Nearly 21 years after then Janata Party President Subramanian Swamy filed a complaint against late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the trial court’s verdict convicting her, and three others in the Disproportionate Assets case. While the wealth case has seen numerous twists and turns over two decades, for those like former Tamil Nadu DGP Letika Saran, who was the first investigator in the case, the Supreme Court’s verdict comes as a “vindication for officers at the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption”.
It all began in June 1996. Letika Saran, who was DIG at the time, was ordered by the Principal and District Sessions Judge to inquire into a private complaint by Subramanian Swamy, who had accused Jayalalithaa of amassing wealth and property during her first term as CM between 1991 and 1996.
“I was ordered to conduct an investigation and was asked to submit an inquiry report within two months. Some officials and I began the inquiry under Section 202 of the CrPC,” recalls Letika Saran.
Image courtesy: YouTube screengrab
Letika went about the task of collecting records and documents from various banks, registration offices and from the Registrar of Firms. But even as the investigation was on, Jayalalithaa and Sasikala approached the Madras High Court seeking a stay on the grounds that only the agency registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act, - the DVAC – was authorised to conduct an inquiry.
While the High Court granted a temporary stay in August 1996, a month later, the court directed the DVAC to investigate the allegations against Jayalalithaa and the others.
“I was working at the DVAC at the time. I, however, recommended that a Deputy Superintendent or Additional Superintendent investigate the complaint rather than a DIG. Investigating officers are better at investigations than a senior officer,” says Letika.
She handed over her case diary to Nallama Naidu, who went on to become the Investigating Officer. After she was moved out of the DVAC, Letika admits that she didn’t follow the wealth case closely but did read about it in the newspaper. “It was in good hands,” she says and adds, “While I have no comments on the verdict, the fact that the Supreme Court has upheld the trial court’s verdict is a vindication for officers of the DVAC.”
But the high-profile investigation into the ill-gotten wealth of a former Chief Minister was by no means an easy task for those at the Vigilance Directorate. RK Raghavan, who was heading the DVAC at the time, tells TNM, “I was caught between a hostile AIADMK and an overzealous DMK. Somehow, I was able to strike a healthy balance.”
On December 7, 1996 Jayalalithaa was arrested by CB-CID in the colour-TV case. Realising that timing was everything Raghavan ordered a search on Jayalalithaa’s Veda Nilayam residence in Poes Garden. In an article for The Hindu, he writes, “The search of Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence in Chennai was a historic event. No one was willing to believe that we had the courage to go into Poes Garden and search the house, ‘Veda Nilayam’.”
But the DVAC chief notes that he acted with propriety, obtaining Jayalalithaa’s consent in writing for carrying out a search at her residence in her absence.
Image Courtesy: PTI
In hindsight, Raghavan admits that he was “apprehensive” of evidence being destroyed prior to the search, but says, “I honestly believe we were able to get most of what we wanted.” The searches at her properties in Hyderabad and Chennai unearthed a wealth of valuables including, as reported by India Today, “jewellery-30 kg of gold (400 pairs of bangles) and 500 kg of silver- over 100 wrist watches, more than 150 curios and semi-precious stones, besides a wardrobe of 10,000 saris and 250 pairs of imported footwear.”
20-odd years later, the former DVAC chief says, “The Supreme Court’s verdict provides to all Investigating Officers the incentive to plod and persevere,” noting that it has also given a shot in the arm for the whole community of Anti-Corruption investigators and agencies in the country.
As parting words of wisdom to those investigating high-profile corruption cases, Raghavan says, “Don't ever go overboard and don't be vindictive. Treat everybody with respect. Never use third degree methods to extract information. Be lawful all the time.”