“Let it come, we will see.” – Sasikala Natarajan, General Secretary of the AIADMK, on the SC’s impending decision on the case.
Since Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, Tamil Nadu has fallen into political uncertainty. The dispute between Sasikala Natarajan and O. Panneerselvam has divided the state’s ruling party – the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).
As such, the political future of Sasikala and the legacy of Jayalalithaa both have become intertwined with the Disproportionate Asset case which has been raging in Indian courts for nearly two decades.
On 14 February 2017, the Supreme Court convicted all four accused in the case. This essentially puts an end to Sasikala’s political ambitions.
What is the Disproportionate Assets case?
The case involves disproportionate wealth as high as Rs. 66 crore. It was initiated during Jayalalithaa’s first terms as Chief Minister (1991 – 1996).
The main charges
- Misuse of office
- Disproportionate assets
- Criminal conspiracy
- Jayalalithaa, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu;
- Sasikala, General Secretary of AIADMK;
- Ilavarasi, Sasikala’s niece, close aide of Jayalalithaa;
- VN Sudhakaran, Sasikala’s nephew, Jayalalithaa’s “foster son”.
The four accused have been accused – and, now, convicted – of misusing the office of the Chief Minister between 1991 and 1996. This involved corruption to the tune of over Rs. 66 crore.
The assets under the purview of the case are the farmhouses and bungalows in Chennai, agricultural land in Tamil Nadu, a farmhouse in Hyderabad, a tea estate in the Nilgiris, valuable jewelry, industrial sheds, cash deposits and investments in banks and a fleet of luxury cars. A raid in her Poes garden residence in 1997 recovered 800 kg silver, 28 kg gold, 750 pairs of shoes, 10,500 sarees, 91 watches, and other valuables. The valuables were kept in a vault in Reserve Bank of India in Chennai.
- The accused in the case were also accused of having opened over 32 shell companies, some in benami names.
- Sasikala, Ilavarasi, and Sudhakaran were made directors in many of these companies.
- Several crore rupees were deposited through cheques, demand drafts and sometimes cash into accounts of these companies and was later transferred to accounts of Namadu MGR (a publication run by the AIADMK) and a cable company called Super Duper.
- Jayalalithaa’s foster son VN Sudhakaran’s wedding in Chennai has also been subjected to investigation; the wedding was estimated to have involved Rs. 6 crores.
- Jayalalithaa is also accused of building and renovating three posh residences at Ooty, Kancheepuram and Poes Garden (Chennai).
- PWD estimated that renovation costs at her Poes Garden residence cost an estimated Rs. 5 crore.
- The properties bought by companies owned by her from Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation were said to have cost Rs. 1 crore.
- Sudhakaran was accused of purchasing many properties along with Sasikala and Ilavarasi.
- Some properties bought in Chennai including a building in Mylapore, a plot at Guindy Industrial estate and two apartments.
Opposition parties petitioned to request the court to take the control of the assets, but the special judge John Michael Cunha who inspected the assets on 7 January 2014, ordered the assets to be transferred to Bangalore
The case dragged on for nearly two decades. On 14 June 1996, Subramanian Swamy lodged an FIR before the Principal Sessions Judge, Madras.
The trial court had been shifted from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka over concerns of undue political intervention and interference.
On 27 September 2014, a Special Court convicted all four accused – Jayalalithaa, Sasikala Natarajan, Ilavarasi and V.N. Sudhakaran – and sentenced them to four years simple imprisonment. Jayalalithaa was to pay a fine of Rs. 100 crore, and the others were to pay a fine of Rs. 10 crore each. Jayalalitha soon stepped down as Chief Minister. Jayalalithaa was found guilty under Sections 13(1)(e) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 120 of Indian Penal Code and sentenced by Special Judge Michael Cunha. Senior counsel and former Advocate-General B.V. Acharya was the Special Public Prosecutor in the case.
The accused took the case to the Karnataka High Court.
On May 2015, the Karnataka High Court overturned the trial court’s verdict and acquitted Jayalalithaa and others of all charges. This paved the way for Jayalalithaa’s return to power as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu on the same month.
Karnataka high court judge CR Kumaraswamy, in a 919-page judgement, set aside the conviction, quashed the trial court’s order, and acquitted the accused. He said, “Taking into consideration overall circumstances and material placed on record, in my view, the judgement and finding recorded by the trial court suffers from infirmity and it is not sustainable in law … [the assets are] relatively small. In the instant case, the disproportionate asset is less than 10% and it is within permissible limit … Therefore, the accused are entitled to acquittal. When the principal accused (Jayalalithaa) has been acquitted, the other accused, who have played a lesser role, are also entitled to acquittal.”
Finally, on 14 February 2017, after hearing arguments till June, the Supreme Court convicted all four accused in the case. Justice Pinaki Ghose and Justice Amitava Roy, after reserving verdict in the appeal against the Karnataka High Court for months, overturned the High Court judgement.
The court has asked Sasikala to surrender immediately and reiterated the four-year terms awarded by the Special Court in 2014, and also barred her from contesting elections for an additional six years after her prison term ends. This means that Sasikala cannot contest elections for the next ten years. The Special Court-imposed fine of Rs. 10 crore on Sasikala, Ilavarasi, and Sudhakaran also stands as per the Supreme Court verdict.
The verdict can be read here: Supreme Court of India.
The case has been intertwined with the politics of Tamil Nadu, particularly due to the clout surrounding Jayalalitha. O. Panneerselvam now seems slated to be most probable to become the next Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Minutes after the SC verdict, at least 22 pro-Sasikala MLAs jumped camp to support Panneerselvam. However, some news reports have suggested that Sasikala can appeal to a higher bench; the future course remains unpredictable.