P Rajagopal, 72, founder of the famous Saravana Bhavan chain of South Indian vegetarian restaurants, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing an employee in order to be able to marry his wife, died in a private hospital in Chennai on Thursday. Months earlier, on March 29, the Supreme Court had upheld the life sentence awarded to him and eight others for the murder and directed him to surrender by July 7.
This is his story.
Five years ago, in an autobiography titled ‘I set my heart on victory’, Rajagopal described his success story. He started out as a “tea maker” and a helper in a grocery shop. He owned a provision store before opening the first
Saravana Bhavan at KK Nagar in Chennai in 1981. The restaurant became popular, and there was no looking back thereafter. He opened franchises across the country and abroad, from Singapore to Canada.
For many years, Rajagopal had the reputation of being a good employer who took care of his staff and paid handsome salaries, and ensured their and their families’ education and health.
And then things went wrong.
The case that destroyed Rajagopal began in 2001 when he was accused of threatening, abducting and murdering his employee Prince Santhakumar, so he could marry Santhakumar’s wife Jeevajothi.
At the time, Rajagopal already had two wives, the second of whom was the wife of a former employee. Jeevajothi too was the daughter of Rajagopal’s former assistant manager, a man called Ramasamy.
Prosecutors said Rajagopal helped Jeevajothi and her family financially. He often spoke to her over the telephone, gave her gifts of jewellery and expensive sarees, and paid for her medical treatment.
“Once when she was ill, under the pretext of better treatment as advised by another doctor, Accused No. 1 (Rajagopal) forcefully shifted her to another hospital, where he advised her not to have sexual relations with her husband and made her undergo a series of tests. Santhakumar was instructed to get himself tested for AIDS and other such diseases, which he refused outright,” investigators said.
Rajagopal had, in fact, set his sights on Jeevajothi from a time before she married Santhakumar. He was acting on the advice of an astrologer, who had told him that marrying the daughter of his employee would bring him good fortune,” a senior police officer told The Indian Express earlier.
But Jeevajothi refused to marry Rajagopal, and instead tied the knot with Santhakumar in 1999. Santhakumar, who was a former tuition teacher, was employed with the Saravana Bhavan chain at the time.
According to the prosecution, Rajagopal told the couple to separate. When they refused, Rajagopal set his thugs on them. On October 1, 2001, the couple filed a case with the local police station.
A few days later, Santhakumar was kidnapped from Chennai and taken to Kodaikanal, where he was murdered, according to the case against Rajagopal. The body was recovered from the Tiger Chola forest, and the autopsy established he had been strangled.
Brush with the law
On November 23, 2001, Rajagopal surrendered. He got bail, but less than two years later, on July 15, 2003, he was accused of trying to bribe Jeevajothi with Rs 6 lakh, intimidating her, and assaulting her brother Ramkumar.
A Chennai trial court convicted him of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and sentenced him to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment and fined him Rs 55 lakh, including Rs 50 lakh as compensation to Jeevajothi.
In March 2009, a Division Bench of the High Court said that the trial court had made a mistake by not sentencing him and his co-accused for murder under Section 302 of the IPC.
Rajagopal appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Madras High Court order. “In our considered opinion, the prosecution has proved the complicity of all the appellants in murdering Santhakumar by strangulating him and thereafter throwing the dead body at Tiger Chola (in Kodaikanal),” the apex court said.
The evidence was “natural, consistent, cogent and probable”, and it did “not find any reason to disagree with the findings arrived at in that regard by the Trial Court as well as by the High Court”, the Supreme Court said.