By Associated Press
|Photo Caption: In this June 14, 2011 file photo, India’s southern Tamil Nadu state Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa addresses a press conference in New Delhi, India.(AP Photo / Saurabh Das, File)|
CHENNAI, India — Jayaram Jayalalithaa, the hugely popular south Indian actress who later turned to politics and became the highest elected official in the state of Tamil Nadu, died Monday. She was 68.
The Apollo Hospital in the southern Indian city of Chennai said Jayalalithaa died at 11:30 pm local time Monday after undergoing surgery following a heart attack on Sunday night.
Known by her followers as “Amma,” which means “Mother” in the Tamil language, Jayalalithaa inspired intense loyalty among film fans and political supporters alike.
As news of her death spread, thousands of people thronged the road long past midnight to watch as the ambulance carrying her body from the hospital to her home sped by in a motorcade. Police had a hard time controlling people from rushing onto the road. Many people wept and beat their breasts overcome by grief.
Earlier Monday, thousands of Jayalalithaa’s supporters, wailing and crying, gathered outside the hospital to pray for her recovery. Police were deployed across the state to ensure security out of fear that her death could trigger widespread violence and riots.
The neighboring state of Karnataka stopped public buses from traveling to Tamil Nadu after one of its buses was attacked Monday.
The US Consulate in Chennai put out an advisory urging Americans to be careful in the city and avoid large crowds.
The Tamil Nadu government declared a seven-day mourning period beginning Tuesday. Schools, colleges, offices and businesses were to be closed for the next three days, which have been designated a public holiday in the South Indian state.
|Photo Caption: Supporters of Indian southern state of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa hold her photograph as they pray for her health at a temple in Mumbai, India, Dec 5, 2016. (AP Photo / Rafiq Maqbool)|
Her body will be taken Tuesday to a public hall in Chennai to allow people to pay their respects. The date and time of her funeral has not yet been announced as the state government needed time to put in place security arrangements to handle the hundreds of thousands of people who are expected to attend.
Within hours of Jayalalithaa’s death, her trusted lieutenant, O. Panneerselvam, was sworn in as chief minister of the state.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “deeply saddened” by Jayalalithaa’s death. “Her demise has left a huge void in Indian politics,” Modi tweeted.
Jayalalithaa’s body would be kept in a public hall in Chennai for people to pay their respects. The date and time of her funeral had not been announced as the state government put security arrangements in place to control the hundreds of thousands of people who are expected to attend the funeral.
Jayalalithaa had already been in the hospital for two months since Sept 22, when she was admitted with a fever, dehydration and a respiratory infection.
At the time, thousands of people prayed and fasted outside the hospital for her recovery. Doctors barred visitors, sparking rumors that they were withholding bad news out of fear it could trigger the same outpouring of grief, riots and suicides that followed the death of Jayalalithaa’s political and acting mentor, M.G. Ramachandran.
Jayalalithaa was kept on a ventilator in the intensive care unit for weeks, doctors said. She also suffered from diabetes.
Jayalalithaa was 13 when she began her film career and quickly became known as a romantic lead in many of the nearly 150 Tamil-language movies that she worked on.
|Photo Caption:Supporters of India’s Tamil Nadu state Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa stand behind a row of policemen guarding a road before an ambulance carrying the body of Jayalalithaa drives past in Chennai, India, early Dec 6, 2016.(AP Photo / Aijaz Rahi)|
She entered politics in the early 1980s, under the guidance of Ramachandran. Soon after his death in 1987, she declared herself his political heir and took control of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam party.
She served as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, the highest elected position in the state of 71 million people, for nearly 14 years over five terms beginning in 1991. She regained her office last year after a corruption case against her was overturned. Her supporters praised her efforts in fighting rural poverty with handouts like laptop computers for students, cows and goats for farmers, and spice grinders for homemakers.
Such free gifts are commonly used by Indian political parties in courting voters, but her handouts were still criticized by some as wasteful pandering and unfair bribery. But Jayalalithaa defended the giveaways as welfare measures aimed at helping the poor.
She herself was known for leading an extravagant lifestyle. In 1997, police found more than 10,000 saris and 750 pairs of shoes after raiding her home as part of a corruption investigation.
In the first half of 2014, Jayalalithaa made a bid to become India’s prime minister job by saying she would form a coalition in New Delhi if no party dominated elections. But the Bharatiya Janata Party won a clear majority, catapulting Narendra Modi into the nation’s top job.
Later that year, she was forced to step down as chief minister in Tamil Nadu state when she was sentenced to four years in prison for amassing more than $10 million during her political career, a wealth the court said was disproportionate to her income.
She spent 21 days behind bars before the Indian Supreme Court released her on bail. In May 2015, an appeals court overturned the corruption charges, clearing the way for her return to power. She returned to office as chief minister on May 23 and a month later was re-elected in a by-election.
Jayalalithaa was born in 1948 in the village of Melukote, in what is now the state of Karnataka. Her birth name was Jayalalitha, but she reportedly added an “a” on advice from a numerologist.
Her lawyer father, also named Jayaram, died when she was 2, prompting her mother to learn shorthand and typing so she could work in a clerical position to support the family and put Jayalalithaa and her brother through school. Her brother died in the early 1990s.