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Print edition : Jul 07, 2001 T+T-

The Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu finds itself in the midst of a political storm set off by the manner in which the State police arrested former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and two Union Ministers in a post-midnight crackdown.

THE post-midnight arrest of former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. Karunanidhi on June 30 from his Chennai home by the Tamil Nadu police has set off a political storm threatening to develop into a major crisis for the Jayalalithaa government, unless statesman-like measures are taken to undo the grave damage caused. Powerful television footage of some scenes of the ugly and lawless police operation within Karunanidhi's home, played over and over again by Sun TV, the popular channel managed by the elder son of Karunanidhi's nephew and Union Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran, was the dominant image on the Indian public stage from the morning of June 30. It set the terms of the political action that was to follow, involving the State and Central governments in a dramatic confrontation. The clipping showed Karunanidhi falling down and being shoved, pushed and bodily lifted by police officers within the house. The gripping and powerful action shots, accompanied by moving audio, led to a groundswell of popular sentiment against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government, which seemed politically to have played into the hands of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government.

Indeed, the feeling grew that if any clinching evidence were needed to show that Jayalalithaa ran a "police raj" in Tamil Nadu, the way the 78-year-old DMK president and former Chief Minister was roughed up and arrested in the middle of night without any regard to his age and frail health, the search of a Central Minister's house by the police without any rhyme or reason, and the manhandling and arrest of two Central Ministers, provided it.

Quite in character, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had created a political crisis for her government and the State. At one level, there was widespread revulsion against, and condemnation of, the lawless and vindictive acts against political opponents. At another level, she had whipped up tensions between the State and the Centre that threatened to develop into a full-scale confrontation. The drama set in motion by what was widely seen as outrageous political vindictiveness saw the forced resignation of the Governor of the State, after she was accused by the Centre of failing completely in her duty to defend the Constitution. The blatant violation of the proper procedure for arrest laid down by the Supreme Court of India in a 1997 judgment, the unprecedented targeting of Central Ministers by the State police, and the attempt to intimidate, rough up and even censor the media - expressed in a remarkably ham-handed order served by the Chennai Commissioner of Police on Sun TV - had given the Centre major leverage, constitutionally and politically speaking, against the State Government.

The discomfiture of having to face directives issued by the Central Government under Article 355 of the Constitution to "ensure" that the government of Tamil Nadu was "carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution," the threats issued by the parties of the National Democratic Alliance to usher in President's Rule in the State, the moderating and sobering pressure of allies, the visible unpopularity of her recent actions, and a stern directive from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) demanding a report from the State Government on alleged human rights violation and contravention of laws by the State police combined to put tremendous pressure on Jayalalithaa to defuse the situation by retracing her steps.

The first concrete indication that Jayalalithaa had no sensible choice but to retrace her steps came with the release of the two Union Ministers, accompanied by a lame explanation by Chennai's Commissioner of Police, on July 2. With Karunanidhi's bail application delayed, his willingness to come out on bail in doubt, and major risks involved in his continuing incarceration, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister was under great political pressure to set him free - thus undermining the sense of her repressive actions. But it seemed that the only way to return the situation to normal was retracing those steps.

The bizarre drama in Tamil Nadu began with the filing of a First Information Report (FIR) at 9 p.m., suspiciously on a Friday (so that the victim would have no access to any possibility of relief from the judiciary for a couple of days), at the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) headquarters (Crime 3/2001) on the basis of a complaint by a newly appointed Commissioner of the Corporation of Chennai alleging corruption and irregularities in the construction of flyovers in Chennai. The police claimed to have done their investigation within a few hours. The lawless acts of the police over the next several hours ushered in one of the most shameful chapters in 'law enforcement' witnessed by India in recent times.

The arrest took place at the unearthly hour of 1-30 a.m. on June 30 when Karunanidhi was asleep with his wife Rajathi Ammal in the upstairs bedroom at their home on Oliver Road in Mylapore. The police had cut the telephone links to the house before the action got under way. They broke open the doors leading to the bedroom before they brought him out. He was produced around 4-30 a.m. before a Judge, who remanded him to judicial custody at the Central Prison in Chennai until July 10.

The police also arrested Murasoli Maran and Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests T.R. Baalu. They were also roughed up. Both were arrested on charges that included preventing public servants (police officials) from doing their duty.

The spectacle of Karunanidhi being handled in a rough and lawless manner, which was telecast throughout the day by Sun TV as also by other television channels, shocked the people. The Central government asked Tamil Nadu Governor M. Fathima Beevi to send a report on the incidents and later fixed a deadline of 9 a.m. on July 1 for the report. President K.R. Narayanan spoke to the Governor. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee took a serious view of the incidents and spoke to State Chief Secretary P. Shankar.

