Mass grief as India political star Jayalalithaa buried

December 6, 2016 6:44 pm
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Grief-stricken people mourned the death of Indian politician Jayalalithaa Jayaram as fears of unrest loomed in her state of Tamil Nadu where she enjoyed almost god-like status © AFP / Arun Sankar

, Chennai, India, Dec 6 – Hundreds of thousands of mourners paid an emotional final farewell Tuesday to Indian politician Jayalalithaa Jayaram as the former movie star who enjoyed god-like status was buried alongside her on-screen lover.

A day after the 68-year-old died following a massive weekend cardiac arrest, huge crowds lined the streets of Chennai as Jayalalithaa’s coffin was taken to its final resting place in India’s main southern city.

Mourners showered the glass coffin with flowers and clambered onto statues, trees and soft drinks stalls that lined the city’s Marina beach to view the cortege. Television put the number of mourners at around one million.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram © AFP / Gal ROMA

Despite being twice jailed over allegations of corruption, the woman known simply as Amma, or mother, was a revered figure in her fiefdom of Tamil Nadu state and one of India’s most popular and successful politicians as a populist champion of the poor.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew to Chennai to pay his respects, streams of her supporters lined up outside a hall in the city centre where her casket was on display, many wearing scarves with the red, white and black colours of her party.

“It is a very sad day. She was an essential part of the state. She was meant for greatness,” said Christina Paun, a 34-year-old university professor who was among those queueing to pay their respects.

“She had a very difficult life in a male-dominated society but she was always different. She was always great.”

Famed for a vast sari collection that won her comparisons with Imelda Marcos, Jayalalithaa was also one of India’s most polarising politicians, seen by some as an autocratic and secretive leader.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram, leader of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), had earned the loyalty of many voters with a series of populist schemes © AFP/File / Arun Sankar

But nothing could dent her popularity in Tamil Nadu, where she was elected chief minister on four occasions in a period when it became one of India’s most prosperous states.

Jayalalithaa first made her name starring in movies alongside M. G. Ramachandran, who later became her political mentor before his death nearly 30 years ago.

Although most Hindus are cremated, she requested in her will that she be buried alongside her former co-star in his memorial building.

The pair were famously close and Ramachandran’s death sparked a fierce battle between Jayalalithaa and his widow to inherit his political mantle.

As her coffin was lowered into the ground inside the mausoleum, thousands of petals were scattered on top.

Hundreds of devotees had kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the private hospital in Chennai — the city formerly known as Madras — since she was first admitted in September suffering from a fever.

“I will always cherish the innumerable occasions when I had the opportunity to interact with Jayalalithaa ji (honorific). May her soul rest in peace,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter © PIB/AFP/File / LALIT KUMAR

When she first fell ill one supporter set himself on fire, while an elderly man suspended himself from a crane with steel hooks pierced through his skin.

“The people are very depressed. We were expecting her to recover even yesterday,” said Manohar, a businessman who was among the queue of mourners.

– Populist schemes –

The southern state had been tense since Sunday after reports that her health had worsened and she had been put on life support.

Indian supporters of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram react as they wait to catch a glimpse of her funeral procession in Chennai on December 6, 2016 © AFP / Manjunath Kiran

On Monday scuffles broke out outside the hospital as many of her thousands of supporters there tried to break through police barricades.

When Ramachandran died in 1987, riots and looting broke out across the state.

Security had been reinforced across Tamil Nadu ahead of Jayalalithaa’s death over fears of an emotional reaction.

Jayalalithaa earned the loyalty of many voters with a series of populist schemes, including “Amma canteens” that provided lunch for just three rupees (five cents) and vast election-time giveaways.

She also enjoyed a reputation for toughness and efficiency in a country renowned for bureaucratic delays.

Supporters surround an ambulance carrying the remains of Tamil Nadu state leader Jayalalithaa Jayaram, in Chennai, on December 5, 2016 © AFP / ARUN SANKAR

“We called her the iron lady,” said Ebenezer John, a furniture seller, outside the memorial where she was buried.

“She said the poor should be able to eat well, and she made it happen. It is a great loss.”

Several of Jayalalithaa’s supporters resorted to self-harm when she was briefly jailed in 2014 on charges of corruption.

Her conviction, later overturned on appeal, sparked mass protests and even some reported suicides.

Jayalalithaa’s death has plunged one of India’s most economically powerful states into a period of political uncertainty.

Her trusted cabinet aide, O Panneerselvam, was sworn in as chief minister, but observers are uncertain whether a loyalist who lacks mass support will be able to rule smoothly.

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