Indian state in near anarchy as leaders wage vendetta

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The Independent Online

Schools and shops were closed and political agitators fought sporadic battles in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu yesterday as opposition parties enforced a general strike to protest at the action of the state government in locking up the new chief minister's main political rival and two federal ministers at the weekend.

Last night, the two federal ministers were released after intense pressure from the central government in Delhi. But a mood of constitutional crisis lingered because of the violence and arbitrary detention, which reminded commentators of the dark days of the Emergency in 1975 – when Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister at the time, arrogated dictatorial powers and put all her opponents behind bars.

The drama began in the early hours of Saturday morning when police battered their way into the Madras home of Muthuvel Karunanidhi, 78, who until May had been the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. His party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), is a key member of the coalition government in Delhi, with 12 MPs.

Mr Karunanidhi was arrested for allegedly taking backhanders from the construction firms building 10 flyovers in Madras, the state capital, during his tenure. But the general opinion is the reason for his arrest was revenge.

The woman who swept Mr Karunanidhi from power, Jayaram Jayalalitha, had herself been jailed by Mr Karunanidhi on corruption charges in 1996. Worse still, the charges stuck, and Jaya – as she is known – was convicted in two separate cases. Although she now rules the state, she must win appeals against the convictions within six months or risk forfeiting the job.

On the campaign trail that led to her party's return to power, she was quite straightforward. "Karunanidhi criminally harassed me," she told her supporters. "I want to destroy him. Will you give me the mandate to do it?" She said that she wanted to put him in the same tiny prison cell where he had incarcerated her, and make him eat from the same plate she had used.

Jaya stormed back to power with a two-thirds majority. Since she was sworn in on 14 May, at least six of her political enemies have been jailed on various charges. This weekend it was the turn of the biggest fish in the pond.

But while the imperious Jaya first attained fame as a movie star, Karunanidhi is a retired screenwriter and he showed that he has not forgotten any tricks. Tipped off about his forthcoming arrest, he summoned a crew from Sun TV – the network owned by his party – and when the police arrived they filmed him being roughly carted away. Two members of his party who serve as ministers in the central government, and who live near by, were also alerted. Murasoli Muran, the Minister of Commerce and Industry and Mr Karunanidhi's nephew, has recently recovered from heart surgery, but both he and his cabinet colleague were also taken away, "like common criminals", as one commentator described. They were later charged with assaulting the police.

India woke up to find shocking scenes of political mayhem being played and replayed continuously on their television screens. In a village in Tamil Nadu one Karunanidhi supporter died after setting fire to himself, elsewhere in the state hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. Mr Karunanidhi's son Stalin, who is Mayor of Madras, turned himself into the police rather than risk further violence.

The central government dispatched the coalition's "convener", George Fernandes – who resigned as Minister of Defence in March because of a corruption scandal – to the state to find out what was going on. He reported: "No law of the land prevails in Tamil Nadu."

The leader of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, K Jana Krishnamurthi, commented: "It was only during the British Raj that citizens' rights were given scant respect. We did not expect a government functioning within the Constitution to behave in such a brutal manner."

Yesterday, Jaya, as composed as ever, visited the Guruvayor Sri Krishna temple to keep another promise and presented it with an elephant, in gratitude to the deity for allowing her to return to power.