From 1991 to 2022: Rajiv Gandhi assassination convict Perarivalan’s journey

Perarivalan was arrested in 1991 for buying batteries that were used in the bomb that killed the former Prime Minister.
Perarivalan and Arputham Ammal smiling
Perarivalan and Arputham Ammal smiling
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Just three days short of the 31st death anniversary of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on Wednesday, May 18, the Supreme Court ordered for AG Perarivalan (50), convicted in Gandhi’s assassination, to be released. It took Periravalan’s mother, Arputham Ammal, and many others three decades of struggle to lead up to this day. Perarivalan is one of the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, who was arrested when he was 19 years old. Scores of mercy petitions and government resolutions were passed in these 31 years, seeking his release. Here’s a timeline of the history of the case, and the struggle that ensued since the former Prime Minister’s assassination.

On May 21, 1991, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was visiting Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, campaigning for the parliamentary elections along with senior Congress leader GK Moopanaar whenhe was assassinated by a suicide bomber Dhanu alias Thenmozhi Rajarathinam. She was part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sixteen persons, including Rajiv Gandhi and Dhanu died in the blast.

On June 10, 1991, police arrived at the then 19-year-old Perarivalan’s house, and took him away promising his mother Arputham Ammal that he would be sent back after an enquiry related to the assassination case. At the time, he was staying at Dravida Kazhagam (DK) headquarters Periyar Thidal to pursue higher education after completing a diploma in electronics and communication. He, along with 41 others, was later booked under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

Perarivalan was booked for providing two nine-volt batteries to Sivarasan — the mastermind behind the assassination and one of the prime suspects — which were used in the explosive which ultimately killed Rajiv Gandhi. He was also accused of buying a motorcycle in his own name with a wrong address.

On August 23, 1991, the Jain Commission was set up by the Indian government to inquire into the assassination case. The commission was headed by late Justice Milap Chand Jain.

On January 28, 1998, a TADA court in Poonamallee delivered a nearly 1,000-page judgment sentencing 26 of the accused in the case, including AG Perarivalan, to death.

After the submission of the Jain Commission’s report, a CBI-led Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) was constituted to conduct an enquiry into whether there was a larger conspiracy, monitor and track absconding suspects, and ascertain the role of Sri Lankan and Indian nationals in the case.

On May 11, 1999, in the case of the appeal by the convicts against the death sentence, it acquitted 19 persons in the case and issued a death sentence to four accused — Nalini, Murugan alias Sriharan, Santhan and Perarivalan. It also sentenced three — Ravichandran, Robert Payas and Jayakumar — to a life imprisonment.

After the SC’s order, Perarivalan, Nalini, Murugan, and Santhan filed a mercy plea with the then Tamil Nadu Governor, Fathima Beevi, who dismissed the petitions. However, the four of them went to the high court saying that the governor, under Article 161, cannot pass orders without consulting the cabinet, following which the Madras HC quashed the governor’s orders.

This led to the petitions being forwarded to the then Chief Minister late M Karunanidhi, whose cabinet recommended only for Nalini’s death sentence to be commuted, which was done in 2000. The remaining pleas went to the President of India, who rejected them in 2011, after nearly 11 years.

The others then filed a petition at Madras High Court in 2011, which was transferred to the Supreme Court.

On February 18, 2014, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of the three remaining convicts, citing a delay of 11 years in deciding on their mercy pleas. The court also said that the state rules will be applicable to their sentence, which allows the state government to release the convicts on life imprisonment after 14 years of good conduct. 

On February 19, 2014, the then Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, made an announcement that her government will release all seven convicts from jail under Section 432 (power to suspend or remit sentences) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), within three days, irrespective of the Union government’s response to the state government’s decision.

On February 20, 2014, the next day, the Supreme Court stayed their release, stating that “there have been procedural lapses on the part of the state”.

On December 31, 2015, Perarivalan submitted a 47-page-long mercy plea petition, attached with documents CDs, to the Tamil Nadu Governor Konijeti Rosaiah seeking release under Article 161 of the Constitution which grants the governor the power to grant “by way of pardon or reprieve or respite or remission of punishment or to suspend, remit or commute the sentence of life imprisonment and release him at the earliest”.

On March 2, 2016, the Tamil Nadu government also wrote to the Union government seeking for remission of the convicts.

Perarivalan, who was arrested by the police in 1991 on the promise that he would be let go of soon, finally came home on August 24, 2017 – after 26 years – on a 30-day parole – to meet his ailing and aged father.

Meanwhile, the biggest twist in the case pertaining to Perarivalan happened on October 27, 2017, when the CBI official who had recorded his statement, V Thiagarajan, said that he had failed to record the confession that Perarivalan was unaware of the purpose of the two batteries he was asked to purchase. "I definitely feel remorse for the loss over two decades of his life," he had said, nearly two decades after Perarivalan had been laguishing in jail. It is to be noted that In Perarivalan's case, it was his 'confessional statement' that led the court to conclude that Perarivalan was aware that Rajiv Gandhi was the target of the attack. Perarivalan admitted to buying the batteries but maintained that he did not know their purpose back then. The crucial latter part of this confession, however, was omitted by Thiagarajan.

The same month, retired Justice KT Thomas also wrote a letter to Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi asking her to “show magnanimity to the convicts” in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Thomas, who headed the three-member bench that confirmed the convicts’ punishment, also said the CBI’s investigations had “serious flaws”.

In April 2018, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, in a reply to the Tamil Nadu state government, referred to its 2016 remission proposal and said that it did not concur with the proposal and hence did not send it to the President.

On June 15, 2018, President Ram Nath Kovind rejected the request of the Tamil Nadu government to release the convicts on humanitarian grounds. The President rejected the request on the advice of the Home Ministry.

On September 9, 2018,  in a cabinet meeting of state ministers, the then TN Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami decided to recommend the release of seven convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, including Perarivalan. The recommendation was made under Article 161 and was sent to the Governor Banwarilal Purohit for assent.

On January 10, 2020, the Union government made it clear that it would not grant any relief by saying "any leniency towards the seven, who had involvement in the death of 15 persons including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, would set a bad precedent, and embolden other accused in similar heinous crimes to plead for early release."

On February 7, 2020, Indian government told the Madras High Court that the Tamil Nadu Governor is at full liberty to decide on the mercy petition filed by Perarivalan. The mercy petition is pending with the Hon’ble Governor of Tamil Nadu, who is a constitutional functionary and has the discretion to decide on the petition under the powers conferred upon him by the Constitution of India, the MHA had said.

On July 22, 2020, the Madras HC observed that Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit cannot continue to hold back on his decision regarding the release of the seven convicts in the case and added that the recommendation made by the state government must either be rejected or accepted by him.

On November 3, 2020, two years after the TN government sent the recommendation to the Governor, the Supreme Court orally expressed its unhappiness over this delay caused by the Governor. "We do not want to exercise jurisdiction. But we're not happy with how this recommendation has been pending before the Governor for two years," Justice Nageswara Rao had observed while hearing a petition filed by Perarivalan for his early release.

On January 21, 2021, the SC termed the delayed decision of the Tamil Nadu Governor over the release of Perarivalan as an “extraordinary issue”, given that the state government had already recommended a pardon. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was appearing for Union government, informed that the Governor will take a decision in three or four days.

The next day, on January 22, 2021, the SC asked Governor Banwarilal Purohit to take a decision on the remission petition of Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts within one week.

On February 4, 2021, a week after this deadline passed, Governor Banwarilal Purohit said that the President of India should take a call on his release through a submission made by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which informed the court that the President has decided that “the President is the appropriate competent authority to decide on the matter”.

On May 20, 2021, CM MK Stalin wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking to remit the life sentence of seven convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assasination case and immediately release them. He also ordered to provide 30 days of ordinary leave to Perarivalan who is lodged at Puzhal Central Prison in Chennai on medical grounds.

On September 10, 2021, RN Ravi was appointed new governor of the state.

On November 22, 2021, the CBI told the apex court that Perarivalan has no connection to the MDMA investigation into the “larger conspiracy” behind the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and added that Perarivalan’s release plea is a matter to be discussed with Tamil Nadu Governor.

On December 7, 2021, the SC said that it was “not keen on granting any further adjournments” on the plea of Perarivalan. The case was scheduled for January 2022, with the top court stressing “don't take any more adjournments.”

On March 9, 2022, Perarivalan was granted bail despite “vehement objections” by the Union government.

On April 27, 2022, SC expressed unhappiness over the pending decision of who will decide whether Perarivalan should be released or not. The court remarked that the Governor forwarding every decision made by the state government or cabinet to the President may set a bad precedent and affect the federal structure in place.

On May 4, 2022, the apex court stated that it was ready to release Perarivalan if Union government had nothing to argue against it. The Supreme Court also said, “We cannot shut our eyes when there is a violation of the Constitution. It is our Bible. Nobody is above law. There are certain powers conferred to dignitaries, but the working of the Constitution cannot come to a stall.”

On May 11, 2022, the court questioned the locus standi of the Union government to represent the Governor. "The Governor is the head of the state. He represents the state concerned. If at all somebody has to speak for the Governor, it will be the state and not the Union government," the bench said. The bench also expressed shock over the Union government saying that the “President had exclusive power” to decide Perarivalan's plea for pardon, and not the Tamil Nadu Governor.

On May 18, 2022, just three days prior to the 31st death anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi, a bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai, and AS Bopanna passed an order on Perarivalan's plea saying his life sentence should be suspended and he should be freed, invoking Article 142. Six regime changes later, Perarivalan, who was arrested when he was 19, will be freed as a 50-year-old man.

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