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Will Veerappan aides' case impact Rajiv killers' freedom?

September 20, 2018 13:31 IST

'A precedent in the Rajv killers' plea for freedom may flow from slain brigand Veerappan’s 2000 demand for the release of 109 associates languishing in prisons in Karnataka for him to release abducted Kannada matinee icon, the late Rajkumar.'

'Acting on a petition filed by the father of a Karnataka cadre IPS officer killed by Veerappan, the Supreme Court reversed the orders of lower court orders in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.' 

‘If democratically-elected governments give an impression to the citizens of this country of being law-breakers, would it not breed contempt for the law? Would it not invite citizens to become a law unto themselves?’ the Supreme Court had observed on the occasion, recalls N Sathiya Moorthy.

 

Even as the Supreme Court of India admitted pending petitions from other victims in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and the Raj Bhavan in Chennai denied claims of peripheral pan-Tamil political parties that Governor Banwarilal Purohit had forwarded the state cabinet resolution recommending freedom for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins to the Union home ministry for advice, the question arises if the apex court verdict in the ‘Veerappan associates case’ from the previous decade would have any bearing on the emerging situation.

A bench comprising Chief Justice-designate Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Navin Sinha and K M Joseph have since posted the victims’ plea for further hearing four weeks hence. Incidentally, the victims’ petition has been pending since March 2014, and the bench allowed the petitioners in the case to amend their pleas in the light of the state cabinet resolution and the like.

 

Incidentally, the current issue flows from a bench headed by Justice Ranjan directing governor Purohit to consider the ‘mercy petitions’ of seven convicts languishing in prison under Article 161 of the Constitution.

During the arguments in the case, the Centre submitted that it did not concur with the Tamil Nadu government's proposal to release the seven convicts. It argued that the case involved the assassination of a former prime minister in a brutal manner in pursuance of a "diabolical" plot carefully conceived and executed by a foreign terrorist organisation.

For now, the Raj Bhavan has clarified through a statement that it had not forwarded the state cabinet resolution to the Union home ministry for advice. As the statement said, the voluminous records in the case required deeper and closer study and legal consultations before governor Purohit could arrive at a decision.

The revival of the victims’ petition may have caused a new situation in Purohit taking an early decision on the cabinet resolution, which is what the pan-Tamil groups wanted. Describing the life convicts only as the ‘Tamil Seven’, they had sought to cast aspersions on the governor purportedly ‘delaying’ the decision, without possibly giving even the state government the time to forward the resolution and case details to the Raj Bhavan.

Independent of the Raj Bhavan’s clarifications, some legal luminaries do say that the governor would also be well within his rights -- and responsibilities -- to seek advice from the Centre, among others, if he deemed fit. After all, they point out, the governor (also) acts as the eyes and ears of the Union and the President of India, and he should not do something that contravened the larger constitutional scheme. 

This was more so when different SC verdicts in the very same Rajiv assassination case were seen as contradicting each other or one another. Better or worse still, as the Raj Bhavan statement indicated the number and volume of assassins’ plea for stopping execution, and then for freedom, should run into tens of lakhs of pages, requiring closer examination, if only to avoid later-day criticism of every kind. 

A precedent in this regard may flow from slain brigand Veerappan’s 2000 demand for the release of 109 associates languishing in prisons in Karnataka for him to release abducted Kannada matinee icon, the late Rajkumar. Acting on a petition filed by the father of a Karnataka cadre IPS officer killed by Veerappan, the Supreme Court reversed the orders of lower court orders in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. 

‘If democratically-elected governments give an impression to the citizens of this country of being law-breakers, would it not breed contempt for the law? Would it not invite citizens to become a law unto themselves?’ the Supreme Court had observed on the occasion.

‘The governments yielded to the pressure tactics of those who are out to terrorise the police force and overawe elected governments... No one ever considered that people may lose faith in the democratic process when they see the helplessness of the government, when they see public authority being flouted,’ the court added. 

According to a section of the media, surviving victims or family members of some of the other victims in the case are upset about the turn of events. Tamil daily Dinamalar reported how Abbas, 33, who had lost his mother in the blast and was forced to discontinue his studies and enter an orphanage, and Shanthakumari, who had lost her sister Saroja Devi, have expressed reservations about freedom for the convicts.

