In June, Perarivalan, one of those accused in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, completed 27 years in prison. He was 19 when he was arrested in 1991, after he was handed over to the police by his parents. The police promising to return him the next day after questioning did not do so. The charge against him – he bought and supplied a 9 volt battery which was used to detonate the bomb that killed the former Prime Minister.
Earlier this month, the Governor of Tamil Nadu received a recommendation from the state government calling for the release of the seven convicts who are currently imprisoned for the assassination, citing “public sentiment”. Perarivalan currently has a mercy petition in the courts; his claim is that the CBI overlooked key evidence in his case. The Supreme Court asked Governor Banwarilal Purohit to decide on the mercy petition.
In 2014, then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa attempted to release of the seven convicts. The centre opposed the move stating that they needed to be consulted as the convicts were being investigated. The convicts are serving life terms in jails across the state and the home ministry is adamant against their release citing it would set a bad precedent. The centre, in a letter to the state in March stated that the release would have international ramifications. It stated in part, “The brutal act brought the Indian democratic process to a grinding halt…” The Hindu editorial asserts that the release of the convicts, if done so, should on legal principles only –
“…the issue has thrown up a number of questions that relate to process. For instance, what happens to the four Sri Lankan nationals among the convicts? Will they remain in India or be repatriated? Also,shouldn’t there be a case-by-case evaluation for releasing those sentenced for life?”
The judicial aspect here is Article 161 of the constitution which gives the Governor the power to pardon, suspend, remit or commute sentences of a convict for any offence against the law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the State extends. The editorial weighs the arguments of imprisoning someone for life against the release which would impact views on capital punishment –
“It is impossible to ignore the impact of such a decision on capital punishment. When lifelong imprisonment is regarded as a humane alternative to capital punishment, releasing life convicts may only strengthen the demand for the imposition of the death penalty — which would be retrograde”.
While the initial judgment for the accused was a death sentence given out by a special Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) court in 1998, various appeals in the years ahead changed the verdicts to life sentences. The following years have been a back and forth between the state government, central government, High court and the Supreme Court in hearing appeals and commuting death sentences.
Supporting the argument of the convicts having suffered enough is Markandey Katju, a former judge of the Supreme Court, who states that the Governor should act in accordance with the state government’s recommendation. He cites two precious cases, in his column for the Hindu as precedent for the move to release –
“In Maru Ram v. Union of India (1980) and Kehar Singh v. Union of India (1988) — the Supreme Court held that in exercising the power under Article 72 (the power of the President to grant pardons, and to suspend, remit or commute sentences in certain cases) or Article 161 (the power of the Governor to do the same) of the Constitution, the President or the Governor has to act on the advice of the Council of Ministers and not at his or her own discretion”.
The kin of the victim – siblings Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi have forgiven the killers as stated in June. In 2008, Priyanka Gandhi met Nalini Sriharan, one of the killers, in jail. Her death sentence was commuted to a life term on the request of Sonia Gandhi. The Congress party line is different and in line with the BJP. The state Congress party in Tamil Nadu is split. Former chief EVKS Elangovan sides with the Gandhi’s, while spokesperson Kushbu Sundar supports their release.
Another view the Governor has to take into account is that Rajiv Gandhi wasn’t the only victim on that day. 14 others too lost their lives. As Shekhar Gupta, points out in a column for The Print, the opinion of the Gandhi’s alone cannot be used –
“These jailed conspirators are fortunate to escape hanging. They should remain in jail. The Gandhi family may or may not forgive them, but they have no locus standi. We are a constitutional state, not a feudal or tribal one with blood money justice”.
At the time of the assassination, Tamil Nadu was wrought with LTTE influence. Both parties feared Prabhakaran and the LTTE and didn’t do enough to curtail their influence in the state in the years past. The result was a series of terrorist attacks including one that killed 33 at the Meenambakkam airport in 1984. The BJP will most likely stand firm in its decision; not wanting to look weak on terrorists or crime.
More columns by Varun Sukumar