Bengaluru: The recently-forged alliance between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Pattali Makkal Kacchi (PMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tamil Nadu seems to have made Nalini Sriharan, one of the seven convicts in prison for the 1991 assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, more confident about the prospect of their release.
“Because of recent political development [sic], we have become more confident that the chief minister will make every effort to convince the governor about the desirability of our immediate release from prison. This is our last hope,” Nalini wrote in a letter to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapaddi Palaniswamy on 23 February.
The AIADMK-BJP-PMK alliance was finalised four days earlier, on 19 February.
Since 10 February, Nalini and her husband Murugan, also a convict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, have been on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the release of the seven conspirators. Nalini and Murugan claim to be innocent, saying they had no knowledge of the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi.
Their release is an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu, where the two major parties — the AIADMK and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — have both called for the seven to be freed, saying they were “minor accessories to the assassination”.
In September 2018, the AIADMK-led Tamil Nadu cabinet had approached Governor Banwarilal Purohit to seek their release, but the governor is yet to act on the demand, a fact Nalini cited in her letter to the Chief Minister.
“I am the longest-serving woman prisoner in India. All of us have served more than 27 years in prison as life convicts,” she wrote. “We have been expecting the order of your government every day. But we are disappointed every day after knowing that the Hon’ble Governor of Tamil Nadu is yet to sign the necessary proceedings.”
Two to one
The AIADMK-BJP-PMK coalition now consists of two partners that support the convicts’ release.
The PMK, in fact, entered the coalition with a 10-point charter of demands, which includes the release of the seven on “priority”.
The S. Ramadoss-led party is a relatively small player in Tamil Nadu — the PMK has no assembly seat and won just one of the eight seats it contested (the state has 39) in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in alliance with the BJP and five other parties.
However, it has considerable bargaining power in light of the simple arithmetic behind the alliance — the three parties’ 2014 vote-share totals 54 per cent — and the PMK’s influence among the Vanniyars of northern Tamil Nadu, who are spread in the Salem-Dharmapuri-Krishnagiri-Namakkal region.
The AIADMK, meanwhile, states that securing the freedom of the seven was a dream of their late leader and former chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa.
“It is a long-pending demand and the wish of our Amma (Jayalalithaa) that these seven convicts be pardoned,” AIADMK spokesperson Kovan Sathyanarayan told ThePrint.
“They have been languishing in jail for more than two decades now and now the governor will take a call,” he added, saying the AIADMK had “never used such emotions to garner votes”.
The BJP, however, is not on the same boat on the matter.
“The [BJP-led NDA government at the] Centre made it clear to the Supreme Court in August that the release of these convicts will lead to an international situation and they cannot be released,” said Tamil Nadu BJP spokesperson Thirupathy Narayanan, referring to the Centre’s refusal last year to clear their release.
According to sources in the Tamil Nadu government, the Governor is likely to sign the papers of their release in the first week of March.
Political analysts said the AIADMK would attempt to announce the release as a decision of the state government as soon as possible, lest they look like they have given in to a smaller party’s demands.
“If these convicts are released while the AIADMK are in power, it blunts the opposition, and they can say that they did what the DMK did not,” said political analyst Sumanth C. Raman.
“The Sri Lankan issue has been an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu and there has been a lot of hype built over it. It is likely that the AIADMK and the BJP will make most of this opportunity just before the Lok Sabha elections to lure votes,” he added.
Political commentator G. Sundararajan agreed, saying their release would be fraught with political significance in an election season. “If they wanted to release them, why delay it till now?” he asked.
“Clearly, the political parties want to use this issue this election to have a political edge over the DMK,” he added.
Rahul and Priyanka forgave them
Congress leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, aged 20 and 19 when their father was killed by a suicide bomber associated with the now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 1991, said they have forgiven the killers.
In March 2018, Congress president Rahul said during a media interaction that he and Priyanka had “completely” forgiven their father’s killers.
Ten years earlier, on 19 March 2008, Priyanka had met Nalini at Vellore jail. Speaking afterwards, Priyanka had described the meeting as one organised on her own personal initiative.
“It was my way of coming to peace with the violence and loss I have experienced,” Priyanka had said at the time.
However, the Congress does not hold the same stand as the Gandhi family, and oppose their release, a stand that has put them in a tight spot in Tamil Nadu, where they are allying with the DMK.
Speaking to The Print, Nalini’s lawyer P. Pugazhendi said the seven convicts were “unable to understand the delay behind the signing of papers enabling their release”.
“The seven convicts have spent most of their lives in prison,” he added.
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