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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 February 2005, 16:04 GMT
Letter: Murder, mystery and politics in India

By Vinod Mehta
Editor of Indian weekly magazine, Outlook

Corruption, greed and murder - the ingredients of many a tabloid newspaper - are not usually levelled at a top religious leader. But that is the story gripping millions of people in India.

Vinod Mehta explores this intoxicating tale of debauchery and killing - with just a touch of religion and politics thrown in.

Sri Jayendra Saraswathi
Sri Jayendra Saraswathi was arrested in November 2004
"Obscene, vile, slanderous and totally without foundation. The arrest of the most revered icon of Hinduism is shameful," thunders a letter in an Indian news magazine.

Another letter argues precisely the opposite: "The Kanchi seer controversy has shattered the world of tens of thousands of Indians, much like the cricket match-fixing scam. But just as the match-fixing revelation cleansed the game, so will the trial for murder of a religious head."

Religious passions have been running sky high in India for the past three months.

Mastermind

On the night of the biggest Hindu festival, Diwali, the police of Tamil Nadu arrested arguably the most senior guru of Hinduism - one of India's most revered religious leaders.

The allegations are a tabloid journalist's dream - murder, sleaze, debauchery, greed and sex.

If you add tricky local and national politics to this heady and intoxicating mixture, the picture is complete.

Not surprisingly, India's main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, has been out on the streets protesting at the shame and humiliation Hindus have once again suffered.

On 21 January, the police formally filed an 1,800-page charge sheet in court.

The plot, as the authorities would have you believe, comes straight out of a Harold Robbins novel or even TS Eliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral
With the help of 370 witnesses and 712 documents, the charge sheet alleges that the head of a 1,000-year-old Brahmin monastic order, the Kanchi mutt, had conspired and masterminded to have the manager of a temple murdered.

The name of the flamboyant and controversial Kanchi pontiff accused of the crime is Jayendra Saraswati.

Before his arrest, he was seen frequently on television and talk shows.

In fact, he could be described as India's first TV guru.

Hindus have hundreds of fake and genuine godmen, gurus and holymen; they are head priests and heads of religious orders.

But there is no formal hierarchy.

Hindus do not have an equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope, but if they did, the gentleman currently out on bail would be a serious contender.

He has been charged under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code for murder; other charges include causing evidence to disappear, giving false information and false impersonation of another person.

Complex plot

Added to the penal code legalities are accusations of embezzlement and sexual harassment.

The diminutive 70-year-old seer of Kanchi - who is never seen without the symbol of his office, the holy staff, in his hand - has, according to the police, much to answer for.

The seer, meanwhile, maintains he is being framed by anti-Hindu forces.

The plot, as the authorities would have you believe, comes straight out of a Harold Robbins novel or even TS Eliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral.

Entrance to the Uttaradi Mutt, Kanchipuram
Kanchipuram is southern India's leading temple town
It is so complex, convoluted, bizarre, elaborate, conspiracy-ridden and licentious that the Indian public is having extreme difficulty in believing - or even coming close to believing - that a holy man whom thousands worship as a demi-god could be involved in such large-scale shenanigans.

My magazine, Outlook, which has covered the story in some detail, has received much abuse and when I go to work each morning getting hate mail has become routine.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Here is the story in all its gory detail.

The Kanchi mutt, as it is called, is a complex of temples in a town called Kanchipuram. The head priest of this institution, who also runs 120-cash-rich trusts is Jayendra Saraswati.

Prior to Jayendra Saraswati's time, the Kanchi mutt had employed a man called Sankararaman.

Sometime in 2001, Jayendra Saraswati and Sankararaman - who was by now no longer employed by the Kanchi mutt - had a tiff.

From then on Sankararaman openly expressed disapproval of what he called the "moral and financial decrepitude" in the mutt, or monastic order, through letters - copies of which he sent to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department.

'Final notice'

To make matters worse, he sent some of these letters to a Tamil news magazine, which promptly published them.

In 2004, Sankararaman wrote a series of explosive letters to the Kanchi seer, the last one on 30 August.

He repeatedly referred to the misappropriation of temple funds by the seer, a huge sum running into millions of rupees - and to the "materialistic and physical pleasures" the seer was getting used to.

In fact, he [Jayendra Saraswati] could be described as India's first TV guru
The last letter was ironically titled "the final notice". The police's version of events, disputed by the Kanchi seer, is that he saw the letter and told one of his staunch disciples, a building contractor called Ravi: "How long do I have to suffer this torture? Is there no end to this? I should henceforth receive no letter from him."

Mr Ravi is then alleged to have told the seer that his wishes would be immediately obeyed. He would not receive any more letters from Sankararaman.

Three days after the Pontiff is said to have complained to Ravi, Sankararaman was brutally bludgeoned to death by six assassins who came on motorcycles.

Two months later, on 11 November, the police arrested the Kanchi seer when he was reportedly speaking on a mobile phone to an industrialist and getting ready to leave for the Hindu kingdom of Nepal.

Anti-Brahminism

But in India, when someone so important is arrested, politics is never far behind.

The Kanchi mutt is in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The chief minister of this state, Dr J Jayalalitha, is a big-time - albeit retired - film actress, who is as unpredictable as she is shrewd.

She has a number of outstanding court cases for fraud and embezzlement against her.

The state she governs has a miniscule Brahmin population - 3% - and is famous for voting film stars, dancers and film directors to political power.

Atheism, or more precisely anti-Brahminism, is the religion of the political parties which have governed Tamil Nadu for over 30 years. So putting a Brahmin priest in jail will not hurt Dr Jayalalitha politically - indeed, it may fetch her dividends when the state goes to the polls next year.

And this strange tale has now got even more bizarre.

The Kanchi mutt has a senior seer and a junior seer. Together they run the place.

If the former is absent, or sick, or out of town, the junior is supposed to perform the mandatory daily prayers.

It now transpires, if you go by the charge sheet, that the junior seer, Vijayendra Saraswati, is as involved in all the dirty business as the senior seer.

Headless mutt

Indeed, the police have described the senior as Accused No. 1 and the junior as Accused No. 2, and claim that both were co-conspirators in the Sankararaman murder case.

The junior is currently in police custody.

Thus, at present, the mutt - for the first time in its 1,000-year-old existence - is in a sense headless.

And there is sex involved too. According to the police, both the seers are partial to a pretty face.

VHP members clash with polics of cleric's arrest, Hyderabad
Hindu nationalists protested against the cleric's arrest
Since the senior seer's arrest a number of women have come forward to testify how the head priest made passes at them which were not of a very subtle nature. The police have now constituted an all woman's team to look into the charges.

India's judicial process is painfully slow and the verdict could take up to ten years, if not more.

The death penalty, which would be applicable for this crime, is still in use in India and only last year a man was hanged by the rope in West Bengal.

It is possible that the two holy men will get lesser sentences.

It is also possible that they are found not guilty by the court. Unfortunately, all this could take a very long time.

So, if anybody is looking for quick divine intervention it must be the senior and junior seers of the Kanchi mutt.

The question is: Will the gods oblige?

Vinod Mehta is one of India's leading journalists and editors. He is the author of three books and president of the Editors Guild of India.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.

This text has been changed in line with the findings of an Editorial Complaints Unit decision.



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