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Home > 2022 > Nalini: A Lost Opportunity for India’s GoP | Papri Sri Raman

Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

Nalini: A Lost Opportunity for India’s GoP | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 19 November 2022, by Papri Sri Raman

Beyond the tragic blows and the brooding over violence,
Beyond the labour over errors and repenting over deeds,
Beyond the evenings without dialogues and the nights
full of suspicion,
Beyond the days in which the happy ones revel
in their narrow happiness —
Is it possible that to give blows to one another is the only reality?
  —Aldo Capitini, Colloquio Corale (Choral Dialogue), 1956. Translated into English by Maddalena Rayner.

THIRTY YEARS IS a very very long time in the life of a 20-year-old. It makes her gray, wrinkled and hopeless. That’s what happened to Nalini, Perarivalan and five others. This is not to say that I am defending armed struggle; They, at least, are not symbols of violence and this is not a platform for deciding whether one should cling on to a symbol rather than search for real justice.

At times, silence is golden.

For once, the Congress party should have kept its own counsel, and not publicly announce that the party disagrees with Sonia Gandhi, its iconic longest-serving former president on the recent release of seven now-elderly people accused of assassinating former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, her husband. The four Sri Lankans are still being held in a camp in Tiruchirapalli at the time of going to press, only the three indians are technically free.

This Congress statement, in the face of an impending general election in less than two years, does not show off its leadership, nor its poitical intelligence. It shows absolutely no understanding of where Sonia Gandhi might be coming from or what the public is thinking. In the land of Buddha and Gandhi, forgiveness is still the only continuously ‘in thing’. And, not just the ethos, but the instinct of the common man in India is to side with the underdog. We see it time and again in our stories, in our history, in our cinema and in our pattern of voting.

Mahatma Gandhi’s killing kept the Sangh Parivar untouchable until Jayaprakash Narayan co-opted the right wing in his movement in 1974. Indira Gandhi’s assaination swung the vote in Congress favour. Again Rajiv Gandhi’s asssassination swung the vote in Congress favour.

Whatever the party opinion internally may have been, this is a time when it needs to show itself as kinder when compared to its macho opponent, the reigning Bharatiya Janata Party. By not empathising with the Rajiv family’s viewpoint, by publicly issuing a disclaimer, the party has probably cut the branch on which it sits — its anchor, the tenet of non-violence.

Perhaps, Sonia and her children were never convinced by the evidence provided by the state that just these seven young people had ‘conspired’ and killed Rajiv.

The Congress could actually have seized this court-generated opportunity and showcased itself as the party that is with the people; especially when its allies are the Tamils, it could have presented itself as a party that has the largeness of heart to forgive. Image is crucial before any voting and building that compassionate image is important for India’s GOP. The Congress statement also opens it to an old accusation — that the the Rajiv assassination was an inside job.

AFTER RAJIV’S ASSASSINATION, something very curious happened in the Indian political establishment, as K Madhavan, the former Joint director of the CBI, who cracked the Bofors-Swiss bank accounts case and was also the Joint Director of the CBI when the assassination happened, told Rediff.com. He pointed out, ‘A commission is generally appointed following an incident.... After that a criminal investigation follows. The implication being that a criminal investigation is more thorough than a commission... A commission is a fact-finding probe conducted by a judge in an air-conditioned room... whereas a criminal investigation is headed by an officer of the rank of Inspector General, with people going into the field, sifting through the evidence carefully, contacting maybe a thousand people and getting the relevant evidence’.

 In the Rajiv case, the incumbent government was the caretaker Chandrashekhar government. It used the CBI, as it should have, and instituted a SIT, a Special Investigation Team, headed by D R Kaarthikeyan. The SIT was the investigating authority.

In a reverse process, the government then set up the Justice M L Jain-headed commission on 27 May,1991 to investigate ‘intent and conspiracy’. This was okayed by P V Narsimha Rao, the AICC president then and a member of the Rajya Sabha, through a memo on 4 June, with a revised term of inquiry. Justice Jain rejected the then Chief Justice’s appeal to revise the terms of inquiry. Justice Jain said, he could not!

