The Labyrinthian Story of Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination & the Convicts Who are Now Free | News18 Explains

The six convicts who were jailed in the assassination case of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi have been released from prison on Saturday. The Supreme Court on Friday had ordered the release of all the six life-term convicts in view of the Tamil Nadu government’s recommendation.

In May, the top court had ordered the release of A.G. Perarivalan, who was sentenced to life imprisonment over the 1991 assassination of the former PM. On Friday, a bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and B.V. Nagarathna passed the order of releasing the convicts including S. Nalini and her husband Murugan a.k.a. Sri Haran.

A bench of Justices BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna on Friday said the judgment of the top court in the case of AG Perarivalan, one of the convicts in the case, is equally applicable in their matter. (Photo: PTI)

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).

Then PM Rajiv Gandhi greets his supporters in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, moments before the blast took place in which he and 15 others were killed and several injured. (Image: FILE)

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 report by Outlook.

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 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 were serving life term for about three decades in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, noting that its earlier order releasing another convict A G Perarivalan was equally applicable to them.

Who is Nalini Sriharan?

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 (R) seen in a court in Chengalpattu in this June 15,1991 file photo. Reuters

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.

In its verdict in 1999, the Supreme Court stated that Nalini was a “obedient participant” with no key evidence proving her involvement in the conspiracy. “… She wouldn’t have dared to flee the scene because she was tucked into the tentacles of the conspiracy octopus, from which it was impossible for a woman like Nalini to extricate herself,” the court said, according to Indian Express.

The Times of India reported in 2008 that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra met with her in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore jail for 90 minutes in March of that year. According to the Times of India, Nalini, who describes herself as a “prisoner of circumstance,” told Vadra that neither she nor her husband were aware of the assassination plot.

Nalini told the media after the Supreme Court decision today 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,” she told News18.

Santhan

A report by Indian Express details how according to the CBI, Santhan and Sivarasan arrived in Tamil Nadu in April 1991. According to the chargesheet, 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

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.

Sriharan alias Murugan seen in a court in Chengalpattu in this June 15, 1991 file photo. Reuters

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

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.

Jayakumar

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.

Ravichandran

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.

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