July 4, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Mala fide in Madras

The recent Karunanidhi arrest continues to claim victims. First is the image of Tamil Nadu as a sensible and calm place for investment and industry. Second is the governor of Tamil Nadu, Justice Fathima Beevi, who has resigned. Third, I believe, will be the chief instigator of all this, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

I am appalled at the Jayalalithaa government's treatment of former chief minister M Karunanidhi (a 78-year-old man), central minister Murasoli Maran (who had heart surgery recently), and others. Not that I am particularly fond of the DMK or politicians in general, but I have met both these gentlemen and was in particular impressed by Maran's ability to present his state's strengths to foreign investors.

And these strengths are considerable: with good air/sea links and local transportation, a stable power infrastructure and a docile work force (the only flies in the ointment being water and the weather), Tamil Nadu has been able to turn itself, through deft positioning by its government and bureaucracy, into an attractive industrial destination. First automobiles: a greenfield area near Madras has become India's biggest centre for the auto industry; now in IT, Tidel Park is one of India's best tech parks; and they are moving forward in bio-technology.

The Jayalalithaa government seems intent on throwing away all these advantages in search of petty revenge. Vinaasa kaale vipareetha buddhi? In ill-omened times, wrong-headed ideas come to us. By causing unrest and political turmoil she is forcing investors to consider arch-foes Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, both under stable and aggressive governments.

None of this will benefit anybody, the DMK or Jayalalithaa or the NDA. In particular, it hurts the people and the state of Tamil Nadu, who have done so well in attracting the right kind of attention over the last few years. Tamil Nadu has been neck and neck with Maharashtra and Gujarat in being the focus of productive industrial investment in the recent past.

But there are other subtle messages that this episode is sending out that reflect badly on Indian society as a whole:

  • We are cowed by strong characters who do arbitrary things;
  • Political grudges are remembered;
  • The police are in general brutal;
  • Powerful, well-connected people can get away with anything;
  • Magistrates, police officers, et al can be pushed around by politicians.
I don't mean this to be a rant against Indian society; all of these statements are more or less true of any other society, and in particular American society. For instance, it is a truism that you do not want, at any cost, to be put into jail anywhere in the redneck country of the Deep South of the US, especially in Louisiana. You might not survive to tell of your experiences, especially if you are not white.

But it bothers me that this sort of stuff goes on in India. I have been thinking of Rajan Pillai whom some of you surely remember. A very wealthy man, well connected, he was under trial for possible extradition to Singapore (having committed no crime in India, and only accused in a civil case in Singapore). Due to the heavy-handedness of a magistrate, who refused to grant him medical aid, Pillai died of an internal haemorrhage in Tihar jail. It is even alleged that some nameless persons wanted him dead, and contrived to arrange a 'judicial murder'.

If Rajan Pillai -- he who hobnobbed with the high and mighty of the land -- could be treated so shabbily, then what about the common man, who has to face the tender mercies of the police and the court system? Likewise, if Muthuvel Karunanidhi, former chief minister, Murasoli Maran, current central minister, and others are treated so dishonourably, then what recourse for the average man in the street?

The way in which this event unfolded has shamed all of us: not since the notorious Emergency have we had to worry about the knock on the door at midnight. This trademark act of a police state should not happen in our civil society. There is the rule of law and due process: we need to get to a point where all of our citizens are assured of this basic human right.

The current episode has not covered anybody with glory. Jayalalithaa comes across as someone consumed with petty vindictiveness; she was clearly taking revenge for the fact that she had been jailed on corruption charges during Karunanidhi's tenure. However, the DMK had done that, quite carefully, by the book: the court gave her ample opportunity to apply for bail and so forth; and nobody manhandled her, either.

The DMK has had an excellent opportunity to portray themselves as martyrs; and they played it to the hilt, with Sun TV (controlled by Murasoli Maran's son) broadcasting non-stop the damning footage showing Karunanidhi being roughed up. Clearly, they have their eye on the next election, looking to live down their disastrous performance in this year's election. By shutting down Sun TV's broadcast of this video, the state government made another tactical mistake: it made it appear as though they were admitting their guilt.

The truth may well be what Jayalalithaa alleges: that the DMK deliberately caused an incident, with Maran and the Sun TV crew appearing at Karunanidhi's door ready to provoke and film it. They claim that Karunanidhi had agreed to go peacefully, but with Maran's arrival, a scene was created. They also claim that they had followed due process for a cognizable offence, for which they did not have to produce a warrant. Their version of the incident has been released in another videotape, but it is too late.

The populace is ready to believe the worst about politicians and the police. The vivid images on TV, with Karunanidhi yelling, "They are going to murder me!" (allegedly, this was dubbed in, but that makes no difference), have left a strong impression in people's minds. Television, with its immediacy and visual impact, provokes a visceral reaction.

This is why people worry about foreign control of media and especially TV images: can you imagine the violent reactions that can be manufactured by doctored and falsified videotape, say, about the destruction of a house of worship? Remember the Sean Connery film based on a Michael Crichton story, Rising Sun, with its digitally altered images of a murder?

The Centre, beset by problems, chose a bad tactic. They are currently under fire for cravenly caving in to Naga insurgents in Manipur. Note the religious angle: Nagas are tribals, some of them former headhunters, converted to Christianity, and they wish to create a Greater Nagaland, no doubt meant to be Christian-dominated. Manipur has a majority Hindu population; Nagas want part of their land. As usual, even under the so-called 'Hindu nationalists', Hindu interests are sacrificed for Christian interests.

