A powerful Karnataka seer accused in 2 rape cases and a saga of recusals by judges

Raghaveshwara Bharathi swamy of the Ramachandrapura Math is accused of raping two people, including a minor. 10 HC judges have recused themselves from hearing cases involving the seer.
Raghaveshwara Bharathi, head seer of the Ramachandrapura Math in Karnataka
Raghaveshwara Bharathi, head seer of the Ramachandrapura Math in Karnataka

A powerful seer accused of sexual assault, not once, but twice. A man who heads one of the biggest maths in Karnataka is facing charges of sexually assaulting a minor. At a time when there is a sharp focus on atrocities by religious leaders of all hues, the cases against Raghaveshwara Bharathi, the head seer at Ramachandrapura Math in Karnataka, should have been heard at lightning speed. But that has hardly happened.

One woman, now in her 50s, had accused the seer of raping her between 2011 and 2014. He was acquitted in the case, and an appeal is pending in the High Court. The other complainant was a minor — 15 years old — when she was allegedly raped by the well-networked religious leader. There are other cases against him over alleged land grabbing and misuse of power. But whether it is accusations of rape or questions of land use, many Karnataka High Court judges have recused themselves from cases against the seer Raghaveshwara Bharathi. Since November 2014, 10 Karnataka High Court judges have recused themselves from various cases against the seer, and some have expressed that the case be transferred from their bench — and this has happened on 17 instances. A ‘recusal’ is when a judge takes himself off a case because of a potential conflict of interest. 

So who is Raghaveshwara Bharathi, and why do so many judges have a potential ‘conflict of interest’ with him? Raghaveshwara, originally Harish Sharma before he became a godman, is the current head seer of Ramachandrapura Math in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district. He reportedly tells his followers that he is an incarnation of Hindu god Rama. “...this swamyji, whenever wants some work to be done by the devotees, he will say it is the wish of Lord Ram; if there is anything he wants, then it is the wish of Lord Ram himself. He has made the disciples believe that he is the incarnation of Lord Ram himself,” the complainant in a rape case had written in a letter to the President of India in 2014. Raghaveshwara swamy belongs to the small but extremely powerful Havyaka Brahmin caste in Karnataka. 

Raghaveshwara swamy runs an indigenous cow protection programme, and has a string of powerful visitors including MPs Anantkumar Hegde, Tejasvi Surya, and Nalin Kumar Kateel, and Bollywood actor Suresh Oberoi. He’s acquainted and photographed with several high profile political leaders, including Narendra Modi (before he became the Prime Minister), Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, former President Pratibha Patil, MP and terror accused Pragya Thakur, yoga teacher Baba Ramdev, and RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat. 

And judges who have heard cases against him have seen themselves out, some allegedly after the seer's defence stated reasons like the judges are followers of a different seer, or that their children are classmates of the victim’s daughter.

Bengaluru South MP Tejasvi Surya with the seer in 2019

The rape allegations

Raghaveshwara swamy is accused of rape by two people. The first is a singer who was a disciple of the godman. Geetha (name changed) joined the Ramakatha programme at the Ramachandrapura Math in 2010 and was the main singer in a troupe of five. The seer allegedly started making advances towards Geetha in September 2011, and in October 2011, he allegedly raped her. He allegedly called her into his private chambers on the pretext of 'praying to Lord Rama', and according to the survivor, she could not resist the sexual assault as she was "suffused with the fear of divine wrath and felt bound by the vow forced on her.” He has been acquitted in this case by a trial court, and an appeal in the case is currently being heard by the Karnataka High Court. 

The other rape case against Raghaveshwara is by a woman who alleged that he raped her when she was 15 years old. The judgment in the case, with POCSO (Prevention of Children against Sexual Offences) charges, is currently reserved. The second accused in this case is the Additional Advocate General of Karnataka Aruna Shyam, who has been accused of kidnapping and threatening the victim. 

