"They lost their loved one. I hope they will recover from the tragedy completely. I have nothing now. I need to start all anew,” says Nalini Sriharan, one among the remaining life-term convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case who were released from jail on the orders of the Supreme Court last week.
In her press meet soon after walking out of jail on Saturday evening, Nalini also recalled her meeting with Rajiv's daughter Priyanka Gandhi at the Vellore jail in Tamil Nadu in March 1998.
“Priyanka just kept looking at me silently for two minutes. When I looked up at her, Priyanka’s cheeks were flushed with blood, the face was reddened, and her lips were quivering," Nalini said.
Former Indian Prime Minister and then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi and 16 others were killed in an explosion carried out by Dhanu, alias Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), on May 21, 1991.
Nalini was at the site of the blast with Sivarasan, the kingpin of the crime, and Subha, the stand-in suicide bomber, who would take the place of Dhanu if her explosive did not go off.
Nalini was 24 at the time and had turned 55 when she was released from jail. She was two months pregnant at the time. Her daughter is 30 years old now. When Rajiv was killed, his wife Sonia was aged 45, son Rahul 21, and daughter Priyanka 19. Now, Sonia is 75, Rahul 52, and Priyanka 50.
The shock waves created by the assassination that shook India have not subsided.
Though the Gandhi family has said that they had forgiven the killers, the Congress is piqued by the convicts’ release from prison.
However, political parties and human rights organizations in Tamil Nadu have welcomed the release. Nalini was sentenced after finding her guilty in the assassination conspiracy.
But even after 31 years, Nalini says that she is innocent and that her only fault was that she was with her husband and his friends.
But two judges of the Supreme Court and the Madras High Court have said that Nalini could not be absolved of her role in the conspiracy even if she had not taken part in the crime in a direct manner.
Nalini spent 31 years in jail. Nalini says that from now on, she wants to live with her husband and daughter who is a doctor.
Her daughter Harithra, alias Megara, grew up in the absence of her father and mother after she turned 2.
Sonia lost her husband and Priyanka and Rahul their father in the gruesome assassination.
In the course of time, Sonia and her children came to the resolve that because of them, another life should not be snuffed out and that another child should not become an orphan.
Nalini has expressed her remorse and apologized many times.
Nalini’s daughter has thanked Sonia and her family for forgiving her mother.
It could be said that had Sonia not forgiven her, Nalini may not have been alive today to come out of jail.
When the then President K R Narayanan returned from a visit to Austria in 1999, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi sought an appointment with him.
The gist of what Sonia told Mr Narayanan was this: “Nalini, the woman who has been convicted in the case of assassination of my husband, has been sentenced to be hanged. But neither I nor my children Priyanka or Rahul wants another life to be snuffed out.
Nalini has a child. My children lost their father. No child should become an orphan because of us. We will not gain any peace by ending another person’s life. Therefore, we appeal to you to save her from the noose”.
She also handed over a letter which contained what she and her children had to say on the issue.
The fate of Nalini, who was expected to be hanged any time, was changed at that very moment. Nalini revealed the other day that the authorities had decided seven times to carry out her hanging.
However, Sonia never spoke to the media about her saving from the noose the woman who had been sentenced for her role in the assassination.
Sonia maintained a dignified silence, which she displayed on many other occasions, though the incident had turned her life upside down.
Sonia, who feared that the fate of Indira Gandhi would befall her husband too, and who never stepped into even the sidelines of politics, later became a force that controlled the direction of Indian politics.
Rahul Gandhi has stated that Sonia lost sleep with the same fear on the eve of his appointment as the Congress party’s vice president in Jaipur in 2013.
Though Sonia did not make any public statements regarding Nalini, it was revealed later that the former had been enquiring after the latter.
It was Mohini Giri, the then chairperson of the Central Women’s Commission, who informed Sonia of all that Nalini had to say.
In 2005, Nalini sent her first letter to Sonia through Mohini Giri, praying for help in obtaining permission for meeting her child.
After her death sentence was commuted to life term in prison, she strove to bring her daughter to India and to see her at least occasionally.
Nalini sought Sonia’s help after all her attempts failed. Nalini wrote in the letter, “We are living just for our daughter. I am sure you understand the heartache that we suffer in the prolonged wait to see our daughter.”
After a few months, Nalini’s daughter, Harithra, was allowed to come to India and to meet her parents.
The Madras High Court had ordered in 2007 that since Nalini’s daughter was born in India, she was entitled to Indian citizenship and that she should be treated as a citizen of India.
