When one of the nation’s best known religious leaders is arrested for allegedly ordering the murder of a detractor, and the police claim they have “clinching evidence”, one would have thought that the state would be reasonably sure of its case. Claims of eyewitness accounts, incriminating circumstances and a palpable motive in the brutal killing of A. Sankararaman, manager of the Varadarajaperumal Temple at Kancheepuram, in September 2004 were put together to build what was claimed to be a solid case against the accused, the foremost among them being the Kanchi Shankaracharya, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi. In the event, what took place in a Sessions Court in Puducherry was a sorry spectacle, as witness after witness turned hostile and sent the trial hurtling towards en masse acquittal. The theory that Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, and his junior, Sri Vijayendra Saraswathi, hatched a conspiracy to silence Sankararaman who was making accusations about purported misdeeds, collapsed with astonishing ease. Witnesses failed to identify the assailants in court. Nothing came of claims that Sri Jayendra had arranged for money to carry out contract killings, that five fake suspects were made to surrender in court to throw the police off the track, and the inadmissible but widely publicised claim that the Acharya himself had made a videographed “confession.” His arrest, incarceration and interrogation led to much divisive debate, with supporters claiming it was a plot to revile the Hindu community, and detractors showing undisguised glee.
In hindsight, the Acharya’s dramatic late-night arrest at Mahabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh amidst Deepavali celebrations in 2004 was perhaps more sensational than Sankararaman’s murder itself. The investigation team headed by the late K. Prem Kumar, a Superintendent of Police, seemed to be hunting more for proof for dubious theories of financial misdeeds, moral turpitude and outright sleaze. The police were possibly hoping that if the allegations made by Sankararaman, often pseudonymously in numerous letters, were found true, the motive will be established. They reacted angrily to any criticism and even summoned such critics for ancillary probes. The Mutt’s administrator and the junior pontiff’s younger brother, both accused in the case, were detained under the Goondas Act. The trial judge has noted the “undue interest” shown by Prem Kumar in pursuing the investigation in a particular direction. As the investigation turned aggressive, the Kanchi Acharya approached the Supreme Court to get the trial transferred to Puducherry. As the investigators seemed intent on pursuing only the Acharya, the question of who ordered the fatal attack on Sankararaman remains unanswered.