Now, for trial

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

The Tamil Nadu Police files a charge-sheet in the Sankararaman murder case with Jayendra Saraswathi and Vijayendra Saraswathi as the first and second accused respectively.

in Chennai

THE Sankararaman murder case reached a crucial phase on January 21 when the special investigation team (SIT) of the Tamil Nadu Police filed a charge-sheet, naming Jayendra Saraswathi, the senior Acharya of the Sankara Mutt in Kancheepuram, as the first accused and Vijayendra Sarawathi, the junior pontiff, as the second accused. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth accused are N. Sundaresa Iyer, the mutt manager; Raghu, brother of Vijayendra Saraswathi; K.G. Krishnaswamy alias Appu, who allegedly hired the killers of Sankararaman; and Kathiravan. The charge-sheet names 24 persons as the accused in the case, including the five men who surrendered claiming that they had murdered Sankararaman and six others who arranged the proxy surrender.

K. Premkumar, Kancheepuram District Superintendent of Police, and S.P. Sakthivelu, Chief Investigation Officer, submitted the 1,873-page charge-sheet to G. Uthamaraj, Judicial Magistrate-I, Kancheepuram. Ravi Subramaniam, a building contractor, who was earlier the second accused, has turned approver. Premkumar said Ravi Subramaniam was now prosecution witness-1 and that "he has been absolved of all charges".

The first six accused have been charged with offences under Sections 302 (murder), 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 449 (house trespass in order to commit offence punishable with death), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender), 109 (abetment) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Various IPC sections, including 302, have been invoked against the remaining 18 accused, depending on the nature of charges against them.

On January 22, the police detained Sundaresa Iyer and Raghu under the Goondas' Act, usually used to detain habitual offenders. The SIT officials served the detention order on them at the Central Prison, Chennai, where they have been remanded to judicial custody. Earlier, the SIT detained eight other accused - Kathiravan, Chinna, Ambikapathy, "Mattu" Bhaskar, Meenakshisundram, Ananda Kumar, K.S. Kumar and Anil Kumar - under the Goondas' Act.

Although a big contingent of mediapersons had gathered at the court premises when the SIT team came to file the charge-sheet, the residents of Kancheepuram, about 80 km from Chennai, were singularly uninterested in the case. Premkumar and Sakthivelu went to the Sri Varadharajaswamy temple, kept the charge-sheet in front of the presiding deity in the sanctum sanctorum and stood in prayer. Then, after the "inauspicious" rahu kalam (10.30 a.m. to 12 noon) was over, they reached the court premises around 12.30 p.m. and filed the charge-sheet.

Premkumar told mediapersons that the charge-sheet detailed the role of each of the accused. All the charges, attracting punishment from three years' rigorous imprisonment to hanging, have been fixed based on the evidence given by the witnesses, which included corroborative and circumstantial evidence, he said. Fifty witnesses had given confessional statements before magistrates. The charge-sheet cited 370 witnesses and had 712 documents attached to it. The trial would be held in the District and Sessions Court at Chengalpattu.

Premkumar said: "This [the murder] happened inside the temple. It is now Varadharaja Perumal [the presiding deity] versus the Acharya. He [the deity] is the witness and I am only an instrument."

Sankararaman, manager of the Sri Varadharajaswamy temple, was murdered in his office on the premises of the temple on the evening of September 3, 2004. The Tamil Nadu Police arrested Jayendra Saraswathi at Mahabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh late on the night on November 11 (Frontline, December 3 and 17, 2004).

The police said the motive for the murder was a series of personal allegations made by Sankararaman against Jayendra Saraswathi and his style of functioning as the mutt head. Sankararaman allegedly wrote 39 letters to Jayendra Saraswathi, both in his name and under the pseudonym of Somasekara Ganapadigal, accusing him of selling mutt properties, of misappropriating funds, of not performing pujas regularly, of not observing the rules of sanyasa asrama dharma, and of promoting commercial ventures. Sankararaman also initiated the legal process to scuttle a trip to China by Jayendra Saraswathi. On August 30, he wrote to the Acharya with the "final warning". After receiving the letter, Jayendra Saraswathi called Ravi Subramaniam, Appu and Kathiravan and a conspiracy was hatched to eliminate Sankararaman, the police said. They alleged that Rs.50 lakhs was paid to the hired killers.

