"Thank God for the Supreme Court," was my first reaction when I read this morning that it had shifted the murder case against the Kanchi Shankaracharya to Pondicherry. For ever since the Chennai police had arrested Jayendra Saraswati on the night of Diwali 11 months ago, I had been filled with a sense of foreboding. "What if," I had written in these columns, "after having accused him of murder and of causing the disappearance of evidence...; after putting him in jail with common criminals, proclaiming his guilt to the entire Indian media in tones that brooked no possibility of error, and adamantly resisting the grant of bail, the Tamil Nadu police was unable to prove anything?"
My anxiety had been sharpened by the stories that had begun to appear in the press within weeks of the arrest. The case had always seemed flimsy. All that the police seemed to have against him for the murder of A. Sankararaman, manager of one of the temples at Kanchipuram, was that the man had developed an unhealthy obsession with denigrating, opposing and threatening the Shankaracharya. But Sankararaman had been harassing the Shankaracharya for 40 years. In fact, he had gone so far that there was an open-and-shut case of harassment against him, but the Shankaracharya had chosen not to lodge it. That made the timing of his decision to 'eliminate' Sankararaman difficult for the police to explain.
The police had further claimed that some of the accused whom they had arrested had implicated him in their crime. A cellphone known to be used by the Shankaracharya had a record of calls made to some of the accused both before and after Sankararaman's murder. Ten lakhs of rupees, the FIR stated, had been withdrawn by the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham Math and distributed to 'the accused'. There was thus prima facie evidence of motive, means and reward.
But by mid-December gaping holes had begun to appear in the police's case. The two key witnesses, on whose word the Shankaracharya was charged with complicity and arrested, later claimed they had been tortured into signing blank pieces of paper for the police. The account in the
HDFC bank had been found not to exist and the police had amended its petition to name another bank in its place. As an 'insurance against the failure of the first', the police had filed a second case accusing the swami of having another functionary of the math and his family attacked and beaten up.
If the case failed to stick would the Tamil Nadu government, I wondered, apologise and let the Shankaracharya go? Or, as is happening disturbingly often these days, would it stretch the envelope of police procedure to make a case against him at any cost? In mid-December last year, there were already disturbing signs that it was headed down the latter road. Dissatisfied with the progress that its huge, 29-member task force was making, the government had replaced both its senior-most officers. The message of these 'transfers' was clear—a case had to be made at any cost.
The scathing remarks made by the Supreme Court show that for the whole of the year that has elapsed since the arrest, the Tamil Nadu government has pursued the Shankaracharya with grim determination. "The state machinery in Tamil Nadu," it concluded, "is not only taking an undue interest, but is going to any extent in securing the conviction of the accused by any means, and to stifle even publication of any article or expression of dissent in the media or press...."
To stifle criticism of its handling of the case, the state has harassed journalists, men of stature in public affairs, and even lawyers who dared to write or appear in favour of the accused. Cases have been lodged against BJP leader M.M. Joshi, DMK leader M. Karunanidhi, and S. Gurumurthy of the Chennai edition of the Indian Express. Lawyers have been singled out for special treatment, for they have had criminal cases lodged against them to prevent them from appearing for the Shankaracharya. Not even under the British, the court observed, had the accused been denied, or impeded from having, defence lawyers of their choice.
The court has left no one in doubt that it considers these cases to be frivolous. For, incensed to a degree that it rarely displays, the two-judge bench of Justices R.C. Lahoti and G.P. Mathur has accused the Tamil Nadu government of having created a 'fear psychosis' in the state in anyone who dared to defend the Shankaracharya.
So, thank the good Lord that we have a vigilant Supreme Court. But what does this horrifying episode tell us about our politicians and bureaucrats? In one sentence, it tells us that these people are not fit to govern the nurseries of their children, let alone a state or a country. Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha's belief that she is more than a mere mortal has been on public display for a long time. The Supreme Court's decision reinforces the conclusion I had arrived at 10 months ago, that by pursuing the Shankaracharya with no holds barred, she was trying put a new gloss on her somewhat tarnished secular credentials and simultaneously seeking to take advantage of the latent anti-Brahminism in Tamil Nadu. But what do we make of the police and administration officials who 'do their duty' in the face of every moral consideration in much the same manner as Adolf Eichmann did 63 years ago.
The Tamil Nadu witch-hunt is only the latest of several that I have written about in these columns in the last few years. None of them could have been carried out without a complaisant bureaucracy. We've converted the British ideal of a non-political bureaucracy into a non-moral bureaucracy. This is the democracy we keep tootling about!
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