Interestingly, the first revision sought was a look at whether Rajiv’s assassination could have been avoided. This, however, was never part of the Jain report. It took six years for Jain to come out with an interim report that was obviously deliberately leaked to the media. ‘It is sensationalism’, Madhavan told Rediff. ‘It is not good for the country’, he said, pointing out how the teeth of the CBI investigation was taken out by the parallel commission.

Then the government set up a Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) constituted to probe the wider conspiracy. This MDMA was to work for only two years, but on Justice Jain’s recommendation, it operated for twentyfour years and was dismantled on in May 2022! What did it achieve, one wonders.

The Jain Commission report blamed the DMK, as a result of which, in 1999, J Jayalalitha of the AIADMK, who had first become CM after Rajiv’s assassination, now pulled the rug from under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. The ramifications of this commission report for regional politics were huge. Just based on a perception. The perception of culpability provided the AIADMK leader her second opportunity to come to power in Tamil Nadu.

WHO KILLED RAJIV GANDHI is still unknown... a full-fledged unsolved mystery. And when one looks at the larger picture, its political ramifications is unprecedented in contemporary times, bigger even perhaps than the Kennedy killing. It has changed the destiny of 1.421 billion people, the geopolitics of the region and several nations.

The dramates personae are many in this tale.

Rajiv Gandhi and his family — his wife Sonia, children Rahul and Priyanka.
Foreign countries — Italy, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Canada, Nepal, UK, Malayasia etc and several other countries.

Political entities — the Congress party, the so-called United Front of the time, the DMK and the AIADMK, the LTTE and the Khalistanis.

The investigation, the courts, the judges and the judgements.

Conspiracy theories.

Evidence.

Ambition.

The actors in the assassination drama. The seven sentenced for killing Rajiv Gandhi.

India and the people of india.

Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister of India from 1984 to 1989. Just for five years. Don’t forget, he was accused of receiving kickbacks in the Bofors 155mm field gun deal valued at US$ 1.4 billion in 1987. He was accused, but these charges were never proven. The guns are most popular with the Indian army.

Accuser, V P Singh not only became prime minister but also had the chance to implement BP Mandal’s recommendations on caste quotas. From a country providing lip-service to ‘affirmative action’, it was attempting to progress towards modernity, total literacy, computers, economic liberalisation and empowerment; it now stepped back into Manusmriti and the Varnashram.

For four years, from 1987 to 1991, the country went into spin-politics. For the first time, the general elections in 1991 was divided into phases. So voting was not on a single day. Pop likes could fluctuate according to what happened the previous day, the previous week or month.

Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber in the back-of-beyond small town of Sriperumbudur on the Kanchpuram coast, on the eastern seaboard on a muggy hot night at 10.10-10.15 pm, on 21 May 1991. He was there to campaign for the Congress party in the fractured polls. The first phase of polling was already over. The rest of the polling was postponed for fifteen days after the killing and the Congress got the sympathy vote.

There are many books written on this particular assassination case. Among them, noteworthy are those by former police officers. These include: ‘The Assassination’ by K Mohandas (who I have mentioned in a previous article on the complicity of the state); ‘Conspiracy to Kill Rajiv Gandhi: From CBI files’ by K Ragothaman, Former SP, CBI; ‘Triumph of Truth: The Rajiv Gandhi Assassination — The Investigation’ by D R Kaarthikeyan and Radhavinod Raju. Whether the investigation is a triumph of truth is debatable and in retrospect, the title sounds cliché. Then there are several books by journalists, among them, ‘The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi — An Inside Job’ by Faraz Ahmad. Significantly, journalists posted at the time in Tamil Nadu have said very little on the subject, though one suspects, they knew more. Noteworthy is also one politician’s book, ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi: Unanswered Questions and Unasked Queries’ by Subramanian Swamy, who was a government minister in 1991. There are also two films, ‘Cyanide’ and ‘Aaspota’ by film-maker A M R Ramesh.

In the Kennedy case, fingers were pointed at Lyndon B Johnson. In this case too, fingers have been pointed at the Congress party itself. Ahmad, covering UP State elections a few months before the assassination, notes in his opening pages — of a young Punjabi youth Congress worker in Meerut telling him and photographer Manish Swarup, that he wanted to blow up prime minister V P Singh. His argument is that the ‘idea of the suicide bomber’ was rife in the party many months before the Rajiv killing.

