Though it was a tearful occasion, Madras claimed its first Guinness record. Fifteen million people congregating for a funeral showed the charisma of the person they would miss for long. CN Annadurai, a politician of the Dravidian movement, who had soon broken with his mentor when EVR married and named as his successor his secretary Maniammai.
Thrown out of the parent organisation, Anna and his followers braved police lathis, filled the jails and sometimes starved but finally stunned political pundits by capturing power in Madras. Anna was a simple man (while visiting the
US he tried to borrow an actor’s suit to wear to cut costs) but a hard life was taking its toll and Annadurai’s time as Chief Minister was short-lived.
Diagnosed with oral cancer, Anna died on February 3, 1969. Hearing the news, millions made a beeline to Madras. Three special trains ferried them from different parts of the country. 2-4 bogies were added to the existing train compartments as well. Ticketless travel was rampant and railways were lax about the ticket checking. Many rooftop travellers sat precariously on the Janatha Express. While crossing the Coleroon Bridge (unlike other bridges, it had a set of roof girders) there were screams as blood and flesh splattered. As many as 28 passengers perched above were chopped to pieces.
Around 7,000 lorries full of mourners arrived in the city. There was no arrangement for millions of visitors and most spent sleepless nights hungry. Most hotels were closed and people were famished. It was a seller’s market with even the prices of a banana going up from 6 paise to 15 paise. When hotels opened the next day people were allowed only in batches. The city was full of mounds of garbage and looked as if hit by a cyclone.
Anna’s body kept for viewing in Rajaji Hall was to move to the Marina wherein the space behind the Kambar Statue was chosen for the burial — the first samadhi on the Marina Beach. He would be followed by the next three successors as well. (The Kambar Statue swallowed by the tomb’s compound would be hidden from public view thereafter)
The processions started from a roundabout — 6 km route through the Mount Road, Cathedral Road and the Edward Elliots Road for more people to witness their leader the last time.
The cortege took 200 minutes to reach. People were perched on trees, lamp posts and top of buildings on the flower-strewn route. Crowd wailed one word again and again: Anna Anna. While crossing bridges, some from the procession slipped into the Cooum and drowned.
Roads were blocked and many VIPs missed the funeral spot. Rajaji could not get out of his house. Kamaraj’s foot was hurt in the stampede and he stayed away. Radhakrishnan saw the funeral from his home balcony at Edward Elliots Road. Ninety-year-old EVR, who had mentored Anna, came halfway in a car. From there travel in a wheelchair was impossible, so he saluted his disciple with folded hands and returned.
Mourners had started gathering on the Marina overnight braving the cold. The burial ceremony was brief with no religious tones and lasted for 15 minutes. Just some rice and flowers were thrown into the casket by his wife Rani Annadurai.
The body was interred with full military honours with army chiefs and the Governor of Madras helping lower the sealed teakwood casket. Three rounds of gunshots were fired in respect to the late leader.
After the funeral, M Karunanidhi, the PWD minister, spoke for a minute and appealed to the crowd to disperse after observing a minute’s silence.
He became emotional and shouted Anna vaazhga (long live Anna). The millions repeated it in a thunderous voice. Karunanidhi’s two-word gesture before the audience greatly helped in his choice as the next CM. He got hold over the Tamil politics that he never let go till his death.
Anna’s tomb was decorated with a black obelisk and set in a two-hectare park whose entrance was like a giant pair of ivory tusks. Even after undergoing several changes over the years, it still remains a place of pilgrimage.
Annadurai’s funeral still holds the Guinness World Records for the ‘most attended funeral’ with an estimated 15 million. The largest influx to the city in its history had just happened.
— The writer is a historian and an author