Nalini says she had ‘no role’ in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. But the Supreme Court order tells a different tale

ByShilpa Nair

Published Nov 16, 2022 | 1:00 PM Updated Nov 16, 2022 | 1:32 PM

Nalini 1

Opinions are sharply divided over the Supreme Court’s order releasing the remaining six life convicts — Nalini Sriharan, Murugan, Robert Pais, Santhan, Ravichandran and Jayakumar — in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

While on one hand, the ruling-DMK, several other political parties, and pro-Tamil groups in Tamil Nadu have welcomed the order and called it a victory for those who believed in “humanity and human rights”, a section of the society is shocked at the release of those who have been convicted for the assassination of a former prime minister and 15 others who died along with him.

This, many believe, would set a dangerous precedent for the future.

Several of them, including the Congress party, reminded those people who are celebrating the release of the convicts that these individuals have not been acquitted or exonerated by the court.

What caused outrage among people is how convicts like Nalini have given media interviews after their release, claiming that they “had no role” in the assassination of the former prime minister.

When a news anchor of an English news channel asked Nalini if she regretted her role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, she responded by saying: “I don’t have any role at all. Really.”

The anchor, however, immediately reminded her that she was convicted by the Supreme Court. To this, she again said: “Yes, I’m convicted. But to my heart and my conscience, it is very peaceful and it knows what happened.”

These lines — that she had no role in the assassination — was repeated in other press briefings and interviews as well.

But keeping her claims aside, here’s a look at why she was convicted by the Supreme Court.

Nalini Sriharan, Accused no: 1

Nalini is the only accused in the case (living) who was present at Sriperumbudur when the suicide belt worn by LTTE operative Dhanu was set off, killing former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and 15 others. In 1991, she was working as a personal assistant to the managing director of a private company in Chennai.

In the first week of February that year, Murugan, a Sri Lankan national and the third accused in the case, was brought to Chennai by an Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) activist, Muthuraja, who then introduced him to Nalini’s mother Padma and brother Bagyanathan. At the time, Nalini was living away from her mother, and Murugan stayed at Padma’s house.

Of love and indoctrination

Through her family and friends’ circle, Nalini met Murugan for the first time at her office, and during the course of their subsequent interactions, she fell in love with him. While Nalini wanted to get married to Murugan, the LTTE code forbade him from doing so. However, both of them got married at a later stage.

Nalini and Murugan

Picture of Nalini and Murugan.

After some time, according to the CBI, Murugan told Nalini that he was an important member of the LTTE and had been sent to India by Pottu Amman, the intelligence chief of the organisation. He also allegedly told Nalini that, in India, he was working under Sivarasan, who was in-charge of the LTTE operations in the country.

Later, when Nalini wanted to vacate her house in Villivakkam, she was asked by Murugan not to do so as Sivarasan was bringing two girls — Subha and Dhanu — from Sri Lanka for LTTE operations and that those girls would stay with her. Nalini agreed, and both girls were brought to her house. They, however, did not stay with Nalini and used to visit her on some days.

According to the CBI, Nalini was aware that Subha and Dhanu were “committed LTTE tigresses and committed to the cause of LTTE”. The agency added that, over time, she was also “indoctrinated” as Nalini was told in great detail about the role played by Rajiv Gandhi in sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka and the atrocities committed by them on the Tamils in the neighbouring island nation.

“All this led Nalini (A-1) to have strong feeling of disgust against Rajiv Gandhi. She also read the book “Satanic Force” and developed extreme hatred for Rajiv Gandhi,” the Supreme Court order dated 11 May, 1999, stated based on the confessions of the accused and other evidence.

Test runs, shopping and lies

It further noted that on 2 May, 1991, Sivarasan brought Subha and Dhanu to the house of Nalini and she was told that they were going to garland Indian leaders while addressing public meeting. “Nalini felt instinctively that they were going to assassinate some leader,” the order read.

Sivarasan also told Nalini that her role to accompany Subha and Dhanu was very important as nobody would then suspect the other two due to Nalini’s Indian identity. At his instance, all three of them attended an election meeting addressed by VP Singh, the then prime minister, as a rehearsal.

