Crime

Murder and mystery

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Jayendra Saraswathi, the senior Sankaracharya of Kanchi Mutt, arriving at the Sessions Court in Puducherry, in connection with the Sankararaman murder case. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Vijayendra Saraswathi, the junior acharya, outside court. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Sankararaman.

Sankararaman's widow Padma and son Anandha Sharma coming out of the court in Puducherry after filing a petition, on April 10, 2012. Photo: T. Singaravelou

S. ANANDHA SHARMA, now 28 years old, remembers clearly what happened nine years ago on that fateful day. He was doing his postgraduation in Sanskrit at Presidency College, Chennai. He rang up his father, A. Sankararaman, in the morning and told him that he would not be coming home to Kancheepuram, about 85 km from Chennai, to celebrate Krishna Jayanthi. Sankararaman insisted that his son come home and spend time with the family. Anandha Sharma stood his ground and said, “No.” But the father firmly told his son, “You are coming home,” and hung up. That evening, Anandha Sharma received a phone call from his uncle, who said, “Your father is not well. Come home immediately.” But Anandha Sharma’s sister, Mythreyi, took the phone from her uncle and told her brother, “Somebody has hacked our father.”

On that day, September 3, 2004, Sankararaman, manager of Sri Varadarajaswamy temple in Kancheepuram, was hacked to death in his office on the temple premises by a group of persons. On November 11, 2004, Deepavali day, Jayendra Saraswathi, the high-profile pontiff of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, was arrested by the Tamil Nadu Police late in the night from the guest house of a textile mill in Mahabubnagar, Andhra Pradesh (“Behind the arrest”, Frontline, December 3, 2004). The police said Sankararaman had become a thorn in the flesh of the Sankaracharya: he wrote letters to the mutt head in his own name and under a pseudonym complaining about financial irregularities in the mutt, deploring the way the pontiff had been handling the mutt’s affairs, and scuttling his trip to China by filing a case in the Madras High Court. The arrest caused a nationwide sensation. The police named Jayendra Saraswathi and the junior pontiff, Vijayendra Saraswathi, as accused number one, or A-1, and A-2 respectively in the Sankararaman murder case. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was in power in the State then and AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa was the Chief Minister.

The case saw several twists and turns, and the trial dragged on for nine years. On October 26, 2005, the Supreme Court accepted Jayendra Saraswathi’s petition seeking the transfer of the trial to a court outside the State. Taking “into consideration the entire facts and circumstances of the case and the material on record”, a Bench comprising Chief Justice of India R.C. Lahoti and Justice G.P. Mathur said it had “no hesitation in holding that the petitioner and the co-accused have a reasonable apprehension that they will not get justice in Tamil Nadu”. They ordered the shifting of the case from the Principal Sessions Court in Chengalpet near Chennai to the Principal District and Sessions Court in Puducherry, a Union Territory. The case saw 83 out of 189 prosecution witnesses turning hostile. The upshot was that Ravi Subramanian, the lone approver, also turned hostile.

Four judges presided over the case. Sixteen of the accused, including N. Sundaresan, manager of the mutt, and M.K. Raghu, brother of the junior acharya, were detained under the Goondas Act. The High Court quashed the detention of 15 of them. It also set aside the freezing of the bank accounts of the mutt and its trusts.

On November 27, C.S. Murugan, the Principal Sessions Judge in Puducherry, delivering his judgment in a packed court hall, acquitted all the 24 accused, including the two Sankaracharyas and Kathiravan (A-6), who was murdered in Chennai in March 2013, because “the motive for the commission of murder is not proved”. “The act of conspiracy is not proved” because A-5 and A-6 showed that they were elsewhere when the conspiracy was allegedly hatched, the judge said. Padma, wife of Sankararaman, and Mythreyi, his daughter, who identified the accused during the identification parade in the Central Prison, Chennai, failed to support the prosecution case, the judge said. The prosecution, Justice Murugan ruled, failed to prove the “payments [made] to the murderers and hirelings” and it failed to “identify the accused”. The two pontiffs who were in the court looked relieved. Jayendra Saraswathi did not talk to the press since he was reportedly observing a vow of silence.

The judge criticised the way the police had conducted the investigation. The observation of the Supreme Court when it granted bail to Jayendra Saraswathi that K. Prem Kumar, Superintendent of Police, “took undue interest and active participation much beyond what is required under the law during the investigation” was proved by the prosecution witnesses, Justice Murugan said. (Prem Kumar was then supervising the investigation. He died subsequently.) “Due to the intervention of Sri Prem Kumar, S.P., in the investigation, a fair and proper investigation was not done by the chief investigating officer [prosecution witness 189, S.P. Sakthivelu],” Justice Murugan said. The judge noted that “the chief investigating officer failed to do independent investigation and further, failed to place all the material collected by some of the investigating officers other than [those] who assisted him”.

