Au revoir Oommen Chandy: Popular politician who strode God’s Own Country like a colossus

It took 28 hours for Chandy's funeral procession to reach Kottayam from Thiruvananthapuram; normally it takes three hours.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 20, 2023 | 2:55 PM Updated Jul 20, 2023 | 2:55 PM

Oommen Chandy funeral

Academic-turned-politician Suja Susan George was the candidate chosen by the CPI(M) to take on Oommen Chandy in the 2011 Assembly election in Puthuppally constituency in the Kottayam district, which was also the home turf of the Congress heavyweight.

Chandy was elected with a margin of 33,255 votes when the election results were declared.

George, then a college professor and currently director of the Kerala government’s Global Malayalam Mission, was among the tens of thousands who waited patiently at Thirunakkara Maidanam in Kottayam on the morning of Thursday, 20 July, to catch a glimpse of Chandy when and his funeral procession — which embarked from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram the previous day and was yet to reach the town over 25 hours later — finally arrived.

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Aerial view of Oommen Chandy’s body being taken into Thirunakkara Maidanam. (Supplied)

It is a distance usually covered in a little three over hours.

George described the two-time chief minister of the state — who died three days ago and represented Puthuppally in the state Assembly for 53 continuous years — as a highly respected politician who never compromised his integrity and was concerned even about the self-respect of political adversaries.

“When my party asked me to become the candidate against Chandy in a losing battle, I thought a hundred times about its after-effects. The only point of confidence then was that the rival candidate was none other than Oommen Chandy. I was damn sure that he would not allow anybody in his team to target me personally and engage in character assassination,” George, who hails from a village close to Puthuppally, told South First.

Obituary: A ‘man of the masses’ with a career marked by compassion

A momentous last journey

Senior CPI(M) leader, Minister for Cooperation, and Kottayam native VN Vasavan was among those who accompanied the funeral procession that departed from Thiruvananthapuram early on Wednesday morning.

Oommen Chandy funeral

Oommen Chandy’s body was kept at Thirunakkara Maidaman in Kottayam for people to pay respects. (Supplied)

He spent a day and night on the road to reach Kottayam as part of the procession.

“I worked as his campaign manager when Chandy and his faction of the Congress formed part of CPI(M)-led LDF in the early 1980s. It was a great learning experience as the towering leader quickly evolved political strategies and effectively implemented them. Later, he rejoined Congress, but our rapport continued. I twice contested against him unsuccessfully from Puthuppally, but he never held any grudge against me. That’s Chandy for you,” said Vasavan.

It was after an eight-hour-long wait at Venjaramoodu junction as part of an ever-surging crowd that noted Malayalam movie artist Alansiyar got a glimpse of the departed leader who turned the road from Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam into a sea of humanity.

“This multitude speaks volumes about his sway over the minds of Keralites. He was down to earth and championed the cause of the oppressed. His compassion had no parallel, which was his major investment in winning enormous goodwill,” said Alansiyar.

Related: End of the AK Antony-​Oommen Chandy era in the Congress

From ‘Puthuppally’ to Puthuppally

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People pay respects to Chandy. Photo: Supplied

The funeral procession, which began from “Puthuppally” — the name Chandy gave to his residence in Thiruvananthapuram — and ended at his Puthuppally residence in Kottayam may well forever remain the largest gathering Kerala has seen.

People thronged either side of the Mid-Central Road, or MC Road, ignoring the rain to pay obeisance to their beloved leader. The procession was supposed to reach Kottayam by 6.30 pm on Wednesday, but reached there only by 7.30 am the next day.

Throughout the night and all along the route, people stayed awake to pay homage to Chandy, perhaps the most popular Kerala leader of all time.

Kerala has seen huge participation of people in the funerals of legendary politicians like EMS Namboodiripad, EK Nayanar, K Karunakaran and Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. But in the case of Chandy, currently just an MLA who holds no high office, the turnout of mourners was huge and unprecedented.

Also read: Malayalam books put Oommen Chandy back in spotlight

The connect with Puthuppally

Puthuppally church vicar Varghese Varghese termed Chandy a man of benevolence and humility.

“His humility made him closer to the masses, and that bonding makes his funeral unparalleled,” said the vicar who is coordinating the rituals related to the burial.

Oommen Chandy funeral

People throng the funeral procession late night on 19 July at Chengannur. (Supplied)

The whole church machinery of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (MOSC), also known as the Indian Orthodox Church (IOC), of which Chandy was a member, gathered in Kottayam under the leadership of Catholicos Baselios Marthoma Paulose II and over 2,000 priests to conduct the funeral.

According to Congress MLA and former Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Chandy did not have a life away from his native Puthupally and the rest of Kottayam. His emotional bonding with his native place had no parallels. Chandy was sure he must return to his roots, however far or high he had travelled.

Oommen Chandy’s wife, Mariyamma, once wrote about his attachment to Puthupally. Drawing a reference from the Old Testament, she wrote: “Jacob loved Rachel, who was ‘lovely in form and beautiful’, but had to marry an unattractive Leah. Puthupally is Oommen Chandy’s Rachel, and I am just Leah.”

Every Sunday, Chandy reached Puthuppally and attended holy mass in the church. For the rest of the time, he interacted with those who arrived at his home seeking redressal of their grievances.

Related: Actors remember Oommen Chandy as down to earth

Scenes on the road

“The late arrival of the hearse carrying the mortal remains of Chandy proves one thing. He remains the most popular Kerala leader. He always listened to all the grievances of people, which endeared him to the masses,” said Congress Lok Sabha member Benny Behanan.

At many places in the four districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha — through which Chandy’s remains passed on its journey to his stronghold of Kottayam — the bus had to be stopped for over an hour as people kept coming to see their beloved leader.

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Mortal remains of Chandy being taken to Kottayam. Photo: Supplied

While thousands, including children of all ages, waited without sleep along the route taken by the specially modified low-floor bus covered in garlands and pictures of Chandy, many more — including political leaders from various parties — were waiting at the Thirunakkara Maidanam in Kottayam throughout the night.

A similar vigil was also seen outside his home in Puthuppally, where locals and others who wanted to pay tribute to Chandy had turned up in large numbers since Wednesday morning.

The burial was to be simple without any state honours, per the wish of the late Congress leader.

While Rahul Gandhi represented the Congress high command, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his Council of Ministers represented the state government.

Chandy, who served as the chief minister of Kerala twice, breathed his last in a private hospital in Bengaluru in the early hours of Tuesday. His end came while undergoing cancer treatment, party sources said. He was 79.

There was constant rain when the funeral procession reached Venjaramoodu. But thousands braved the rain to offer him last respects. In many places, school students came out of the classrooms to pay him respect.

“One thing is sure. Even after suffering greatly due to the slander in the false solar scam, death proved how popular and strong Chandy was. His adversaries might be hanging their heads in shame,” said VT Balaram, former MLA and vice president of the Congress in Kerala.