While Nalini was asked by Murugan to carry a camera to click pictures, Dhanu and Subha were asked to carry garlands. However, they could not reach the dais as the organisers did not permit them. When VP Singh reached the venue, Dhanu and Subha only managed to hand over the garland to him while standing near the stair-case leading to the dais. Even though Nalini tried to take photographs, she could not operate the camera.


Picture of Dhanu, the suicide bomber in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. (Supplied)

According to the court order, after the event, they assessed the reasons why Dhanu and Subha could not reach the stage and it was felt that some donations or bribes should be offered to party workers and security personnel in order to get on the dais. By this time, Nalini was convinced that they had a “definite mission” to carry out.

Further, on 11 May, 1991, Nalini, Subha and Dhanu went shopping. They purchased a green churidar, an orange-coloured kameez and a green dupatta from a shop in Purasawakkam for Dhanu. Though her measurements were required, she refused to give them as she wanted a loose kurta. From another shop, a pair of chappals was also purchased for her. These were the clothes and chappal that Dhanu wore on the day of the suicide blast.

On the morning of 19 May, 1991, Sivarasan showed the three women a newspaper clipping which had the details of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Tamil Nadu in connection with the ongoing election campaign. He told them that they should attend the meeting scheduled for 21st and 22nd in Sriperumbudur or Puducherry. When Sivarasan asked Nalini to take leave from her office on these dates, she had a “strong feeling that Rajiv Gandhi was their final target”.

After they finalised Sriperumbudur as the venue, Nalini told her boss that she wanted half day’s leave. To one of her colleagues, she said she was taking leave to go to Kancheepuram to buy silk sarees.

The fateful day

On 21 May, 1991, at around 3.45 pm, Sivarasan went to Nalini’s house along with Subha and Dhanu. At this point, according to the court order, Subha told Nalini that Dhanu was “going to create history that day by assassinating Rajiv Gandhi and they would he very happy if she also participated in it”, to which Nalini agreed. She also saw that Dhanu was concealing an apparatus under her dress.

Rajiv Gandhi memorial

Picture of Rajiv Gandhi memorial at Sriperumbudur. (Commons)

On the way to the venue, they discussed their roles. Nalini was to help Subha after the assassination to take refuge in some city till Sivarasan gave further instructions. She was also asked to provide cover to both Subha and Dhanu during the event. After the event, Nalini and Subha were to wait for 10 minutes near an Indira Gandhi statue for Sivarasan. If he failed to come within the given time, they would leave as instructed.

Moments before the blast

Upon reaching the venue of the election meeting, Subha, Dhanu and Nalini sat in the ladies’ enclosure. Haribabu, an LTTE member, and Sivarasan went separately towards the stage. Music programme of CS Ganesh was going on at that time, and after assessing the situation, Sivarasan asked Dhanu to come towards the dais with the garland. Nalini could see them at the stage, where Sivarasan was trying to make Dhanu stand among the crowd waiting to greet Rajiv Gandhi.

There was also a mother and daughter duo sitting in the women’s enclosure behind where Subha and Nalini were seated. The mother told them that her daughter had written a poem which she would recite to Rajiv Gandhi. After some time, both the mother and daughter were seen standing near Dhanu. About 9.30 pm, an announcement was made asking persons who were waiting to garland and greet Rajiv Gandhi to stand in queue. Dhanu was standing between the mother-daughter duo.

Rajiv Gandhi assasinatin

Picture taken just moments before the suicide blast. Seen in picture: Sivarasan and Dhanu.

A few moments later, another announcement was made to tell the crowd that Rajiv Gandhi had arrived. Upon hearing this, Subha and Nalini got up from the ladies enclosure and moved away. Subha held Nalini’s hands and seemed nervous.

Then came a a loud explosion. Dhanu, after garlanding Rajiv Gandhi, bent down in the pretext of falling at his feet in order to trigger the explosive by pressing two switches. The blast killed her, Rajiv Gandhi, Haribabu, the mother and her daughter and several others.

After the explosion, Nalini and Subha ran to the Indira Gandhi statue as instructed earlier and waited for Sivarasan. Soon thereafter, he came to the spot and took out a pistol wrapped in a white cloth and gave it to Nalini, who then handed it over to Subha. They later reached Madras (Chennai) by changing two autorickshaws.

