Print edition : December 17, 2004

Former President R. Venkataraman, former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, religious leader Asha Ram Bapu and NDA convener George Fernandes at the dharna organised by the BJP in New Delhi. - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The Sangh Parivar tries to communalise the Sankaracharya's arrest, in a desperate effort to regain the political ground it lost in the Lok Sabha elections.

THE Sangh Parivar, which is yet to come to terms with the Bharatiya Janata Party's rout in the Lok Sabha elections, seems to be bent upon exploiting the travails of the incarcerated Kanchi Sankaracharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, by communalising and politicising the issue. The arrest came in handy for the Sangh Parivar, which was looking for a sensitive issue, in view of the elections to the State Assemblies of Bihar, Jharkand and Haryana scheduled for early 2005. The Sankaracharya's arrest could, in its reckoning, help a return to Hindutva with renewed vigour.

The absence of spontaneous popular protest of any significant magnitude against the seer's arrest, even in his native Tamil Nadu, did not dampen the spirit of Sangh Parivar leaders. The arrest issue, they knew, could serve the purpose, but only when it was projected not merely as concerning the honour of a mutt head but as having larger implications for Hindus at large. This was evident from the thrust of the statements issued by leaders of all Sangh Parivar constituents: the seer's arrest was "an insult to Hinduism", "a conspiracy against the 850 million Hindu population of the world" and so on. Leaders visited Chennai, not only to meet the Sankaracharya in jail and express their moral support, but to criticise the arrest and make appeals to "save Hinduism" from "the conspiracy of anti-Hindu forces".

In the process of communalising the issue, they ignored the repeated assertions of the Tamil Nadu government that the seer's arrest, made with utmost care, was based on "clinching evidence". Also ignored was the fact that the person murdered, Sankararaman, was a devout Hindu and a follower of the Kanchi Mutt.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary Praveen Togadia set the ball rolling a couple of days after the arrest by alleging at a public meeting in Chennai that the arrest was the result of a "deep conspiracy against Hindu society". He said: "The [arrest] exercise is to finish a Hindu Mutt and Hindu society. Eighty-three crore Hindus have become political orphans." He saw in the arrest an attempt "to capture the minority vote-bank, to attract Muslim votes in Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana". Togadia blamed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi for the arrest. He called them "Siva drohis" and "dharma drohis". "They want to finish all our temples. They want to take over our mutts. They want to take over Hindu organisations," he said.

Togadia questioned the arrest of the seer on Deepavali and asked: "Will an imam or a bishop be arrested on religiously significant days?" Togadia threatened to "intensify" the VHP agitation against the arrest if Jayendra Saraswathi was not released "immediately". Two State-level leaders also spoke in the same vein. While Hindu Munnani leader Ramagopalan, who is generally seen as being close to the Chief Minister, called her "the greatest enemy of Hindus", BJP State general secretary H. Raja complained that she had "betrayed" the Hindu community.

A day later, former Union Minister and senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi visited Chennai. Apparently, his aim was to meet Jayalalithaa, but when the meeting did not materialise, he proceeded to Vellore to meet the seer in prison. Speaking to mediapersons, he said there could be an "ulterior motive" behind the arrest, though he was "not in a position to pinpoint it". He "demanded" that the Sankaracharya be allowed "to go back to the mutt so that all the ritualistic activities of the mutt, especially certain ordained rituals which only a Sankaracharya can do, are performed". Joshi said that he found the Sankaracharya "quite normal" and that he was performing the daily pujas in jail "without any obstruction". National Democratic Alliance convener and former Defence Minister George Fernandes, who also met the Sankaracharya in jail, said that human rights had been violated in "many ways" in the arrest.

After Joshi briefed former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other senior leaders in New Delhi about his meeting with the seer, particularly the "disturbance" caused to the seer's "daily routine involving prayers", the Sangh Parivar stepped up its protests. The BJP announced a "nation-wide movement" against the Tamil Nadu government's action in seeking police custody for Jayendra Saraswathi. A delegation led by Vajpayee and including party president L.K. Advani, Joshi and others, presented a memorandum to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam expressing "anguish and hurt sentiments of crores of Hindus of our country, to whom the Kanchi Peetam is an ancient and greatly revered institution".

The memorandum said: "We hold the Government of Tamil Nadu directly responsible for any ill-treatment meted out to him in police custody." The memorandum, however, made it clear that the BJP did not want to comment on the merits of the case. "Our law, before which all citizens are equal, must take its course," it said. It regretted that "the swamiji is being treated more as a convicted criminal than as just an accused". The leaders also pleaded for evolving "suitable guidelines for dealing with cases in which religious personalities and institutions are involved".

Later in the day, a VHP delegation called on the President and pleaded for an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the case. The BJP and the VHP have demanded that the murder case trial be transferred to another State.

A three-day dharna organised by the BJP to protest against the arrest commenced on November 20 under the leadership of Advani. He said the agitation would continue until Jayendra Saraswathi was released. Vajpayee, who addressed the dharna on its concluding day, said the "movement" against the seer's arrest would continue "until a government that respects all religious leaders is put in place". The principal participants in the dharna's last day included former President R. Venkataraman and former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.

The VHP's call for a nationwide bandh on November 22 was largely ignored in the States, barring the BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, where normal life was disrupted. To keep the powder dry, the VHP has called for a nationwide `satyagraha' on December 5.

Speaking at the BJP National Executive meeting in Ranchi on November 24, Advani identified "the politics of vendetta, confrontation and one-upmanship, and social divisiveness that had marred society in Tamil Nadu in recent times" as the major factors leading to the Sankaracharya's arrest. The other major factor in his perception was "the general climate of pseudo-secularism in the country" in which "maligning the Hindu faith" had become "the sole criterion of one's commitment to secularism". He blamed the "two principal parties in the State [Tamil Nadu]" and "all anti-Hindu forces" for the "unprecedented" event of the arrest of the "spiritual leader" in a criminal case.

Criticising the Sangh Parivar for giving the issue a "communal angle", the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) appealed to the Tamil Nadu government not to give in to any pressures and allow the law to take its course. The Communist Party of India pressed the Tamil Nadu government to uphold the rule of law. The Congress, the DMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) have decried the Sangh Parivar's attempt to communalise the issue and warned against causing any communal flare-up. Although Sonia Gandhi's name was sought to be dragged into the issue by many a Sangh Parivar leader, she declined to comment on the issue on the grounds that the matter was sub judice.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denied the allegations of Sangh Parivar leaders that the arrest was made under pressure from the Centre. When pleas were made by different sections that the seer be treated with the respect that he deserved as the leader of a revered mutt, the Prime Minister wrote to Jayalalithaa requesting her government to "take all such measures as appropriate to ensure the [seer's] physical well-being". He said: "An investigation involving a person of his eminence needs to be conducted with extreme care and consideration. Whereas it is extremely important that due processes of law must not be interfered with and that law must be allowed to take its own course, it is also relevant to note that [the] swamiji keeps indifferent health. His Holiness also enjoys a high religious status and position in society."

Chief Minister Jayalalitha hands over a cheque for Rs.5 lakhs to Padma, wife of Sankararaman, in Chennai. Looking on is Sankararaman's son Anand.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

In her response, Jayalalithaa assured the Prime Minister that the Tamil Nadu government "is taking and will continue to take the utmost care to ensure the physical well-being of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal". After explaining the circumstances that necessitated the arrest of the seer in connection with two cases, one relating to murder and the other a charge of murderous assault, Jayalalithaa stated: "The investigation is being handled by a Special Investigation Team with extreme care and caution to ensure its thoroughness."

She also stated that Jayendra Saraswathi "has been treated with the utmost dignity and consideration befitting his religious status and position in society". Jayalalithaa referred to the report of a team of doctors monitoring his health, according to which "his health condition is quite satisfactory", and the statement of the seer himself before a magistrate that he was being treated well.

INITIALLY all the principal political parties in Tamil Nadu, barring the BJP, gave unqualified support to the Jayalalithaa government's action on the grounds that it was in conformity with the democratic principle that all are equal in the eyes of law. However, doubts persisted about how the Chief Minister, who had always been close to the Kanchi Mutt, could take such a bold action. That was why parties such as the Congress, the PMK and the MDMK insisted that the Chief Minister make a statement on the issue.

Jayalalithaa did not oblige them immediately. Finally, on November 17, almost a week after the arrest, she made a statement in the State Assembly. Jayalalithaa said the arrest of the Sankaracharya was based on "firm evidence of his involvement" in the Sankararaman murder case. She clarified that the government had no intention of taking over the administration of the Kanchi Mutt. She said: "The government has not resorted to this action expecting bouquets for arresting the Sankaracharya or fearing brickbats for not arresting him. The government headed by me has taken the action under the principle that all are equal before the law."

The new-found unity among the non-BJP parties in the State, especially those loyal to the Dravidian ideology, was dented when former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi raised doubts over the motives behind the arrest. Earlier, on November 13, he had described the seer's arrest as an "honest action" by the AIADMK government and congratulated it on taking action despite its "close links" with him. On November 22, however, he asked why there should be "delay in the name of investigation" and said the question arose whether there was "any attempt to settle scores on personal enmity". He said: "As far as [Chief Minister] Jayalalithaa is concerned, there is a background of vindictiveness. Both in [bandit] Veerappan's case and in the case of the Sankaracharya, there has been no proper explanation for the doubts raised." Asked what could be the political motive behind the arrest, he said there were personal issues "between Jayalalithaa and the Sankaracharya". He said: "The way Jayendra Saraswathi was dealt with was too much."

The Chief Minister, in a quick rejoinder, attacked Karunanidhi for his "somersault". She said the move "is typical of the opportunistic and unprincipled politics of Thiru Karunanidhi". Karunanidhi had gone back on his words "because his only mission is to somehow besmirch the fair name of my government", the Chief Minister alleged. She described as "outrageous" his attribution of personal motives to her "for having impartially discharged" her duty. She also refuted his "wild allegation" over the treatment of the seer.

Apparently referring to Karunanidhi's change of stand, Communist Party of India (Marxist) State secretary N. Varadarajan said that democratic organisations such as the DMK should ensure that the opinions they expressed about the Sankararaman murder case did not help those interested in changing its course. He said the dictum that all are equal before law had been established well by the State government's action. Dravidar Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani made a similar appeal to the DMK at a public meeting on November 25.

In a statement later, Karunanidhi said that he had not gone back on his earlier stand that the arrest of the seer was "not wrong". He said he also stood by his statement that all were equal before law and that whoever committed a wrong should be punished. That was also his party's stand, he said. He claimed that he only said that the many issues raised by investigative reports appearing in various magazines could not be ignored.

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