High intrigue. Deadly power struggle

in Puttaparthi



JUNE 20, 1993, pages 28-33. 

Intense power struggle leads to spilling of blood in Puttaparthi ashram. But the target of attack was not Satya Sai Baba, but his personal assistant. There was jealousy, greed and a desperate desire to cover up misdeeds. And was one of the boys shot by the police in cold blood? There are several other questions which are as intriguing as the miracle man’s mystique.

Text by MRD

Drawings by Prakash Shetty

1. Assailants enter reception room on the ground floor, kill Radhakrishna and Mahajan, wound two others and lock themselves in.

2. Sai Baba wakes up, locks the door connecting the two wings on the first floor and moves to a room on the far end of the eastern wing.

3. Police use a ladder to climb up the first floor and break open the door of Baba’s living room.

4. Assailants run into the Baba’s bedroom and bolt the door. Police force the door open and shoot them dead.

Why, Baba?

Suresh Prabhu, 35, drank a glass of water and left home a little after nine on that Sunday night. He told his wife, Vineeta, to go to bed without waiting for him as he would be returning late. Though Vineeta was used to spending her nights alone at Puttaparthi’s Prashanti Nilayam, since her marine engineer husband was often away on ships, June 6 was a particularly lonely night for her. Only the previous day had her husband enrolled their three children in the ashram’s boarding school. It was a decision that mystified her. For the school was quite near their residence.

But Vineeta was not one who would question her husband. She was all admiration for him, and considered him a genius. They got married in 1981, the match-maker was Satya Sai Baba, and they lived in the quarters allotted by their living god along with Suresh’s aged farther Shantaram, a retired flight lieutenant. All in the family had absolute faith in the Baba, and Suresh, doing volunteer work while on leave from shipping company, was to be on guard duty at Prashanti Mandir (the Baba’s abode in Prashanti Nilayam) that night.

The man who chose guards for the night was Suresh’s elder brother Vijay Chandra Prabhu, 45, who was in charge of the Vocational Training Centre at the ashram. Besides his brother, Vijay had drafted N. Jagannathan, the ashram’s stationery supplier, and E.K. Suresh Kumar, a lanky Keralite educated in Malaysia before he took his M.Com from Saty Sai Baba Institue of Higher Learning. They used to hold frequent whisper sessions at the Vocational Training Centre and they shared an intense dislike for Radhakrishna, the Baba’s personal assistant.

The young Kumar had a close persoanl relationship with the Baba before Radhakrishna, 45, replaced him in the Baba’s affections. Soon enough, Kumar lost his place in the powerful inner circle, which controls access to the Baba and dispenses favours. Vijay was apparently angry with Radhakrishna for accusing him of embezzling Rs 1 lakh from the Vocational Training Centre. And Jagannathan suspected that Radhakrishna was trying to scullte his stationery business with Prashanti Nilayam and also the ashram at Whitefield near Bangalore. Mixed up with them somehow was a thin, dark bespectacled young man called K. Sairam. Son of V. Krishan Murthy, a staunch Sai Baba devotee living in Bangalore. Sairam was a M.Com student of the ashram.

Most of the lights had been switched off by the time Suresh Prabhu reported for guard duty at Prashanti Mandir. Sai Baba, 67, had gone through his evening routine, having given the public darshan and afterwards a private audience to a handful of important devotees in the reception room on the ground floor of the two storey building. And he had retired to his bedroom, climbing up the wooden stairs, after a simple dinner. The bedroom had just a cot, a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba and a dressing table.

Outside, the vast ground where hundreds of devotees waited every morning and evening for his darshan, had fallen silent. On this night there were 500 of them and Sai Seva Dal volunteers, with sticks in hand, strolled around in the complex to keep watch against petty thefts. Soon they would unroll their bedding on the verandah.

Vijay Prabhu had posted his brother, Kumar and Jagannathan along the main hall and they had knives and daggers concealed in their bedding. The assault was mounted around 10 p.m. when the trio walked along the verandah, switched off the remaining lights and rang the doorbell of the reception room.

Inside the room were lecturer Sai Kumar Mahajan, the Baba’s cook Vishnu Bhatt, and a student called Anil Paitley. So too, perhaps, was Sairam. The trio had no problem entering the room and they said they had brought a telegram for the Baba from godman Chandraswamy. It was then that Radhakrishna, who was in the Baba’s suite on the first floor, came down and was immediately stabbed to death. Mahajan, too, was killed in the scuffle and Vishnu Bhatt and Paitley lay wounded.

The assailants swiftly bolted the door of the reception room but a young boy in the vicinity who witnessed the stabbing ran behind the room, throwing open the door that led to the veranda. His screams woke up devotees whoe were sleeping in adjacent rooms and they rushed to the spot. Suddenly, the assailants shouted from within the room that they were trying to save the Baba from Kashmiri terrorists who were tryint to kidnap him. That was red-herring thrown to confuse the crowd.

