THE Madras High Court on December 12 confirmed a lower court's order sentencing fake sanyasi Swami Premananda and his secretary Kamalananda to double life imprisonment, which are to run consecutively.
The charge against Premananda was that behind smokescreen of dispensing bhakti in his ashram near Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu, he raped women devotees and forced those who became pregnant into abortion. He also murdered an engineer, Ravi, who stood up to his venal activities. Premananda, a Tamil of Indian origin, hails from Matalai in Sri Lanka, where he ran an ashram. In the wake of the anti-Tamil pogrom by the Sinhalese on the island in July 1983, he came to Tamil Nadu as a refugee with some Tamil girls and women. He started an ashram near Viralimalia in Pudukottai district, which had modern buildings, air-conditioned cottages and an orphanage. About 100 boys and girls lived in the ashram, most of whom had been orphaned in the mass killings of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Politicians and several foreigners became his devotees. They were mesmerised by his production of vibhuti (sacred ash) by sleight of hand. He wore saffron clothes and had a kinky hairdo. When the girls reached puberty, he raped them, hoodwinking them into believing that he had divine powers.
Two women residents of the ashram, Sureshkumari and Latha, escaped the ashram, came to Chennai in November 1994, and spoke to the press about the activities in the ashram. The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took up their cause. The police filed a case against Premananda and others. Tamil newspapers published the sordid tales of torture, rape and so forth in the ashram under the veneer of pujas and bhajans. On August 20, 1997, Pudukottai Sessions Judge R. Bhanumathi convicted and sentenced Premananda to two consecutive life terms and slapped on him a fine of Rs.66.40 lakhs for multiple rape and murder. He and the other accused filed an appeal in the Madras High Court (Frontline, September 19, 1997 and December 16, 1994).
Justices P. Shanmugam and M. Chockalingam of the High Court, who confirmed the sentences on Premananda and Kamlananda, said: "The proceedings are unique and have shown the vulnerability of the orphans, especially the girls, and the need for their protection. They have revealed to what extent persons professing to be spiritual gurus could screen their true profiles." Justices Shanmugam and Chockalingam, however, reduced life imprisonment given to three other accused, Balendran, Nandakumar and Satish Kumar to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment. They were punished for culpable homicide. The Bench confirmed the sentence of two years and seven months' rigorous imprisonment handed down to Chandra Devi, a doctor and the wife of Kamalananda, who helped abort the foetuses of some of the rape victims. The Judges reduced the fine imposed by the Sessions Court Judge from Rs.66.3 lakhs to Rs.61.3 lakhs and said the money should be released to the rape victims from a joint bank account that Premanada had with Divya Mata, who is absconding.
The Judges praised the efficient work done by the police in investigating the crime and the roles played by the AIDWA and the press, and Sessions Judge Bhanumathi.
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