India’s longest-serving woman prisoner, Nalini Sriharan, 52, came out on parole for 30 days from Vellore Central Prison on Thursday morning. This is the first time that Nalini has come out of prison on an ordinary parole since her arrest in June 1991, 28 years ago.
Brief emergency paroles granted to her in the past have lasted only a few hours — once for her brother’s wedding, and on another occasion after her father’s death in 2016.
Nalini was granted parole after her petition, in which she said she had to make arrangements for the wedding of her daughter, was accepted by the Madras High Court. Nalini’s daughter Harithra, a medical practitioner, lives in London.
With her mother and family
Instead of coming to her Royapettah home in Chennai city, Nalini will be living in Vellore during the parole period. Her lawyers said they have rented a house for her to spend a month along with her mother Padmavathi. Harithra, who was born in the prison, is expected to join her mother and grandmother.
Nalini’s sister Kalyani and her family, brother Bagyanathan and his family, and some of her close friends and relatives may be the only guests that Nalini entertains during her one-month parole period.
The family of Sriharan alias Murugan, Nalini’s husband from Sri Lanka, who is also a convict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, is also likely to visit Nalini along with Harithra.
The conditions of the parole prohibit her from meeting politicians, making public statements, and giving interviews to the media.
Sources close to her said her month outside prison would be spent entirely on making arrangements for the wedding. None of her close relatives know the details of the proposed wedding. They said they assumed that Harithra would have shared details with only her parents.
The Rajiv assassination case
Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991 was one of the most high profile cases of independent India. Several mysteries and the unproven conspiracy behind the murder are still being investigated by a Multidisciplinary Monitoring Agency that functions in coordination with the CBI and R&AW. Nalini was the only accused who was caught alive for her presence in Sriperumbudur when Rajiv was killed by an LTTE human bomb on May 21, 1991.
Nalini and Murugan, who remained in hiding for several days after the assassination, were arrested on June 15, 1991, from Chennai Saidapet bus stand.
After investigators found crucial evidence that suggested Nalini had accompanied Sivarasan and Subha, the main conspirators who committed suicide during an operation in Bangalore, and Dhanu, the human bomb, to several places before the assassination, massive search operations were conducted to find her.
Even though Nalini’s role in the conspiracy was a matter of debate among even the judges of the Supreme Court, her close association with Rajiv’s killers put her at the centre of the case.
In the absence of any of the main conspirators being caught alive, Nalini’s mother Padmavathi and brother Bagyanathan were among those who were sentenced to death by a TADA court in 1998. They were released by the Supreme Court in 1999; however, the court upheld the death sentence against Nalini, Murugan, and five others.
The case in the Supreme Court
While the majority in the three-judge Bench ruled that Nalini should be given capital punishment, Justice K T Thomas in his dissenting order observed, citing evidence, that Nalini had only been “an obedient participant without doing any dominating role”.
“She realised only at Sriperumbudur that Dhanu was going to kill Rajiv Gandhi. But she would not have dared to retreat from the scene because she was tucked into the tentacles of the conspiracy… She knew how Sivarasan and Santhan had liquidated those who did not stand by them,” Justice Thomas wrote.
In 2000, Nalini’s death sentence was commuted to life.
The context of the Nineties
This was a time when the average Tamil family in India had great sympathy for the LTTE and its struggle in Sri Lanka. Providing shelter or financial help to the Tigers or those sympathetic to the LTTE was considered to be a matter of pride, and visiting the fighters was a practice among many, including both ordinary people and senior politicians. Several prominent Tamil leaders organised public functions to hand over lakhs of rupees to the LTTE. That the Indian government had helped and trained the Tigers at one point was an open secret, and the guerrillas had significant legitimacy in the state.
Who was Nalini, a 24-year-old Tamil girl, in 1991?
A graduate in English language and Literature from Ethiraj College, Nalini was working with a private firm in Chennai. She was the eldest of three children born to Padmavathi, a nurse, and P Sankara Narayanan, a police inspector, who died in 2016.
Due to the marital problems between her parents, her childhood was not happy. Her father left home to live separately when she was a teenager; Nalini herself, as an undergraduate student, fought with her mother and went to live by herself with the support of a female relative in the city.
Unlike the other convicts in the case, neither Nalini nor her family had any political links. It was her brother Bagyanathan’s camaraderie with some friends that brought Murugan to her home.
While according to the prosecution, Murugan’s had visited India in order to execute the assassination, multiple versions, including the one in Nalini’s autobiography, say that he had come to get a VISA to go abroad to escape from war-stricken Killinochi, in northern Sri Lanka, to which he belonged.
What happens now
Nalini, along with the six other convicts in the case, continue the legal battle for a remission of their sentences.
The Tamil Nadu Cabinet had recommended to the Governor last year that all seven convicts undergoing life terms should be released. With the Governor’s decision being delayed, Nalini had petitioned the Madras High Court asking for a direction to Raj Bhavan to act on the decision of the Cabinet. However, the HC rejected the petition, saying it could not give directions to the Governor.
Nalini will now challenge the HC’s order in the Supreme Court. She will raise arguments of reformatory justice and the Governor’s alleged failure in his duty to take a decision on the Cabinet recommendation.