Nalini & other Rajiv Gandhi killers contributed to LTTE’s decay

Few societies would have allowed legalities, politics, and emotion to gel to ensure that no one got legally executed for the killing of a former PM. But equally important is that Nalini and others have spent over three long decades in prison after the Rajiv assassination.

ByMR Narayan Swamy

Published Nov 12, 2022 | 9:00 AMUpdatedNov 16, 2022 | 5:21 PM

Rajiv Gandhi just moments before he was assassinated. The head of the suicide bomber Dhanu can be seen. Nalini, who accompanied Dhanu to the Sriperumbudur venue, and others convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi killing have now been freed

The only survivor in the squad that oversaw Rajiv Gandhi getting blown up will now live as a free woman. The release of Nalini Hariharan and five others sentenced to life imprisonment for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi became foretold once the Supreme Court ordered freedom for another accused, AG Perarivalan, in May this year.

It was immediately clear that others would cite his case to demand freedom. That did happen, and the Supreme Court ruled on 11 November that all six could be let off.

Nalini, ‘Office Girl’ involved in Rajiv assassination

Nalini, initially known as the “Office Girl” in police files, had accompanied the young woman suicide bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to a Congress election rally at Sriperumbudur near Chennai on 21 May 1991.

While Sivarasan, the mastermind, was dressed in a white kurta-pyjama and stood somewhat aloof pretending to be a reporter, Nalini sat in the women’s arena at the rally ground along with Shuba, a senior LTTE operative.

The two women — one Indian, another Sri Lankan — watched the suicide bomber, Dhanu, inch towards Rajiv Gandhi as he walked haltingly towards the stage.

A policewoman tried to push Dhanu away but the former prime minister asked her to be gentle. That moment, Rajiv Gandhi signed his death warrant.

It did not take long after that for Dhanu to approach an unsuspecting Rajiv Gandhi, place a sandalwood garland around his neck, and then bend down as if to touch his feet in reverence.

Only three in the crowd knew

Nalini — who along with Shuba emerged in photographs looking intently — was among the many who watched Dhanu, Rajiv Gandhi, and 14 others falling dead amid a thunderous explosion.

Unlike others in the crowd, Nalini, Shuba, and Sivarasan alone knew that Dhanu would not get up after bending before Rajiv Gandhi.

The killer instead activated a toggle switch to ignite the lethal explosives strapped under her loose-fitting salwar-kameez.

The final macabre photographs of the assassination, taken by a young photographer hired by the LTTE, ended up exposing the role of the Tamil Tigers and its boss Velupillai Prabhakaran in the grotesque murder.

It also sealed the fate of Nalini, Shuba, and Sivarasan. The photographer died in the fiery blast.

First reprieve for Nalini in Rajiv killing

A retelling of Nalini’s role in the final moments of Rajiv Gandhi’s life is vital to grasp the significance of the Supreme Court judgment.

Nalini is the only Indian among the six, apart from RP Ravichandran, who the prosecution argued was close to the LTTE. The four others — Santhan, Murugan (whom Nalini married), Robert Pyas and Jayakumar — were Sri Lankan Tamils. Perarivalan, freed in May, is also an Indian.

Of these seven, the Supreme Court had sentenced four to death and three to life imprisonment. Nalini’s death sentence was in 2000 commuted to life term. The apex court commuted the remaining three death sentences too in 2014.

The first political reprieve for Nalini came when Sonia Gandhi, made a widow by the LTTE, chose to forgive her for the sake of Nalini’s young daughter born in jail. Sonia filed a petition for clemency after which the sentence was commuted. Priyanka Gandhi met Nalini in prison in March 2008 to — as she said later — come to terms with the death of her father.

Although it takes courage to even meet one who is alleged to have played a role in your own father’s killing, families of others killed in Sriperumbudur along with the Congress leader were not happy with the Gandhi women. They refused to forgive the killers.

Related: Angry, helpless: Kin of victims of blast that killed Rajiv react to release

She knew a murder was to take place

Nalini may have told Priyanka Gandhi that she had no role in the 1991 assassination (for long the LTTE too made similar claims until mounting proof nailed the lie), but the fact is she was part of the killer squad at Sriperumbudur.

Even if Nalini was not a killer per se, she knew a murder was about to take place.

Few societies would have allowed legalities, politics, and emotion to gel to ensure that no one got legally executed for the killing of a former prime minister.

But equally important is that Nalini and others have spent over three long decades in prison. This is punishment indeed. And it is not that those freed are going to be treated as heroes in Tamil Nadu although fringe elements in the state will certainly use their release for their own ends.

Nalini and other convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination

Pictures of the seven life convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case (Supplied)

LTTE’s isolation

What Nalini and the others ought to realise is that Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, perhaps more than any other incident, led to the steady international isolation of the LTTE and contributed to its eventual destruction.

Indeed, the LTTE may well have got away with the horrific assassination but for Prabhakaran’s weakness to view still or video images of the final moments of his victims. If those tasked with masterminding Gandhi’s killing had not hired a photographer and if only his camera had perished along with him in the ball of fire, the investigators may have run into a wall they would have found near impossible to penetrate.

The killing of Rajiv Gandhi was the biggest blunder by Prabhakaran, a decision that cost him, for eternity, the invaluable support of India for the insurgency. He probably never thought the LTTE role would get exposed. The assassination shamed the LTTE, created long-term fissures within the ultra-secretive group, propped up diplomatic bottlenecks around the world, and made the LTTE persona non grata in Tamil Nadu.

In that sense, Nalini and others contributed to the withering away of the LTTE.

(MR Narayan Swamy is a freelance journalist in New Delhi. He began his career more than four decades ago. He had a long innings in UNI, AFP, and IANS. His focus areas are diplomacy, politics, and spirituality, and he loves to read and review books. He is the author of three books on the Sri Lankan conflict. These are the personal views of the author)