The commotion woke up the Baba, who pressed an alarm button which sent everyone in the complex scurrying out of bed and switched on the floodlights. Anxious students shinned up the pillars of the building and landed on the first floor. There they saw the Baba heading for a room at the far end of the hall on the eastern wing, after locking a door connecting the two wings.

The siren brought in throngs of devotees and villagers who, armed with broomsticks and sticks, surrounded the building. Among them was Suresh Prabhu’s father, who ironically did not know his son was among the hunted. Realising that they were outnumbered, the assailants ran up the stairs and locked themselves in the Baba’s living room. Hot on the heels were the devotees who banged on the door. Still the assailants tried to outwit them by claiming "we have come to protect the Baba as some people are coming to attack him." Confusion reigned supreme till some devotees who had seen the assailants downstairs confirmed that the men in the room were the killers.

Suddenly, police were on the scene, perhaps alterted by the Baba’s brother ("I went to the police station and brought them here," said Janakiramalah) or on hearing the shouts (as claimed by Circle Inspector K.N. Gangadhar Reddy). Using a ladder, the plicemen entered the first floor and broke the door.

"We tried to make them surrender but in vain," said the inspector. "So we broke open the door and two of them charged at us with daggers. When we tried to catch them, they escaped into the next room." It was the Baba’s bedroom and all the four, including Sairam, were shot dead there.

The police faced flak for shooting them down and, in effect, preempting confessions. While some investigating officers admitted that the reaction was knee-jerk, eyewitnesses claimed that the killing of the young Sairam was in cold blood. A police officer, too, pointed to the possibility that Sairam could have chased the killers into th eBaba’s room but got locked with them and was killed by the police.

Expelled from the college twice for misconduct, Sairam had been readmitted at the Baba’s instance and had always been faithful to the Baba. His house in Bangalore is full of photographs of him with the Baba, sharing a podium with him, falling at his feet holding his hand, and so on. "I cannot believe that my son would ever have tried to kill his god," said Saroja, running her hands over the pot containing his ashes.

"Could the police not have shot to disarm them instead of killing them," asked Sairam’s anguished father in Bangalore pointing out that the assailants had no guns. Even as the assailants had no guns. Even as the assailants were pacing up and down the locked room, some trustees encouraged the policemen to shoot them down. Said a police officer: "There was no competent senior officer. Someone with presence of mind would not have reacted like that. They just became trigger-happy."

But there was also the possibility of the police men mistaking the assailants for Naxalites, who prowl the Penokonda taluk, and not taking chances, said another officer. Besides, if the assailants had escaped and harmed the Baba, the necks of the policemen would have been on the block. Some residents of the ashram, however, insisted that the shots were heard quite some time after the police entered the Baba’s room. And there were reports of the police arriving on the scene twice. Did they return to the station after disarming the assailants and rush back to the spot with orders to silence the assailants?

Surprisingly, authorities at Prashanti Nilayam chose not to lodge a formal police complaint on the incident. But he told Police Commissioner of Hyderabad, J. Dora, a devotee of his, that it was a case of eersha dvesham (Telugu for act done out of jealousy).

The exitement caused by the attack and the seizure of potassium cyanide from the assailants mounted the next day when explosives were found in the Vocational Training Centre. However, teh kingpin in the conspiracy, Vijay Prabhu, had fled the coop.

Investigating officers were convinced that the assailants had no intention to harm the Baba. Had they wanted to harm him they would have rushed straight to his room instead of hanging around in the reception room till the crowds gathered. "Their target undoubtedly was Radhakrishna. Functioning as the eyes and ears of the Baba, he had also made himself unpopular with several members of the trust that controls the many institutions set up in the name of the Baba the world over.

In fact, the trustees were themselves engaged in a faction feud. One faction was led by the Baba’s brother Janakiramaiah and the other by col. Joga Rao and Narayan, the trust secretary. (The othter trustees are K.R. Prasad and the rajmata of Bangalore, Indular Shah of Bombay and Sreenivasan of Madras. The Baba is the chairman.) Some of them have been collecting large sums and also gold and where there is money there is funny business. The surmise is taht Radhakrishna had been passing on vital information to the Baba about serious financial fiddles.

One man who was annoyed by the suggestion that the assailants never wanted to harm the Baba was Janakiramaiah. "If they did not want that why did they rush to his room with knives?" he asked angrily. However, Andhra Pradesh Director-General of Police, T. Suryananrayanan Rao said, "we have a feeling that there was no attempt on the Baba’s life, only on that of the others. There are some groups in the ashram and there is unhappiness between them."

That there was disgruntlement in the ashram was obvious. Many disciples of the Baba were appalled by the domineering attitude of the governing members. There was also a growing feeling that the Baba was not recognising the devotion of those who had been with him for decades. Many of his devotees were dependent on him materially as well as spiritually, they having quit their jobs to serve him. It is them that the lack of recognition would hurt most.

