On May 21, 1991, India’s youngest prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rajiv Gandhi was the second Indian prime minister assassinated following military interventions that enraged a subset of extremists.
On Nov 11, 2022, Supreme Court set free all six convicts – serving life imprisonment – in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The court applied its May 18 2022 judgment of releasing AG Perarivalan to the remaining life convicts after noting that the criteria laid down for Perarivalan were made out even in the case of the remaining convicts.
By this order, the court released S Nalini, Jaykumar, RP Ravichandran, Robert Pias, Suthendraraja and Sriharan. They were found to have good conduct in jail and all of them had acquired various degrees during their stay in jail. The court noted that the Tamil Nadu cabinet had recommended their release on September 9, 2018, and this opinion will be binding on the Governor before whom the convicts had filed remission plea.
Earlier this year, the top court had ended the 31-year-old incarceration of convict AG Perarivalan. His good conduct in prison, medical condition, educational qualifications acquired in jail and the long pendency of his mercy plea since December 2015 were taken into account.
“Seeing his satisfactory conduct in jail, medical records, educational qualifications achieved in jail, and pendency of his mercy petition filed under Article 161 before TN Governor since December 2015…in exercise of powers under Article 142, we direct the petitioner to be set free,” the court had said at the time.
WHY WAS RAJIV GANDHI ASSASSINATED?
Rajiv Gandhi, India’s youngest prime minister at the time, was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May 21, 1991. Rajiv Gandhi was the second Indian prime minister to be assassinated, following his mother, Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated by her bodyguards.
In addition, both Indira and Rajiv were assassinated following military interventions that enraged a subset of extremists. While Indira sent the military after Khalistani leader Bhindranwale in Punjab, infuriating Sikh extremists, Rajiv intervened with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (IPKF).
The possibility of Rajiv’s return as prime minister in the 1991 elections, as well as the possibility of IPKF redeployment by him, alarmed the LTTE in Sri Lanka to the point of assassination, according to a media report.
After Rajiv sent IPKF to Sri Lanka, the LTTE turned against him. According to the think tank Gateway House, the Indian military was initially dispatched with the goal of assisting Lankan authorities, but their mission evolved over time, evolving into counter-insurgency and finally war in the jungles with the LTTE. Even the end of the IPKF mission in 1990 did not appease the LTTE, who saw Rajiv as their main adversary in India. According to an India Today story from 1991, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran made the decision in November 1990 and launched the operation.
Even before the National Front government [of VP Singh] finally collapsed, the LTTE had made up its mind to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from regaining power, even if it required the ultimate deterrent — his assassination, wrote Anirudhya Mitra, author of Ninety Days: The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins.
Recognizing that Rajiv as Prime Minister would be a near-impossible target, they decided to strike while his security status was still that of an Opposition leader and election campaigning would make him even more vulnerable, Mitra stated.
HOW WAS RAJIV GANDHI ASSASSINATED?
Dhanu, the female suicide bomber, and other LTTE members practised the assassination twice, the report by Outlook stated. They went to a rally of late AIADMK leader Jayalalitha in the first run. They practised assassinating VP Singh in the second run.
Dhanu managed to touch Singh’s feet in a traditional Indian gesture of respect during the second run, just as she did with Rajiv on May 21.
Rajiv arrived at the rally site in Sriperumbudur after 10 p.m. on May 21. There were separate male and female galleries. Rajiv went to the men’s section first, then to the women’s section. Rajiv approached the women and stopped a policewoman named Anusuya Daisy from blocking Dhanu’s approach. Dhanu then blew herself up, killing Gandhi and 14 others.
RELEASE OF CONVICTS
A TADA court sentenced 26 of the 41 accused to death in 1998, including 12 who died in the explosion or during the investigation. The Supreme Court released 19 of them in May 1999, while upholding the death sentences of Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan, and Nalini and commuting the death sentences of Payas, Ravichandran, and Jayakumar to life in prison.
All seven were apprehended in the weeks and months following Rajiv’s assassination.
In 2000, the Tamil Nadu Governor commuted Nalini’s death sentence based on the state government’s recommendation and an appeal by Sonia Gandhi. In 2014, the other three sentences were commuted. Perarivalan was released after a lengthy legal battle involving the state government, Governor, Union government, and President of India.
The Supreme Court on Friday set free Nalini Sriharan and five other remaining convicts
Who Are The Six Convicts?
Nalini Sriharan, now in her forties, graduated from Ethiraj College with a degree in English language and literature. Padmavathi, her mother, worked as a nurse in a Chennai hospital, and her father, P Sankara Narayanan, was a police officer.
Nalini was two months pregnant when she was arrested for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. She is known as India’s longest-serving female prisoner. She married another convict, LTTE operative Sriharan, on April 21, 1991, and both have been imprisoned since their arrest that year.
She had housed two women who had been flown in from Sri Lanka for the attack. They had remained with her and her husband while the plan was developed. Nalini was also accused of assisting the two female bombers in purchasing the clothing they wore on the day of the attack. Furthermore, she accompanied the women and prime accused Sivarasan to a rally held by former Prime Minister VP Singh in Chennai to assess security arrangements for such events.
Nalini told the media after the Supreme Court decision that she knows “she is not a terrorist.”
“I had been suffering in prison for many years. The last 32 hours have been difficult for me. I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me. “I am grateful to the people of Tamil Nadu and all lawyers for their faith.”