ON January 10, the Supreme Court granted bail to Jayendra Saraswathi, setting aside the order of the Madras High Court, which had denied him bail twice, on November 20 and December 8, 2004. A three-member Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Chief Justice R.C. Lahoti and Justices G.P. Mathur and P.P. Naolekar, said in their 17-page order that the 39 letters written by Sankararaman to Jayendra Saraswathi did not constitute a motive for the murder.

The Bench said: "In our opinion, the recovery of [copies of] these letters from the house of the deceased (Sankararaman) himself is not a proof of the fact that they were actually received by the petitioner (Sri Jayendra Saraswathi) or were brought to his notice."

It ruled that "there is absolutely no evidence collected in the investigation that the petitioner made any kind of protest or took any kind of action against the deceased" though the prosecution argued that the deceased had started making allegations against the petitioner from August 2001. "There is absolutely no evidence or material collected so far in the investigation which may indicate that the petitioner had ever shown any resentment against the deceased for having made allegations against either his personal character or the discharge of his duties as the Sankaracharya of the mutt. The petitioner having kept absolutely quiet for over three years, it does not appeal to reason that he suddenly decided to have Sankararaman murdered and entered into a conspiracy for the said purpose," the Bench said.

The Bench pointed out that the prosecution's stand, when the Madras High Court twice heard Jayendra Saraswathi's bail petitions, was that Rs.50 lakhs was withdrawn from the mutt's account in the ICICI Bank at Kancheepuram to be paid to the contract killers. Although the Bench directed the prosecution to give particulars of the bank account from which the money was withdrawn, "no documents of the account in the ICICI Bank have been produced in support of the plea which was twice taken by the prosecution before the High Court while opposing the prayer for bail by the petitioner".

The State government then took a different stand - that Jayendra Saraswathi paid to the contract killers the advance (Rs.50 lakhs) he received for the sale of the Kanchi Janakalyan Trust. But, the Bench pointed out that the Rs.50 lakhs, which was received in cash on April 30, 2004, was deposited in Indian Bank, Sankara Mutt branch, on May 7, 2004 (that is, four months before Sankararaman's murder). It said: "This belies the prosecution case which was developed subsequently after the order had been passed by this Court on December 17, 2004 directing the State to produce a copy of the ICICI Bank account, that the cash was retained by the petitioner [Jayendra Saraswathi] from which substantial money was paid to the hirelings."

The Bench described as "very fair" the statement of F.S. Nariman, Jayendra Saraswathi's counsel, that as long as the investigation was on the petitioner would not visit the mutt premises. It directed the petitioner not to visit the Kanchi Mutt premises until the police filed the charge-sheet. The Bench also ordered Jayendra Saraswathi to surrender his passport to the Chief Judicial Magistrate. Senior Advocate K.T.S. Tulsi appeared for the prosecution.

The Bench, however, made it clear that "nothing contained in this order shall be construed as expression of a final opinion on any of the issues of fact or law arising for decision in the case which shall naturally have to be done by the trial court seized of the trial".

Jayendra Saraswathi walked out of the Central Prison, Vellore, on January 11, two months after his arrest. He drove to the Kanchi Mutt at Kalavai village, about 45 km from Kancheepuram. The Kalavai Mutt, situated on a comparatively small plot, looks nondescript and unostentatious. A board describes it as "Ashrama Sweekhara Sthal of Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamy of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam" (place where Jayendra Saraswathi's predecessor took sanyasa). It has also the samadhis of the two Acharayas before the Paramacharya.

Jayendra Saraswathi is said to be observing mouna vratha (silence) but he sometimes speaks a few words to important visitors.

