The Supreme Court’s commutation of death sentences of the three convicts who helped assassinate Rajiv Gandhi and their release ordered by the Tamil Nadu government on the very next day have caused much unease across the country.
It is not difficult to understand that the average citizens across India would be outraged to watch the entire Tamil political leadership celebrating the release of those convicted of killing a former Prime Minister and fourteen others with him. Such antics only reinforce the outside perception of Tamil politicians as being oblivious of larger national interests who may even harbor secessionist ideas. While it may be a bit of an exaggeration, the quixotic nature of TN politics does nothing to burnish the image of the state’s leaders. Anger is being directed at both the Supreme Court and Tamil politicians for the present state of affairs.
But is it justified to blame the Supreme Court for commuting the death sentences?
The Rajiv Gandhi assassination case saw twenty six accused individuals sentenced to death. Post-appeals and confirmations, this number came down to just four. Nalini, one of the four accused and pregnant at the time of her arrest, was granted mercy. Amidst those who supported her mercy plea was Sonia Gandhi.
The remaining three saw their final mercy pleas rejected in 2011, after a delay of eleven years. They filed writs in the Madras High Court which were subsequently transferred to the Supreme Court. The counsel for petitioners, including Ram Jethmalani, argued that the death sentence is liable to be commuted to life imprisonment in view of ‘the inordinate delay of more than 11 years in disposal of mercy petitions’ as it is ‘ violative of Article 21 of the Constitution in addition to various International Conventions, Universal Declarations, to which India is a signatory’.
The counsel for petitioners in making the above argument leaned heavily on the precedent in the form of a judgment in the case of Shatrughan Chauhan & anr versus Union of India and others:
“42) Accordingly, if there is undue, unexplained and inordinate delay in execution due to pendency of mercy petitions or the executive as well as the constitutional authorities have failed to take note of/consider the relevant aspects, this Court is well within its powers under Article 32 to hear the grievance of the convict and commute the death sentence into life imprisonment on this ground alone however, only after satisfying that the delay was not caused at the instance of the accused himself…”
The court accepted this argument. It rejected the government’s view that the petitioners in order to seek relief of the court using the precedent of Shatrughan Chauhan case had ‘to actively demonstrate the sufferings occasioned by the delay, and that in the present case, the petitioners have been having a good time in prison and they have not suffered at all’. The court rejected this view stating ‘prolonged delay in execution of death sentence, by itself, gives rise to mental suffering and agony which renders the subsequent execution of death sentence inhuman and barbaric.’
We had this ridiculous situation where the Attorney General of the Union of India explains that there was a five year delay in processing the pleas because ‘in 2000, a note was prepared but thereafter the file was lying in the drawer of some officer of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and, hence, could not be processed.’ As for another five years or so of delay ‘the Attorney General fairly admitted that this delay couldn’t be explained in any way.’
Could the Supreme Court have rejected a precedent and thereby the writs? Though this author is not a legal expert, it is clear that given the above specious, ridiculous reasoning offered by the government the Supreme Court did the right thing.
Much as I wanted to see the assassins of a former Prime Minister hanged to death it appears the petitioners have a case here. The indignation must be directed at the Union government and not at the Supreme Court.
Moving on, the hurry in convening the cabinet meeting and the tone of Jayalalithaa’s statement in the state legislative assembly announcing the release of the three convicts indicate her willingness to play the Tamil chauvinist card. Since the death sentence of the three convicts has been commuted into a life imprisonment their release from jail was only a matter of time. However, the swiftness of Jayalalithaa betrays her intentions. The truth is we are witnessing competitive chauvinism at work.
In keeping with the traditions of Indian polity the victims of the assassination – fourteen others were killed apart from Rajiv Gandhi – have been largely ignored. Nobody has found the time or inclination to speak for these victims nor to do them justice.
Instead by speaking for these convicts and releasing them the Tamil political leadership is signaling to the populace that they have defied the larger Indian establishment (which is claimed to be antagonistic to SL Tamil interests) and have looked after ‘the boys’. This is the same reckless demagoguery that muzzled all legitimate criticism of the LTTE and led the Sri Lankan Tamils down the path of destruction. Further, by setting such a precedent the Tamil political leadership has opened the doors for the release of prisoners in other major terror attack cases. For example the Coimbatore bomb blast convicts sentenced to life imprisonment will now look for a quicker release from prison.
Finally, consider the damage the events of Wednesday does to Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil interests.
The hurried moves by the government of Tamil Nadu only helps to reinforce, and rightly so in this case, all the negative stereotypes about Tamil politics and politicians. Where previously members of the establishment, media and even general populace were willing to concede the legitimacy of some basic Tamil demands vis-à-vis Sri Lanka the collective reveling in the release of convicts who helped murder an Indian Prime Minister will cause existing goodwill to vanish and be replaced by revulsion if not suspicion.
The Tamil political leadership may claim to have saved three of their ‘boys’ from a long incarceration but from a wider perspective they have done the Sri Lankan Tamil cause and the interests of a sound Indian judicial system a damage that will take decades to repair.