Friday, November 19, 2004

 

Kanchi Conundrum

Life is indeed stranger than fiction. One accusation of a murder has made the supreme seer of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham a villain, while those who have lead men to murder in the thousands are proclaimed heroes -- to paraphrase Beilby Porteus, the eighteenth century evangelist and abolitionist.

The arrest of the Kanchi seer has become a reason for celebration and triumphalism for the Brahmin haters of Tamil Nadu, led by a writer of tawdry dramas, whose men tried to disrobe the actress who became Chief Minister, and who in turn arrested at midnight the writer of those tawdry dramas when she became Chief Minister. While the VHP, the RSS and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha are dumbfounded by this event and have made sundry calls for bandhs, gheraos, and protests, the internet is abuzz with talk of “Hinduism is under attack”. Conspiracy theories abound, and I get back channel information from someone who heard from someone else about the Kanchi seer being this and that, or that it is a Marxist-Christian-Muslim plot to defeat Hinduism in India.

It is indeed strange that the Acharya was arrested as he was, without his ability to consult with a lawyer, and while he was in Mahboobnagar, near Hyderabad performing poojas. He would have fled to Nepal, the demagogic Chennai public prosecutor asserts, and proclaims the Seer an “undeserved criminal”. Even as we are struck by the shrillness of the public prosecutor’s indictment, we wonder why Jayalalithaa was silent about this whole drama till her suo moto pronouncement in the T.N. Assembly. She has barred all discussion about the issue in the Assembly, and one need not spend much time speculating why that is so. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu may be aggressive in her assertions but does she have the evidence to prove those? Did she fear that if she had not incarcerated Jayendra Saraswati, his life itself might have been endangered? Does she fear that there is an organized attempt to dismiss her government using this case as an excuse?

The vernacular press reported that Karunanidhi had threatened to fast in Kanchipuram if Jayendra Saraswati was not arrested. Earlier, Nakkeeran, the magazine with DMK leanings, and connections to the dreaded and now dead Veerappan, also published the purported evidential letters from Sankararaman. How did Karunanidhi get access to so much of the “evidence” that should have been privy to the police? Does he stand to gain the most from the murder of Sankararaman and by implicating Jayendra Saraswati?


It is amazing that all kinds of politicians – at the local and at the national level -- and well-connected bureaucrats, businessmen, and others get away with murder indeed, and never see the inside of a police station let alone a prison. But we now have the Kanchi seer arrested and lodged in Vellore Central Prison, and now remanded to police custody for three days, where he may be seduced or forced to saying something that is either untrue, or unverifiable. Why was he arrested without any proof that he was the one who either ordered the murder or countenanced it? Yes, indeed these are strange times. What was the need to arrest him, and worse yet put him in prison, when he could simply have been served orders to appear in court?

There is surely something most foul in this episode, and at present we are all left to our own devices for figuring out the motives, men, and women in this drama. But one thing we can be sure about: this is as much about politics as it is about crime. For why else would the DMK and its “I have something to hide behind my dark glasses” leader be so keen on the arrest of the Swamiji, and why are sundry Dalits being interviewed and quoted in this regard? The murdered man was not a Dalit. The Kanchi seer has not abused Dalits. In fact, one of the great ironies is that the Swamiji was seriously involved in projects to ameliorate the condition of the Dalits. Why is it then that we are hearing such invective aimed against the pontiff, including one by a Dalit woman who is reported to have urged the destruction of the Kanchi hermitage and temple? The ugly mix of caste, religion, and politics is indeed a dangerous portent to the denouement of what may be a simple case of a pontiff who succumbed to the seduction of money and power, if indeed that was the case, or it is a deliberate and pungent mix to distract the people from the real crimes committed or orchestrated by different people.

We may have to try and unravel this case ourselves for we are sure to be distracted and detracted by forces which for long in India have made it a fine art of dissembling to the people and hoodwinking them. So, in that spirit, let us try and figure this case out.

For the last seven years Sankararaman, the man murdered, it is said, was managing the accounts of the Vaishanavite Varadaraja Perumal Temple, not those of the Sankara Matham (What is it with Indian newspapers spelling “matha” or “matham” as “mutt” and “math”, by the way?). So, he couldn’t have been privy to any details of financial irregularities on the part of Swami Jayendra Saraswati, supposing that any such irregularity existed. By all reports, since 1987, Sankararaman had an estranged relationship with the Kanchi seer. If that was the case, how was it that he knew what was happening in the Sankara Matham? He even had trouble visiting the Sankara matham, we are told, and therefore very unlikely to have known the details of the accounts of that temple. What could he have therefore exposed that threatened the Kanchi seer?

A few years ago, Sankararaman filed a writ in the court challenging Jayendra Saraswati’s proposed visit to China. Sankararaman objected that a sannyasi cannot cross the seas. If the Swamiji wanted, he can travel by road to China, he mindlessly argued. Jayendra Saraswati cancelled the planned visit to China. If Sundararaman could file a petition on such matters, why wouldn’t he have filed a writ if he had noticed financial irregularities?
Even if he had some knowledge or information about the misuse of funds, the Sankara matham being a private trust, was not accountable to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department. What gives the DMK leader Karunanidhi, by the way, to urge that “the government and the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department must explore avenues to save the Mutt and come up with a way to ensure that it does not disintegrate” when he and his lumpen supporters were beating up Hindu priests who attended the bail hearing for the Swamiji? Karunanidhi also urged that the government take over the Kanchi hermitage. Is this not clear indication that the DMK is involved in this matter in ways that show their premeditation in harming the Sankaracharya? We do know that the DMK leader and the Swamiji had crossed swords before. The DMK is anti-Hindu, and has publicly avowed so.

