Jailed 27 Years for Assassination He Knew Nothing About, Perarivalan Deserves a New Life

The CBI officer who took his confession, the judge who sentenced him to death and the family members of Rajiv Gandhi all believe the ends of justice are not served by keeping him in prison. Yet the Centre will not release him.

“He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering. But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

It is 27 years today since Perarivalan was taken away for ‘minor interrogation’ in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. It is 20 years since he was sentenced to death for procuring two nine-volt batteries. It is seven years since his mercy petition was rejected by the president of India. It is five years since investigating officer Thiyagarajan apologised for failing to record Perarivalan’s statement in which he says he was not aware of the purpose for which the batteries procured by him would be used. It is four years since the Supreme Court commuted Perarivalan’s death sentence, moving him slightly away from the shadow of the gallows.  Four years have passed since the then chief minister J. Jayalalithaa informed the state assembly of her cabinet’s decision to release the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, including Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan. “They would be released if the Centre does not respond in the next three days” she had declared.  Three years have passed since the Supreme Court ruled that the Centre had more powers in deciding on their release. It is seven years since Perarivalan demanded that the enquiry be monitored, claiming that the Multi Disciplinary Monitoring Agency had effectively failed in doing so and citing the 19-year long enquiry of the CBI. It has been a year since the Supreme Court on an appeal had directed the CBI to file a re-investigation report. It is three months since Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have said that they have ‘forgiven the killers of their father.’ It has been a month since the state announced that it will release all the convicts if the Centre wished so. The case, which should have attained a logical end long ago, has been dragging out for years, months, days and moments now.

Some might have been tired themselves reading such a long paragraph. Can we also take a moment to contemplate what a nightmare it would have been for Perarivalan to live this horror for over 27 years now? For 27 years now, he has been like an insect trapped in a giant web.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the whole of Tamil Nadu espoused the cause of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For many youths, Prabhakaran was a hero. It was not uncommon for LTTE members to visit Tamil Nadu and stay at the places of their supporters. It was the time when Dravidian movements and parties were in close contact with the Tigers. The rationalist family of Perarivalan was no different. Such an association was not considered strange at that point of time. Yet the horror struck the life of Perarivalan – an ordinary young man with no significant political background or influence.

Flawed investigation

Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on May 21, 1991 shocked the international community, pushing the Indian state to act. Several arrests were made to reassure a country that had begun to have doubts about the state of the nation’s security. Somehow arrests had to be made, however indiscriminate, to appease the fears of the collective conscience. The Central investigative officers targeted the supporters of the LTTE. Perarivalan was among the hundreds of such supporters arrested by the CBI. He had just completed a diploma in electronics and communication, and was staying at Periyar Thidal, the headquarters of the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) in Chennai to pursue higher education. His parents, Arputham Ammal and Kuyildasan, sent him off without any protest when the CBI said it was only a minor investigation. This was on June 11, 1991. He has now completed the equivalent of two life sentences in prison.

File photo of V. Thiyagarajan.

After arresting hundreds in the case, the CBI filed cases against 41 of them at the special court designated to try cases under the (now repealed) Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) in Poonamallee, Chennai. The CBI filed a chargesheet against the LTTE, holding them responsible for the assassination. With three LTTE leaders including Prabhakaran absconding, and with 12 of the accused including suicide bomber Dhanu and Sivarasan dying at various points before the case was taken up, the trial court on January 28, 1998 sentenced the remaining 26 to death. Perarivalan was condemned to die only because he had procured batteries for Sivarasan. With the main culprits dead or absconding, anyone even remotely associated with them ended up getting sentenced to death. If the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case served as a model for criminal investigations and trials in India, half of the country’s population would end up in jail.

To this day, the investigation has not moved even an inch closer towards the real perpetrators of the crime. K. Ragothaman, who had headed the investigating team, admitted to not being able to find the person who made the belt bomb which Dhanu had used. He made the admissions in two different interviews given to Junior Vikatan on July 31, 2005 and Kumudham on August 10, 2005.  This could and should be seen as a failure of the Indian investigative system. Yet the Indian government refuses to acknowledge this failure.

While confessing to buying two batteries for Sivarasan, Perarivalan had also stated that he was not aware of its intended purpose and that he was not aware of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Investigating officer Thiyagarajan submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court last year admitting that he recorded only the first half of Perarivalan’s confession and had omitted the second part.

As The Hindu reported: “The CBI was not sure about the part played by Perarivalan, but his ignorance about the conspiracy was confirmed as the investigation into the assassination progressed, Mr. Thiagarajan said and referred to a wireless message of May 7, 1991 from mastermind Sivarasan to LTTE top operative ‘Pottu Amman’ in which the former said “our intention is not known to anybody except we three,” meaning himself, Subha and Dhanu, the suicide bomber. He said a “mere act” of providing nine volt batteries would not make Perarivalan privy to the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi. The wireless message makes it clear that Perarivalan was not taken into confidence.”

Despite Thiyagarajan’s plea on behalf of Perarivalan, the Supreme Court refused to review the judgment passed against since Thiyagarajan had long since retired. This was surprising since, as far as an investigation is concerned, a statement made by an investigating officer holds good as long as the enquiry is live. It hardly matters if he is still in office. Observers say it is not appropriate to reject Thiyagarajan’s statement in a case that is still being fought at various levels for over two decades.

Letter from judge who pronounced death sentence

On October 18, 2017, K .T. Thomas – the Supreme Court judge who was part of the bench that sentenced Perarivalan among others to death – wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi noting that there were “serious flaws” in the CBI’s investigation in case, and that the probe had exposed “an unpardonable flaw” in the “Indian criminal justice system”.

“Perhaps the Union government would agree if you and Rahulji (if possible Priyankaji also) would write to the President of India conveying your willingness to grant remission to these persons who have already spent the longest period of their life in prison. It appears to me as a matter of human consideration which you alone can help. As the judge who passed the judgment against these persons, I now feel that I should address this letter to you so that you can show magnanimity in the situation,” the letter said. He also drew reference to the Centre’s decision in 1964 to set free Gopal Godse, brother of Nathuram Godse, the main accused in Gandhi assassination case, after 14 years of imprisonment. Former Supreme Court justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was among those who expressed his voice in favour of Perarivalan’s release.

Clearly, serious doubts have been expressed about the nature of the investigation by everyone involved – from the investigating officer, to the officer who recorded Perarivalan’s confessions and the Supreme Court judge who sentenced him to death. The families of those affected have come forward to forgive them. Yet if the Centre continues to be hesitant in releasing them, who is it seeking to appease?

A lifetime in jail

Despite the solidarity expressed by political parties, movements and civil society, it is Perarivalan who is single-handedly carrying on this fight against institutional injustice.

In prison, he was subject to all kinds of torture, including electric shocks. It is only natural for any human being to lose all hope when in solitary confinement. But Perarivalan continued his education in jail. He completed a BCA and then an MCA. In all, he has managed to complete five certificate courses. From maintaining the prison library to guiding other inmates, Perarivalan gathered himself to pursue the long fight. He has even written a book, Thooku kottatadiyiliruthu oru muraiyeetu madal (‘A letter from the gallows’), arguing the case for his innocence.

One of the last photographs of Rajiv Gandhi, taken just before his assassination, by the freelance photographer Hari Babu, believed to have been tasked by the LTTE’s Sivarasan. Dhanu, the actual assassin, is standing behind the girl in a white shirt.

When the date for execution was fixed in 2011, Perarivalan and a few others filed a writ petition seeking a stay on execution in the high court. Ram Jethmalani and Colin Gonsalves appeared for them. A stay was granted. After this, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence awarded to three convicts. When Jayalalithaa decided to invoke the state’s powers to release the seven convicts, it led to a debate on the power of Centre on this issue. The apex court ruled that the Centre’s consent was essential. Now the matter is pending before a three-member bench.

After the SC ruling, in 1999, the Multi Disciplinary Monitoring Agency sought permission to explore the foreign conspiracy angle in the assassination. After permission was granted by the TADA court in Chennai, the MDMA had been submitting responses in sealed covers at periodic intervals. But the TADA court had not even opened the covers. When Perarivalan approached the court asking that the covers be opened, the court rejected his application. He went on appeal to the high court and also demanded that the MDMA expedite its investigation. Justice Mala refused to take up the case, saying only the Supreme Court had the authority to enquire into a case related to TADA. When the matter came up again in the Supreme Court in December 2016, Justice Ranjan Gogoi expressed surprise over the inordinate delay in the case and asked for the documents. While the case is pending in the Supreme Court, Perarivalan filed another petition seeking a stay on the punishment and also sought his release.

Meanwhile, actor Sanjay Dutt, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blast case, was released earlier on the basis of good conduct. Perarivalan filed an RTI application to Pune’s Yerawada jail administration asking on what basis Sanjay Dutt was released. He received no response. He filed an appeal before the state information commission in Pune with no response yet.

Sanjay Dutt was arrested for possessing illegal weapons in 1993 when 257 persons were killed in serial bomb blasts. A TADA court in Mumbai sentenced him to six years imprisonment. Arrested under the Arms Act, which comes under Central government’s domain, Sanjay Dutt got the benefit of  parole, commutation of sentence and early release. The state government exercised its power to release Sanjay Dutt in a case which required the Centre’s consent. Perarivalan’s question is this: Why does the Centre continue to impose restrictions in his case, which comes under IPC section 302 where the state has powers.

By closely following all related court proceedings, Perarivalan has managed to draw attention to his plight. In general, individuals accused of heinous crimes are objects of fear. Yet Perarivalan has become a household name in Tamil Nadu. He was only 19 when he was whisked away by the police for what they said was a minor investigation. When he came out on parole for the first time to meet his ailing father last year, he was 46.

File photo of Perarivalan’s mother, Arputham Ammal. Credit: YouTube

Perarivalan’s parents – more importantly his mother – have spent their entire lives fighting to secure the release of their son and for abolition of the death penalty. Arputham Ammal began her long walk for justice at the Malligai complex (the investigation office) seeking the release of her son soon after he was taken away. She has not stopped walking yet. There is not a single week when she fails to meet her son. She carries out all his instructions. If there is one voice that is raised resolutely against capital punishment anywhere in Tamil Nadu, it belongs to Arputham Ammal. After 27 years of imprisonment, what else does anyone want she asks.

Delay is a cruel punishment, perhaps more inhuman than capital punishment itself. The pain inflicted by the process of delay is deeper than the pain of losing one’s life at the gallows, especially when there are doubts over the robustness of the investigation. Is 27 years not long enough? Is Perarivalan’s life a game? How can it be called justice if it expects a man to exist and die in the dark alleys of prison? Former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has written about how people sentenced to death in India always come from disadvantaged socio-economic sections. Perarivalan  is the symbol of the thousands of prisoners from marginalised sections wallowing in jail with no room for fair investigation. If Sanjay Dutt can be released and Perarivalan victimised, it is clear that the “collective conscience” being appeased is that of upper caste/upper class people.  The injustice meted out to Perarivalan is a blot on the Indian government, its investigation agencies and the courts. By releasing him immediately, the administration can try to set right a historical blunder.

Let me take you back to Dostoyvesky now. To start a new life, Perarivalan should be allowed to leave prison finally. If civil society cannot ensure that, it loses the right to be called civil.

(Translated from the Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan)