The palatial white bungalow set amidst lush green tea plantations on the Nilgiris used to be the ultimate symbol of political power in Tamil Nadu. Former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa and her close friend Sasikala used to spend weeks there holidaying, boating in the small artificial lake created for the purpose or simply taking in the grand view riding on a battery car. Only those specifically invited could step into the heavily guarded bungalow, often restricted to the reception hall in the front. The luckier few got an audience with Amma (Jayalalithaa) and the not-so-lucky ones spoke to her on the intercom. Very few, even top AIADMK ministers, had any knowledge of the building’s interior.
And yet, on the night of April 24, 2017—four months after Jayalalithaa’s death and two months after Sasikala was sent to a Bangalore prison on corruption charges—a group of 11 burglars knew exactly which room to target and what to take away.
In the process, the burglars attacked and killed a Gorkha guard when he challenged them. Otherwise, the mission was largely successful—till the perpetrators became collateral damage soon. The gang leader Kanagaraj, a former driver of Jayalalithaa, died four days later in a road accident in Salem district. K.V. Sayan, another gang member, was grievously injured in a car crash in Kerala. He lost his wife and daughter. Adding to the mystery was the reported suicide of Dinesh Kumar in July 2017. He was in charge of the computer and CCTV set-up on the estate. After Kanagaraj’s death, Sayan was named the first accused in the case.
“There was a move to fast-track the trial as a burglary gone wrong and establish that only a few gift items were stolen. The real targets were property documents that Jayalalithaa had seized from her top ministers. The gang was instructed to retrieve those papers. A quick trial and a verdict would have covered the real intent of the crime in which a few gift watches and a crystal showpiece were recovered as stolen items,” says a senior police officer.
The Jayalalithaa bungalow
But the trial got stalled as the courts closed because of Covid restrictions. When it resumed, Tamil Nadu had voted out the AIADMK and chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, or EPS, and placed a DMK government under M.K. Stalin.
Refusing to be taken down alone, Sayan, the main accused, petitioned the Ooty trial court to order further investigation as he had more details to reveal. Apparently his targets were the political masters who had ordered the burglary. Sayan deposed before police for over three hours on the court’s orders. Kanagaraj’s brother, Dhanapal, too sought an additional probe in the light of his sibling’s suspicious death.
The additional probe, after the DMK came to power, has rattled AIADMK leaders and supporters, who called it an attempt to frame the party’s leadership in the case. They got a witness to seek a high court stay on the trial, but the judge declared that the law permitted additional investigation if new information came to light during the course of the trial. For his part, Palaniswami sought to raise the reinvestigation issue in the state assembly, but he was denied permission. He staged a walkout with his MLAs and staged a dharna outside the House, and presented a memorandum to the governor in which it was mentioned that the probe was going off-track with the sole intention of snaring him in the conspiracy.
It has been alleged that suspect Sayan’s offer to reveal more incriminating evidence was a political ploy to accuse EPS and his former ministers of a cover-up. It is believed that there could be several holes in the inquiry—notably, the second guard’s deposition was left unsigned and his whereabouts are not known since he left for Nepal after the crime. The high court has cleared the re-examination of witnesses, including forensic officials who allegedly made a cursory inspection of the crime scene, an assistant engineer of the electricity board (there was a blackout when the crime took place), and police officers who had concluded that only a few gift items were stolen.
EPS loyalists believe that naming him as a co-conspirator could be used to weaken his hold on the AIADMK. Already two of his main supporters—former transport minister M.R. Vijayabhaskar and former local administration minister P. Velumani, who also belongs to the Gounder community of EPS—have been subjected to elaborate anti-corruption raids by the vigilance department after the DMK government took charge. “Unlike his father who used to arrest political rivals before prosecuting them, Stalin is taking a separate route. He files cases, orders investigations, carries out raids to get evidence and then seeks to prosecute his political rivals. Stalin knows that arresting them would be seen as political vendetta and could be converted into sympathy. At the same time, sparing them would send a wrong signal, that he is not coming down hard on corruption after having laid out reams of charges while in the Opposition,” points out political analyst Raveenthiran Thuraisamy.
The Kodanad estate—sitting on 900-plus acres, with a market value of over Rs 1,300 crore—is on the Tamil Nadu government’s watch since a trial court in Bangalore convicted Jayalalithaa and Sasikala in the disproportionate assets case. The estate, along with other properties, was declared as ill-gotten wealth and the state revenue department attached it following the trial court’s order, which the Supreme Court later upheld.
“The EPS government had notified the properties listed in the trial court order, including the estate, as attached by the revenue department. So, effectively, it is the property of the state and there was a move to hand it over to the state-run TANTEA to administer the property and sell the tea cultivated there. The new government has to decide what to do with it,” says a law officer of the previous government.
An option would be to list it, which could fetch the government a handsome profit since it has acquired the property at zero cost. Englishman Peter Craig-Jones, who was allegedly arm-twisted by Sasikala and her associates to sell the property at an abysmally low price, had expressed willingness to take control of the estate known for its high tea yield in the Nilgiris. He said Sasikala and Co. still owed him Rs 3 crore. “I am managing a tea estate in Kothagiri. What I really want is my Kodanad estate so that I can make it flourish again,” he told Outlook in 2017.
April 24, 2017: Burglary and murder by an 11-member gang at Kodanad estate
April 28, 2017: Kanagaraj (above), who led the gang, dies in a road accident
April 29, 2017: Sayan (pix above), another gang member, is gravely injured in a car crash in Kerala. He survives but his wife and daughter are killed. Thereafter, Sayan is named as the first accused in the Kodanad case.
July 3, 2017: Dinesh Kumar, who handled the computer and CCTV set-up in the estate, commits suicide
Sept 2017: Charge-sheet filed in the trial court
(This appeared in the print edition as "Kodanad Plot Boils Over")
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai