Thousands on streets of Chennai to mourn India’s ‘iron lady’

Former chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa's coffin is seen wrapped in the Indian national flag. Picture: AP
Former chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa's coffin is seen wrapped in the Indian national flag. Picture: AP
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Hundreds of thousands of people thronged the southern Indian city of Chennai yesterday to honour their late beloved leader, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, a former film actress who became a popular politician.

Ms Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, died overnight following a heart attack a day earlier.

Jayalalithaa’s death leaves a huge void in Indian politics

Narendra Modi

A sea of weeping mourners surged toward the steps of a public hall where Ms Jayalalithaa’s body, draped in the Indian flag, was kept on a raised platform.

Thousands of police officers formed chains to stop the heaving crowd from surging up the steps. Men and women wept, some breaking into loud wails. Several mourners fainted from the heat and dehydration. Police said some had been keeping vigil outside the Apollo Hospital since Sunday and then walked to Rajaji Hall at daybreak.

In the evening, hundreds of thousands of people followed a slow-moving military truck carrying her body in a glass coffin to a beachside burial ground.

In New Delhi, MPs observed a minute’s silence yesterday before both houses of Parliament were adjourned for the day in respect for the woman whom many referred to as “Amma”, or mother.

Prime minister Narendra Modi said Ms Jayalalithaa’s death left a “huge void in Indian politics”. He flew to Chennai, where he placed a wreath on the body.

Roads leading to Chennai were clogged as people from remote villages poured into Tamil Nadu’s capital to catch a last glimpse of their leader.

The Tamil Nadu government declared seven days of mourning for Ms Jayalalithaa, who was a five-time chief minister of the state. Schools and offices were closed after authorities declared public holidays in the state for three days.

Within hours of Ms Jayalalithaa’s death, her trusted lieutenant, O Panneerselvam, was sworn in as chief minister.

Hundreds of political leaders and film celebrities travelled to Chennai to attend Ms Jayalalithaa’s funeral.

Ms Jayalalithaa, 68, had been hospitalised since September, suffering from a fever, dehydration and a respiratory infection.

At the time, thousands of people prayed and fasted outside the hospital for her recovery. Doctors barred visitors, sparking rumours that they were withholding bad news out of fear it could trigger the same outpouring of grief, riots and suicides that followed the death of Ms Jayalalithaa’s political and acting mentor, MG Ramachandran.