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13 years after a death in Kerala river, new bubbles of suspicion rise to the surface

Ahead of local body polls, Hindu Ezhava leader Vellappally Natesan, a BJP ally, faces allegations in a mysterious death that took place in 2002.

Written by Shaju Philip | Updated: October 19, 2015 8:46:22 am
Vellappally Natesan, Vellappally Natesan BJP, sndp, bjp, Vellappally Natesan political career, Ramesh Chennithala, Kerala home minister, Saswathikananda Swami murder case, kerala, SNDP, Natesan, kerala news, india news, latest news Illustration by C R Sasikumar

What happened on July 1, 2002?

The Ezhava sanyasi Swami Saswathikananda arrived in the town of Aluva near Kochi to attend a meeting of the board of directors of the Sivagiri mutt, the spiritual headquarters of the Ezhava community. At 9 am, he went down to the ghat at the Aluva Advaithashramam for a dip in the Periyar. An aide went with him, but stood on the bank with his eyes averted as the swami waded into the water. When he did not emerge for long, however, the aide raised an alarm. Rescuers and Fire personnel subsequently fished the swami’s body out of the river.

Did Swami Saswathikananda drown?

Both the police and Crime Branch reached that conclusion, and closed the case. The autopsy confirmed death by drowning. A year later, Saswathikananda’s family approached the High Court seeking a CBI probe. The swami’s mother N Kousalia argued that her son was a good swimmer and familiar with the ghat, and could not have drowned. But the High Court rejected the plea.

What was the Sivagiri mutt controversy?

Saswathikananda became head of the mutt in 1984. In June 1994, six sanyasis from a rival faction led by Swami Prakasananda were elected to the mutt’s 11-member governing body. Saswathikananda, who was then a Congress supporter, suspected a BJP coup and quit as chief. But he did not allow the swamis from the rebel group to assume office — and, at a special meeting in December 1994, became mutt chief again. Prakasananda’s faction moved the High Court, which asked Saswathikananda to hand over the mutt’s governance to the rival group.

Where did Vellappally Natesan come in?

Despite the court’s order, Saswathikananda refused to move out. It was at this stage that he sought the support of Natesan, a liquor businessman and civil contractor. In August 1995, the court directed A K Antony’s government to ensure its order was implemented. In October, police reached the mutt to facilitate the change of guard. The action triggered violence, and angered the Ezhava community. After the CPM-led LDF won the 1996 Assembly elections, Saswathikananda shifted loyalties to them. He exploited differences within the rival camp to gain partial control of the mutt. At the elections to the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam that same year, Saswathikananda fielded Natesan for the post of general secretary.

What happened then?

Natesan won, and became general secretary of the Sree Narayana Trust. Saswathikananda and he worked well together initially. But strains emerged allegedly after the swami demanded greater transparency in the financial matters of the SNDP Yogam and SN Trust. In 2001, the government allowed private self-financing colleges, and Saswathikananda wanted the community to have its own professional colleges. He demanded that surplus funds with the Yogam and SN Trust be put into self-financing education, but Natesan didn’t agree. With their relations tense, the two men travelled to the Gulf together in June 2002, accompanied by Natesan’s son Thushar Vellappally, and a few other SN leaders. According to NRI businessman S Sujathan, when the group was in Bahrain, Natesan quarrelled with Saswathikananda over financial matters. Thereafter, Saswathikananda returned to Kerala via Dubai, while the rest of the party continued to travel in the Middle East. Soon afterward, Saswathikananda died in the incident at the Aluva ghat.

Who is the alleged hired killer Priyan?

In 2005-06, Kerala was rocked by the sensational muder of a youth named Praveen, who was allegedly in an illicit relationship with the wife of a deputy superintendent of police named R Shaji. The officer was found guilty of hiring Priyan — a native of Palluruthi near Kochi — and a few other men to kill Praveen, chop up the body, and dispose of the pieces in the backwaters. After Priyan was arrested, Praveen’s father Pavithran disclosed that his son had told him that he (Praveen) had dropped Priyan near Advaithashramam in Aluva on the day Saswathikananda died in 2002.

Did police question Priyan?

Yes. But the Crime Branch could find nothing to link him to Saswathikananda’s death. Priyan was given the death sentence in the Praveen murder case, but in 2009, the High Court set him free.

What is the latest in the case?

On October 10, bar baron Biju Ramesh alleged that Vellappally Natesan had hired Priyan to kill Saswathikananda. Ramesh, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Vedi, is Natesan’s rival in the Ezhava community. Ramesh alleged that during the Gulf tour in 2002, the swami had asked questions about the accounts of the Sree Narayana Trust, and had been manhandled by Natesan’s son Thushar. Ramesh said that after the murder, Natesan had taken away several documents from the Sivagiri mutt. Priyan went into hiding following the allegation, but issued a statement on October 13, saying he would cooperate with police if they decided to reopen the case.

How did Natesan and his family react?

Thushar conceded that he knew Priyan, but gave no further details. Natesan himself said Ramesh’s allegations had been made at the behest of the CPM, which was worried about the SNDP Yogam’s political understanding with BJP. “Saswathikananda drowned. It was an incident of jala samadhi. If proven otherwise, I will tonsure my head. Let the CBI probe the incident,” Natesan said.

Saswathikananda’s sister Santhakumari said: “The earlier probe did not cover Natesan, who had a grudge against the swami. Saswathikananda wanted to remove Natesan from the Yogam leadership because he was mismanaging its finances.”

Former SNDP Yogam president C K Vidyasagar, who parted ways with Natesan a decade ago, said Priyan and other goons had been used to rig the Yogam elections in 2005. P R Rajeevan, former South Zone ADGP, revealed that Natesan had been against a post mortem examination of the swami’s body.

What have the Sivagiri mutt and the government said?

Mutt chief Swami Prakasananda said he had always felt uneasy about Saswathikananda’s death. “There was a wound on the forehead when it was fished out from the river. When I saw the body, I had suspicions about that wound, which was said to have happened when the body was being pulled out. Saswathikananda was healthy, and an able swimmer. The fresh allegations should be probed into,” he said.

The state government has, however, taken the stand that the case could be reopened only if fresh evidence emerged. On October 11, Kerala Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala said the police had already looked into, and found baseless, that allegations that the swami had been murdered. “If the swami’s family furnishes any complaint, it would be handed over to the police. However, the case would be reopened only if there is any fresh evidence,” he said.

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