IT was a rare sight. Activists, women groups and general public were busy distributing sweets and hailing the police and the judiciary. The Pudukottai district sessions judge, R. Bhanumathi, in a landmark judgement, sentenced self-styled Swami Premananda to life imprisonment for two terms (32 years) and levied on him a fine of Rs 67.30 lakh for various criminal offences, including rape and murder.
Premananda alias Prem-kumar alias Ravi, also known as Trichy Sai Baba and Tiger Swamy (an obvious reference to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) is a Sri Lankan Tamil. He ran a successful ashram in Matale district in Lanka's central hill region. With the ethnic violence in 1983, the swami shifted base to Tamil Nadu.
He started out in a small building on the outskirts of Trichy and started daily worship sessions. In a carefully stage-managed public relations exercise, he projected himself as a gifted clairvoyant who could predict the future of individuals as well as institutions. This brought powerful businessmen, smugglers and other underworld dons in hordes to his ashram.
Their donations left him with enough money to buy a sprawling 250-acre campus at Viralimalai in Pudukottai district, about 20 km from Trichy. A bunch of Europeans, particularly Germans, landed here seeking the "spiritual guidance of the swamiji". The presence of white men added a halo and glamour to the ashram. Many cottages were constructed and a residential school was also started. The mornings Premananda spent in performing "miracles"—producing a linga from his fist; sacred ash and kumkum from his body; and curing the ills of those who came to him.
With the AIADMK coming to power in 1991, the ashram gained enormous political clout. Apart from various ministers, Jayalalitha's foster sister, Sasikala Natarajan, and her family were regular visitors here. However, few knew about the goings-on in the ashram—seduction, molestation, rape and debauchery—till November 1994. The issue was brought to public attention by the women's wing of the CPI(M) when some of the inmates managed to escape and reach the local office of the Left party.
Despite the then government's reluctance to intervene, various women's groups pursued the matter relentlessly, forcing the police to act. On November 19, 1994, Premananda was arrested and remanded to judicial custody the next day. His associate Kamalananda and his wife Dr Chandra Devi were also lodged in the Trichy Central Jail for abetting sex-related crimes and for performing crude medical termination of pregnancies of their victims. Subsequent investigations revealed the murder of a Sri Lankan engineer, Ravi, who had opposed the activities at the ashram. He was tortured for a few days before being killed. The police exhumed his body on November 24, 1994. The same day, it also seized documents, fixed deposit receipts worth Rs 75 lakh and details of other investments. They found that Premananda was among the top tax defaulters of that region, with arrears of Rs 1.5 crore.
Even as the police started its investigation, the ashram witnesses a steady exodus of the foreigners. Divya Mathaji, Premananda's girl friend and the inmate incharge, fled the country to Germany and later to France. Assets worth Rs 80 lakh in her name have been frozen. During the early stages of the investigation, Premananda was sure that his friends in the ruling AIADMK would save him from the long arm of law. Indeed, the police was asked to go slow in the case. However, with the change in government, the investigations were resumed in right earnest.
Like his political mentor Jayalalitha, Premananda also hired Ram Jethmalani to argue his case. Jeth-malani contested the government's decision to conduct a DNA test on one of the rape victims, Aruljoythi's foetus, to establish that she was raped by the godman. While the Hyderabad-based Centre for Molecular Biology declared the swami was responsible for Aruljoythi's pregnancy, Jethmalani wanted the DNA test to be conducted in London. The London test absolved the swami. But sessions judge Bhanumathi was not moved by the findings. In a sternly-worded judgment, she said: "I am imposing the maximum prison term permissible in law as the punishment awarded in this case should instill a sense of fear among bogus religious heads and deter them from committing such cruel and barbarous crimes against women." The judge also directed that the fine collected from Premananda be paid as compensation of Rs 5 lakh to each of the 13 victims.