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Friday, September 16, 2011

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition on 16 September, 2011, retrieved from

NOTE: This is not opinion. It's an explanatory article. 

It has been more than two decades since former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. After the case dragged on in various courts for years, the final verdict came this August. President Pratibha Patil rejected the mercy petitions of the three convicts who had been sentenced to death, eleven years after the sentence was passed.
However, the decision was followed by protests in Tamil Nadu against the hanging of the three – Murugan, Santhan, and Perarivalan – and across India against the death penalty itself. They were due to have been hanged on September 9, but the Madras High Court passed a stay order for two months. This means they cannot be hanged at least until then, and the court will wait for the Central Government’s reply on why it took so long to dispose of the mercy petitions.
Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination
On 21 May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi, who was Prime Minister from 1984 to 1989, was killed in a suicide bomb blast at an election rally in Sriperumbudur, near Chennai. At least 14 other people were killed, including a cameraman who had filmed the entire incident. His camera was recovered from the site.
The footage showed the Congress leader being garlanded by several followers. A woman bent down to touch his feet, and an explosion followed immediately. She had detonated a belt containing explosives, hidden under her dress.
Investigations showed that the suicide bomber was Dhanu (alias Thenmozhi Rajaratnam), a female member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE consistently denied involvement, until June 2006, when spokesman Anton Balasingham said they ‘deeply regretted’ the ‘monumental tragedy’. In May 2011, Kumaran Pathmanathan (known as ‘KP’), who is under custody in Colombo, stated in an interview that the assassination was planned and carried out with the concurrence of then LTTE Chief V Prabhakaran, and apologised for ‘Prabhakaran’s mistake’.
Rajiv Gandhi is believed to have been targeted because he had initiated India’s participation in the Sri Lankan Civil War, by sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to the country. In an interview in 1990, he had said he would send the IPKF to disarm LTTE if he came back to power. He had met a delegation from the LTTE twice that year. There were reports that he was warned not to travel to Tamil Nadu by his advisers.
The probe into his death was first given to a Special Investigation Team (SIT). The Justice J S Verma Commission was also formed to look into the security lapses that led to the killing. The Jain Commission was constituted to study the assassination too.
A memorial was built at the site.
The Trial
Within two months of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, all the arrests were made. Twenty-six people were charged with the killing in November, 1993. The following January, the trial began under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), in a designated court in Madras (now Chennai). The proceedings were recorded on camera. The trial went on for nearly four years.
There were several controversies during and after this period. In January, 1998, the Designated Trial Court Judge, V Navaneetham found all 26 accused guilty, and sentenced them to death. This shocked lawmakers across the country, and there were huge protests alleging irregularity in the conduct of the trial.
The Jain Commission submitted its final report in March that year, in which it accused godman Chandraswami, and more controversially, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi, of playing a role in the assassination.  Following this, the Congress withdrew its support for the I K Gujral government, leading to its collapse.
What Happened to the Convicts?
Soon after, the Supreme Court stayed the death sentences of the accused. Next year, a Supreme Court Bench acquitted 19, and commuted the punishment of 3 others – Robert Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran – to life imprisonment.
But it upheld the death sentence for Nalini, her husband Murugan (alias Sriharan), Santhan (alias Suthendraraja) and Perarivalan (alias Arivu). They had been charged with criminal conspiracy and execution of the suicide attack plot. However, Nalini’s sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment, after Rajiv Gandhi’s widow Sonia intervened.
The mercy petitions of the three remaining death row convicts was rejected by the Home Ministry in 2005, but it was called back for review in February 2011. On August 11 this year, a Rashtrapati Bhavan spokesperson announced that the President had rejected the mercy petitions the previous week.
The Death Penalty Row
As soon as the rejection of the mercy pleas was announced, a campaign began in Tamil Nadu, headed by Arputham Ammal – Perarivalan’s mother – and supported by several political leaders.
The objections ranged from appeals that the convicts had been too young to think straight at the time of the assassination, to the protest that there was not enough proof of their involvement, to the submission that there was no trained hangman in Chennai and the deaths would be cruel and painful, to the grounds that they had waited in fear of death for too long to be punished further.
Some said Perarivalan had only been accused of buying batteries (for the suicide belt Dhanu wore), and others held that since the first accused Nalini had been spared the death sentence, the others should too.
The movement gained currency across India, with activists saying capital punishment was barbaric and should be banned in a modern democracy.
The Tamil Sentiment                                                                                                                                                             
With politicians like Vaiko of the MDMK (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Thol Thirumavalavan of the VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi) getting into the fray, the appeal for clemency for the trio was loaded with ‘Tamil sentiment’. The Left lent its support to the protest, and CPI(M) leader A B Bardhan and CPI leader D Raja attended the release function of a book penned by Perarivalan.
On August 28, a 20-year-old girl Senkodi, a volunteer with NGO Makkal Mandram, set herself on fire in Kanchipuram to protest against the death sentence. She was hailed as a martyr by Tamil groups, and under pressure from various parties, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution asking the President to reconsider the mercy pleas of the trio.
Hours before this, the Madras High Court had stayed the hanging of the three convicts for 8 weeks, pending disposal of the case.


21 May, 1991
Rajiv Gandhi assassinated in Sriperumbudur; 14 others killed in the blast
24 May, 1991
CBI forms Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the case. Judge S M Siddick appointed to try the case.
11 June, 1991
First arrests made – Bhagyanathan and Padma held.
14 June, 1991
Nalini and her husband Murugan arrested.
29 August, 1991
Last suspect arrested. Several more arrests made in the interim.
20 May, 1992
SIT files charges against the suspects. Charges framed on November 24, 1993.
19 January, 1994
Trial begins
30 December, 1996
Justice V Navaneetham replaces Justice  Siddick
5 November, 1997
Trial ends. Verdict to be announced on January 28, 1998.
28 January, 1998
Judge finds all 26 accused guilty, sentences them to death
7 March, 1998
Jain Commission submits its Final Report
27 March, 1998

Supreme Court stays the death sentences of the 26 convicts till further orders
11 May, 1999
Supreme Court Bench acquits 19 accused, commutes sentence of 3 to life imprisonment, and upholds death sentence for Nalini, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan
24 April, 2000
Tamil Nadu Governor Fathima Beevi commutes Nalini’s sentence to life imprisonment, on the grounds that she is a woman and has a daughter
11 August, 2011
President Pratibha Patil rejects mercy petitions of the 3 death row convicts. 9 September is set as the date for hanging.
28 August, 2011
A Tamil girl Senkodi immolates herself outside the Tahsil office in Kanchipuram to protest against the death sentence, is hailed as a martyr
30 August, 2011
The Madras High Court stays the hanging of the convicts for 8 weeks, orders notice to the Union Government. The same day, Tamil Nadu Assembly moves a resolution asking the President to review the mercy pleas, citing the sentiments of Tamil people and several political parties.

Jammu and Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah responded to the TV Assembly resolution with this tweet: “If J&K assembly had passed a resolution similar to the Tamil Nadu one for Afzal Guru would the reaction have been as muted? I think not.”
Law Minister Salman Khurshid said the Assembly resolution was not binding on anyone, and refused to comment on the High Court order.


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