According to Geetha, the sexual assaults continued into 2012 and 2013. "She was routinely and repeatedly sent for and sexually abused by the appellant during their tours performing Ramakatha or other religious functions and activities,” according to the survivor’s petition. She claimed that she snapped all ties with the seer in 2013, but in 2014, she came back to the math. According to her, when Raghaveshwara swamy continued to abuse her, she quit the math for good. 

On the last instance of sexual assault, in June 2014, Geetha confided in her husband. But before they could take any step or seek action, they were arrested. They alleged that Raghaveshwara swamy had found out that they were going to file a complaint with the police, and decided to file a complaint against them instead. He claimed that the couple was blackmailing him.

Following this, the couple's daughter moved the court with a plea seeking action against the seer for sexually assaulting her mother. While a trial court was hearing the case, in October 2014 Raghaveshwara filed an appeal in the Karnataka High Court, seeking dismissal of the case against him. Justice KN Phaneendra of the Karnataka High Court, however, dismissed Raghaveshwara’s petition, and said that the matter is fit for investigation. 

Just a month later, however, when Raghaveshwara filed another appeal in the High Court, the same judge recused himself, kicking off a string of recusals of judges in cases against Raghaveshwara. 

Why the first judge recused himself

There were two things happening simultaneously in 2014. Firstly, the rape case by Geetha was being heard by a trial court; secondly, Raghaveshwara swamy was filing petitions to get the case against him dismissed in the Karnataka High Court. 

Justice Phaneendra, who dismissed the first plea by Raghaveshwara swamy, was hearing the second plea by the seer. At this point, however, the seer's counsel told the court that the survivor had written a letter to the President of India, dated October 6, 2014, seeking a fair trial against the accused. 

Geetha had written to the then President of India Pranab Mukherjee, saying that she is aggrieved by the delay in action against the accused seer. She wrote that the police had not begun the investigation into the rape complaint, and that the seer has not been arrested, since he had moved the High Court seeking a stay on his arrest. She wrote that her brother-in-law took his own life, allegedly after he was threatened by the seer’s supporters. (This suicide case is still pending in court). She wrote that the seer has managed to influence the Havyaka Brahmin community as well, with the claim that his actions were not wrong, but the "the will of Lord Rama."

"The seer's counsel cited this letter to argue that the survivor had no faith in the court," Geetha’s husband tells TNM. And Justice Phaneendra recused himself from the case, saying, “As one of the parties is not confident about this court, it is not proper for me to continue with the proceedings."

“This happened despite the fact that the letter was already on record; we had already submitted the same as part of the court documents,” Geetha’s husband tells TNM.

More recusals

On January 6, 2015, Justice Ram Mohan Reddy who replaced Justice Phaneendra in the case, recused himself. “Although this matter was heard in the morning session at some length, I recuse myself from hearing this appeal, while the same may be heard by any other Bench of which I am not a member,” the order by the bench of Chief Justice DH Waghela and Justice Ram Mohan Reddy said.

Nine days later, on January 14, the recusal of late Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar was announced. It is to be noted that recusals are usually announced without reasons, and as a practice, recusals are usually welcomed as it is a step to ensure impartiality in a verdict. 

Five days later, on January 19, Justice N Kumar also recused himself from the same case. No official reasons were given, but the survivor's husband tells TNM that the accused seer’s counsel had cited a Kannada Prabha article which pointed out that the judge’s daughter is a classmate of the survivor’s daughter.

Two days later, the fifth judge — Justice HG Ramesh — recused from the same case, citing that he had worked as a junior lawyer under the seer’s counsel, senior advocate BV Acharya, and therefore cited conflict of interest. The other judge who was on the division bench with Justice HG Ramesh, Justice PB Bhajanthri, also recused himself with him on the same day, saying that since one judge from the bench had left, the matter should be placed before an entirely fresh bench.

The dismissal of rape charges

While Raghaveshwara swamy repeatedly moved the High Court seeking dismissal of the case against him, in 2016, Magistrate HG Vijayakumari, the trial court judge who was hearing the chargesheet filed in the rape case against Raghaveshwara, pulled him up for failing to appear in the case.

Soon after, Vijayakumari was transferred from the case on January 29, 2016. 

