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12th November, 2003
23.00 IST (+05.30 GMT)

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'Queen of smiles' unleashes wrath on Indian media


'She has reached the stage where she can no longer tell right from wrong, good from bad': Chief minister sues journalists

Six senior newspaper figures have discovered it is dangerous to criticize Jayalalitha Jayaram, the chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, who also likes to be known as "Queen of Smiles" and "Goddess of the World."

Probably the most powerful and controversial woman in Indian politics, the plump, middle-aged actress-turned-politician is known simply by her first name.

She regularly identifies herself in government ads as the "Saviour of Social Justice" and is portrayed in roadside billboards as rising, saint-like, from the heart of a lotus flower. Bus stops throughout the city of Madras carry her picture with notices describing her as "Our Heart's Goddess."

In impoverished Indian villages, illiterate peasants tattoo her portrait on their arms, partly for good luck and partly as a symbol of personal loyalty.

Jayalalitha appreciates the adoration.

So when the 125-year-old English language newspaper The Hindu and the Tamil-language daily Murasoli took her government to task for expelling 43 opposition members from the legislature and briefly detaining them in jail, the chief minister and her followers were upset.

The newspapers' coverage contained such phrases as, "the chief minister, Jayalalitha's, stinging abuse," "unrestrained attack on the opposition," "Ms. Jayalalitha fumed," and "incensed, Ms. Jayalalitha alleged in a high-pitched tone."

Scandalized by the lack of respect, the legislature, which is controlled by Jayalalitha's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, moved to punish the critics.

On Friday, the state assembly voted to imprison for 15 days the publisher, editor, executive editor, a special correspondent and the parliamentary bureau chief at The Hindu and an editor at Murasoli.

Their crime: "publishing derogatory words with a motive of lowering the dignity and fame of the government and infringing the privilege of the assembly."

The Speaker of the assembly sent dozens of police, some in riot gear, to raid the offending newspapers' offices.

When the wanted journalists went into hiding, police raided their homes, without warrants, while the newspapers scrambled for a Supreme Court injunction to withdraw the arrest orders.

In the meantime, journalists and critics across India protested, calling the assembly's action an "outrageous infraction of freedom of the press and of the political rights of the Indian people."

Newspapers, which had grown bored with Jayalalitha's posturing years earlier, unleashed a torrent of criticism.

Much of it resembles Vir Sanghvi's column, "The Chief Minister is a Fruitcake," in the Hindustan Times.

"Over the last couple of years, there has been a disturbing pattern of behaviour that suggests not just that [Jayalalitha] is dictatorial, authoritarian, intolerant, vindictive, etc. -- all of which we knew, anyway -- but that she has reached the stage where she can no longer tell right from wrong, good from bad or black from white," he wrote.

In New Delhi, hundreds of journalists staged a protest march, while in Tamil Nadu, reporters launched a fast. In the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, protesters burned Jayalalitha's effigy.

On Monday, the Indian Supreme Court issued a temporary stay on the arrest orders, while urging "every institution, be it legislature, media or judiciary, to respect other institutions."

The judges, however, did not throw out the case. They will review the Tamil Nadu vote of censure again in December.

Jayalalitha has refused to back down. She has filed a defamation lawsuit against the offending newspapers -- the 18th defamation suit she has filed against The Hindu in just over a year.

It's not for nothing that one of the titles bestowed upon Jayalalitha in her party's regular litany of adoration is "Revolutionary Storm."

An actress at 17, she performed in 116 Tamil and Telugu-language films. Throughout the 1960s, she repeatedly portrayed a sultry siren opposite Tamil Nadu's all-time movie heartthrob, actor Mardur Gopalamenon Ramachandran, who was popularly known as MGR.

MGR is regarded as a god in some parts of Tamil Nadu. A small temple has been built in his honour in Madras.

Jayalalitha, originally a slim, flirtatious starlet, was widely rumoured to be MGR's mistress. She prefers to call herself his "protege."

When he entered politics in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s, MGR made Jayalalitha his propaganda minister and she stepped into his shoes when he died of kidney failure in 1987.

Since then, her career has been filled with allegations of corruption and abuse of power. She has used anti-terrorist laws to silence critics, clogged the courts with lawsuits and squandered millions in public funds perpetuating her cult of personality.

When she was arrested and briefly jailed on corruption charges in 1996, her detention was accompanied by the seizure of 29 kilograms of diamond-studded gold jewellery, more than 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes.

Still, Jayalalitha continues to appeal to a huge mass of India's poor.

Earlier this year, when she celebrated her 55th birthday, one of her supporters cut off a finger as an offering to grant her long life.

A year earlier, in a similar ritual, another man cut out his tongue.

Peter Goodspeed - National Post - November 12, 2003

Source: National Post - Canada

Go to ToP - in LIFE too..!




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