What transpired in the days after

After spending few days at home, on the morning of 25 May, Sivarasan told Nalini that they should all leave Madras and go to Tirupati. They took a tourist taxi to reach Tirupati where Nalini did ‘Angapradakshnam’. The next day, they returned to Madras.

Nalini continued to go to her office till 7 June, 1991. On that day, she gave a plastic cover containing ₹25,000 to her colleague and requested her to keep the same in her table drawer.

Later in the day, Sivarasan told Nalini and Murugan that the CBI was making detailed inquiries and asked Nalini to leave for Sri Lanka with him. However, she declined. Importantly, this is also around the same time when Nalini found that she was pregnant with Murugan’s child.

The next morning, she suggested to her mother that they should all die by suicide due to the fear of the CBI intensifying their searches. Nalini brought some poison from a nearby shop but then they decided not to take the extreme step. Later, she and Murugan decided to leave Madras.

Rajiv Gandhi clothes remain

Remains of the clothes worn by former PM Rajiv Gandhi on that fateful day. (Commons)

On 9 June, Nalini went to her office. Since it was a Sunday, she wrote her resignation letter on a slip of paper and placed it on the desk of her colleague and also took out the money she had kept earlier. From the next day, she stopped going for work and both Murugan and she left for Tirupati, where they stayed in a lodge.

On 11 June, they left Tirupati and went to Madurai and stayed in the house of R Ravi Srinivasan, whom Nalini had known from the time she worked as his stenographer. The next morning, Nalini told Srinivasan that both of them were going to Meenakshi Temple and would come back later. When the newspapers came that day, Srinivasan was shocked to find a notice published with the caption: “Do you know these women, who are connected with Rajiv’s assassination?” In that notice, the authorities had given a detailed description of Nalini. Srinivasan immediately informed the Special Investigation Team about Nalini and Murugan. However, the duo did not return after they left from his house for the temple visit.

From Madurai, Nalini and Murugan went to Devangere near Bangalore (now Bengaluru) and stayed at the house of a woman named Sasikala, an acquaintance of Nalini’s. While they were there, Murugan told Nalini that they need to return to Madras immediately. From Bangalore, they took a bus to Villupuram and from there, they took another bus to Madras.

When they got down at the Saidapet bus stand on 14 June, they were arrested by the police. Nalini was 24-years-old and two months pregnant at the time. Her daughter was born and raised in prison until she was five years old.

Nalini Sriharan

Picture of Nalini and Murugan after they were arrested.

The CBI later charged Nalini on 121 counts, including conspiracy and punishment for murder.

Supreme Court called out “exceptional depravity”

When the Supreme Court convicted her and awarded her the death sentence in 1999, it said: “It is not that Nalini did not understand the nature of the crime and her participation. She was a willing party to the crime. We have to see both the crime and the criminal. Nalini in her association with Murugan and others, developed great hatred towards Rajiv Gandhi and wanted revenge. Merely because Nalini is a woman and a mother of the child who was born while she was in custody cannot be the ground not to award the extreme penalty to her. She is an educated woman and was working as a stenographer in a private firm.”

The order further went on to say: “Each one of these four accused — Nalini, Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan — had a role to play. Crime was committed after previous planning and executed with extreme brutality… Murder of a former prime minister for what he did in the interest of the country was an act of exceptional depravity on the part of the accused, an unparallel act in the annals of crimes committed in this country. In a mindless fashion not only, that Rajiv Gandhi was killed along with him others died and many suffered grievous and simple injuries.”

Out of the three-judge bench which heard the matter, only Justice KT Thomas had dissented to sentencing Nalini to death. While stating that she was just an “obedient participant” and no key evidence to establish her part in the conspiracy, the judge said: “She wouldn’t have dared to retreat from the scene as she was tucked into the tentacles of the conspiracy octopus from where it was impossible for a woman like Nalini to get herself extricated.”

Nalini’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2000 following a recommendation from the Tamil Nadu government and a public appeal by Sonia Gandhi, senior Congress leader and the widow of Rajiv Gandhi.

(It may be noted the details given in the story are taken from the Supreme Court judgement dated 11 May, 1999. The Supreme Court found “truthfulness” in the versions narrated by Nalini which also stood corroborated by material particulars.)