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How Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination changed the politics of Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu

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Thirty years ago, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in Tamil Nadu’s Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991 by a suicide bomber (Dhanu/Thenmozhi Rajarathinam) belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Gandhi was scheduled to address an election rally and campaign for Congress’s candidate, Maragatham Chandrasekar.

Dhanu triggered an explosive-laden belt she was wearing as she bent down to touch Rajiv Gandhi’s feet. Sixteen people, including Rajiv Gandhi and Dhanu, were killed in the blast and around 45 persons were critically injured. The LTTE had orchestrated the assassination to avenge Gandhi’s decision to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to intervene in the country between 1987 and 1990 during its three-decade long civil war.

The LTTE, also known as Tamil Tigers, was founded in May 1976 by Velupillai Prabhakaran and led the insurgency for an independent nation for Tamils. The LTTE leveraged genuine issues of linguistic discrimination, political disenfranchisement and anti-Tamil riots in the island nation where Sinhalese-Buddhists are a majority — but adopted the politics of violence and terror as the method to attain their objective. And it was this terror that cost India’s former PM his life.

Gandhi’s assassination, in fact, marked the middle of a bloodied story that began as an ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka after it became independent from the British in 1948 and turned into a civil war in the 1980s, which ended only in 2009 with the Sri Lankan military wiping out the LTTE. But his death was a significant turning point in this story, where what was unequivocal Tamil solidarity from across the Palk Straits shifted away from the LTTE, changing both the politics of Sri Lanka and of Tamil Nadu.

The erosion of cross-border Tamil solidarity

“The assassination was a setback for not only pro-Eelam forces but also for Tamil nationalists,” says Thiyagu (who goes only by a first name), general secretary, Tamil National Liberation Movement. “Doing away with him was an act of revenge because people were aggrieved with the IPKF. It was a political blunder by whoever did it.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the peak of the war, it was common for LTTE leaders to even stay in the homes of their supporters in Tamil Nadu. Civil society had been sympathetic to the Tamil cause. Dravidian party leaders including M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and MG Ramachandran, founder of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK later renamed AIADMK), were close to Prabahakaran who stayed often in Chennai during his visits. LTTE also had had units in Tamil Nadu. Vaiko, founder of DMDK, then a Rajya Sabha member of DMK, had gone to Sri Lanka to meet with LTTE leadership.

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“Tamil Nadu was a supply chain for the LTTE in terms of food, petroleum and textile needs. Soon after the assassination, this support got drained. Common people began viewing the conflict differently,” says Ramu Manivannan, head, politics and public administration, University of Madras. “Only parties like the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) remained as a source of political support for the issue in Sri Lanka particularly for the LTTE.”

The application of anti-terrorist laws in the next two decades kept all militant support to the Eelam issue on the leash, says retired Madras high court justice K Chandru. “Only the humanitarian help to refugees and prisoners continued,” he says.

The political impact in Tamil Nadu

Politically, the DMK bore the aftermath of the assassination the most, even though the then Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar had dismissed the DMK-led state government in January 1991 by invoking Article 356 for “law and order deterioration”. Later, his principal secretary SK Misra claimed, in his book, Flying in High Winds, that the ouster was due to links between the DMK and the LTTE gathered by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB).

The DMK denied the accusations. “We weren’t even in power at that time and we were blamed for the asssassination,” says DMK MP and veteran leader TKS Elangovan. “We were in favour of a native homeland for Tamils considering the human rights violations in Sri Lanka, not the LTTE. That stance hasn’t changed even today. After the war, MK Stalin and TR Balu met with the UNHCR in Geneva over the issue. Our fight is for the human rights of Tamils.”

President’s rule was imposed from January to June 1991 until Tamil Nadu went for assembly elections, in which the AIADMK-Congress swept the polls riding on the sympathy wave following the assassination and J Jayalalithaa became chief minister for the first time. It was DMK’s worst performance having won only two seats. “Rajiv Gandhi was expected to come to power in the 1991 general elections. The results showed that in his death, he was stronger than in his life,” says Thiyagu.

In the mid-1990s, the Justice Milap Chand Jain commission report held that the DMK had abetted Gandhi’s murderers. Karunanidhi had deposed before the commission in January 1997 and explained that though he had supported the LTTE along with other parties, he withdrew his support after the murder of K Padmanabha, leader of another militant group, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), in June 1990.

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Activists and political analysts term the report as resorting to double standards for absolving the AIADMK of helping the LTTE. “There are so many questions unanswered in the report. There was a considerable divide between the DMK and the LTTE even at that time,” says Manivannan. But there was a clear political fallout. The Congress withdrew support to the then I K Gujral led United Front government, of which DMK was a key constituent.