When this reporter met Anandha Sharma at his home in Kancheepuram two days after the verdict, he appeared calm and collected. He said the verdict was “shocking” and that he “did not expect” that all the accused would be acquitted. “If they had not committed the murder, who else [would have done it]?” he asked. Eighty-three out of 189 prosecution witnesses had turned hostile, he pointed out. “I do not know what the other witnesses testified. It seems only the testimony of the witnesses who turned hostile have been taken into account,” he remarked. He was not sure whether his family could appeal against the verdict. “Some people say that we can appeal and others say we cannot. If the government goes on appeal, we will cooperate with it,” he said.

Asked why his mother and sister failed to identify the accused before the court after identifying them at an identification parade conducted by the police, Anandha Sharma said they were threatened during the court recess. He alleged that somebody shouted: “If you want daughter and son, who is at Chennai, to be alive, sing a different tune.” He said his mother and sister could identify a couple of the accused at the identification parade as some of them had come home around 4-30 p.m. on September 3, 2004, about an hour before the murder had taken place, and asked his mother where Sankararaman was.

Anandha Sharma has completed the five-year Sironmani course in Sanskrit from the Madras Sanskrit College and holds an M.A. degree in Sanskrit, but he is unemployed. Since he completed his Sironmani after finishing his eighth standard, the Education Department has declared him ineligible for the teacher post. His family has used up both the solatium of Rs.5 lakh given by Jayalalithaa in 2004 and Sankararaman’s provident fund contribution.

Prosecution case

The prosecution case was that Sankararaman replied to letters addressed to the temple and looked after temple-related cases. His father, Ananthakrishna Sharma, was a devotee of Chandrashekarendra Saraswathi, or “Paramacharya”, for about 50 years and had worked in the Kanchi Mutt. After the passing away of the Paramacharya in January 1994, Jayendra Saraswathi, who was the junior Sankaracharya, took over the mutt’s administration. Sankararaman wrote a series of letters, both under his name and the pseudonym of Ja. Ra. Somasekhara Ganapadigal, to Jayendra Saraswathi complaining about his administration of the mutt and alleging instances of “financial irregularities” and nepotism. The police called him a compulsive petition writer. Sankararaman questioned the creation of several trusts by the mutt and even complained to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department. Sankararaman scuttled the pontiff’s plan to visit China by filing a writ petition in the High Court, quoting the Hindu tradition that barred sanyasins from crossing the sea. Jayendra Saraswathi dropped his China plan but was chagrined.

Sankararaman also threatened to distribute pamphlets against the Sankaracharya during the congregation of pilgrims in Kumbakonam, a temple town in Tamil Nadu, on March 6, 2004, at the time of mahamaham, a Hindu festival celebrated every 12 years. On August 30, 2004, in a letter to Jayendra Saraswathi, he pointed out that a person named Ja. Ra. Somasekhara Ganapadigal had written several letters to the mutt complaining about the method of its functioning but no reply had been forthcoming. Thus, the antagonism between the two deepened.

Around 5-45 p.m. on September 3, 2004, two persons entered Sankararaman’s office armed with aruvals (sickles) and attacked him, causing injuries on his head, neck, right ear and back of the head. He died on the spot. The attackers fled and joined others who were waiting outside the temple and sped away on three motorcycles. Sankararaman’s two colleagues, Kuppusamy and Duraikannu, were present at the scene when the murder took place.

Sakthivelu, then S.P., Enforcement, Kancheepuram, was appointed the chief investigating officer in the case. He took over the investigation from S. Davidson Devasirvatham on September 14, 2004. On November 11, 2004, after getting information that Jayendra Saraswathi, Ravi Subramanian and K.G. Krishnasamy alias Appu (A-5) were in Mahabubnagar, a police team, including Davidson Devasirvatham, Prem Kumar and Sakthivelu reached Mahabubnagar. Sakthivelu arrested the pontiff around 10 p.m. Jayendra Saraswathi was produced the next day before Judicial Magistrate-I, Kancheepuram, for remand.

Late on the night of November 25, 2004, the Jayalalithaa government replaced Davidson Devasirvatham, S.P., Kancheepuram district, with Prem Kumar, Cuddalore S.P. They were the two important leaders of the 29-member team set up to investigate the murder of Sankararaman.

