Saravanaa Bhavan murder case: Rajagopal surrenders amid high courtroom drama

Three months after the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of dosa king P Rajagopal in the 2001 Saravanaa Bhavan murder case, he arrived by ambulance to surrender before a Chennai court on Tuesday—on a stretcher with an oxygen mask in tow.

The scene made for a dramatic culmination of the 18-year quest for justice for Prince Santhakumar, who was abducted and murdered in 2001.

The Supreme Court, in a historic verdict in March, upheld the life term for Rajagopal, now 72, concluding that the founder of the popular South Indian restaurant chain was complicit in the conspiracy that rocked Tamil Nadu in the early ’00s.

According to case files and news reports, Rajagopal wanted to marry Jeevajyothi, the daughter of an employee who eventually married Santhakumar, another employee. When Jeevajyothi didn’t oblige, Rajagopal threatened, abducted, and plotted Santhakumar’s murder, reportedly hiring 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. After a lengthy trial, the apex court upheld their original verdict, giving Rajagopal time until July 7 to surrender; in 2009, he was given bail on medical grounds.

With the verdict in March, the door closed on Rajagopal, who had started as a tea maker to found the 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.

Born in Tamil Nadu in 1947, Rajagopal, the son of an onion farmer, came into the limelight at the turn of the century, when his chain of South Indian restaurants became synonymous across the world. Saravanaa Bhavan is a booming vegetarian restaurant chain that Rajagopal built from the ground. It has franchises all over the world, including the US, the UK, Canada, France, Australia, and Singapore.

Eighteen years later, the sense of entitlement and impunity Rajagopal enjoyed effectively ends with his surrender, and Jeevajyothi gets justice; but is it too late to amount to anything?

Nonetheless, the septuagenarian’s surrender this week effectively marks the beginning of his life sentence.

A sordid affair

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 her father 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 jewellery 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 its latest observation in March, the court noted, “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 offences under sections 302 (murder), 364 (abduction), and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the IPC, following which the alleged conspiracy came to light.

After 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.

Case rooted in a lot of social mores

In a way, the sordid chain of events can be traced back to general opposition against inter-religious marriages. Conservative communities in India are still against inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, despite laws to firmly deal with moral policing and honour killing.

The Supreme Court set aside the Kerala High Court’s judgment 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.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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