No conversation with Arputham Ammal is complete without her mentioning Sengodi – the 21-year-old activist who killed herself to protest the death sentence awarded to Perarivalan, Santhan, and Murugan in 2011.

Perarivalan with his mother Arputham Ammal; Sengodi (R) Perarivalan with his mother Arputham Ammal; (R) Sengodi
news AG PERARIVALAN VERDICT Thursday, May 19, 2022 - 17:30

During one of our phone conversations a few weeks ago, Arputham Ammal — Perarivalan’s mother — inevitably asked the question that was haunting her for over three decades: “Will I live to see Arivu getting released at all?” She knew she was almost there, the repeated paroles that the state government gave Perarivalan offered her a slim ray of hope, that things finally seemed to be looking up on the legal front too. Yet, the lingering doubt was inevitable. 

But it was only momentary. The next minute, Arputham Ammal was busy wondering what her son would do once he was out of jail. “Things are not the same as before. When he came out on parole, Arivu was astounded by the changes our Jolarpettai had undergone. He was stunned by the high-rise buildings in Chennai when he was taken to Puzhal. Maybe he should just take some rest and then look at the changes that have happened around him. He can do it better only when the air he breathes is free. Also, he should have a life of his own,” she told me. Through the three-decades of struggle to get her son Perarivalan released, Arputham Ammal’s emotions have see-sawed between despair and confidence, hopelessness and optimism. 

Arputham Ammal was waging a lonely battle when she started the fight against her son’s incarceration in 1991, in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. She knocked every door, went to every nook and corner, met every person who mattered, took every possible step. More often than not, she was turned away, doors were shut on her face. The humiliation notwithstanding, Arputham Ammal persevered. She tirelessly explained how Arivu was taken away when he was merely 19 years old on the promise that he would be sent back after a routine inquiry, about how his only crime was to have procured batteries, and kept doing so till the narratives began to change. The perseverance, the thousands of miles that she has walked carrying a small bag and big hopes, has finally paid off. In doing so, Arputham Ammal remains the main architect of the road to freedom that Arivu today walks. 

But no conversation with Arputham Ammal is complete without her mentioning Sengodi – the 21-year-old activist who killed herself to protest the death sentence awarded to Perarivalan, Santhan, and Murugan in 2011, hoping that her death would ‘help save the lives of the three Tamils.’

I distinctly remember the wave of panic and shock that swept the venue at Koyambedu where three lawyers had started an indefinite fast in August 2011, protesting the death sentence given to Arivu, Santhan, and Murugan. September 9 was fixed as the date of execution after the rejection of mercy petitions, following which there were widespread protests across Tamil Nadu. When the three lawyers – Sujatha, Angayarkanni, and Vadivambal – sat down on an indefinite fast on August 26, there was a spectacular show of solidarity from various quarters including Tamil cinema. The venue saw a large turnout of activists expressing their solidarity. On the evening of August 28, the news of Sengodi’s self-immolation trickled in, stunning the charged-up venue into disbelief and silence.

Members from the Kanchipuram based Makkal Mandram, which Sengodi was a part of, had just left the venue after expressing their solidarity. “We reached Kanchipuram at 6 pm and were told Sengodi was missing for an hour. I initially thought she had gone to procure milk,” says Mahesh, a convenor of Makkal Mandram. “But somehow, I had an intuition that something was just not right,” she adds.

“At the Makkal Mandram we had a rule that no member could step out alone. They could go only in pairs; we made this rule as a measure of precaution,” Mahesh recalls. 

Soon, they received a call from a hospital that a young woman who had set herself on fire in front of a Taluk office was brought dead. Sengodi left a note in Tamil that read: “I leave with the hope that my body will help save the lives of the three Tamils, just like Comrade Muthukumar’s body woke up Tamil Nadu.”

A tribal woman, Sengodi joined the Makkal Mandram when she was barely ten years old. “Her parents were involved with Makkal Mandram, and Sengodi barely went to school. She worked in a loom, and that is when we brought her here,” Mahesh says.

At Makkal Mandram, she learnt a lot, read a lot. “She had fully read Ambedkar, Periyar and Marx. She was deeply interested in the arts. Sengodi was an expert in Parai, her hands were deft. She was good at Bharatanatyam and sang very well. We were readying her up to enroll in an arts course, and had made all preparations for that. Sadly, that wouldn’t happen,” Mahesh says. Sengodi was also active in other movements led by Makkal Mandram. “She was very active in our anti-caste movement. Sengodi also had several cases slapped against her including sedition charges for protesting against a district Collector.”

On the evening of August 28, Sengodi set herself on fire in front of the Taluk office in Kanchipuram – on a busy road which also housed a police station, a school and a fire service station. “She was all of 21, not married when she decided to do this. I was unwell for some time and Sengodi took such good care of me, often sacrificing her sleep,” Mahesh breaks down, recalling what a loving and caring human being Sengodi was. 

Mahesh and other members of Makkal Mandram seethed with anger when a Tamil newspaper carried a blatantly insensitive piece that said ‘love failure’ was the reason behind Sengodi’s suicide.’ “We were already dealing with a loss and this was terrible. Here was a young woman who had killed herself hoping to stop the death sentences of three Tamils. I wonder if the newspaper would write the same way had it been a man,” Mahesh says.

Throughout the day, Mahesh says, Sengodi was watching the developments in the case on news channels. “She saw Arputham Ammal break down uncontrollably. She saw leaders weeping. Maybe she was influenced by their tears. She was desperate to do something, and she did. Only after this, Jayalalithaa [then the Chief Minister] passed a resolution demanding that the death sentences be commuted.”

On the same day, August 30, the Madras High Court stayed the execution of Arivu, Santhan, and Murugan, following which the case went to the Supreme Court. On February 18, 2014 the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan citing the inordinate delay in disposing of their mercy petitions.

On Wednesday, May 18, 2022, the SC brought an end to the prolonged battle of Perarivalan, offering some hope for the remaining six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Soon after the Supreme Court released him, Perarivalan garlanded a portrait of Sengodi at his house, and drew parallels between Arputham Ammal and Maxim Gorky’s Mother. To those women too, he owes his freedom.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families.

Tamil Nadu

State health department's suicide helpline: 104

Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)

Andhra Pradesh

Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930

Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584

Karnataka

Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222

Kerala

Maithri: 0484 2540530

Chaithram: 0484 2361161

Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

Telangana

State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104

Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200

SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 am and 7 pm

Aasara offers support to individuals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.    

24x7 Helpline: 9820466726 

Click here for working helplines across India.

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