BEHIND THE ARREST

Print edition : December 03, 2004

After his arrest, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi in Kancheepuram. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

The Tamil Nadu Police arrest Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the high-profile head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, in a murder case.

ON November 11, Deepavali day, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the most high-profile of all contemporary Hindu religious leaders, was arrested by the Tamil Nadu Police in a late night operation at Mahabubnagar, Andhra Pradesh. According to the police, he is the prime accused in the case relating to the murder of A. Sankararaman, manager of the Sri Varadharajaswamy temple at Kancheepuram, near Chennai, on the temple premises on September 3.

The police said Sankararaman had for long been a thorn in the flesh of the pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. Things apparently came to a head in 2001 when Sankararaman initiated legal action to scuttle the acharya's proposed visit to China. The police said that on September 20, 2002, S. Radhakrishnan, who was associated with the mutt and had differences with the acharya, was attacked by two persons with knives in his house in Mandaveli, Chennai. Radhakrishnan's wife and another person were also injured.

The arrest of the Kanchi acharya involved a series of actions that started in Chennai on November 11 afternoon after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa gave the go-ahead. Tamil Nadu Police officers led by Additional Director-General of Police (Law and Order), K.V.S. Murthy flew to Hyderabad in a helicopter. The State-owned Cessna aircraft also landed in Hyderabad. The officers met their Andhra Pradesh counterparts and informed them of their plan to arrest the pontiff. The police officers then drove to Mahabubnagar, 90 km away, and took him into custody at around 11-25 p.m. in the guest house of a textile mill. They drove back to Hyderabad and flew to Chennai. At around 6 a.m. on November 12, G. Uthamarajan, Judicial Magistrate-1 at Kancheepuram, remanded the pontiff to 15 days' judicial custody. Subsequently, he was taken to the Central Prison in Vellore.

The Kanchi Mutt's lawyers, Thyagarajan and Chellappa, met the acharya in the prison on November 14. They said he told them that the case had been foisted on him and that he had asked them to take all legal measures to defend him.

The Sankaracharya has been charged with offences under Section 302 (murder); Section 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender); Section 205 (false personation for purpose of act... ); Section 213 (taking gift, etc., to screen an offender from punishment); Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention); and Section 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.

At this stage of the case, there is no presumption of guilt. The filing of the First Information Report (FIR) signals the beginning of the investigation and the charges can be laid or the case can be closed only after the investigation is completed.

Within hours of being sent to prison, the acharya filed a bail petition in the Madras High Court, in which he said he was "totally innocent" of the charges made against him. He said he had been arrested only on the basis of the confessions of those who had been taken into custody in connection with the murder. He said he had cooperated with the police when they questioned him about the crime a few times earlier. "I am the chief of the mutt. There is no connection between me and the murder. I am innocent. I should therefore be released on bail," his petition said.

September 3, 2004: The body of A. Sankararaman in his office.-COURTESY NAKKHEERAN

When the petition came up before Justice R. Balasubramanian, the Public Prosecutor, K. Duraisamy, contended that the prosecution had "credible material" including "incriminating evidence" against the acharya. There were "direct links" (between him and the crime), the Public Prosecutor alleged. According to him, Rs.10 lakhs withdrawn from the mutt's account in ICICI Bank was disbursed to the other accused. A considerable amount of this money was recovered from the other accused after their arrest. The numbers on the currency seized from them tallied with the numbers on the notes withdrawn from the account, he said. A portion of this money was also disbursed to those who surrendered before the court at George Town in Chennai on October 27 and admitted to committing the murder. One of these men was in prison on the date of the murder, Duraisamy said.

Calls made from a cellular phone used "exclusively" by the acharya to some of the accused before and after the murder indicated his involvement in the case, the Public Prosecutor alleged. This phone was registered in the name of the manager of the mutt. Also, the Public Prosecutor said, a letter titled "Final Notice", written by Sankararaman to Jayendra Saraswathi, was recovered from the possession of the accused. They said the acharya had given them the letter for "finding the address" of Sankararaman. In the letter, Duraisamy said, Sankararaman had made several allegations against Jayendra Saraswathi.

The acharya's counsel, I. Subramaniam, pressed for an "interim arrangement", which would allow him to stay in a place other than the prison. Counsel said this was necessary because the acharya had to perform puja every day from morning to evening. But Duraisamy opposed any such arrangement. He said: "... There is a limit for special treatment. He is the most undeserving criminal, deserving no special treatment. We are also devotees of the mutt. We respect the seat but not the individual who is occupying it."

Subramaniam opposed the prosecution arguments about the accounting of the mutt's finances and argued that the mutt maintained proper accounts of its financial transactions. The alleged money could have "passed many hands", he said. Subramaniam said it was "absurd" to rely on confessions made by accused persons in police custody that a mobile phone bought in somebody's name was used by somebody linked to the murder. "Let the prosecution submit its proof here and now," counsel demanded. He said the police interrogated the acharya three times but did not discuss the alleged letter (written by Sankararaman). The letter could have been "planted", Subramaniam argued.

