Kanchipuram temple manager Sankararaman was killed by hitmen inside the Varadaraja Perumal temple seven years ago. All the key witnesses in the case have turned hostile. Ashish Khetan & Sai Manish investigate an unholy nexus
THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Sankararaman murder case has now been made even murkier by the emergence of a sensational CD that allegedly contains phone conversations between the judge conducting the murder trial and main accused Jayendra Saraswati, spiritual head of the Kanchi Math. Proceedings in the case were stayed for eight weeks by the Madras High Court on 25 August on the basis of this CD after a writ petition was filed by an advocate in the high court. The Madras HC has also directed the Registrar-Vigilance to launch an inquiry into the audio CD. TEHELKA has been in possession of the alleged recording, apart from other conversations, for the past two months,and has submitted a copy of the CD to a forensic lab for verification (see transcripts). At the time of going to press, lab results into the veracity of the tapes had not been received.
TEHELKA also carried out a detailed ground investigation into the conduct of the prosecution and found evidence of unholy collusion between the accused and crucial witnesses who held the key to proving the holy seer’s guilt in court. If this could be any evidence of how the court proceedings have progressed, the victim’s wife, who was a crucial eyewitness and had identified the accused before the police, also turned hostile in the trial court.
The seemingly solid case built by the police is now on the verge of collapse. Even as the most recent allegations pertain to the Puducherry sessions court judge T Ramaswami, just a few months ago even the special public prosecutor, N Devadoss, was alleged to have deliberately subverted the course of justice by declaring witnesses hostile at will and weakening the case built by investigating officer (IO) SP Sakthivelu.
Sakthivelu himself stated in his affidavit in the Madras HC that something was rotten with the public prosecutor: “After I retired in March 2006, to my shock, many of the witnesses were treated as hostile after being asked out-of-context questions. On enquiry, I came to know that the prosecution is in collusion with Jayendra Saraswati. At no point was my assistance sought.” Instead, malicious news reports were ‘planted’ in a section of the local media claiming he was evading court summons. Sakthivelu, while stating that the prosecution did not even seek his assistance, mentioned in his affidavit, “Till 14 March 2011 no summons were issued to me. But in the press it was reported that I was evading summons and the police was in a hurry to finish the case.”
He then sought a writ of mandamus, a judicial remedy in which a higher court orders a subordinate court to do its statutory duty in case it is convinced that the lower court has failed to so.
NEUTRAL OBSERVERS believe that the prosecution seemed to have a clear political sanction from the ruling DMK regime since 2006 to distort the case in a way that it favours the Shankaracharya even though the party is ideologically anti-thetical to Brahmanical order. “The case was registered during the tenure of Jayalalithaa as chief minister. Only after the change of government was the case taken up for trial and official witnesses treated as hostile,” said Sakthivelu in his affidavit. Between 2006 and 2011, the entire case built by the police was torn to shreds as key witnesses one after another turned hostile.
According to the prosecution, the motive of the murder was to prevent the exposure of sleaze, sex orgies, wife donation and corruption within the Math. The spiritual leader is so powerful that the first IO of this sensational case, C Prem Kumar, who filed the first chargesheet, listed the presiding deity of the temple where the murder happened as the only eyewitness. And in a bizarre moment in judicial history, a magistrate waited in court on a national holiday (Eid of 2005) to accept the chargesheet.
TEHELKA spoke to various investigators who pored over their personal handwritten investigation notes to reconstruct the motive, the conspiracy and the modus operandi of the murder. In addition, TEHELKA accessed operative portions of the testimonies of the crucial witnesses. We even tried speaking to the Public Prosecutor but he refused to talk about the witnesses whom he had branded hostile in court.
Sankararaman, who was the manager at the Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram, was found in a pool of blood, hacked to death with a sharp-edged weapon, in the temple office just before sunset on a cloudy day (3 September 2004) at 5.45 pm. Heavy rains after the murder washed away all footprints. At the house of Sankararaman, the police recovered several letters written by him to the pontiff and other incriminating documents and photographs of illegal activities within the Math. The police also learnt from questioning Sankararaman’s wife Padma and his daughter that some strangers had visited the house the previous day, just hours before the murder. Both of them retracted their versions before the court.
