On August 7, 2018, when Tamil Nadu’s five-time chief minister and president of the DMK M Karunanidhi breathed his last, none could have imagined the legal battle that would follow.
His son and heir M K Stalin had requested the then chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami to allot land adjacent to the memorial of C N Annadurai to lay the mortal remains of the Dravidian icon. It was Kalaignar’s wish, one he expressed many times, to be interred next to his mentor.
M K Stalin reacts to the news of the court order allowing the burial of M Karunanidhi at Marina.
But, the AIADMK government denied the request through a press release signed by the then chief secretary Girija Vaidyanathan.
DMK’s senior lawyer P Wilson suggested the party approach the courts as the press release denying Kalaignar land at Marina was fraught with illegality.
Despite some contrary advice not to approach the courts, Stalin exhibited an unassailable faith in the judicial process.
Without India’s judiciary, our nascent democracy would not have survived the vagaries of political folly.
At many moments in the history of independent India, courts have had to not only uphold the law, but also make better sense prevail. Wilson drove to the house of the then Acting Chief Justice Huluvadi G Ramesh around 8.30pm.
On the way, Wilson contacted the registrars of the court to intimate them that an urgent ‘residence motion’ was to be moved before the ACJ.
The DMK’s legal team rushed back to the court premises to initiate the process of filing the petition. To aid the filing, the registrar had managed to call in some staff.
As DMK’s lawyers Neelakandan and Edwin Prabhakar finalised the writ petition, the party’s legal wing secretary Girirajan organised others to seamlessly facilitate the filing, even purchasing stamps by visiting the residence of a stamp vendor, before getting the signature of the petitioner DMK MP R S Bharati.
When the case was numbered, the DMK’s legal team including senior advocates P Wilson, R Shunmugasundaram, R Viduthalai, N R Elango and Veera Kathiravan and advocates R Girirajan, Neelakandan, P Muthukumar, A Saravanan, Arun and myself headed to the residence of the ACJ where Justice S S Sundar the another judge who constituted the bench had arrived. At the stroke of midnight, as Tamils across the world watched with bated breath, Wilson commenced his arguments.
The AIADMK had engaged the services of a lawyer from Delhi C S Vaidyanathan. He opposed the urgent hearing of the case by saying that the state needed two weeks’ time to file a response and “there was no urgency in this case”.
The indelicacy of that submission was not lost on the court. The bench said “Have you not seen the streets, there will be a civil war, will you take responsibility?” However, exhibiting the fairness that has come to be the hallmark of the judicial process, the judges granted time till 8am the following day to file a response.
The hearing was completed at the ACJ’s residence at 2.30am. The DMK’s legal team had not even bid farewell to the departed leader.
We drove to CIT Colony residence where Kalaignar’s mortal remains had been brought, yet, we could get no closer than 500m to the house as crowds of adoring “udanpirapugal” had gathered.
The legal team left, mindful of the work yet to be done on the case the next day.
On the morning of August 8, in a packed court hall no.1, the state continued its aggressive stance. It submitted that Kalaignar had refused a burial place on Marina for Periyar and Janaki Ramachandran, also a former CM.
This was promptly countered by the DMK counsels who set the record straight. Periyar’s followers wanted to lay his body at the memorial in Vepery. Similarly, family members of Janaki Ramachandran had not requested a burial at Marina.
Wilson further argued the reason for the government’s denial was because of the cases filed by advocate S Doraisamy, ‘Traffic’ Ramasamy and advocate K Baalu, but all three petitioners withdrew the cases to pave way for the burial of Kalaignar.
Wilson then argued that the other reasons cited — burial of a body is not possible in a Coastal Regulation Zone and lack of approval of Chennai corporation was untenable because the DMK was seeking burial within the precincts of Anna Memorial, which was not within the CRZ and already notified as a burial zone.
As the war of words intensified about the burial of former CMs, Wilson argued that the attempt of the state to allot land at Gandhi Mandapam was irrational classification since all former Congress leaders who opposed the Dravidian movement were buried there.
The Dravidian CMs from the two major Dravidian parties were buried at Marina.
He further cited judgements that a person’s right to a decent burial cannot be denied under Article 21 of the Constitution.
Accepting these contentions, the judges dictated and released the operative portion of the order alone, around 10.30am, directing the government to allot land, within the precincts of the Anna Memorial for the burial of Kalaingar as per the hand sketch submitted by Wilson.
Armed with the copy of the order, the DMK’s legal team swathed through a sea of men at Rajaji Hall to bid farewell to the departed leader. The leader finally triumphed in his last legal battle and is now resting besides his beloved Anna in eternal peace.
The role of the court in preserving not only the dignity of the departed leader but also public order and peace cannot be overstated.
As we bowed before the court that day after orders were pronounced and muttered the customary “deeply obliged my lords”, no one had meant it more.
(The writer is the English translator of ‘Kalaignarin Kadaisi Yuddham’)
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