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A major breakthrough

Saturday 1 January 2005, by VISWANATHAN*S.

The Tamil Nadu Police make new arrests and gather more material evidence that they claim provide the missing links in their investigation into the case in which the Kanchi Sankaracharya has been arrested.

THE prolonged investigation by the Tamil Nadu Police into the murder of Sankararaman, the manager of the Sri Varadarajaswami temple at Kancheepuram on September 3, 2004, appears to have reached a significant stage with the arrest on December 19 of Appu alias Krishnasamy, an affluent contractor-cum-businessman. Appu is one of the three principal accused in the case along with the head of the Kanchi Sankara Mutt, Jayendra Saraswathi, who was arrested on November 11 in Andhra Pradesh and is now in custody as the first accused. Ravi Subramanian, a Chennai-based building contractor, is listed as Accused 2, but has not been apprehended (Frontline, December 17, 2004). In another significant development, the junior acharya of the mutt, Vijayendra Saraswathi, was summoned for interrogation on December 26 at Kancheepuram. He was questioned for 75 minutes.

According to the investigating team, the three hatched a conspiracy to do away with Sankararaman, who had allegedly written a series of letters to the seer deploring the way he had been handling the affairs of the mutt. The police say that the `job’ of carrying out the murder was assigned under the conspiracy to Appu and it was he who hired the contract killers.

Another key person arrested in connection with the case is the manager of the mutt, N. Sundaresa Iyer. He was named as an accused in the case. With his detention the number of persons arrested in the case has risen to 22. The arrest came on December 24, after 15 rounds of interrogation in the last four weeks. The intense interrogation of Sundaresa Iyer, who has been in the service of the mutt for many years, and also Appu, under police custody, related to several aspects of the crime, such as payments to the alleged contract killers and the relationship among the first three accused. The police appear to be confident of arresting Ravi Subramanian soon.

K. Premkumar, who supervises the investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), claimed that Appu’s arrest was a major breakthrough for the prosecution. There is, however, a controversy over the way Appu was brought into the police net. The police claimed that when they surrounded Appu’s hideout close to his sister’s farmhouse near Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh he surrendered and was apprehended. However, Appu’s relatives have reportedly claimed that family members handed him over to the police. According to them, it was a "negotiated, conditional surrender". The "surrender", according to another section, was routed through the Andhra Pradesh Police, because Appu apprehended that he might be killed in an "encounter".

Minutes before the arrest, Appu denied in a television interview that he had any role in the Sankararaman murder. He said: "When I am well off and paying a huge sum as income-tax on my business earnings, where is the need for me to stoop to the level of becoming a killer for the sake of a few lakhs?" The police claim to have obtained a lot of information on several missing links in the investigation.

THE arrest of Appu came as a big relief to the SIT particularly at a time when detractors began saying that the investigation had come to a standstill and lost its direction. There was also criticism that instead of concentrating on the murder case the police had been raking up old complaints about the mutt and needlessly meddling in its affairs causing anguish to its devotees. Some legal experts justified the police action in questioning the mutt officials and probing the mutt’s affairs on the grounds that the suspected involvement of the head of the mutt in the crime would necessarily take the investigation into the mutt. That the investigation has been going on the right track can also be inferred from the grounds under which the Madras High Court on December 8 refused bail to Jayendra Saraswathi.

Jayendra Saraswathi’s petition seeking bail in the case relating to the assault on a former employee of the mutt, S. Radhakrishnan, his wife and an attendant in Chennai on September 20, 2002, in which also the seer has been listed among the accused, was also dismissed at the Principal Sessions Court, Chennai on December 10, on the same grounds. The "materials" the prosecution placed before the courts included the judicial confession (retracted later) of Accused-4, Kadiravan; the statements of two witnesses recorded by a magistrate that the assailants were seen with Jayendra Saraswathi in the mutt; the details of the telephone numbers from which calls were made by the assailants, along with the numbers on which the seer received the calls; the 39 letters written by Sankararaman to Jayendra Saraswathi; and particulars about the transfer of huge sums of money to the alleged killers. The court was also told that the prosecution had documentary proof to show that Jayendra Saraswathi and Ravi Subramanian, were for some time partners in a construction business.