Opposing the bail plea of the Shankaracharya before the Supreme Court in 2005, Sakthivelu gave details of the contents of the letters allegedly written by the murdered Sankararaman that could have been the motive for killing him. (The actual letters had been submitted to the sessions court). On 26 June 2003, the temple manager had written to the Math management alleging the seer’s relationships with various women.
“In the past, they had a sexual relationship with one A (names deleted) and B’s wife, which I had brought to the notice of all. Now I am going to present new revelations. You all know C, who is Jayendra’s keep… The whole town knows about their relationships. They used to have sex in the hut itself. In fact, they used to have sex in front of her husband, who did not mind. Subsequently, another interesting incident had taken place. At that time D was with his assistant, in the room next to Jayendra’s. The door was half open. He heard some noise, and saw unusual scenes. D was shocked. Jayendra shouted to switch off the lights but they didn’t bother.”
Sankararaman’s letters also alleged that Raghu, Jayendra Saraswati’s brother, would get women married to innocent persons and then have illicit relations with them. In fact, a Tamil columnist named Anuradha Ramanan described how the seer had sex with another woman in her presence and then walked out to distribute prasadam to his devotees. The murdered man had also written under the pseudonym Somasekara Ganapadigal about various dubious property transactions, worried as he was about the Math getting a bad name as a result of the Shankar charaya hobnobbing with politicians and real estate interests.
Key Witnessess And their Retractions
From the victim’s wife to the temple employees, many did an about-turn after their initial statements
Identified killers who had visited her home the day before murder. Said warning letters sent to seer were signed by her murdered husband
Says police tutored her and her daughter to identify the photos. She said she could not identify whether the signatures on the hate letters were those of her husband’s
Class 4 Employee Of Temple
Says he saw assailants fleeing from the temple after the murder. Even identified two photographs shown to him by the police
Declared as the first hostile witness after saying that he could not make out the faces of the assailants as he had witnessed their escape from a distance of 200 metres
Said that Jayendra Saraswati had offered him Rs 50 lakh to kill Sankararaman because of the mental agony he was causing the seer. Also admitted to engaging Appu and Kathiravan
Retracted saying the police had held him, his wife and child for 15 days and got the confession at gun point.
Bhaskaran and Natrajan
Workers at a shop near Temple
Both admitted to seeing men on motorbikes and two men with sickles in their hand on the evening of the murder
Bhaskaran retracted saying he had not come to work on the day of the murder. Natrajan said he only heard about the murder and did not see anyone
Puja shop owner inside The temple
Said that he saw attackers flee across the courtyard from the office of Sankararaman
Retracted saying he was inside his shop and did not see or hear anyone until someone came and told him a murder had taken place. Said he does not remember signing any statement before the magistrate
Said that she had seen men outside the temple during the time of the murder
Said that she signed the statement before the magistrate without reading it since she had extremely poor vision. Denied ever seeing anyone
Said he went to meet the Shankaracharya along with Appu. Also admitted he heard the seer say that Sankararaman was causing him mental agony with threat letters
Later retracted everything, only for the police to discover he had been counselled by nine lawyers from the seer’s side for over seven hours during five days
The case had wide-ranging repercussions, not just for the politics of Tamil Nadu, but resounded on the national stage too, with then BJP president LK Advani lashing out at the Jayalalithaa government for framing the seer in a false case.
Sankararaman’s grievances were purportedly rooted in spirituality, as he believed that if the head of such a revered Math could not live the austere life of a sanyasi, like the previous Shankaracharyas, it would bring great misfortune on the Kanchi Math and all his devotees. The police established that Sankararaman had sent a letter titled ‘Last Warning’ on 30 August 2004, five days before his murder on 3 September, asking the seer to step down, otherwise “I will seek judicial recourse to expose you and your successors’ illegal and immoral activities.”
