Pandora's box?

Print edition : July 29, 2011

Sri Sathya Sai trust members Srinivasan and Ratnakar at a press conference in April. - R.V.S. PRASAD

Prashanthi Nilayam is at the centre of a storm after Sathya Sai Baba's demise.

THREE months after Sathya Sai Baba's death, his vast empire, built up over nearly half a century around Prashanthi Nilayam in Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, is under intense public scrutiny.

The empire, valued at thousands of crores of rupees, is spread across Anantapur, Hyderabad and Bangalore, metropolises like New Delhi and Mumbai, Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu and centres abroad. The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust (SSSCT), which was founded in 1972, and two associate trusts, the Sri Sathya Sai Medical Trust and the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, make up the empire. By their own reckoning, the annual income of the SSSCT and the Medical Trust ranged between Rs.100 crore and Rs.130 crore in the past four years, while expenditures accounted for Rs.75 to 100 crore.

Considering the extensive network of educational institutions, hospitals, auditoria and drinking water projects and the huge investments made on them, the cash reserves never seemed too large during Sai Baba's lifetime. But it has become an altogether different ball game now, as donations must keep flowing to run these institutions.

A storm broke out when a trove of cash and valuables was unearthed from Yajurveda Mandir, the private quarters of Sai Baba in Prashanthi Nilayam. When members of the Central Trust opened the chamber on June 17, they were in for a surprise. But again, maybe not. Was it the knowledge of the riches that lay inside that made the trustees keep the chamber under lock and key since the Baba's death on March 28?

The decision to open the chamber was taken by the trustees following wild speculation on whether Sai Baba had left any will or named his successor, spiritual or otherwise, and allegations of misappropriation of money. An astonishing amount of Rs.11.56 crore in cash, 98 kilograms of gold, and 307 kg of silver were found in the chamber, to which no one except Sai Baba and his trusted personal assistant, Satyajit, had access.

No will was found in the exercise conducted in the presence of five trustees, two members of the trust's council of management, and two independent witnesses Justice A.P. Mishra, a former judge of the Supreme Court, and Justice R.G. Vaidyanatha, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court. These gifts were ostensibly given directly to Sai Baba by rich devotees and politicians, who had the privilege of meeting him in the chamber. (The wealthy devotees apart, countless others are known to have donated their entire property or lifetime savings to the trust in the belief that they would be put to good use.)

Sai Baba was lifetime chairman of the trust, which had former Chief Justice of India P.N. Bhagvati, former IAS officers, an industrialist and a chartered accountant as members. Until his health began to deteriorate about three years ago, Sai Baba had himself supervised and guided all activities of the trusts. The organisation prided itself for being a cohesive body of members with impeccable credentials, who maintained strict discipline in various activities and accounted for every paisa while rendering the trust's accounts.

But the trust in the set-up suffered a dent once the skeletons started tumbling out of the cupboard. What was always whispered about internal differences between the powerful trust members but never proved turned into a subject of public discussion and even triggered street protests in Puttaparthi.

Hardly a day after the treasure trove came to light, Prashanthi Nilayam was rocked by another strange incident. On the evening of June 18, the police, apparently acting on a tip-off that valuables were being spirited away from Prashanthi Nilayam to Bangalore, began inspecting vehicles at the Kodikonda check post. A van and a car sped past it, but the van was chased, stopped and inspected.

The police found Rs.35 lakh in cash stashed away in the van and arrested the man who was driving it, Harish Anand Shetty. The car, which was following the van, sped away, but the man driving it later returned to the check post and introduced himself as Sohan Shetty, son of former Karnataka Director General of Police K. Umanath Shetty. He demanded the release of Harish and the return of the money.

Harish Anand Shetty himself denied knowledge of the contents of the bags, which he said were handed over to him by S. Chandrashekhar Murthy, the driver of V. Srinivasan, one of the trustees.

Police investigation showed Harish Anand Shetty to be a civil engineer working for Shankarnarayana Constructions, a company engaged to build Sai Baba's mahasamadhi under L&T's supervision. The trust disowned any links with the cash, but R.J. Ratnakar, Sai Baba's nephew and a trustee, said the devotees had donated cash to build the mahasamadhi and handed it over to Shetty.

Ratnakar's statement contradicted what the trust had been saying all along: it never accepted donations in cash after Sai Baba's death, but only financial instruments such as cheques.

The versions of the trustees kept changing. The trustees said that 12 devotees, who donated the cash, wanted it to be placed near the regal chair used by Sai Baba as a token of their reverence. Accordingly, Ratnakar accepted the cash, placed it near the chair, and called Srinivasan to the Yajurveda Mandir before handing it over to the representative of Shankarnarayana Constructions.

Anantapur police lost no time in summoning Ratnakar and Srinivasan to explain the source of the money. Harish Anand Shetty, Sohan Shetty and Chandrashekhar Murthy were produced before a magistrate and remanded in custody.

The police needed answers to questions like where the money came from when the trust had announced that the cash, gold and silver found in Yajurveda Mandir had been deposited in the bank. Some more money was found in Yajurveda Mandir in a second search conducted by officials. Both Srinivasan and Ratnakar were subjected to intensive grilling, which ran into hours, by a team of police led by Penukonda Deputy Superintendent of Police Kolar Krishna.

The investigations gave strength to the suspicion of the government that all was not well with the trust after Sai Baba's demise. The government slapped a notice on the trust seeking within 10 days all information regarding its financial transactions, flow of funds, and accounts of the trust and its affiliates.

The trust said it did not wish to get involved with the finances of the construction of the mahasamadhi since it was a public charitable trust. The law did not permit the trust to undertake religious activities such as the construction of the mahasamadhi, it claimed. This explanation looked weak, considering that two trustees had accepted the money directly from the devotees.

The trust claimed there were no restrictions on people giving donations in cash to a consultancy to be used for the construction of the mahasamadhi. To prove its bona fides, it declared that it had paid Rs.9.75 crore as tax on the income attached to the inventory of valuables found in Yajur Mandir even without a demand note from the Income Tax Department.

On the cash and bullion found in Yajurveda Mandir, Srinivasan said: All I can firmly say is that Baba never kept anything for himself. He deposited the money as fixed deposits in nationalised banks and in Government of India bonds. It was the income accruing from them that was enabling the trust to run numerous educational, health and other charitable institutions.

Considering the huge stake of the devotees in perpetuating the memory of Sai Baba and in keeping his spiritual and physical empire afloat, the trust has to do more to prove that it is following due diligence in all matters. Only then can it keep controversies out of Prashanthi Nilayam and regain the confidence of the lakhs of devotees of the spiritual leader.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor