Nalini walks free: Story of the Indian woman convicted in the Rajiv assassination case

With no prior political links, Nalini met her husband Sriharan alias Murugan, an LTTE member when he was looking for a place to stay in Chennai.
Nalini Sriharan
Nalini Sriharan

At 55, Nalini Sriharan is the longest-serving woman prisoner in India. She was arrested in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case in the year 1991, when she was 24 years old. A woman, who three Supreme Court judges felt, had agreed to become part of an extraordinary crime only because she was in love and had been indoctrinated. Nalini is also the lone surviving member of the five-member team that assassinated Rajiv Gandhi by detonating a human bomb. So who is Nalini and how did she get involved in the assassination of a former Prime Minister?

Nalini, the eldest of three children of Padmavathi (a nurse) and P Sankara Narayanan (a police personnel), was an English graduate from the Ethiraj College in Chennai.

Nalini was working as a stenographer at a private firm in Chennai when she met Sriharan alias Murugan, a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) member. Nalini was living away from her mother and siblings in 1990, and started living in Villivakkam from October of the same year. Nalini was introduced to Sriharan at her office, and became friendly with him. Nalini began living away from her family for a while with a friend named Sankari. Sankari had a brother named Muthuraja, who was an LTTE activist, who introduced Nalini’s family to Sriharan.

Nalini soon fell in love with Sriharan. While Nalini wanted to marry him, Sriharan declined to do so saying that he was a committed LTTE activist and that he was not supposed to marry, as per the LTTE code.  However, they got married later. It was Sriharan who brought Sivarasan - an LTTE operative and one of the masterminds of the assassination plot, as well as Dhanu, the human bomb, and Subha into their lives.

While the others formed an elaborate plan, Nalini who was the only Indian in the group was asked to act as a cover for Dhanu alias Thenmozhi Rajarathinam, the suicide bomber and Subha - the back-up bomber.

It was from May 7, 1991, that the preparations for executing the assassination plan began. A five-member squad, including Nalini, Subha and Dhanu went on a ‘dry run’, ahead of the assassination. They attended a meeting of the then Prime Minister VP Singh. The plan was to garland VP Singh, but Nalini, Subha and Dhanu were unable to do so.

Four days later, on May 11, 1991 Nalini accompanied Subha and Dhanu to a shop to get a loose salwar kameez stitched for Subha. This salwar kameez which was orange in color was used by Dhanu to conceal the improvised explosive device.

On the fateful day of May 21, 1991, Nalini traveled by bus with Sivarasan, Subha, Dhanu and photographer S Haribabu to Sriperumbudur. Haribabu was also an LTTE sympathiser and was hired to document the assassination. Rajiv Gandhi was scheduled to address an election campaign rally at Sriperumbudur ahead of the parliamentary elections. He arrived at the location at 10.10 pm and then proceeded to the stage.

Amongst the crowd waiting for the former PM was Dhanu with a garland in her hand. After garlanding Rajiv Gandhi, Dhanu bent down to touch his feet, and set off the bomb under her clothes. It was this explosion at 10.20 pm that killed Rajiv Gandhi and 15 others, while leaving 43 injured.

In her autobiographical book, ‘Rajiv Assassination: Hidden truths and the meeting between Nalini and Priyanka’, written by journalist Ekalaivan, she recounts what transpired soon after the blast. “We would have walked 200 feet towards the road, and I heard a huge explosion. It was common to welcome leaders by exploding crackers, but this one was leaving the area devastated. I turned back and saw a ball of fire and smoke between the sky and the land. The place was filled with commotion. People were running helter-skelter. I am sure many people would have been hurt in the stampede. I was still clueless over what had happened. After a while Shuba stopped. I was shaking in fear and my throat was parched. I still don’t know what had happened, but I was sure something had gone wrong. People were still running in panic.”

Nalini, Subha and Sivarasan fled from the crime scene. Over the next few weeks, Nalini and Sriharan went into hiding, traveling to different places to evade arrest, but the duo were arrested in Chennai on June 14, 1991. Nalini was two months pregnant at the time of her arrest. Her role in the murder came to light when the photographs clicked by S Haribabu, a local photographer was discovered. Haribabu had been killed in the blast and his camera that had fallen to the ground provided crucial evidence to investigators.

According to Nalini’s lawyer, she got involved in the conspiracy to please Sriharan and to be with him. The counsel had argued that Sriharan used her as a cover and that she became party to the conspiracy only on the day of the incident. He also argued that Nalini did not participate in the conspiracy but merely acted as a cover.

The Supreme Court judges Justices KT Thomas, DP Wadhwa and Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri had different opinions when it came to Nalini.

Justice Wadhwa said that while Nalini had a lurking feeling about the activities of the team after she joined them in February 1991, it was only on May 7 of that year, she got a positive feeling that they were planning to kill certain leaders. The judge also cited a wireless message that showed Nalini had no knowledge about any conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi. However, the judge says that, on May 21, she agreed to associate herself with the killing of Rajiv Gandhi and became party to the conspiracy.

Justice KT Thomas said that Nalini was drawn in after Sriharan, Subha and Dhanu narrated various acts of atrocities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) against the LTTE in Sri Lanka. The judge had also observed that she was led into the conspiracy by ‘playing on her feminine sentiments’, and that she became an ‘obedient participant without doing any dominating role’.

Pointing to a confessional statement made by her brother Bhagyanathan, where he had revealed that Nalini knew about the plan to kill Rajiv Gandhi only on May 23, 1991, Justice KT Thomas said, “Perhaps that may be a true fact. But she would not 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 A-1 (Nalini) to extricate herself.”

