The Man & the Myth
In India, it has been a trendy thing for “secretaries” of esteemed leaders to author books with the title, “My years with So and So”. Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawahar Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa were some of the names which have been peddled in fashion. Now, M G Ramachandran (MGR) has also joined this select band of Indian leaders. In my opinion, this book authored by Kondath Mohandas (the Director-General of police in Tamil Nadu during MGR’s rule) has been mis-titled. rather than the given title, “MGR: The Man and the Myth”, it would have been appropriate if the title was, “My Years with MGR”.
According to the prologue of this book, author Mohandas met M G Ramachandran, the movie star for the first time in 1969, while he was the superintendent of police, Madurai, and when MGR was camping for his location shooting of the movie Mattukkara Velan. It was just a courtesy call by the author (in his position as a law enforcement officer) and lasted only a few minutes. He met MGR, the movie-star turned politician, for the second time in 1976, during the Justice Sarkaria Commission hearings in Madras. Mohandas then held the position of the Deputy Inspector General (DIG-Intelligence) during the President’s rule in Tamil Nadu. When MGR was first elected as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in the 1977 election, he requested the author to continue in the same post. As a result, for the following ten years (1977-87), Mohandas became perched in a privileged position of watching how the adorable move-star turned politician governed Tamil Nadu, and made his decision and projected himself to the public. This book is an outcome of this, what one can say, ‘privileged perch’.
What is of special interest to the Eelam Tamils in the book, is the description of the events which occurred in Tamil Nadu in the post-1983 period, relating to the Eelam rebel groups (LTTE, TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE) and the roles played by MGR and the author from their privileged positions, in influencing the outcome of the Eelam liberation movement. Mohandas also brings out from the closet (though incompletely) the nefarious activities of the Indian Central Agencies (such as the central Bureau of Intelligence and the research Analysis Wing) which sowed discord among the different Tamil rebel groups. Whatever the other demerits the book has, for this exposure, Mohandas deserves credit.
In his introductory remarks about the different Eelam rebel groups. Mohandas has this to say about the LTTE; “highly idealistic and well-organised under its charismatic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran” (p. 78). On the TELO the author observes, “The first mistake made by the Central Agencies was the choice of TELO as their hand-maiden, because it mostly consisted of ex-convicts and murderers. It had no serious ideological basis…” (pp. 77-78).
Let me quote in detail, what Mohandas has written for MGR’s special liking to the LTTE. “Since I (the author) had been keeping MGR informed about the activities of these militant groups and the training given to them, he expressed at one stage, that he would like to get in touch with all the leaders of various groups – particularly those of LTTE… It was not much of a problem to get them to meet MGR… (the meeting) took place in MGR’s chambers at his residence. The discussion was general in nature… The militants (each group was represented by three or four individuals) talked about the atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army and police on innocent Tamils in north and north-east Sri Lanka. MGR listened patiently but it was apparent that an instant rapport was established between MGR and Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo. MGR, with his uncanny insight could easily make out the difference between the LTTE and the rest of the groups. It was a widely known fact that, as a consequence, MGR used to extend financial assistance at various stages in later years, both from his personal funds and sometimes from government funds”.
The author’s role in neutralizing the 1984 kidnapping episode of American nationals Stanley Allen and his wife Mary Allen by the EPRLF has been described in the book. The EPRLF had demanded “a ransom of gold worth 50 million dollars and release of 20 of their colleagues who were under detention” in message to President J R Jayewardene, after kidnapping the American couple who were working as water-resource experts under the UN Aid Programme in Jaffna. Writes Mohandas, “It was the US Consul General in Madras who first broke the news to me about 11.00 pm one night and appealed for my help… I informed MGR who asked me to go all out and get the hostages released…
“It was a tall order, but, when some of the names of the detainees were furnished by the American Consul-General, my officers quickly ascertained from our files that they belonged to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) which was the military wing of the EPRLF”. A massive search operation led to “a house in Madras city and the catch was beyond our wildest dreams. There were six men and two women found sleeping. Among the men were, Varadaraja Perumal, Padmanabha (the chief of EPRLF) and the self-styled ‘General’ Douglas, the Chief of Staff’ of the PLA”.
Mohandas continues, ‘They were taken to a big hotel and comfortably accommodated. The the grilling began, with only 10 hours left for the threatened execution of the Allen couple… When the questioning did not yield any information… I told them that whatever happened to the Allen couple in Jaffna would happen to them right in the hotel room… mine was a purely psychological bluff. It worked and ‘General’ Douglas got in touch with his contact in Jaffna right from the hotel room and ordered the Allen’;s release in coded words”. The author notes that for his role in the successful release of the American couple in Jaffna, MGR presented him with a “wrist watch with an in-built tape recorder”. We also learn from the author that “MGR had a fascination for cameras, watches and weapons of which he had a good collection”.
MGR fell seriously ill in Oct. 1984, suffering from mild heart attack, renal failure and stroke. Following the advice of specialist doctors who came from the USA and Japan, MGR had to be taken to New York for an urgent kidney transplantation. Three political factors are identified by Mohandas which could have contributed for deterioration in MGR’s health.
