Violence over an opinion poll on Karunanidhi's successor brings into the open the family feud in the DMK.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi cautioned against it, but the Tamil daily Dinakaran, owned by his grandnephew Kalanidhi Maran, went ahead and published an opinion poll on May 9 on who should succeed Karunanidhi. Within hours all hell broke loose in Madurai, where the office of the daily, which also houses the Sun TV network, was attacked and set on fire by supporters of M.K. Azhagiri, the Chief Minister's elder son.
The violence and arson claimed three lives - two young engineers and a security guard in the Dinakaran office - and set off a chain of events that ended in the exit of Dayanidhi Maran, younger brother of Kalanidhi Maran, as Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology.
The bloodletting led to protests by journalists across Tamil Nadu; they saw the murderous attack as an assault on the freedom of the press. Opposition parties called for the dismissal of the DMK government. Karunanidhi quickly announced that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) would investigate the violence and the deaths because he saw an attempt to implicate his family in the incidents.
This helped ease the tension somewhat but brought into sharper focus the manner in which the police handled the situation. As newscasts on television showed, they were silent spectators to the attack and in some cases even seemed to abet the crime.
Thugs stormed the building that houses the offices of Dinakaran, Sun TV and Tamil Murasu (an eveninger), ordered the employees out, damaged the printing machinery, set vehicles on fire and threw petrol bombs. As flames leapt up and smoke filled the rooms, M. Vinod Kumar (23) and G. Gopinath (25), both software engineers, were trapped inside and suffocated to death. The charred body of K. Muthuramalingam (42), the security guard, was found hours later.
Kalanidhi Maran, chairman and managing director of Sun Network, said after visiting the Dinakaran office that his employees blamed Azhagiri for the attack. Asked by reporters whether Azhagiri was behind the attack, he dodged the question and said: "I stand by what my employees say."
The events cast a shadow on the grand function in Chennai on May 11 celebrating Karunanidhi's 50 years as a legislator. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi took part in the event, but Dayanidhi Maran, who used to be present by Karunanidhi's side on occasions big or small, stayed away. Azhagiri flew in from Madurai to be with the family at the celebration.
On May 13, the DMK's administrative committee empowered Karunanidhi and party general secretary K. Anbazhagan to "remove" Dayanidhi Maran from the Union Cabinet because his "recent approaches and activities violated party discipline and maligned the DMK". This effectively brought into the open the ongoing feud between the Maran brothers and the Chief Minister's sons Azhagiri and M.K. Stalin.
While Stalin is the Local Administration Minister in the State, Azhagiri does not hold any post, party or otherwise, but has carved out a political empire for himself in southern Tamil Nadu with his base in Madurai.
Kalanidhi and Dayanidhi are the sons of the late Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi's sister's son and former Union Minister. Kalanidhi Maran's Sun TV Network is a Rs.400-crore company with the Marans holding most of the shares. Before becoming a Union Minister, Dayanidhi Maran was in charge of Sun TV's cable network operations.
What sparked the latest round of incidents was an opinion poll published in Dinakaran on May 9. The question that sparked the trouble was "Who should be Kalaignar's [Karunanidhi's] political heir?" In the poll, conducted in Tamil Nadu by A.C. Nielsen, 70 per cent of the respondents backed Stalin and 2 per cent each favoured Azhagiri and Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi's daughter, who is not in politics. The category "others" received 20 per cent of the votes. In Chennai, Azhagiri drew a blank, while in Madurai, his fief, more respondents preferred Stalin to him.
Azhagiri, DMK sources said, suspected a motive. He considered the poll to be a ploy to divide him and Stalin again after the two had buried their differences a few years ago. "Others", who had 20 per cent support, was a camouflage for Dayanidhi, the sources claimed.
An angry Azhagiri said: "I am not holding any post in the party. I do not want to hold any post also. So why should they conduct a poll about me? There is a motive behind it." He alleged that the poll was published to hurt Karunanidhi when he was scheduled to celebrate 50 years as a legislator.
What infuriated Karunanidhi was that Dinakaran published the poll, part of a "mega survey" covering various subjects, even after he had specifically set his face against its publication; he had sent word to Dinakaran's office not to publish it and also got in touch with the newspaper's management on phone.
Karunanidhi's circumspection could be traced to the reaction to the opinion poll published in the daily on May 7 on "the most efficient Union Minister from Tamil Nadu". It created bitterness among the cadre of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a partner in the DMK-led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA).
This poll had Dayanidhi ahead with 64 per cent of the respondents favouring him. Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram got 27 per cent; Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways T.R. Baalu 7 per cent; and Minister for Health and Family Welfare Anbumani Ramadoss and others 1 per cent each.
S. Ramadoss, PMK founder and Anbumani's father, took exception to the poll and the PMK cadre burnt copies of Dinakaran in several places. The DMK high command interpreted the poll as an effort to burnish Dayanidhi's image at the expense of the other Ministers, including those of the DMK.
Karunanidhi told the Assembly on May 10 that Dinakaran published the poll of May 7 despite his sending word to the daily's office in Chennai and telling the office on phone not to conduct such a poll. In fact, he said, he had issued a statement on May 7 disavowing his faith in such polls.
Karunanidhi said he was "puzzled" by the timing. He added that when he saw the advertisements in Dinakaran about A.C. Nielsen's "mega survey" he wondered what the need was for such a series of opinion polls now and feared that it would create unnecessary problems. He said he told the Dinakaran office so. "But the Dinakaran management did not accept my views and published the poll on May 7," the Chief Minister said.
The May 7 poll became "a tool to create disaffection not only in the DMK but among the allies [of the DMK]", he said. "Although I sent word, and despite my issuing a statement and making it clear that I was angry [after the opinion poll was published on May 7], Dinakaran published another opinion poll on May 9," Karunanidhi said. The same morning Azhagiri's supporters in Madurai erupted in bone-chilling violence.
The violence escalated in stages. First, miscreants stoned government buses near the Periyar bus terminus because they were "pained that our elder brother did not get favourable ratings in Dinakaran". Later, a group led by Mayor G. Thenmozhi gathered in front of Dinakaran's office, shouted slogans, burnt copies of the newspaper and dispersed. The protesters who came next meant business. They threw stones at the building, breaking windowpanes, set fire to parked motorcycles and threatened Dinakaran/Sun TV employees with dire consequences. The police, who came to the spot, remained passive spectators.
At 11 a.m., the third group, led by "Attack" Pandi and armed with logs, casuarina sticks and petrol bombs, arrived in a Tata Sumo. Policemen stood by as they stormed the Dinakaran office, smashed the printing machinery and set fire to newsprint rolls. A generator room also went up in flames.
Before leaving, they lobbed petrol bombs into the building. In no time, the furniture and furnishings caught fire. As the flames spread, thick smoke enveloped several rooms. Vinod Kumar and Gopinath, who were trapped in their rooms, died of suffocation. Gopinath had head injuries. Several hours later, Muthuramalingam's charred body was found. He is survived by his wife and three children. Some employees escaped death by taking shelter on the first floor.
The next day, Dinakaran published a telling picture of how the police stood by as the goons went about destroying property. The picture shows goons, armed with logs, exiting a hall "escorted' by policemen after they had smashed printing machinery. Both the thugs and the policemen had their heads down, perhaps to avoid being identified, as they were aware that someone was taking pictures.
Sun Network's chief operating officer R.M.R. Ramesh said the police did not do anything to disperse the goons. "We have videographic and photographic evidence. We have the list of all members of the gang," he said.
The murderous violence drew protests from journalists across the State. In Madurai, employees of Dinakaran blocked traffic on the Madurai-Melur road. Journalists in Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Thanjavur, Erode, Nagercoil and other places took out processions and held demonstrations.
In Chennai, a meeting of journalists' organisations said "the barbaric attacks" in Madurai showed that they were "pre-planned by a group of conspirators". The meeting, while welcoming the CBI inquiry, demanded a departmental inquiry into the allegations of police laxity.
N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu and Frontline, called the attacks "the darkest hour for the press in Tamil Nadu in recent times". A resolution passed at the meeting said the Chief Minister and the police department "should ensure that the extra-constitutional authority in Madurai is questioned and reined in under the law of the land to ensure that freedom prevailed in Tamil Nadu".
