Rajiv Gandhi Killing: Decoding the Delay in Perarivalan’s Release

Why are demands to release Perarivalan growing louder – and what has caused a three-decade delay?

Published
India
7 min read
Among the seven convicts in the case over the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi is Perarivalan.
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On 21 May 1991, the then Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber while on a visit to Sriperumbudur, in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district, to campaign for the upcoming elections.

His killing, carried out by Thenmozhi Rajarathinam aka Dhanu, an assassin of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), left 16 people including the Prime Minister dead. More than 45 people were critically injured.

Nearly 30 years later, seven of those convicted for the assassination are still languishing in prison.

Among the seven convicts is AG Perarivalan, the question of whose future has commanded special interest and attention, and ignited many political tussles over the years.

Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit recently tossed the ball into the Centre’s court on the decision to release him, but the fight is not over yet.

Why is Perarivalan’s conviction controversial? Why are demands to release him growing louder – and what has caused a three-decade delay? We break down the long timeline of his conviction and the many, many hurdles in his long-awaited release from prison.

Rajiv Gandhi Killing: Decoding the Delay in Perarivalan’s Release

  1. 1. Who is Perarivalan?

    AG Perarivalan, or Arivu as he is also known as, is the son of Tamil poet Kuyildasan. He was 19 years old when the assassination took place in May 1991. He was arrested on 18 June the same year for his involvement in the case.

    The main charge against Perarivalan was that of buying two nine-volt batteries and handing them over to LTTE chief Sivarasan, the mastermind of the operation. Perarivalan was also charged with taking Sivarasan to a motor shop days before the assassination, and buying a motorcycle in his name, but providing an incorrect address.

    Since his arrest in June 1991, Perarivalan has spent 15 years on death row and a total of almost 24 years in solitary confinement in prison.

    Interestingly enough, according to The Indian Express, the convict has used his time in prison to complete undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from Indira Gandhi National Open University, as well as to procure more than eight diploma and certificate courses.

    Meanwhile, in August 1991 – roughly three months after the assassination – the police managed to track down a group of LTTE members, including Sivarasan, in Bengaluru. While the LTTE chief chose death by shooting himself in the temple, his companions consumed cyanide in order to evade the police, after a brief encounter.

    According to The News Minute, in 1998, a trial court sentenced 25 others apart from Perarivalan to death for their role in the assassination. However, in May 1999, the Supreme Court (SC) acquitted 19 of them, leaving seven in total – Nalini, Murugan alias Sriharan, Santhan, Perarivalan, Ravichandran, Robert Payas, and Jayakumar.

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  2. 2. The Controversy Over Perarivalan's Incarceration

    In January 1998, Perarivalan was sentenced to death based on a confession statement recorded by the then CBI SP V Thiagarajan. However, in November 2013, Thiagarajan, now retired, revealed that he had altered Perarivalan’s statement, recorded while in custody, to make it a confession statement.

    According to reports, the statement that Thiagarajan recorded was:

    “…Moreover, I bought two nine-volt battery cells (of GoldenPower brand) and gave them to Sivarasan. He used only these to make the bomb explode.”

    But the former CBI officer later said that Perarivalan had not actually said the second part. In fact, Perarivalan had actually told him that he was not aware of the reason for buying the batteries, Thiagarajan told The News Minute.

    “It (the statement) wouldn’t have qualified as a confession statement without his admission of being part of the conspiracy. There, I omitted a part of his statement, and added my interpretation. I regret it,” Thiagarajan said, according to The Indian Express.

    “Arivu told me that he did not know why they asked him to buy that (the battery). But I did not record that in the confession statement. Then, the investigation was in progress, so that particular statement I did not record. Strictly speaking, law expects you to record a statement verbatim… we don’t do that in practice,” he said in a documentary released in 2013, reported The Hindu.

    In October 2017, he repeated his revelation in an affidavit submitted in the SC, in which he said that he had omitted that part “because it would have been an exculpatory statement and hence the whole purpose of recording the confession statement would be lost”. However, this affidavit was never revisited, reports The Indian Express.

