle and she has lost that."

Ms Jayalalithaa, criticised for being imperious at times, famously refused to accommodate even prime ministers.

In 2012, she walked out of a meeting in Delhi chaired by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for being told she, along with other state chiefs, had just 10 minutes of talking time and that a bell would be rung at the end of her time limit.

She dominated politics in Tamil Nadu along with Mr Muthuvel Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for the past three decades. She was sworn in for the sixth time as chief minister in May on the back of successful pro-poor schemes like the Amma canteens that offer food at highly subsidised rates - for example, a plate of idlis, or steamed rice cakes, for five rupees (10 Singapore cents).

Analysts said the state had avoided immediate instability with Mr Panneerselvam being sworn in as the new chief minister yesterday but noted that she had left a massive leadership vacuum.

"There is nobody to step into her shoes. That is the flip side of a strong leader," said columnist and political commentator Neerja Chowdhury.

"The leadership (of the party) will now have a bearing on governance. It is a huge setback for Tamil Nadu, particularly in the social sector."

Her death is now expected to lead to a more unsettled time for Tamil Nadu politics, possibly giving Mr Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) an opportunity to have a greater say in the state where a weakened AIADMK leadership could lean increasingly on a national party.

"They would want strong support from Delhi desperately in the absence of a charismatic leader," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"Temporarily, the unity will hold with AIAMDK being a ruling party but it might not in the long run."


Thousands mourn Ms Jayalalithaa's death. http://str.sg/4A45

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2016, with the headline 'Outpouring of grief over Tamil Nadu state chief's death'. Print Edition | Subscribe