Sankararaman’s wife Padma testified before the magistrate, and later in the Puducherry court on 2 April 2009, that the letters recovered by the police bore her husband’s signature. However, just a few months down the line on 4 August, appearing before the court again, she did a volte face, refusing to recognise the signature of her husband. Speaking to TEHELKA, the public prosecutor in the case Devadoss says, “I have not treated her as hostile. Her statement during the chief examination (where she identified the signatures) still holds true.” But Devadoss fails to explain how such a blatant retraction by the complainant herself has not attracted the ‘hostile witness’ tag.
Sankararaman had written to the Math alleging the seer’s illicit relations with various women
After establishing the motive, the police moved on to nail the murderers and unravel the plot. Call records obtained by the police show that upon receipt of the ‘last warning’, the pontiff gave a call at 5 am on 1 September 2004 to a realtor named Ravi Subramanium, who was associated with the Math. Ravi Subramanium then got in touch with the other two conspirators. One was Krishnaswamy alias Appu, known to be a notorious gangster. The second was a rowdy named Kathiravan, a trusted aide of Appu, who could hire assassins to do the job. The three allegedly met with Sri Jayendra Saraswati and his aide Sundaresa Iyer (also among the 24 accused) in the private room of the seer inside the Math.
The transcript of the alleged conversation that took place between the judge and the seer
Alleged Negotiator: Hello. Sir, are you there?
Person 1 (Alleged To Be The Judge): Yes.
Negotiator: This is such a big headache, sir. Were you sleeping? I am so sorry to wake you up.
Person 1: No, I am not.
Woman’s Voice: Hello
Person 2 (alleged to be the Shankaracharya): Hello. How are you?
Negotiator: Look sir, Periyavar (Shankaracharya) is speaking.
Judge: Yes…Yes I am doing good. Just a small problem…(audio unclear)
Person 2: I will finish it off in one week. I will make the full payment within one week.
Person 1: Ok…but that (audio unclear).
Person 2: I will pay the rest of the money in a week. I will give the amount all at once.
Person 1: But I too…
Person 2 (Interrupting): I did not have this much cash in hand and had to borrow the money to make the first part of the payment.
Person 1: Ok, ok.
Person 2: Please be patient till then and the full amount will be paid within that time.
Person 1: I will wait. There is no problem in that. But you should also…
(Person 2 Interrupts )
Woman: (talking to the alleged negotiator): Why don’t you tell him what you told me?
Woman (talking to Person 2): This man is not talking straight to you, Periyavar. He was telling me just before I dialled the phone that you should state clearly whether you can pay or not. He asked me for the exact date for coughing up the cash and whether you will honour your word. But now he is changing his stance and adopting a conciliatory approach while talking to you.
Woman (speaking to the negotiator): Why don’t you talk in a direct manner?
Negotiator:(mumbles to the woman): It’s ok. Why are you repeating what I told you? One week is fine.
Woman: Ok, Periyavar.
Person 2: Ok.
Woman: Periyavar, should I keep down the phone?
Person 2: Yes.
In a statement before the judicial magistrate, Ravi Subramanium, who was one of the main accused but later turned approver, said, “On 1 September 2004, after 7 pm, Appu, Kathiravan and I went to meet Jayendra (Saraswati). Sundaresan (the former manager of the Math) was also with him then. Jayendra gave the letter containing the words ‘Last Warning’ received from Sankararaman to Appu and asked him to do away with him so that he would not give him any more trouble. Jayendra even offered to give Rs 50 lakh for this purpose and asked Sundaresan to give the amount to me. The junior seer (Vijayendra Saraswati) asked Raghu to make arrangements for payment of the money. On the way, Appu asked Kathiravan to finish off Sankararaman. On 3.9.2004 around 6.15 p.m., when I was with Appu in the Hotel Chola, Kathiravan came there and informed me that Sankararaman has been murdered. I gave Rs 10 lakh to Appu”.
However, Ravi Subramanium turned hostile in court. He alleged that he had agreed to become an approver as the police had taken his wife and child into custody and held them at gunpoint.
The IO Sakthivelu too had raised objections when the man who had turned approver was declared a hostile witness by the public prosecutor. He said, “If Ravi Subramanium turned hostile, then immediate action should have been initiated against him under Section 308 of the CrPC. Whenever a witness turns hostile, the government would take action against him immediately. But in this case the present government (DMK) did not proceed against them.”