The joy of mutt supporters on Jayendra Saraswathi's release was shortlived. Hours after the Supreme Court granted him bail, about 70 police personnel led by Premkumar entered the mutt premises at Kanchipuram and arrested Vijayendra Saraswathi. He was produced before Uthamaraj, the Magistrate, who remanded him to 15 days' judicial custody. The junior Acharya told the Magistrate: "All the charges framed against me are false. I have not done anything wrong."

THE arrest of Vijayendra Saraswathi surprised some political parties. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had written to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on January 6 that the Centre had information that the Tamil Nadu government was planning to arrest Vijayendra Saraswathi and expressed the fear that if the government pressed ahead with it, the absence of both the Acharyas would disrupt the daily pujas in the mutt. And this, in turn, would hurt devotees' sentiments. He added that the law must take its course, but the State government should take this aspect into consideration. When Jayalalithaa met Manmohan Singh in Chennai on January 7, he repeated his apprehension.

Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi described the timing of the junior pontiff's arrest as "strange". He said that "questions will be asked about the timing of the arrest" until the police justified why it had not been done so far.

Jayalalithaa replied to the Prime Minister on January 11 that the junior pontiff's arrest was part of the process of law. She said there had been innumerable occasions when both the Acharyas were away from Kancheepuram and arrangements had been made during such occasions for the conduct of the daily pujas. "In fact, when the senior [Acharya] was arrested on 11.11.2004, both he and the junior pontiff were at Mehboob Nagar near Hyderabad, being away on camp for several days prior to 11.11.2004... . It is, therefore, quite incorrect and unfounded to connect the arrest of the two pontiffs with the tradition of the daily puja at the Sankara Mutt at Kancheepuram," she said. The mutt refuted this statement, pointing out that whenever they travelled, one of the Acharyas carried the Chandramouleeswara idol and puja was done with no break.

The Bharatiya Janata Party went on the offensive. On January 15, it launched a "national protest week" accusing the Jayalalithaa government of working with a "motive" and seeking "revenge" by filing criminal cases against Jayendra Saraswathi. Former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee said the arrest of the junior Acharya on the day the Supreme Court granted bail to Jayendra Saraswathi was "provocative". Vajpayee said: "We will accept this challenge from the Tamil Nadu government and we are ready for a long-drawn struggle." BJP leader Sushma Swaraj called the arrest of Vijayendra Saraswathi "the height of persecution". She told those who argued that the law should take its own course to see for themselves how "the law does not take its own course but takes Jayalalithaa's course".

BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi said the party's "main demand" was the dismissal of the Tamil Nadu government. Former BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu said that all the cases relating to the two Acharyas should be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the "interests of fair play and justice". Venkaiah Naidu said the entire episode was turning to be "an assault on the institution of the Kanchi Mutt". Party general secretary Pramod Mahajan asked Jayalalithaa to apologise to the nation in the wake of the Supreme Court granting bail to Jayendra Saraswathi and demanded that she should resign on moral grounds.

Jayalalithaa joined issue with the BJP. In a seven-page statement issued on January 16, she accused the BJP "adherents" of taking up the arrests issue to rehabilitate their party. "Adherents of the BJP think that religious leaders are above law and no investigation can be conducted against them. It is for the public to think and judge whether their view is right or not... . I cannot yield to their request contrary to the law of the land, especially when I have taken the oath under the Constitution which is of a secular nature," the Chief Minister said.

She said that when an investigation was under way, even the judiciary cannot intervene in the matter as several judgments had shown. She asked: "That being so, how is it legally possible for me to intervene or interfere in the matter? ... When an investigation is in progress in a murder case, how is it possible that the case can be withdrawn?" The Sankararaman murder case was being investigated in the same manner as other such cases in any police station in Tamil Nadu. So, Jayalalithaa said, the stand of the BJP and "other vested interests that I can intervene with the investigation process is purely politically motivated and their expectations are contrary to the rule of law".

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in a suo motu action, directed the Tamil Nadu government to submit a report regarding some television channels, especially Sun TV, telecasting excerpts from a video-recording of the police interrogation of Jayendra Saraswathi. The NHRC sought a report because "it raises an issue about the rights of a person facing investigation to a fair trial - a constitutional imperative". The footage was telecast on January 12.

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