The endgame

In 2004, Gandhi’s wife, Sonia Gandhi became the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance of which the Congress was the largest party. The following year, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka. “That was a coincidence but subsequently they became allies,” says Manivannan.

In 2009, after the end of the war, Rajapaksa said that he fought India’s war by crushing the Tamil Tigers. “Since Sonia Gandhi took over the reins of the party, the Congress leadership was clear that at the right time they would look at a solution for Sri Lanka’s issue. The Congress had a dual line. It’s often been believed that the DMK was allowed to have a free reign between 2004 and 2009 at the Centre so that it didn’t create blockades to the Indian foreign policy,” added Manivannan.

But during the final stages of the war in 2009, Tamil nationalism saw a revival with public sentiment once again sympathetic towards the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka.

“People had moved on from the assassination and public perception was that India played an active role in the genocide of Tamils,” says Thiyagu. “It became an emotional issue and people were out on the streets calling for the war to stop.”

This was also accompanied by criticism of the DMK for having sided with the Congress. It lost the 2011 assembly polls, and got wiped out in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls — and while this was due to a set of complex domestic issues, including allegations of corruption, observers believe that the DMK’s stance on Sri Lanka also cost it popular support. Seeing a void, Tamil nationalist S Seeman floated the Naam Tamizhar Katchi with Prabhakaran as his idol and, in the 2021 polls, the party has emerged as the third largest after DMK and AIADMK.

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The Tamil issue continues to be a burning subject with a call for the 13th amendment — agreed upon in the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 that envisages more power for Tamils in provisional councils in Sri Lanka — to be implemented in letter and spirit. More recently, right before Tamil Nadu’s assembly polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government decided to abstain from voting in a UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka earlier in March this year against war-crimes committed against Tamils — those critics who wanted India to support Sri Lanka termed the move as dictated by the imperatives of politics of Tamil Nadu, while critics back in the state, who wanted India to vote against Sri Lanka, felt Delhi had once again given Colombo a reprieve at the cost of Tamil rights.

The fate of the convicts

The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi is also alive in the public sphere, with a debate over the release of the seven convicts in the case who are serving a life term inside prisons in Tamil Nadu. “After three decades there is hardly any strong view opposed to their release,” says Chandru, the retired HC chief justice.

On Thursday, Tamil Nadu’s new chief minister, MK Stalin, wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking to remit the life sentence of the seven convicts, and direct their immediate release. The seven convicts are Nalini Sriharan, Murugan, Santhan, AG Perarivalan, Jayakumar, Robert Payas, and P Ravichandran who are inside Tamil Nadu prisons.

“The majority of the political parties in Tamil Nadu have been requesting for the remission of the remainder of their sentence and for immediate release of all the seven convicts as they have been incarcerated for about three decades. It is also the will of the people of Tamil Nadu,” Stalin said in his letter.

Stalin pointed out Nalini Sriharan’s original death sentence was commuted to life under Article 161 of the Indian Constitution and the Supreme Court had also commuted the death sentence of three other convicts to life. In 2018, Tamil Nadu cabinet passed a unanimous resolution for the release of all seven and it was sent to Governor Banwarilal Purohit for his assent.

During a case hearing in the Supreme Court on Perarivalan’s remission, an affidavit submitted noted that Purohit was awaiting a report of the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to make his decision. But in subsequent hearings, CBI clarified that there was no connection between the remission of the sentence and investigation. The apex court also termed the Governor’s delay as “extraordinary”. However, in February earlier this year, Purohit refrained from taking a call on the matter and said that the President was the competent authority to make a decision.

Stalin recalled this and added that Purohit forwarded the state’s recommendation to the President. “These seven persons have already suffered untold hardship and agony in the past three decades and have paid a heavy price. There has already been an inordinate delay in the consideration of their pleas for remission. In the present circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, courts are also recognising the need to decongest prisons.”

On Wednesday, Stalin had granted a month’s ordinary leave for Perarivalan on medical grounds after considering an appeal from his mother Arputham Ammal that since Covid-19 is spreading fast in prisons, he was at a higher risk due to his health condition.

But even as the legal-political debate on the fate of the convicts plays out, perhaps the most poignant element of the story is the dynamic between the victim’s family and the convicts. Rajiv Gandhi’s family has forgiven the killers, and in March 2008, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra went to meet one of the convicts, Nalini Sriharan, in the Vellore jail. But beyond the family, 30 years later, the issue of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination remains inextricably linked to regional geopolitics, the mood in Tamil Nadu, the ethnic equations in Sri Lanka, and the central government’s security imperatives.

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