But the Centre needed a way to demonstrate toughness somewhere. Therefore, they decided to pick on the governor of Tamil Nadu, as they are loath to take on the mercurial Jayalalithaa, whom they may yet feel the need to ally with at some future point.

The DMK, and its NDA allies, have moreover had the knives out for Governor Fathima Beevi for some time, ever since she allowed Jayalalithaa to take over after the election, despite the fact that Jayalalithaa had a pending court case for corruption. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the governor is a family friend whom I respect greatly, but I shall attempt to speak with journalistic objectivity.

I honestly believe the governor did the right thing in allowing Jayalalithaa to become chief minister immediately after the election. Consider the alternatives: someone else from her party would have become CM, but that would have been a puppet remote-controlled by Jayalalithaa. And in the mean time, her lumpen proletariat supporters would have laid waste to large amounts of public property: these are the same folks who burnt alive three innocent girls in a college bus. I think the governor took the right decision in the best interests of the state, as she is sworn to do.

In any case, there is a provision that Jayalalithaa must, within six months, get elected to the assembly. This gives everyone breathing room, including the chief election commissioner, who can decide on whether she should be allowed to contest a by-election. So it was absolutely the correct legal and practical solution to the problem at the time.

As far as the current situation is concerned, I believe that the facts, when fully explored, will show that the governor was again correct. It is likely that Jayalalithaa and her minions did go by the letter of the law, getting the appropriate paperwork through, although with unseemly haste: for instance, a judicial officer passed some order at 2am on Saturday morning by convening a 'special court' in his house! There is the appearance of impropriety, even if it is, strictly speaking, legal. Caesar's wife and all that: there should have been absolute propriety.

The governor, a former Supreme Court justice, cannot also be faulted for the two things that she is now accused of: one, not exercising independent judgement in her report on the situation; and two, of being silent on the constitutional impropriety of state police arresting central ministers.

Furthermore, it was ridiculous to have the home secretary pushing the governor around. The governor is answerable to the President of India and nobody else. And it was insulting for the Centre to issue a school-marmish public demand to the governor to deliver a report by a fixed deadline. Any self-respecting person would have been forced to resign.

It is laughable to expect a governor to have an alternative mechanism for reporting on the situation: we do not live in imperial times, when there were informants infiltrating every segment of society and reporting to the powers that be. The governor has to depend on the standard machinery of government, which is the office of the chief secretary of the state, who is after all a central government employee; this is exactly what Governor Fathima Beevi did.

As to the issue of central ministers being arrested by the state apparatus, this is a wretched constitutional issue, on which nobody, especially an experienced jurist, should make an off-the-cuff judgement. This requires due consideration by a constitutional court.

Therefore, I am aghast at the way Governor Fathima Beevi, a respected and renowned jurist, has been treated in this situation by the central government. The governor was only the second woman in the world to become a judge of a country's Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor of the US beat her to this by a mere six months. Furthermore, she was a member of India's Human Rights Commission for some years.

The governor had almost fulfilled her entire term with not even a hint of partiality of any sort: this is a major achievement in a state as polarized by political factionalism as Tamil Nadu. This is no way to treat such a person, a lady and a scholar. It is unfair, and I believe it may even be unconstitutional to treat a governor in this manner.

Finally, I think Jayalalithaa has put paid to her phoenix-like rise from the ashes of her 1996 electoral debacle. The goodwill that she accumulated in her years in the wilderness may vanish instantly because of this current episode; instead of being stateswomanlike and working on Tamil Nadu's serious problems (for instance, the increasingly acute water shortage), she has, alas, chosen to tilt at windmills, hurting mostly herself and her state. She may continue in power, as there is no real reason to invoke Article 356 yet; but she has been wounded morally: whether it is mortally remains to be seen.


Here is mail I received from reader Sethu, verbatim without comment or endorsement by me:

World Tibet Day (July 6, 2001):

friendsoftibetINDIA will observe the 'World Tibet Day' and celebrate the birthday of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama in Bombay from July 6th, 2001. The four-day long celebration will begin with Venerable Geshe Damdul Namgyal's 'Teachings on Buddhism and Meditation' from July 6-9, 2001 (8.30am-10.30am) at the Karmaveer Dadasaheb Gaikwad Sanskritic Kendra, Dr Ambedkar Janmashtabdi Bhavan, Lokhandwala Road, Andheri (West), Bombay. The teachings and meditation courses will be free for those interested.

Geshe Damdul Namgyal will also give a two-hour lecture at the Theosophy Hall, 40 New Marine Lines, Bombay on July 6th, 2001 at 6pm. The Mumbai Tibetan Resident's Association (MTRA) will do a special prayer for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on July 6th at 11am at a gathering at Bahujana Vihar, Buddha Mandir, Temple Road, Parel (Near Tata Hospital), Bombay.

Venerable Geshe Damdul Namgyal is one of the prominent scholers in Tibetan Buddhism. He has a doctorate (Geshe Lharampa) in Buddhism and philosophy from the drepung Monastic University. Author of many books on Buddhism, Geshe Damdul namgyal is also the principal of Drepung Loaseling Monastery, Mundgod, Karnataka, and the Spiritual Director of LSLK Tibetan Buddhist Center, Knoxville, USA.

Entrance Free!

friendsoftibetINDIA, Post box 19731, Borivli HPO, Bombay 400 091 Pager: +91(22) 9628222255, 9628210212 Email:

Rajeev Srinivasan

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