For a week, the attack in Prahanti Nilayam kept every tongue wagging. The theories thrown up by the authorities ranged from reasonable to the ridiculous. ‘Naxalites’ was one spontaneous cry but it was muffled soon enough. Another theory about a sinister Hindutva conncetion, seen in the assailants escorting Vishwa Hindu Parishad generela secretary Ashok Singhal during a visit to the ashram, raised much more promise before teh authorities discounted it. Why, there was even talk about a Dawood Ibrahim plot to do in the Baba.

And the Baba kept on smiling, distributing the sweets, but refusing to enlighten the public about the motive of the attack. "Only Baba knowns what really happened on that night," says Vineeta. "After all, he is our god."

M.D. Riti in Puttaparthi and Bangalore with Stanley Theodore in Hyderabad.


The key players. (top) Vajay Prabha, Suresh Prabhu and Suresh Kumar; Janakiramalah points to the room where Radhakrishna was killed (above), the killers’ weapons; Circle Inspector Gangadhar Reddy.

Mystery deepening thanks to silence.

Hero’s farewell, Radhakrishna’s funeral procession.

A global network

Dreamy eyed Satyanarayana Raju flung away his school books one morning. His father picked up a cane and fumed: "Who do you thing you are?" The boy scooped up a handful of jasmine flowers and threw them on the ground. They formed the words ‘Sai Baba’ in Telugu.

Then he left the house and squatted on a rock a little distance away. People who flocked to him were given flowers and sugar candy, which he apparently took from the air.

More than 50 years later, people still flock to his dark round face with a halo of springy hair. He has 30 million followers and an organisation that has roots in more than a hundred countries.

Puttaprthi in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh was a mere cluster of mud huts when Sai Baba moved in there half a century ago. There were hardl 50 people. Today it is a teeming township. Sai Baba had worked miracle and made it an educational centre.

First a high school was founded. Then a college. A university, the Sri Satya Sai Institute of Higher lerarning, was set up in 1981. Affiliated to it are womens’ colleges in Anantapur, Jaipur an Bhopal and a men’s college in Whitefield near Bangalore.

Teh globalheadquarters of the Sri Saty Sai Trust, Puttaparthi has a super-specialty hospital buot at a cost of Rs 1 crore, a helipad, a planetarium, a spiritual museum, a sprawling auditorium and three-storey apartment blocks for devotees.

Although the organisation has more than 15,000 centres all over the world, including two in Russia and one in Iran, there is no hundi system in any of them. Donations have to be made directly to the bank accounts of the trusts. And it is big money.

Jahashree Ramamohan

Pall of despair

The bodies of Radhakrishna and Sai Kumar Mahajan were carried in reverence to their resting places, borne high on the shoulders of fellow devotees of Prashanti Nilayam. The body of Jagannathan was buried quietly in Penukonda village. His brother Kodandaram says that he cannot even find the grave.

In Bangalore, V. Krishna Murthy had swung between hope and despair for many hours. When he frantically contacted the hostel authoriteis at Puttaparthi to find out whether his son Sairam had been killed or not, no one would tell him anything. When he called the police station, he was told that no information could be given to him over the phone; he would have to come there in person.

Krishna Murthy read about his son’s death in an evening newspaper in Bangalore half a day after the incident. Jagannathan’s family learnt abotu his death only after the body was buried.

But no one blames the Baba. "This can never affect my relationship with swami," says Krishna Murthy. Suresh Prabhu’s aged father has a busy routine in the ashram as ever. And tears in Vineeta’s eyes do not dim her devotion to the Baba. She says: "I am eternally his disciple."


A plethora of possibilities

ARM-chair detectives had an ideal opportunity to exercise their grey cells when blood flowed in Prashanti Nilayam. They threw up several theories, mostly off the mark and some plausible. Here is a sampling.

Naxalites did it

The assaillants were backed by Naxalites, who have some strenght in Panukonda taluk. Puttaparthi falls in Penukonda. The surmise is based on the discovery of explosives at Vijay Prabhu’s Vocational Training Centre.

Probability: Very low. DGP Suryanarayana Rao, too, does not see an Naxalite connection.

Handiwork of jobless

The assailants were denied jobs and in anger they tried to kill the Baba. The main proponent of this theory is the Baba’s brother, Janakiramaiah.

Probability: Low. Only Suresh Kumar had no job. The Prabhu brothers were well-employed.

For love

Suresh Kumar was jealous of Radhakrishna, who had become the Baba’s new favorite.

Probability: High, but in combination with the material gains theory.

For money or power

The assailants did it for material gains.

Probability: High, in combination with the jealousy theory.

Power struggle

Factions in the ashram fight for control over the vast empre and the finances.

Probability: Very high, combined with the material gains theory.

RSS hand

RSS masterminded the attack. The assailants escorted Ashok Singhal during his visit to the ashram.

Probability: Very low.