The Supreme Court today (Tuesday, July 9) refused relief to P Rajagopal, the owner of Saravana Bhavan hotel chain, who cited medical grounds for extension of time to surrender in a case of murder of his employee 18 years ago.
Rajagopal was supposed to surrender on July 7 as per a March 2019 judgment of the Supreme Court, holding him guilty in the case and sentencing him to life imprisonment.
The case had attracted international attention, as much for its sensational nature as for the fact that Saravana Bhavan, a well-known restaurant chain, has outlets in 20 countries including the US, the UK, France and Australia. There are 25 restaurants in India including in Delhi.
In 2004 P Rajagopal was convicted in the kidnapping and murder of an employee, Santhakumar. A local court had sentenced Rajagopal and five others involved in the murder to 10 years in prison, said media reports. Five years later the Madras High Court upheld the verdict and increased the sentence to life in prison, a punishment then upheld by the Supreme Court in March this year.
In its order, a three judge bench of Justices NV Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee had held that, “Having regard to the entire material on record and the totality of the facts and circumstances, we find that the evidence on record fully proves the case of the prosecution.”
Following the Supreme Court’s confirmation of his sentence, the Rajagopal was expected to surrender before the court or the local police on July 7, Sunday. However, he failed to do so. It is reported that he got admitted to a hospital on July 4, after spending the last few months since his sentence at his Ashok Nagar residence.
He filed a petition in the apex court seeking an extension of the deadline to surrender, saying he had been hospitalised and needed more time. The hearing had been postponed to Tuesday.
However, Rajagopal’s accomplices, including Daniel, Karmegam, Zakir Hussain, Kasi Viswanathan and Patturajan, surrendered before the fourth additional session court in Chennai.
Today, the Bench of Justices NV Ramana, M Mohan Shanatanagoudar, and Ajay Rastogi said he must surrender immediately. “If he was so ill, why did he not choose to indicate the same during the hearing of his appeal here?” Justice NV Ramana asked senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who appeared for Rajagopal, on Tuesday.
“No more adjournments now,” Justice Mohan M Shantanagoudar, on the Bench, observed orally.
Giving the background of the case, an NDTV report said that the case, which has attracted considerable attention both in India and abroad, goes back to the 1990s, when Rajagopal wanted to marry Jeevajothi, the daughter of an assistant manager at Saravana Bhavan’s Chennai branch.
At the time Rajagopal already had two wives and Jeevajothi had refused his proposal. She married Santakumar in 1999. The prosecution told the court Rajagopal threatened the couple in 2001 and demanded they call off the marriage.
The couple even filed a complaint at a local police station saying they were intimidated by the Rajagopal’s gang. On October 26, 2001, Shanthakumar was kidnapped and strangled to death by Rajagopal’s henchmen.
The Forest Department found Shanthakumar’s body in Tiger Chola Forests. A charge sheet was filed under Section 302(murder), 364(abduction) and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the IPC.
In 2004, a special court found the hotelier guilty and awarded him 10-years of rigorous imprisonment. The Saravana Bhavan owner challenged the special court’s decision and the prosecution sought enhancement of the punishment. In 2009, the Madras High Court enhanced the punishment of Rajagopal to life imprisonment and imposed a fine of Rs 55 lakh, including Rs 50 lakh as compensation to Jeevajyothi.
On March 29, 2019, dismissing appeals against the 2009 verdict of the Madras High Court, a Supreme Court bench comprising Justices NV Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee ruled: “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 Supreme Court had concluded that the steadfast testimonies of Jeevajothi and her family, the circumstantial evidence, recovery of personal items, such as the wallet and a gold chain of the victim, along with forensic techniques such as the superimposition test to identify the body, undoubtedly pointed to the guilt of Rajagopal and his henchman. All of them had appealed in the Supreme Court after the Madras High Court had convicted and sentenced him to undergo life imprisonment.