Who is Shanmuganathan in Tamil Nadu politics and how did he rise to occupy a gubernatorial post? The 67-year-old politician, a bachelor, hails from an agricultural family of modest means in Nagore, Nagapattinam district. After graduating with an MA in political science, he became a full time RSS pracharak in 1969. He rose steadily in the organisation and was the state RSS secretary from 1985 to 1995. It was during his tenure as state secretary that the RSS headquarters in Chennai was razed to the ground on August 8, 1993 in a terrorist bombing that left scores of people killed and injured. Old timers say he vowed on that day to build a new office within a year and came good on his promise. “It was difficult in those days as the BJP was in the opposition in Delhi and fundraising – especially for states like Tamil Nadu – was not at all in the radar of those who were in charge of budgetary allocations” says a senior BJP leader.
In 1999, when the BJP-led NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in power in Delhi, Shanmuganathan was drafted to the BJP and sent to the capital as additional secretary of the party’s parliamentary office. During his time in the national capital, he struck up a close relationship with Narendra Modi, an RSS export to the BJP who became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. According to BJP leaders, Modi appreciated the fact that Shanmuganathan used to write positively about the state of affairs in Gujarat, especially after the 2002 riots, openly praise Modi’s ‘achievements’. In May 2015, Modi appointed him governor of Meghalaya.
Shanmuganathan’s name first came in to the limelight when former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam died in Shillong on July 27, 2015 while addressing students at a university. Shanmuganathan claimed he was with him as governor of the state but later it emerged Shanmuganathan was nowhere on the scene when Kalam collapsed and was taken to hospital. “In reality, he was sleeping in his bedroom and [it was] only after the call from the Prime Minister [that he ran] to Bethany Hospital, Shillong, although, he was advised to visit Kalam” earlier, the Economic Times quoted one of his staff members as saying.
The allegation that Shanmuganathan molested a woman has angered the Tamil Nadu BJP leaders a lot but their anger is not against the former governor. Instead, they blame “vested interests”. “I know Shanmuganthan for over 35 years. He is a simple man of virtues. He would not have indulged in those sorts of activities. He fought tirelessly against religious conversions. In fact, at a felicitation function held for Shanmuganathan in Chennai after he took over as governor ,several speakers said he was an apt choice for the north east because of the rampant, unchecked conversions there by missionaries. This is definitely a Christian conspiracy to malign the name of not only Shanmuganathan who was in the forefront of anti conversation activities but also against the RSS and the BJP,” N. Ramasubramanian, a senior BJP functionary, told The Wire.
These sentiments were echoed by other senior BJP leaders too. “I know him from 1989. When I was a member of the Akhil Bharathiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP, the student wing of the BJP), Shanmuganathan was state secretary of the RSS. He was a very gentle human being and soft spoken with women. He actively campaigned against religious conversions in general and north east in particular. I think he is a victim of conspiracy hatched by a powerful lobby” said Vanathi Srinivasan, state vice president of the BJP. Several other senior BJP leaders too share the same view.
But the state unit of the RSS has a different take on this issue, at least judging by their initial reaction to Shanmuganathan’s resignation. “It is an unfortunate incident… A person occupying a high position should be doubly careful to avoid such allegations, as he represents an organisation such as the RSS and the BJP,” said N. Sadagopan, the sangh’s state media coordinator, in an interview to The Hindu.
Observers also cite another interesting development in this affair. Every leader in the state BJP has reacted to the resignation but not L. Ganesan, a Rajya Sabha MP. “That’s true. Ganesan is keeping quiet. In fact, he is the seniormost leader of the party here. The animosity between Shanmuganathan and Ganesan was an age old one and it dates back to the 1980s. It was to balance both sides that the BJP high command brought Shanmuganathan to New Delhi” said a senior BJP leader who asked that his name not be revealed.
“In the ’80s, when the RSS wanted to gain a foothold in Tamil Nadu, its leadership was very particular that non-Brahmins too should occupy few top positions in the organisation. The organisation wanted to counter the prevailing feeling in the state that the RSS and BJP are only for Brahmins. Shanmuganathan belongs to Saiva Pillamar community (a forward community) and Ganesan is a Brahmin. Shanmuganathan’s elevation in the party was due to this too, and he was from the beginning given adequate opportunities to climb the ladder,” the leader added.
Meanwhile, women activists in Meghalaya hailed Shanmuganathan’s removal. “We now need a speedy and decisive inquiry to be initiated which should lead to his prosecution,” said Angela Rangad, convenor of Thma U Rangli, a progressive group in the state. “Now that he is not the governor anymore, Article 361 [of the constitution] is not operational, and we do not need prior sanction from the president for Shanmuganthan’s prosecution. His resignation should not be the end of the matter. Only a prosecution will send out the right message that nobody in any high office can get away with abusing their power” she was quoted by PTI as saying.
Chairperson of the Meghalaya State Commission for Women Theillin Phambuh said that she had apprised the National Commission for Women of the incidents at Raj Bhavan, the governor’s residence in Shillong. But local media reports suggest that neither the affected young women nor anyone from the “ladies club” has given any formal complaint either to the police or to the State Commission for Women. One missing link in the whole episode is the hesitation or fear of the affected women to file a proper complaint with the police or the women’s commission. “For the BJP this is helping a lot” says a senior journalist from Shillong, quoting a report from the Shillong Times in which BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said, “Legally we need a complaint to start the probe and in this case, the victim is yet to lodge a complaint”.
R. Ramamasubramanian is a senior Chennai-based journalist.