"We had questioned why a male judge was appointed (after judge Vijayakumari’s transfer). We filed an appeal in the High Court that a female judge should hear the case. But it was turned down,” Geetha’s husband tells TNM. 

The bench who later heard the case acquitted the seer. According to the court order, the prosecution “could not make out the case for trial."

“We do not find existence of grave and strong suspicion, much less any suspicion, as to involvement of the accused in the alleged crime of rape absolutely no iota of materials to frame the charges against the accused (sic),” the court held. The court said that it can only amount to a 'sexual affair' tantamounting to 'unacceptable intimacy' but no sexual assault could be established.

Appeal in Karnataka High Court

In the High Court, meanwhile, Geetha filed a Criminal Revision Petition against the trial court’s verdict. In January 2018, the petition came up — once again before Justice Phaneendra. The seer’s counsel Aruna Shyam informed the court that the judge should recuse himself now too, since he had recused himself earlier. The judge agreed and bowed out. 

Since October 2018, more High Court judges have recused themselves from hearing the case. Justice Mohammad Nawaz recused himself in June 2019, giving no official reason. 

In November 2021, Justice NK Sudhindra Rao adjourned the matter to a later date. According to Geetha’s husband, the judge said that since his retirement date is nearing, he will not have enough time to hear the case. If a judge nearing retirement does not have enough time to hear a case, a common practice is that the judge asks the case to be posted before another bench. 

Currently, a new judge has held a couple of hearings in the case, and the case was last heard on November 25. The case is due to be heard again on December 17.

“For now, we will file an application in court to let her present her truths. For now, we can only hope this judge at least hears the case. Or tell us now if he cannot. Because every time a judge recuses, we have to start from square one,” Geetha’s husband tells TNM.

Recusals in other cases involving Raghaveshwara swamy

There are other cases, too, involving Raghaveshwara swamy, where judges have recused themselves. Justice Shantanagoudar had in 2009 recused himself from a case regarding the management of the Mahabaleshwara temple in Gokarna. The temple was transferred to Ramachandrapura math, of which Raghaveshwara is the head seer. The dispute is over whether the control of the temple should remain with the Karnataka government, or should go to the Ramachandrapura Math. 

This case has now reached the Supreme Court but not before several more judges recused themselves from hearing this case. In 2016, the then Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Justice SK Mukherjee recused himself from the case. The seer’s defense had allegedly said that it had “no confidence” in the court as Justice Mukherjee was the follower of another seer — Dwaraka Shankaracharya. This judge went on to recuse himself from cases related to the seer on three more occasions. 

The seer with current Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath in 2018

“Justice PB Bajanthri (the other judge on the bench) also wants to recuse from this case. Registry to place this appeal before the Chief Justice for listing of this appeal before any other bench. In view of the above, list these petitions before a Division Bench not comprising the Acting Justice,” the order from the Karnataka High Court website said. 

On October 11, 2018, Justice SG Pandit, who was hearing an appeal filed in connection with the functioning of the Ramachandrapura math, recused himself from the case allegedly because he is a follower of the seer.

TNM reached out to former Karnataka High Court judge and Lokayukta chief Santosh Hegde for a comment. Pointing out that recusals are generally welcome and they are bound to be high if the accused is a popular person, Hegde said, “Justice is also not only to be done but also seen to be done. It is under this concept that some people say they will not hear the case. Recusals are a judicial concept, there may be a small percent of people who don’t want to write a controversial judgment. He is a religious man, there may be some issue, those who follow him may be recusing. In fact, those who hate him should also recuse. Recusal is a good jurisprudential principle, but if it is getting misused then it cannot be appreciated."

Karnataka’s Additional Advocate General accused of intimidation

One of the lawyers who has defended Raghaveshwara swamy in the past in court is the current Additional Advocate General of Karnataka Aruna Shyam. He was accused of kidnapping and intimidation and was named as accused number 2 in a case pertaining to a minor’s rape allegedly by the seer.

