Ra­jiv’s Killers Get Away with Mur­der

Jay­alalithaa plays pol­i­tics with the ver­dict on Ra­jiv Gandhi’s as­sas­sins

India Today - - FRONT PAGE - By San­deep Un­nithan

The first time Chinna San­than cheated death was on July 22, 1991. The Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tion Team ( SIT) set up to track down the per­pe­tra­tors of the sen­sa­tional May 21, 1991, as­sas­si­na­tion of for­mer prime min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi had closed in on the key con­spir­a­tor. The SIT, led by Radha Vinod Raju, burst into the house of a Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam ( LTTE) sym­pa­thiser in Pam­bal, on the out­skirts of Chen­nai. San­than, a Sri Lankan Tamil who was part of LTTE’s in­tel­li­gence unit, woke up and did what all hard­core Tiger cadres had been trained to do when faced with im­mi­nent ar­rest. He reached for a cyanide cap­sule. The SIT over­pow­ered him and pre­vented him from com­mit­ting sui­cide.

On Fe­bru­ary 18, San­than and two other co-ac­cused, Mu­ru­gan and Per­ari­valan, cheated death once again. They had been sen­tenced to death by the Ter­ror­ist and Dis­rup­tive Ac­tiv­i­ties (Preven­tion) Act ( TADA) court 15 years ago for abet­ting Ra­jiv Gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion in Sripe­rum­budur, Tamil Nadu. The trio’s death sen­tences were com­muted to life im­pris­on­ment by a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Jus­tice P. Satha­si­vam. The bench held the “un­rea­son­able” and “in­or­di­nate” de­lay in their mercy pe­ti­tions, which had re­mained pend­ing for 11 years, as grounds for the com­mu­ta­tion. The bench said the ac­cused would spend the end of their lives in prison. Un­less, they added, the state govern­ment granted them re­mis­sion. It was an op­por­tu­nity Tamil Nadu Chief Min­is­ter J. Jay­alalithaa im­me­di­ately seized.

A day later, on Fe­bru­ary 19, she an­nounced that San­than, Per­ari­valan and Mu­ru­gan would be joined in their walk to free­dom by four more ac­cused: Robert Payas, Jayakumar, Ravichan­dran and Nalini. All seven have been in prison in Tamil Nadu since 1991. Hours af­ter Jay­alalithaa’s state­ment, Congress Vice-Pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi, an­guished at the pos- sible sight of his fa­ther’s killers walk­ing free out of the blue-and-yel­low iron gates of Vel­lore Cen­tral Jail, said at a rally in Ame­thi in Ut­tar Pradesh, “What should the com­mon man ex­pect when a prime min­is­ter’s killers are be­ing freed?” Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh’s state­ment the next day called the move to free the killers “not legally ten­able”. On Fe­bru­ary 20, the re­lease was stayed by the Supreme Court which is­sued a no­tice to the Tamil Nadu govern­ment. The court will now take up the case on March 6.

The prospect of three mem­bers of a banned for­eign ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion, two of them for­eign na­tion­als, walk­ing away with the mur­der of a for­mer head of govern­ment, has only tem­po­rar­ily re­ceded. But whichever way the Supreme Court fi­nally de­cides, it is ad­van­tage Jay­alalithaa in an elec­tion year.

The Sri Lankan Tamil is­sue has never been a poll clincher in Tamil Nadu. Even at the peak of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009 that

NONE OFTHE DEATH SEN­TENCES GIVEN TO THE 26

AC­CUSED IN 1998 HAS BEEN CAR­RIED OUT.

saw the LTTE’s fi­nal de­struc­tion, the DMK- Congress al­liance courted in­tense at­tack from pro-Lankan Tamil groups but swept 28 out of the 40 seats from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. “If the Sri Lankan is­sue is big enough to sway the state as those groups and sup­port­ing po­lit­i­cal out­fits claim, MDMK Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Vaiko, its fiercest votary, would have be­come the chief min­is­ter of Tamil Nadu a long time ago,” says B.S. Gyanade­sikan, Pres­i­dent, Tamil Nadu Congress Com­mit­tee. But this time, with elec­tions close, the state has been see­ing a much stronger back­ing for pro- Lankan Tamil sen­ti­ments. Tamil na­tion­al­ist groups are pre­par­ing to use it to beat the al­ready gasp­ing Congress in the state. A Jan­uary 2014 In­dia To­day Group- CVoter Mood of the Na­tion poll pre­dicts the party’s wipe­out in the state.

“By free­ing the killers who killed Tamils, what is Jay­alalithaa try­ing to con­vey? Pol­i­tics over your people?” tweeted Divya Span­dana, Congress MP from Mandya, Kar­nataka. Jay­alalithaa’s pol­i­tics may ap­pear baf­fling. She has been stri­dently anti- LTTE, dis­miss­ing it as a ter­ror or­gan­i­sa­tion and ask­ing the Cen­tre not to let any of its cadre set foot in In­dia. Based on a groundswell of Tamil sen­ti­ments for the as­sas­sins af­ter the Pres­i­dent turned down their mercy pleas in 2011, she has now started a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle, which she can­not lose. If the Supreme Court clears the re­lease, she wins points. If the re­lease is stalled, her ri­val M. Karunanidhi loses the man­tle of the Tamil cause’s cham­pion. In ei­ther case, Jay­alalithaa hopes to laugh all the way to the vote bank in May 2014.

