Isn’t the irony just inescapable? A politician who has always refused to unequivocally condemn the now-slain Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief will get to sit in judgement on whether one of Prabhakaran’s foot-soldiers deserves mercy after 19 years in prison. When the Sri Lankan army was closing in on the LTTE, the Tamil Nadu chief minister demanded “respect and dignity” for Prabhakaran, asking that he be treated with the same generosity that Alexander showed Porus. In the volatile environment of competitive politics, even senior Congress leaders in the state spoke about not wishing Prabhakaran ill. So, how is it that a man who actually plotted Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination was the beneficiary of sudden benignity? And why is it then that any debate surrounding the release of Nalini Sriharan — who has already served her life sentence in jail — evokes such a messy response?
If that sounds like I think Nalini has the right to freedom based on some principles of natural justice — I do not. For anyone who remembers Rajiv Gandhi’s smiling, unsuspecting face, in the seconds before Dhanu, the suicide bomber bent down to blow herself up, it’s virtually impossible to work up any empathy for those involved in his killing. To imagine that Nalini may have been the back-up human bomb makes it even tougher to feel compassion of any kind. But we cannot have an honest conversation about Nalini’s role as an accomplice in the assassination unless we also talk about the mastermind himself. And — at least in Tamil Nadu — any debate around Prabhakaran has always been obfuscated by political expediency. We cannot ignore the bizarre inconsistency of some of our politicians, whose outrage for Prabhakaran has always been qualified by ifs and buts.
Political hypocrisy aside, there is, however, something deeper that complicates the question of Nalini’s freedom, and that is the extraordinary response of the Gandhi family. It was Sonia Gandhi, of course, who pleaded for her death sentence to be commuted so that Nalini’s eight-year-old daughter would not be orphaned. But what has really changed the public discourse is Priyanka Gandhi’s profound and deeply painful personal journey to make sense of her father’s death.
I still remember the day the newspapers erupted with the story of her low-key visit to the jail in Vellore — the meeting between a young daughter and the woman who conspired to kill her father. A cynical Opposition scored a self-goal by suggesting that politics had imbued her unconventional choice. But for the rest of the country it was the first glimpse into the mind of a very unusual, but deeply level-headed person, who was trying to come to terms with the violence and tragedy that had defined her growing-up years. That day, in a brief conversation, I recall that Priyanka pleaded for privacy and most of us respected her wish.
Later, on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh — as Congress allies like the DMK even ratcheted up the rhetoric on Prabhakaran and Tamil separatism — we sat in the shade of a friendly tree and spoke about Life and Death. Rarely has an interview moved me as much. I know it’s fashionable to be generally cynical about all our politicians — but not this time. There was something almost unreal — and yet, all too real — about her Zen-like calm, clearly arrived at after decades of internal anguish. Priyanka didn’t hide it either. She spoke about how she was “absolutely furious with the whole world,” after she lost her father and about the slow process of recognising her own rage. But as the years passed, she spoke about understanding that “true non-violence was the absence of victimhood.” It was probably the deepest thing that anyone I knew in politics had ever said.
Where had the family found the emotional strength to commute Nalini’s death sentence to life, I asked. And why? Because, she explained, they knew what it felt like for a child to lose a parent. “Something has happened to you that has made you feel awful. Something has happened that has crushed you inside. So how can you want that to happen to someone else? An innocent child, what has that child got to do with anything?” she said.
Today India is debating whether Nalini should be ‘forgiven’. But, I remember Priyanka Gandhi dismissing the whole notion that it was her place to forgive, “The big learning that came from that meeting was exactly this, that though I was not angry any more, I did not hate her, and I wanted to meet her, I was still thinking that I was somebody who could forgive her for something she had done. And then I met her and I realised — what am I talking about?”
It was a magnanimity of mind and spirit that I’m not sure most of us would be capable of. Yet, strangely, the 26/11 terror strikes brought me face to face with others who seek peace even after — or perhaps because of — a deep horror has turned their lives upside down. I met a 16-year-old survivor in Mumbai, for example, who said she had never believed in capital punishment, and the experience of being holed up inside the Taj would not change her mind about the fact that Ajmal Kasab should not be killed by the State. Others I know have reacted furiously to the war-mongering with Pakistan that is sought on their behalf.
Tragedy, especially violent death, clearly evokes very individual responses. And, of course, as a country, India must have a position on Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. And yet, if politics is standing in the way of a truthful conversation about the LTTE, perhaps we can leave the decision of Nalini’s future to the family who suffered most. In this case, the personal seems to be much more large-hearted than the political.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal