One of India's top Hindu religious leaders, Jayendra Saraswati, has been charged with the murder of a temple official, police said yesterday.
Police flew from Madras to Hyderabad in southern India late Thursday to arrest Saraswati in connection with the killing in September of Thiru Sankararaman, a once-close aide of the leader who fell out with him last year.
The 71-year-old was then flown to the pilgrimage town of Kanchipuram, 70km from Madras, in southern Tamil Nadu province, and appeared before a magistrate who ordered he be detained pending trial.
Court officials said the revered religious leader did not seek bail and smiled while being escorted to an armored vehicle which took him to a high-security prison.
Kanchipuram police chief C. Premkumar said Saraswati had been charged with first degree murder and criminal conspiracy.
"Already 14 people have been arrested in connection with the murder, including two on Oct. 9, and following their questioning it has come to light the pontiff played an important role in the murder," Premkumar said.
"Several documents and details of bank transactions have been recovered which link the crime to the pontiff."
The temple official was hacked to death in his office in Kanchipuram on September 3 and police have alleged the murderers were contract killers hired by Saraswati.
Known popularly as the Seer of Kanchi, Saraswati heads the largest of the four seats of Hinduism and is the most respected religious leader in the Hindu diaspora.
He heads the 2,500-year-old Kanchipuram Temple and last year national leaders including President Abdul Kalam attended celebrations marking the golden jubilee of his ascendency to the hallowed post.
Right-wing Hindu groups reacted angrily to the shock arrest of the insulin-dependent diabetic ascetic, who has an enormous following across southern India.
"It is most unfortunate that the Tamil Nadu state government should resort to a midnight arrest and humiliate the pontiff in this manner," said L. Ganeshan, secretary of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The hawkish Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Forum threatened nationwide protests and demanded Saraswati's unconditional release.
"This is politics of revenge to muffle the voice of Hindus in India," Forum general secretary Praveen Togadia said.
"With the arrest of the great pontiff the authorities have declared open war on the Hindu religion." the firebrand politician said.
"The Indian government and the state administration must apologize for what they have done and immediately release the pontiff unconditionally," Togadia said, adding the arrest was the latest in a string of attacks on Hindu leaders since a Congress Party-led coalition took power from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government in May.