PADMA HAD earlier stated that Ravi Subramanium, Kathiravan and a hired local goon named Rajni Chinna visited their house a day before the murder, asking for her husband. Since Sankararaman was not at home, the men went back. Next day, Chinna returned with three other men, who were told by Padma that he was at his office. Padma identified Subramanium, Kathiravan and Chinna from the photographs shown by the police.
When Padma backtracked, telling the court that she does not remember identifying the accused ever and that she had been tutored by the police to identify them, the police was left with no leg to stand on. Nor was she the only one. Some of the witnesses were extremely crucial but were let off immediately after their statements in court without any crossexamination by either the public prosecutor or the judge. (see box for testimonies and retractions)
After the murder, the police established that Rajni Chinna called up Kathiravan to tell him that the job had been done from a PCO booth near Walajabad in Kanchipuram district. All bikes were later dumped at various locations across Chennai. The police have produced bank records to prove that payment was made from a charitable association of the Math to a Ravi Subramanium-linked firm named Jay Builders. However, in a counter-affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, the pontiff denied that the Math had any account in ICICI Bank.
Jayendra asked Appu to do away with Sankararaman so he would not give him any trouble
Now the police laid a trap to nab the culprits. They called up Sundaresan to come to the police station with bank records of the Math. Once in the station, Sundaresan Iyer was told that if he could convince the murderers to surrender, then the police would probe the Kanchi Math and its employees no further. On 20 September 2004, five men surrendered before the police and confessed to murdering Sankararaman. All five turned out to be fake, as the police discovered that one of them — a man named Dhil Pandian — was in the central prison in September 2004, when the murder took place. The police interrogated them further and established that a sum of Rs 20 lakh was paid by Ravi Subramanium to Appu and Kathiravan to stage proxy surrenders. Ravi himself confessed to receiving a sum of that amount from the Math. The police also found a voucher signed by Sundaresan for an amount of Rs 5 lakh, which was collected by Ravi to pay Kathiravan.
THE POLICE then took Kathiravan to the judicial magistrate, where he disclosed the sums received. In addition, he made the following confession: “On the invitation of Ravi Subramanium, my employer (Appu) and myself went to the Math on 1 September 2004. We were in the Sankara Math during 7 pm to 9 pm. When we were there, Ravi Subramanium, manager Sundaresan and the pontiff were there. At that time, the pontiff told us that since Sankararaman filed the case against him and wrote anonymous letters, it was not possible to bear the torture any longer and therefore he should be killed the same day.” Based on Kathiravan’s disclosure and all the evidence they had collected, the police moved swiftly to arrest Jayendra Saraswati from Mehboobnagar in Andhra Pradesh. Soon others, including Sundaresan and the junior seer Sri Vijayendra Saraswati, were arrested.
But as with other witnesses and accused, Kathiravan too did a somersault when presented before the court on 24 November 2004. The police say that during a span of five days, even though Kathiravan claimed he had only met his sister, as many as nine lawyers, many of whom were the seer’s counsel, met Kathiravan and spent over seven hours in consultations with him.
The CD, made public by Tehelka, points to a nexus between the judge and the accused
In the murder case, it was not just the conspirators and assailants who kept on backtracking. As narrated above, some of the most important witnesses present in and around the scene of the crime at the Varadaraja Perumal temple retracted their versions.
It is therefore evident that the police find their seemingly substantive investigation being reduced to naught by the laxity of the public prosecutor. Innumerable witnesses have turned hostile without being bothered about the legal consequences of changing their versions during the DMK regime in Tamil Nadu. The latest CD, which has been made public now by TEHELKA, only deepens the suspicions of the police about the possible collusion between the prosecution, the judge and the accused to deny justice to the victim of a gruesome murder within the premises of a temple.
The prosecution case is clear — Sankararaman was constantly threatening to expose the activities of the seer, which eventually led to his gruesome murder. But when serious aspersions are being cast on the judge and the public prosecutor, the question really is: Will the scared and scarred family of a poor Brahmin who devoted his life to the Kanchi Math ever get justice?
Ashish Khetan is Editor, Investigations with Tehelka.
Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.