P Rajagopal, the Dosa king who made millions of dollars by serving authentic South Indian food got no relief from Supreme Court of India after having been found guilty of murder. The owner of popular restaurant chain Saravana Bhavan pleaded in the apex court for an extension of the surrender date. However the bench headed by Justice N V Ramana dismissed the plea for extension of July 7 surrender date as the “issue of illness was not raised before the court during hearing of the appeal in the case”.
The Madras High Court sentenced Rajagopal for life imprisonment for murdering an employee in his restaurant chain, Saravana Bhavan, in 2001 to marry the employee’s wife. “In our considered opinion, the prosecution has proved the complicity of all the appellants in murdering Prince Santhakumar by strangulating him and thereafter throwing the dead body at Tiger Chola,” said the Supreme Court of India. The dosa king was charged under Sections 302 (murder), 364 (abduction) and 201 (destruction of evidence) of the IPC.
The story of Rajagopal could be the perfect storyline for a movie. Born to a poor onion farmer in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district in the year India attained independence, Rajagopal moved to Chennai in 1973 for better career opportunities and opened a provision store. Eight years after moving to Chennai, Rajagopal opened a hotel in the city’s KK Nagar area.
Hotel business has been traditionally dominated by upper castes in Tamil Nadu but Rajagopal succeeded despite belonging to a Dalit (Nadar) community. He started the restaurant chain business back in 1980s when eating out was considered a luxury. He capitalized on South Indian mess culture and created a business empire.
In the early nineties, the Dosa king visited Singapore and drew inspiration from the business model of American food chain McDonalds to globalise the Dosa enterprise. He opened the first international branch in Dubai, an Arab city with a large South Indian expatriate population. His business model has been described as “high-value, low-margin and labour intensive.” He expanded the restaurant business across the globe in cities like Paris, Frankfurt, London and New York. Saravana Bhavan, the globally known Dosa chain has 39 venues in India, 43 abroad and another 16 in the pipeline, spanning five continents. The employees of Saravana Bhavan simulated one big family with Rajagopal as patriarch who managed their health expenses, paid for their daughters’ weddings, and provided loans for purchasing homes. Even the employees abroad who migrated from India to work for Saravana Bhavan viewed Rajagopal as a father figure.
The troubles for Rajagopal started when in early 2000s he was advised to take a third wife. An astrologer whose advice the Dosa king followed blindly advised him to take a third wife for advances in business and wealth. The woman suggested by the astrologer was the daughter of a Saravana Bhavan employee and she was married to another employee, Prince Santhakumar. The woman Rajagopal wanted to take as a third wife was completely uninterested and refused to marry him. However, he decided to use his wealth and power to pursue her. The woman and her husband were threatened to comply and separate so that Rajagopal could marry her. But when the couple refused to comply, the woman’s husband, Prince Santhakumar was strangulated in October 2001 and the body was dumped Perumalmalai in the Kodaikanal range. Thus, the otherwise inspiring story of the Dosa King took an ugly turn when his obsession with the woman ended up with him murdering her husband.
The 72 year old owner of Saravana Bhavan and five others were sentenced for 10 years by the session’s court. However, he was released on bail in July 2003 after serving 10 months in jail. In 2004, Madras high court raised the punishment to a life sentence. Later Rajagopal was accused of intimidating Jeevajothi, the woman he was obsessed with. He tried to bribe her to not to pursue the case further and also threatened her. He took the case to the apex court which reinstated the High court’s life term punishment. Later, he appealed in the Supreme Court for extension of surrender date which the apex court rejected and upheld the order, leaving no choice for Rajagopal but to surrender immediately.
The story of the founder and owner of Saravana Bhavan is gripping. That the law caught up with the Dosa King turned murderer, P Rajagopal, reinforces people’s faith in Indian judiciary and the rule of law. It tells us that this country delivers justice and the system where ‘might is right’ is not the code in India.