THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Swami Saswathikananda was feeling tired on the morning of July 2, 2002. The powerful guru of the Ezhava community, a major vote bank, had just returned from a trip to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. So he decided to go for a swim. But the Periyar river was swollen because of torrential rains. So he set out for the bathroom of the Adwaidasramam. To his surprise, there was faeces inside. He had no option but to head to the bathing ghat. Sabu, one of the swami’s ever-present aides, did not reportedly accompany him to the bathing ghat.
When the swami did not return for a long time, people went searching for him. When his body was recovered, there was a big gash on his face. There were initial suspicions that a rod might have been used. What also deepened the belief that it was an unnatural death was because Saswathikananda was known to be a good swimmer.
There were suggestions that it was part of a conspiracy to force Saswathikananda to go to the river and take a dip. The hired killers might have accomplished their job with ease in the isolated spot. The then Chief Minister A K Antony ordered a probe by the crime branch.
However, after an investigation, the police concluded that the death was by drowning. They explained away the gash by saying that, most probably, the Swami might have hit his head on a rock on the river bank. And it proved fatal.
But the death raised suspicions because there was a power tussle between rival groups at the Sivagiri Mutt. This led to a police action and the subsequent resignation of Swami Saswathikananda.
At that time, allegations had been leveled against the SNDP Yogam General Secretary Vellapally Natesan, who was anointed to the powerful post by the swami. Both of them had reportedly fallen out after a few years of bonhomie. One of the reasons were financial disputes, apart from large-scale corruption in the running of educational and other institutions under the SN Trust, a powerful arm of the SNDP Yogam.
After 13 years, political leaders lost no time to win support of the Ezhava community by voicing their convern over the suspicion surrounding the godman’s death. Recently, the issue reared up when the controversial hotelier and bar owner and Sree Narayana Dharma Vedi general secretary Biju Ramesh brought the allegations against Natesan once again in the public. He alleged that the swami was murdered at the behest of the SNDP Yogam leader.
Biju said Priyan, the suspected killer, had sent a letter to him where he spoke about his involvement. Ramesh had also deposed before the crime branch last week. Biju is a close aide of Gokulam Gopalan, who has substantial interests in the hospitality sector, film production, healthcare and chit business. Gokulam, who heads the Sree Narayana Dharama Vedi, is opposed to Natesan. CPI(M) veteran and Opposition Leader V S Achuthanandan lost no time to throw his weight behind Ramesh. He demanded a re-investigation and the suspected role played by Natesan. KPCC president V M Sudheeran, who also had an axe to grind with Natesan, too joined Achuthanandan’s bandwagon.
Achuthanandan made the issue, as well as the multi-crore turnover minting micro-finance scheme of the SNDP, a campaign plank in the just concluded local bodies polls, thereby shoring up political support from the Ezhava community to which both he and Natesan belongs. By this, Achuthanandan extinguished, to some extent, the likely threat posed by the SNDP-BJP tie-up to the CPI(M).
But Natesan has dismissed the charges. He maintained that the crime branch probe had confirmed that the Swami had attained ‘Jalasamadhi’. “I’m ready to face any probe, including that of the CBI, and, if found guilty, will go to Kaashi,” said Natesan.
Pat came the reply from Achuthanandan: “Natesan need not go to Narendra Modi’s Varanasi constituency, but will land up in the central prison at Poojappura.”
Natesan had been lying low after that. On November 5, the day of the second phase of the local polls, Achuthanandan fired another salvo. “Natesan should quit the general secretary post of SNDP Yogam. He and his son, Thushar, are suspected of being behind the death of Swami Saswathikananda,” he said.
Natesan shot back: “If Achuthanandan is ready to quit his plum posts because of the ongoing charges and cases against his son, then I shall also demit office.”
The immediate provocation for Achuthanandan was Natesan’s move to forge an alliance with BJP in Kerala. The Ezhava community, a backward class, is traditionally supportive of the Left.
Natesan had met PM Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah to thrash out a deal. Ever since, the Opposition and ruling front have turned against him. When the war of attrition did not work, the case of Saswathikananda was raked up.
The common perception was that Swami Saswathikananda was done to death by someone. The case of an accidental death or suicide are viewed as rubbish theories, simply because the Swami was very active and powerful in various realms, unlike the normal ascetics.
Rumours were rife at that time that hired killers were engaged to eliminate the Swami. One of the names which surfaced as a killer was that of Priyan, a well-known henchman of liquor barons. The needle of suspicion was pointed towards Natesan and his son Thushar. It gathered wind since the death was reported amid a deepening rift between the pontiff and Natesan.
Both of them had displayed one soul and one mind for many years ever since Natesan, a prominent civil works contractor and liquor baron, was handpicked by Swami Saswathikananda to head the SNDP Yogam.
After a few years in the saddle, Natesan groomed himself into a leader of his own. The inevitable followed and Natesan began to snub and neglect the pontiff, deviating from a line of ‘joint operations’, the key of which was nothing but big money.
Many tried to bring a thaw in the strained relations between the two. Sugathan, an SNDP Yogam activist from Mavelikkara and a businessman in Bahrain was one among them. He arranged a breakfast meeting of the two at his residence at Bahrain.
“It only ended in a tiff with Natesan challenging the Swami to do what he can, when the latter warned that he could unseat the former in the same manner in which he was brought in as the head of the SNDP Yogam. Natesan even called the Swami a ‘Motta’, referrring to his tonsured head,” says Sugathan. There were also reports that Thushar Vellappally, who was also present, had later roughed up the Swami in Dubai. The pontiff ended his visit to the Gulf region abruptly and returned all alone. A couple of days later, he was no more.