From unconfirmed reports of attempts to flee to a foreign country to a lookout notice and now in hospital with complaints of chest pain and other health complications after his arrest over child sexual abuse charges, the plot around Karnataka’s Chitradurga Murugha Mutt chief Shivamurthy Murugha Sharanaru has all the makings of a sandalwood potboiler.
Sharanaru is facing charges of sexual harassment of two young girl students between January 2019 and June 2022. A district and sessions court has remanded him in 14-day judicial custody after his arrest late Thursday night.
A TALE OF FRIENDSHIP, BETRAYAL AND CORRUPTION
As one digs deeper into the story, allegations of soured friendship and corruption from 15 years ago tumble out.
Hailing from the same village Godabanahal, Sharanaru and S K Basavarajan, the mutt’s former administrator, were thick friends who also belonged to the same sect of Lingayats. Both Sharanaru and Basavarajan joined the mutt at the same time and were also together in the race to assume the role of the chief pontiff and become the successor of Mallikarjuna Murugharajendra Swamiji in 1991.
As luck would have it, Basavarajan was struck by love and went on to marry Soubhagya. He left the mutt, making way for Sharanaru. But the two friends continued to be in touch. Soon, Basavarajan was offered the post of the mutt’s administrator and became the confidant of Sharanaru with the power to control all financial transactions.
The chief pontiff soon started to receive complaints of misappropriation of funds, corruption and allegations of illegal land deals. It was also alleged that Basavarajan, who had close ties with the JDS, had sold a few properties belonging to the mutt when he contested the assembly elections. After an internal investigation, Sharanaru sacked Basavarajan in 2007. Humiliated, Basavarajan decided to contest elections from Chitradurga on a JDS ticket in 2008 and became an MLA. He, however, lost the subsequent elections from that seat.
THE DARK PAST
After nearly 15 years, the childhood friends decided to bury the past and work together again. Basavarajan was re-inducted into the mutt as its administrator earlier this year, however, he was not as a powerful as before and had to get every move cleared through the pontiff. The relationship soured once again and the Basavarajan couple quit the mutt in July.
This is where the case takes a twist.
On July 24, two school girls, aged 15 and 16, fled the mutt’s hostel alleging they were sexually abused. With the help of a Mysuru-based NGO Odanadi Seva Samsthe, they filed an FIR in Mysuru against the chief pontiff and four others alleging sexual abuse between January 2019 and June 2022, while they were residing in the mutt’s hostel. On August 27, the Mysuru police filed a Prevention of Children against Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act case and later it was transferred to Chitradurga after taking necessary permission from a competent court authority.
COUNTER CASE OF RAPE AND KIDNAPPING
Things got uglier at the mutt when another counter case of rape and kidnapping was filed against Basavarajan and his wife Soubhagya by Rashmi, the warden of Murugha Mutt hostel. Rashmi is also an accused in the POCSO case.
In her complaint, Rashmi claimed that two young girls/ survivors vacated the hostel premises citing personal reasons and were later traced to Bengaluru’s Cottonpet police station. Rashmi said that Basavarajan, on learning this, took the girls to his home instead of informing their parents. When Rashmi questioned him, Basavarajan made sexist remarks against her and even tried to touch her private parts, she alleged.
Following this complaint, the Chitradurga Rural Police registered a case against Basavarajan and his wife Soubhagya, former zilla panchayat president, under IPC sections 354A, (assault or use of criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 506, (punishment for criminal intimidation) 504 (insulting some person intentionally) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention).
However, the Basavarajans were granted bail by the Chitradurga district court on September 1.
THE ESCAPE ROUTE
As the issue began gaining national attention, reports of the chief pontiff going missing from the mutt began to emerge. On August 29, a lookout notice was issued. A source told News18 that the notice was issued as a precautionary measure to ensure he does not leave the country as he had a passport.
The police who were already on alert tracked him with his personal assistant and driver near Bankapur toll plaza near Dharwad in the early hours of August 30. While police sources say they had received information that the chief pontiff had plans to flee from the country via Goa, his legal team dismissed it, saying Sharanaru had gone to attend an event organised by the mutt and later went to meet his lawyer.
Anandappa, a member of the mutt’s advisory committee, told the media that Sharanaru had gone to meet an advocate in Haveri and would return by noon. However, it was later revealed that there was a possibility that he may have changed his plans and was trying to cross the Maharashtra border.
Police sources also confirmed that before arriving back at the mutt, the pontiff tried to hold discussions with those who had file the case against him, but they were not ready for compromise.
Visuals of the pontiff returning with the police escort began playing on TV screens. Using the opportunity, the pontiff organised a media interaction where he claimed he was innocent.
Soon, the Chitradurga mutt went into clampdown as security was beefed up in the mutt and all exits except one sealed.
“I believe in the law of the land and will extend all cooperation. I have no intention of evading the law. Murugha Mutt is a place of justice. It has served as a “mobile court’ for several years and have taken in its fold people of all castes and communities, including students, with love and affection. These are testing times and unfortunate developments. I appeal to people and devotees not to pay attention to rumours and wait for the truth to come out,” Sharanaru said a few hours after he was accosted by the police back to the mutt.
Until September 1, he was not arrested despite being booked under the serious POCSO act.
CHEST PAIN, ICU AND POLICE CUSTODY
The chief pontiff complained of severe chest pain just hours after he was arrested under the POCSO Act and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
After a day at the Chitradurga district hospital ICU and a battery of tests, the news of Sharanaru being airlifted to a Bengaluru for cardiac treatment on the advice of his doctors began to do the rounds. However, hours later, police sources say the decision to airlift him was dropped. Soon enough, the Chitradurga police were seen taking him into an ambulance and producing him in court. The pontiff has been taken into police custody for three days, until September 5.