Cities & Architecture

Bury Jayalalithaa on Chennai’s Beach – and Then Bury the Rule of Law With Her

The Tamil Nadu government ignores the laws of the land: the burial sites of two of the state’s former chief ministers do not feature in the list of approved sites published by the Chennai Corporation.

Following the arrival of Cyclone Vardah on December 13, party workers placed mud sacks near the spot where AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa was laid to rest, adjacent to the MGR memorial, in Chennai. Credit: PTI

Following the arrival of Cyclone Vardah on December 13, party workers placed mud sacks near the spot where AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa was laid to rest, adjacent to the MGR memorial, in Chennai. Credit: PTI

Chennai: On December 6, 2016, the late chief minister J. Jayalalithaa was buried in a vault near where her mentor and former chief minister M.G. Ramachandran (a.k.a. MGR) lay buried. In less than a week, the Government of Tamil Nadu announced that it would spend Rs 15 crore on a memorial for the departed leader within the existing MGR memorial.

Both acts – the completed burial and the proposed memorial – are illegal. However, far from being a subterfuge act befitting an illegality, the burial and the funeral that preceded it were witnessed by a long list of dignitaries: the prime minister, chief ministers of several states, the governor of Tamil Nadu, the chief justice of Madras High Court and other judges. The funeral procession and the burial itself were conducted by the three wings of the armed forces. The police too were present in the thousands to enforce the law at this ceremony, a ceremony of dubious legal standing.

Any democracy hinges on the rule of law and equality of all in the eyes of law. The people’s rule does not contemplate one law for the king and another for the commoner. The burial and the proposed monument throw into question the Indian state’s subscription to these ideals. Both, in fact, open several cans of troublesome worms.

It would be an understatement to say that Jayalalithaa has had a rough life. She deserves as good a rest as any. The legally fraught burial and the grand structures planned at the site are bound to draw avoidable controversy and disturb her peace. Many questions will be asked – of that one can be certain. If the illegality of the burial is to be ignored out of respect for the dead, it is important that no further controversy is drawn to the site.

However, O. Paneerselvam seems oblivious to the legal ramifications of his first major decision as chief minister: to authorise Jayalalithaa’s burial on Marina beach. There could have been many ways to underscore the leader’s stature, including by highlighting that the government would lead by example by performing her last rites in any of several licensed burial grounds. Why then did the Government of Tamil Nadu choose the fraught path of bucking the laws? By choosing this path, what signal is the government sending to the people about its respect for the rule of law? If the Tamil Nadu government can flip a finger to the laws of the land, does that mean others can, too?

And the burial and the proposed monument fall afoul of several laws.

The construction of permanent structures on the beach is prohibited by the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011. Only the demolition and reconstruction of certain kinds of buildings are permissible. But new construction – such as has been envisaged – is not. In any case, even permissible activities are regulated and require prior environmental clearance based on a host of documents and plans that are to be submitted by the project proponent. Getting this license would require the consent of the State Coastal Zone Management Authority. The local building rules and city masterplan too may pose a stumbling block.

Does this mean the government will be barred from going ahead with the construction? Absolutely not. It is only laws that impede the will of violators, not the law-enforcers. The Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management Authority, the Corporation of Chennai and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority are pliant regulators with no recorded history of cracking the whip on elite violators or of insisting on the law for powerful applicants.

The Corporation of Chennai, for instance, is meant to enforce laws concerning burial, cremation or disposal of the dead by any other means. The Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, 1919, has an entire section devoted to “Disposal of the Dead”. Section 321 (4) states that “No person shall bury, burn or otherwise dispose of any corpse except in a place which has been registered, licensed or provided as aforesaid.”

Section 319 (1) of the Act sets out the process of licensing. It states that “no new place for the disposal of the dead whether public or private, shall be opened, formed, constructed, or used unless a license has been obtained from the council on application.” Sub-section (2) requires any application to be accompanied by a plan of the place, showing the locality, boundary and extent thereof, the name of the owner or person or community interested therein, the system of management and such…”. Section 321 (2) and (3) require the posting of a conspicuously visible sign near the entrance to the burial ground and publishing of a register of all approved burial places by the corporation.

The burial sites of our two former chief ministers do not feature in the list of approved burial sites published on Corporation of Chennai’s website.

It is a possibility that the owner of the site has applied for and secured a license for a burial ground at that site, and that the corporation has been remiss in publishing that information. But if that is the case, one would be curious to see if this burial space is an exclusive space. If it is, then what are the criteria for exclusivity? If not, is it open to any dead person that wants to be buried near the beach?

It is common knowledge that in the hero/heroine-obsessed Tamil Nadu, the list of aspirants to memorial spaces along the Marina could be endless. If a memorial is allowed for one VIP, there can be no reason why beach-space should be denied to other VIPs, or for that matter to anybody. Actually, there can then be no justifiable reason why people should not bury their loved ones in public spaces of their choice. That way, the equality that evades us in life would be there at least in death.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.

Subscribe to The Wire‘s weekly science newsletter, Infinite in All Directions, where our science editor curates interesting science news, blogs and analyses from around the web.