Shankaracharya granted bail

Agence France Presse

New Delhi, January 10:

India’s Supreme Court today granted bail to a revered Hindu priest suspected of murdering an aide, but ordered him not to return to his hermitage before formal charges are brought.

Jayendra Saraswathi, 71, the most powerful of Hinduism’s four chief priests, was arrested in November on suspicion of murder, criminal conspiracy and suppression of evidence over the death of his aide Thiru Sankararaman.

“We are of the opinion that prima facie a strong case has been made out for grant of bail,” the judges found. “He will be relieved from prison after furnishing a bail bond and two sureties.” The priest was ordered to surrender his passport, cooperate with the investigation and appear before police when required.

The court dismissed objections from the prosecution that if the seer was set free, a number of witnesses in the case could feel pressured into lying. Saraswathi’s bail plea, rejected repeatedly in lower courts, was heard on Friday by a panel of judges headed by the Chief Justice RC Lahoti. Their findings were released today.

Sankararaman, 52, once a close aide of Saraswathi had alleged financial irregularities at the institution headed by the priest.

The news of the seer’s release on bail was hailed by various Hindu nationalist leaders and groups. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said his release had alleviated the “pain in the hearts of millions of Hindus.”

Praveen Togadia, general secretary of the nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad said Saraswathi’s release meant the Tamil Nadu police “could not present concrete evidence against him.”

Ram Madhav, spokesman for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh said court proceedings showed the arguments against the seer getting bail were weak. He described the case as “baseless propaganda to tarnish the image and reputation of an ancient Hindu institution.”