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HOLY SMOKE

Ms J. Jayalalithaa has never really left the world of the silver screen, metaphysically speaking. Each of her actions is dramatic ' and invariably distracting. The late-night arrest of the Kanchi sankaracharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, reverberates with memories of a similar arrest-drama carried out in fell darkness on Mr M. Karunanidhi a few years ago. That turned out to be successful theatre, but not good politics. But this time, astoundingly enough, the Tamil Nadu chief minister has Mr Karunanidhi himself supporting her decision. The game of politics and power allows no permanent loyalties or enmities, as the head of the Kanchi mutt is discovering to his dismay. His guilt or innocence regarding the charges framed against him ' of murder of A. Sankararaman, a critic of the sankaracharya and the manager of Varadarajaperumal temple, and of suppressing evidence and criminal conspiracy ' is yet to be established in a court of law. But it cannot be denied that the venerated seer was rather intimately acquainted with power, and that, too, in its very earthly form of politics. His position as spiritual head of Kanchi mutt helped instead of hindered this acquaintance. He was especially close to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, and his effort to mediate in the Ayodhya dispute was one of his more memorable deeds.

Ms Jayalalithaa and her party have been very close to the holy man, so the turn of events is quite startling. It has to be assumed that a presentable case has been built up against the sankaracharya, although Ms Jayalalithaa has never been known to be too particular about criminal cases. The electoral drubbing she received after her tie-up with the BJP and her pro-Hindu policies may have forced her to look for ways to rebuild an anti-Brahminical image. At least her action has pre-empted Mr Karunanidhi from making a to-do about the charges against the Kanchi head, and has suggested that she is growing distant from the BJP's Hindutva line. It is fascinating to hear her prompting the law to 'take its own course'.

But it has to be asked what all this drama is in aid of. As the Congress has said worriedly, and the BJP tentatively, the arrest could have been made after Diwali. But then, the police claim that they have proof the old man was planning to escape across the border. That remains to be seen. But Indians love to assault the dignity of the powerful once they are down, and police procedures aid that tendency. The public presumption of guilt precedes the court case. It is not only unjust, it is also distracting and damaging to the neutral ambience of judgment. The police do not help by promising to reveal dire things. Ms Jayalalithaa knew exactly what she was doing when she directed her exciting little play.

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