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Tamils challenge Indian government over plans to hang 3 men in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination

[The Washington Post, Tuesday, 18 October 2011 11:57 No Comment]

Across most of India the three men on death row for the 1991 assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi are reviled as murderous traitors to the nation. But many Tamils, a major ethnic group in southern India, see things very differently.

A recent decision to deny clemency for the three has sparked angry protests and pitted Tamil Nadu state leaders against the central government, testing loyalties in India’s multiethnic federation of 1.2 billion people speaking more than 60 languages.

“These three people, everybody knows they are innocent,” said Veerappan, 37, who goes by one name. He brought his Tamil Liberty Group for the Blind to join a rolling hunger strike in Chennai to save the men on death row. “If they can hang them then they can take anybody off to prison. Tamils around the globe must get informed and join this fight.”

Outside the state, some worry that showing mercy to the three would encourage other militants, including a Kashmiri death row inmate convicted in the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament and a Sikh separatist facing the gallows for a car bombing that killed nine.

For Tamils, the issue revolves around their relations with the recently defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in neighboring Sri Lanka. Indian Tamils had initially supported the group, with India even helping to train it in the 1980s. But the relationship soured after Gandhi sent peacekeepers to Sri Lanka and they became embroiled in battles with the rebels. The Tamil Tigers branded Gandhi an enemy and ordered his assassination.

In May 1991, a female suicide assassin with a garland of sandalwood beads and a bomb strapped to her chest waited for Gandhi to approach her during a campaign rally in India’s Tamil Nadu state and detonated her explosives, killing 18 in all.

The attack horrified the nation and virtually ended support for the Tamil Tigers. But the rebels’ 2009 routing by Sri Lanka after a gory 25-year civil war has revived Indian Tamils’ sympathy for their ethnic brethren.

That sympathy is now being directed toward the trio in Vellore Prison, who received a temporary stay of execution on Aug. 30. Their lawyers argue that executing them now — after they have served 20 years in prison — would amount to an unconstitutional double punishment. A ruling is expected soon.

After the killing of Gandhi, Tamils felt Indian society put them “into a guilty mode, as if we were all somehow involved in the assassination,” said 35-year-old Thiru Muragan. Like others he shunned the rebels for years, but changed his views after Sri Lanka’s war ended, founding the radical May 17 Movement named for the date of the Tamil Tigers’ defeat. “I am no longer an Indian. I am a Tamil. I have learned now that you cannot be both.”

The Vellore Three, as the men are known, were among 26 convicted of playing minor roles in the assassination, though they deny knowing anything about the plot.

Indian national Arivu Perarivalan was accused of buying a 9-volt battery used in the bomb, while Sri Lankans Muragan and Santhan — who use only one name — acknowledge they were Tamil Tigers, but only pawns in a larger game they barely understood.

[Full Coverage]

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