Recalling Jayalalithaa: In a league of her own
by Sandhya Jain on 13 Dec 2016 9 Comments

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa, interred on December 6 after a State funeral attended by both the President and Prime Minister of India, was a complex personality who has left behind a mixed legacy. Surprisingly for one mired in controversy during her roller-coaster life, her final departure was accomplished with unexpected grace, with lifelong opponents rising above petty rivalries to shower encomiums upon her.


Jayalalithaa’s multifaceted personality defies encapsulation in a single narrative. Forced to claw her way to the top in the male-dominated film and political industries, she found redemption as messiah of the downtrodden, especially women, to whom she gave dignity with her schemes for health care, child care, saving the girl child, nutrition, et al. Jayalalithaa was extremely intelligent and articulate, and carefully measured her words on every issue; this column recalls her views on some contentious issues generally associated with Hinduism, Hindu communalism (sic) and Hindutva.


One of her early decisions after becoming Chief Minister in 1991 was a temple renovation scheme. She launched Vedic colleges to train young men to become temple priests and moved an ordinance to allow government to intervene in minority-run educational institutions, but was forced to withdraw it. During a brief second stint in office in 2001, she provided funds for temple renovation and pension for temple priests and launched an Annadanam scheme to feed the poor in temples.


At the National Integration Council meeting in New Delhi on November 23, 1992, she supported kar seva in Ayodhya, and was among the few Chief Ministers to protest the dismissal of the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan in December 1992. She told the august body, “The question is not whether we can arrive at a consensus of the Ayodhya issue in a meeting like this…. The more important question is whether eminent leaders of all faiths and convictions, who are assembled here, can display enough statesmanship, maturity and wisdom to see each other’s point of view and help the country to cross this hurdle….”


Observing that the Ayodhya issue has constitutional, legal, historical, political, social and communal angles, and that minority and majority citizens must enjoy equal rights, she urged that, “it will not be right on the part of a minority in any context of political, historical or social configuration to promote its interests to the complete detriment of even the normal rights and privileges of the majority ….” She added that if the Hindu community wished to achieve its religious aspirations “in a peaceful manner not inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution, they should be allowed to do so”. Indeed, the Centre has a responsibility to ensure that they enjoy their rights as peacefully as the minority.


This, with respect to the Ayodhya issue, “would mean permitting a construction as wished for by the Hindus to come up on the site acquired by the Uttar Pradesh Government”. Admitting that the Supreme Court directions to the UP Government and the pendency of cases in the High Court make it difficult for kar sewa to be organised on the site acquired by the UP Government, she proposed that the Centre and State Government help facilitate kar sewa.


Nuancing these bold assertions by asserting that the reference to the Supreme Court on the basic issue of the existence of a temple on the disputed site prior to AD 1528 could not be decided by courts, she concluded that the question of the masjid should be left untouched and kar sewa allowed on the land acquired by the State Government. In effect, she suggested that a temple be built on the acquired land as a means to end the confrontation between groups; that ship has since sailed.


Reacting to the savagery at Godhra on February 28, 2002, Jayalalithaa denounced the major political parties for their anti-majority approach, “It is very strange and saddening to see that ….not a single political leader has so far issued a statement condemning this barbaric crime”. She added that the horror of what had happened in Gujarat “should compel all those who believe in fairness, justice and equity to condemn this ghastly and senseless violence in the strongest possible manner”. It goes without saying that these words of wisdom apply equally to the legions of secular fundamentalists who have made name, fame, and fortune from the tragedy that followed the Godhra atrocity.


Jayalalithaa passed the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2002, which prohibited force, allurement or fraud in conversion, and levied strong penalties on those indulging in illegal conversions, especially of minors, women, and persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Besides, any person converting by “himself” or presiding over a conversion ceremony would have to intimate the local magistrate within a specified period.


The ordinance was subsequently converted into law and the Chief Minister rebuffed Pope John Paul II’s denunciation, saying, “The Pope has no authority to talk about any legislation passed by democratically-elected governments in India.” The law was withdrawn after the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the parliamentary elections of May 2004, but the AIADMK leader insisted that her party would not align with the Congress if it projected the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi as prime ministerial candidate.


Previously, in July 2003, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister voiced support for the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code and said her party would back parliamentary legislation in this regard as the UCC would ensure equality to all citizens. Supporting construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, she famously queried, “If we cannot build a temple for Lord Ram in India, where else can we do it?”


Jayalalithaa welcomed the Allahabad High Court verdict on the Ayodhya title suit case in October 2010, and advised the parties concerned to appreciate it: “I feel that the learned judges have delivered an admirable verdict... It is a judgment that opens the door to the path of reconciliation.” She urged the concerned parties to strive to evolve a solution which will make India “a shining model of dynamic secularism.”


In a country where stifling secularism has long been the norm in public life, it is difficult to see how much more Jayalalithaa could do to uphold the civilisational ethos and foundational culture of India. Buffeted by myriad personal and political storms, she ploughed a lonely furrow.   

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