The course of law

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the Kanchi Sankaracharya, is in prison, denied bail in the Sankararaman murder case and arrested again in a case of violent attack.

in Chennai

THERE seems to be no reprieve in sight for Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam in Tamil Nadu. He was arrested by the Tamil Nadu Police at Mahabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh in a late night operation on November 11 in connection with the murder of A. Sankararaman, manager of the Sri Varadarajaswamy temple at Kancheepuram. Sankararaman was found murdered in the temple precincts on September 3. Early in the morning of November 12, the Judicial Magistrate - I, Kancheepuram, G. Uthamaraj, remanded the Sankaracharya to judicial custody for 15 days. He was immediately shifted to the Central Prison in Vellore (Frontline, December 3).

On November 23, the Sankaracharya, still in prison, was arrested in another case, related to an attack on S. Radhakrishnan, his wife and an attendant on September 20, 2002, in Radhakrishnan's house at Mandaveli, Chennai. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa told the Assembly on November 17: "Investigation in the case revealed that Sri Jayendra Saraswathi suspected that Radhakrishnan wrote letters in the name of Somasekara Ganapadigal, making serious allegations against him. It also came to light that Sri Jayendra Saraswathi plotted with his henchmen and associates to eliminate Radhakrishnan."

Since there were similarities in the two cases, the police team investigating Sankararaman's murder was told to probe the "violent attack" on Radhakrishnan as well, she said. Jayalalithaa said that "firm evidence of his [Sankaracharya's] involvement" in the Sankararaman murder was available and added that his arrest demonstrated that "all are equal before law".

ON November 25, the Supreme Court dismissed in limine a public interest petition seeking a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the arrest of the Sankaracharya. A Bench comprising Chief Justice R.C. Lahoti and Justice G.P. Mathur questioned the locus standi of the petitioner, B.P. Singhal, a former Rajya Sabha member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in filing the petition and wanted to know which fundamental right of the pontiff was violated in the case. The Judges ruled that when none of the accused or the affected persons had approached the court, the petitioner, a third party, had no locus standi to invoke the extraordinary jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. They pointed out that Singhal had not included the Tamil Nadu State government and the Sankaracharya as parties to the petition. The petitioner, the judges said, had not annexed a copy of the first information report (FIR) in the murder case, which would have enabled them to formulate their opinion on the question of violation of the rights of the accused in the manner of his arrest.

The same day in Chennai, Sankararaman's wife Padma and his daughter Uma reportedly identified some of his killers in an identification parade held at the Central Prison. (The alleged assailants had gone to their house before the murder and inquired about Sankararaman's whereabouts.) Separately, Radhakrishnan and his wife tried to identify two men who had attacked them in their house.

Late on the night of November 25, the Jayalalithaa government replaced S. Davidson Devasirvatham, Superintendent of Police (S.P.), Kancheepuram district, with K. Prem Kumar, Cuddalore S.P. They were the two key leaders of the 29-member team set up to investigate the murder of Sankararaman. In another important move, A.X. Alexander replaced S.V. Venkatakrishnan as the Director General of Police (Intelligence).

On November 26, Justice Uthamaraj extended the judicial custody of the Sankaracharya for 15 more days, that is, up to December 10. After he appeared in the Kancheepuram court, the Sankaracharya was driven to Chennai to appear in a Saidapet court in the case related to the attack on Radhakrishnan. The XXIII Metropolitan Magistrate, Saidapet, S. Umamaheswari, remanded him to judicial custody till December 9.

On the same day, the pontiff filed two separate bail applications, one in the High Court and the other in the Sessions Court. He approached the High Court seeking bail in the Sankararaman case. On November 20, it had rejected his first bail application in the case. In his fresh application, the Sankaracharya said there was a "significant change of circumstances" now. Two accused, Kadiravan and Rajini alias Chinna, on whose confessional statements he was "implicated and arrested, have now resiled from the confessions", he said. They had alleged that they had undergone "torture, ill-treatment and extortion of confession statements by the police". In his second bail application in the Sessions Court, in the Radhakrishnan assault case, the pontiff said he was not connected with the crime. His arrest in the case two years after the crime had taken place and when he was in judicial custody in another case "spoke volumes", he said.

Rejecting the Sankaracharya's first bail application on November 20, Justice R. Balasubramanian said the police investigation into the murder was at a "threshold"; the charges against the prime accused were serious (murder, conspiracy, causing evidence to disappear and so on); and there was material prima facie to show that the Sankaracharya was a conspirator who arranged the money to carry out the contract killing.

The Judge referred to the video footage of the Sankaracharya's arrest at Mahabubnagar, which was screened in the court hall, and said he could hear the petitioner being informed of the grounds of his arrest. The police officer who arrested the Sankaracharya acceded to the latter's request to have a lawyer.

The court could not interfere with the powers of the investigating agency, Justice Balasubramanian said. It was for the police to decide whether or not to hold an identification parade. When Uthamaraj remanded the Sankaracharya to judicial custody, he explained why the latter was arrested and remanded. The presence of lawyers in the magistrate's court showed that the remand proceedings took place in the open court, the Judge said.

K.T.S. Tulsi, Senior Advocate, who appeared for the prosecution, contended that the investigation revealed that there was a motive behind the killing. Material was available to show that a conspiracy was plotted to do away with Sankararaman and that the Sankaracharya was a conspirator in this, counsel said. The Sankaracharya had spoken on the phone to some of the accused before and after the murder, and there was material to prove this, Tulsi alleged. About Rs.35 lakhs had been withdrawn from several bank accounts (to pay the killers), he said.

