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The assassin letters
Last week, the Madras High Court dismissed Rajiv Gandhi assassin Nalini Sriharan's plea for early release and said, "She had committed a crime which was cunning in conception, meticulous in plans and reckless in execution, taking away the life of the former Prime Minister. '' It was a damning indictment of Nalini's role in one of the ghastliest political assassinations the country has seen.
The court order was the culmination of a due process of law though it shattered Nalini's dreams of freedom. But the saga is not just an open-and-shut legal case. It's also an extraordinary tale of a unique relationship between two women whose lives changed dramatically on that fateful day in May 1991 when Rajiv Gandhi was blown apart by a human bomb in Sriperumbudur.
For 19 years, Nalini and Sonia Gandhi have been caught in a strange bond, albeit entirely through letters written by the former from her bleak prison cell in Vellore. Time and again, Nalini has thrown herself at Sonia's mercy to beg for help and, remarkably, the Congress president has responded to her passionate pleas.
A careful tracking of the correspondence shows that Sonia intervened on Nalini's behalf at two critical junctures in the latter's life. In November 1999, she sought a private meeting with then President K R Narayanan requesting him to commute the death sentence to life imprisonment so that the LTTE militant's seven-year old daughter Megara, alias Arithra, was saved the agony of being orphaned.
Recalls Guild of Service founder Mohini Giri, who was then chairperson of the National Commission for Women and acted as the interlocutor between Sonia and Nalini, "( Sonia Gandhi) told me at that time that as long as it didn't involve interfering with the law, she, as a mother, would not like to see any child suffer. She was very sympathetic about Nalini's baby. ''
That singular event marked the beginning of their extraordinary relationship with Sonia stepping in again in late 2005 to facilitate Megara's visit to India to meet her imprisoned parents. Megara was living at that time in Sri Lanka with her paternal grandmother who had taken her away shortly after Nalini and her husband Murugan were sentenced to death in 1998. As soon as the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, Nalini launched an intense campaign to get her daughter over to India so that she could see the little girl again. When all efforts failed, she dispatched a letter to Sonia through Giri, pleading for help. "You can only understand our struggle to see our 14-year-old daughter for whom I and my husband live, '' she wrote.
Some months later, Megara was granted permission to come to India and she was finally reunited with her parents. According to Giri, she has been living with Nalini's parents in India ever since and in 2007 the Madras High Court directed the government to treat her as an Indian citizen. In a rare interview from jail via e-mail, Nalini was quoted saying that she wants Megara to be a software engineer.
In recent years, Nalini has displayed a mounting desperation to be released from jail. She has flooded authorities with petitions and sent copies to Giri with frantic appeals to pass them on to Sonia for her intervention. She argued that having completed 14 years in jail, she was entitled to seek early release/amnesty. "I have spent the longest years (in prison) among political prisoners. Even in Shri Mahatma Gandhi's case and Smt Indira Gandhi's case, prisoners awarded the life term served only 14 years and were released, '' she said in a letter dated Oct 15, 2007, addressed to the Union minister of state for home with copies to Giri and Sonia.
The response from 10 Janpath was completely unexpected. On March 19, 2008, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra travelled to Vellore for a private meeting with Nalini. As the subsequent rejection of Nalini's petition for early release proved, the family had no intention of interfering with the legal process, but it did reach out to Nalini in the most heartwarming manner. What transpired between Priyanka and her father's assassin is their private business, but later Nalini told her lawyer that she was finally "at peace' ' with herself.
It certainly seems so because since then Nalini has stopped writing letters. "I have not heard from her since October 2007, '' Giri said. "Maybe she doesn't need our help any more. ''
The encounter with Nalini has been intense for Giri too. She sought permission to meet Nalini when she visited Vellore jail as part of a nationwide tour of Indian prisons during her term as NCW chairperson. Something about Nalini struck a chord in her, Giri said, and they kept in touch. Nalini wrote to her frequently and would often inquire about Sonia and her children. "I got the impression that she wanted to repent for her crime, '' Giri said.
After Sonia's personal intervention gave her a lease of life, Nalini became bolder and would ask Giri to convey her regards or pass on letters to 10 Janpath. "I did what Nalini asked. After all, I had to remain true to someone who depended on me and called me 'mother', '' she declared. Giri made sure that Sonia was kept abreast of developments in Nalini's life, further strengthening the bond between them.
The last chapter in the Nalini saga is yet to be written. But perhaps her relationship with Sonia has served its purpose and helped both come to terms with their personal tragedies.
NALINI SRIHARAN Assassin, MCA, nutrition expert
Nalini Sriharan has earned the distinction of being the first prisoner to get a Master's degree in computer applications (MCA) while serving a jail term. She passed her exams with flying colours, bagging 75 per cent marks and was awarded the degree by the Indira Gandhi National Open University in 2009.
Already a graduate when she was arrested and imprisoned in 1991, Nalini has spent the last 19 years studying and acquiring new skills. Her achievements include a certificate course in food and nutrition, another in computer education, a preparatory programme in computer applications, a diploma in computer studies and a certificate course in tailoring.
Sonia Gandhi, in fact, congratulated Nalini in 2002 for her diligence. Gandhi's private secretary Saurendra K Gupta wrote to Mohini Giri thanking her for apprising the Congress president of "the present status of Nalini''. He added that Gandhi "has also conveyed her congratulations to Nalini for completing the certificate course and wishes her well. ''
Giri, though, feels that Vellore jail authorities should put Nalini's education to use in the prison. "She could be asked to teach computers to other inmates or to children in reform homes. It would make her useful and give her a purpose in life, '' she said.
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