Jayalalithaa's Death: Did the Judicial Commission's Probe Take a Political Turn?

Justice Arumughaswamy Commission looked at the politics of Jayalalithaa's peers, but the report lacks proof.


Did Justice A Arumughaswamy Commission, set up to probe the circumstances that led to the hospitalisation and death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, go beyond its stipulated mandate? It appears that the commission, which submitted its report in October, recommending further probe into the role of Jayalalithaa's aide Sasikala and others, including the doctors of Apollo Hospital Chennai, in the former CM's death, did take a political turn.

In the detailed report, the commission has not just looked into the medical records of Jayalalithaa but also examined her relationship with Sasikala, who is still a political figure in Tamil Nadu even though she announced her retirement from politics in 2021. It is believed Sasikala is still actively involved in the working of Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (AMMK), a party she founded with her nephew TTV Dhinakaran. AMMK has been eating into the votes of Jayalalithaa's party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Justice Arumughaswamy Commission looked at the politics of Jayalalithaa's peers, but the report lacks proof.

File photo of Jayalalithaa with her close aide VK Sasikala (background).

(Photo: Reuters)

Why did the commission look into the political aspects of the former CM's life, and by extension, pass its comments not just on her aide Sasikala but also on former Chief Minister and disgruntled AIADMK leader O Pannerselvam? According to the commission, a close look at Sasikala's relationship with Jayalalithaa was necessary because the former was responsible for taking medical decisions on behalf of Jayalalithaa during her stay at Apollo Hospital.

However, the judicial commission that was led by a retired judge of Madras High Court, commenting on political developments, has drawn flak. What has the commission said about Jayalalithaa's political background, links with Sasikala, and the political ambitions of O Pannerselvam? Moreover, why has the commission quoted Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader and former TN Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in its report?

Commission Looks Venerably at Jayalalithaa, Suspects Sasikala

In its report that was tabled in the Legislative Assembly, the commission seems appreciative of Jayalalithaa. The commission notes that she was one of the most popular leaders of her time in Tamil Nadu and that she had an illustrious acting career before joining politics. The grand stature of Jayalalithaa did warrant a probe into the circumstances that led to her death, especially since doubts were raised about the 'mysterious' nature of her sudden demise at 68 years of age, the commission notes.

The commission, however, seems dismissive of Sasikala's statement that was submitted in a detailed affidavit. The report looks into her relationship with Jayalalithaa, which soured in 2011.

The commission, after examining an article published in Tehelka in 2011, and by taking into account details of those who were also in the know of the article, concluded that Jayalalithaa grew suspicious of Sasikala's political ambition. The Tehelka article alleged that Sasikala spearheaded a conspiracy to overthrow Jayalalithaa who had won the elections for the third time in TN. The article quoted claimed that the state intelligence wing was privy to information regarding the conspiracy.

While the commission – despite depositions of former police officials and intelligence officials – has not got corroborating evidence, its report concluded that Sasikala harboured disgruntlement after she was ousted from Jayalalithaa's Poes Garden residence.

Justice Arumughaswamy Commission looked at the politics of Jayalalithaa's peers, but the report lacks proof.

Sasikala pays tribute to late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in Chennai.

(Photo: AP)

"R1 (Sasikala) was subject to a scathing verbal attack by late CM in the AIADMK party conclave held in January 2011. R1 was openly accused of betrayal of trust and the leaders and cadres of the party were warned not to have any truck with R1 who then had fallen from the grace of late CM."
Justice A Arumughaswamy Commission

According to the commission, the fallout between Jayalalithaa and Sasikala had a lasting effect on their relationship even though the latter was allowed to return to Poes Garden later.

In what appears to be a dramatic statement, the commission says:

"The bonhomie between the two vanished and spite and ill will took its place. This demonstrates clearly the total estrangement between the duo. At times, facts are stronger than fiction."
Justice A Arumughaswamy Commission

What is, however, interesting is that the commission has not attributed any solid evidence to back the finding that Sasikala and Jayalalithaa never really patched up even after they resumed staying together at Poes Garden. The fallout merely appears as a standalone, unbacked observation. Moreover, the commission has also not looked at O Pannerselvam favourably.


