Here is a mother who has been living under the shadow of the gallows for over two long decades now. Her son, A G Perarivalan, an accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, has been sentenced to capital punishment.
After the secret executions of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru, Arputhammal, now in her mid-sixties, is even more fearful about the fate of her son, although she argues that there really is no comparison between the cases of Kasab and Guru, and that of her son.
Perarivalan has been languishing in solitary confinement for nearly 14 years and the Supreme Court is now hearing a petition whether the inordinate delays in dealing with such petitions is a basis to commute death sentences.
On May 21, 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at Sriperumbudur, near Chennai. On the night of June 10, 1991, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Central Bureau of Investigation visited Perarivalan’s house in Jolarpet, in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, to inquire into the case. Following this, on the morning of June 11, 1991, Arputhammal and her husband sent the boy with the CBI team to Periyar Thidal in Chennai for the inquiry. He was taken to the CBI office at Malligai with the assurance that he would be sent back home the next morning. When Arputhammal visited the CBI office the next day with a change of clothes for her son, she was told that the inquiry process was yet to be completed.
Perarivalan later wrote a book on his experiences and states that he was put under unlawful custody until June 19, 1991, and forced to sign a confessional statement. He was later booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA). His mother, meanwhile, waited for help, clueless about the right legal procedures. Many of Perarivalan’s friends whom she knew in the Periyar Thidal office of the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) in Chennai turned away, and those who cared seemed helpless.
The SIT charge sheeted 41 people in the case and Designated Court-1 sentenced 26 people to death on January 28, 1998. A year later, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court freed 19 and sentenced four people, including Perarivalan, to death. His mother notes that he was charged for providing a nine-volt battery cell, which could have been bought from any small shop. But that he was educated and had a diploma in electronics and communications engineering, factors that went against him.
In the two decades that followed, Arputhammal has remained stoic and determined to save her son from the gallows. Her memories of the fateful day when her son was taken away ,for questioning, have remained fresh in her mind because it was the day that turned her from being a homemaker to a passionate activist.
Uncertainty has dogged Perarivalan’s case. He has served 14 years in solitary confinement after being sentenced to death which Arputhammal feels is in itself inhuman. The President of India took nearly 11 years to reject his mercy petition and that of the two others accused in the case, Murugan and Santhan. The Supreme Court reconfirmed the death sentence for all three in 1999.
In August 2011, the Madras High Court stayed their executions for eight weeks. Senior Advocate Ram Jethmalani had argued before it that unless a delay was properly explained or justified, it makes the death penalty immoral, illegal, and unconstitutional. He quoted from various Supreme Court judgments to argue that an 11-year delay could be the sole ground to commute a death sentence.
In his appeal to the President of India, Perarivalan has pointed out the statement of chief investigative officer, Ragothaman, saying that investigators have not yet identified who made the belt-bomb used to assassinate the former prime minister. The case still remains unresolved and the entire judgment was based on the confessional statement signed by Perarivalan while in custody.
As her son waits anxiously to know his fate, Arputhammal waits with him. Her life has changed completely and now revolves around her son’s case. She sees that he is provided with the daily requirements of life, like toothbrushes, soaps, towels. She also makes sure that he gets newspapers and books because she believes it is important that Perarivalan remains up-to-date with national and international events. This engagement with the world, she feels, helps him cope with the anguish of being in solitary confinement. The mother and son share a deep emotional bond. In fact, whenever they meet, they discuss not just family matters but politics and current affairs. All through his distress, Arputhammal has stood by him in the belief that only a mother can genuinely fight for a son.
Arputhammal was married to a political activist and teacher, Kuyilnathan, at the age of 20. She spent the next 24 years of her life as a homemaker, looking after her children.
This bliss ended on the fateful day her son was picked up by the SIT team. Initially, Arputhammal was completely ignorant about the law. For instance, she was unaware of the implications of her son being detained under TADA, or that a person below 20 years could not be arrested under that law. It was only after she started reading the papers, that Perarivalan sent from prison for publishing in newspapers, that she realised the extent of the torture her son had undergone. While her husband remained unwell and unable to involve himself in the campaign to help his son, Arputhammal began to keenly note and read the laws and judgments passed in his case and those relating to the death penalty. Subsequently, she helped him publish his book, ‘An Appeal from the Death Row: Rajiv Murder Case – Truth Speaks’.
This fight for justice has also made Arputhammal very vocal and articulate. Today, she can reel off quotes of judges on capital punishment.
Realising that it is not enough to just demand her son’s acquittal she has taken up the larger struggle against capital punishment and plays a crucial role in the People’s Movement Against Capital Punishment. This involvement has engaged her so completely that once she even refused to undergo knee surgery fearing that she would not be able to discharge her responsibilities as campaigner! One campaign has led her to espouse others – like the anti-Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant struggle which Arputhammal has steadfastly supported.
Being a woman in a patriarchal set up, it is not easy for Arputhammal to regularly visit her son and take up his legal battle. But she has learnt to offer stiff resistance to officials who treat her with disrespect and scorn.
On December 20, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of a ‘Moratorium on the use of the Death Penalty’. More than two-thirds of the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty over the last decade. Today, while 141 countries don’t practice capital punishment, 97 countries have abolished it from their statute books.
When will India join them? Arputhammal wants an answer, even as she waits for son to come back home and live a normal life once again.