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How The Gods Fall

Cold-blooded murders, allegations of child abuse, sexual harassment. The killing of Sankararaman is one, the closets of the Kanchi math seem to be full of gory stuff. Updates

How The Gods Fall
How The Gods Fall

The Five New Cases

Other than the Sankararaman murder, here is what the police are probing:

  • 1. Attempt to murder S. Radhakrishnan, former math functionary, in September 2002

  • 2. Attempt to murder temple priest Thirukottiyur Madhavan, in August 3, 2004

  • 3. Mysterious death of Kesavan Namboothiri and Sankaran Namboothiri in 1985, both Veda students in a math-run college

  • 4. Suspicious death of Iyyappa Sharma, a math official, found dead in a temple tank

  • 5. The mysterious death of a 11-year old girl, Subhashree, in July 2004, at the math-run Kamadurga hostel in Kanchipuram

With the murder of the Varadarajaperumal temple manager A. Sankararaman and the subsequent arrest of Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati as first accused in the case, several skeletons are tumbling out of the temple closet: mysterious deaths, possible child abuse, sexual misconduct, and more cases of murderous assault. And this time, the police say, the charges are not limited to Jayendra Saraswati; the junior pontiff Vijayendra Saraswati and his brother Raghu too seem to be involved. Cases filed much earlier—one of them 19 years ago—not taken up by the authorities then, are now being dusted up and re-examined. There seems to be a belated and calculated exercise of political will in investigating afresh old cases and complaints. Victims, too, are making bold to state in public past injustices done to them by the math.

It may look like the Tamil Nadu police is heaping one case upon another on the Shankaracharya, making it difficult for him to be released on bail. But most of these cases are interconnected. In fact, some of them find mention in letters written by Sankararaman. Some of these letters—which admittedly left Jayendra Saraswati "tortured and sleepless"—bear specific references to "sexual activities" in the math and the "presence of women in the math premises late into the night". No wonder the counter-affidavit filed on November 29 in the Madras HC by S.P. Sakthivelu, chief investigating officer, makes a reference to these letters.

"The charges made in Sankararaman's letters and his subsequent murder cannot be delinked. We are stumbling on several connections, and other cases automatically open up," says an investigating officer. The murderous attack on S. Radhakrishnan, a former math functionary, was reportedly carried out by Appu and Kadiravan, the duo who allegedly played a key role in Sankararaman's murder too. It has also emerged that Thirukottiyur Madhavan, a priest who had resisted Jayendra Saraswati's efforts to replace a Siva idol in a temple, was attacked by Kadiravan in August—a month ahead of Sankararaman's murder. Madhavan, who led a demonstration against the Kanchi math, was attacked on Greams Road, Chennai, and managed to survive despite 16 stitches and temporary coma.

The Tamil Nadu police has constituted four teams to look into the new cases. An all-woman team is looking into "the charges of sexual exploitation of women" in the math. While popular fiction writer and columnist Anuradha Ramanan refused to press charges against Jayendra Saraswati for sexually harassing her in 1992 (see box), other more serious charges are coming to fore.

Subhashree, an 11-year-old girl studying in Kamadurga, a hostel for poor and orphan Brahmin girls run by the math, died on July 9 this year under mysterious circumstances. Enquiries by Outlook at the math revealed that till very recently Vijayendra Saraswati and his brother Raghu used to visit the hostel and spend time there on the pretext of teaching slokas to the girls. "They were regular visitors. But they have not come here for three months," says a security guard. They would stay in AC rooms and watch TV.Surprisingly, a hostel meant for poor girls has two air-conditioned rooms. Police too confirmed that the junior pontiff and his brother used to visit the hostel till recently.

Subhashree was a student of SSKV Elementary School where several students from Kamadurga are enrolled. The school headmistress Sundari told Outlook: "The girl attended school last on June 29. The hostel warden, Vedambal, collected the transfer certificate (TC) only in August. But we never saw the girl after June 29. They said she was not keeping good health." Till Outlook told the headmistress, the school was not aware of Subhashree's death. Sundari also said, "The hostel is run by the math and the warden is our only contact. Several girls have parents and relatives but we never see them."

Math sources told Outlook that Subhashree was sexually abused. Her poor parents, residents of Kadyanallur, some 500 km away, had admitted their daughter at Kamadurga three years ago. Subhashree's father works in a railway canteen. However, when the girl died, she was cremated hurriedly in Wallajapet, 40 km from Kanchipuram, under the supervision of Sundaramurthy, a 73-year devotee of the math. The girl's parents were not informed nor were they present at the cremation. No case was registered or post-mortem done. The hostel warden, Vedambal, told Outlook: "She was a weak girl, she died a natural death." Sundaramurthy, who claimed to be a 'distant relation' of the girl, said: "The girl had poor health. She died of bleeding. She had menstrual problems. She died during her second period." However, the school authorities asserted that Subhashree, just 11, had not yet attained puberty.