In 2015, an FIR was registered against Raghaveshwara Bharathi swamy by the Girinagar police. In this case, the survivor was a minor the first time she was assaulted. According to the FIR filed by the Girinagar police, the woman has alleged that she was raped in 2006 when she was a minor disciple of the seer. Aruna Shyam was named accused number two in the case, and was booked for kidnap and criminal intimidation. He was granted anticipatory bail in September 2015.

According to this FIR, the minor was studying in a school run by the Ramachandrapura Math, when Raghaveshwara took a "special interest" in the girl, and started talking to her. In 2006, during a function at the math, Raghaveshwara swamy allegedly took the 15-year-old to a private room and told her there is a 'dosham' (fault) in her astrological chart. He told her to do a 'special prayer' for Rama, which he termed 'Rama darshan'. Under the pretext of this special prayer, he sexually assaulted her. After the abuse, Raghaveshwara allegedly threatened the girl. "You should not tell this to anyone, or the curse of Shri Rama will affect you,” the FIR alleged him as saying.

In August 2012, the survivor, who was an adult by then, was at the Girinagar Sri Ramachandrapura Math. Raghaveshwara swamy allegedly called her to a private room again, and raped her again. 

Raghaveshwara Bharathi swamy with MP Pragya Thakur in 2018

In September 2014, when the woman was at her father’s home in Uttara Kannada, a group of five-six people including advocate Aruna Shyam abducted her and took her to the Kekkaru Math in Uttara Kannada district, the FIR said. She was warned not to speak against the seer. The FIR says she was given death threats, with the seer’s supporters and the followers of the Ramachandrapura Math telling her that “her life will be destroyed” if she speaks up. The case that is being heard by the City Civil and Sessions Court in Bengaluru has been reserved for orders, and the next date of hearing is on January 31, 2022.

“The minor’s name came up when Geetha said that she was not the only one,” says KS Vimala, an activist with the All India Democratic Women's Association in Bengaluru, who has closely followed this case and has helped the survivor pursue the case in court.

“She was forcefully taken away in a car, she was threatened and directed not to reveal anything against the seer. Scared, she agreed, and then she was forced to marry a seer’s aide. She has faced domestic violence at the hands of her now husband; she has filed for divorce and the divorce case is on,” Vimala alleges. 

What makes Raghaveshwara Swamy so powerful?

“Over the past years, the seer and his supporters have managed to put pressure on police probing the case,” alleges KS Vimala. 

Raghaveshwara swamy is a Havyaka Brahmin, a community that follows Adi Shankaracharya. It is said that the community migrated from north India — from erstwhile Ahichhatra in northern Uttar Pradesh — to parts of Karnataka long ago. They are dominant in Uttara Kannada, Shivamogga, Udupi, and Dakshina Kannada districts of Karnataka, as well as some parts of Kasaragod district in Kerala. 

The word Havyaka comes from the words ‘Havyaga’ or ‘Haveega’, which means one who offers sacrifice to the fire, or conducts ‘homa’ or priestly rituals. The primary occupation of this community used to be that they were royal priests, but later they also branched out into becoming agriculturalists. Havyaka Brahmins were also land holders, and grew powerful during the Keladi Nayakas period. They became experts in horticultural crops, especially in Uttara Kannada. Today, many own lands that cultivate crops like areca nuts. Though they are a small community, believed to be around 20 million across the world, their caste hierarchy has given them a prominent say in society. 

Havyaka Brahmins also occupy some of the most senior positions in the state’s bureaucracy, government, police and the judiciary. BJP MP Anantkumar Hegde, Karnataka Speaker Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri, Karnataka Labour Minister Shivram Hebbal, RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, former Karnataka DGP T Madiyal, former Union Minister in the Vajpayee government Ramakrishna Hegde, journalist Vishweshwar Bhat are some of the prominent people from the Havyaka Brahmin community.

In addition to this, Raghaveshwara has made himself one of the most powerful religious leaders of the Havyaka Brahmins. The two survivors — also Havyaka Brahmins — have not received any backing from their own community. “He tells everyone who tries to extend support that bad luck and destruction will befall them for the next seven generations,” Geetha’s husband tells TNM.

(Name of the survivor has been changed to protect her identity.)

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