Nalini and the plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi

How she unwittingly became a pawn in the multi-cornered Tamil Nadu Assembly poll.

 |  7-minute read |   21-05-2016
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Twenty-five years ago to the day, May 21, 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber. It is impossible to gauge how the assassination of Rajiv, then just 46, changed Indian political history.

Would Rajiv have made a better second-term prime minister had he been re-elected in the 1991 Lok Sabha poll? Would the reformist Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo have been rendered irrelevant? Would Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, who himself turns 46 on June 19, have stayed out of public life?

Questions, questions. And of course there can be no definite answers. One thing though is certain: for all his faults, Rajiv disliked dynastic politics. He was a reluctant dynast himself and would have been mortified at the feudal lock dynasty now has over the Congress.

Also read: What I wrote after Rajiv Gandhi’s death has eerily come close to being a reality

But it is Rajiv's assassination by the LTTE that remains the defining tragedy for the Gandhi family. Serving a life sentence for her role in the assassination, Nalini Sriharan received a 24-hour parole from the Madras High Court to complete the final rites for her father who passed away recently.

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Nalini Sriharan.

Nalini unwittingly became a pawn in the multi-cornered Tamil Nadu Assembly poll. The DMK wanted her released from jail. Rahul Gandhi has left the politically tricky decision to the Narendra Modi government. The Congress state unit of Tamil Nadu doesn't want Nalini to be released at all.

Anti-Sinhala sentiment is strong in Tamil Nadu. It plays a significant role in the state's binary politics. Sympathy for Nalini, a key team member in the LTTE plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, is growing.

Also read - Five mistakes of Rajiv Gandhi that Rahul must learn from

A few years ago in a television interview, Priyanka Gandhi, sitting beneath a tree with her interviewer, said she and the Gandhi family forgave Nalini (whom she had earlier met in prison) and would be happy to see her released. Rahul was against the move at the time but, five years later, seems ambivalent.

What role exactly did Nalini play in Rajiv's assassination? An edited excerpt from my biography of Rajiv Gandhi, published by Viking-Penguin, throws light on this controversial member of the LTTE's assassination squad:

The plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, was conceived deep in the jungles of north-east Sri Lanka, the impregnable hideout of V Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE. Prabhakaran summoned four hand-picked lieutenants to his jungle hideout. Each would play a key role in the plot to assassinate Rajiv. The four men were Shivarasan (popularly known as the "one-eyed Jack"), Murugan, Baby Subramaniyam and Muthuraja.

While Murugan and Shivarasan waited in Jaffna, Subramaniyam and Muthuraja turned their attention to a photographic firm in Madras called Shubha News and Photo Agency. The agency was an LTTE hotbed. It was owned by a portly fifty-five year-old photographer named Shubha Sundaram. The two LTTE men chose a 25-year-old man to be their first target for local recruitment. His name was Bhagyanathan. Bhagyanathan's sister, Nalini, worked in a private firm as a secretary; his mother, Padma, was a nurse at the Kalyani Nursing Home. Bhagyanathan's entire family would soon step into the LTTE's trap.

During April and May 1991, the core group - comprising Shrivarasan, Murugan, Arivu, suicide bomber Dhanu, Shubha and the three local "innocents" Bhagyanathan, Nalini and Padma - went over the plot in minute detail. The assassination team met at Nalini's house on the evening of May 20. The decision to proceed was finalised.

The fatal rally

On the afternoon of May 21, three members of the core team visited Sriperumbudur on a brief reconnaissance mission where Rajiv was scheduled to address a Congress election rally that evening. At 5pm Dhanu and Shivarasan, accompanied by Nalini and Shubha, met the photographer Haribabu at Parry's Corner near Madras city's main bus terminal.

The five boarded a bus for Sriperumbudur and reached there just after dusk even as Rajiv was flying from Vishakapatnam to Madras. Shubha and Nalini, dressed in colourful saris, sat with the crowd in the women's section and waited for Rajiv's arrival. Shivarasan, wearing a white kurta-pyjama and holding an empty notepad, wandered near the dais.

