For the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case the wait for release just got longer. Hereon, a release might be much harder too. On January 7, their hopes were dashed when the Centre informed the Madras High Court that it was against their release. The convicts’ hopes were raised in September 2018, when the Tamil Nadu assembly passed a resolution for their release, and the state government forwarded the same to the Governor for assent.
Over the last year the Tamil Nadu government has made periodic efforts to remind the Governor of this pending file but Raj Bhavan has only said that the “matter was under consideration.”
With the Centre telling the court that “any leniency towards the seven, who had involvement in the death of 15 persons including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, would set a bad precedent, and embolden other accused in similar heinous crimes to plead for early release,” the issue seems to have been laid to rest, at least for the immediate future.
In April 2018 the Union home ministry had informed the Supreme Court that it was against their release. In that sense the January 7 submission to the high court was a mere reaffirmation of the Centre’s stand on the issue.
Surprisingly this news hardly caused any flutter in the political circles in the state. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which had been pushing for the release of the convicts, did not say very much and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which after the demise of J Jayalalithaa has lost its enthusiasm for their release stayed silent. It was, however, this AIADMK government under Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami that got the resolution passed in the assembly. The smaller parties made some noise, but that was it.
The convicts have already spent 29 years in jail and those pushing the case for their release say that with their sentences having been commuted to life imprisonment, they have served their terms. However, there is the legal issue that in cases where a death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, would it mean a regular life term of a minimum of 14 years in jail with remission thereafter at the discretion of the government, or an imprisonment for the life of the convict without remission?
In February 2014, and again in March 2016, then CM Jayalalithaa made attempts to get the convicts released. These proposals were shot down by the Centre. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress oppose the release of the assassins, though the Congress says that they will abide by whatever the court or the Governor decides. The families of some of those killed with Rajiv Gandhi in the blast have also been vehemently opposed to the release of the convicts. Political parties in the state, by and large though, support the call for the release of the seven convicts.
The Centre in its response to the court also spoke of the “international ramifications” of the case. With four out of the seven convicts, Sriharan alias Murugan, Santhan, Robert Payas and Jayakumar being Sri Lankan citizens there would also have been the issue of whether they were to be repatriated if they were released. The other three, Nalini, Ravichandran and Perarivalan are Indian citizens.
Among the seven, Perarivalan’s case calls for a review the most. His crime was that he bought batteries that were used to detonate the bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi. However, he has claimed that he did not know the purpose for which he was asked to buy the batteries and officers who were formerly with the SIT have spoken about their doubts on the veracity of the SIT claim that he was indeed aware. In late 2017, former Supreme Court Judge KT Thomas, who was one of the judges on the bench that delivered the verdict in the case, said there were errors in the investigation of the charges against Perarivalan.
However, the case to free Perarivalan has to a large extent been botched by those political parties and activists claiming to speak in his name. By clubbing his case with the other six about whose guilt there is no element of doubt, they may have significantly reduced Perarivalan’s chances of being released.There is also the matter of whether with the case having been referred to the Governor, who under Article 161 has discretionary powers to pardon the prisoners, does the Centre have any role to play in the matter. Some voices in the Opposition are of the view that the state should move the courts against the Governor for not signing the file—but, given the nature of the relationship between the AIADMK and the BJP that appears most unlikely.
The matter will now come up for hearing in the Madras High Court on January 28 where the state government will reply to the Centre’s submission on the issue. Eventually the ball is in the state government’s court. If it does not push hard for their release the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi case could soon be commencing their fourth decade in prison.