In their charge sheet, the police named 24 persons as the accused. They included Jayendra Saraswathi (A-1), Vijayendra Saraswathi (A-2), N. Sundaresan, mutt manager (A-3), M.K. Raghu, brother of Vijayendra Saraswathi (A-4), Krishnasamy (A-5), and Kathiravan (A-6). The police said that in pursuance of the criminal conspiracy hatched by these six persons, Krishnasamy, Kathiravan and Ravi Subramanian procured A-7 to A-12, who admitted to the conspiracy and accordingly committed the murder of Sankararaman. Those accused in the case included five persons (A-16 to A-20), who surrendered before the 15th Metropolitan Magistrate, George Town, Chennai, on October 27, 2004. The police said these five surrendered “to save the real accused and screen the real evidence”.

The first six accused were charged with offences under Section 120B (1) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), that is, criminal conspiracy, read with Section 302 of the IPC (murder). The various accused were charged with offences under different sections such as Section 120B (1), Section 302, Section 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence, or giving false information to screen offender), Section 205 (false personation for purpose of act or proceeding in suit or prosecution), Section 213 (taking gift, etc., to screen an offender from punishment) and Section 34 (acts done by several persons for furtherance of common intention).

Justice Murugan said: “This court holds that the prosecution failed to prove the charges for the offences under the Section 120B(1) read with 302 of the IPC against A-1 to A-6.” The judge said: “Absolutely no scrap of evidence is adduced or produced by the prosecution [that] the alleged conspiracy was conveyed to A-2 and A-4 at any point of time and [that] they accepted [it] and acted upon [it].” He further asserted that “no reliable or acceptable evidence is on record” to corroborate or prove the plea of conspiracy.

In his 253-page judgment, he said the prosecution had failed to prove the motive for the murder; the conspiracy resulting in murder; commission of the murder; the presence of murderers before and after the murder at the place of its occurrence; any payments made to the murderers and hirelings; and the identity of the accused.

“Under such circumstances, this court holds that the plea of the prosecution that there is overwhelming circumstantial evidence to find the accused guilty for the offences framed cannot be accepted and the same is not sustainable in law,” Justice Murugan ruled.

He explained that the motive for the commission of the murder had not been proved since Padma (prosecution witness 1) and Anandha Sharma (prosecution witness 3) had failed to support the prosecution case. Further, the chief investigating officer had “admittedly failed” to investigate the letter called Final Notice, written by Sankararaman on August 30, 2004, which was said to be the “letter of motive” (for the murder).

“The act of conspiracy is not proved” since A-5 and A-6 “were elsewhere at the time of the conspiracy”, the judge observed.

The ocular witnesses of the crime, such as Ganesh, Duraikannu and Kuppusamy, did not support the prosecution case; they had turned hostile. The prosecution witnesses examined to prove the presence and identity of A-7 to A-12 before and after the occurrence of the crime, and their presence near the place of its occurrence also turned hostile.

Eighty-three witnesses had turned hostile, the judge said. He underscored the fact that “no incriminating evidence” was available with them against the accused. Witnesses did not identify the weapons used in the crime. “The payment of gratification to murderers A-7 to A-12 and the fake accused A-16 to A-20 are not proved.” The two advocates (prosecution witnesses 85 and 179), who caused the surrender of the fake accused (A-16 to A-20) failed to support the prosecution case. The judge was pained that “during the investigation, some of the witnesses were planted”, some threatened to give statements under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and some of the accused (A-6 and A-7) were kept in illegal custody.

With the verdict out, the murder of Sankararaman promises to remain a mystery and a whodunit.

Low-key reception

On November 30, 2013, it was a low-key reception that awaited Jayendra Saraswathi when he returned to the mutt in Kancheepuram at 8-30 p.m. Subramanian Swamy and V. Chandralekha, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, were present at the reception. Vijayendra Saraswathi had returned to the mutt from Puducherry on November 27 itself.

Jayendra Saraswathi visited the Murugan temple in Tiruchendur in southern Tamil Nadu, and then went to Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh to worship at the Venkateswara temple there before returning to Kancheepuram.

At the entrance to the mutt, a hoarding was put up by the Anmeega Makkal Kazhagam (People’s Movement for Piety) with a quote from Subramania Bharathi’s poem in Tamil which translates to “devious conspiracies will engulf dharma but dharma will ultimately prevail”. Sri Kumaraswamy, the State president of the Kazhagam, described the judgment as “a victory for dharma”. A.B. Gowrisankar, another leader of the Kazhagam, said they were certain that “we will get justice because the case was transferred to the Puducherry court”. M.A. Ravi, a former Left party leader, was waiting to receive the pontiff with sacred ash smeared on his forehead. Ravi was the Communist Party of India’s Kancheepuram town secretary.

Subramanian Swamy said the judgment did not come as a surprise. He demanded that Jayalalithaa come in person and apologise to the Sankaracharyas. An appeal against the verdict would be futile, he opined.

Outside his home, Anandha Sharma told reporters that his father did not die a normal death. “Deep injuries were inflicted on his body. Those who killed him will not be spared in God’s court,” he said.

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