What makes Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins heroes – or not – in Tamil Nadu

What makes Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins heroes – or not – in Tamil Nadu

On November 11, many pockets in Tamil Nadu, including parts of Vellore, Coimbatore and Chennai, suddenly erupted in joy. Some burst crackers, while some others shared sweets with neighbours and friends, even as many remained clueless about the reason for the celebrations. With Karthika Deepam still more than a fortnight away, it took some time for many to realise that the crackers and sweets...

On November 11, many pockets in Tamil Nadu, including parts of Vellore, Coimbatore and Chennai, suddenly erupted in joy. Some burst crackers, while some others shared sweets with neighbours and friends, even as many remained clueless about the reason for the celebrations. With Karthika Deepam still more than a fortnight away, it took some time for many to realise that the crackers and sweets were meant to celebrate the Supreme Court judgement ordering the release of ‘akka’ and ‘anna’ – life convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The order extended to the six convicts the benefit of the apex court’s May 18 order releasing co-convict AG Perarivalan.

Those leading the celebrations over the verdict were cadres of Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), a Tamil nationalist fringe group led by Seeman. The young members of the NTK have over the years started referring to Nalini Sriharan as akka (elder sister) and T Suthendraraja alias Santhan, V Sriharan alias Murugan, Robert Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran alias Ravi as anna.

NTK cadres were not alone in rejoicing over the verdict that set the six free. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) ally Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) went ahead by offering sweets to Nalini, who has been busy giving out interviews sharing her plans for the future with her husband and daughter.

Not just political parties and its cadres, even many ordinary people have welcomed the release.

“I am happy with the order that has set the convicts free. I am happy particularly over the release of Nalini because she is a woman like me,” Vennila, a Chennai-based home-maker told The Federal.

What made many take a softer view towards Nalini over the years was her daughter, Harithra Sriharan, born inside jail.

“She has a daughter, who is working abroad. All these years, Nalini was separated from Harithra who is now a doctor in the UK. She did not get the opportunity to see her daughter grow up. As a mother, I can feel how difficult it would be. At least now, she can be with her daughter,” 42-year-old Vennila said sympathising with Nalini.

The support and its reasons

On November 12, as Nalini walked out of the Vellore jail, she told media, “It’s a new life with my husband and daughter. I am not going to join public life. I thank Tamils for supporting me for more than 30 years.”

While the support for the convicts from Tamil population has left many confused, political analyst professor Royam Murali said that the Rajiv assassination convicts received backing from the Tamil population owing to a host of reasons.

“During the initial years, the court had awarded death penalty to all the 26 accused. That was a result of the court succumbing to majority sentiment which wanted to see justice being done after the assassination of a former young and charismatic prime minister. After eight years except seven, all were released. Between 1999 and 2014, the seven convicts studied, got degrees and displayed good conduct inside the prison. All of this earned them the support of Tamils here,” prof Murali said.

During the initial years, all the 26 accused in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination case were awarded death sentence.

He, however, cautioned against seeing the support purely as sympathy for the convicts.
“It is not sympathy for the convicts, but anger against the Centre. In all these years, people in Tamil Nadu have been left feeling neglected by the central government. The state’s power in the matter was not recognised. Today, the issue has become political. The recent war of words between the state government and the Governor [RN Ravi] has also fuelled people’s anger. That is why people are welcoming the release of the convicts,” Murali said.

Among the many reasons that have led to people extending support to the convicts is how political parties have used the issue.

“At times, political parties need to play emotional politics and the issue of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination convicts became a tool for emotional politics. Otherwise, neither the Sri Lankan Tamils issue nor the issue of Rajiv’s killers has ever constituted as an element of vote bank politics,” political commentator and senior journalist Tharasu Shyam told The Federal.

The issue hasn’t brought any additional sympathy for the convicts but an acknowledgement for the struggles faced by Sri Lankan Tamils, Shyam said.

“The issue led to talks about death penalty. The awareness on the subject came because of the interest Tamils in India took in the Eelam struggle. An informed section of the population here became focused on this issue because of the historical connection we had with Sri Lanka,” he said.

“Until 1966, we had boat mail service to Sri Lanka. You could take a ticket in Chennai, get down at Dhanushkodi and from there you could take a steamer boat to Ceylon coast and from there you needed to take a train to Colombo. This allowed Tamils in Tamil Nadu to interact closely with Sri Lankan Tamils and realise the hardships they began to increasingly face from the 1980s. This attachment got people in Tamil Nadu hooked to the case,” Shyam added.

Shyam added that when Rajiv Gandhi’s family itself forgave the convicts, the anger against the convicts gradually died down. “Over the years, this also became a reason for the support for the release of the convicts,” he said.

Children of same umbilical cord

The island nation of Sri Lanka today has a population of 22 million with a mix of 74.9 per cent Sinhalese, who are Buddhists, and 11.2 per cent Sri Lankan Tamils, who are Hindus. Contrary to the popular perception, the relationship between Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils is not merely a 30-year-old relation, but an ancient one.

Most historians believe Tamils from India entered into Sri Lanka as invaders and traders from Chola Kingdom. During their reign, the Cholas built many Hindu temples and soon Buddhism started to lose its sheen. This resulted in clashes between Indian Tamils and the Sinhalese.

“During the British rule, the tensions between the two groups worsened. The CIA suggested in 1985 that the Sinhalese community felt threatened by the Tamil group’s prosperity partly due to the British favouritism of Tamils during the British occupation of Sri Lanka,” says Nithyani Anandakugan, staff writer, Harvard International Review.
While the rupture between Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils widened following the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948, the Indian Tamils started to acknowledge Sri Lankan Tamils as being related by an ‘umbilical cord’ only in the 1970s with the rise of the Dravidian parties.

