A house divided

Print edition : June 20, 2003

T. Kiruttinan (left), at the inauguration of a subway in Chennai when he was the State Highways Minister, with M.K. Stalin, Mayor of Chennai, and M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister and DMK president, at that time. - M. MOORTHY

The murder of senior Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader T. Kiruttinan and the arrest of DMK chief Karunanidhi's son M.K. Azhagiri in connection with the incident deal a severe blow to the image of the party and highlight the intense factionalism that exists within it.

IT was May 2001, just about a week before Assembly elections were to be held in Tamil Nadu and the campaign by various political parties had got into top gear. At a tea stall in Tambaram, a suburb of Chennai, the owner, a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supporter, looked dispirited. "The party (DMK) is not as it used to be," he lamented. Another man sprang up from his chair and stated with trepidation: "Yes, our party is not as it was earlier. The elder brother has hijacked one wing of the party. The younger brother has hijacked another." The elder brother he referred to is M.K. Azhagiri and the younger one is M.K. Stalin, sons of DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

Two years later, the gloom in the DMK remains. The mood should have been upbeat, for Karunanidhi is all set to be re-elected party president when the DMK's general council meets in Chennai on June 2; the next day Karunanidhi celebrates his 80th birthday. However, as the turn of events would have it, Azhagiri has been lodged in the Central Prison in Tiruchi for his role in the alleged conspiracy that led to the murder of senior DMK leader and former Minister T. Kiruttinan. According to the police, Azhagiri conspired to "eliminate Tha. Kiruttinan, (for) otherwise his political future would be at stake". The 66-year-old Kiruttinan was hacked to death on May 20 near his home in Madurai when he was returning from a morning walk. Apparently, he was attacked using sickles and knives by four men who came on motorcycles. Kiruttinan belonged to the Stalin faction in the DMK.

The murder of Kiruttinan, a widely respected leader known for his soft-spoken nature, caused a stir in Tamil Nadu. He had been elected to the Lok Sabha from the Sivaganga constituency for two terms, from 1967 to 1971 and from 1971 to 1977. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha for a year from April 1989, and then from 1990 to 1996, in which year he was elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly from Sivaganga. He served as Highways Minister from 1998 to 2001 and was the party secretary for Ramanathapuram east and Sivaganga districts. In the May 2001 elections, when the DMK was defeated in the State, Kiruttinan lost from Sivaganga.

The gruesome killing has shocked DMK cadre and brought the issue of factionalism centrestage in the party. As a DMK leader put it, "the cadre are feeling vexed. They feel that the party belongs to Karunanidhi's family." The murder seems to have been the result of the race between the Stalin and the Azhagiri factions for posts in the party elections, which will end by June 1. The murder was preceded in May by a series of incidents relating to the polls, in which the two factions clashed in Tiruvottriyur, Velachery, Pallipattu, and other parts of Chennai. Demonstrations were held in front of the DMK headquarters in Chennai. On May 25, at a demonstration led by DMK activists from Vellore district demanding that elections be held for the post of district secretary, cadre shouted: "Respect democracy and hold elections."

In her statement to the police, Kiruttinan's wife Padmavathy said: "The only political opponent my husband had is Azhagiri. My husband wanted elections to the party posts in Madurai West, Madurai East and Sivaganga. He spoke to Karunanidhi about this and made arrangements (for the elections to be held). This was not to the liking of Azhagiri. My husband told me a couple of times that Azhagiri was very angry with him, for Azhagiri planned to bring the party units in all the southern districts under his control by nominating his men to the various posts... " When Stalin consoled Padmavathy, she told him: "Look at the fate of my husband who was loyal to the party and you."

The murder took place at a time when both Azhagiri and Stalin tried to assure the cadre that there was no rivalry between the two. "There is no contradiction between them, Azhagiri and Stalin are united," Karunanidhi said.

Azhagiri, who moved his base to Madurai in 1989 when the DMK returned to power, tried to consolidate his hold over the party in the southern districts although he did not hold any formal party post. Stalin became the DMK's youth wing secretary and was being groomed to take over the reins from Karunanidhi. This engendered sibling rivalry. After the DMK was voted to power in 1996, Azhagiri became a puissant figure in Madurai and his faction grew stronger. Senior DMK leaders such as P.T.R. Palanivel Rajan, Assembly Speaker from 1996 to 2001, and Kiruttinan disapproved of his ways.

Before the 2001 elections, two important All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leaders, V. Karuppasamy Pandian and K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran, joined the DMK, boosting the party's strength in the southern districts where it was relatively weak. Both Karuppasamy Pandian of Tirunelveli district and Ramachandran of Sathur in Virudhunagar district, being men of proven organisational capability, their arrival seems to have made Azhagiri feel insecure, especially because they enjoyed the confidence of Stalin.

Factionalism within the party was fully exposed before the 2001 elections when Azhagiri asked the Madurai district office-bearers to resign. He was upset that it was Tiruchi Siva, a Stalin loyalist, who got the nod for a Rajya Sabha seat, instead of his camp follower C. Kaverimaniam. When a reporter asked Karunanidhi (then Chief Minister) about these developments, he asked, "Is Azhagiri in the party? How can we take action against him?"

Subsequently, the DMK lost power and the losers in the elections included seniors leaders such as Palanivel Rajan, Kiruttinan, V. Velusamy, I. Periasamy, N. Periasamy, S. Periasamy, L. Mookaiah, C. Ramachandran and Karuppasamy Pandian, all belonging to the southern districts. Commenting on the defeat, a DMK leader said, "In at least 10 constituencies, DMK leaders lost by small margins because Azhagiri's men worked against them." After the elections, DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan issued an edict asking party men not to have any truck with Azhagiri. In retaliation, Azhagiri supporters stoned and set fire to buses. With no let-up in the feuds between the two factions, the DMK high command removed Madurai district secretary Velusamy and appointed C. Kaverimaniam the district committee in-charge. Following these incidents, Azhagiri kept a low profile.

M.K. Azhagiri being taken to the Central Prison, Tiruchi, after he was arrested in Madurai.-K. GANESAN

What brought him back into the reckoning was the hard work he did for the DMK candidate who contested against AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa in the Andipatti constituency in February 2002. During this crucial election, Azhagiri and Stalin seemed to close ranks. However, the DMK candidate lost. Azhagiri was in the limelight again when he organised a function for the release of the second edition of Karunanidhi's book Tholkappiya Poonga (on the Tamil classic Tolkappiyam) in Madurai in February this year. The same day, copies worth Rs.28 lakhs were sold. Karunanidhi was elated.

As the party elections shifted into top gear in May, intra-party rivalry resurfaced. The party high command "allowed" Karuppasamy Pandian to contest for the Tirunelveli district secretary's post. The old guard, which included leaders such as A.L. Subramaniam, Suba. Seetharaman, Aladi Aruna and Ravindranath, reportedly "ganged up" against Karuppasamy Pandian, a relative newcomer. Consequently, Karuppasamy announced that he was stepping down from the contest as desired by Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi said, "In a democracy, in party elections, contests are unavoidable." Informed sources say that Karuppasamy Pandian was actually prevented from contesting.

Meanwhile, the rift between Kiruttinan and Azhagiri came into the open. According to DMK leaders, Azhagiri insisted that "men of his choice" be nominated for the party posts, especially to the posts of panchayat union and town secretaries in Madurai, Dindigul, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram, Theni, Virudhunagar and Tirunelveli districts, while Kiruttinan was in favour of elections. Ramachandran's men were also opposed to Azhagiri's demand because they were in a winning position in Virudhunagar. Karunanidhi reportedly requested that Azhagiri's men be nominated to panchayat union and town secretaries' posts in Theni, Sivaganga, Dindigul, Virudhunagar, Srivilliputhur, Rajapalayam and Aruppukottai. "But Kiruttinan insisted that elections be held," a DMK source said, and had his way too. The high command announced elections in these places on May 19.

TENSION gripped Sivaganga, Manamadurai and other towns when Kiruttinan's body was taken to his village of Kombukaranendhal near Sivaganga for performing the last rites. Senior DMK leaders who went there received a hostile reception.

Azhagiri was arrested from his home at around 4.30 a.m. on May 21and remanded to judicial custody until June 4. Azhagiri alleged that a false case had been foisted on him. "This is a politically vindictive action. There is no connection between this murder and myself. I did not plan any conspiracy," he said. On May 28, a fast track court in Madurai denied bail to Azhagiri.

In Chennai, a distressed Karunanidhi said that around 6 p.m. on May 19, Kiruttinan had spoken to him over phone about the elections to the Madurai unit. He alleged that Azhagiri's arrest was aimed at bringing disrepute to the DMK. The challenge would be met legally, he said. "It is welcome if the real perpetrators are detained. If efforts are taken which amount to bringing down two mangoes with one stone, it will allow the real culprits to escape," he said. Factions existed in every party, including the DMK, but members of one faction could not be blamed for everything that happened to those who belonged to the other, he argued.

On May 24, Karunanidhi wrote identical letters to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani, alleging that Azhagiri was arrested within 24 hours of the murder and remanded to judicial custody "without any well-founded accusation or information." Beginning with Azhagiri's arrest, the AIADMK government had misused its powers to create problems for the DMK, he said. He said that the police were being instigated to make the allegation that one senior DMK functionary killed another. This was aimed at bringing a bad name to the party and at creating divisions in it, he said.

Anbazhagan described the two brothers as "trees that have naturally grown in the garden of the DMK". Azhagiri, Stalin and their sister Tamilarasu had worked for the party for many years, and Stalin was in prison for a year during the Emergency, he said. "If Stalin cannot be in politics, nobody else deserves to be in politics," Anbazhagan argued.

Stalin condemned the "hasty" arrest of Azhagiri and called it a conspiracy by the AIADMK government to destroy the DMK.

On May 27, the Madurai police arrested four DMK functionaries P.M. Mannan (37), Essar Gobi (33), I. Mubaraq Manthiri and "karate" Siva (34) on the charge of plotting and executing Kiruttinan's murder. The same day, the prime accused in the case, Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait (32), surrendered before the XIII Metropolitan Magistrate, Egmore, Chennai.

In a press release, the Madurai police said that the DMK was divided into two groups led by Stalin and Azhagiri. Kiruttinan influenced the party high command to conduct elections in Sivaganga, Theni and Virudhunagar districts, while Azhagiri wanted to "avoid" elections and get his men nominated. Azhagiri took the announcement of elections as "a personal insult" and wanted to "settle scores" with Kiruttinan, the release said. According to the press release, on May 18, a conspiracy was hatched at Azhagiri's residence "to do away with Kiruttinan".

The conspirators "planned to finish off" Kiruttinan during his morning walk. The five - Mannan, Gobi, "karate" Siva, Manthiri and Sait - were assigned different tasks. Armed with the weapons supplied by Gobi, Manthiri and Sait stabbed Kiruttinan to death, the police claimed. The police recovered the weapons allegedly used in the crime, a car and blood-stained clothes.

A mood of uncertainty pervades the DMK. If the elections were contested with "ferocity" now, it was because the cadre were convinced that the DMK was on the come-back trail, given the people's disillusionment with the Jayalalithaa government. But, after the murder, the DMK's image has taken a beating.

Top leaders in the southern districts have become inactive because of Azhagiri's ways. And the murder seems to have further alienated the DMK from the Mukkulathor community, to which Kiruttinan belonged. The community has a strong presence in the southern districts and has been voting largely for the AIADMK. There seems to be a long haul ahead for the DMK.

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