A. G. Perarivalan | A troubled past, but a fresh start 

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Perarivalan has seen both the harsh side of the penal system in the form of lengthy imprisonment and its potential for reform and redemption

Perarivalan has seen both the harsh side of the penal system in the form of lengthy imprisonment and its potential for reform and redemption

Arrested at the age of 19 by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the CBI for his involvement in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination,A.G. Perarivalan (Arivu) has a life story that consists of only two phases: a short spell spent in the service of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an association that upended his life before he was out of his teens and sent him to the brink of the gallows; and the rest is imprisonment. The whirligig of time has now taken him to a new era of freedom, and possibly a new beginning at the age of 50. He has the advantage of a largely welcoming society, and the situation is quite far from the day his lawyer in court had to plead for leniency on the ground that he was too low in the LTTE scheme of things to be a conspirator.

“He was merely an errand boy, and was following the instructions of Sivarasan, and he himself had no active role to play,” argued senior advocate N. Natarajan on his behalf in the Supreme Court. The reference was to Raghuvaran alias Sivarasan, whose real name was Packiachandran, who was sent by the LTTE leadership to organise Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, and who recruited a host of sympathisers for the purpose. Given the overwhelming evidence, Arivu’s defence was largely aimed at extricating him from the conspiracy and disavowing any knowledge of its objective.

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The son of Gnanasekaran, a retired teacher and a poet who wrote under the pseudonym Kuyildasan, Arivu belonged to a well-known family in Jolarpet town in northern Tamil Nadu. His teens coincided with a time when sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause was at its zenith. Organised pogroms against Tamils in Sri Lanka, a huge inflow of refugees into Tamil Nadu, the despatch of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the commencement of hostilities between the IPKF and the LTTE, were all factors that made it a topic of great interest in the State. Circumstances so conspired that Arivu came into contact with Bhagyanathan, a co-accused who was acquitted on involvement in the conspiracy by the Supreme Court and brother of key conspirator Nalini, as well as active LTTE cadre Sriharan alias Murugan. Bhagyanathan ran a printing press for Baby Subramaniam, a high-ranking LTTE leader, in Chennai, and Arivu also began working for the organisation.

A turning point in his life came when he made a clandestine visit to Sri Lanka with Irumborai, another accused freed by the Supreme Court, and Baby Subramaniam.

The CBI said in its filings in court that Arivu met LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. In March 1991, Arivu accompanied Murugan on a visit to Vellore Fort and prison, where some LTTE cadre were detained. Sivarasan recruited him for the Rajiv Gandhi plot in April that year. Three overt acts are attributed to Arivu during this phase: he bought a motorcycle for Sivarasan, a 12-volt car battery that was used to power a wireless set and a pair of 9-volt batteries that were ultimately used in the belt bomb that assassin Dhanu set off to kill Rajiv Gandhi and many others, including nine policemen.

The wireless set was a powerful one that was installed in one of the safe-houses used by the team and was recovered by the SIT from the kitchen of a house where it was buried in a pit.

Arivu attended two public meetings in the run-up to the general elections. One was in April 1991 on the Marina Beach addressed by Rajiv Gandhi and AIADMK leader J. Jayalalithaa. The next one was at Nandanam in Chennai, where former Prime Minister V.P. Singh was the main speaker. The latter was quite significant as it was a dry run for the assassination. Besides Nalini and Murugan, the assassin-to-be Dhanu and Subha, her standby, were both present.

Black book

The judgment of Justice D.P. Wadhwa notes that Arivu removed material relating to the LTTE from one place to a safer one in April 1991. During the investigation, among the objects recovered was a ‘black book’ “which depicted the electric circuit identical to the electric circuit in the reconstructed explosive device... used by Dhanu to trigger the blast”. It then added that he was a diploma holder in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering. Even though the battery was the purported link to the assassination, the picture of the circuit found in the book may have also been a factor.

“He was under the complete domination of Sivarasan and did not understand the implications of the various jobs entrusted to him... he does not deserve the extreme penalty... being also a paid employee of the LTTE,” the defence lawyer had submitted.

During the trial and appeal hearings, the portion of his confessional statement relating to the purpose of the battery was treated as evidence. Defence counsel argued that his statement that this was the battery used in the explosive device was “knowledge derived after the event”, but the Supreme Court rejected it. It was many years later that a Superintendent of Police who recorded his statement made a startling admission that he had left out the “exculpatory portion” of what Arivu had said: that he purchased the battery but was unaware that it was going to be used in a bomb. The evidence related to that one overt act that could solidly prove prior knowledge of the assassination plot was now shown to be embellished or improved, leading to a widespread impression that he was innocent.

There is no doubt that he was part of the network that aided Sivarasan in his task, but doubts will always linger about how much of the conspiracy or the identity of the target was known to each member.

His entire youth has been spent in prison on a charge of such gravity that the weight of guilt, or the shock of wronged innocence, would have taken a heavy physical and mental toll of anyone. He does have a list of ailments. As a free man today, Arivu has been conversing with reporters, highlighting the role of his indefatigable mother, Aruputham, in campaigning for long years for his release, thanking lawyers and the media. Granted parole only a couple times during his nearly 31-year-long incarceration, he was out on bail in the weeks before the Supreme Court’s verdict ordering his release.

Conduct in prison

Arivu’s conduct in prison has been exemplary, as noted by various authorities and courts. He sought to spend his time usefully, gathering educational qualifications and skills. He developed an interest in the power of the Right to Information Act and repeatedly used it to gain insight into the workings of the remission system. It is obvious that he is being honest when he underscores that he had always had faith in the judiciary. He moved several courts and authorities from time to time. He takes pride in the fact that he once spoke over the phone with the jurist, late V.R. Krishna Iyer, and that he blessed him. He mentions even Justice (Retd.) K.T. Thomas, one of the three judges confirmed his death sentence, as one of those who supported his release in recent years.

For one who has spent long years in solitary confinement with nothing but brick walls to stare at, and for one who was an under-trial on terrorism charges for a capital offence for eight years and a death row convict for nearly 15, he does exude an absence of rancour and a mood of optimism. Perhaps, the extraordinary political support and public sympathy for his plight and misfortune have contributed to his lack of bitterness; or, perhaps, it is the assurance of freedom and the possibility that he is unlikely to face social stigma of the sort that other former prisoners face in life. He has seen the harsh side of a penal system that allows lengthy imprisonment, as well as its potential for reform and redemption, thanks to which he breathes the air of freedom.

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