Rajiv’s Killers Get Away with Murder
Jayalalithaa plays politics with the verdict on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins
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