Chennai: On September 3, 2004, a man named Sankararaman, a manager of the Varadarajaperumal temple in Kanchipuram, was brutally murdered. It would have passed off as just one of those senseless crimes, had it not been for an investigative report in Tamil magazine Nakkeeran, linking the murder to the de facto head of Shaivite Hindu tradition and pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti mutt, Jayendra Saraswati.
The report in Nakkeeran, filed by investigative journalist Damodaran Prakash, quoted several letters written by Sankararaman to various publications, authorities and corporates outlining what he claimed to be malpractices in the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, one of the oldest Hindu mutts in the country. Sankararaman’s letters claimed that the mutt had fallen into disrepute ever since the present pontiff, Jayendra Saraswati had taken over.
Sankararaman, was what one would call a serial letter writer, the kind who’d write to any person holding any level of authority to make a point about real or perceived malpractices within a system.
Sankararaman had written several letters to the pontiff also, complaining about a range of issues from misuse of funds to an objection to the pontiff’s travel to foreign lands, especially since the mutt’s tradition says that pontiffs can only walk and shouldn’t cross oceans. The Nakkeeran report suggested that Sankararaman’s frequent letters to corporates and authorities were denting the image of the mutt and were also sowing seeds of doubts in the minds of patrons and sponsors.
From a mild irritation, Sankararaman had developed into a full blown migraine for the pontiff and his establishment. Sankararaman was therefore murdered at the behest of the pontiff the report concluded.
Damodaran Prakash, who broke the story says it created some sort of an earthquake in the collective Hindu psyche of the country.
The pontiff, was a much revered figure and his company sought by political heads and powerful business magnates. The mutt itself, established in the 9th century by Adi Sankaracharya, had the enviable position of being seen as the Vatican of a significant sect of Hinduism.
Jayendra Saraswati himself was widely regarded as a forward looking pontiff thanks to his modern approach to age old problems like untouchability, travelling abroad to spread Hinduism and even mediating in politically charged issues like the Ayodhya Ramjanmabhoomi issue. Charges of impropriety were hitherto unheard of.
Also, the Tamil Nadu Police had seemingly already cracked the case as a few goons had confessed to the murder. But the Nakkeeran report and statements of arrested accused changed all that.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had not long ago been very close to the Kanchi seer herself and had been photographed several times conducting various rituals at the mutt. The opposition DMK, a largely atheist party, espousing rationalist ideologies, planned a massive offensive against Jayalalithaa.
But no one had anticipated the dramatic events of November 11, 2004. It was Diwali and the seer and his junior Vijayendra Saraswati were in Andhra Pradesh’s Mahbubnagar conducting a Trikaal puja.
Tamil Nadu Police officials suddenly flew down and arrested the pontiff from the puja venue. The pontiff was presented in a Kanchipuram court and remanded to police custody. It was a rare case of an ordained priest being arrested for such a serious crime.
The arrest sparked rumours of a possible fallout with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, probably sparked by the pontiffs support to certain elements of the DMK, namely the absconding accused Appu, who according to the police had also helped in Sankararaman’s murder. There were also murmurs of the Tamil Nadu government wanting to take over the prosperous mutt and its properties.
Many even wondered whether a seer would actually resort to such tactics against a ‘small fry’ like Sankararaman. Responding to this very query, Cho Ramaswamy, political analyst, had told Rediff.com that the police would not have acted unless they had sufficient evidence.
Jayalalithaa herself described the arrest as a ‘painful decision’ and that ‘circumstances had compelled her to do her duty’. DMK chief Karunanidhi openly welcomed the arrest, but is said to have told his party workers in private almost in jest, that this was the first time he had seen two Brahmins fighting it out (Jayalalithaa and the seer), something the anti-Brahminical party chief wanted to see play out to its logical conclusion.
The evidence that the police later cited in court, included phone records, bank transaction records, letters and confessional statements. But ever since the arrest, a series of flip flops and delays began.
Within a fortnight of the seer’s arrest, one of the accused, Kathiravan, who was later murdered in 2013, recanted the statement he made in front of a magistrate, saying it was taken under duress.
Former prime minister Atal Bijari Vajpayee, former president P Venkataraman and many leaders from across the political spectrum held a dharna in New Delhi protesting the arrest. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked Jayalalithaa to probe the case with ‘care’. The VHP organised a nationwide bandh and the DMK chief who once welcomed the arrest raised doubts on the manner in which the investigation was progressing.
By the end of the month, the prosecution claimed that the seer had broken down during an interrogation and confessed to the crime; a claim that BJP leader Sushma Swaraj refuted to reporters after she paid a visit to the seer in Vellore prison. In December, Krishnaswamy alias Appu surrendered in Andhra Pradesh.
The seer approached the Supreme Court for bail after being denied by the trial and High Court. The apex court asked for the original case diary of the case to see the evidence before granting any interim relief.
The manager of the Kanchi mutt and the brother of junior seer, Vijayendra Saraswati, were also arrested. The junior seer himself was arrested in January 2005. And in the same month, Jayendra Saraswati secured bail from the Supreme Court, sparking speculation of a rift between the seers.
In October 2005, Jayendra Saraswati managed to get an order from the Supreme Court to transfer the trial out of Tamil Nadu to Pondicherry. The seer also got an order later from the Supreme Court barring Tamil Nadu prosecution lawyers from arguing the case in Pondicherry.
During the trial, several allegations against the seer surfaced. The seer was charged in the case of the assault of a former mutt employee Radhakrishnan. Many allegations of financial irregularities in the mutt surfaced.
Writer Anuradha Raman alleged that the seer had tried to sexually exploit her in 1992. Premkumar, the investigating officer, was eventually suspended for trying to ‘encourage’ one of the accused to run away from custody.
Around 189 witnesses were examined in the trial of which 81 turned hostile. Sankararaman’s wife and son also gave contradictory statements in court. In 2011, the HC stayed the trial briefly after telephone records of the seer allegedly trying to broker a deal with Pondicherry judge Ramaswamy appeared. A different judge was appointed and the case continued.
The DMK government that took over from Jayalalithaa was allegedly ‘soft’ on the trial, but now at the time of the verdict, Jayalalithaa, who was CM when the seer was arrested, is back in power.
N Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, says that the various twists and turns have led to a lack of public trust in the proceedings of the trial, but he maintains that no one can say the seers were persecuted and while police excesses might have been there, it doesn’t seem likely that politicians gave specific instructions regarding the case.
In November Judge CS Murugan fixed the date of verdict as November 27, 2013.