The killing of Ra­jiv Gandhi was one of the most fiendish as­sas­si­na­tions of the 20th century. On Fe­bru­ary 20, Man­mo­han Singh called it “an at­tack on the the soul of In­dia”. It was the first in which a hu­man bomb was used to kill a na­tional leader, and one that dra­mat­i­cally al­tered the tra­jec­tory of In­dian pol­i­tics. The plot was hatched deep in the jun­gles of Wanni in north­ern Sri Lanka by LTTE supremo Velupil­lai Prab­hakaran and his ruth­less in­tel­li­gence chief Pottu Am­man, in De­cem­ber 1990. The mo­tive was a mix of re­venge and pre-emp­tion. It was not only be­cause Ra­jiv, as prime min­is­ter, had sent In­dian troops into Sri Lanka where they ended up bat­tling LTTE, but also be­cause there was a real pos­si­bil­ity he could be­come prime min­is­ter again.

Prab­hakaran’s as­sas­sin squad was led by a one-eyed LTTE in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive, Si­varasan, who was as­sisted by Mu­ru­gan, the head of LTTE’s in­tel­li­gence wing in Chen­nai, and San­than, an­other Tiger spy. They used sev­eral lo­cal

Ta­mil­ian sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing Nalini, Subha and Per­ari­valan to ex­e­cute their deadly plan. All of them had only one role. Dis­guised as jour­nal­ists and Congress party work­ers, they would ma­noeu­vre Dhanu, a sui­cide bomber car­ry­ing half-a-kg of RDX stud­ded with thou­sands of steel pel­lets strapped around her waist, di­rectly in front of Ra­jiv Gandhi. On May 21, 1991, when Dhanu bent to touch the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s feet af­ter gar­land­ing him, she trig­gered the bomb. The re­sult­ing blast in­stantly killed Ra­jiv and 17 oth­ers, in­clud­ing six civil­ians.

“They are hard­ened ter­ror­ists,” fumes BJP leader Subra­ma­nian Swamy. “To say that they were men­tally af­fected by the de­layed ver­dict is ab­surd. Where is the ques­tion of show­ing mercy to them? What about the rights of the vic­tims killed by them?”

The CBI’s SIT filed a chargesheet in the Ra­jiv Gandhi as­sas­si­na­tion case in 1994 that named 41 people, in­clud­ing Prab­hakaran, as ac­cused. Four years later, a TADA court sen­tenced 26 con­spir­a­tors to death. None of the sen­tences has been car­ried out. The case hit a po­lit­i­cal slow track in 2000 when the Supreme Court re­tained the death sen­tences for only four of the ac­cused: San­than, Per­ari­valan, Mu­ru­gan and his wife Nalini. Fol­low­ing the re­jec­tion of the mercy pe­ti­tions by the Tamil Nadu gover­nor on April 25, 2000, the pleas of the three death-row ac­cused were for­warded to the Union Min­istry of Home Af­fairs on May 4, 2000

The NDA sat on the mercy pe­ti­tions of Mu­ru­gan, San­than and Per­ari­valan for four years from May 2000 till its ten­ure ran out. UPA’s then home min­is­ter Shivraj Patil sent the mercy pe­ti­tions first to Pres­i­dent APJ Ab­dul Kalam and then, to his suc­ces­sor Prathiba Patil. They did not act on it. It was P. Chi­dambaram, af­ter be­com­ing the home min­is­ter in 2008, who re­vived the is­sue with re­peated letters to Pres­i­dent Patil, un­til she re­jected the pe­ti­tions in Au­gust 2011.

For­mer SIT mem­bers squarely blame the UPA for de­lay­ing the clemency pe­ti­tions. “The NDA did not act on the case for four years, but UPA’s over five-year de­lay in car­ry­ing out the sen­tence has been the big­gest dis­ser­vice to the soul of Ra­jiv Gandhi,” says K. Ragothaman, chief in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cer of the SIT.

The 11- year- de­lay en­sured the plight of the death row ac­cused be­came a fit case for com­pet­i­tive ex­ploita­tion by the Dra­vid­ian par­ties who have been part of ev­ery govern­ment at the Cen­tre since 1998, and now hope to max­imise their gains in 2014 Gen­eral Elec­tions. “Politi­cians are play­ing pol­i­tics over dead bod­ies,” says for­mer CBI chief Jogin­der Singh. Ujjwal Nikam, pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor in the Mum­bai blasts case warns that the case has un­corked a re­gional ge­nie. “The Supreme Court ver­dict opens up the pos­si­bil­ity of politi­ci­sa­tion of jus­tice by re­gional par­ties with nar­row agen­das.”

As chief min­is­ter in 2000, DMK Pres­i­dent M. Karunandhi had de­clined to rec­om­mend the mercy pe­ti­tion of the three ac­cused to the state gover­nor. He only rec­om­mended Nalini’s case be com­muted. He is now one of the strong­est back­ers for the swift re­lease of Ra­jiv’s killers and, for the past three years, has led the din to save them from the gal­lows, but has dodged ques­tions about his volte-face.

Lost in the clam­our of com­pet­i­tive pol­i­tics, mean­while, are the mem­o­ries of the 17 in­no­cent people who died with the for­mer prime min­is­ter. Those killings, it seems, have dimmed af­ter 23 years. Not only has jus­tice been de­layed in this case, but also de­nied to its ac­tual vic­tims.

MU­RU­GAN, 44, SRI LANKAN. MEM­BER OF LTTE’S IN­TEL­LI­GENCE WING. OP­ER­ATED OUT OF CHEN­NAI.

SAN­THAN, 45, SRI LANKAN. AS­SO­CIATE OF HIT SQUAD LEADER SI­VARASAN WAS PRESENTATASSASINATION SPOT.

PER­ARI­VALAN, 43, IN­DIAN. LTTE SYM­PA­THISER. CHARGED WITH PRO­VID­ING 9V BAT­TERY USED IN THE BELT BOMB.

DHANU (CIR­CLED), MO­MENTS BE­FORE RA­JIV GANDHI’S AS­SAS­SI­NA­TION IN SRIPE­RUM­BUDUR

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