By the end of 2000, Nalini yearned for release from jail.
She made all attempts to achieve this and copies of those efforts were sent to Sonia Gandhi through Mohini Giri.
Nalini’s contention was that she had a right to be released from prison since the killers of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, were freed after spending 14 years in jail.
But reports of the time indicate that neither Sonia nor her family intervened in issues pertaining to Nailni’s release.
All her petitions for release were rejected. She stopped submitting such petitions in 2007.
It is at that time that an unexpected visitor arrived at the Vellore jail on March 19, 2008: Priyanka Gandhi. Nalini later told her lawyer that her meeting with Priyanka had relieved her of much anguish.
In her letter sent through Monini Giri, Nalini used to enquire about Sonia and her children.
In the meantime, Nalini passed the Masters in Computer Applications (MCA) course with high scores.
She also completed certificate courses in Food and Nutrition and Tailoring and a diploma course in Computer Studies.
Nalini had been keeping Sonia posted of all these facts through Mohini Giri.
In 2002, Mohini Giri received a letter from Sonia’s private secretary Sourendra K Gupta, expressing her gratitude for keeping her informed of all details about Nalini.
The letter also extended Sonia’s greetings and compliments over Nalini’s achievements in studies.
In a letter written on September 21, 2004, Nalini conveyed her greetings to Sonia and her family and said that she had been praying to God for their well-being.
Priyanka called on Nalini at the Vellore jail in Tamil Nadu on March 19, 1998.
"Priyanka just kept looking at me silently for two minutes. When I looked up at her, her cheeks were flushed with blood, the face was reddened, and her lips were quivering”, Nalini said.
“Why did you do this? My father was a good human being. He was a kind-hearted man. You could have discussed and resolved any issue”, Priyanka said and burst into tears.
“I did not think that Priyanka would cry. I knew how intense the pain behind those tears were”, Nalini writes in the book 'Rajiv Murder: Hidden Truths and Priyanka-Nalini Meet.'
“Madam, I know nothing of it. I cannot hurt even an ant. I was jailed due to the circumstances. I did not even dream of harming anyone,” was her reply, says Nalini.
Priyanka listened to Nalini patiently all through the 85-minute meet. But when she spoke of the other convicts in the case, she turned very angry. This frightened her, Nalini says.
Priyanka travelled to Chennai and then on to the Vellore jail and met Nalini in total secrecy. Reports that came out later said that Priyanka had wanted to know from those who had carried out the assassination the reason for the act.
“My mother suffered a lot. How can we allow another person to undergo the same pain? Nalini’s daughter is an innocent child”, Priyanka later said of those who had killed her father.
“Nalini is also a woman like us. I have no personal animosity towards her for what she did. The meeting with her was conducted on my own volition. That sentiment should be respected. I do not believe in hate, animosity or violence. I needed a quietus for the loss and the crime that led to it. I did not have any hatred or anger but I doubted whether I would be able to forgive them. But at the time of the meeting, I thought to myself – what am I doing? She is a woman and she is undergoing a fate much worse than what I had endured”, Priyanka later said of her meeting with Nalini.
That fateful night
The news of the explosion at Sriperumbudur where Rajiv was campaigning for elections was conveyed to Sonia within 15 minutes of the incident by her secretary Vincent George.
But there was no news about what happened to Rajiv Gandhi. At last, at 11.35 p.m., Vincent George, M L Fotedar and Captain Satish Sharma informed Priyanka Gandhi of Rajiv’s death.
Priyanka told Sonia of the tragedy. When the family travelled in the same night to take possession of the dismembered body of Rajiv, it was Priyanka who supported Sonia with her hands.
It was Priyanka, along with their family friend Amitabh Bachchan, who went to the airport to receive Raul Gandhi who was at the time studying in Harvard University. After Rahul lit the funeral pyre, Priyanka held close to her the weeping mother and brother.
I hated them for long: Harithra
Harithra, daughter of Nalini and Sriharan, alias Murugan, had to remain an orphan for no fault of hers.
At present, Harithra is a doctor in the UK. Nalini says she is going to be with her daughter who was separated from her at the age of 2.
In 2014, in an interview to a private television channel, Harithra, then aged 22, appealed to Rajiv's son Rahul Gandhi: “I apologise to Rahul Gandhi. My parents have repented so much. They deserve pardon. I understand what it means to lose a loved one”.
“I too am going through the same punishment. I have a right to be with my parents. Though my parents are alive, they were never with me. Even if they had committed the crime, they have suffered beyond all endurance”, Harithra said.
The Jayalalithaa Government in Tamil Nadu had decided to release all the convicts after their death sentences were commuted to life term in jail and it was in response to Rahul Gandhi’s reaction to the move that Harithra made that statement.
Rahul had said, “Rajiv Gandhi’s killers are being freed. I am sad about it. I am personally against the death penalty. This is not because he is my father. If the killers of a Prime Minister are released, what can the common man expect?”
However, in a meeting with students in Puducherry, Rahul said in 2019 that he had forgiven his father’s killers and that he harboured no hatred or animosity towards them.
“The pain of losing my father was excruciating,” he said.
When she was arrested in 1991, Nalini was two months pregnant. Harithra was born in the Vellore jail in 1992.
She grew up for the first two years in the jail. After she lived in Coimbatore for some time, Murugan’s father took her away to Sri Lanka. It is from there that Harithra went to London with her grandmother and Murugan’s siblings.
“I respect Sonia. She has every right to be angry. Still, she forgave my mother. I will never forget Sonia Gandhi”, is how Harithra later spoke of Sonia Gandhi. Harithra has spoken of her childhood filled with misery.
“They used to send me letters from jail. They used to say that they would come soon and asked me to study well. I used to believe this and waited for them to come. It was only after I became an adult that I came to know about the crime they had committed and that they would not be able to come since they were in jail. I was angry and loathed the two of them,” Harithra had said.
Earlier, the Madras High Court released Nalini on parole for 52 days to make the marriage arrangements of Harithra.
I want to begin anew: Nalini
“I am not overly happy. Even after 32 years, my husband is not with me. He has been moved to a camp for foreigners. I saw him being moved to the camp. I could not accept it. I feel as if the freedom that I got has been shattered. We and our daughter want all of us to be together for life,” Nalini told the media after she was released from prison.
Since Murugan is a Sri Lankan citizen, he had been shifted to a camp for foreigners. Nalini had visited Murugan when she was released on parole in 2019.
Their meeting lasted 45 minutes. The two of them, who had run away from the site of the blast in Sriperumbudur in 1991, were arrested the next month. For the next 31 years, they were in jail.
Nalini became acquainted with Murugan when she was working as a stenographer in a private establishment after completing her BA in English from Ethiraj College in Chennai.
The brother of a girl who worked in Nalini’s office was a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sympathiser. It was through him that Murugan grew close to Nalini.
It was a time when LTTE militants, who had come from Sri Lanka, were trying to persuade local Tamils to their support their cause.
Soon, the friendship between Murugan and Nalini turned into love.
Not much later, they got married. It was just days prior to the explosion that Nalini came to know that she was pregnant. Nalini’s advocate argued in the court that the LTTE had used her as a smokescreen.
Nalini too averred that she was not part of the plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. She admitted that she was with the group and that she knew the Tamil militant group was planning to carry out something serious.
Nalini’s brother too stated that she had come to know of the plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi only at the last minute.
The courts that upheld her conviction held that though Nalini had come to know about the conspiracy only at the last moment, she could not be absolved of her role in the crime.
Nalini’s brother Bagyanathan and mother Padma were also arrested along with her. They were acquitted in 1998.
The day after the death sentences imposed on all the convicts were commuted to life term in jail in 2014, the then Jayalalithaa regime had decided to release all of them, but the Centre opposed the move.
The ruling by the Supreme Court that the State Government could not release them without the Centre’s concurrence was a setback to Nalini.
Nalini, who had been worn out by the prolonged legal battle, submitted letters to the Prime Minister, Madras High Court Chief Justice, and the State Government in 2019, demanding that the authorities end their lives through mercy killing.
When another convict in the case, A G Perarivalan, was freed by the Supreme Court in May this year, hope dawned for Nalini.
As soon as Nalini heard of her release, she thanked everyone.
She said it was 30 years since she was separated from her daughter and wanted to see her as soon as possible. “What else is left in my life?” she asked.
“I apologise to them (the family of Rajiv Gandhi). What else can I do? My husband and I have been thinking over this for the past many years. Forgive us. I do not think that they are going to meet us again. That time has passed. It is not likely that I will meet them or they will meet us. They lost their loved one. I hope they will recover from the tragedy completely. I have nothing now. I need to start all anew,” Nalini added.