According to investigation reports, Rajiv’s assassination was masterminded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam along with Khalistani separatists, Jagjit Singh Chohan of the National Council of Khalistan (NCK) and Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwala of the Khalistan Liberation Force. Chohan died in India, at the ripe age of 80, he was pardoned by the Vajpayee government. Budhsinghwala was killed in a police encounter in Punjab on 29 July 1992, but his body was never returned by the state to the family. The evidence and the linkages here are not watertight. Somewhat definitely fishy here.

The name of Thenmozhi Rajaratnam (also known as Kalaivani Rajaratnam or Dhanu), supposedly a Lankan Tamil, comes to us from judgement reports. The bomb she had detonated killed Rajiv, her and 14 others. Among them Latha Kannan, a Congress woman and her ten-year-old daughter, Kokila. Latha was said to be a protégée of the Congress stalwart Maragatham Chandrashekhar’s daughter Latha Priyakumar. Chandrashekhar had insisted that Rajiv speak at Sriperumbudur in the middle of the night. As local stalwarts, how far were they from Rajiv has always been an interesting question.

After the assassination, Thenmozhi’s father, Rajaratnam was described as Prabhakaran’s mentor; and he is said to have played a vital role in moulding the LTTE chief’s thinking during the movement’s formative years between 1972 and 1975. Beyond conjecture, there is actually no documentation of this.

It is also said in official investigation reports that the IPKF soldiers (Indian Peace Keeping Force) had raped Thenmozhi and she had been angry at Rajiv for sending the IPKF to Lanka to contain the LTTE. This is a no-no. I am no great fan of the army, but this is difficult even for me to accept. I have followed the Indian army’s journey in East Pakistan in 1971, I know people who have been in the Indian UN Peacekeeping forces and I know soldiers and generals who were in Sri Lanka as part of the IPKF. The Indian army on foreign territory is altogether a different animal from the Indian army on home ground like in the North East or Kashmir.

THE ‘ANGER’ THEORY has so far been very convenient for the investigators, the courts and politicians.

The Supreme Court has held that the decision to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi was precipitated by his interview to Sunday magazine (21—28 August 1990), where he stated that he would send the IPKF to disarm the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) again if he returned to power. Gandhi also defended the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord (1987, between Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan president J R Jayewardene). The Justice D P Wadhwa judgement, reviewing Justice K T Thomas’s sentence earlier, was delivered in writing on 11 May 1999. This report too quotes from investigation reports in detail to say, ‘Aveek Sarkar (PW-255) (of the ABP group) had an interview with Rajiv Gandhi.... In the interview Rajiv Gandhi criticized V P Singh in withdrawing the IPKF. He said there was no rationale behind the withdrawal and as things till then had not stabilised and Accord had not been fully implemented.... Rajiv Gandhi stood for territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and for role of various Tamil organizations in Sri Lanka for any Tamil solution.’ On hindsight, Rajiv was so right.

The Wadhwa judgement also notes that Rajiv Gandhi had made a statement in Rajya Sabha on the Agreement. That the ‘agreement among other things envisaged lifting of emergency in the eastern and northern provinces of Sri Lanka by 15 August 1987, holding of elections, constitution of interim council, etc. Cessation of hostilities was to come into effect all over the island within 48 hours of the signing of the Agreement and all arms presently held by Tamil militant groups were to be surrendered, in accordance with an agreed procedure, to authorities to be designated by the Government of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka will grant a general amnesty to political and other prisoners now held in custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other Emergency laws’.

It notes that para 2.16 of the Agreement: contained a package for the devolution of political power recognising the Northern and Eastern province of Sri Lanka as the traditional homeland of the Tamils. It gives to India a ‘Guarantor’ role in the implementation of the devolution package and the other provisions within the framework of ‘United Sri Lanka’. The judges conclude that the LTTE decision to kill him was perhaps aimed at preventing him from coming to power again. This is a verdict based entirely on the state’s case.

