Top Indian cleric charged with murder

CHENNAI, India — A high- profile Hindu religious leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saras-wathi, has been arrested as a primary suspect in the Sept. 3 killing of one his most vocal critics, A. Sankararaman, the manager of the Varadaraja Perumal temple.

Jayendra Saraswathi, 70, is very close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other “hindutva” (Hindu nationalist) forces in India and abroad. He played a vital role in the last three parliamentary elections in favor of the BJP-led coalition.

A number of prominent politicians and industrialists are disciples of this self-styled religious guru. The president of India himself, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is a devotee of this man. Other high-profile followers include Gyanedra, king of Nepal; A.B. Vajpayee, former prime minister of India; L.K. Advani, president of the BJP; R. Venkataraman, former president of India, and Murali Manohar Joshi, a top BJP leader and former cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government.

The arrest of Jayendra Saraswathi, combined with recent allegations of financial wrongdoing by his religious institution, the Kanchi Kama Koti Mutt, is rocking the hindutva forces in India. Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the BJP, described the arrest as an attack on the Hindu religion. Some of the top brass of hindutva politics described this arrest as a “gift to Muslims and Christians.”

The RSS asked the BJP leadership to visit Jayendra Saraswathi in prison and to offer him all assistance. Almost immediately, the BJP dispatched Murali Manohar Joshi to Chennai, where Jayendra Saraswathi is being held in custody.

The behavior of the hindutva forces shows they want to capitalize on the arrest for narrow, partisan ends. They are trying to fan religious intolerance, and — through tactics like staging a sit-in on the steps of Parliament and a three-day, nationwide hunger strike — have scored some initial success.

Jayendra Saraswathi was not a highly ranked religious figure in India prior to 1998. But the formation of BJP-led governments in 1998 and 1999 afforded him extensive influence in national politics. BJP leaders made frequent visits to his religious institution.

He soon became a power broker in New Delhi. He did favors for several industrialists seeking unlawful contracts and licenses from the government after he received huge donations from them. Upper-class politicians and business people used his religious charm and well-established connections to make profits at the expense of the people.

Jayendra Saraswathi is also infamous for his negative attitude towards lower-caste people who live below the poverty line.

Left parties in India welcomed his arrest and said in separate statements that everyone should be equal before the law. The Congress Party is silent, probably because some of its leaders are also very close to this guru.

Everybody is looking to the Madras High Court, where the case is being heard.

M.K.N. Moorthy is the publisher of a progressive Malayalam language publication in Kerala, India, and a freelance correspondent for the World. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.