When arguments resumed on November 13, Ram Jethmalani, Senior Advocate who appeared for the Sankaracharya, argued that the police had deliberately violated all Supreme Court rulings and pre-arrest guidelines in making the arrest. This was despite the fact that the Sankaracharya was 70 years old and suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure. Millions of people considered him an incarnation. "Was it a matter of national importance that he should be arrested at night? Was he a person who would run away or tamper with evidence?" Jethmalani asked.

According to the police, Rs.40 lakhs was paid to the accused for committing the murder. Of this amount, Rs.10 lakhs was withdrawn from the mutt's account in ICICI Bank. Police claimed that two industrialists from Chennai unwittingly contributed Rs.15 lakhs each.

Seventeen men, including the acharya, have been arrested as of November 14 in connection with Sankararaman's murder. The arrested include the five men who surrendered in the George Town court and who, the police found, had nothing to do with the crime. One of them needed money, so he surrendered and "confessed" to the crime after he was promised Rs.50,000, the police said. All the five were arrested again. Six men who arranged for their surrender were also arrested, the police said.

Five persons - Rajni, Kumar, Arun, "Mattu" Bhaskar and Kadiravan - have been arrested in connection with the murder. Kadiravan was also allegedly involved in the attack on Radhakrishnan. A search is on for two more persons.

THE arrest of Jayendra Saraswathi evoked mixed reactions. While most of the political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Left parties, welcomed it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposed it. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi called it "an honest action" and said it was "commendable". Karunanidhi had been complaining of police inaction in investigating Sankararaman's murder. The DMK had planned to observe a "fast" at Kancheepuram on November 13 demanding the arrest of the guilty. BJP leader L. Ganesan called the arrest of the pontiff hasty and reprehensible. Ganesan alleged that it was done under "political compulsion". The acharya would not have fled anywhere and he would not have refused to appear for any inquiry, the BJP leader said.

Inside the police van, in Vellore.-COURTESY: NAKKHEERAN

Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil sought detailed information on the arrest. He said: "The State government has been asked to make available to us all relevant information at its disposal. We have also asked them to ensure that the situation is kept under control." Former Prime Minister and BJP leader A.B. Vajpayee urged Patil to ensure the safety of the acharya and to provide him with facilities for performing his puja. The manner of the Sankaracharya's arrest had hurt people's feelings, Vajpayee said.

The temple town of Kancheepuram, which is the seat of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, reacted with a mixture of joy and gloom. While supporters of the DMK fired crackers in celebration and danced to band music, a huge black black flag hung outside the Kamatchi Amman temple in the town and the temple staff went about their work wearing black badges. The mutt was closed and the room in which the acharya gave darshan remained locked.

In Chennai, violence broke out on the Madras High Court premises as activists of the Hindu Munnani clashed with advocates and cadre of the People's Arts and Literary Association (PALA), an ultra-Left group. Activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Munnani staged protests in Chennai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Haridwar, Mysore, Lucknow, Jaipur, Kochi and other places. In Hyderabad, a team of seven peetathipathis took part in a procession to protest against the arrest.

The Kancheepuram police first investigated Sankararaman's murder from the angle of his enemies. But the investigation made little headway. Although Sankararaman was an acolyte of the Paramacharya, he was critical of his successor, Jayendra Saraswathi. Over the years, the antagonism between the two grew. Sankararaman was a compulsive petition-writer, writing in his own name and also pseudonymously. He would write a series of letters to the mutt and its pontiff, with allegations of financial malfeasance, political chicanery and nepotism. He questioned the creation of several trusts by the mutt and sent a number of letters to the Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments, complaining against the acharya.

In 2001, Jayendra Saraswathi received an invitation to visit China and he looked forward to making the trip. But Sankararaman filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court seeking an order to stop the acharya from going abroad because Hindu tradition did not permit sanyasins to cross the seas. The acharya dropped his plans to visit China and it is said that he was disappointed about it. Subsequently, Sankararaman bombarded him with letters about "monetary irregularities" in the mutt's affairs.

WITH the police investigation into the murder making little headway, the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran began its own investigation. An article in its September 11, 2004 issue said the magazine had received a letter dated August 30, from Sankararaman, besides other letters connected with it. In the August 30 letter Sankararaman stated that a person named Ja.Ra. Somasekara Ganapadigal had written several letters to the mutt complaining about its method of functioning but did not receive any reply from the mutt. Sankararaman said he himself had written on July 16, to Jayendra Saraswathi that he would proceed legally against the acharya to get him removed as the mutt chief under a rule of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act.

Sankararaman, according to the article, also wrote to the magazine that he had received letters from an outfit called "The devotees of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt" threatening him with dire consequences. Finally, he wrote to Jayendra Saraswathi quoting the allegations made by Somasekara Ganapadigal against the acharya. This letter, dated August 30, and titled the "Final Notice" (Irudhi Arivippu in Tamil), concluded by telling Jayendra Saraswathi that he "will soon initiate steps through courts to get you (the acharya) and your successors disqualified". Nakkheeran discovered that Somasekara Ganapadigal was Sankararaman himself and said so in its story.

