Stampede as Tamil icon makes his last journey

ST VIDEO: ARVIND JAYARAM
Mourners swarming the vehicle carrying the body of Mr Muthuvel Karunanidhi (above) during his funeral procession in Chennai yesterday. Over 100,000 people lined the 2km route.
Mourners swarming the vehicle carrying the body of Mr Muthuvel Karunanidhi (above) during his funeral procession in Chennai yesterday. Over 100,000 people lined the 2km route.PHOTO: REUTERS

Chaos leaves 2 dead, 30 hurt, as huge crowds mourn death of veteran Tamil Nadu leader

Shops were shuttered and streets deserted across Tamil Nadu yesterday as the funeral of Mr Muthuvel Karunanidhi, an iconic politician in the southern Indian state, got under way.

Mr Karunanidhi, leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, who never lost his seat in the state assembly for over 60 years, died on Tuesday at the age of 94.

His body lay at Rajaji Hall in the state capital, Chennai, where a huge crowd wanting to pay their last respects turned unruly, causing a stampede that eventually left two people dead and 30 others injured.

At one point, the police brandished their batons to keep the ever-swelling crowd of thousands in check after they crashed through barricades.

Many mourners shed copious tears, with women wailing and men hitting their heads with their fists in anguish at the demise of their beloved "Kalaignar" ("the artist"), a moniker Mr Karunanidhi earned for his linguistic proficiency and artistic ability that saw him pen more than 20 screenplays and 100 works of prose and poetry over his lifetime. In the days leading up to his death in hospital, at least one person committed suicide.

"Karunanidhi was a great leader, an incomparable leader. He was the originator of the Dravidian doctrine, which guided the party and state all these years," Mr K.V. Giri, 72, told The Straits Times at a DMK party office in the city of Coimbatore, which is known as the Manchester of the South. "Generations of people of this state will remember him with gratitude," he added.

Among the dignitaries who paid their respects to Mr Karunanidhi - a five-time chief minister - were Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. They were joined by a host of other politicians from across the country, celebrities, business tycoons and ordinary citizens.

Mourners swarming the vehicle carrying the body of Mr Muthuvel Karunanidhi (above) during his funeral procession in Chennai yesterday. Over 100,000 people lined the 2km route.
Mourners swarming the vehicle carrying the body of Mr Muthuvel Karunanidhi during his funeral procession in Chennai yesterday. Over 100,000 people lined the 2km route. PHOTO: REUTERS

In New Delhi, the national flag was flown at half-mast at the President's official residence, Rashtrapati Bhawan, as a mark of respect for the Tamil politician.

Many also chose to stay at home yesterday because of fears of violent demonstrations in a state where the death of a popular leader has often seen stone-pelting and attacks on public property by angry mobs.

Fears were compounded by a court battle between Mr Karunanidhi's party and the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) over the final resting place of the former chief minister .

The DMK had demanded that Mr Karunanidhi be laid to rest at the Anna Memorial, a structure at Chennai's Marina Beach that was built in memory of former chief minister C.N. Annadurai, who was also Mr Karunanidhi's mentor. It is also the resting place of two other iconic Tamil Nadu chief ministers - Mr Karunanidhi's long-time rival J. Jayalalithaa, who passed away in December 2016, as well as Mr M.G. Ramachandran, a one-time friend-turned-foe.

The AIADMK party offered another burial location which was close to the memorial for Mahatma Gandhi.

On the streets, many were in favour of Mr Karunanidhi being buried at Marina Beach. Mr N. Robinson, a 28-year-old chartered accountant, told The Straits Times: "He did a lot of service, good things for underprivileged people. This is very petty. He probably did more for poor people than most of the politicians."

 

Police officer A. Palanisamy was equally vocal. "They are being small-minded. They should have given the land for Karunanidhi."

The matter was finally decided by the Madras High Court, which passed an order directing the state government to make a plot of land available for Mr Karunanidhi's body at the Anna Memorial.

Mr Karunanidhi's son, Mr M.K. Stalin, broke down at Rajaji Hall, where he was standing by the glass casket containing the leader's body draped with the tricolour national flag, when he received the news that Mr Karunanidhi was being accorded the honour. The crowd erupted in chants, hailing the decision.

At around 4pm, a cavalcade of vehicles departed Rajaji Hall with Mr Karunanidhi's body ensconced in a gun carriage to make the journey to Anna Memorial. Over 100,000 people lined the 2km route, hoping to catch a final glimpse of their beloved leader. Many struggled to touch the truck or walk alongside it.

After a two-hour journey, his body was lowered into the ground with full state honours, including a 21-gun salute, as the crowds wept and mourned. All television news channels in India were focused on the funeral throughout the day, with many people tuning in from their homes.

Throughout the day, the mood was sombre in Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu as many reflected on the end of an era.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2018, with the headline 'Stampede as Tamil icon makes his last journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe