South Asia

J Jayalalitha, the “iron lady” of Tamil Nadu passes away

Her political career saw many controversies including an anti-conversion law  Jayaram Jayalalitha, 68, the charismatic Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state in India and one of the most popular politicians in the nation, passed away late night on 5 December 2016 after battling a life-threatening illness for more than two months in a hospital in Chennai. She served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for over fourteen years between 1991 and 2016 and was the General Secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a Dravidian party since 1989.

Jayalalitha, also referred to as the iron lady of Tamil Nadu, will be remembered as a reluctant actor and politician, but one who ruled firmly and autocratically. Her political career was marked by controversies but she remained popular among the masses, despite several corruption charges against her, due to her populist schemes benefitting the poor.

One of the many controversies that she would be remembered for is the passing and the subsequent repealing of the anti-conversion law in her state of Tamil Nadu in the early 2000s.

Defending the move during a debate in the Legislative Assembly, Jayalalitha had said that the “existing laws were not adequate to curb conversions.”

Her government had introduced the ordinance banning religious conversions by “force, allurement, or fraudulent means” in October 2002 and the same had been passed by ordinance in March 2003 after the government had framed rules to implement the law. Passage by ordinance meant that the law did not need the approval of the state legislature.

Jayalalitha, who has been described as a “champion of Hindutva in a subtle way” by right wing websites, won the acclaim of the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus), after the ordinance was passed. The law was however challenged by minorities, particularly Christians in the state and the situation was made even more complicated when the then Pope, John Paul II expressed his concern over “unjust conversion laws”.

Jayalalitha had shot back “bluntly” asserting that the Pope had no “business” or “authority” to comment on the anti-conversion law enacted either by her government or any other state in the country. When a reporter pointed out that the Pope was the supreme pontiff of the Christian community, she had famously shot back: “So what?”

Her comments on the Pope were widely criticized and she was forced to repeal the anti-conversion law following a humiliating defeat in the 2004 General (Parliamentary) Elections, which saw her party not even winning one seat in the state. To regain popularity Jayalalitha reversed many measures taken by her including abandoning the controversial anti-conversion law.

Starting out as an actor, Jayalalitha acted in over 300 films before joining politics. She claimed to be a mentee and political heir of the late M G Ramachandran, himself a cultural icon and an actor who was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for ten years. During her political career, Jayalalitha had to step down twice from the post of the Chief Minister due to corruption cases against her, but she managed to stage a comeback on both occasions.

The last time she stepped down as Chief Minister and was jailed following corruption charges was in a disproportionate assets case in September 2014. It is believed that her imprisonment for three months in a prison in Bengaluru adversely impacted her health from which she could not recover till her last breath, her condition being further aggravated by acute diabetes and arthritis. 

She was admitted to the Apollo Hospital in Chennai on 22 September 2016 following fever and dehydration but she soon developed septicaemia or blood poisoning, which affected her lungs and heart. In the nearly 75 days of being hospitalized, her health continued to be a topic of discussion in the national media. Speculations abounded and the hospital even confirmed that she had “recovered completely” just a day before her death due to a massive cardiac arrest on 5 December 2016.

She was buried on 6 December 2016, with full state honours on northern end of Chennai’s Marina Beach, with the President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi in attendance among the swarming millions who flooded the streets of Chennai to bid farewell to their beloved Amma (Mother), and Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader).