IT took the burning of three young women students in a bus, allegedly by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) men, to ignite student activism in Tamil Nadu after nearly 30 years. The burning alive of Hemalatha, Kokilavani and Gayathri took place at Lakkiymapatti, near Dharmapuri, on February 2 when AIADMK supporters went on the rampage in different parts of the State, following the sentencing of party general secretary and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha in the Pleasant Stay Hotel case.
The three young women and their classmates in the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore, were on an educational tour in two buses. Three men, who allegedly belonged to the AIADMK, came on a motorbike and set the bus transporting the young women on fire. While some young women scrambled out through one exit that was open (the other one was locked), Hemalatha, Kokilavani and Gayathri, trying to retrieve their luggage, were trapped inside.
The incident led to angry protests by students all over Tamil Nadu. They wore black badges, took out processions, blocked traffic and formed human chains in Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Madurai, Tirunelveli, Dharmapuri and other places. Chief Minister M . Karunanidhi's handling of the situation defused a crisis that was building up as the students' protests gathered strength, but the political implications of the tragedy and the Special Judge's verdict are difficult to predict. Byelections to the Assemb ly seats of Tiruchi-II, Aranthangi and Nellikuppam are are to be held on February 17. These seats will witness virtually a direct contest between the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the AIADMK, although candidates of Puthiya Tamilagam, essenti ally a Dalit organisation, are also in the fray. While the Chief Minister asserted that "people know that it was AIADMK men who burnt the bus at Dharmapuri" and reeled out that party's record of violence", the AIADMK, unable to come up with a credible ex planation for the burning of the bus, was on the defensive. All the nine persons arrested until February 9 and the seven who surrendered before courts belonged to the AIADMK. Jayalalitha claimed that they had surrendered in order to avoid embarrassment t o the AIADMK leadership.
Although an anti-incumbency sentiment seemed to be building up against the DMK following the increases in bus fares and power tariffs and the stoppage of sale of Rs.2-a-kg rice in ration shops, the death of the three young women has directed anger at t he AIADMK whose cadres had unleashed violence across the State soon after the Special Judge sentenced Jayalalitha to one year's imprisonment.
However, the court verdict and the violence have not caused any fissures in the AlADMK-led front, which includes the Congress(I), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Indian National League (INL). The Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) headed by G.K. Moopanar supports the AIADMK. When Moopanar was asked whether his party would review its support to the AIADMK, he quoted a Tirukkural couplet which means that any decision should be preceded by keen application of o ne's mind and once a decision is taken, one should on no account back down. Hours after the Special Judge gave his verdict on February 2, the leaders of all these parties attended a meeting to condole the death of former Minister and AIADMK leader V.R. N edunchezhiyan. This was an indication that they would stand by Jayalalitha, given the importance of the byelections. Elections to the Assembly are due in April 2001.
Taking their cue from Jayalalitha, leaders of the AIADMK's allies said that she could go in appeal to the High Court and the Supreme Court. They also echoed her demand for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the death of th e students. They said that they had no faith in an inquiry by the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) of the State police.
The AIADMK leadership may find it difficult to explain away the violence. A few minutes afer Jayalalitha left the court, there were dark hints of what was to happen soon. Hundreds of AIADMK supporters, both men and women, gathered outside the court and b locked traffic. They threw stones at State-owned buses and got shopkeepers to lower their shutters. When the violence escalated, the police resorted to a lathicharge.
Violent incidents were reported from the suburbs of Chennai and from Tiruchi, Madurai, Coimbatore, Tirunelveli and Dharmapuri districts.
Around 2 p.m., TNAU students, who were heading back to Coimbatore, ran into a roadblock put up by AIADMK men at Lakkiyampatti. The girls were in one bus and the boys followed in another bus. According to the students, three men came on a motorbike, got i nto the girls' bus through the driver's door, sprinkled petrol and set the vehicle on fire. Another version said that the men poured petrol on the bus from outside. The boys, standing some distance away, saw smoke coming from the rear of the bus. They ra n ahead and rescued a few girls by tearing down the shutters, which had been lowered because of stone-throwing.
The students said that a police jeep that passed by at that time did not stop to help. They also said that a policeman who had been standing nearby was rude to them. The students gheraoed for four hours District Collector Sai Kumar who came to the site. Students from Dharmapuri soon gathered there in their support. They broke the windshield of the Collector's car. The police fired buckshots and used teargas to disperse the students.
As news of the tragedy spread, students in various towns of Tamil Nadu came out in protest. In Coimbatore, students boycotted classes and took out processions. The TNAU was closed. M. Karunanidhi sent Forest Minister Pongalur N. Palanisamy to talk to the students, who wanted the Chief Minister to come to Coimbatore for discussions.
While Karunanidhi asserted that the AIADMK was behind the killing of the students, Jayalalitha claimed that the DMK was instigating violence. She submitted to Governor Fathima Beevi a memorandum demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation in to the incidents. Karunanidhi alleged that this demand was intended to delay the investigation that was already on.
A row also broke out between Jayalalitha and Sun TV (owned by relatives of Karunanidhi). She asked, "How was it that Sun TV crew were accurately positioned at the site, in all readiness to film the happening? How did Sun TV know beforehand that such an i ncident was going to take place?" CPI(M) State secretary N. Sankaraiah too raised similar questions. Jayalalitha added, "The Sun TV's crew must have filmed the torching from the start to the finish. Why did it then not show the persons who threw the petr ol bombs?"
Sun TV's reply was to demand Rs.5 crores as damages and an unconditional apology from Jayalalitha for making "defamatory" statements about the channel, failing which it would launch civil and criminal proceedings against her. Sun TV explained that its cr ew was there along with reporters of other television channels and newspapers because a dharna by AIADMK supporters was under way. Their attention turned to the bus only after they saw the flames, it explained. Although Sun TV, Raj TV and Jaya TV crew an d newspaper photographers had filmed the burning of the bus, Jayalalitha accused only Sun TV of spreading false information, Sun TV said.
The students of the TNAU agreed to return to their classrooms from February 16 after their delegation met Karunanidhi in Chennai on February 7. Karunanidhi conceded their demands: the Government would meet the medical expenses of the injured students; co mpensation would be paid to those who lost their belongings; the burnt bus would be replaced by a new bus; jobs would be given to a family member of each of the girls killed; the Government would meet the educational expenses of one of the kin of each of the girls who died; and disciplinary action would be taken against Sub-Inspector K. Lakshmanan (who was rude to the students at Lakkiyampatti).
On February 10, the Tamil Nadu Police claimed in a press note to have established the indentities of the three accused. One of them, C. Muniappan, a panchayat president, had been arrested at Salem.