Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a titan of contemporary Indian history, whose 75-year career — as five-term CM of Tamil Nadu and DMK president for 50 years — deepened the idea of federalism and inspired regional assertion and self-respect in politics, passed away Tuesday evening. He was 94.
“With deep anguish, we announce the demise of our beloved Kalaignar Dr M Karunanidhi…at 6.10 pm. Despite the best possible efforts by our team of doctors and nurses to resuscitate him, he failed to respond,” said a statement issued by Dr Aravindan Selvaraj, executive director, Kauvery Hospital, Chennai.
The announcement triggered mourning across Tamil Nadu, and among the hundreds of DMK workers who had gathered outside the hospital since June 27 when Karunanidhi was admitted for treatment following a dip in blood pressure.
Wheelchair-bound since 2009, and retired from politics since October 2016, Karunanidhi’s health condition worsened on July 26 when he developed fever and urinary tract infection.
Leading the tributes to the veteran leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Karunanidhi as “one of the senior most leaders of India”.
Posting a series of pictures of himself with the DMK chief, the Prime Minister wrote: “Kalaignar Karunanidhi stood for regional aspirations as well as national progress. He was steadfastly committed to the welfare of Tamils and ensured that Tamil Nadu’s voice was effectively heard.”
President Ram Nath Kovind said Karunanidhi was a “doyen of our public life, as a contributor to the development of Tamil Nadu and of India he has few peers. Our country is poorer today”.
Officials in Delhi said Modi will be travelling to Chennai Wednesday to pay his last respects to Karunanidhi.
In Chennai, the Tamil Nadu government announced a seven-day mourning and declared a day’s holiday Wednesday for the final rites. The central government announced a day’s national mourning, cancelled meetings of key cabinet committees slated for 1 pm and said that Karunanidhi will be accorded a state funeral.
Wheelchair-bound since 2009, and retired from politics since October 2016, Karunanidhi was known for his Dravidian ideology and assertive politics built on a rationalist and atheist base. For most of his early political career, he straddled the world of cinema, too — as a script writer, he wrote screenplays for at least 75 films amid a busy political life.
With limited public appearances in the last few years, except for a few election rallies in May 2016, Karunanidhi was hospitalised twice in December 2016 and was undergoing treatment at his Gopalapuram residence since then.
Sources close to the leader’s family said his health was stable until Monday, with vital parameters fluctuating. “He was breathing on his own,” sources said.
The Congress party said in a statement that Karunanidhi was a “true representative of Indian democracy”. “His contributions to the nation shall never be forgotten,” it said.
Among the others who paid tributes was actor Rajinikanth, who had launched his own political party eight months ago. “Today, the day of my Kalaignar’s death is a black day that I will never forget. May his soul rest in peace,” he said.
Karunanidhi’s body was shifted to his residence in the evening and taken to Rajaji Hall via the CIT Colony residence of his third wife Rajathi Ammal, who is the mother of Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi.
Meanwhile, the state machinery was put on alert with a deployment of over 5,000 police personnel in Chennai city alone. The government also sought the deployment of over 1,000 paramilitary personnel from Coimbatore and Arakkonam for the burial scheduled for Wednesday evening. Sources close to the family said the burial will conducted without any rituals.
Karunanidhi was a rationalist and atheist mentored by Periyar E V Ramasamy and C N Annadurai, the torchbearers of Dravidian politics and the “self-respect movement” in the state since the 1920s. He became chief minister for the first time in 1969, after the death of Annadurai, who founded the DMK.
As CM, Karunanidhi was among those who fought Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975. His governments were dismissed twice by the Congress government at the Centre — in 1976 and 1991. In the assembly elections of 1977, the DMK lost to M G Ramachandran’s AIADMK. MGR was once one of Karunanidhi closest supporters before cutting all ties and founding the AIADMK in 1972.
Karunanidhi and his party were out of power for the next 13 years, until the death of MGR. Political observers say the years out of power defined the politician in Karunanidhi. His organisational skills, eloquence and connect with the masses helped him sustain the party at the grassroots until he returned to power in 1989.
The second dismissal of his government, two years later, was for its “proven links” with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which took up arms for the liberation of Tamils in northern Sri Lanka until 2009.
The next state polls, following the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, favoured J Jayalalithaa, MGR’s successor, who became the chief minister for the first time in alliance with the Congress. Karunanidhi was elected to power later twice — in 1996 and 2006.
Born in June 3, 1924 in Thanjavur district’s Thirukkuvalai, Karunanidhi belonged to the Isai Vellalar community, which was traditionally known for playing the nadaswaram at temples. He was hardly a year old when Periyar, who would later become his political mentor, resigned from the Congress. Periyar was also associated with the Justice Party, which advocated reservation for non-Brahmin communities since the 1920s.
In 1938, Karunanidhi was part of the first anti-Hindi agitation that swept Tamil Nadu. He led a similar agitation in 1965, elevating his profile in state politics, and followed his leader Annadurai who formed the DMK as a splinter group of Periyar’s Dravida Kazhagam (DK).
Karunanidhi’s leadership qualities made him an obvious successor to Annadurai after his death in 1969, when he was elected the DMK president.
On July 26, Karunanidhi completed 49 years at the post, although in January last year, after his health started failing, his son Stalin was appointed as DMK “working president”.
On the national stage, Karunanidhi tied up with the Congress several times, and with the BJP-led NDA government under A B Vajpayee. But seven years ago, he suffered a setback when his daughter Kanimozhi was named in a CBI charge sheet as a “co-conspirator” in the 2G spectrum allocation scam case. Last December, a special court acquitted Kanimozhi, former telecom minister A Raja, and others in the case.
With Karunanidhi’s death, his younger son M K Stalin has emerged as the undisputed leader of the party. His elder son, former Union minister M K Alagiri, had been sidelined years before.
Karunanidhi’s children from his three wives are “well settled”, said a party leader. M K Muthu, born to his first wife, late Padmavati, is a film actor from the 1980s who now lives in Chennai.
Of the four children born to Karunanidhi’s second wife Dayalu Ammal, Stalin is based in Chennai and Alagiri in Madurai. Stalin’s brother Thamizharasu runs a vehicle dealership in Chennai, and sister Selvi looks after Sun TV’s Kannada language channels.
Kanimozhi, born to Karunanidhi’s third wife Rajathi Ammal, is the party’s face in Delhi. In his final days, Karunanidhi was with his second wife Dayalu Ammal.