The proxy surrender of the five persons was a red herring counsel argued. It was a strategy, according to the prosecution counsel, aimed at screening the petitioner (the Sankaracharya). The court should decide whether a prima facie case existed, look at the magnitude of the crime and not be overly influenced by the concept of liberty, Tulsi appealed. The video footage proved that the police had observed the procedures in the investigation, search and arrest.

Ram Jethmalani, Senior Advocate, who appeared for the Sankaracharya, claimed that he had not seen such "a corrupt investigation". The police did not cite the grounds of arrest to the pontiff when he was arrested. The prosecution did not reveal with whom the Acharya conspired and the remand order was void, Jethmalani argued. The Sankaracharya's lawyer could not exercise his right of providing consultation to the accused before he was remanded to judicial custody, he said.

Jethmalani contended that the pontiff had no account with the ICICI Bank from where, according to the prosecution's allegations, big amounts were withdrawn to pay the killers. Since no money was withdrawn, there was no question of it being distributed to the killers, he contended. The prosecution first alleged that a huge amount of cash was withdrawn from the ICICI Bank. However, later it claimed that the money was withdrawn from the Sankara Mutt branch of Indian Bank, the defence counsel said. No parade was held to identify the accused. There were at least three eyewitnesses to the crime committed during day-time. Any police officer would have conducted an identification parade. First, five persons surrendered in connection with the murder. But the police called them bogus accused. The police arrested them later on some other charge. The Sankaracharya was in illegal custody, Jethmalani contended.

In a related development, on November 22, the High Court dismissed the Sankaracharya's petition challenging Uthamaraj's November 19 order that he remain in police custody for four days. Justice A.K. Rajan, who passed the order, held it was not illegal to order police custody when the accused was in judicial custody. The Supreme Court had observed that the nature of the custody could be changed from judicial to police or vice versa within the first 15 days of the custody period, Justice Rajan said.

The police faced a setback when Kadiravan, an accused in both cases, turned hostile. On November 24, he told Uthamaraj that when he was in police custody, the police forced him to make a statement under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C.) before a magistrate. He alleged that after the police detained him on November 3 in Chennai, they beat him up and obtained his signature on four blank papers. On November 9, the police brought him to the office of the Additional Superintendent of Police at Kancheepuram. Here, Kadiravan alleged, the investigating team "forced him" to read out a statement as dictated by it. He charged that the police recorded it on a video camera in the presence of a tahsildar.

INFORMED sources in the investigation team said seven persons were involved in the attack on Radhakrishnan. While Anandakumar went inside Radhakrishnan's house, pretending to be a messenger, Lakshmanan followed him and attacked Radhakrishnan with a knife, the sources said. In the commotion that followed, Radhakrishnan's wife and an attendant were also injured. By accident, Anandakumar received some knife injuries. Five others, Kadiravan, Sundaram, Kannan, Chinnakumar and Bhoominathan, stood outside the house, the sources said. For treatment of his injuries, Anandakumar admitted himself to a private hospital in Chennai.

In the Sankararaman murder case, two key accused, Appu and Ravi Subramanian, a building contractor, are absconding. The two are friends. Kadiravan was a conspirator in the murder and he arranged for the killers at the behest of Appu and Ravi Subramanian, the sources claimed.

On November 23, the First Bench of the Madras High Court stayed the order of a single Judge, who had directed the immigration officials to permit Appu to visit the United States for three months. Acting Chief Justice N. Dhinakar and Justice D. Murugesan granted the stay when the Inspector of Thousand Lights police station, Chennai, filed an appeal against the single Judge's November 4 order. The appellant said that Appu was involved in seven criminal cases, including the Sankararaman murder case, and would abscond if allowed to go abroad.

So far, 20 persons including the Sankaracharya have been arrested in connection with Sankararaman's murder. Of them, five - "Dil" Pandian, Arumugam, Arun, Satish and Devaraj - surrendered before the XV Metropolitan Magistrate Court at George Town, Chennai, on October 27, claiming that they were behind the crime. When the police found out that they had nothing to do with the killing, they were arrested and remanded to judicial custody. Police sources said the five persons were trying to mislead the investigation. Following confessions made by the five persons, six more persons - Palani, "Kuruvi" Ravi, Sekar, Senthil, Arumugam and Sundaram - allegedly involved in the murder were arrested. They had arranged the proxy surrenders, the sources said. Later Kadiravan was arrested. When Kadiravan spilled the beans, Rajini alias Chinna, Kumar and Arun were arrested. Later, "Mattu" Bhaskar, Stalin alias "Silverstar" and Ambigapathy alias Ambi surrendered in different courts in Chennai. On November 24, the police arrested Anil alias Anil Kumar near the Chennai Central railway station.

Informed sources said six persons took part in Sankararaman's murder. While "Mattu" Bhaskar and Ambigapthay went into Sankararaman's room and attacked him with sickles, Sundaram stood some distance away inside the temple premises and three others, including Kadiravan, waited outside on three motorbikes, the sources alleged.

According to informed sources, Sankararaman "blackmailed" the Sankaracharya on various issues. Sankararaman also threatened to expose him in public. There were sharp differences of opinion between the Sankaracharya and Radhakrishnan. The Sankaracharya tried to buy peace with Sankararaman by talking to him several times and through "panchayats" but these efforts were of no avail, the sources added.

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