CHENNAI, India (AP) — Across most of India the three men on death row for the 1991 assassination of former 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, as prime minister, sent peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987 and they became embroiled in battles with the rebels. The Tamil Tigers branded Gandhi an enemy and ordered his assassination.
In May 1991, when Gandhi was campaigning for a return to office, a female suicide assassin with a garland of sandalwood beads and a bomb strapped to her chest waited for him to approach her during a 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.
They are the only ones left on death row after 23 others were released or had their sentences commuted to life. The masterminds are all dead. The last time clemency was granted was after Gandhi's widow, Sonia, asked in 1999 that no one be hanged. It was given to Nalini Sriharan, an Indian who married Muragan days before their arrest and gave birth to their daughter behind bars.
Hangings are rare in India, with only two in the last 15 years, and are often avoided as clemency petitions idle for years unanswered. But President Pratibha Patil broke an unofficial moratorium this year in denying a series of requests, including one filed by the Vellore Three more than a decade ago.
The timing was explosive, with anger about the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka still strong. Activists began picking apart the investigation, and a girl even set herself on fire and died to draw attention to the cause.
The Tamil Nadu assembly passed a resolution begging India to commute the men's sentences. Local election campaigns have fueled the rhetoric, with political parties fighting for the mantle of the true protector of India's Tamils.
Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha, the top elected state official, and her main political rival, M. Karunanidhi, have sniped at one another for failing to get the sentences commuted in the past, though actually both of their parties voted in 2000 against requesting clemency for the three. Clearly things have changed.
"We feel elated to see such a large response," the prisoner Perarivalan, 40, told The Associated Press amid strict limits on media visits to the prison. Cameras, voice recorders and note pads were not allowed, but journalists were granted access if visiting as "friends," under the watch of gun-toting police.
Until recently it was only his mother Arputhammal who shuttled hours by bus to the prison to bring hope and fresh fruit for the men to share. Now the three are visited regularly by new friends, activists and politicians, and have even dared to dream of release.
"We feel it is only a matter of time before clemency is granted," said Santhan, who has embraced a Hindu spiritual life and hopes to one day study with Indian gurus in the Himalayas.
Perarivalan has plans to help prisoners wrongly convicted, and Muragan dreams only of living as a family with his wife, Nalini, and their daughter, saying, "I couldn't ask for more."
Their hope has horrified the families of victims killed in the blast.
"I can't express in words the agony I still feel. They must be punished," said 40-year-old S. Afsari Begum, who cried as she recalled identifying her mother's charred and disfigured body by her three stunted toes.
Left orphaned with her four brothers, she dropped out of school. They now struggle to survive on what they make from a small clock repair shop in Chennai. "You can imagine how hard it was. No officials came, no one offered condolences or help."
Javid Iqbal, just 17 when his father went to the doomed rally as police superintendent, remembered spending that night with his mother alone next to his father's broken body and a half-dozen others in a hospital room. "There was blood everywhere. The room was stinking. It was the worst night of my life," Iqbal said.
Today, he is gathering signatures, organizing his own hunger strikes and lobbying the state's governor to demand justice. "All these politicians now say the killers should be saved, that they are Tamilians. That made me really angry," he said. "My father was a Tamilian, too. They must hang for what they did, and when they do I will celebrate."
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