Thanks to V P Singh, withdrawal of IPKF from Sri Lanka was completed on 24 March1990, three years late. But nothing else of the accord was ever implemented. Ask any Tamil in India and Sri Lanka, even third generation migrants to the UK or Australia. The armed struggle between the Lankan Tamils and the Sinhala government in tiny Sri Lanka continued till 2009, for twenty-five years. It finished off the Tamils in Sri Lanka, it made the Lankan state completely broke, it gave China a big foothold on the island and the waters.

The film-maker A M R Ramesh points out that it was in the wake of a meeting between one of the accused, Nalini and Priyanka Gandhi in 2008 that the Congress-led UPA government (the Manmohan Singh govt ) quietly stepped up its assistance to the Sri Lankan military in its offensive against the LTTE, notably with the Indian Navy blowing up its supply ships. Within 14 months, the LTTE had been decimated, and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was dead. Priyanka, Ramesh says, ‘had gone to Nalini because she, and perhaps the Nehru-Gandhi family, wanted one final confirmation that it was indeed Prabhakaran who had ordered the assassination of her father. And only Nalini could provide that confirmation’. Hindsight. Yes, thirty years later.

THE WADHWA REPORT clearly says, ‘During the armed struggle, the LTTE was having a free field in India. To support its struggle against Sri Lankan army cadre of LTTE had been operating from Indian soil for the purpose of arms training, treatment of injured LTTE people, supply of medicines and other provisions, collection of funds, printing and publishing of propaganda material, buying of provisions like petrol, diesel, wireless equipment, explosives and even cloths.’

Mohandas’s interviews to Shobha Warrier describes in detail how the Centre (the Congress-led Union government, and M G Ramachandran, the Tamil Nadu chief minister, as their tool) managed the LTTE and other elements in Chennai and Bangalore, where the 1987 accord was signed.

Even when Rajiv Gandhi was out of power, four years later, the LTTE was a very manipulated entity. Subramanian Swamy said in his book, ‘Lanka in Crisis:India’s Options’ (2007), that an LTTE delegation had met Rajiv Gandhi on 5 March 1991. Another delegation met him around 14 March 1991 in New Delhi.

The journalist Ram Bahadur Rai wrote after the assassination that: The message conveyed to Rajiv Gandhi by both these delegations was that there was ‘no threat to his life’ and that he could travel to Tamil Nadu without fearing for his life. Rai said, ‘I did a series of articles after his assassination that pointed out how, after these meetings, Rajiv became complacent about his security and broke security rules in more than 40 rallies’.

So, the LTTE had reportedly assured Rajiv (even though he was out of power), they were no threat to him, and he had had enough of an equation with Prabhakaran, not to keep him in an Indian jail for life, to have negotiated a chief minister’s post for Prabhakaran in northern Lanka (in 1987 which Prabhakaran said no to) and believe the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

 Justice K T Thomas had concluded that there was a ‘conspiracy to kill Rajiv’. Given the above factual testimony, the conspiracy theory does not appear to stand on firm legs, it remains an assumption even today.

THE WADHWA JUDGEMENT notes: Prosecution examined 288 witnesses and produced numerous documents and material objects. Statements of all the accused were recorded under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (Code).

In this list, three absconding were LTTE chief Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman, the intel chief and Akila or Akilakka, the deputy chief of the women’s wing.
One piece of evidence was a letter from both, the bomber Dhanu and Subha, allegedly a standby, a dead person. It was purportedly written by them to Akila. In translation it read:

Dear Akila sister, we are well and we shall be confident until the fulfilment of the job we came here. Here it is very hot and hence we cannot proceed to any place in the noon.
 
We are confident that the work for which we came would be finished in a proper manner. Because we were expecting another opportunity appropriately it would be executed within this month.
 
Otherwise, the state of this country is very bad. We have to practise only to speak. Otherwise, there is no problem for us. It is necessary to enact a drama. Akila sister’s, every word shall remain in our mind until last.
The remaining, if we meet? Are everybody is well?
Subha, Dhanu.

Even this does not read credible. Another piece of evidence was a camera with an Indian cameramen dead in the blast, Haribabu, and the camera and film recovered. This video, reported the SIT to various court, went missing.

 The LTTE conspiracy is ‘too pat and a highly simplistic explanation’, argues Ahamad in his book. ‘The way the case was handled and neatly tied up, smelt of an attempt to hurriedly look for and blame it all on an obviously remote and inaccessible assassin like the LTTE, a group and not any particular individual, deliberately overlooking the larger conspiracy’. He points at Rajiv’s downgraded security, noting, ‘at the time of his death, Rajiv was accompanied by a single unarmed Personal Security Officer (PSO), a Delhi Police subinspector named P K Gupta, who died along with Rajiv’.

 ‘...the manner in which the CBI-SIT, starting from the crème de la crème of the country’s sleuths, the then director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, Raja Vijay Karan, his number two S K Datta and Special Investigation Team chief D R Kaarthikeyan, delayed catching alive the main conspirator Sivarasan for days, defeating the purpose of the entire operation to bring to book the ring leader of the assassination gang, appeared deliberate....’

‘One-eyed Jack Sivarasan had been known to be hiding in an Indira Nagar hideout in Bangalore and it was in public knowledge that LTTE cadre were invariably armed with cyanide tablets and only a swift and sudden operation could have succeeded in catching him alive. This, not unnaturally, gave rise to suspicion in the media that the CBI was more keen on a coverup than unraveling the mystery... politician Subramanian Swamy too questioned how come, all his other eight accomplices had died of cyanide poisoning while Sivarasan alone had a bullet wound and Swamy wondered why his body was disposed off by the investigating agencies in a great haste.’

Ahmad notes, ‘This deliberate delay was allowed in spite of the fact that just two days before that, in the same southern city of Bangalore, a raid on another LTTE hideout had resulted in catching three people alive, two of whom, Kulathan and Arasan, died three days later despite the best medical efforts to keep them alive while one injured LTTE cadre (not named by Kaarthikeyan) survived, despite consuming cyanide. That operation should have made the security forces doubly alert and hopeful of catching Sivarasan alive through swift and surprise action.’

The investigations say, there was a standby to accompany the human bomb, she was also the back-up bomber. She was Sri Lankan. Her name was Subha alias Shalini or Nithya. She is not among the list of victims or injured. Where was she? How do we even know she was there... that she was the standby? Any Sherlock Holms fan will ask this question. The answer is not simple. She allegedly died a few days later by committing suicide ( in Bangalore).

 ‘The killing in SIT custody of another key witness, Shanmugham, further reinforced the apprehension that the SIT wanted no real witnesses to the actual conspiracy. It appeared as if the investigating agencies were more intent on concealing something than catching and nailing the real conspirators. Other attending factors like the erasure of a vital video cassette and subsequent developments further strengthened my suspicion and that of other media persons’, adds Ahmad. Thus, as many as 12 suspects were already dead, and that is no small number.

While some 43 people were injured, there are no eye-witness accounts of what actually happened. Not even the CBI report says, what actually happened. Nor does K Ragothaman, the CBI’s police superintendent.

There was some kind of a case that would stand trial — which was made out against only 41. A charge of conspiracy for offences under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 (TADA), Indian Penal Code (IPC), Explosive Substances Act, 1908, Arms Act, 1959, Passport Act, 1967, the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Indian Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 was laid against these 41 persons.

Defence Counsel, the famous criminal lawyer N Natarajan, sadly passed away on 12 November 2021, just about a year before the young people he had been fighting for 30 years to save from the gallows were freed.

According to him, the object of conspiracy was to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi and ‘not to commit any terrorist act or disruptive activity falling under Sections 3 and 4 of TADA as contended by the prosecution’. Having accepted the existence of conspiracy he said, ‘it was only to be seen as to what was the object of the conspiracy and who were the members of the conspiracy’?

Confessions of the accused had been recorded under Section 15 of TADA. Rule 15 of the TADA Rules framed under Section 28 of TADA prescribed the conditions for recording of confession made to a police officer.

 Natarajan said that confessions of the accused could not be taken into consideration... these confessions were not voluntary and had been retracted by the accused. Under Section 20 of TADA certain modified provisions of the Code were applicable at the time of the alleged confessions. Except for one Shanmugavadivelu (A-15), all other confessions had been recorded only a day or so before the 60-day police remand ended. In the case of Nalini (A-1) and Arivu (A-18) mandatory safeguards were violated. Confession of one accused could not be used for corroboration of the confession of another accused. They were coerced into confessing. He argued, ‘It cannot also be ruled out that the confessions were obtained by causing physical harm to the accused and playing upon their psychology’. He said, Nalini had got involved in the plot in order to please her husband, Murugan, a Lankan Tamil.

