Although she had inherited MGR’s political rivalry with Karunanidhi by virtue of taking control of the party, no one could have foreseen Jayalalithaa’s saree being “pulled and torn” by a DMK minister in the TN Assembly.
A weeping Jayalalithaa showing the media the spot on her head where DMK members allegedly hit her in the TN Assembly; PTI

The News Minute brings you the Dravidian Chronicles, a collection of narratives on the margins of the 2016 election spotlight. Here we chronicle smaller, subtler shifts that catalyse and metamorphose the grand narratives of the electoral juggernaut.

The bitterness, animosity and all-consuming vindictiveness that have governed Tamil Nadu’s politics for nearly 30 years can be traced back to what transpired in the state’s seat of power on March 25, 1989.   

DMK leader M Karunanidhi was nearly two months into his third term as Chief Minister. Jayalalithaa was the Leader of Opposition, the first woman in the state. She had managed to unite the AIADMK following a brief succession battle after the death of her mentor MG Ramachandran. And although she had inherited MGR’s political rivalry with Karunanidhi by virtue of taking control of the party, no one could have foreseen Jayalalithaa’s saree being “pulled and torn” by a DMK minister in Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Assembly.   

But as is the case with history sometimes, there are different accounts of what happened that fateful day.  The sequence of events leading up to the Assembly session is crucial to get a full picture. A case of cheating had been filed against Jayalalithaa’s aide Natarajan (Sasikala’s husband) and on that pretext the police had raided his house at Abhiramapuram in Madras. Subsequently, a letter written by Jayalalithaa to the Speaker stating she was resigning as MLA with effect from March 15, 1989 was “leaked to the press,” says Vaasanthi, a writer and journalist.  

 As news spread, Speaker M Tamilkudimagan, who had also received her letter from an ‘unidentified messenger’, accepted Jayalalithaa’s resignation. “The speaker should not have accepted her resignation as per the rules, “observes KN Arun, who was a reporter with Indian Express then. The leaked resignation letter not only forced Jayalalithaa to change her mind but helped her go on the offensive against the Karunanidhi government.  

A week later, Chief Minister Karunanidhi, who also held the Finance portfolio, was preparing to present the budget at the Assembly. “But before he could begin, the deputy leader of the Congress, Kumari Anandan...said that the police had acted undemocratically and in a high-handed manner against the leader of the opposition Jayalalithaa, which amounted to a breach of privilege of a member of the house,” writes Vaasanthi in her book ‘Cut-outs,  Caste and Cine Stars’.  KN Arun, who was seated in the press gallery, had a vantage view of the Assembly says Jayalalithaa shouted “kutravali” (criminal in Tamil) at Karunanidhi and objected to him presenting the budget. It is here history gets murky with differing accounts on what happened next.   

“The Chief Minister covered the microphone and hurled personal remarks at Jayalalithaa, who immediately got incensed,” narrates Arun. He then saw AIADMK’s KA Sengottaiyan rush forward and push Karunanidhi (in another version, Sengottaiyan punches him).

Everything happened in a flash. Members rushed to the well as pandemonium ensued. Violence broke out with the DMK and AIADMK MLAs hitting each other, chappals and microphones were hurled across the benches. The bundles making up the state budget, which had been temporarily stashed aside, now served another purpose.

Deputy leader of opposition Thirunavukkarasu, AIADMK MLA KKSSR Ramachandran and Congress leader GK Moopanar formed a human-shield around Jayalalithaa, as their backs received blow after blow from the budget bundles, which had been flung at them. As Jayalalithaa was inching her way out of the House, DMK Minister Durai Murugan “rushed towards her and tried to hit her. But in the process his hand caught hold of her pallu,” recalls Arun.   

Jayalalithaa emerged from the scene, dishevelled and weeping. She was quick to draw a parallel with the disrobing of Draupadi and vowed never to enter Assembly until the DMK government is dismissed and “until conditions are created under which a woman may attend the Assembly safely.”

Days after the incident, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Jayalalithaa in hospital, who was recovering from the injuries she had suffered. It was the beginning of a crucial alliance. Eight months later, the AIADMK-Congress combine swept the Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu winning 38 out of 39 seats.

“The incident in Assembly had propaganda value for the AIADMK. It definitely created empathy among women voters especially after what happened at MGR’s funeral,” notes N. Sathiyamoorthy, Observer Research Foundation’s Chennai chapter director.

The ugly episode helped energise Jayalalithaa, who had looked down and out following the 1989 Assembly Elections. “She was a woman scorned. She couldn’t get over the sense of humiliation she suffered that day and the anger still burned inside her. She had to fight for her space in a male-dominated political sphere,” notes Vaasanthi.  Arun says, “It resulted in her consolidating the party, with those from the Janaki faction returning to strengthen the AIADMK.”  It also gave her the momentum going into the 1991 Assembly Polls.

Riding on the massive sympathy wave following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in Sriperumpudur and the anti-incumbency against the DMK, Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister for the first time in 1991, following a landslide victory for the AIADMK-Congress combine.  The DMK suffered a humiliating defeat, its worst in assembly elections, winning two seats with Karunanidhi managing to cling onto his Harbour seat by 890 votes. The DMK Chief, however, resigned from his seat, perhaps in fear of being outnumbered by a triumphant AIADMK in the Assembly.   

Also read: 

How Biju Patnaik nearly pulled off a DMK and AIADMK merger

Indira Gandhi never forgave MGR for 1977

Dravidian Chronicles: TN’s first polls saw a jailed communist elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly

Dravidian Chronicles: MGR's first electoral victory was from a hospital bed

Dravidian Chronicles: 1984- The year Karunanidhi skipped an election 

1989: The election that ended the succession battle between MGR’s heroines

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