Vellore, October 12, 2011: The three convicts in the death row –Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan – charged with conspiracy in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and lodged in Vellore prison, said in an interview in October 2011 that they believed they could be free men soon. (This interview was just after the Madras High Court had stayed their execution. The situation is similar now with the Tamil Nadu government has recommended to the Governor the release of the seven convicts on grounds of mercy).
Arrested in the wake of the Sriperumbudur blast case of May 1991, the trio has completed over 20 years in prison. The three inmates of the Vellore central prison, about 140 km from Chennai, have moved the Madras High Court to quash the execution order. Although the court has merely stayed the execution for a few weeks, “we are confident that the death sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment”, they told me in an exclusive interview in October 2011 at the high-security Vellore prison. (On February 18, 2014, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment).
Citing several judgments in Indian courts on the basis of delay in dealing with mercy petitions of convicts, Perarivalan said, “It has taken several years for the President of India to turn down our mercy petition. The inordinate delay in dealing with the mercy petition has caused mental agony. We do not seek mercy. We seek justice.”
On what they thought the Indian government response would be to the Madras High Court notice, Santhan said, “We are hopeful that the Indian government would recommend clemency, and help reduce our sentence to one of life imprisonment. We have sent a fresh mercy petition to the President of India, and also to Sonia Gandhi, Congress President, and we believe that Sonia Gandhi would favour clemency.”
Recalling that Sonia Gandhi had written to the Tamil Nadu government way back in 2000 recommending clemency to four convicts (these three and Nalini, wife of Murugan), Murugan said, “We are sure Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Gandhi would not like to see us die. Going by her track record of 2000, we are bound to get clemency.”
Perarivalan, citing the support of leading political parties in Tamil Nadu to their cause, said, “We feel elated to see such a large response. There are people undertaking fast for us. There are demonstrations or meetings every day in some part of Tamil Nadu or the other against death penalty in general and against the death sentence specifically in our case.”
“We are grateful to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, for her massive support to our cause. She has not only made a public appeal to the Union government to grant clemency. She has even got the Tamil Nadu Assembly to adopt a resolution to press the Centre. This is historic and unprecedented,” said Perarivalan.
“The only dream I had was to join the Indian defence forces, the Air Force, in particular. I was a keen participant in the National Cadet corps scheme, I liked to wear the uniform.” – Perarivalan
The trio would not like to comment on the muted response to their cause from 1991 in contrast to the support being extended now by various political parties in Tamil Nadu. “We did feel sad earlier. But now we are happy to see the upsurge. We feel it is only a matter of time before clemency is granted,” said Santhan.
What next? Once clemency is granted, would it mean that the three convicts could be released since they have completed over 20 years in prison while a life sentence would normally mean a maximum of 14 years even if remission for good conduct is not taken into account? Perarivalan says, “My understanding is that life sentence would mean a maximum of 14 years. If one goes by good conduct, the 14-year period could actually be brought down to seven or eight years. But even if good conduct is rejected, we have completed over 14 years in prison. Of course, it would help if the judge, while passing the order against the execution, could also mention that we have completed our term of life imprisonment and we could be released. The Governments—the Union Government and the Tamil Nadu Government– could also help us in this regard. Almost all political parties have said that we should be released forthwith. Therefore, we are sure that we will be freed and we will be out of prison soon. It is probably a question of a few weeks.”
The three were imprisoned at their youth. Today, they are middle-aged men. Asked about this transition and how they coped with the situation while in prison, Perarivalan said, “I was barely 20 when I was arrested. Today, I am over 41. As a youth, I never thought about marriage and having one’s own family, and things like that. Even now, I have no such thoughts. At that time, I was interested in learning things. The only dream I had was to join the Indian defence forces, the Air Force, in particular. I was a keen participant in the National Cadet corps scheme, I liked to wear the uniform. I would have loved to be in an Indian Air Force uniform.” “As for family, my mother Arputhammal is in her seventies, and she is a frequent visitor to the prison. I love to be with her.”
Santhan and Murugan are Sri Lankan Tamils. As members of the LTTE, they had taken a vow of celibacy like all disciplined members of the militant organization. However, that was some decades ago, when they were young. Santhan said he had no plans to get married – ever. However, “I am happy to note from a magazine that my parents are alive and well in Sri Lanka, despite the troubled times in the country during the 2009 war against the LTTE. I don’t know if I can see them. I had lost touch with my relatives after 2009. I was never interested in setting up my own family. The thought never entered my mind. Of course, I would like to see my parents now.”
Murugan, on the other hand, took a drastic step against the wishes of his organization, the LTTE. He fell in love with Nalini, prior to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, and they got married in Tirupati, which houses the famous Balaji temple. During her pregnancy, Nalini had an unexpected visitor in Priyanka Gandhi. Later, after Sonia Gandhi’s letter suggesting clemency to the four including Nalini, her sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Murugan’s daughter, Meghra, is studying in the UK. He recently had a meeting with Nalini in prison, after a gap of 18 months.
Murugan’s brother, who lives in the UK, recently came down to meet him in prison. As for other relatives, he is not sure about their whereabouts.
When the three middle-aged men do come out of prison, they will find the world has changed substantially since 1991.