On Sec 212 Harbouring Offender, Natarajan said, ‘Whenever an offence has been committed, whoever harbours or conceals a person whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the offender, with the intention of screening him from legal punishment, if a capital offence shall, if the offence is punishable with death, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine; Exception.... This provision shall not extend to any case in which the harbour or concealment is by the husband or wife of the offender’.

TO EVERYONE ASSOCIATED with the SIT investigation, the setting up of the Jain commission sounded like lack of confidence in the CBI process.

The SIT team prosecuted 41 people, no one was from the Dravida Munntra Kazhagam or its rival, the All-India Anna DMK. The CBI did not blame any political entity. The CBI was not able to pinpoint when the decision to kill Rajiv Gandhi was taken, although the chargesheet said, it was a LTTE conspiracy.

Believe it or not, Judge K T Thomas said, ‘the killing was carried out due to personal animosity of the LTTE chief Prabhakaran towards Rajiv Gandhi arising from his sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka and the alleged IPKF atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils. Additionally, the Rajiv Gandhi administration had antagonised other Tamil militant organisations like PLOTE for reversing the military coup in Maldives in 1988’.

The judgment stated that, ‘no evidence existed that any one of the conspirators ever desired the death of any Indian other than Rajiv Gandhi’!

Judge D P Wadhwa further added, ‘there was nothing on record to show that the intention to kill Rajiv Gandhi was to overawe the government’. Hence it was held that it was not a terrorist act under the TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act), then in force.

This SIT investigation is clearly flawed. It was a TADA court that awarded death sentence to all 26 people against whom the SIT filed charges in the assassination case, in January 1998. Looking back at these judgements almost twenty-five years later opens the third eye.

The apex court freed 19 of these people in May 1999.

Justice Thomas’s bench convicted seven people, five were Sri Lankan Tamils — Murugan alias Sriharan, a LTTE operative; Santhan alias T Suthenthiraraja; Robert Pious and his brother-in-law Jayakumar; and Ravichandran.

One of those arrested was, Murugan’s Indian wife, Nalini who was two months pregnant at the time. Her crime was sheltering her husband and his associates. In public opinion, siding with a husband is not a crime; also, we must not forget, courts do not accept evidence by wives.

The seventh person was a very bright young 19-year-old Indian computer technician, A G Perarivalan (Aravu). He was accused of supplying batteries for the explosive. Now, the evidence here is very much like in the case of the 70-year-old activist Anand Teltumbde, involved in the Elgar Parishad case. On another arrested activist’s computer was allegedly an e-mail regarding Teltumbde being given Rs 10 crore to fund Maoist activities. In the age of technology, we know how these kinds of evidence are planted. Perarivalan has time and again said, he did not know what the batteries were for. He wasn’t given a hearing.

Review judge Wadhwa wrote, ‘...regrettably, I find myself unable to agree with him (Thomas) entirely, both on certain questions of law and conviction and sentence proposed by him on some of the accused. Moreover, keeping in view the fact that since sentence of death passed on 26 accused by the Designated Court has been submitted to this Court for confirmation, evidence needs to be considered in somewhat greater detail. I venture to render a separate judgment’, therefore.

Of the 41, as many as 26 faced the trial before the Designated Court which awarded death sentence to all of them on the charge of conspiracy to murder. Death sentence to 26, without credible evidence.

THE APEX COURT death sentence was ultimately chiselled down to Murugan and his wife Nalini, Perarivalan and Santhan. TADA lapsed in 1995. So how can anyone be hanged under TADA in 2011, one might wonder.

After the apex court sentencing in 1999, Sonia Gandhi in 2000 called for clemency to all these young people convicted of assassinating Rajiv. Nalini was pregnant when arrested, she had pointed out. Clearly, she was not convinced that these were the actual killers. Noticeably, she had not trusted the Narsimha Rao government that came to power after the elections were completed in 1992, and had never voiced any opinion regarding the investigation. In 1992, she did not have the confidence.