Rajkumar, son of police constable Dharman, who died in the blast, went a step further, when he told the Dinamalar that politicians should not shout for the assassins’ freedom for their personal ends. 

The Hindu has since quoted Anusuya Daisy Ernest, who suffered serious injuries and had a finger in her hand amputated after the blast, that like the victims who are living with their loss, the convicts too should live through imprisonment for life.

Police constable Anusuya, who had tried to shoo away human bomb Dhanu from approaching Rajiv Gandhi, was on duty at the venue of Rajiv’s election meeting. After months of hospitalisation, she returned to duty and retired as assistant superintendent of police, Villuppuram, in May this year.

As the more recent report in The Hindu on the Supreme Court’s revival of the victims’ pleas recalled, the petitioners contended that the Jayalalithaa government of the time had “taken the decision for narrow political gain...The attitude of the state government is against the constitutional value and national spirit, and for narrow political consideration” as against the “effect of the release...on the families of the victims and society, and the wrong precedent it would set”. 

However, the Supreme Court at the time had said that it would look into the Centre’s petition against the state government’s initiative, submitting that the latter did not have the powers for granting remission in CBI cases. The SC having decided on related issues, and the state cabinet acted on the September 7 order, which suggested that the governor consider the convicts’ requests (afresh), the victims have since sought to revive their forgotten petitions.

Be it as it may, the ‘operative portion’ of ‘terrorise’ mentioned in the ‘Veerappan aides case’ may not apply to the Rajiv Gandhi assassins after the Supreme Court earlier declared that it was not an ‘act of terror’ or an ‘anti-national act’, as the prosecution had charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but only ‘culpable homicide amounting to murder’ under Section 302 the Indian Penal Code.

Yet, there is another similarity to the two cases, as Rajiv Gandhi was not the only victim in that case. At least 14 others, including Tamil Nadu police officers from IPS rank downwards, had also died in the ‘human bomb’ suicide blast that claimed the life of the former prime minister.

It is unclear if the Supreme Court or the governor or the Union of India could back the state cabinet resolution, should family members of any or all other victims who were killed alongside Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumpudur on the fateful night of May 21, 1991.

This is because the Supreme Court, while disposing of an earlier petition by some of the accused in the case, starting with Perarivalan whose aged mother has been actively campaigning for her son’s freedom, did commute the death sentence to one of life imprisonment. At the same time, the court had held that ‘life sentence’ did not translate into one of 14 or 20 years as commonly conceived, but ran the full course of the life of one thus sentenced.

More importantly, on related issues, the Supreme Court itself had held in the ‘Rajiv Gandhi  case(s)’ that the governor under Article 161 and the state government had no role to play in deciding on mercy petitions moved in cases prosecuted by the CBI, a central agency. In such a case, the petition should lie, if at all, before the President and the Union government, a five-judge bench headed by then CJI, H L Dattu, held in 2015.

Opinion is divided even otherwise on the question of family members of Rajiv Gandhi ‘pardoning’ the killers for their ‘sins’ extending to cover such conduct on the behaviour of those of other victims. Thus, even if any or all relatives of other victims in the case pardoned the convicts, it may not mean anything before the eyes of law.

As an aside to another of Veerappan aides’ case, the Supreme Court did stay the execution of four of them in January 2014, but refused to fast-track the hearing in the case.

The death row convicts in the case had cited the apex court verdict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassins’ case, where too it was argued that the President had taken undue time in deciding on their mercy pleas, before rejecting them.

It is another matter that even while staying the execution on that occasion, the SC bench threw out the demand for a fresh trial, purportedly based on fresh evidence that the defence claimed had come to their notice.

‘If we encourage this writ petition, then in every case there will be pleas for fresh investigation...If we encourage this type of petitions, it will set a bad precedent,’ then Chief Justice P Sathasivam, heading the bench, observed.

In this context, CJI Sathasivam (now governor of Kerala) also referred to a statement made by an investigating officer in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case that he had not fully recorded the statement of accused/convict Perarivalan.

‘The IO makes a statement after 20 years,’ CJI Sathasivam observed, adding, 'Nowadays it has become a fashion to make such statements, maybe it is in the Veerappan case, or the Rajiv Gandhi case. We cannot encourage such petitions.’

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Centre.

N Sathiya Moorthy