With the state engulfed in a state of hysteria and gloom following the demise of J Jayalalithaa, former Indian Express photographer Sivaraman recounted how one of his photographs of the deceased political stalwart helped shape her political career. It was a day that changed the future course of Tamil Nadu politics as she went on to become one of the most prominent political figures of India’s regional politics.
Jayalalithaa, who was the leader of the Opposition in 1989, was reportedly assaulted in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, though there are several versions of what happened inside the Assembly hall. According to the most accepted version, the AIADMK leader kept interrupting the then chief minister M Karunanidhi’s budget speech before he hit back at her with counter accusations, following which a ruckus broke out in the assembly which spiralled out of control.
As Jayalalithaa tried to exit the Assembly, Opposition members formed a human shield around her with DMK minister Durai Murugan reportedly pulling her saree, forcing her to leave the assembly in humiliation with her torn attire. Recalling his interaction with Jayalalithaa, Sivaraman told the News Minute, “She told me, see what atrocity these people have done!”
“She was not that powerful or imposing then,” he said. “It was a black and white photo. I framed her looking through the hole in the saree. Then I went back to office.”
The incident enabled her to amass public sympathy as she vowed to step inside the assembly again only as chief minister. The response: She became the chief minister for the first time in 1991 following a thumping victory for the AIADMK-Congress alliance, which won 225 seats out of possible 234.
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Over the years, she championed the cause of women’s rights, staunchly backing their struggle in a male dominant, patriarchal society. This was clearly evident when she threw her weight behind Mayawati, who was called “worse than a prostitute” by BJP leader Dayashankar Singh. Criticising the derogatory comments on Mayawati, Jayalalithaa had emphatically said, “Everyone should be firm that attacks on women politicians should be brought to an end. I too have had such experiences.”