IT was a stifling April in 1996. If the port town of Tuticorin [Thoothukudi now] was baking in the sun, the rural region around it was literally in flames. Discontent was brewing in Tuticorin town over Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant that was about to go on stream, and ranged against each other were fishermen, who were against the plant, and the Nadar community, which supported the plant.
In addition, a series of murders and incidents of arson and looting linked to caste clashes had rocked villages in the district, especially in areas around Deivaseyalpuram and nearby Vallanadu, and in neighbouring Tirunelveli district. The violence involved two dominant groups, the Dalit Pallars and the Maravas, a land-owning most backward group, and a number of lives had been lost. When Chief Minister Jayalalithaa came to assuage the frayed tempers, Dalits greeted her with black flags and empty villages.
Against this backdrop came the 1996 general elections. Many political leaders stayed away from the two volatile districts, not willing to take the risk, especially after the hostile reception that the Chief Minister received. So, candidates of constituencies in these districts were left to sweat it out on their own.
But DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, a sprightly 72 then, chose to campaign in these districts for his alliance, which included G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC). Just a week earlier, Jayalalithaa had visited the districts again, seeking votes for the AIADMK. She skipped major pockets and faced bursts of anger in many Dalit-dominated habitations. At a village near Sankarankoil, she faced the fury of people, who threw all sorts of things at her campaign vehicle despite the heavy police security around her.
Karunanidhi arrived in Tuticorin on April 19. Along with him was The Hindu’s Special Correspondent R. Parthasarathy, who covered the DMK beat in Chennai. This writer was the paper’s correspondent in Tuticorin then. At 9 a.m., Karunanidhi came out of his hotel to begin his day-long tour from Tuticorin to Tirunelveli by road. In the van with him were his daughter Kanimozhi; the party’s Tuticorin district secretary, N. Periyasamy, Parthasarathy and this correspondent. This was before the era of 24-hour satellite TV channels. In fact, not even a photographer accompanied the convoy of around 10 vehicles that included a van with his security guards and a pilot car with two constables in it.
After covering some important points, the convoy proceeded towards Deivaseyalpuram and Vallanadu en route Tirunelveli. Knots of party cadre with flags gathered on road sides to greet him. It was around 11 a.m. when the convoy neared Vallanadu, a tiny hamlet in the Vallanadu Pass, where a group of people stood carrying DMK flags. The driver veered the van to the side as was the practice so that Karunanidhi could receive shawls and garlands from the waiting crowd in the van itself.
In a flash, the crowd turned violent and attacked the van and other vehicles in the convoy with logs, iron rods, bricks and stones. A few in the crowd hacked the van with sickles and other dangerous weapons. The glass windows of the van were smashed and a stone hit Karunanidhi’s shoulder. The attack was totally unexpected and it took a few minutes for everyone to react.
But the DMK leader remained seated where he was, without moving an inch. He watched the attackers coming and covered his face when splintered glass flew in all directions. While Kanimozhi blocked the broken window with her hands from behind Karunanidhi, Periyasamy jumped out and stood beside the van, shouldering a few blows. This correspondent ducked below the seats to escape the flying missiles from outside.
It seemed about five minutes or so before Karunanidhi’s personal securitymen, a team of 10, and committed party cadre, rushed out from their vans and launched a counterattack. They formed a ring around the van and fought back the crowd, which outnumbered them. A few of them sustained serious injuries. Meanwhile, the van driver, showing presence of mind, reversed the fairly large vehicle to make a sharp U-turn in the narrow ghat road and retreated on the same highway in which the convoy had come minutes earlier. The other vehicles, all heavily damaged and carrying badly injured party functionaries, followed until they stopped at a desolate spot a few kilometres down the road. There, Karunanidhi held a meeting of senior district functionaries over the attack. By then this correspondent had moved out of Karunanidhi’s van and hopped onto the second vehicle, which carried his securitymen.
The narrow escape from mob fury left everyone dazed. When this correspondent was standing on the road side, Periyasamy came running. “Thalaivar (leader) is calling you,” he said. Karunanidhi was sitting in a car with the door open. Periyasamy introduced me to Karunanidhi as The Hindu’s correspondent in the district.
After the initial casual inquiries, he asked two questions: “Who were they?” “Why should they attack me?” He was perplexed that he was attacked when he was just an opposition member. This correspondent then informed him that those who tried to assault him were a group of Maravas of Vallanadu, one of the worst-hit villages in the riots. “They are nursing a grievance against you since you did not express any support to them. Besides, the Maravas have totally identified themselves with Jayalalithaa.”
He did not react and listened intently in the 10-minute interaction. Later, he asked Periyasamy to bring this correspondent also to Tirunelveli, where he convened a press conference at a guest house of an industrial group in Thalaiyuthu. Instead of naming the attackers, he told the media that he was attacked by AIADMK hooligans with acid-filled egg shells and stones. “Acid attacks are common in Jayalalithaa’s regime. Here is The Hindu ’s correspondent in Tuticorin who is a witness to the violence. Ask him, they wanted to kill me,” he said.
Then he resumed his campaign in Tirunelveli as though nothing had happened.