On June 11, 2018, Perarivalan will be completing 27 years of imprisonment; eight years more than what he spent outside prison. Perarivalan was just 19 when on June 11, 1991 he was arrested in the assassination case of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, he was handed over to the police by his own parents who were assured that the teenager would be sent back the ‘next day’ after a small interrogation. After 27 years, his parents are still waiting for that ‘next day’ to dawn.
Today, Perarivalan, also known as Arivu, is a household name in Tamil Nadu. It was not so when he was taken away by the CBI in 1991 for investigation. The CBI did not release him the next day as assured and did not even allow his mother to meet him. His whereabouts were not known for the next 59 days. The parents were hesitant to file a Habeas Corpus writ as they feared it would publicise the fact that Arivu was in police custody. All these thoughts were based on the hope that their son will be released soon as he did not commit any crime. Their hope was on the judicial system of India. Their hope was that an innocent will not be punished. It is this hope that Arivu and his parents are carrying with them in this 27-year-long legal battle. They have knocked all doors possible to prove his innocence. They are still knocking.
But this hope has not been shattered just once. Every time it is shattered, they gather their strength again and start from scratch. Their strength comes from the truth that they hold. The truth that Arivu has nothing to do with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
The charge on Arivu was that he bought and supplied a 9-volt battery which was used to detonate the bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi. A 9-volt battery is something that is commonly available in petty shops. And evidence on this charge was a testimony by a shopkeeper stating that Arivu bought the battery from his shop. It is indeed a surprise that a petty shop owner remembers all that is purchased from him and by whom even after several months. It is even more surprising to note that CBI found the receipt of this purchase in Arivu’s pocket when they arrested him months after the purchase. Other evidence is the confessional statement given by Arivu himself, which was recorded.
The case was filed under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act [TADA]. Under this act a confessional statement recorded by a police officer is accepted as evidence. But we know what methods the police use to make those in custody act according to their wishes. Perarivalan too was subject to third degree physical and psychological abuses to sign already written papers as well as blank sheets. As per records, the confession statement that is in his name states that he bought the battery and gave it to the mastermind of the crime, Sivarasan. And it is based on this confession statement that he was given the death penalty.
But after 26 years, on October 27, 2017, ex-CBI officer V. Thiagarajan (then SP, retired as ADGP) filed an affidavit in Supreme Court stating that he was the one who recorded the confession statement of Perarivalan and that he omitted a part of the confession statement. And what was that part? “I have absolutely no idea of the purpose for which the batteries he bought would be used for”. What is the importance of this part if it had been recorded? Thiagarajan himself states that if that portion had been recorded, a “mere act” of providing nine volt batteries would not make Perarivalan privy to the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi.
Thiagarajan continues that “the CBI was not sure about the part played by Perarivalan, but his ignorance about the conspiracy was confirmed as the investigation into the assassination progressed”. Thiagarajan referred to a wireless message of May 7, 1991 from mastermind Sivarasan to LTTE top operative ‘Pottu Amman’ in which the former said “our intention is not known to anybody except we three” — himself, Subha and Dhanu, the suicide bomber. The wireless message makes it clear that Perarivalan was not taken into confidence.
So, it was purely based on the confession statement on record that Perarivalan was sentenced to death and is still languishing in prison for the past 27 years. Now the authenticity of this confession statement is broken after 26 years. Had he been executed based on the verdict of death sentence, the truth that has been revealed today by the ex-CBI officer would not have brought back his life.
“Will this truth give him at least his remaining life?” is the question that the decision makers need to answer.
Perarivalan, who is now 46 years old, has spent the prime 27 years of his life in prison, of which 23 years was in solitary confinement as a prisoner on death row. His date of execution was fixed several times. He had gone through third-degree physical and psychological abuses in police custody. But none of these could take his smile away from him.
Twenty-seven years is indeed a very long period in human life. Perarivalan’s sister got married a year after his detention. Her children, now working as software professionals, stand as a testament of the time that Arivu has lost. Imprisonment this long can can take the senses out of a man, but Arivu stands tough, matured and cheerful.
Having been brought up in a simple family as the son of a school teacher, in the small town of Jolarpet, his arrest was indeed a huge blow both to him as well as his family. But he did not fall. Neither did he let his family fall. He continues his battle for justice, with smile and strength.
He drafts documents for his case along with his legal counselors. He awes visitors by updating them with what is happening in the outside world in different fields, including science, politics, sports and medi.
He wrote his Class XII exam and passed with 91.33%, as the topper among all the prisoners who have ever appeared for the exam. He secured a gold medal in a diploma course conducted by the Tamil Nadu Open University. He continued to complete his Masters in Computer Applications.
He tutors those who are appearing for various exams from prison. He runs a music band with his co-prisoners. He charms everyone around him with his friendly smile and pleasant manners. This includes high ranked police officials to constables on duty, convicts with life sentence to those coming in for petty cases. Inspired by him, an ex-convict Ponnappan runs an educational trust in Kanchipuram to educate underprivileged children. The trust is named after him, as the ‘Perarivalan Educational Trust’. There are number of children all over Tamil Nadu named after him.
He has also imbibed high blood pressure and other health issues due to prolonged confinement.
Today there is a mass people’s movement seeking his release. The travel from being known as just a convict in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case to a household name in the state did not happen overnight. And behind all this stands a woman, who is fondly called as ‘Arivamma’(Mother of Arivu) by thousands of people in Tamil Nadu.
Arivu’s mother Arputham, who has spent all these 27 years thinking of nothing other than her son’s release, is 71 years of age now. Her eyesight is affected. The years of physical and mental toil is showing up in her body. Until her son’s arrest, she was just for her family. But she rose up to the occasion after the arrest. She stood strongly with her son giving him all the physical and moral support. All these 27 years, she has not missed a week to visit him, despite her health issues. She even visited him on a cyclone day. She served as the window through which Arivu knew things that media could not convey. And on the other hand, she also serves as the window through which the world saw and understood Arivu.
Even those who cannot recall Perarivalan’s face remember Arputham. She ran between prisons, courts and advocate offices. She knows only Tamil. But she went all around the country meeting human rights defenders explaining the innocence of her son and seeking their support. She stands now as a symbol of determination in Tamil Nadu.
Her strong belief that her son will be released because he is innocent, is the test for all those who believe in democracy and a just society. It is a test for the Indian Judiciary. Justice has already been heavily delayed. Will we be able to ensure that the mother spends at least the rest of her life with her son beside her?