Whichever way the verdict goes, it will be a win-win for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa ahead of the assembly election next year. A favourable verdict, it will be a boost for her because she took the decision to release the convicts. She will once again try to usurp the Tamil card and use it to silence her political rivals. If the verdict goes against her, she can still claim the moral high ground. R Ramasubramanian explains.
The fate of Rajiv Gandhi killers may be decided by December 2.
With Chief Justice of India H L Dattu set to retire on that day, the constitution bench headed by him and which reserved its orders in the case in August this year, will have to pronounce its verdict before he demits office. If it doesn't, a new constitution bench will have to be formed to hear the matter all over again.
The fate of the seven -- Murugan, Perarivalan, Santhan, Nalini, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran -- is in the hands of the Dattu bench which includes Justices Fakkir Mohammed Ibrahim Kalifullah, Pinaki Chandra Ghosh, Abhay Manohar Sapre and Uday Umesh Lalit.
The matter went before the Supreme Court in February 2014 by way of a PIL by the Centre after the Tamil Nadu government decided to release all the seven. Prior to that, on February 18, 2014, a bench of the Supreme Court, while commuting the death sentence of Murugan, Perarivalan and Santhan to life imprisonment, opined that it was up to the appropriate governments to take a call on the release of those who were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Taking a cue from this, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa announced in the state assembly that a cabinet meeting chaired by her had decided to release all the seven convicts. She said her government was granting three days time for the Centre to respond, failing which she said her government will go ahead with their release. Jayalalithaa’s announcement was received with thumping of desks by all the political parties, except the Congress.
A shell-shocked United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre rushed to the Supreme Court for a stay and a two-judge bench which heard the matter granted an interim stay on the decision and referred the matter to a three-judge bench. Few weeks after that, a three-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice P Sathasivam extended the stay but referred the matter to a constitution bench.
The three-judge bench framed seven issues for the constitution bench to ponder over. Among those seven issues were, (a) whether once powers of remission under Article 72 by the President or under Article 161 by the governor or under Article 32A of the Supreme Court is exercised, is there any scope for further consideration for remission by the executive? (b) Whether there could be a special category wherein after death penalty has been commuted to life imprisonment, such a convict is put beyond the applicability of remission of sentence and he or she would remain behind the bar in excess of life term of 14 years? (c) What is the term 'appropriate government' mean? Is it the state government or the Centre? (d) can the state government release a convict who was tried under central laws like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the case investigated by a central agency like the Central Bureau of Investigation?
The hearing concluded on August 12 this year and the constitution bench reserved its verdict. The bench also made all the state governments party to the case and all of them filed replies. Most of the state governments reiterated their stand that they have powers to release the convicts even if they were convicted under central laws because law and order and prison departments are state subjects.
However, the Centre strongly opposed the convicts' release. The Centre argued that former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's killing was a massive terrorist strike on the unity and integrity of India and hence no leniency shall be shown to the convicts. It also argued that since the death sentence of the four were commuted to life imprisonment -- Nalini’s death sentence was commuted by the governor and the other three by the Supreme Court -- they cannot claim double relief.
Arputham Ammal, 69, convict Perarivalan's mother, told Rediff.com she was confident that her son and the others will be released. “I am expecting a positive verdict. My lawyers are telling me there will be a positive verdict. My son is in prison for the past 24 years. When he went to jail he was just 19 and today he is 43. I met him last Tuesday and he is confident. I am eagerly awaiting this judgment not only for my son but also for hundreds of convicts like him who were languishing in prisons throughout the country. My son is innocent. I want to see him getting out of the jail and lead a normal life.”
Either way the impending verdict will impact Tamil Nadu politics, especially in the run-up to the assembly elections due in April-May 2016. The initial anger, agony and loathing attitude towards the Sri Lankan Tamils immediately after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 have now gone. The end of Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009 and the resultant loss of nearly 1.5 lakh Tamils are still in the memory of people here and the political parties are exploiting it even now.
Shrill anti-Indian voices are bound to emerge once again in the run-up to the elections if the verdict goes against the release of the seven. A classic example is the attitude of the political class in the state when former National Security Advisor M K Narayanan was recently attacked with chappals at a function three weeks ago in Chennai by a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee. The attacker blamed Narayanan for the genocide in Sri Lanka. No major political party condemned the incident. Interestingly, the state unit of the Congress (Narayanan was NSA in the Congress-led UPA government) too kept mum.
A verdict favouring the seven will be a boost for the Jayalalithaa government because she took the decision to release the convicts. In that scenario, she will once again try to usurp the Tamil card and use it to silence her arch political enemy, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi. If the verdict goes against her, she can still claim the moral high ground. If the verdict says that the state government does not have powers for remission in cases handled by central agencies and under central laws, even then Jayalalithaa can very well turn the tables on national parties. In both situations Jayalalithaa will be snatching one of the emotional issues from the opposition and position herself as the true guardian of Tamil interests across the globe.
Image: Three of the convicts Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan.