The Tamil Nadu government’s plan to build a sprawling memorial to the late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has run into a legal hurdle. A lawyer, S Jayaseelan, petitioned the Madras High Court last week, questioning the very legitimacy of constructing a memorial to a leader who had been convicted of corruption. He also claimed that the project did not have the necessary building permissions. A similar petition was filed a few months ago by the social activist KR “Traffic” Ramaswamy. The court will hear them both on June 6.

The memorial is being raised near Jayalalithaa’s grave on the Marina beach in Chennai. Called the Phoenix, it is designed to resemble the mythical bird which supposedly represents the former chief minister’s “persona”. It includes a 15-metre tall monument, a museum and a “knowledge park”, surrounded by landscaped gardens with two roaring lions at the entrance. The foundation stone of the project, estimated to cost Rs 50 crore, was laid by Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy and his deputy O Panneerselvam on May 7.

Ramaswamy is not impressed. “She was declared a convict,” he said of Jayalalithaa. “The government should not spend public money on her.”

Jayaseelan contended as much in his petition: “If a memorial is erected for J Jayalalithaa, the impression one will get while visiting [it] would be [that] if one indulges in corrupt practice and gets convicted...he will be honoured by the government.”

If at all the memorial has to be erected, Ramaswamy added, it must not be at taxpayers’ expense. “It is fine if they build the memorial elsewhere using the party’s fund,” he said. “This entire area was submerged during the 2015 flood. Now it will get worse.”

KC Palanisamy, spokesman of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, rejected the petitioners’ contentions. “The judgement has been appended since she was no more at the time of its delivery,” he said, arguing that Jayalalithaa had not been convicted. “I do not see anything wrong in the memorial.”

An artist's illustration of the proposed memorial.

Violation of rules

The petitioners also allege that the memorial is being built in violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone guidelines, which regulate development activity along India’s coasts. However, according to the minutes of the 100th meeting of the State Coastal Zone Management Authority, the construction of the memorial was permitted subject to certain conditions such as that no groundwater would be extracted and that adequate rainwater harvesting structures would be built.

The memorial allegedly violates the Madras City Municipal Corporation Act of 1919 as well. The law stipulates that “no new place for the disposal of the dead, whether public or private, shall be opened, formed, constructed or used unless a licence has been obtained from the commissioner on application”. The petitioners claim that no such licence was obtained and the place was not registered for burial under the law. This was also pointed out by the social activist Nityanand Jayaraman soon after Jayalalithaa was buried next to her political mentor MG Ramachandran in December 2016.

Palanisamy said the Phoenix was “a part and parcel of the MGR memorial” and whatever permissions were required had been obtained. But Ramasamy and Jayaseelan contended that even MG Ramachandran’s memorial violated the Municipal Corporation Act.

An artist's illustration of how the proposed memorial could look at night.

Beach of memorials

Palanisamy, however, said while it was fine to bury leaders such as Annadurai, Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa on the Marina beach because “they were great revolutionaries who contributed to the growth of Tamil Nadu”, construction of memorials should stop with the Phoenix. “Imagine the situation, after a hundred years, if there are a hundred memorials, then the beach will lose its charm,” he said. “It should be maintained as a beach only. There shouldn’t be more memorials after this.”

Jayaseelan countered that it would be difficult to stop future memorials as the Phoenix will set a precedent. “In the hero/heroine-obsessed Tamil Nadu, the list of aspirants to memorial spaces along the beach could be endless,” he wrote in his petition. “If a memorial space 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 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.”