First, in the four by-elections held in early 1984 for the Tamil Nadu State Assembly, AIADMK only one, while the DMK was victorious in two constituencies. The Congress (I) won at Tanjavur, with the help of AIADMK. According to Mohandas, “for the first time, MGR felt that his mass base was getting eroded.” Secondly, the expulsion of S D Somasundaram from the Cabinet and AIADMK for his anti-party activities. The author observes that “MGR took the activities of SDS very much to heart”, since he was one of the first to come out of the DMK along with MGR and was considered by the AIADMK middle and lower-level workers as a simple man who mixed with them easily and had a fairly clean record”. Thirdly after the dismissal of the Telugu Desam government of N T Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, brought about by defections, MGR “was also inwardly apprehensive that the same fate may overtake him, given the ‘SDS’ factor. Mohandas also ascribes one dietary factor which led to MGR;s failing health. Being a diabetic, MGR could not control his taste for sweet things. Mohandas writes that MGR’s breakfast included kesari (a South Indian sweet, with ghee oozing all over) and fruits, particularly mangoes.
Between MGR’s serious illness in mid Oct. 1984 and Feb. 4, 1985 (when he returned to Madras after the kidney transplantation at the Brooklyn hospital in New York), India underwent a traumatic phase of anointing Rajiv Gandhi as the prime minister, in place of his mother Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated on Oct. 31, 1984. The intra-party haggling in the AIADMK resulted in the pro-Jayalalitha and anti-Jayalalitha factions trying to outsmart each other to capture the created power vacuum. The author also presents his story that he too became a victim of this power squabble. When the general elections were held in Dec. 1984, the DMK chief Karunanidhi was hoping that he could regain the chief minister position. despite his special pleading, the Tamil Nadu voters rejected him and made MGR the chief minister for the third straight time. Mohandas observes that, “it was indeed a stupendous victory. With MGR away in a US hospital, his winning the elections hands down ‘in absentia’ was perhaps unparalleled in Indian electoral history”. S D Somasundaram, the expelled AIADMK leader, also found to his chagrin that his vituperative attacks against MGR wouldn’t make him a darling among the Tamil Nadu voters. His newly formed party was also humiliated in this election and he quickly folded his new party and later returned to the AIADMK, to be in Jayalalitha’s camp. The irony was that, as Mohandas points out in the book, SDS initially revolted against MGR for elevating Jayalalitha to a special pedestal in the party.
Mohandas writes that, “the Sri Lankan Tamil problem was on of the top priorities of the new (1985) MGR government… MGR was gradually getting in touch with the militant groups -particularly the LTTE, through sources other than the CID..”. The author presents a scenario in which MGR and “the policy makes in New Delhi” tried to outwit each other by manipulating the Eelam rebel groups, with MGR specially cultivating the LTTE in preference to other groups.
About the so-called Rajiv Gandhi-Jayewardene Peace Accord, signed in July 1987, Mohandas writes as follows; “I had a feeling that MGR was also not happy with the accord, as the militants – particularly the LTTE – were not parties to it and hence, I believed, he hurried his departure to the US”. However, MGR received a last minute call from prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi “requesting him (MGR) to participate in the rally to be held (in Madras) to mark the accord” and MGR obliged this request by postponing his trip to the USA. Mohandas mentions that “MGR” agreed and stayed back, though I felt that his heart was not in it”.
In one of the beginning chapters, (may be to provide an analytical image to his book), the author had commented about the “weaknesses” possessed by MGR. He states, that as far as he knows, MGR had five lady companions (‘second wives’), though “only one at a time”. However, he does not identify any one of them by name. While mentioning Janaki as MGR’s wife, Mohandas makes no mention about MGR’s previous two wives who died when they were young. Nothing is mentioned in the book about the influence of MGR’s mother Satyabhama or about his elder brother M G Chakrapani (a movie star in his own right) on moulding the character of young MGR. In page 14 of the book, it is mentioned that “MGR was born in a lower middle-class family in Kerala in 1917, according to informed sources, but many put it as 1911”. This line contradicts the well known fact that MGR was born in a tea estate in Kandy. In early 1970s, MGR serialized his autobiography in the Tamil weekly, Anantha Vikatan, under the title, “Naan Aen Piranthaene?” (literally, “Why I was Born?”). In it, he had provided a wealth of information about his earl;y life. It appears that Mohandas has not read this autobiographical writing of his subject.
In commenting about the political naivete of MGR, the author sarcastically quips that, “his (MGR’s) concept of ‘Annaism’ clean-bowled all politicians. He described it as an amalgam of communism, socialism and capitalism”. Though many pundits and journalists in India had ridiculed MGR’s concept of ‘Annaism’, I think MGR may have the last laugh. One can show evidence for MGR’s ‘Annaism’ concept being successfully practised in Japan, the first Asian country to become technologically advanced. While Japan presents a masked face as a bastion of capitalism, due to its cultural deviance from the Western concept of individual rights, the principles of communism and socialism are also being practised without being labelled as such. Even, there has appeared one book, authored by Douglas Moore Kenrick, with the title, “Where Communism Works: The Success of Competitive Communism in Japan” in 1988. One can suspect whether MGR got his inspiration for the ‘Annaism’ concept from Japan. There is circumstantial evidence from his movie-making days that he was fascinated by Japan. In fact, MGR set the plot (and had quite a share of shooting) for one of his own movies Ulagam Suttrum Vaalipan in Japan. The arrival of Japanese neuro-surgeons in Madras to treat him in 1984 also suggests that he had friendly contacts with Japanese.
So, how can one assess the quality of this MGR biography? It is neither an adulatory biography nor an analytical biography. This can be categorized as an acquaintance biography. It focuses only on the last 10 years of MGR’s life (which he served as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu), during which period the author functioned as MGR’s “bogey man”, and “trouble shooter”. MGR’s first sixty years (from birth in 1917 to 1976) is covered in just four pages of this book. Therefore, for an analytical biography on MGR, undoubtedly one the most charismatic personalities of contemporary India, we need to wait further.