Outside the Bangalore Central Prison, a steady stream of middle-aged men in white shirts and dhotis have been coming and going since September 27. The normally desolate, high-security stretch of road, a cul-de-sac, is dotted with the men in white. Some are ministers, some are MLAs, most are political workers of some sort.
There is a makeshift tent about 100 metres away from the prison, where some of the men are resting. Others are sitting on the sidewalk in groups of five and six. There are a couple of women too.
Visible in the top pockets of the white shirts of all the men is the key to their identity — the photograph of a woman. The men are all card-carrying members of the AIADMK. In their pocket is a photograph of their party leader — three-time Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who has been lodged in the Bangalore Central Prison since being sentenced to a four-year jail term on September 27 in connection with a Rs 53.60 crore corruption case.
The men have been coming in hundreds through the week from different parts of Tamil Nadu. Many are stopped and turned away at the entrance to the prison road by the police.
On the afternoon of October 2, despite a public holiday and the midday heat, some 50 people were camping outside the prison in small groups. On Saturday, the gathering was larger since the AIADMK’s MP from Krishnagiri, Ashok Kumar, arrived with around 30 men from his constituency.
While Jayalalithaa, 66, may not step out of the prison any time soon, this does not in any way deter her supporters from making long journeys from across Tamil Nadu to the Bangalore prison.
Bharat Kumar, 21, has travelled from Thoothukudi in the southern tip of Tamil Nadu. A school dropout and an AIADMK worker since the age of 14, Kumar headed for Chennai as soon as he heard of Amma’s imprisonment. When her bail pleas were adjourned last week, Bharat Kumar took a train to Bangalore.
For two days now, he has been camping outside the prison — arriving around midday from his hotel room and staying on till dusk. “I am an ardent follower of Amma. I am a member of the AIADMK. My life is Amma… I have travelled all around Tamil Nadu to attend meetings addressed by Amma. A couple of times, I have been chosen to give her bouquets. I will be here till she is released, if possible. Our presence here will help obtain her release,’’ says Kumar.
Jayalalithaa’s photograph in the top pocket of his white shirt gets nods of acknowledgement from the other men in white. “That is an MLA from Kanyakumari. He was deep in debt. It was Amma who paid his debt and funded his elections. She has done this for so many people,’’ says Kumar pointing to a man.
He alleges that the opposition DMK in Tamil Nadu has paid off judges in Karnataka to keep Jayalalithaa in jail. “Wait till Amma is released to see the political games she will play on all these people,’’ he says.
Then there is J S Raja, 50, a shopkeeper from Pochampalli taluk in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu, about 120 km from Bangalore. “I have been coming here for the past five days. Four-five of us have hired a car. We visit a few temples to pray for Amma’s release and then arrive here. We return to Krishnagiri at night. We know she is not going to come out now, but we do it for our own peace of mind. Amma has done a lot for us,’’ says Raja. The older of his two daughters is studying to be a doctor because of funding from Amma’s government, he says.
“There is so much love for Amma across Tamil Nadu because she is committed to the welfare of people… She has given ordinary people the hope of being leaders. In other parties, a man who holds a position will continue in the post for decades. It is not like that with Amma, she can make anyone a councillor, MLA or MP. There is this hope in the party which makes people very loyal to Amma. If the people in my village respect me today, it is because of the position I hold in the local AIADMK unit,” says party leader from Kilapatti village in Madurai, P Thevar, 53. “It is the equivalent of having your own mother in prison… that is why I am here,” he says.
Jayalalithaa’s personal bodyguards are among those stationed at the prison gates. “We are here day and night. There are three of us. We work shifts,” says a bodyguard.
“It is a strange devotion that these people have for Jayalalithaa,” says a Bangalore policeman monitoring the activities outside the prison.