From what we can surmise, prima facie there is no compelling motive for the murder. Let us look further at the evidence so far presented by the police and the public prosecutor:

1. The public prosecutor and the chief investigating police officer claim that phone calls were made from the cell phone of the Swamiji to the accused murderers. As a friend pointed out, if indeed the Swamiji was the mastermind behind the murder, would he be stupid enough to talk directly to hit men from his cell phone? The Swamiji’s lawyer pointed out that the seer does not carry the cell phone himself. Why is this “evidence” being released several weeks after the murder? It would be interesting to know what kind of change, configuration and security procedures the cell phone company call transaction system has. Is it foolproof at the levels of on-line transaction and backup? If not, this is no evidence at all, my friend points out.

2. One million rupees was withdrawn the day after the murder, the prosecutor revealed, and parts of that supposedly recovered from some of the criminals. According to sources, the temple withdraws anywhere between 200,000 to 2,500,000 rupees every day. Often parts of that amount are deposited back. This is due to two reasons: one, the temple runs many projects – including three major charitable hospitals in Chennai alone (Child’s Trust Hospital, Hindu Mission Hospital, and Tamil Nadu Hospital) -- and two, it also receives large donations.

If the temple authorities indeed paid the “hired murderers”, obviously they would not leave an easy trail leading back to the temple. They would have paid the goons through some clever scheme, or they would have paid from the as yet undeposited donations to the temple. Why would they withdraw money from the bank to pay the hatchet men? As someone who has worked in an Indian bank, I can say that no bank records the serial numbers of currency notes disbursed unless there is a police or Central Bureau of Investigation request to do so.

In the case of Shri Jayendra Saraswati, nobody could have predicted that he was going to plot the death of a low profile temple accountant, and therefore lay a trap in Kanchipuram to snare the seer. So, the onus is on the police to prove that the money supposedly recovered from the criminals was disbursed by the bank to the temple. But, it doesn't stop there. The money was supposedly recovered from the murderers several weeks after the murder of Sankararaman. How do we know that it did not pass several legitimate hands after leaving the temple (assuming it did) before it went to the murderers? The voluble public prosecutor has to prove it didn’t. If he can, then it means that there was a plot to entrap the Swamiji. The plot would then indeed get thicker. What was the prima facie case that led the prosecutor and sleuths to lay a trap for the Swamiji?

3. A letter from Sankararaman to the Swamiji threatening he would expose the misdeeds of the Swamiji to the public/police is now claimed to be in the hands of the police. According to the police, the Swamiji handed this letter over to the murderers and asked them to trace the sender and his address. The police claim that they recovered this letter from one of the murderers. Nothing sounds sillier or amateurish than this. If indeed that is what happened, this plot should enter the hall of fame of “dumb criminals” as a classic. Why should the pontiff hand over the letter to the murderers? How could the murderers trace the anonymous sender? If the pontiff did not have a clue about the sender, how would the professional hit men from a different city (Chennai) have a clue? Were they handwriting experts that went round the small town asking people to give their samples of handwriting? If indeed the Swamiji knew who sent the letter, where was the necessity to hand over the letter? Kanchipuram is neither Baghdad nor Fallujah, nor the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Swamiji obviously knew where Sankararaman worked and lived. If the motive indeed was murder, all that the Swamiji or his henchmen had to do was order Sankararaman murdered. Why at all hand over the letter?

If we don’t smell a rat here, we the gullible public will be to blame if this event leads to the undermining of Hindu temples and institutions, and Hindu leadership in India. Obviously, someone has been planting evidence. As I write this, I just saw a report that says Karunanidhi declared that the Tamil Nadu government should take over the Kanchi hermitage. This is sure to outrage Hindus. This is the first salvo in a battle of wits, but there is, I believe, a reason to suspect that this ploy is a smokescreen for something else. The Swamiji is being offered as a sacrificial lamb by somebody else. Who could that be? Hmmm, we wonder why Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is keeping silent in this matter. Actually, according to reports, her “Jaya TV” has been equally harsh in condemning the Swamiji as the DMK-owned “Sun TV”.

Sankararaman is said to have petitioned the Hindu Religious Endowment Board about some irregularities. There are reports that the officials of the temple where he worked were also unhappy because he was honest and strict. So, the reports that he sent, if at all they contained any incriminating evidence, pertained to the temple that he was intimately familiar with. It could not have pertained to the Sankara matham. So, someone felt threatened by the reports he sent, and Sankararaman had to be got rid of. We all know that the Dravidianist politicians of Tamil Nadu always lease the temple properties at virtually no rent to commercial businesses, slaughter-houses, etc. Did Sankararaman touch a raw nerve when he started recovering rents? Or, did he uncover something even grave and paid with his life?


Who would want the Swamiji implicated and why? The answer can be found only when the real complaints filed by Sankararaman are known -- if at all he really filed any. There is no confirmation that he did. Remember that all the anonymous complaints were supposed to have been written by one Kanapadigal. How did the police establish it was Sankararaman? After all, his family had no clue that he had petitioned any authority. If somebody had an urgent need to implicate the Swamiji, some hermitage official most probably obliged them with a few phone calls.

May be it is time for us to implore Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes to come back from the grave and help us resolve this.


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