When MGR fell ill

Print edition : October 28, 2016

MGR meeting nurses from Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, at the Downstate Medical Centre in Brooklyn, New York, where he was recuperating after a kidney transplant done in December 1984. To his right is his wife, V.N. Janaki. Photo: The Hindu Archives

His Health Minister, H.V. Hande, briefed the press regularly.

THOSE who have watched Tamil Nadu politics closely for nearly three decades will recall the hospitalisation of Chief Minister and AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran in 1984 in the context of the mystery surrounding Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s illness.

While MGR was admitted to Apollo Hospitals in Chennai on October 5, 1984, for a “mild asthma attack with fever and cold” as claimed by a hospital communique then, Jayalalithaa was admitted to the same hospital on September 22, 2016, for “fever and dehydration”.

Although details of her medical condition are unavailable officially, it is claimed that she is diabetic, as was MGR, her mentor, and has other related health issues. Whereas MGR, at 67, “was driven to the hospital in his car accompanied by his wife, V.N. Janaki”, according to a report from a Tamil language newspaper of that time, Jayalalithaa was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. “Jayalalithaa is facing almost the same health problems MGR faced,” said a senior political leader who was an ardent AIADMK functionary before he migrated to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Shortly after MGR was admitted to Apollo Hospitals, the press release on the Chief Minister stated that he was suffering from cold, fever and asthma and that he had been advised rest for a week. It stated: “Slight asthmatic trouble with mild renal impairment.” After slackening for three days, information about his health was put out regularly. In fact, contrary to popular claims, MGR’s health condition was not kept a “total secret”.

The hospital management began issuing regular press releases with adequate medical details much against the Chief Minister’s wish. A close MGR aide told Frontline that MGR had asked his family and friends not to make his hospitalisation public as he was apprehensive that party cadres and fans would be worried. It is another matter that the news spread like wildfire.

Besides the hospital press releases, the then Health Minister, H.V. Hande, also briefed the media regularly. The Tamil Nadu Assembly was in session then, and N.S.V. Chithan of the Congress urged the government to present a report on the Chief Minister’s health on the floor of the Assembly. Finance Minister V.R. Nedunchezhiyan told the Assembly that the Chief Minister was suffering from respiratory problems and that a team of doctors from the Madras General Hospital (now Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital) was also treating him. He, according to a press report, said the Chief Minister underwent peritoneal dialysis and was improving. The government also made it a point to submit medical reports of the Chief Minister every day in the Assembly. In the meantime, he suffered a haemorrhage, which was reported first by an English daily. Doctors from Bombay (now Mumbai) also treated him. “At no point of time was the health of the Chief Minister kept secret. It was transparent, though some vital clinical data were withheld for the lofty objective of preventing people from getting disturbed and tense,” said an MGR loyalist, now retired from politics.

On October 16, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi flew down to Madras and met MGR in the hospital. Promising all help from the Centre, she told presspersons that she met the Chief Minister and that “he smiled” at her. The next day, a team of specialists was flown in from the United States to treat him. They also held a press meet, in which they said MGR, at the age of 67, was very healthy. On October 20 the neurophysician Dr Kanu from Japan arrived to treat him for a tumour in his brain. Even the mode of treatment was revealed.

A fortnight after MGR was admitted to hospital, Governor S.L. Khurana announced that Nedunchezhiyan would look after the portfolios of the Chief Minister. A local media report of October 20 claimed that DMK leader M. Karunanidhi had met Janaki in the hospital and inquired about the Chief Minister’s health. A month passed with MGR in hospital but the government functioned smoothly.

MGR was airlifted to Downstate Medical Centre, Brooklyn, New York, on November 5. He underwent a kidney transplant on December 19. Before the surgery Janaki appealed to the people of Tamil Nadu to pray for her husband’s recovery. The appeal went “viral”, with people offering prayers for a successful operation and his speedy recovery. Leelavathy, daughter of his elder brother M.G. Chakrapani, donated one of her kidneys.

Meanwhile, back home a few significant political developments took place. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi had been made Prime Minister. He wanted to conduct early elections to Parliament, a proposal that Tamil Nadu accepted. The State Assembly was dissolved on a unanimous decision, and MGR filed his nomination papers from the New York hospital, for the Andipatti seat. The elections were held in December 1984, and MGR won by 30,000 votes. He returned to a tumultuous welcome on February 4, 1985, and took oath as Chief Minister for the third time on February 10. After almost two years in office, he died of a heart attack on Christmas eve in 1987.

When former Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai was hospitalised for cancer in 1968, he even wrote a letter to the people of the State explaining his ill health and another one to his mentor, ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy. He underwent a second surgery in Madras but died a week later following complications on February 3, 1969, while in office.

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