In 1999, the Karunanidhi government in Tamil Nadu too recommends commuting of Nalini’s death sentence. As a fallout, the execution of the others three too hangs fire due to DMK-AIADMK politics and the DMK’s alliance first with the BJP government of Vajpayee, then the Manmohan Singh government since 2004.

Meanwhile, Priyanka Gandhi meets Nalini in Vellore jail in 2008 and also appeals for clemency. After the visit, Priyanka tells the world that she had visited Nalini on a purely personal whim and asks that it be respected as her way ‘of coming to peace with the violence and loss I have experienced’ (as reported in the Deccan Chronicle in 2016). Publicly, Priyanka even supports clemency for Nalini. In turn, Nalini says, Priyanka’s visit had ‘washed away my sins’. Very politically perfect statements to pull the common man’s heartstrings.

It takes eleven years for President Pratibha Patil to reject the mercy pleas. May 2011 is finally fixed for their execution. In 2011, the Jayalalitha government appeals for President’s pardon for the other three. It is only in 2011 that the mercy pleas are transferred to the Supreme Court. Another three long years. It is only in February 2014 that the apex court commutes their death sentence ‘on grounds of delay in disposing their mercy pleas’.

2014: Justice K T Thomas’ intervention leads to the SC commuting death penalty of the three Rajiv Gandhi case convicts.

2018: Tamil Nadu cabinet recommends the release of all seven convicts in the case.

2019: Nalini gets ordinary parole for the first time since her arrest in 1991.

2021:  Nalini granted another parole to visit her ailing mother. Ravichandran also granted parole by the Madras High Court.

May 2022: Supreme Court orders Perarivalan’s release.

September 2022: SC issues notice to Tamil Nadu government on premature release for Nalini and Ravichandran

November 2022: SC orders release of remaining six convicts, months after Perarivalan’s release.

As we all know, in the Indian system, time is not related to any kind of justice, as a layman can see.

After her release Nalini has said, ‘After 32 years, even now I am not happy about the release. My husband was sent to jail when he was 20 and after 32 years, he has stepped foot outside only now’. Murugan, who is a Sri Lankan national, was taken to a special refugee camp in Tiruchirappalli after his release, along with other convicts in the case who are Lankans.

‘Unfortunate that SC not acted in consonance with spirit of India’, said Congressman Jairam Ramesh. What is the spirit of India? An eye for an eye?

Tamil Nadu chief minister M K Stalin said, ‘The decision to release the six convicts is a historical move and in line with the spirit of democracy. This judgement from the Supreme Court is also proof that the decisions that should be taken by the elected government should not be left to those in appointed positions, like the Governor... I would like to mention that this is a victory for all those who fight for humanity and human rights.

Several anti-death penalty organisations have been lending support to the defence in the Rajiv assassination case. Very recently, the Centre on Death Penalty, a university anti-death sentence body has decided to espouse the cause of 65 death penalty awardees in India waiting execution and has given itself the new name ‘Project 39A’ after Article 39 A of the Constitution that provides for equal justice.

Where Sonia Gandhi (b.1946) is coming from is easy to understand. She grew up in the times of Aldo Capitini(1899-1968), the most influential Italian Gandhian in the 1950s-1960s. He was an anti-fascist student in Mussolini’s time and had heard of Gandhi’s non-cooperation and read translations of his autobiography by 1929-1930. Mahatma Gandhi visited Italy in 1931, his autobiography, the ‘Autographia’ by Charles Freer Andrews, was translated into Italian with the addition of a comprehensive preface by Giovanni Gentile at that time. After World War II, Capitini had strengthened the many institutions he had set up promoting non-violence and was a well-known poet-writer and philosopher by the 1950s.

Capitini, Mandela, Martin Luther King jr... all, time and again, tell us death sentences do not achieve anything, especially the cause of justice, nor do political assassinations. Thirty-forty years of jail for a bunch of kids (in their 20s) brings no closure to this assassination, nor any assasination. As India’s oldest party, the Mahatma’s party, the agitational-satyagrahi party, the Indian National Congress should have cashed in on this understanding and could have chosen to say, we accept the court’s decision.

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