    In fact, in a wireless message from Sivarasan to an LTTE top operative, the former expressly stated that “our intention is not known to anybody except we three” – himself, Subha (one of his LTTE companions) and Dhanu, the suicide bomber.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Back & Forth Over His Release

    In 1999, four of the convicts – Perarivalan, Nalini, Murugan and Santhan – filed a mercy plea before the Tamil Nadu governor. However, that plea only resulted in relief for Nalini in 2000, and the rest of them made their way to the President of India, only to be rejected in 2011.

    Following this, in February 2014, the SC commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment over the delay in decision on the mercy pleas. The apex court also said that the imprisonment of the seven convicts would be subject to remission rules of Tamil Nadu, allowing for prisoners to be released after 14 years based on good conduct, according to The Economic Times.

    A day after this decision, Jayalalithaa, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, announced that the state government would release all the seven convicts, which, however, the SC stayed, ordering the status quo to be maintained, reports The News Minute.

    Then in 2015, Perarivalan filed another remission plea before the Tamil Nadu governor under Article 161, pleading good behaviour, no criminal antecedents, and the fact that he was the only son of his parents, reports The Indian Express. Meanwhile, in March 2016, the Tamil Nadu government sent a proposal to the Centre asking for remission of the life sentences for all the seven convicts.

    The Centre, which rejected this in April 2018, told the apex court in August the same year that it does not concur with the Tamil Nadu government’s 2016 proposal to release the seven convicts, saying remission of their sentence will set a “dangerous precedent” and have “international ramifications”.

    The SC, however, disposed of the Centre’s petition and asked the Tamil Nadu governor to consider the mercy plea filed by Perarivalan. Following the apex court’s order in 2018, the state government, led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, unanimously passed a Cabinet resolution recommending the release of the seven convicts, according to The News Minute.

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  4. 4. The 'Extraordinary Delay' in a Decision

    Why the delay in a release, given that the state government has recommended it? The reason is a constitutional provision which states that the governor cannot reject the state’s recommendation but prescribes no time limit to take the decision.

    Therefore, with no action in sight on his mercy plea filed five years earlier, in January 2020, according to The Hindu, Perarivalan wrote a letter to Governor Purohit, urging him to hasten the decision.

    This reminder from Perarivalan came in the backdrop of an SC order from a few days earlier which asked the state government for a status report on the mercy plea.

    Then in July 2020, the governor told the Madras High Court that the decision on the release of the seven convicts would only be taken after a final report from a CBI-led Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency which has been probing the case since 1998.

    However, in November 2020, the CBI told the apex court in an affidavit that Perarivalan has nothing to do with the further investigation conducted by the agency – and that the governor is free to take a decision. Soon after, the Centre, in court, started raising objections about the Tamil Nadu governor’s power to grant remission, insinuating that the correct authority to whom pardons should be sent is the President of India.

    In light of all this, the SC in January 2021 called the delay “extraordinary”, and gave the governor a week’s time to decide on Perarivalan’s plea.

    However, even as a decision was expected from the governor, he refrained from it, instead saying on 4 February that the President should take a call on his release. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also since said that the proposal received “will be processed in accordance with law”.

    What now for Perarivalan? According to a report by The Hindu, the 46-year-old convict has now sought copies of the legal opinion, if any, and the letter of the governor forwarding his mercy plea to the Central government.

    Expand
  5. 5. The Political Battle Over Perarivalan

    According to The Wire, hours before the governor’s decision, Chief Minister Palaniswami had expressed hope for a positive announcement in favour of Perarivalan. Prior to that, on 29 January, he had also visited the governor and discussed the release of all the seven convicts, PTI reported. Palaniswami reportedly sought a “good decision” from Purohit.

    A Palaniswami-led government had been behind the state resolution in 2018 that asked for Perarivalan’s release.

    Meanwhile, the DMK too has been passing resolutions at its meetings calling for the immediate release of Perarivalan and the six other convicts. AIADMK leader Palaniswami has accused the party of “doing little about the release of seven convicts” but pretending to fight for them now.

    But it appears that the chief minister’s meeting with the governor just days before the latter caused a further delay has turned the tables on Palaniswami, with DMK president MK Stalin lashing out at him, saying that the chief minister’s masks on the issue “had come off”, The Wire reported.