A report by the media details how according to the CBI, Santhan and Sivarasan arrived in Tamil Nadu in April 1991. According to the charge sheet, he was a member of the LTTE’s intelligence wing who was close to Sivarasan. Sivarasan suggested that Santhan continue his studies in Madras (Chennai) in February 1988, and in February 1990, he was admitted to Madras Institute of Engineering Technology, where his expenses were covered by the LTTE. Santhan was charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Rajiv because of his close association with Sivarasan.
Perarivalan, who shared a prison cell with Santhan for nearly three decades, described him as a man “who lives in his own world.” “He never said anything to anyone. He was an overly religious man who would sit in the prison temple for almost the entire day, performing puja and rituals,” Perarivalan said. “I believe he never responded to letters from relatives in Sri Lanka, and he may have severed all ties with relatives,” Perarivalan said.
Murugan, a Sri Lankan national and “hard-core LTTE activist,” was a member of the suicide squad beginning in January 1991, according to the prosecution, the Indian Express reported. He was sent to India by LTTE leader Pottu Amman with the task of drawing sketches and photographing and filming key locations, and he was met by Sivarasan there. He became friends with Nalini’s brother Bhagyanathan, and then with Nalini and her mother Padma. According to the case, Murugan was informed of Subha and Dhanu’s arrival by Sivarasan.
According to Nalini’s autobiography, she fell in love with Murugan during her problems with her parents, and they were shaken after the assassination and fled to various locations to avoid arrest.
Robert Payas went on the run for a few days after Gandhi was assassinated. The SIT arrested him in connection with the case in June 1991, and the CBI investigated and submitted its report. During his trial, it was determined that Payas was aware of the conspiracy to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi based on his confession and other evidence.
R Prema, Payas’ wife, is the sister of Jayakumar, another convict sentenced to life in the assassination case. During the trial, Payas claimed that the IPKF murdered his one-and-a-half-year-old son before he came to India in 1990.
According to the chargesheet, Jayakumar, Payas’s brother-in-law, was deported to India by the LTTE in 1990. He is said to have arranged for some of the accused to live in a house while they plotted the assassination. His Indian wife was among those released in 1999 and now lives in Chennai with their son, stated the IE report.
He was accused of receiving LTTE training in India and then in Sri Lanka. He allegedly met with LTTE leaders such as Kittu and Baby Subramaniam and was instructed by Pottu Amman to assist Sivarasan in Madras. He was also tasked with providing shelter and assisting Sivarasan and others in escaping after the assassination.
In a statement, AICC General Secretary In-Charge Communications Jairam Ramesh said, “The decision of the Supreme Court to free the remaining killers of former PM Shri Rajiv Gandhi is totally unacceptable and completely erroneous.”
“The Congress Party criticises it clearly and finds it wholly untenable. It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court has not acted in consonance with the spirit of India on this issue,” he added.
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said the decision has shocked the nation’s conscience and invited serious concern and criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. Congress intends to take “all available remedies, be it review or any other form of legal redress”.
Asked about statements of forgiveness by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the past, Singhvi said the party’s stance on the matter has been the same despite the personal views of the Gandhi family and called it an “institutional issue”.
The party disagrees with Sonia, whose appeal helped in the commutation of the death sentence of convict Nalini Sriharan, he said.
“It is a matter, for example, where my views are the same as that of the central government. So this is not politics. Certainly, Sonia Gandhi above all is entitled to her personal views but with greatest respect, the party does not agree with that view, has never agreed with that view and has made its view consistently clear and we stand by that view because according to us, the sovereignty, integrity and identity of the nation is involved in a prime minister”s assassination, sitting or former,” Singhvi said.
Congress leaders Rahul and Priyanka had earlier said they have “completely forgiven” the killers of Rajiv Gandhi.
Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala sought to know whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government support the release of terrorists and will they get the court verdict reviewed.
“Does PM Modi & govt support the release of terrorists, who assassinated India’s PM? Isn’t this because Modi Govt utterly failed to present its case to SC? Is Modi Govt suffering from petty political partisanship on terrorism? Will PM Modi get the court verdict reviewed?” he tweeted.
Political parties in Tamil Nadu hailed the court’s move. The chief minister and DMK president MK Stalin said his party was always in favour of the convicts’ release.
“We argued in favour of state’s rights in Perarivalan’s case and ensured his release in May this year,” Stalin said in a two-page statement, adding that it was a legal struggle led by the DMK government after assuming office in 2021.
“That was the first victory for us. The same way, we took efforts to secure the release of the remaining six persons and we have got a favourable verdict today.”
Stalin also pointed to a part in the verdict which said the governor has to act on the decision of the state cabinet.
“The Supreme Court’s verdict is proof that governors who are appointed to the post cannot sit on decisions taken by governments elected democratically by the people. This judgment is also a historic foreword to democratic principles,” he said.
Stalin’s remarks on the governor’s role came against the backdrop of an ongoing tussle with governor RN Ravi. The DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance had recently written to President Droupadi Murmu, saying he was unfit to hold office.
“The governor could have released the seven persons on his own by accepting the Cabinet resolution. I think the issue was handled lightly, so that the Supreme Court takes a decision, and not the governor or the Union government,” said Thol Thirumavalavan, chief of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, an ally of the DMK.
The Tamil Nadu government, then led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), had recommended early release of the convicts to then-governor Banwarilal Purohit in 2018. Last year, after coming to power, Stalin wrote to the President on the same.
The AIADMK also took credit for the developments.
Expelled AIADMK leader O Panneerselvam tweeted that this was a result of the efforts led by late former chief minister J Jayalalithaa.
The state Bharatiya Janata Party did not react to the verdict.