Rajiv Gandhi case: Noose tightens on death penalty?

Last Updated: Thu, Feb 20, 2014 01:03 hrs

BS Gnanadesikan, the president of the state Congress Committee is miffed with M Karunanidhi, the DMK chief, who had said, "My greetings to Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan,".
"I do not cherish the greeting of the trio by the DMK chief," said Gnanadesikan.  

Ahead of the impending Lok Sabha elections, when every political party is still shopping for alliance partners due to the prevailing  sentiment that  anyone can be a game changer in the summer months, Gnanadesikan's reaction is not surprising.

The issue of Lankan Tamils has always been a handy see-saw  in the backyard of Tamil Nadu political playground. The three men in question were death row convicts, accused of complicity in the late Congress leader and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

He was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in May 1991, at an election rally in Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, in retaliation for sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka when the LTTE was engaged in a separatist war for separate statehood (Tamil Eelam).  

The three men escaped the noose  due to the delay – eleven years - in hearing their mercy plea and a  three member bench of the Supreme Court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence of Santhan, Murugan (aka Sriharan) and Perarivalan, who, along with Murugan's wife Nalini were awarded the death sentence in 1998 by a trial court.

The apex court  had reaffirmed the same for all three men and commuted Nalini's sentence to life imprisonment .  In 2000, the trio's mercy petition was sent to the President, and the pleas were rejected 11 years later.

In 2011, the Madras High Court stayed their hanging, and their mercy plea hearing moved to the Supreme Court after the state Congress insisted the case be heard outside the state. The latest verdict by the bench comprising Chief Justice of India Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh  further lays the onus of their release from prison on the state government.  

Like a chorus, the call for doing away with the death penalty has gone up in the state.

Political parties like the DMK have welcomed the reprieve,  much to Gnanadesikan's chagrin. "Some political leaders in the state, Tamil activists and NGOs are demanding that death penalty be abolished and the three accused be released.
Had they shed tears in the cruel manner in which Rajiv Gandhi was killed and 14 others lost their lives, then I can understand their humane approach. This is sheer theatrics and the people of Tamil Nadu will not be fooled by such drama," says the Congress leader.  

Gandhi Thirumurugan, organizer of the May 17 Movement and actor-director Seeman of Naam Thamizhar party have given a call for the release of not just the three, but also of Nalini as well as three other accused in the case, Robert Payas, Ravichandran and Jayakumar.

"It is time we all moved away from the British hangover of capital punishment for political prisoners , get civilized and rehabilitate all political prisoners in all the states who have spent more than 14 years in jail," says Thirumurugan.

He goes so far as to claim that the LTTE used to release prisoners to their homes on weekends, 'as a way of teaching them to repent their crimes by fleetingly holding on to what they had lost'.  

According to him as the land of the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, India should treat its political prisoners better.

That may be a popular sentiment among political parties in the television- bytes driven era of political reaction, but the campaign against the death penalty is speaking in many voices.

KN Arun, a senior journalist and now faculty member at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, was covering the political rally where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and was a witness to the tragedy that claimed many lives.

"In the weeks and months following the assassination, if you had asked me, I would have said 'hang all the guilty'.
Over the years I have come to oppose capital punishment, and  the delay in disposing of the mercy petition is tantamount to state sanctioned torture. I feel that the state government should release Nalini and Perarivalan since their involvement was peripheral.  I think India should seriously examine capital punishment, there are too many against it," he says.

K Raghothaman, was the  chief investigation officer in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, and his reaction to the verdict is one of equanimity. Although he points out that commuting a death sentence can only be done by a constitutional authority he is quick to agree that hanging three people  cannot amount to  much  justice for Rajiv Gandhi and the others who died with him.

As a professional investigator he recalls with pride the documentary evidence the team was able to pile, unlike any other case in recent history. "We cracked the case starting with a battered camera that had survived the blast, and followed the trail of dry runs, letters addressed to 'Pottu' Amman and documents of the LTTE , including the sentiment of  LTTE chief V Prabhakaran who  in 1990 said 'I hate the former leadership for the misguided policy'."

This is a good time for all to reiterate that our  judicial system dispenses justice to individuals, however big or small, says Raghothaman.

Amnesty International, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and many others have used the occasion to sound the death knell for capital punishment. P Pugalenthi, director, Prison Rights Forum  says it is time we looked at the life of convicts, specially those who have served time fourteen years or more.

"The mercy plea of these three was an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu and opened the minds of the public to the debate on capital punishment and other reforms.  That is a great take- away" he adds.

It's time capital punishment is given a decent burial.

Other columns by the author:

Will the DMK split between Stalin and Alagiri?

Tamil Nadu needs a policy on statuses

Not guilty: Can Kanchi seers revive the Mutt now?

Chennai is a huge canvas, I tried to fill it: Nirmala Lakshman

Love marriage in Tamil Nadu? Go to Court

Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist

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