The crux of the prosecution case was that "since Sankararaman was a thorn in the flesh of the petitioner as could be seen from the various letters" produced in the court, Jayendra Saraswathi "was bent upon eliminating his tormenter at any cost". He therefore had a strong motive to commit the crime, according to the prosecution. Jayendra Saraswathi has been charged with conspiracy to murder and "conspiracy can be established by direct evidence or by drawing legal inferences from established circumstances," Justice Balasubramanian said. There was also the question of finding the source of the "large volume of money" allegedly disbursed. The numbers of telephones and their users had also to be checked. Further, there was the need to examine certain women whose names figured in Sankararaman’s letters or those who can give evidence in the case. All this necessitated the extension of the investigation.

The investigating team also reportedly decided to look into the many unresolved cases of suspected murders and suspicious deaths in recent years of persons directly or indirectly connected to the mutt. The State police, therefore, formed four teams that included an all-woman police squad, to assist the team investigating the Sankararaman murder case. The functionaries of the mutt, who include Sundaresa Iyer and Raghu, the brother of Vijayendra Saraswathi, were interrogated. Tamil novelist Anuradha Ramanan, Usha of Srirangam who claims to be an ardent devotee of the seer, Chennai-based auditor and columnist S. Gurumurthy who is also the convener of the Swadesi Jagran Manch, Muralidhara Swamigal and film artist Swarnamalya were among the others interrogated.

Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam published full-page advertisements in newspapers on December 7 to clarify its stand on the allegation against the seer and the mutt. With a quote from Jayendra Saraswathi, which reads, "Nobody is above the law of our country. Let truth prevail and the guilty be punished", the advertisement in defence of the Sankaracharya answers a number of questions raised over the activities and the finances of the mutt. It explains the services of the mutt at the initiative of Jayendra Saraswathi in the fields of education, health care and so on.

AT the political level, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, which have been waging a battle against the seer’s arrest, have apparently run out of steam. With their "Hinduism under threat" slogan having failed to evoke any significant response, the "nation-wide" satyagraha called by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) made little impact, except in Punjab where about 2,000 sadhus courted arrest. All that the BJP could do was to raise the issue in both Houses of Parliament on December 2, amid continuous heckling from almost all parties across the political spectrum.

In the Lok Sabha, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee allowed the party’s Deputy Leader, V.K. Malhotra, to raise the issue, though it "pertains to a State", in view of the sentiments attached to the issue. Although only a couple of members spoke, much of what transpired had to be struck off the records. Malhotra demanded that the case be transferred to another State and that the Centre intervene to ensure proper treatment to the seer.

In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj complained that the seer was ill-treated in custody and that no facility was provided to him to conduct his daily pujas. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, P.G. Narayanan, said the member was "misleading" the House.

The BJP, however, pursued its demand for better treatment to the seer in other fora. A delegation of the leaders of the National Democratic Alliance, headed by former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on December 22 and demanded that Jayendra Saraswathi be moved to "some decent guest house". It also pressed the case for changing the head of the police investigation team. (VHP International Working president Ashok Singhal, some journalists and human rights activists have questioned the credentials of Superintendent of Police K. Premkumar on the grounds that in two cases strictures have been passed against him by the Madras High Court. Describing the comments as totally "unwarranted and baseless", Premkumar said in a statement that certain remarks passed against him by a single Judge of the High Court have, however, been later expunged by a Division Bench.)

The members told mediapersons later that the Prime Minister had assured them that he would do all that was possible under the Constitution and the law. He had also referred to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s assurance to him that the government was treating Jayendra Saraswathi with all dignity and respect due to his status as a religious leader. Vajpayee reportedly said there was a "big difference" between what Jayalalithaa had assured the Prime Minister and the way the investigation was being held.

A memorandum presented to the Prime Minister demanded that the "outrageous raids" against the Sankara Mutt be stopped and that the police be instructed to interrogate any inmate of the mutt only after issuing written summons to them. The delegation included the leader of a team of NDA Members of Parliament, Balbir Punj, who recently visited Jayendra Saraswathi in the Central Prison in Vellore.

In Tamil Nadu, while the BJP conducted meetings demanding better treatment to Jayendra Saraswathi and an end to "harassment" of mutt functionaries and devotees, the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) organised massive demonstrations in different centres of the State to protest against, among other things, the BJP’s attempt to communalise the seer’s arrest.

See online : Frontline

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