NEW DELHI, Aug. 31 (UPI) — A woman burned herself to death near Chennai, India, in protest at the planned hanging of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister, in 1991.
The woman, 27, poured gasoline on herself in front of the local tax office in Kancheepuram, around 70 miles from the Tamil Nadu state capital Chennai.
Witnesses said she shouted, “free Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan” and then she set herself on fire.
Bystanders and the police doused the flames but she died on the way to hospital, a local newspaper report said.
A note wrapped in plastic found on her body said she was a member of Tamil nationalist group Makkal Manram.
“If my life can save their three lives, I will die happily,” the note reportedly said.
It also urged Tamil Nadu state chief minister J. Jayalalithaa to free the three convicts, who have been in jail for 20 years since receiving death sentences.
Last week the government announced the hanging will take place early Sept. 9 at Tamil Nadu’s Vellore Central Prison in Vellore, around 85 miles north of Chennai.
The planned hanging comes after India’s president rejected mercy pleas from the men found guilty of plotting the assassination of Gandhi by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.
All three of the condemned men were members of Sri Lanka’s militant Tamil Tigers group. Murugan and Santhan are from Sri Lanka and Perarivalan is an Indian Tamil.
Immediately after Gandhi’s death, the Tamil Tigers claimed he was assassinated as a protest over what they claimed was India’s interference in the Sri Lankan civil war.
However, in 2006, the Tigers, which by then had stopped its armed struggle for a separate state called Tamil Eelam, expressed “regret” for the murder.
The announcement of the hangings has polarized many people, groups and political parties in the state and across India where the last execution was in August 2004 in the state of West Bengal. A 41-year-old former security guard was hanged for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl. It was the first execution since 1995.
The assassins of India’s independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi were among those executed in the past 60 years.
At Vellore jail, where the last hanging was nearly 30 years ago, officials are busy getting the “rusty” gallows back into shape, a report in The Telegraph newspaper in Kolkata said.
The gallows are in “an asbestos-roofed shed over an iron beam and two trap doors. As the last hanging took place 28 years ago, the trap doors’ hinges and lever have become stiff.”
Prison officials are doing the refurbishment themselves because they couldn’t find a contractor that would be associated with the hanging, The Telegraph said.
“Our own staff repaired and lubricated the mechanism. We have now placed an order for the ropes,” a jail official said.
Although the gallows are designed for two simultaneous hangings, the jail plans to carry out the executions separately at 30-minute intervals beginning 4.30 a.m. Prison officials will draw lots to decide the order in which the trio will be hanged.
The situation at Vellore is typical of many jails across India. A 2010 article in New Delhi’s Open magazine said India is a nation that allows capital punishment, is holding in jail many condemned to death but is a country with no hangmen.
The last hangman in the state of Maharashtra retired in 1995 and since then, there have been no takers for the job, the article said.
A hangman is not a full-time government employee but a sanctioned volunteer where his pay — equivalent to a little more than $3 — is a special allowance, the article said.
Prison officials will train a new hangman in things such as tying the noose. But the toughest part of the job isn’t about ropes and levers, it is about conscience, a former inspector general of police prisons said.
“The moment a hangman starts thinking about karma, he should be retired. Till the lever is pulled, the prison officials are on tenterhooks as you cannot say how the hangman will react at the last moment,” he said.
A few months before the death of the hangman Nata Mullick, who conducted India’s last hanging in 2004, Open magazine interviewed him about the job.
Mullick, whose father was a hangman in the British colonial days, died in December 2009 after 25 hangings.
“The preparation of the noose is very important,” he told Open magazine.
“If the noose is right, the person will feel less pain. I used fewer knots when a prisoner was heavy and more knots for a prisoner who weighed less. If the lever is pulled too hard, the head can be severed.”