When the last seven of the Rajiv Gandhi case convicts are released, curtains would come down on a sordid 23-year saga that began with a diabolic assassination and ended with a struggle by the convicts to get off the noose.
Although all the 26 accused, tried by a special TADA court at Poonamalee sub-jail, were awarded death sentence on January 28, 1998, no one walked to the gallows and none will be in jail after three days.
Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at an election meeting venue in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, by a female human bomb. She was not alone at the venue and did not operate solo. The unravelling of the conspiracy led to the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the CBI to initially name 41 people as accused in the chargesheet.
Of them, LTTE chief V Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Akila (LTTE women’s wing head), were declared absconders. Twelve others could not be caught alive, including two - human bomb Dhanu and Haribabu, a photographer from Chennai - who were killed by the RDX that killed Rajiv. The SIT arrested 26 and charged all of them under the TADA and other sections of the IPC.
The Supreme Court on May 11, 1999 let off 19, commuted sentences of three to life and awarded death to four. Those on the death row were Nalini, Murugan (LTTE cadre who married Nalini in Tirupati soon after the killing), Perarivalan (accused of procuring a nine volt battery for Dhanu’s belt bomb) and Santhan (childhood buddy of Sivarasan).
Sivarasan and Subha were among those who committed suicide by biting a cyanide pill at their hideout near Bangalore, when the police tried to storm it three months after the assassination.
Those who were ordered to serve life terms were Robert Payas (accused of allowing LTTE men to stay in his house and getting money from Sivarasan), Jayakumar (brother-in-law of Payas to whose house Sivarasan, Nalini and Subha returned after the assassination) and Ravichandran (arranged hideouts for the team after the operation).
After the four death row convicts appealed to the Supreme Court in vain, they began pleading for clemency, starting with a petition to the Tamil Nadu Governor on Oct 17, 1999, with the petitioners showing perseverance in exploring each and every avenue available under the law. On April 19, 2000, the Tamil Nadu government recommended commutation of the death sentence to life for Nalini alone.
On August 26, 2011, the date for hanging Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan was fixed as September 9 but on August 30, the High Court stayed it and referred the appeal to the Supreme Court even as the Tamil Nadu Cabinet adopted a resolution in favour of the convicts.
Ever since the first petition was shot off to the governor, a movement against death penalty gained momentum in Tamil Nadu with several Tamil groups throwing their weight behind it by organising meetings, seminars, protests and hunger strikes. Perarivalan’s mother Arputhamal was part of the movement that also drew many politicians from Tamil Nadu.
The demand for releasing the death row convicts, particularly Perarivalan, became an emotive issue in the State and several books and pamphlets were brought out to drum up public support. Several journalists even met him in jail and wrote about him. The announcement by the Chief Minister thus brings to an end the struggle for saving Perarivalan.
It has also in one stroke given relief for the six others, including Nalini, whose petition for release from jail had been opposed by the then State government.