The Governor did send a report to the Centre by 9 a.m. on July 1. But the Union Cabinet found it unsatisfactory and decided to recommend to the President her recall. Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley said Fathima Beevi's report merely reflected the State government's version of the incidents. Besides, he said, freedom of the press was in peril in the State. Jaitley said: "The Governor was duty-bound to inform the Centre of the objective situation and make an independent assessment of all the facts. The Governor failed to protect the Constitution and the constitutional guarantees, and the Cabinet was of the opinion that her recall be recommended to the Honourable President." By evening, Fathima Beevi sent her resignation to the President.

In a statement issued on July 2, Fathima Beevi said that she respected the government, the Constitution and the law of the land. "Politicians can trade charges and retaliate but a Governor cannot, at any point of time, seek to justify his acts being done in accordance with the Constitution and the law in the normal course of discharge of duties," she said. She thanked the President and the Government of India for having given her an opportunity to serve the people of Tamil Nadu.

The Governor's recall came also in the context of rumours that were gaining ground that Fathima Beevi might grant pardon to Jayalalithaa in the corruption cases against her, including the TANSI case in which she was convicted to three years rigorous imprisonment by a Special Court and has appealed. The rumours loomed large after the State Cabinet, presided over by Jayalalithaa, met on June 25. She had said the Cabinet "took path-breaking policy decisions" regarding people's welfare. She declined to give the details of these decisions to journalists, saying that the Governor had to be informed of them first. So rumours gained ground that the "path-breaking decisions" related to the Cabinet passing a resolution urging the Governor to grant pardon to Jayalalithaa. Significantly, at a press conference two days later, Jayalalithaa denied that she planned to seek "pardon". She attacked a newspaper report that had suggested such a possibility and said that such news items only made "interesting reading".

Article 161 of the Constitution, entitled "Power of Governor to grant pardons, etc., and to suspend, remit or commute sentences in certain cases", lays down: "The Governor of a State shall have the power to grant pardons, reprieves, respites or remissions of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of any person convicted of any offence against any law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the State extends."

A senior advocate said the Governor indeed had "absolute powers" to grant such pardon. But any such action by a Governor was open to challenge in a court of law on the grounds of being mala fide and arbitrary, he added.

The developments on June 30 came at a time when minor fissures were developing between the DMK and the BJP after their defeat at the hands of the AIADMK and its allies in the May Assembly elections which they had contested as allies. Both parties were quick to spot big political capital in the manner of the arrest and cemented their relationship with gusto.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Tamil Nadu, which includes the DMK, the BJP and a number of small parties met under the leadership of DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan and called for a State-wide bandh from 6 a.m to 6 p.m. on July 3. The bandh was a partial success.

While being taken to jail Karunanidhi told reporters from inside the car that he was reading a book up to 12 midnight and was in "sound sleep" when the police action got under way. "They had no summons. They had no arrest warrant. They said these were not necessary. They pushed me. They dragged me. They tore my shirt. When we arrested her (in December 1996), we treated her with respect."

The police roughed up Maran who arrived there when the action was under way. Earlier, the police had laid siege to Maran's house and searched it. When Maran tried to accompany Karunanidhi in the car that took the former Chief Minister to the CB-CID headquarters, the police pulled him out, lifted him bodily and removed him from the scene. According to his daughter, Dr. Anbukkarasi, a doctor, he was hit on the leg with a rifle bayonet at the Vepery police station and the lacerations had to be sutured. His dhoti was torn and his spectacles were broken.

Dr. Anbukkarasi alleged that a policeman punched Maran on the chest where a pace-maker had been implanted. "The pace-maker could have moved inside. The wires could have snapped," she said. (Maran was gravely ill with a heart ailment in November last and was hospitalised. He was fitted with a pace-maker then.) He was admitted to the Apollo Hospitals in Chennai. In the evening, the police arrested him under Sections 225 (resistance or obstruction to lawful apprehension of another person), 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Although a magistrate remanded him to judicial custody, the police could not move Maran to prison because the doctors refused to certify that he was in good health.

The police roughed up Central Minister Baalu when he protested against the searches at Maran's home. They refused to open the gates leading to Maran's home to enable Baalu to go inside. He was later arrested under Sections 147 (punishment for rioting), 353 (using assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 352 (punishment for assault or criminal force...), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), and 506 of the IPC. A magistrate remanded him to judicial custody until July 13 and he was lodged in Vellore jail.

Chennai Police Commissioner K. Muthukaruppan asserted that Karunanidhi was cooperative when the police went to arrest him but the situation became bad after the arrival of Murasoli Maran, who questioned the nature of the arrest. Muthukaruppan said the police had to remove Maran from the car carrying Karunanidhi because "only the accused should be produced before the Judge for remand". The Police Commissioner claimed that Baalu was arrested because he pushed down two Superintendents of Police in front of Maran's residence. These S.Ps were trying to enter Maran's residence because they had information that M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi's son and the Mayor of Chennai Corporation, was there.

