An estimated 1 million mourners, many wailing and beating their chests in sorrow, attended the tumultuous funeral Friday of India’s top Tamil leader, Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran.
At least four mourners were killed and 16 injured when police opened fire at crowds desperate for a last glimpse of Ramachandran, police and witnesses said, bringing to at least 18 the number of people who have died in mob violence, police shootings and suicides connected with the death.
More than 3,500 paramilitary troops have been brought into the state capital of Madras, a police officer said.
Wailing women and grieving men jammed the streets, crowded the five-mile funeral route, and packed the beach near the burial site.
Madras Police Chief Wilson Dewaram said the mourners were killed after crowds pelted police with stones and his troops opened fire. He said police fired after tear gas failed to break up the unruly crowds.
Dewaram, who described the crowd as the biggest ever seen in Madras, said people were angry at police for not allowing them to get closer.
“Long live M.G.R.!” mourners chanted as Ramachandran’s body was lowered into a grave near the Bay of Bengal. After the burial, a granite block was placed on the site where a memorial will be built.
Ramachandran, like most Tamils, was a Hindu. While Hindus customarily cremate their dead, Tamil Hindus bury “immortal leaders.”
The 70-year-old former movie actor, popularly known as “M.G.R,” died Thursday, apparently of cardiac arrest.
Ramachandran was the leader of the southern Tamil Nadu state, home to about 50 million of India’s minority Tamils. He headed the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Party, or All India Dravidian Progressive Federation, and was an ally of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Gandhi and President Ramaswami I. Venkataraman traveled to Madras Thursday to offer condolences.
On Thursday, two people were killed in mob violence when supporters of Ramachandran went on a rampage in Madras, police said. One person died when police opened fire to control rioters, and another person injured in the shooting later died at the hospital.
At least 10 grieving supporters of Ramachandran have committed suicide in Tamil Nadu.
Suicide by hanging or self-immolation is a common way of showing grief in the state. About 20 people committed suicide when Ramachandran suffered a stroke in 1984.
He was later treated in a New York hospital, but the stroke impaired his speech and most of his public addresses were delivered by colleagues.
Before entering politics, Ramachandran was a popular movie actor, appearing in 130 films in which he was always the hero.
Ramachandran, who was born in 1917 on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka, was a key figure in the discussions between India and Colombo on the civil war being waged on the island by Tamil rebels.