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Dogged by the Law

Dogged by the Law
Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tributes to the mortal remains of J Jayalalithaa, in Chennai. Photo: UNI

In life as in death, J Jayalalithaa had brushes with the judiciary. Her DA case is pending in the Supreme Court and now, numerous petitions want courts to look into her death

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

The protracted legal battle which deceased Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had with the judiciary is refusing to die down ever after her death. If in the past it was a slew of corruption cases filed against her, this time, petitions have been filed in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court raising doubts about the cause and nature of her death. These petitions have ranged from demanding a full-fledged CBI inquiry, appointing a committee of three retired Supreme Court judges and instituting an inquiry commission to finding out “the actual cause” of her death on December 5, 2016.

Jayalalithaa, who was a chronic diabetic for over three decades, died at Apollo Hospital after 75 days of treatment there. During this period, not a single person was allowed to meet her. Many dignitaries visited the hospital to inquire about her health and these included acting governor of Tamil Nadu C Vidyasagar Rao, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, BJP president Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

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During the initial days, Apollo Hospital issued press releases stating that the CM was getting treatment for fever and dehydration. Later, the bulletins changed and said Jayalalithaa was administered passive physiotherapy and put on respiratory support. Just days before her death, Apollo Hospital chairman Dr Prathap Reddy repeatedly said that Jayalalithaa was doing well and she herself would decide when to return home. And on December 4, Apollo issued a statement that Jayalalithaa had suffered cardiac arrest and declared her dead on December 5 around 11.30 pm. 

Trouble began a few days later when Tamil actress Gauthami wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that there are several unanswered questions with regard to Jayalalithaa’s death and asked for a thorough probe into it. Eyebrows were raised in several quarters in Tamil Nadu as to why the actress, not known for taking any stand on hard political issues, was venturing into this dangerous territory now.

This was followed by an email sent by Sangita Reddy, one of the daughters of Dr Prathap Reddy, to Barkha Dutt of NDTV. Sangita is reported to have said that when Jayalalithaa was brought to Apollo on the night of September 22, 2016, it was found that she was taking wrong medicines for her diabetes for a long period. NDTV insiders confirmed that this email was circulated among the channel’s staffers immediately after Jayalalithaa’s death, but later, it was removed. But neither Dutt nor NDTV chairman Dr Prannoy Roy confirmed this. Just a couple of days after these developments, the DMK demanded a white paper on the treatment given to Jayalalithaa.

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All the petitions relating to Jayalalithaa’s death would not have received the attention they did were it not for a scathing comment by a sitting judge of the Madras High Court on December 29. Justice S Vaidyanathan was hearing a petition from an AIADMK cadre, PA Joseph, who prayed for constituting a committee of three retired Supreme Court judges to ascertain the truth behind the CM’s death.

Justice Vaidyanathan made the following observations: “After the demise, everybody has a right to question. I personally have a doubt. One day it was told that she is walking, another day you said that she will come out and suddenly what happened. Even with regard to the health of late Chief Minister MGR, a video was released.” At this point of time, the state advocate-general intervened and said there was no mystery in the death.

The judge said: “What is that you say. Right to life is a fundamental right. Public should know what has happened. Even relations were not allowed to see and they are also not before the court now. I personally find in case if I have doubt I may order exhumation of the body of deceased and you have not told anything when she was alive.”

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The judge also told the centre’s counsel: “You (meaning the central government) were there. You have not reported anything. You know everything. But not reported anything for the reasons best known to you. You kept quiet. We also saw in newspapers that the Chief Minister was recovering and that she was eating, signing papers and even conducting meetings and then suddenly she was dead.”

After these observations, the judge ordered notices to both the state and central governments, Apollo Hospital and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The judge, however, made it clear that since he was only presiding over a vacation bench, he did not want to take a final call and said that he was directing the High Court registry to place the petitions before the chief justice’s bench for further orders.   

Right to life is a fundamental right. Public should know what has happened. Even relations were not allowed to see and they are also not before the court now. I personally find in case if I have doubt I may order exhumation of the body of deceased and you have not told anything when she was alive.

—Justice S Vaidyanathan, Madras High Court

But when these petitions came up before a bench of the Madras High Court headed by Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul on January 9, the bench did not say anything about conspiracy theories nor about exhuming the body of Jayalalithaa. The bench was clearly not amused with the slew of PILs in this regard and asked: “To what extent the medical treatment details of a person should be put it public domain merely because she occupied a public office?”

The judges also said that the hospital was in a piquant situation as it dealt with patient details and wondered if illnesses such as a headache and other medical conditions of the public servant too must be put in public domain.

A senior counsel representing Apollo Hospital told the bench that a complete discharge summary of Jayalalithaa was ready with the hospital and it was ready to place it in a sealed cover for the perusal of the bench. The counsel also denied that there was any mystery in the death of Jayalalithaa.

Then the bench raised three issues:

  • Whether the petitioners who included a social activist and two AIADMK members had any
    locus standi to raise the issue in court.
  • Whether there were any specific doubts regarding the medical treatment given to Jayalalithaa.
  • What amount of treatment details could be placed in public domain.

The bench said the absence of an immediate family member complicated the issue a bit. It then ordered notices to be sent to the state government and other respondents, including the centre and the PMO, for their reply within four weeks and posted the matter for February 23.

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On January 5, the Supreme Court (SC) refused to entertain petitions asking for a CBI probe and court monitoring. The petitions were filed by expelled AIADMK Rajya Sabha MP Sasikala Pushpa and a youth organisation. A bench of Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Rohinton F Nariman told the petitioners’ counsel: “What are we supposed to do here? You have filed a petition under Article 32 (violations of fundamental rights of the citizen by the state) of the Constitution … we will dismiss these petitions and if you press further we will impose costs on you.”

When the youth organisation’s counsel submitted that Jayalalithaa died under mysterious circumstances and said the SC should order a CBI probe and monitor it, the bench asked: “What monitoring? What will we do? There is some petition pending in the Madras High Court. Go there with your grievances. How can you come here under Article 32?”

In addition to these petitions, Jayalalithaa faced over a dozen corruption cases. She got acquitted in almost all of them. However, the disproportionate assets case where she was convicted by a lower court in Karnataka and then acquitted by the High Court is still pending in the Supreme Court.

It is obvious that Jayalalithaa’s brush with the judiciary continues even after her death.

Lead: Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tributes to the mortal remains of J Jayalalithaa, in Chennai. Photo: UNI