Stalin surrendered on June 30 before Principal Sessions Judge, Chennai, S. Ashok Kumar, who remanded him to judicial custody. He was first taken to Central Prison, Chennai, and then to Central Prison, Madurai, about 500 km away.

After the AIADMK was voted back to power in May, Jayalalithaa left no one in doubt that she would go after Karunanidhi, Stalin and officials she perceived had been close to the DMK government. She was not ready to forgive her being arrested on December 7, 1996, when the DMK was in power and her incarceration for a month for alleged corruption in the purchase of colour TV sets for villages.

Three special courts were set up to try the cases of corruption against Jayalalithaa, her Ministers and officials when she was Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996. She could not contest the Assembly elections in May 2001 because she had been convicted and sentenced to three and two years of imprisonment each in two corruption cases and was, therefore, disqualified from contesting elections. She, however, led her alliance's campaign and the AIADMK swept back to power with an absolute majority.

Even before the elections were over, Jayalalithaa made her intentions clear. When a reporter asked her whether she would arrest Karunanidhi and others if she returned to power, she replied in Tamil: "I will shove inside those who need to be shoved inside." After Fathima Beevi swore her in controversially as Chief Minister on May 14, she transferred several hundred Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service officers. Two postings signalled that the arrests of Karunanidhi, Stalin and others would soon happen. They were the positioning of J.T. Acharyalu as Chennai Corporation Commissioner and A. Ravindranath as Director-General of Police.

The arrests themselves capped a series of dramatic events on June 29. A three-member Bench of the Madras High Court dismissed in limine two quo warranto petitions challenging Jayalalithaa's appointment as Chief Minister. The same day, the police arrested about 150 mediapersons when they attempted to take out a rally in Chennai to protest against the arrest of a Sun TV reporter, Suresh, in Villupuram. What signalled that something was in the offing was Jayalalithaa cancelling her visit scheduled for July 1 to the Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayur in Kerala to worship there and to gift an elephant. On July 2, as the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister finally reached the famed temple to make her offering, local BJP and RSS activists demonstrated noisily in protest against her government's handling of her political rivals. The demonstrators were lathi-charged.

THE offensive began after midnight on June 29 when Chennai was asleep ahead of a weekend break. First, policemen massed around Stalin's house at Velachery, a Chennai suburb, around 1 a.m. Stalin had, however, left for Bangalore where, it turned out, he had gone to see a relative.

Almost simultaneously, the police surrounded Karunanidhi's houses at Gopalapuram and Mylapore, and Maran's house which is just across Karunanidhi's Gopalapuram home.

Around 1-30 a.m., the police entered Karunanidhi's house in Mylapore, and informed him that they had come to arrest him. Karunanidhi said he would come down from his bedroom in ten minutes after changing clothes. He then called Maran over a mobile phone and Maran arrived swiftly. Maran's son Kalanidhi, who manages Sun TV, and a Sun TV cameraman also quickly made it to the place.

According to Karunanidhi, even before he could change his clothes, policemen came rushing up and broke the doors. Eyewitness accounts said the police would not even allow him to change his clothes. Thereafter, the police allegedly pushed the former Chief Minister, jostled him and lifted him bodily. Karunanidhi alleged that he was dragged down the staircase. Maran, who was caught in the melee, was pushed around. There was big commotion as somebody kept shouting in Tamil: "They are trying to kill us, they are trying to kill us." As the television clips were replayed over the Sun TV channels and by virtually every other Indian news channel, millions of people in Tamil Nadu and all over India saw Jayalalithaa raj in Tamil Nadu in terms of these ugly lawless acts.

While Sun TV kept telecasting its footage of the treatment that Karunanidhi and Maran received at the hands of the police, Jaya TV started telecasting on July 1 counter-footage. This showed that the situation was calm when the policemen arrived at Karunanidhi's house. In this version, there is no roughing up or jostling of the former Chief Minister. The situation takes a turn with the arrival of Maran. He picks up a quarrel with the police officers and resists spiritedly.

Jayalalithaa wanted the Prime Minister to drop Maran and Baalu from his Cabinet "for assaulting and abusing" policemen on duty. In a statement, she said evidence of their behaviour was available on tape. According to her, if the Prime Minister wished to "act in a fair manner," he should drop them from the Cabinet. "We cannot have Union Ministers who are of Cabinet rank... behaving like street rowdies and goondas," Jayalalithaa said, using characteristically provocative language.