Haribabu and Dhanu, in her orange salwar-kameez and green dupatta, waited near the red carpet Rajiv would walk on, along the mud path between the national highway and the palm-fringed dry tank where the rally was to be held.

As Rajiv's motorcade arrived, a few minutes after 10pm, Dhanu moved away from Haribabu. Shrivarasan moved closer to Dhanu.

For the LTTE hit team, Rajiv's progress toward the dais was excruciatingly slow. They could see, a hundred meters away, the crowd that surrounded his car after he had garlanded his mother's statue. Five minutes went by as a young Tamil boy's entreaties for help in a personal matter were translated for Rajiv.

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Rajiv Gandhi at the Sriperumbudur rally.

Finally, Rajiv began walking across the red carpet towards the dais. Dhanu positioned herself in the queue behind three others, waiting to garland Rajiv. Shivarasan stood to her left, about eight feet away. Nalini and Shubha remained at the back in the women's section. Haribabi was a few feet to Dhanu's right, about to start shooting the fateful photographs that preceded the assassination.

As Rajiv accepted garlands from various well-wishers, Dhanu squeezed her way between two other women, Latha and Kokila. She kept her eyes firmly on Rajiv. As Kokila recited her poem, Dhanu waited two feet behind her. When Kokila had finished, Dhanu moved forward towards Rajiv with the garland, but a woman constable put a hand up in front of her. Rajiv turned to the constable, Anusuya, and smiled. "Let everyone have a turn," he said. "Don't worry. Relax." They were to be his last words.

As he turned towards Dhanu, she placed the sandalwood garland Haribabu had bought from Poompuhar earlier that afternoon around his neck. Rajiv smiled as he took off the garland to hand it over to a Congress worker on his right. Dhanu knelt to touch his feet.

Rajiv bent down slightly in a gesture to lift Dhanu up. At that moment, Dhanu looked at the woman constable who had moved a few feet away and smiled at her. Then, still half-bent, she pressed the second toggle switch.

The explosion ripped her own body in half. Her severed head landed several feet away. Haribabu, whose camera recorded the last blinding flash, fell in a mangled heap.

Rajiv took the full force of the impact on his face and chest.

Nalini on the run

Back in Sriperumbudur, at the scene of the devastation, there was chaos. Shivarasan, who had positioned himself near the dais when the explosion occurred, ran to where Nalini and Shubha stood transfixed. He hired an autorickshaw and bundled the two women into it. At Poonamalle, the three took another autorickshaw to Jaykumaran and Shivarasan's house in Porur.

During interrogation, Bhagyanathan was identified as Nalini's brother. He and his mother, Padma, were arrested on June 11. Bhagyanathan confessed to having sheltered Shivarasan and identified him from the photograph taken by Haribabu moments before the blast. He also identified Baby Subramaniyam.

Nalini and Murugan however, escaped before the SIT arrived. Nalini, using a spare key, had let herself into her office on Sunday and left behind a resignation letter. She went home, packed her bags and fled along with Murugan, who she wanted to marry in Tirupathi. The two headed for the coast. The heavily patrolled coastal region, however, gave them no cover and the pair was forced to return to Madras. They were arrested as they got off a state transport bus at 11.20pm on June 14 near Villupuram in the South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu.

Under further interrogation, Murugan confessed that he had fallen in love with Nalini. She was pregnant. The two had reached the coastal tip of Mandapam near Rameshwaram after fleeing from Sriperumbudur. There they had waited for one of the LTTE's boats to ferry them to Jaffna. However, security patrols forced then back to Madras where they fell into the SIT's trap.

Nalini was escorted back to the special prison for women in Vellore in March 2016 under heavy security after her 24-hour parole ended. There is little doubt though that the demand for her release will grow among both the DMK and AIADMK cadres tapping into parochial Tamil sentiment.

Also read - 7 reasons Tamil Nadu voted for Jayalalithaa again

The Congress will continue to walk a tightrope. While Sonia and Rahul remain ambivalent, the state Congress unit in Tamil Nadu will oppose her release. Nalini's fate could ultimately lie with Jayalalithaa as she begins, after her electoral victory this week, what might well be her final term as chief minister.

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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