On February 14, an hour before the two-judge bench of Justices Amitava Roy and Pinaki Chandra Ghose was to pronounce the verdict in the high-profile Disproportionate Assets case against Jayalalithaa and three others, R Shanmugasundaram walked unassumingly through the parking lot of the Supreme Court. He walked alone, without any entourage, and joined counsel VG Pragasam as they walked into the court premises.
“What do you think is going to happen,” I asked the polite, mild-mannered lawyer, and he smiled and said, “We’ll see.”
At 10.37am that morning, when the court pronounced Jayalalithaa, Sasikala, Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran guilty, the veteran lawyer heaved a sigh of relief. What he had set out to achieve as the Public Prosecutor of Tamil Nadu 20 years ago, was finally happening. “It was a great feeling,” he says.
Shanmugasundaram, now a leading criminal lawyer and the President of the DMK’s Lawyers Wing, was the lynchpin of the DMK’s legal team representing party general secretary K Anbazhagan. Over two decades, the team faced every challenge the accused threw their way, fought tooth and nail against delaying and derailing tactics, and ensured that the case reached its just conclusion.
“Shanmungasundram sir was the chief architect of the DA case,” says A Saravanan, a DMK spokesperson and a member of the DMK’s legal team in the case. “Right from the beginning, the DMK went about it in a systematic way, and it was his legal strategy at the beginning which helped the case till the very end,” he adds.
While Shanmugasundaram held the fort in Chennai and looked after the larger strategy of the case, counsels VG Pragasam and T Andhiarjuna were the boots on the ground at the Supreme Court, and A Saravanan and Kumaresan argued the case in the Bengaluru trial court.
How the case began
When Jayalalithaa was booted out of power in 1996, along with her own embarrassing loss in the Bargur constituency, public anger against her was at its peak. There were several complaints of corruption made against her ministers and senior bureaucrats.
“Based on the complaints, a preliminary investigation was underway, as it is mandatory under the vigilance manual before filing an FIR,” narrates Shanmugasundaram. “Even as that was happening, Subramanian Swamy rushed to the Principal Sessions Judge in Chennai and filed a private complaint. He had no material, so he asked the court to direct an investigation.”
The Principal Sessions Judge, A Ramamurthy, directed the Vigilance Directorate to conduct an investigation and appoint a DIG-level officer to head the case. Letika Saran, a DIG then, was appointed. But the accused went to court seeking her removal, and the court acceded. In came Nallama Naidu, the officer whose meticulous investigation eventually drove the case to victory. He remained the IO of the case till the end of his career.
“We were clear from the start that we could not have a political vendetta here, that would only weaken the case later,” says Shanmugasundaram, “There was no immediate arrest. We filed an FIR, appointed the right officers and set up special courts.”
Once the preliminary inquiry was done, an FIR was filed, and that was clubbed together with Swamy’s private complaint. A chargesheet was filed in June 1997. And then began a series of legal challenges from Jayalalithaa and co, which the lawyers representing the then state government and later K Anbazhagan, would fight till the very end.
Knock, Knock, Knocking on SC’s doors
The first challenge came in the form of questions over the validity of the special courts set up in Chennai to hear the cases.
“There were 39 cases filed against high-level public servants and ministers, and the load was too much for the Principal Sessions Court. So, both the lower court and the government wrote to the Madras HC seeking appointment of more judges, and the HC committee approved,” narrates Shanmugasundaram. “And these were courts no. 11, 12 and 13 – set up exclusively for the 39 corruption cases.”
Jayalalithaa went to the Supreme Court challenging the constitution of these courts, dragging the case on till 1999. The laywers appointed by the DMK government fought it out, and the SC upheld the constitution of the courts.
The trial was all set to begin, when Sasikala pleaded with the trial court that all the documents pertaining to the case – about 40,000 in all – be translated for her, since they were in English and she was not educated enough.