After Nakkheeran published the article, Jayendra Saraswathi gave the magazine an interview, which it published in its issue dated September 25. To a question whether Sankararaman's murder happened in the background of his raising issues regarding the mutt's irregularities, the acharya said: "There is enmity between the mutt employees and us... . I have several enemies besides Sankararaman... . There is no connection, therefore, between the mutt and Sankararaman's murder." The acharya also denied the mutt's involvement in the attack on Radhakrishnan.

During the interview, Jayendra Saraswathi alleged that Sankararaman had been "harassing" him for the past 40 years and Radhakrishnan also behaved like that. The acharya said he knew Radhakrishnan from a young age and opposed Radhakrishnan's "wangling" to get close to the Paramacharya. The acharya said he "cut off" Radhakrishnan after he took over the mutt's affairs. Sankararaman then started writing letters in the name of Somasekara Ganapadigal. After the acharya spoke to him about it, he stopped writing letters and later wrote letters in his own name. "I used to tear them up. I was scared that if I keep them, it might lead to trouble. Although the lawyers suggested that I file a case against Sankararaman, I declined to do so. I had no plan to kill him," Jayendra Saraswathi said in the interview.

When the interviewer suggested to the pontiff that he could have reprimanded Sankararaman for writing letters and troubling him, the acharya replied: "Even if my toe nails were to develop pain, there are devotees who would shed tears. Sankararaman, who troubled me so much, is not a man who would correct himself if talked to. He continued to trouble me. Once he picked a quarrel when he came to `brindavanam' where the Paramacharya's body is interred. My devotees, who could not tolerate Sankararaman's harassment, could be the reason for Sankararaman's end (murder). How can I be responsible for it?"

Meanwhile, police teams under Kancheepuram district Superintendent of Police (S.P.) S. Davidson Devasirvatham and Cuddalore district S.P. K. Prem Kumar went to work. Additional S.P. (Prohibition Enforcement), Kancheepuram district, S.P. Sakthivelu, was the investigating officer.

With Nakkheeran and the rest of the Tamil press taking up Sankararaman's murder, the police came under pressure to step up the investigation. The DMK took up the issue in a big way and demanded to know why the investigation was tardy. It announced that the party's deputy general secretary and Karunanidhi's son, M.K. Stalin, would inaugurate a fast by activists of the DMK and its allies on November 13 at Kancheepuram to demand that "the real culprits" behind the murder be brought to book. The Dravidar Kazhagam led by K. Veeramani also wanted to know why the real culprits had not been detained.

Karunanidhi even issued a statement asking why those men who committed the gruesome murder in the temple and the person who instigated it had not been arrested. "The people of Kancheepuram and the devotees are eagerly awaiting a reply to the question. How long will the police let them off (the hook)?" Karunanidhi said.

In Allahabad, a demonstration demanding the release of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi.-

The action began on November 11. The Andhra Pradesh Police were initially reluctant to allow the Tamil Nadu Police to make the arrest, but relented and insisted that it should be done in a "smooth" manner. Apparently, the Andhra Pradesh government was worried about the political fallout.

Accompanied by Dwaraka Tirumala Rao, Deputy Inspector-General, Hyderabad Range, the Tamil Nadu Police team drove to Mahabubnagar. The two acharyas, Jayendra Saraswathi and his junior Vijayendra Saraswathi, were camping there at the guest house of Surya Laxmi Cotton Mills to perform the Triloka Kalyana Yagnam on the mill premises. It was past 10-30 p.m. when the police reached Mahabubnagar.

There are two versions on how the arrest took place. One is that the Tamil Nadu Police presented a non-bailable arrest warrant to Jayendra Saraswathi and told him that he was being arrested. The acharya insisted that he be allowed to travel in the mutt van from Mahabubnagar to Hyderabad and the police agreed. At Hyderabad airport, the Tamil Nadu Police pushed away reporters waiting to have a word with the acharya.

The other version is that the police allegedly led the acharya up the garden path. At Mahabubnagar, they merely told him that they were taking him to Chennai for interrogation. After the aircraft touched down at the old airport in Chennai around 2-30 a.m. on November 12, they presented him with the fait accompli: that he was under arrest.

At Chennai airport, too, a big contingent of reporters and television cameramen were waiting to meet the acharya. L. Ganesan of the BJP, too, was there. But the police did not allow the reporters and Ganesan to meet the pontiff. When the police tried to take away the acharya in a police van to Kancheepuram, he objected strongly. "Am I a Veerappan (forest brigand and sandalwood smuggler, who was shot dead on October 19) to be taken in a police van?" he asked the police. Thereupon, they pacified him and took him in a Tempo Traveller to Kancheepuram and produced him before the Judicial Magistrate-1.

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