Former Chief Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary Jayalalithaa and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) general secretary Vaiko demanded the dismissal of the government. Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) leader Vijayakant wanted Karunanidhi to resign. Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy demanded that "Azhagiri be externed from Madurai to his home town in Thanjavur so that a free-and-fair investigation can take place".
The chain of incidents was the fallout of a family feud that has smouldered for the past six months, DMK sources said. At the root is perhaps the strained relationship between Azhagiri and Dayanidhi. After Murasoli Maran's death, Dayanidhi was given the party ticket for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and he won from Central Chennai. He was inducted into the Manmohan Singh Cabinet with the prestigious portfolios of Communications and Information Technology. The party leadership boosted his stock and provided him access to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.
According to DMK sources, the relationship between the top party leadership and the Maran brothers began to sour in November 2005 when Azhagiri's and Stalin's mother, Dayalu Ammal, relinquished the 20 per cent shares she held in Sun TV and the Tamil weekly Kunkumam and other magazines.
Karunanidhi said on November 7, 2005: "After allocating sufficient amount towards income tax, she [Dayalu Ammal] has divided the total proceeds and given me a portion, being a sum of Rs.10 crores, by way of a cheque." He added that Rs.5 crore would be used to set up the Kalaignar Karunanidhi Charitable Trust. Dayalu Ammal relinquishing her shares in Sun TV was seen as a move to delink the Karunanidhi family from Sun TV.
Dinakaran started playing down news about the DMK after the party's return to power in the State in May 2006, the sources said. This wounded Karunanidhi's feelings. Stalin reportedly received less coverage in both Dinakaran and Sun TV. The Chief Minister was also, reportedly, unhappy with some of the recent actions of Dayanidhi.
The publication of the opinion polls of May 7 and 9, despite the Chief Minister asking the daily not to, proved to be the last straw. The DMK sources alleged that the aim behind the opinion polls was to boost Dayanidhi Maran's stock as the most efficient and active Union Minister from Tamil Nadu. The May 7 poll was seen as having achieved this objective. The May 9 poll was meant to give an impression that Dayanidhi was becoming popular in the State, the DMK sources said. Besides, according to them, the timing of its publication was questionable. Elections were far away.
Karunanidhi said: "What is funny in this is that Azhagiri has often given interviews to the press that he is not interested in party posts. Kanimozhi, who takes part as a poet in literary functions organised by the DMK and the Communist parties, has also said openly, and subtly, that she will not join politics. But Dinkaran needlessly publishes a poll that Azhagiri commands only 2 per cent support [in the State] and none at all in Chennai."
The party administrative committee acted swiftly and authorised Karunanidhi and Anbazhagan on May 13 evening to seek Dayanidhi Maran's removal from the Union Cabinet. The committee resolved that a decision on his party membership would be taken after seeking an explanation from him. Saying that the party was supreme, speakers at the meeting demanded action against Dayanidhi Maran.
Karunanidhi, who addressed the committee, said he would not justify the deaths of three young men. Action would be taken against those responsible for the deaths on the basis of the CBI's report. Karunanidhi reportedly said he had to crack the whip for acts of disobedience.
Dayanidhi Maran faxed his resignation to Manmohan Singh immediately after the resolutions were passed. He said: "I am only sad that an allegation has been put on [sic] me that I was doing anti-party activities." What "worries me is that the leader [Karunanidhi] suspects me", he said. (A. Raja of the DMK is the new Union Minister for Communications and Information Technology. He was earlier Union Minister for Environment and Forests.)
Dayanidhi alleged that "someone has capitalised on the opportunity" and used the incident to "mislead" the Chief Minister. "I do not know what anti-party activities I have done. I did not even dream of any anti-party activity against my leader or party," he said.
State Electricity Minister Arcot N. Veerasamy alleged that Dayanidhi had threatened the State Home Secretary S. Malathi after the violence in Madurai. "Our Minister in the [Union] Cabinet threatens the Home Secretary and warns that if she is not going to maintain law and order, he will meet the President and give a letter."
The Madurai police have filed cases under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Explosive Substances Act, and so on. Seven persons, including the main accused, "Attack" Pandi, have been arrested and charged under Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC. In other cases, 13 persons, including Mayor Thenmozhi, her husband K. Gopinathan and former Mayor P. Kulandaivelu, who either surrendered in court or were arrested, have been let out on bail.