First To Raise Doubts About Jayalalithaa's Death, OPS Called Out for Ingenuity

Unlike Sasikala who submitted her statement to the commission in an affidavit, OPS appeared before the commission for cross examination. He, however, said that he was ignorant of the treatment protocol followed by the hospital and placed the responsibility for all medical decisions on Sasikala.

In the report, it is clear that the commission asked OPS why he had raised doubts about Jayalalithaa's death. OPS, who held her portfolios during her hospitalisation to later become CM for a short while after her death, however, told the commission that he thought Jayalalithaa's death was by natural causes.

The commission states:

"During his (O Pannerselvam's) evidence, he admitted that he held an agitation known as 'Dharmayutham' (Fight for Justice), in order to unfold the circumstances under which the late CM died. But in his evidence he has categorically stated that, to the best of his knowledge, he has no doubt/ suspicion in the cause of death of Late C.M. as unnatural."
Justice A Arumughaswamy Commission

From OPS' deposition, the commission concluded that he was only trying to become chief minister again when he raised doubts about Jayalalithaa's death. The commission stated that OPS was largely silent though he was aware of, what the commission calls "questionable treatment," which was being given to Jayalalithaa.

The report reads:

"After knowing what was the treatment going on in the hospital and even though he (OPS) was not informed, he along with other Ministers just kept quiet and remained silent. After his position was snatched away by the other group, he comes forward with the episode of 'Dharmayutham'."
Justice A Arumughaswamy Commission

In the report, it is not clear how the commission arrived at this conclusion, even as pages have been dedicated to OPS' deposition, which seems to have remained inconclusive and vague despite repeated questions from the commission.

The only political leader, other than Jayalalithaa, who seems to have entered the good books of the commission is former DMK supremo and current Chief Minister MK Stalin's father M Karunandhi. Karunanidhi had also been Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for several terms.


Why Does the Commission Favour Karunanidhi's Press Statement?

On 27 September 2016, an official meeting on Cauvery River water dispute was held in Jayalalithaa's room at Apollo Hospital where she was admitted. M Karunanidhi issued a statement asking photographs of the meeting be released because there were conflicting reports about the CM's health status at the time.

The commission observes:

"Further, he (Karunanidhi) stated that mystery over her treatment and health condition would be clear only then. But, it has been ignored. He also emphasized that even though he had different ideologies with Selvi J Jayalalithaa, he wished her a speedy recovery. What the former Chief Minister anticipated, had unfortunately taken place."
Justice A Arumughaswamy Commission
Justice Arumughaswamy Commission looked at the politics of Jayalalithaa's peers, but the report lacks proof.

DMK Chief M Karunanidhi and his son and Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin at a function in Chennai.

(Photo: PTI)

As the photograph of the meeting was not released, the general public and the government failed to understand the exact health status of the CM, the commission later observes, almost echoing the words of Karunanidhi. If such secrecy had not been maintained about Jayalalithaa's health status, she could have got treatment at a medical facility abroad, the commission seemingly implies.

However, it is not clear from the commission's report what the photograph could have revealed, especially since the former CM herself was keen on keeping her personal life away from the limelight. A series of images, which were later leaked after her death, showed Jayalalithaa sitting up on the hospital bed, even as she was frail and weak. As the medical records alone could have revealed the health status of the CM, what could the Cauvery dispute photograph have shown?

Justice Arumughaswamy Commission looked at the politics of Jayalalithaa's peers, but the report lacks proof.

A picture of Jayalalithaa in the hospital was leaked.

(Image: Accessed by The Quint)

The political observations of the judicial commission, even though they are related to those whose actions were probed, do give the impression that the commission has gone beyond its stipulated mandate. Will the Tamil Nadu government act on the recommendations of the commission or set its findings and observations aside?    

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