In the shadows of the gallows

Sep 28, 2011, 09:57 IST | Hemal Ashar

Say no to death penalty activists and mother of A G Perarivalan, who is sentenced to death in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, asked for justice, not mercy at a conference in the city

Say no to death penalty activists and mother of A G Perarivalan, who is sentenced to death in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, asked for justice, not mercy at a conference in the city

To hang or not to hang... that is the question. The answer though poses no such choices for a panel of activists from the notodeath penalty movement. They say a flat 'do not hang' to the question. The movement's supporters, who are pushing to abolish capital punishment in the country, were in Mumbai on Monday evening to call for "justice" as they claimed, for the three accused who have got the death penalty in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

The politics of being perarivalan: Congress activists from the
student wing of the party, register their protest at the Press Club on
Monday evening

The focus though was on A G Perarivalan, one of the accused, currently lodged in Vellore Central Jail who is to be hanged along with two other Sri Lankan Tamils called Santhan and Murugan. The conference was held at the Press Club in South Mumbai. The panelists, including Perarivalan's 65-year-old mother Arputham Ammal, looking older than her 65 years, used the occasion as a platform to launch Perarivalan's book in its Hindi version (it has already been released in Tamil and English). The book is called, 'An Appeal from The Death Row: Rajiv Gandhi Murder Case: The Truth Speaks' where A G Perarivalan writes from within the jail, about how he had no clue about the assassination and how he has been unfairly incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

Judge him by his book cover: (from l) P A Sebastain, Justice H
Suresh and Arputham Ammal. PICS/BIPIN KOKATE

Even as the press conference began, with the speaker holding up a Hindi version of the book and the press cameras focusing on Arputham, activists from the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of the Congress, barged into the room holding a flag and shouting slogans. "Rajiv Gandhi amar rahe, Sonia Gandhi zindabad," they shouted, as the press and panelists looked on. The cameramen clicked wildly and after that 10-minute brouhaha they moved out, one could spot police presence at the Press Club. A speaker on the dais said, "This is a democracy. They have a right to register their protests, just like we have a right to release our book."

In memoriam: The garment and shoes of Rajiv Gandhi which he was
wearing when he was assassinated, at Indira Gandhi Memorial, in New Delhi

There was a brief introduction to the event, wherein the moderators said that, "the news that the President of India has rejected the mercy pleas of Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case has sent shockwaves amongst the rationalists and human rights activists across the country, especially in Tamil Nadu.  The Tamil Nadu Assembly has unanimously passed a resolution moved by the Chief Minister demanding the commutation of the death penalty on the three Tamils. The Madras High Court has stayed the execution of the three and ordered notice to the Union Government returnable in eight weeks. The main argument put forward on behalf of the petitioners is that delayed execution is unconstitutional. To let a person rot in prison for 20 years, more than half that period under sentence of death, and then to order his execution - is it not a grave travesty of justice?" they asked.

Looking back: File photo of Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi when
Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash

Arputham Ammal (Perarivalan's mother) then took the mike and spoke in Tamil. She was seen wiping her tears by the end of her speech. Her speech was translated in English as, "My son is innocent. A team probing Rajiv Gandhi's assassination came to our home in mid-June and took Perarivalan away. He was in illegal custody for a number of days from June 11. After a fortnight we heard the news that he had given a, 'confessional statement' but I can tell you it came after long and gruesome torture. My son, it was said had helped in making of the bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi. Yet, in fact, he has been charged with buying a battery cell and there is no evidence against him."

Bloody end: Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi at
Vir Bhoomi to pay their tribute to late Rajiv Gandhi at a ceremony in
New Delhi

She went on to say that, "We do not justify the killing of Rajiv Gandhi. We too loved him, we did not want him to be assassinated." She also said that the investigation, "is not yet over and we are in a hurry to accuse our people and hang them to death. The Supreme Court has confirmed the death penalty, though Nalini's sentence, the other accused in the case has been commuted to life. These three people are now on death row. By hanging them, we will not find out the truth. It will only hide the real conspirators behind the killing. The death penalty cannot be proper punishment."

The mother brought in Sonia Gandhi stating, "Sonia G wanted a commutation of the death sentence in all four cases but even after knowing fully well that the President had rejected the mercy petition, she has not opened her mouth." She spoke about her son's exemplary conduct in jail and broke down as she ended, "This punishment is not his alone. We all are being punished because of him."

The mike went on to P A Sebastain, president for the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), who is often seen at events involving debates about Maoism and heard railing against the state. He began by saying, "I am not here to argue about the merits and demerits of the case. What I want you to find out is, why was this assassination done? Even the American people now ask themselves why were  the Twin Towers were attacked? They know the answer, because of the wrong policies of the US. In the same way, we have to ask ourselves, why have people become terrorists? Who made them terrorists?"

Sebastain then went on to say that, "In Sri Lanka, the Tamils, rightly or wrongly believe that they constitute a different nation. Who can decide that for them? Not India or Rajiv Gandhi, only the Tamils can decide that." Sebastain added, "Rajiv Gandhi was killed by Tamils but they have done it in the course of freedom. All freedom struggles have been marked by violence. Even India's freedom struggle was not very peaceful, it is a distortion of history to call it peaceful."

After that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter kind of speech, meandering wildly in parts, it was Justice H Suresh's turn to speak.

Justice H Suresh said he was against the death penalty. "The State has no power to kill anybody. In Perarivalan's case, (he is also called Arivu) there is no evidence but for a 9-volt battery. It has not been established that he made the bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi." 

The Justice cited some examples of people who had been wrongly accused and hanged to death in international cases and said there were at least 130 countries that do not practice the death penalty. He was against the death penalty as a punishment to all, those who he claimed were accused without proof and even for those who, it had been proved beyond doubt were the killers.

There were several questions posed to Justice Suresh, post the conference -- one person asked whether abolishing the death penalty would be justified in the case of terrorists coming to India and killing at will. "How many will you lodge in jail?" he asked. When this writer asked whether "human rights" applies only to the person who has killed and not to that person who has got killed and whether he would say no to the death penalty if his family member was murdered, justice H Suresh said, "yes, yes, yes." He also stated in a more conciliatory tone that, "Of course, nobody supports killing but there should be provisions for victim rehabilitation in the system. Often, that victim is the accused himself." The notodeath penalty supporters were inundated with questions about what should happen to Afzal Guru and Kasab. They also seemed to waffle a bit, not answering directly, when asked whether they would say no to death penalties if their family was ever killed. When Advocate Mayil Samy.K was asked what if the killer is a psychopath who has little remorse for what he has done and could not be reformed, he stated, "that is an exceptional case."

Update from Death Row
A G Perarivalan (Arivu) was arrested when he was 19, in connection with Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. Perarivalan was scheduled to hang on September 9. But the Madras High Court stayed the execution for eight weeks (beginning August 30). The Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution urging the President to reconsider the rejected mercy pleas of Perarivalan and two others.

When Dhanu Exploded
India's former Prime Minister (PM) Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991. He was Congress president at the time he was assassinated. Others were also killed. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination was carried out by Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, also known as Dhanu, who was found after investigations to be an Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber. 

India was embroiled through the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Rajiv Gandhi had arrived at Chennai about two hours earlier and then was driven by motorcade in a white Ambassador car to Sriperumbudur. When he reached the venue at Sriperumbudur, he got out of his car and began to walk inside towards the dais.  

The assassin Dhanu approached him and greeted the former Prime Minister. She then bent down to touch his feet and detonated an RDX explosive laden belt. 

The former Prime Minister along with many others was killed in the explosion that followed. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film was found at the site. The cameraman himself also died in the blast.

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