On December 1, summoned by the police, Subhashree's mother Nalini and her uncle Sethuraman met the investigating team and assured them that the girl was "weak" and had died a "natural death". However, Nalini and Sethuraman, accompanied by Sundaramurthy, had spent an hour in the Kanchi math before appearing for interrogation. Math sources indicate that Subhashree's parents had been "adequately compensated for the unnatural death". A section of the math regrets that only Jayendra Saraswati has been exposed "while the junior pontiff is not being investigated."

Vidya Reddy, founder of the Tulir Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Sexual Abuse, says: "There are standards to be observed when you run a child-care home. Kamadurga seems to have not respected these if it allowed two adults easy access to the hostel premises. Moreover, destitute children living in such homes are most vulnerable to child sexual abuse (CSA)." Reddy insists a close and careful examination of the other children by CSA experts is necessary. "Moreover, the law is very weak. We only have Section 354 which deals with the outraging of the modesty of a woman." The math sources' story, that the girl died of menstrual bleeding, sounds medically improbable. Says Mala Vijayakrishnan, obstetrician and gynaecologist: "Dying of menstrual complication and bleeding, that too at age 11, sounds bizarre and most unlikely."

After Subhashree comes Anuradha Ramanan's disclosure about the Shankaracharya's immoral behaviour. Not surprisingly, close examination by Outlook of one Sankararaman's letters listing incidents of sexual misconduct makes a reference to the Ramanan episode. Addressed to Jayendra Saraswati, the letter dated September 6, 2002, spoke of "your dalliance with a celebrity woman journalist, the resultant problems, your apology, and the negotiations." He also refers to Jayendra Saraswati's affairs with some "Andhra beauties", "a Tirupati maami", "Tambaram Baby alias Jayalakshmi", "Kamakoti Leela", "the widowed Saroja" and many more. Sankararaman does not spare Vijayendra Saraswati and Raghu, who he says love the "company of young girls" on whom "they bestow jewels and silk saris from Sundari Silks".Sankararaman also accuses Vijayendra Saraswati of sleeping with the wives and daughters of priests at the Kamakshi temple.

Sankararaman also asks why the two pontiffs would speak for long hours on the phone with "certain women".The police has interrogated Usha of Srirangam, a cancer patient, whom Jayendra Saraswati helped generously. The math was making remittances of Rs 6,000 per month to this "bhakta deserted by her husband". The police in their counter-affidavit say that Jayendra Saraswati "was in the habit of talking to Usha during early morning hours. The conversations used to last even up to 900 pulse units." Usha maintains that it was a guru-shishya relationship.

Coming to the surface now are also the mysterious deaths of two students from Kerala in 1985. Kesavan Namboothiri, a second-year degree student at the math-run Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahavidyalaya, died in 1985. The math says he died of electrocution. The victim's father Krishnan Namboothiri received a telegram from the Kanchi math on October 1, 1985, saying that his son was involved in an accident. But a telegram the next day said the math authorities were bringing home the body. Kesavan's body—with a deep slash on the back of the head, blood oozing from the mouth and testicles, one of the thighs bearing a burn scar—was brought stuffed in the boot of a car with ice-pieces smeared all over. According to Kesavan's brother Narayanan Namboothiri, Kesavan had tried to expose certain undesirable activities in the math. He died days before he was to visit home to consult his parents about this. Within a week of Kesavan's death, the body of his classmate Sankaran Namboothiri was found on a railway track.

The police report registered at the Siva Kanchi police station states that there was suspicion over Kesavan's death. However, a post-mortem was not conducted. Kesavan's family had then petitioned the Kerala and TN governments to initiate a probe, but there was no progress. Today, the Namboothiri family has written to chief minister Jayalalitha seeking justice. This case has now been taken up by the special investigating team (SIT). Similarly, the suspicious death of Iyyappa Sharma, a math functionary from Andhra Pradesh whose body was found in a temple tank a few years ago, is also being probed by the SIT.

According to intelligence sources, Jayalalitha is trying to bring up a case against DMK leader M. Karunanidhi's son M.K. Stalin. Appu alias Krishnaswamy, a key accused (who is still at large) in the Sankararaman murder case, was associated with senior DMK leader Arcot N. Veerasamy till 2001. On July 17, 2001, Ramesh, a businessman and close aide of Stalin, committed 'suicide' with his entire family of wife and three children. Investigations have now revealed Appu's hand in Ramesh's death. Unofficially, police is said to have taken into custody Kutty alias 'Airport' Saravanan, a close associate of Appu. Kutty, it is suspected, had a hand in the death of Ramesh, who was being watched by the state police in connection with the corruption charges against Stalin in the flyover scam. In police parlance, "Ramesh was an alleged benami for Stalin".

In September 2001, Jayalalitha had said: "The death of Ramesh was not a case of suicide. They (DMK) are aware of it. The police will come out with the facts soon." That day may not be far away. If Appu is arrested, his interrogation may help nail not only Jayendra Saraswati but also Stalin. Though there's no connection between Ramesh's and Sankararaman's death, for the first time, Anna Arivalayam, the DMK HQ, and the Kanchi math would be linked by a common element—the mercenary Appu. If and when that happens, we may well understand what Karunanidhi meant by Jayalalitha's "personal motives" in giving the go-ahead to arrest Jayendra Saraswati

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