Despite her being convicted of criminal conspiracy (section 120 B of the IPC), Nalini said that she was unaware of the assassination plot. In her autobiographical book, Nalini wrote how she and Sriharan were happy that they had found out she was pregnant days before the blast. “I told him I was pregnant just before the bomb blast. He was so happy that he lifted me and danced around. We were even discussing names for the baby. If we were involved in a conspiracy to kill a leader of that stature, if we were aware of this, would we have been happy about the baby? Could we even be thinking about the future? Could my husband have gone to bed in peace on May 21 after sending me alone to the public meeting?,” reads a translated excerpt from the book.

Pointing out that the police found that she accompanied the others only on her leave days, Nalini raised the question, “Can anyone involved in the conspiracy do this only on holidays?” She also paints a vivid picture of alleged torture that she was subject to while under custody, in her book. This includes being disrobed, threats of gang rape from policemen and being chained in a room for weeks. She also said that the police tried to get her child aborted, in order to get her to sign confession statements.

Nalini’s brother Bhagyanathan and her mother Padma were arrested on June 11, 1991, but they were later acquitted. Nalini, who was pregnant at the time of arrest, gave birth to a baby girl in jail in 1992. Named Harithra, her daughter is now a doctor in London.

It was during a routine picket checking that Nalini’s name came into the picture. The police had stopped a young Sri Lankan Tamil, named Shankar alias Koneswaran. He was later found to be one of the nine persons who arrived at Kodiakkarai from Jaffna on May 1, 1991 to execute the assassination, under the command of Sivarasan. Shankar had a piece of paper, which became crucial evidence. It contained two contact numbers, including that of the office where Nalini worked.

A special investigative team under the CBI named 41 people including Nalini in the chargesheet, and all of them were charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.

A trial court in 1998 sentenced the 26 accused, including Nalini and Sriharan, to death. In 1999, the Supreme Court acquitted 19 persons from the case. The apex court upheld the death sentence awarded to four of the remaining seven persons - Nalini, Sriharan, Santhan and Perarivalan. Ravichandran, Robert Payas and Jayakumar were handed the life sentence. Nalini and the others were acquitted of terror charges but were found guilty of criminal conspiracy and murder.

In 2000, Nalini’s death sentence was commuted to life by Tamil Nadu Governor Fathima Beevi on the grounds that she is a woman and has a daughter. But Nalini continued to remain in jail. But her prison sentence neither deterred her from fighting for her release nor pursue a higher education. 

Nalini was the first prisoner in Tamil Nadu to complete her degree in Masters in Computer Application (MCA) in 2009. She and her husband Sriharan had enrolled in Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) to receive MCA degrees. Nalini received the degree in 2009 in the jail complex upon completion. According to a Hindustan Times report, the then Regional Director of IGNOU, K Panneerselvam said that both Nalini and Sriharan had performed very well in their exams and Nalini was the topper among the inmates who enrolled in the MCA degree along with her.

In 2014, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence of the other convicts on the grounds of delay in deciding their mercy pleas. The very next day the J Jayalalithaa-led Tamil Nadu government announced that it would release all seven convicts including Nalini in the Rajiv Gandhi case. The matter, however, was challenged by the Union government.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the state government cannot release the convicts without the concurrence of the Union government. The verdict was another blow for Nalini. But she and her lawyers continued to fight for her release.

In 2019, Nalini was granted ordinary parole for the first time since her arrest, for 51 days to make arrangements for her daughter's wedding. Prior to that, she came out twice for her brother’s wedding in 2004 and her father’s death. Nalini and fellow convict Ravichandran have been on parole since December 27, 2021 under the Tamil Nadu Suspension of Sentence Rules, 1982.

But at times, the long incarceration and the drawn out legal fight left Nalini with little hope. In 2019, Nalini and Sriharan sent a letter to PM Modi, Madras High Court Chief Justice Amreshwar Pratap Sahi and the Tamil Nadu Home Secretary’s Office seeking mercy killing. A year later, Nalini threatened to die by suicide in Vellore prison. Nalini’s counsel advocate Pugazhendhi alleged that the prison authorities were attempting to cover up the real cause behind her attempt to take her own life, and wanted to move Nalini to the Puzhal prison.

But a ray of hope came in May this year, when AG Perarivalan, who was convicted for procuring nine-volt batteries, which were used in the improvised explosive device (IED) that had killed Rajiv Gandhi, was released by the Supreme Court. The top court released Perarivalan by exercising its special powers under Article 142 of the Constitution.

Soon after, she moved the Madras High Court seeking her release under Article 142. But in June 2022, the Madras High Court dismissed her plea, stating it does not have similar powers to release Nalini. It was after this that she moved the Supreme Court.

The apex court has now ordered Nalini’s release, holding that the grounds for Perarivalan’s release applies for the other convicts as well. A bench of Justices BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna noted that the convicts all displayed good conduct in prison, and that they had also received educational qualifications while in jail. “We have no reason to keep you in jail any longer,” the court observed.

However, the Indian National Congress (INC) criticised the Supreme Court’s decision. Speaking to TNM, Congress MLA for Virudhunagar Manickam Tagore said, “The release of the six convicts will be falsely used to project that they are innocent.”

Speaking to TNM, AG Perarivalan said that it was the love between Nalini and Sriharan that got her involved in the issue. “She was a very normal girl. She didn’t have much of an ideological background. She was working as a personal secretary after completing a masters degree, and she got involved into this unexpectedly due to love,” he said.

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