Despite knowing he would have to forfeit his chief ministership, Karunanidhi dared to oppose the Emergency.
If Kalaignar had compromised his principles and decided to go with the tide, even the ‘MGR phenomenon’ might not have occurred.
Soon after I was elected as an independent member of Tamil Nadu Legislative Council in 1964, I became a friend of K Anbazhagan of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) who was my colleague in the legislative council. ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi was then the deputy leader of the opposition (DMK) in the state assembly.
M Bhakthavatsalam had just taken over as chief minister from K Kamaraj. In those days, the assembly would meet in the mornings, while the council in the afternoons. Kalaignar used to regularly come to the lobby of the legislative council to coordinate the legislative activities with Anbazhagan. It was then that I had the good fortune of meeting Karunanidhi and interacting with him. He was 40 years old then, while I was 37. From day one, I was impressed with Kalaignar's sharp intellect, his grasp of men and matters and his scholarly Tamil.
In 1967, I entered the Tamil Nadu Assembly from Park Town, allotted to Rajaji's Swatantra Party by the late C N Annadurai, known popularly as Arignar. After his death, Kalaignar became the chief minister. Thereafter, Rajaji and the DMK parted company. Then onwards (1969), I had taken the mantle of 'defacto' opposition leader, criticising the actions of the DMK and also chief minister Karunanidhi. My role as opposition leader went on till 1976 for seven full years. I almost became a hero for my performance in the legislative assembly. A huge meeting was organised in Mylapore, by 'citizens of Chennai' and I was given a silver whip for my assembly performance.
Everyone was stunned, when I said that to a great extent, the credit for my performance should go to Kalaignar himself. Because, there was not a single day when I was interrupted or disallowed to speak, nor my harsh words were expunged, thanks to the generosity and liberal attitude of Kalaignar. He was every inch a democrat and allowed the opposition to have its full say. In those days, it was a pleasure to be in the opposition, thanks to Karunanidhi. Today, when I watch the proceedings of the assembly, I feel very sad that the rulers do not have the courage to withstand the criticisms of the opposition, a courage exhibited by Kalaignar when he was chief minister.
However, in my view, the greatest and also the most courageous act of Kalaignar, which deserves to be in the records of history, is his bold decision to oppose the Emergency in 1975. As a result, he had to, willingly, pay a very heavy price in politics. Though several political leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan opposed the Emergency, none of them was holding any office at that time. Despite the fact that Kalaignar knew he would have to forfeit his chief ministership, he had the guts to oppose the Emergency. He even allowed his young son M K Stalin to court imprisonment and suffer hardship in the central jail. But for former member of Parliament and former mayor of Chennai, Chittibabu, acting as a human shield, Stalin's very life was in danger. Taking the blows of the cruel prison police, Chittibabu lost his life. A great soul indeed.
It is most unfortunate that though several politicians and political pundits today raise great din about the bygone days of the Emergency, none of them say a single word of Kalaignar's sacrifice during that darkest period of Indian democracy. Let them remember that if only Kalaignar had compromised his principles and sailed along with the Emergency, even the 'MGR phenomenon' might not have occurred.
In debating prowess, none can excel Kalaignar. I have not come across anyone like him, who can calmly and lucidly 'turn the tables' against his 'adversaries' during legislative debates. It was indeed, a treat to listen to his replies and repartees in the assembly.
During the days when I used to severely criticise Kalaignar in the assembly, an interesting episode took place. In a function held in Rajaji Hall in 1971, soon after Kalaignar received his honorary doctorate from Annamalai University, several speakers complimented Kalaignar. I was also slated to speak. My party’s member of legislative council Sa Ganesan ended by saying “Kalaignar has the heart to withstand anything, and at the same time he has a tongue that can lash out ”. When I, a harsh critic of Kalaignar in the assembly, spoke, I said “After Anna left us, there has been a great void in the political field, which none can fill. However, if at all there is someone who can fill this space, it is only Kalaignar”. In his inimitable style, Kalaignar during his reply, quoting Sa Ganesan said “I have seen Dr Hande's tongue in the legislative assembly; I am seeing his heart today here”. I always proudly cherish the incident in my mind.
However, I have not yet come to terms, even to this day, with what he did to J Jayalalithaa in 1996 soon after she was ousted from power and Karunanidhi took over as chief minister. It was a gross violation of human dignity. In the middle of the night, the former chief minister was taken out of her Poes Garden residence, straight to a judicial officer's residence in the multi-storey complex in Taylors road, Chennai. They obtained a midnight order for her arrest for a wrong deed alleged to have been committed during her chief ministership. The same night, she was put in the central jail. I felt extremely sad when I came to know of this from newspapers the next day. However, Jayalalithaa returned the 'favour' by indulging in a similar 'midnight drama' in 2001 by putting Karunanidhi behind the bars. Both these episodes are black marks in Tamil Nadu politics.
All said and done, there is no parallel to Kalaignar's Tamil erudition, nor to his hard and assiduous devotion to work. There is no parallel to Kalaignar's ready wit and debating prowess. No one has had a continuous run of victories in 13 elections, occupying the legislative assembly for 60 odd years, becoming a chief minister five times. Though I have been one of his long standing critics both inside and outside the assembly, I cannot but say, that in the passing away of Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu has lost a legendary figure.