Seventy-five-year-old Veerapandi Solaigounder Arumugam, who died in Chennai on Friday, combined loyalty to his party with a streak of defiant outspokenness, was a source of fear as well as admiration in his native Salem district.
A party senior with a long association with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Arumugam was one of the few members of the old guard who can claim to have been groomed in the Dravidian school of rationalist leader ‘Periyar’ E V Ramasamy. Party workers often associated him with frankness in internal deliberations and rarely held back his views even while talking to senior leaders.
Last year, when a proposal was mooted to clip wings of district secretaries of the party, Arumugam opposed it strongly. The party had to drop the move.
During the last DMK regime, at a time when the government was defending charges of mismanagement of the power situation, he wrote to then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi seeking immediate corrective measures.
Arumugam was close to Murasoli Maran, former Union minister and Mr.Karunanidhi’s nephew. He was often seen as someone who did not fully accept the succession claims of M. K. Stalin, and had some differences with him, but he later declared that he had no problems in accepting Mr. Stalin’s leadership.
In recent years, his alleged role in grabbing land at Angammal Colony, a locality in Salem, added to his negative image, which was often highlighted by his detractors. However, he blamed AIADMK founder M G Ramachandran for the creation of such an image over the years.
When young, he was drawn towards Periyar’s rationalistic principles, and at the age of 19, he joined the DMK. Known for his organisational skills, Arumugam came to be referred to as the DMK’s ‘Salem strongman,’ as he had helped nurture the DMK studiously in the Congress stronghold of the then combined Salem district where stalwarts of the national party – C. Vijayaraghavachariar and C Rajagopalachari -- strode the political arena.
After his win in the 1962 polls from Veerapandi Assembly constituency, DMK founder C N Annadurai, or Anna, referred to him as ‘Veerapandi’ S Arumugam, the name that stood.
After Anna’s death in February 1969, he threw his lot behind Mr. Karunanidhi, the then PWD Minister.
Arumugam, who opened the first DMK branch of the composite Salem district in Poolavari in 1956, became the district secretary in 1965 and held it till his death. He took part in the anti-Hindi agitation in 1965 for which he was jailed for six months. In 1976, he was detained under MISA for 18 months. His wife Ranganayaki was also detained, a move that drew widespread criticism from all.
Controversies dogged his six-decade political career throughout. He got involved in a row with AIADMK legislator and then Srivilliputhur MLA R. Tamaraikani on March 22, 1999, when the latter punched him on his nose causing bleeding injuries. The then Assembly Speaker P. T. R. Palanivel Rajan sentenced Tamaraikani to 15 days’ imprisonment for breach of privilege.
Arumugam, who held various posts ranging from president of Poolavari Panchayat Board (1958-1976), president, Salem Central Co-operative Bank (1973-1976) and State Minister in three spells (1989-91; 1996-2001 and 2006-2011), was behind a slew of major projects such as Salem Periyar University, Salem Super Specialty Hospital, Salem Railway Division and new buildings for Collectorate and other offices.
His unflinching loyalty to Mr Karunanidhi, more than the party itself, went beyond politics.
He used to call the DMK leader his ‘brother’ and political mentor. When the party suffered a vertical split after the expulsion of AIADMK founder leader M. G. Ramachandran in 1972, Arumugam did not waver a bit and stayed with Karunanidhi. And in 1993-94, he did not oblige rumour-mongers who thought he was planning to shift to the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, floated by Vaiko.