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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Controversy surrounds Indian minister's death

Jayalalithaa’s death was announced on December 5 after nearly 75 days in a Chennai hospital. Now the Tamil Nadu government is questioning whether the official version is true

Indian supporters gather to pay their respects to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram as she lies in state ahead of her funeral at Rajaji Hall in Chennai on December 6, 2016.But did she in fact die weeks or even months earlier and was the true date of her death covered up? Arun Sankar / AFP
Indian supporters gather to pay their respects to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram as she lies in state ahead of her funeral at Rajaji Hall in Chennai on December 6, 2016.But did she in fact die weeks or even months earlier and was the true date of her death covered up? Arun Sankar / AFP

Among the mysteries freshly raked up around the death of J Jayalalithaa, the former Tamil Nadu chief minister, is this fundamental one: Did she die in September last year, or on December 5, or on any date in between?

Jayalalithaa’s death was announced on December 5 after nearly 75 days in a Chennai hospital, where she battled septicaemia. But this official version of events is coming under question as government ministers hint at political intrigue, shadowy conspiracies, and even foul play.

On Monday, the Tamil Nadu government – still run by Jayalalithaa’s party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – announced a commission of inquiry to probe her death. A retired high court judge, A Arumughaswamy, will lead the investigation and submit a report in three months.

The opposing Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party has also called for an inquiry by the federal agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.

“The different statements issued by ministers have exposed that there is a big mystery,” said M K Stalin, the DMK’s acting president.

The appointment of Mr Arumughaswamy’s commission came as claims and counter-claims from Tamil Nadu ministers and other AIADMK members flew thick and fast.

Perhaps the most dramatic statement came from Dindigul Sreenivasan, the state’s minister for forests, who contradicted the story put out thus far: that Jayalalithaa had been receiving visitors during most of her stay in hospital, and that she only took a turn for the worse in early December.

“We’ve lied that she ate idlis (a steamed rice dish) and that people met her in hospital,” Mr Sreenivasan said at a party meeting last week. “The truth is that nobody saw her… We were forced to lie.”

Two other ministers have issued similar statements.

Mr Sreenivasan blamed V K Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s long-time companion, for blocking all access to the ailing chief minister while she was in hospital and for fabricating the details of her death. After Jayalalithaa died, Ms Sasikala briefly assumed the leadership of the AIADMK, but she was forced to relinquish the position when the Supreme Court convicted her of corruption in February.

She is now serving a four-year prison sentence in Bengaluru.

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Ms Sasikala’s family, however, still retains a measure of power. As fractions in the party developed following Jayalalithaa’s death, Ms Sasikala’s nephew, T T V Dhinakaran, gained the leadership of one faction of legislators.

On Monday, Mr Dhinakaran dismissed Mr Sreenivasan’s claims, saying that his aunt had shot video footage of Jayalalithaa during her hospitalisation but had not made it public out of a sense of decorum.

Jayalalithaa was wearing a loose nightgown in the video, he said, and she had always hated to be seen in such informal attire.

“If we release the video now, there will be a debate on its authenticity,” Mr Dhinakaran said. “But we’re ready to release it to any appropriate inquiry… We don’t have any fear.”

These contradictory claims over Jayalalithaa’s death build on rumours that have existed for months already. In February, a party leader named P H Pandian alleged that the chief minister had been murdered, and that the lengthy stay in hospital was only designed to cover up the murder.

The hospital’s authorities participated in this lie, Mr Pandian alleged.

Last October, when Jayalalithaa was still the leader of her party, she approved a by-election affidavit not with her signature but with the thumbprint of her left thumb.

“The signatory has undergone tracheostomy recently and has an inflamed right hand, [so] she is temporarily unable to affix her signature,” an accompanying doctor’s note testified at the time. “Hence she has affixed her left thumb impression on her own in my presence.”

But several pieces of evidence surrounding Jayalalithaa’s illness or death do not fit with the conspiracy theories issued by the ministers, said Peer Mohamed, who runs Ippodhu, a website that covers Tamil politics.

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In March, the government released the late chief minister’s hospital discharge summary as well as medical reports composed by a visiting team of doctors from New Delhi. The reports run to more than 50 pages, Mr Mohamed said, and they are consistent with the official narrative.

Instead, he said, the ministers were creating this confusion as a distraction from the government’s failures and the factional chaos within the AIADMK.

Mr Mohamed pointed, in particular, to the suicide of S Anitha, an aspiring medical student in Tamil Nadu, on September 1. Anitha had fared well in the state’s own school-leaving examinations but poorly in the pan-Indian entrance tests for medical students.

Her suicide enraged Tamil Nadu, which has long held that the national entrance tests discriminate against states that follow their own educational syllabi and teaching methods.

“If Jayalalithaa was alive, she would have got Tamil Nadu exempted from these national tests, as the [federal] government had earlier promised,” Mr Mohamed said. “But the state government is now a weak one. It doesn’t have any sort of power or ability to bargain, as Jayalalithaa had.”

“This is why they’re whipping up an issue that is, in my view, closed and settled,” Mr Mohamed said. “The political class is always very good at this.”

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