The audacity with which Nalini Sriharan has sought to play innocent after her release from prison has made many question the justness of the Supreme Court’s decision to release the six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
Even as the court’s November 11 ruling remains controversial, one could have grudgingly approved it on humanitarian grounds if only Nalini and the others had shown some remorse over the brutal killing of the former prime minister and 14 others, including nine policemen.
Far from it, Nalini is making claims that border on the ludicrous. If she is to be believed, she played no role in the May 21, 1991 saga. She had no inkling of the mayhem that was to unfold that night.
Is that the truth?
The detailed investigation and lengthy trial which followed Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination held Nalini guilty on several counts, including providing critical help to the assassins to carry out their history-changing crime.
A total of 251 charges (offences) were laid out against all the Indian and Sri Lankan accused. Nalini, accused A-1 in judicial records, faced 121 charges; of these, 24 were set aside by the lower courts and 97 upheld.
Nalini got sucked into the case once the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began funding her hard-pressed brother. She came in touch with LTTE activists who regularly dropped in at her house. The LTTE wanted to befriend the family so that their house could be used as a hub. Initially, Nalini and her family would have had no idea what was afoot.
But once she became close to Murugan, an LTTE activist whom she married, she began to be drawn into the LTTE’s story of how the Indian Army committed atrocities on the Tamils in Sri Lanka and how Rajiv Gandhi was to blame for it.
The LTTE wanted to have an Indian – Nalini – with them as they moved around Chennai because, in case of problems, she would converse in local Tamil. This was typical of the LTTE: pay attention to the smallest details when on a mission.
On April 18, 1991, Nalini accompanied Murugan, Sivarasan, Subha and Haribabu to an election rally at Chennai’s Marina beach addressed by Rajiv Gandhi and Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. Sivarasan was the mastermind of the assassination plan in the making. Subha from the LTTE had been assigned to him. Haribabu was a young Indian photographer who had no clue to the goings on and was hired to click away at events. He would end up taking the last pictures of Gandhi on May 21 and die in the horrific blast.
On the night of May 7-8, Nalini and the lot – now along with Dhanu, the would-be suicide bomber – attended a rally addressed by Prime Minister V.P. Singh at Nandanam in Chennai. Dhanu garlanded Singh. The entire event was captured on video for the LTTE to study it to achieve perfection.
Four days later, she went with Dhanu and Subha to a cloth store, brought some fabric and ordered the stitching of a loose-fitting salwar kameez which Dhanu wore on May 21.
Days before the strike, Subha and Dhanu were comfortable sharing the secret of their target with Nalini. On May 19, the three women visited Mahabalipuram, a tourist complex near Chennai.
When they returned, an excited Sivarasan revealed that Rajiv Gandhi would address an election rally on May 21 at Sriperumbudur. He wanted Nalini to take two days leave; later he cut it half a day. Nalini told a colleague she had to go to Kancheepuram that day to buy saris.
On the fateful day, Nalini along with Sivarasan, Dhanu and Subha went to Parry’s Corner in Chennai and met Haribabu, who bought a sandalwood garland which the suicide bomber would offer to an unsuspecting Rajiv Gandhi. Once they reached the rally ground, Dhanu went towards the spot where Congress activists were gathered. Subha and Nalini entered the women’s arena. Sivarasan stood a little away, pretending to be a reporter.
Nalini and Subha were among the hundreds who would have seen Dhanu slowly inch towards Gandhi as he arrived. They knew she would garland him and then bent down pretending to touch his feet. The two women and Sivarasan alone knew, however, that Dhanu would not get up; she would activate a toggle switch attached to an explosive belt concealed under her loose-fitting salwar kameez.
Rajiv Gandhi, Dhanu, Haribabu and 14 others died in a deafening explosion that tore through the night sky.
After the blast, Subha and Nalini sprinted towards a nearby Indira Gandhi statue where they met Sivarasan. The three took an autorickshaw and went to the house of a Sri Lankan Tamil.
Four days later, Nalini and her mother Padma accompanied Sivarasan, Murugan and Subha to Tirupati. The rooms were booked in the name of the taxi driver. They returned to Chennai the next day. Nalini attended office till June 7. Two days later, on a Sunday, she went to the office and wrote out her resignation.
By then, Nalini was pregnant. She left with Murugan again to Tirupati, where the two checked into a lodge. Murugan had his head tonsured. They shifted to Madurai. But as Nalini’s photograph was splashed in the media, the two hastily moved to Villipuram and then to Devanagere near Bangalore. They returned to Villipuram and then to Chennai where detectives swooped on them at the Saidapet bus stand.
This is the Nalini who now claims she knew nothing about the assassination.
Even as the Supreme Court in May 1999 axed many of the death sentences in the case, Nalini was among those whose capital punishment was upheld. The judge, D.P. Wadhwa, was clear: “Her being a member of the conspiracy to murder Rajiv Gandhi stands fully proved.”
Nalini collaborated fully with the main conspirators and later tried to hide from the law. She may have spent 30 years in prison but she and the others could have been legally executed if the government had desired. Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra may want to forgive Nalini but families which lost their members in Sriperumbudur are not willing to pardon the killers and conspirators.
M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.