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Release of Rajiv Gandhi’s Killers Triggers Public Uproar
Congress stalwarts furious although Rajiv’s widow had sought their release on humanitarian grounds
By: Neeta Lal
The premature release of the killers of the late Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi, 46, who was assassinated in 1991 by the Sri Lankan armed separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at an election rally in southern Tamil Nadu, has triggered national outrage.
The slaying, in revenge for the deployment of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE, also took the life of the principal assassin, a woman named Kalaivani Rajaratnam who detonated an explosive-laden belt she was wearing under her clothing. Arguably, the killing of Rajiv Gandhi started the inexorable slide of the Congress, whose lesser leaders ended up losing power to the Bharatiya Janata Party headed by Narendra Modi, which precipitated the rise of Hindutva Hindu nationalism.
India’s Supreme Court allowed the release of the six convicts, citing their “satisfactory conduct” in prison and the fact that they had already served more than 30 years behind bars. Three of the six – Nalini Sriharan, her husband Murugan, and Santhan – were released from two prisons in Vellore, about 140 km from the regional capital Chennai. Convicts R P Ravichandran, Robert Payas, and Jayakumar were also ordered to be released. The court in its order took note of the case of A G Perarivalan, the seventh convict, who was released in May.
“It’s a new life with my husband and daughter. I thank Tamils for supporting me for more than 30 years. I thank both the state and central governments,” Sriharan told the NDTV channel after her release.
All six were incarcerated under Section 3(1) of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act which states that “Whoever with intent to overawe the Government…or to strike terror in people or any section of the people or to alienate any section of the people or to adversely affect the harmony amongst different sections of the people does any act” using explosives or any hazardous substance that could cause, death or injuries or damage/destroy property, etc. commits a terrorist act.”
The TADA trial court had initially sentenced 26 people to death in the affair, which took the lives of at least 14 others In 1999, a few years after the TADA Act was allowed to lapse, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of only the seven, releasing all others. The order observed that none of those convicted was part of the nucleus of the assassination team.
Invoking its extraordinary power under Article 142 of the Constitution, the top court on May 18 first ordered the release of Perarivalan, who had served over 30 years in jail. A bench of Justices B R Gavai and B V Nagarathna said the May 2022 judgment of the top court in the case of A.G Perarivalan was applicable here as well.
The 137-year-old Congress Party – which Rajiv headed – has strongly condemned the court’s decision to release the assassins, calling it “totally unacceptable and completely erroneous” while announcing that it would “exercise all its legal rights.” Former Congress PM Manmohan Singh also observed that “the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was an attack on the soul of India….contrary to all principles of justice."
Meanwhile, the terrorists/convicts are being given a hero’s welcome in some quarters by BJP supporters and some TV channels have also invited the released assassins on shows to explain their “point of view” leading some to denounce a TV channel anchor for treating convicts like “heroes.”
Senior Congress leader Randeep Surjewala tweeted that terrorists convicted of assassinating a prime minister describing themselves as “freedom fighters” can only happen in Modi’s “New India” – an apparent dig at the Modi government over its use of the term.
Despite outrage from most quarters, opinion is fractured on the release of the convicts. Some analysts also say that since the killers have already served three decades in jail, the harshest jail term in the country, no real purpose is being served by incarcerating them for longer in overcrowded jails where fresh convicts are awaiting their sentence. Some local politicians are even suggesting the assassins’ names for assembly elections calling them “freedom fighters.”
There’s been a strong reaction to the court’s release of convicts on social media with netizens questioning the need to free them. “So in India, you can be an active participant of a foreign plot to successfully assassinate a PM only to serve some jail time, walk free, and then be interviewed like a hero?” asked journalist Tenzing Lamsang from Bhutan.
Interestingly, however, Congress chief and Rajiv’s widow Sonia Gandhi had sought a presidential pardon for her husband’s killers. In 2011, she wrote a letter to then-president, K R Narayanan, asking him to commute the capital punishment awarded to three male convicts and Nalini Murugan. She also sought a presidential pardon for the killers in 1999 when the Tamil Nadu government recommended the release of all convicts. However, the state governor did not act upon this recommendation.
In between, in an unexpected move, Rajiv’s daughter Priyanka Vadra visited the Vellore Central Jail in Tamil Nadu in 2008 to meet Nalini Murugan. This led to premature speculation that the convict might be released at the time. It did, however, trigger criticism from rival parties that the Gandhis were indulging in grandstanding over “forgiving” their father’s killers while politicizing his death.