Eighteen years on, justice upheld in Saravanaa Bhavan murder case: This is why it matters

The Supreme Court, in a historic verdict, upheld the life term for P Rajagopal in the Saravanaa Bhavan murder case; it found the founder of the popular South Indian restaurant chain guilty of conspiracy to abduct and murder employee Prince Santhakumar in Tamil Nadu back in 2001.

The apex court on Saturday, March 30, upheld his conviction, giving the hotelier time till July 3 to surrender on medical grounds. He got bail in 2009 owing to his failing health.

Rajagopal, also known as the Indian dosa king, built the popular vegetarian restaurant chain from the ground, with franchises all over the world, including the US, the UK, Canada, France, Australia, and Singapore.

According to the prosecution, Rajagopal wanted to marry Jeevajyothi, the daughter of Saravanaa Bhavan employee Ramaswamy and later Santhakumar’s wife. When she didn’t oblige, Rajagopal threatened, abducted, and plotted Santhakumar’s murder; he even hired eight henchmen to carry out the job.

A long period of harassment, intimidation, and stalking preceded before Santhakumar’s murder; he was found buried in the Kodaikanal municipal burial ground.

The sordid saga

Rajagopal, aka Annachi, became “besotted” with a 20-year-old Jeevajyothi and started pursuing her, in the nineties; he wanted her to become his third wife. 

In 1999, Jeevajyothi fell in love and married Santhakumar, her maths teacher and a Christian, which Ramaswamy did not consent to. Later, Santhakumar, too, joined the eatery chain.

After the newlyweds approached Rajagopal for a loan, his obsession became more aggressive. Under the pretext of financially helping the family, he started gifting Jeevajyothi expensive and mobile phones, paying her medical bills, calling her on a daily basis, and even trying to drive a wedge between the couple.

In 2001, when Jeevajyothi threatened to go to the police and tried to move out of Chennai, Rajagopal’s henchmen accosted them. According to Newsminute, the hotelier even boasted he would “manage police with money”, giving the example of his second wife, who too had married him under duress, saying she lived a “queen’s life after”. She, too, had been the wife of a former employee, says Indian Express.

It seemed Rajagopal had bribed his way through, because law enforcement authorities did not take the couple’s complaint seriously; soon after, Jeevajyothi was abducted and taken to a village to dispel her “witchcraft”.

Later that year, in October, Jeevajyothi and Santhakumar were separated en route to Tiruchendur; a few days later, forest officials found Santhakumar’s body at Perumalmalai in the Kodaikanal range.

In the latest observation, the court notes, “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 Saravanaa Bhavan murder case

The police filed a charge sheet for under sections 302 (murder), 364 (abduction), and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the IPC, following which the alleged conspiracy came to light.

When the Saravanaa Bhavan murder case hit the headlines, Rajagopal surrendered on November 23, 2001, and got bail. But in 2003, the police filed fresh charges against him for attempting to bribe Jeevajyothi with Rs 6 lakh, intimidating her, and assaulting her brother Ramkumar.

In 2004, a sessions court first found the hotelier guilty and sentenced him to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment for culpable homicide; it also slapped a fine of Rs 55 lakh, which included Rs 50 lakh as compensation to Jeevajyothi, on him. 

When Rajagopal challenged his conviction before a higher court, the prosecution sought an enhancement of his punishment.

A division bench of the Madras High Court comprising Justices Banumathi and P K Misra, on March 19, 2009, set aside the sessions court’s punishment, convicting Rajagopal under IPC section 302. This justified the sentence of life imprisonment for Rajagopal and five others, including henchman Daniel.

The 2009 verdict noted that an astrologer’s advice—increase in prosperity in business if he took Jeevajyothi as his third wife—may have motivated Rajagopal’s actions.

The Supreme Court’s order in the Saravanaa Bhavan murder case comes 10 years after the Madras High Court’s sentence. A bench of Justices N V Ramana, M M Shantanagoudar, and Indira Banerji dismissed nine appeals of nine convicts, including Rajagopal, and upheld the HC verdict.

Why it matters

If the trajectory of events resembles that of a potboiler, the underlying social mores that have dictated the inter-caste couple’s fate prove that potboilers come from a place of ugly truth.

In many ways, Santhakumar and Jeevajyothi’s predicament can be traced back to opposition to their marriage on religious grounds. Conservative communities in India are still against inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, despite laws to firmly deal with moral policing and killing.

The Supreme Court set aside the Kerala High Court’s  last year, which had annulled an inter-caste marriage in the infamous Hadiya case.

The court also laid down guidelines to protect couples who often face societal ostracisation, or worse. The police, too, miserably fail couples who seek redressal, despite the law clearly stating: “If two adults marry by consent, whatever be their caste, religion or gotra, no one can interfere in such a marriage, neither the relatives nor panchayats.”

Another social evil, which greatly devalues the role of women in matrimony is polygamy; it exists despite being uniformly illegal for all citizens, barring Muslims.

At the end of the day, the Saravanaa Bhavan murder case is a classic example of a powerful and privileged man unable to take no for an answer.

With this latest verdict, the door closes on Rajagopal, who started as a tea maker to found the popular South Indian restaurant chain. He was once hailed as a model employer paying good salaries and ensuring the education and health of his employees and their families.

Eighteen years later, the sense of entitlement and impunity Rajagopal enjoyed ends, and Jeevajyothi gets justice. But at what cost?

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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