After his arrest, the car carrying Karunanidhi sped to the CB-CID office. Rajathi Ammal came there a bit later. Maran, Baalu, M.K. Tamilarasu and Selvi (son and daughter respectively of Karunanidhi) were not allowed to meet Karunanidhi. Heated arguments broke out between them and the police. About 20 reporters present there were arrested and taken to the Vepery police station. Maran also arrived in his car at the CB-CID office. Jaya TV showed a visual of the driver of that car revving up the engine, and the commentator said the car "crashed" into the gates and went inside.

Meanwhile, other arrests were under way around 1 a.m. They included those of K.A. Nambiar, former Chief Secretary; Dr. N.S. Srinivasan, consultant for the flyovers project; and others from their homes.

The police told Srinivasan that he was wanted for questioning and that he could come back around 3 a.m. He left carrying the files connected with the flyovers. He did not come back. He was placed under arrest. Nambiar was arrested from his Anna Nagar residence and taken to the CB-CID office.

Around 4 a.m., policemen had massed around the multi-storeyed apartment complex on Taylor's Road, Kilpauk, where Principal Sessions Judge Ashok Kumar lives. A big group of reporters was present. Around 4.15 a.m. Karunanidhi was driven to Ashok Kumar's residence but inexplicably taken from there to the Vepery police station. After some time, when the police wanted to drive the former Chief Minister again to the Judge's home, Maran wanted to accompany him. But the police pulled him out of the car, bodily lifted him and carried him away.

Chennai's Police Commissioner K. Muthukaruppan characterised Maran's behaviour as unwarranted. Maran refused to get down from the car although the police pleaded with him to do so, he complained.

The police brought Karunanidhi again to the Judge's home after 4-30 a.m. But they would not allow N. Senthilkumar, a young advocate, to represent the former Chief Minister. Senthilkumar alleged that the police punched him on the face and "stopped me from discharging my duty as a lawyer".

Karunanidhi told the Judge that the police had assaulted him and he had fainted twice. He was not even allowed to wear his chappals. As he described what happened at his home, he broke into tears. When he saw Nambiar, he reportedly told the Judge that Nambiar had retired as Chief Secretary before the flyover project was conceived. Ashok Kumar remanded them to judicial custody until July 10. The Judge told the police that Karunanidhi should be given medical treatment (at the Government General Hospital) and then taken to the prison.

As Karunanidhi and Nambiar came out, Karunanidhi told his former Chief Secretary: "You did not meet me after you retired. But they have made us meet now." The former Chief Minister wrote on a piece of paper "Aram vellum" (Dharma will triumph) for A. Kamaraj, Associate Editor of Tamil magazine, Nakkheeran.

The police, instead of taking Karunanidhi to the General Hospital, drove him to the Central Prison. Karunanidhi sat in dharna outside but subsequently walked into the prison.

Stalin surrendered before the same Judge and requested him that since he was Chennai Mayor and DMK youth wing secretary, he should be lodged in the Central Prison in Chennai. He feared a threat to his life if he was remanded to judicial custody anywhere else. The Judge directed that Stalin be detained in Chennai. But after a few hours in the Chennai prison, he was driven to Madurai in the afternoon. "This amounts to contempt of court," said a lawyer who represented Stalin before the Judge.

Thousands of DMK activists, including senior leaders, were arrested all over the State. The police repeatedly lathicharged crowds that gathered outside the Chennai Prison. The police would not even allow medicines brought by Srinivasan's young daughter to be taken inside. They also refused to allow Selvi and Anbukkarasi to meet Karunanidhi.

ON the evening of July 2, Murasoli Maran and Baalu were ordered to be released. Earlier in the day the police filed a petition before a Metropolitan Magistrate in Chennai that they be released as "the preliminary investigation into the cases against them" had been completed. The Tamil Nadu government said the Ministers, who had been arrested "for the offences committed by them during the arrest of former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi" were being released. It, however, maintained that they 'were apprehended only after they assaulted police officials and obstructed them from discharging their official duties connected with the arrest of Karunanidhi", and stopped short of dropping the charges against them, including of criminal intimidation.

The release came minutes before the scheduled meeting of the NDA at 6-00 p.m. in Delhi to discuss the NDA team's report with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.

Before his surrender, Stalin appeared to be a picture of guts. He said he would not spare those policemen who broke into his house and misbehaved with the womenfolk. They had no arrest warrant or summons or any documents, he said. "I will file cases against them. I will fight this case (alleged corruption in the building of flyovers) booked against me. This is a baseless allegation against me. We will meet this in a court of law. I will not seek adjournments and flee. We are here to serve the people of Tamil Nadu. I have not bought hotels in London..." Stalin told reporters. (This is a reference to a case against Jayalalithaa and T.T.V. Dinakaran, nephew of Jayalalithaa's associate Sasikala, for reportedly buying two hotels in England.)