    “It was the AIADMK that had brought resolutions favouring their release in the Assembly before elections in 2014, 2016, and again in 2018. But the resolutions were conveniently forgotten once the elections were over. The chief minister seemed to remember the seven convicts only now because we have another election coming,” Stalin said. Palaniswami, on the other hand, made his own remarks, saying that the DMK were “staging a drama” to get sympathy votes in the polls.

    The decision, and which party is able to push it through for the convicts, holds more political significance this year, especially as the race for the 234 seats in the state Assembly heats up, with the polls scheduled for April.

    Who will manage to win freedom for Perarivalan? And will it happen before the state goes into the elections? Stay tuned to all the political battles coming up.

    (With inputs from The Wire, PTI, The News Minute, The Hindu and The Indian Express.)

    (The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

    Expand

Who is Perarivalan?

AG Perarivalan, or Arivu as he is also known as, is the son of Tamil poet Kuyildasan. He was 19 years old when the assassination took place in May 1991. He was arrested on 18 June the same year for his involvement in the case.

The main charge against Perarivalan was that of buying two nine-volt batteries and handing them over to LTTE chief Sivarasan, the mastermind of the operation. Perarivalan was also charged with taking Sivarasan to a motor shop days before the assassination, and buying a motorcycle in his name, but providing an incorrect address.

Since his arrest in June 1991, Perarivalan has spent 15 years on death row and a total of almost 24 years in solitary confinement in prison.

Interestingly enough, according to The Indian Express, the convict has used his time in prison to complete undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from Indira Gandhi National Open University, as well as to procure more than eight diploma and certificate courses.

Meanwhile, in August 1991 – roughly three months after the assassination – the police managed to track down a group of LTTE members, including Sivarasan, in Bengaluru. While the LTTE chief chose death by shooting himself in the temple, his companions consumed cyanide in order to evade the police, after a brief encounter.

According to The News Minute, in 1998, a trial court sentenced 25 others apart from Perarivalan to death for their role in the assassination. However, in May 1999, the Supreme Court (SC) acquitted 19 of them, leaving seven in total – Nalini, Murugan alias Sriharan, Santhan, Perarivalan, Ravichandran, Robert Payas, and Jayakumar.

The Controversy Over Perarivalan's Incarceration

In January 1998, Perarivalan was sentenced to death based on a confession statement recorded by the then CBI SP V Thiagarajan. However, in November 2013, Thiagarajan, now retired, revealed that he had altered Perarivalan’s statement, recorded while in custody, to make it a confession statement.

According to reports, the statement that Thiagarajan recorded was:

“…Moreover, I bought two nine-volt battery cells (of GoldenPower brand) and gave them to Sivarasan. He used only these to make the bomb explode.”

But the former CBI officer later said that Perarivalan had not actually said the second part. In fact, Perarivalan had actually told him that he was not aware of the reason for buying the batteries, Thiagarajan told The News Minute.

“It (the statement) wouldn’t have qualified as a confession statement without his admission of being part of the conspiracy. There, I omitted a part of his statement, and added my interpretation. I regret it,” Thiagarajan said, according to The Indian Express.

“Arivu told me that he did not know why they asked him to buy that (the battery). But I did not record that in the confession statement. Then, the investigation was in progress, so that particular statement I did not record. Strictly speaking, law expects you to record a statement verbatim… we don’t do that in practice,” he said in a documentary released in 2013, reported The Hindu.

In October 2017, he repeated his revelation in an affidavit submitted in the SC, in which he said that he had omitted that part “because it would have been an exculpatory statement and hence the whole purpose of recording the confession statement would be lost”. However, this affidavit was never revisited, reports The Indian Express.

In fact, in a wireless message from Sivarasan to an LTTE top operative, the former expressly stated that “our intention is not known to anybody except we three” – himself, Subha (one of his LTTE companions) and Dhanu, the suicide bomber.

The Back & Forth Over His Release

In 1999, four of the convicts – Perarivalan, Nalini, Murugan and Santhan – filed a mercy plea before the Tamil Nadu governor. However, that plea only resulted in relief for Nalini in 2000, and the rest of them made their way to the President of India, only to be rejected in 2011.

Following this, in February 2014, the SC commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment over the delay in decision on the mercy pleas. The apex court also said that the imprisonment of the seven convicts would be subject to remission rules of Tamil Nadu, allowing for prisoners to be released after 14 years based on good conduct, according to The Economic Times.

