A Tale of 3 Funerals: Jayalalithaa, Bal Thackeray and Jyoti Basu
A supporter of J Jayalalithaa breaks down during her funeral. (Photo: Reuters)
A supporter of J Jayalalithaa breaks down during her funeral. (Photo: Reuters)

A Tale of 3 Funerals: Jayalalithaa, Bal Thackeray and Jyoti Basu

Surrounded by thousands of mourners, I was standing at Marina beach in Chennai. When the coffin of the tempestuous Jayalalithaa was lowered into the vault, another storm was brewing in the sky. What a coincidence, I thought, looking at the dark clouds over the sea.

This was not the first time I was attending a funeral of a mass leader. As Sasikala was performing the last rites, my mind went back to Shivaji Park in Mumbai and the Assembly building in Kolkata. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's last rites were carried out at Shivaji Park in the winter of 2012, while CPM leader Jyoti Basu's body was kept in the West Bengal Assembly building, where leaders and common people paid their last respects in late 2010.

These three political figures dominated politics in the east, west and south India for the last three decades.

Parallels can easily be drawn between Jayalalithaa and Balasaheb. Both were authoritarian leaders who led their parties single-handedly and symbolised regional sentiments. Both of them enjoyed a cult following, lived controversial and lavish lives and both had funerals attended by thousands.

Basu, on the other hand, was a simple man who would listen to his party leaders and had no controversies, but he too had an equally massive funeral. And his funeral too had its share of dramatic moments. We will come to that a little later.

Amma vs Balasaheb

The mammoth crowd during Bal Thackeray’s  funeral procession in Mumbai on 18 November 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
The mammoth crowd during Bal Thackeray’s funeral procession in Mumbai on 18 November 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Although there are superficial similarities between Amma and Balasaheb, the final few days of their lives and their last rites show how different their lives really were.

It was never said on record, but sources kept telling us that Bal Thackeray had cancer of the pancreas. So, it was known to the family and doctors that he was going to die sooner or later. Jayalalithaa, on the other hand, had shown some improvement while in hospital.

No medical bulletins were issued about Balasaheb’s health, which created confusion. In fact, a day before his death, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut came out of Thackeray’s residence and said his condition was improving. This gave false hope to his emotionally sensitive followers. 

In Chennai, Apollo Hospitals at least issued medical bulletins, albeit not regularly. From “cardiac arrest” to “very critical” to “grave situation”, the adjectives in those bulletins were mentally preparing Amma’s followers, who eventually did not find the actual announcement entirely unexpected.

Mumbai was immediately shut after Balasaheb's death was announced at around 4 pm, so was Chennai when the news of Amma's demise was first flashed on Tamil channels around 5 pm. Although both cities remained largely calm, the police presence in Chennai was far more visible than in Mumbai.

The anticipation of violence was greater in Tamil Nadu, probably because of the riots seen after MGR’s death, her unmatched popularity, or the fact that she was in power at the time. 

Balasaheb’s funeral was considered by observers as a show of strength as the party had subtly encouraged people to attend it in huge numbers. There was a day-long procession from Bandra to Shivaji Park. Jayalalithaa’s was short in comparison. In fact, I got a feeling that the authorities wanted to finish it off as soon as possible so that the city could return to normal.

There was some drama during Thackeray’s funeral, when his estranged nephew Raj left the procession in the middle; he returned for the cremation after some time. There was controversy during Jayalalithaa’s funeral too.

Jaya’s estranged niece Deepa Jayakumar created a scene when she was not allowed near her aunt’s body. The AIADMK supremo’s body was encircled by Sasikala’s family members, some of whom the CM had despised in the last decade of her life.  

High Drama in Kolkata Too

 Jyoti
Basu’s last journey in Kolkata on 19 January 2010. (Photo: Reuters)
Jyoti Basu’s last journey in Kolkata on 19 January 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

Jyoti da lived a simple life, but his funeral too was not without its dramatic moments. Everybody in Kolkata was wondering if Mamata di would pay her respects to the doyen of Bengal politics. So, when senior journalist Diptosh Majumdar asked me if I wanted to meet her, I jumped at the opportunity.

We reached Mamata’s old, shanty-like residence in Kalighat. I couldn’t believe my eyes opon seeing it. The then-union railways minister was living in a small house with no security. All her armed guards were sitting quietly at a distance.

When we went in, Mamata got up and welcomed us with a big smile. Diptosh was her old pal. Didi talked about her experiences in Delhi, her plans for the upcoming Bengal Assembly elections (which she would eventually win), about her new collection of poetry and her paintings. When Diptosh asked her about Jyoti Basu's funeral, she suddenly turned towards the wall and looked at a closed window.

That's typical Mamata. She didn't utter a word about it. I could see the anger on her face and feel the tension in that tiny room. Diptosh later told me that Mamata’s entire politics was anti-Left and Jyoti Basu was the symbol of Left rule. Mamata thought that paying tribute to Basu could have diluted her image of an angry, anti-establishment leader.

Another thing about Jyoti Basu’s funeral was the deluge of people. The organisers had clearly miscalculated the popularity of the man, who was the CM for 23 long years and had carried out land reforms in a state of zamindars.

There were thousands and thousands of poor people who had come from various places. When the gates of the venue closed, frenzied people started climbing the tall walls and gates built during the British Raj. The police bandobast was far less compared to the other two funerals and the policemen looked ill-prepared to control the crowds. 

What shocked me the most in Kolkata was the poverty of the people who had come to bid adieu to Jyoti da. I had never seen so many poor people at one place before. I didn't know what to feel – was it a success of Jyoti Basu's leadership that thousands had gathered to express their gratitude? Or was it his failure that that the poor remained poor despite his rule for over two decades?

While many of them were beneficiaries of his policies, in Mumbai, the number of direct beneficiaries was less as Shiv Sena had been in power only for one term and that too in partnership with the BJP. Here, it was more about a strong emotional bond between common people and a charismatic leader.

Chennai was a combination of direct benefit and emotions. I met a woman who said she could eat 3 times a day thanks to Amma's cheap canteens. No wonder Amma was no less than divinity to her. Rather, that's how her image had been crafted.

A woman supporter of  Jayalalithaa gets her head shaved near the burial site in Chennai.  (Photo: Reuters)
A woman supporter of Jayalalithaa gets her head shaved near the burial site in Chennai. (Photo: Reuters)

In the end, Jyoti Basu's body was donated, Bal Thackeray's mortal remains were cremated, and Jayalalithaa's buried. These three personalities lived different lives, fought different struggles. No wonder then, their last journeys ended in three different ways. But one thing is surely common among all three of them – their massive funerals. As they say – a funeral is not a day in a lifetime, it is a lifetime in a day.

(This story was originally published on 12 December 2016. It is being reposted to mark J Jayalalithaa’s birth anniversary)

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