Though the actual civil war between Sinhalese military and LTTE started in 1983, the people of Tamil Nadu started to see the problem of Sri Lankan Tamils as a concern in 1984. It was in 1984 that the founder of LTTE Velupillai Prabhakaran met the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu MG Ramachandran.

“Tamil Nadu’s intelligence service, Q branch, kept MGR briefed about the Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups that functioned from Tamil Nadu. MGR kept an eye on them because Karunanidhi, who prided himself as the leader of the Tamils, was trying to gather Sri Lankan Tamil militants around him. In fact, leaders of three militant groups, TELO’s Sri Sabaratnam, EROS’s Balakumar and EPRLF’s Pathmanabha were constant visitors to Karunanithi’s office,” writes T Sabaratnam, late Sri Lankan Tamil journalist in Pirapaharan, the biography of Prabhakaran.

Amid all the political sparring, the Indian Tamils grew supportive of their Sri Lankan counterparts. The heinous war crimes by the Sinhala military increased this sympathy so much so that it finally extended to the seven convicts of Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
What propelled silent supporters to become vocal was the move by the DMK government’s 2000 move to recommend to then Governor Fathima Beevi that Nalini’s death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. When people looked at the details of the case, it triggered sympathy for Nalini in the state.

The death of C Senkodi, who set herself ablaze in 2011, demanding the remission of death penalty awarded to Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, led to wider discussions among the people over the convicts. Meanwhile, the delayed revelation of V Thiagarajan, former superintendent of police in CBI, in a documentary released by the People’s Movement Against Death Penalty in 2013, showed that he did not record Perarivalan’s confession verbatim. It is this revelation that struck a chord with the conscience of a vast majority of people in Tamil Nadu and created doubts over the convictions itself. Subsequently, the death penalty was reduced to life imprisonment in 2014.

It was from here that Tamil nationalists in the state coined the catch-phrase Ezhu Tamilar Viduthalai (Release the Seven Convicts). Until then their slogan was Moondru Tamilar Porattam (Struggle for saving three Tamils from death row).

Against this background, while it becomes understandable why people are according a welcome to the six, it is the way the convicts are carrying themselves post their release that has created a disappointment for many.

The way they are being covered by the media and given importance by political parties like VCK and fringe Tamil elements, it has created a perception among the people that they are being treated as ‘martyrs’.

Vazhapadi Rama Suganthan, vice-president, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee said it is the media that is making heroes out of the convicts.

“They were released only on compassionate grounds. It doesn’t mean they are innocent. While that is the case, their way of addressing the media has left a majority of people uncomfortable. The Supreme Court should have restricted them from talking to the media,” Suganthan said.

He also added that the Tamil Nadu government should take steps in helping the families who were affected because of the bomb blast carried out by LTTE.

Not everyone is opposing the welcome though. KS Radhakrishnan, advocate and former spokesperson of the DMK, said that there is nothing wrong in celebrating the release of the convicts.

“There are many facts in the case that have to be unearthed. I am saying this since 1991. But the convicts were made to serve the long sentence following a haphazard investigation,” he said.

Advocate Sivakumar, who appeared for Perarivalan, said that the released convicts are facing the media after many years and that could have made them nervous.

Questions over the celebrations

Even though many Tamils have welcomed the release, some have condemned the celebrations around the development and the interviews being given by the released convicts.

“We should remember they were released on compassionate grounds. They should not go overboard and speak to the media. We fear the celebrations would damage the sympathy surrounding the convicts,” said Janani, an IT employee.

Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu just minutes before his assassination.

There are also those who believe that the celebrations amount to rubbing salt on the wounds of the victims of the 1991 suicide blast that killed the former Indian Prime Minister along with 14 other innocent people.

“The celebrations and the interviews will increase the agony for the families of the victims of the 1991 blast,” Arun, a 21-year-old college student, told The Federal.

“Nalini is giving interviews betraying any sense of remorse. This has not gone down well with people. Her daughter is a doctor in the UK and Nalini says she wants to go meet her daughter. Now, people are making comparisons between her family and families of the victims,” Arun added.

Nalini’s interviews haven’t just shocked people but what she has gone on to say in the interviews has left even her traditional supporters confused.

The DMK, which has always supported the release of the convicts and even made efforts for the same, is in a fix post the release of the six. Just days after Chief Minister MK Stalin released a two-page statement welcoming the development, Nalini in an interview expressed the desire to visit the memorials of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa and former President APJ Abdul Kalam.

In 2008, Jayalalithaa had opposed the premature release of the convicts, with particular reference to Nalini, and also came down heavily on Sri Lankan Tamil sympathisers. She had attacked late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi also for the same reason.

“What action the UPA government, headed by the Congress, proposed to take? Nalini, one of the prime accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, seeking a premature release is an act challenging the country’s sovereignty. Priyanka Gandhi also met her at Vellore prison. It is not the family problem of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. It is a national problem. My party is against any anti-national movement,” she said.

Nalini Sriharan coming out of jail in 2019 for a 30-day parole to attend her daughter’s wedding.

Coming down heavily against a rally organised by filmmakers Ameer Sultan and Seeman at Ramanathapuram on October 19, Jayalalithaa had said, “Filmmakers Seeman and Ameer had made some objectionable remarks, which amounted to challenging the sovereignty of the country. They had gone to the extent of demanding a separate Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu government had not taken any action against them and nobody can expect action against them as long as Karunanidhi, who had written poems condoling the death of LTTE leaders, continued to be the chief minister”.

Those upset with the recent release order and what has followed also include not just DMK sympathisers but also the families of the victims of the 1991 suicide blast, the Congress cadres, the followers of MDMK chief Vaiko, human rights activists who have supported the convicts for more than three decades, and a large section of general public in the state.

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