A day after this decision, Jayalalithaa, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, announced that the state government would release all the seven convicts, which, however, the SC stayed, ordering the status quo to be maintained, reports The News Minute.

Then in 2015, Perarivalan filed another remission plea before the Tamil Nadu governor under Article 161, pleading good behaviour, no criminal antecedents, and the fact that he was the only son of his parents, reports The Indian Express. Meanwhile, in March 2016, the Tamil Nadu government sent a proposal to the Centre asking for remission of the life sentences for all the seven convicts.

The Centre, which rejected this in April 2018, told the apex court in August the same year that it does not concur with the Tamil Nadu government’s 2016 proposal to release the seven convicts, saying remission of their sentence will set a “dangerous precedent” and have “international ramifications”.

The SC, however, disposed of the Centre’s petition and asked the Tamil Nadu governor to consider the mercy plea filed by Perarivalan. Following the apex court’s order in 2018, the state government, led by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, unanimously passed a Cabinet resolution recommending the release of the seven convicts, according to The News Minute.

The 'Extraordinary Delay' in a Decision

Why the delay in a release, given that the state government has recommended it? The reason is a constitutional provision which states that the governor cannot reject the state’s recommendation but prescribes no time limit to take the decision.

Therefore, with no action in sight on his mercy plea filed five years earlier, in January 2020, according to The Hindu, Perarivalan wrote a letter to Governor Purohit, urging him to hasten the decision.

This reminder from Perarivalan came in the backdrop of an SC order from a few days earlier which asked the state government for a status report on the mercy plea.

Then in July 2020, the governor told the Madras High Court that the decision on the release of the seven convicts would only be taken after a final report from a CBI-led Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency which has been probing the case since 1998.

However, in November 2020, the CBI told the apex court in an affidavit that Perarivalan has nothing to do with the further investigation conducted by the agency – and that the governor is free to take a decision. Soon after, the Centre, in court, started raising objections about the Tamil Nadu governor’s power to grant remission, insinuating that the correct authority to whom pardons should be sent is the President of India.

In light of all this, the SC in January 2021 called the delay “extraordinary”, and gave the governor a week’s time to decide on Perarivalan’s plea.

However, even as a decision was expected from the governor, he refrained from it, instead saying on 4 February that the President should take a call on his release. The Ministry of Home Affairs has also since said that the proposal received “will be processed in accordance with law”.

What now for Perarivalan? According to a report by The Hindu, the 46-year-old convict has now sought copies of the legal opinion, if any, and the letter of the governor forwarding his mercy plea to the Central government.

The Political Battle Over Perarivalan

According to The Wire, hours before the governor’s decision, Chief Minister Palaniswami had expressed hope for a positive announcement in favour of Perarivalan. Prior to that, on 29 January, he had also visited the governor and discussed the release of all the seven convicts, PTI reported. Palaniswami reportedly sought a “good decision” from Purohit.

A Palaniswami-led government had been behind the state resolution in 2018 that asked for Perarivalan’s release.

Meanwhile, the DMK too has been passing resolutions at its meetings calling for the immediate release of Perarivalan and the six other convicts. AIADMK leader Palaniswami has accused the party of “doing little about the release of seven convicts” but pretending to fight for them now.

But it appears that the chief minister’s meeting with the governor just days before the latter caused a further delay has turned the tables on Palaniswami, with DMK president MK Stalin lashing out at him, saying that the chief minister’s masks on the issue “had come off”, The Wire reported.

“It was the AIADMK that had brought resolutions favouring their release in the Assembly before elections in 2014, 2016, and again in 2018. But the resolutions were conveniently forgotten once the elections were over. The chief minister seemed to remember the seven convicts only now because we have another election coming,” Stalin said. Palaniswami, on the other hand, made his own remarks, saying that the DMK were “staging a drama” to get sympathy votes in the polls.

The decision, and which party is able to push it through for the convicts, holds more political significance this year, especially as the race for the 234 seats in the state Assembly heats up, with the polls scheduled for April.

Who will manage to win freedom for Perarivalan? And will it happen before the state goes into the elections? Stay tuned to all the political battles coming up.

(With inputs from The Wire, PTI, The News Minute, The Hindu and The Indian Express.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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