The prosecution lawyers were not interested in another court battle over this, and so obliged. “The prosecution department wrote to the government, and 200 interpreters and translators were appointed and paid for by the state government to meet Sasikala’s request. It took six months,” Shanmugasundaram says.
Finally, the trial started in 2000 – but the delaying tactics continued. Witnesses were recalled several times by the defense counsel and the trial was moving at a slow pace.
The crucial transfer to Bengaluru
By 2001, Jayalalithaa stormed back into power and the DMK stood defeated. When she took over as the CM in 2002 (after the discharge in the TANSI case), the trial resumed. The defence started recalling many of the state’s witnesses – and more than 60 of them turned hostile.
This rang alarm bells at the DMK headquarters, and the DMK legal team worked out a strategy which would save the case. K Anbazhagan, the Leader of the Opposition then, filed a petition at the Supreme Court seeking that the case be transferred out of Tamil Nadu, since the prosecutor – the TN government headed by Jayalalithaa – and the defence were one and the same. Anbazhagan told the court that the judicial process was being derailed by influencing the witnesses.
Not only did the court transfer the case out to Bengaluru, it also ordered that the prosecutor be appointed by the Chief Justice of Karnataka – BV Acharya was later appointed. More importantly, it upheld the locus standi of K Anbazhagan to intervene in the case as the LoP. This set the precedent for Anbazhagan to go to the Supreme Court every time there was an attempt to subvert justice – and there were many more such attempts.
Further attempts to scuttle trial – DMK fights back
One of the offshoots of the DA case was the London Hotel Case, where Jayalalithaa was accused of buying properties abroad with her illegal income and TTV Dhinakaran was accused of facilitating it. This case was not water-tight as there was paucity of evidence.
Seeing an opportunity here, Jayalalithaa’s counsel moved for this case to be clubbed with the DA case, in the hope that the international case might add to the delay and even weaken the case overall. The DMK’s lawyers fought this move, but the court allowed it. However, when the DMK came back to power in 2006, the London Hotel Case was withdrawn. “This too was Shanmugasundaram sir’s idea,” says Saravanan.
When Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2011, she filed a petition seeking a re-investigation in the case. The Investigating Officer, now an officer named Sambandhan, sent a letter to the court bypassing the prosecution lawyers, seeking a re-investigation. The DMK went to the Karnataka HC, and counsels CV Nagesh and Ponnana got the letter quashed, and the trial continued.
In 2013, Bhavani Singh was appointed by the Karnataka HC as the SPP in the DA case, replacing the upright BV Acharya. Yet again, the DMK sensed a conspiracy by the SPP to collude with the defense to scuttle the case. Its lawyers Saravanan, Kumaresan and Thamaraichelvan argued at the trial court that the trial be stayed over this change. Though the court refused, the Karnataka government soon stepped in and removed Bhavani Singh. But that withdrawal was also quashed later.
In February 2015, when the case was at the Karnataka HC, Anbazhagan went to the SC seeking that Bhavani Singh’s appointment as prosecutor be quashed, and finally in April 2015 the SC struck down the appointment. But BV Acharya and DMK were only given the opportunity to give written submissions at the High Court.
Motive force behind the case
Shanmugasundaram says that if it wasn’t for the DMK, the case would not have gone anywhere, “Subramanian Swamy became silent. He did not apply for transfer when they were playing havoc in the prosecution. He was keeping quiet. We watched it diligently. Only when the matter came to SC, Swamy would come and sit there.”
Saravanan says that the case also brought them support from the DMK leadership: “MK Stalin took personal interest in the case, and he would ask us for updates. That was a great encouragement for us.”
Observing that the accused had sought more than 300 adjournments in the case, Shanmugasundaram says that while he is happy they won, it should have happened earlier. “It was a great feeling that some result has come. At last, a case has come to an end. It was a very good experience. I learned many things. It is a satisfying experience to fight for a cause for 20 years and win,” he says.