Arrest of a Prominent Hindu Cleric: A Test of Indian Secularism

Jayendra Saraswati (left) exiting a police van at the Judicial Magistrate's Court in the city of Kancheepuram, India, Nov. 12, 2004. (Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP-Getty Images)

Until the deadly tsunami crashed ashore across southern India, the leading news story here had been the arrest in November of a high-profile Hindu cleric on murder charges, rocking national politics and stirring debate about the rule of law and the role of religious institutions across the country. On Nov. 11, Jayendra Saraswati, revered head of a major monastery in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, was arrested for conspiracy to murder one of his devotees.

In the wake of Saraswati’s arrest, his supporters and various political leaders have called the action an affront to Hinduism and anti-majoritarian. Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) leader L. K. Advani claims that the arrest of the holy man comes in “a general climate of pseudo-secularism” in which “maligning the Hindu faith” demonstrates one’s secular credentials.

In response, there are claims that Advani and the B.J.P. are politicizing the arrest of the religious leader in order to advance the party’s Hindu nationalist ideology. The B.J.P. lost control of the central government to the Congress party in May 2004 elections.

Police contend that early in September Saraswati ordered a group of men to kill A. Sankararaman, manager of a temple in Tamil Nadu and an outspoken critic of Saraswati. Sankararaman had bombarded Saraswati for years with critical letters questioning his financial and political dealings. Sankararaman also distributed pseudonymous pamphlets critical of Saraswati.

Several weeks after the murder, in an interview with the Tamil magazine Nakkheeran, Saraswati accused Sankararaman of harassing him for decades with false allegations. While denying involvement in the murder, he implied that the victim’s continued harassment over the years might have ultimately led to the crime. “My devotees, who could not tolerate Sankararaman’s harassment, could be the reason for Sankararaman’s end. How can I be responsible for it?”

Saraswati is no stranger to the spotlight. His actions over the past decade, such as launching welfare programs, building schools and hospitals, and attempting to mediate communal tensions, have made him one of the most visible Hindu leaders in India. However, many have interpreted these actions not as altruistic, but as attempts to expand his personal influence. He has been accused of grabbing the political spotlight and of squandering his credibility by aligning himself too closely with divisive political figures.

There was little spontaneous popular protest in reaction to Saraswati’s arrest, but Hindu nationalists and holy men have staged fasts, sit-ins, and street protests. Government officials are quick to assert that the case must take its natural course according to the rule of law, with no special considerations, though they are also sensitive to the fact that the individual charged is revered by millions. As a result, questions about the nature of Indian secularism and its role in the courts have been a constant theme in press coverage.

Government officials claim that the evidence against Saraswati is strong. In late November, he was charged in another case while still in custody. The new allegations relate to an attack on another man suspected of writing critical letters to Saraswati. Since these charges have emerged, the police indicate that Saraswati has confessed to his involvement in the murder of Sankararaman. Saraswati has denied making any such confession. Contributing to the wider scandal, lurid rumors of sexual impropriety, including rape, now cast a darker shadow on the cleric and on the temple he maintained.

Saraswati’s judicial custody has been extended until Jan. 6. A bail hearing on Monday, Dec. 27, was abruptly adjourned due to concerns about the possibility of further earthquake and tsunami damage.