Justice at last or Jaya’s populist politics?

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Tamil sentiment? The state has seen numerous protests demanding the release of the convicts, Photo: Senthilnathan
Tamil sentiment? The state has seen numerous protests demanding the release of the convicts, Photo: Senthilnathan

It’s the best day of my life,” says Arputhammal, the 67-year-old mother of Perarivalan. Her son, who is also known by his nickname ‘Arivu’, is one of the three death row convicts whose sentence was commuted to life by the Supreme Court on 18 February. And just a day later, the Tamil Nadu government decided to release all seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. This would mean a happy end to Arputhammal’s long struggle to be reunited with her son, who has already spent 22 years and seven months in prison.

Long wait Perarivalan’s mother Arputham
Long wait Perarivalan’s mother Arputham

Visiting Perarivalan in Vellore Jail after hearing of the state government’s decision, Arputhammal was in a jubilant mood. “I don’t mind if I die today,” Arputhammal told TEHELKA. “My son will be free by 21 February. I am counting the hours and minutes.”

She has every right to be happy. It has been more than two decades since her son was arrested for his involvement in the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. Perarivalan’s arrest had been a turning point in her life, and the turn was definitely for the worse. She was an ordinary housewife, who, along with her husband, believed in the egalitarian, anti-caste ideology of EV Ramaswamy ‘Periyar’.

Her life changed completely after her son was sentenced to death in January 1998, along with 25 other accused in the case. The Supreme Court confirmed the conviction of only seven of the 26 accused and acquitted the other 19. However, Perarivalan was one of the four convicts whose death sentence was confirmed by the apex court. The others were Murugan, his wife Nalini and Santhan. In April 2010, the Tamil Nadu governor commuted Nalini’s sentence to life, while the other three remained on death row.

In her struggle to save her son, Arputhammal had to make immense sacrifices. Finally, she found a ray of hope in the Supreme Court’s 21 January judgment, which laid out that “undue, inordinate and unreasonable delay” in the disposal of clemency petitions is a ground for commutation of death sentence. A three-member bench of the apex court reduced the sentences of 15 death row convicts to life imprisonment. Their mercy petitions had been pending for seven to 11 years. The Court also overturned an earlier judgment that made a distinction between crimes related to terrorism and other crimes.

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Then, in the 18 February judgment, a Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice P Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh rejected the Centre’s stand that the delay in disposing of the mercy petitions of Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan was not unreasonable. It also said that the Tamil Nadu government can exercise its powers under Sections 432 and 433 (which deals with release of prisoners sentenced to death or life) of the Criminal Procedure Code (crpc) to remit the sentences of the convicts and pave the way for their release from prison.

The J Jayalalithaa-led Tamil Nadu government, in turn, lost no time in invoking the relevant provisions of the CrPC. Besides Perarivalan, Murugan and Santhan, who were on death row, the other four convicts in the Rajiv assassination case, who are serving life terms, will also be released. They are Nalini, Ravichandran, Robert Payas and V Jayakumar.

Following the apex court’s verdict, politics in Tamil Nadu seems to be focussing on a single agenda: how to capitalise on the opportunity and play to the gallery. All political parties have sensed that the popular mood in the state is largely in favour of releasing the convicts who have spent more than two decades in jail.

According to S Doraiswamy, counsel for Nalini, none of the seven convicts was directly involved in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. “It is a case of delayed justice. I thank Chief Minister Jayalalithaa for taking this bold step,” Doraiswamy told TEHELKA. “If you closely scrutinise the evidence produced by the prosecution during the trial, you will see that there was nothing concrete to fix their role in the assassination. The prosecution made wild charges and produced fake evidence, but the trial court endorsed whatever the prosecution presented.”

Doraiswamy says that Nalini was convicted solely on the basis of the confession that was extracted from her under duress. “Yet she had to spend almost her whole life in prison,” he adds.

Nalini’s mother Padma, too, had to spend nearly 12 years in jail before the Supreme Court acquitted her. “You won’t understand what we have suffered,” says Padma. “I was working as a nurse and my daughter was a brilliant student. The case destroyed our lives. It is a great relief for us that my daughter will soon be released from jail.”

Vaiko, founder of the Tamil nationalist party Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), had been campaigning for many years for the release of the convicts in the Rajiv assassination case. Pleased with Jayalalithaa’s decision, he said, “The Tamil Nadu government took this initiative on humanitarian grounds and I thank the chief minister for that. I also thank the media for supporting the abolition of death penalty.”

Not one to be left behind on issues related to “Tamil pride”, S Ramadoss, founder-president of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), said in a statement, “I had insisted that the Tamil Nadu government should release all the seven people and I am satisfied with the decision of the chief minister. I hope they will be freed from prison in a few days.”

Soon after the AIADMK came to power in Tamil Nadu in May 2011, the Assembly had passed a unanimous resolution demanding clemency for the three death row convicts. It was a clever move by the new CM, one that would stand her in good stead in the political battle in the days ahead. “Jayalalithaa took the decision after analysing all the pros and cons. Now, the DMK cannot harp on Eelam sentiments in the forthcoming General Election,” says a senior AIADMK leader on the condition of anonymity.

Jayalalithaa’s decision has left DMK chief and former chief minister M Karunanidhi in the cold. Sources say that he did not expect Jayalalithaa to announce her decision to release the convicts so soon. He was gunning for a chance to attack the chief minister for “denying justice” to the convicts by delaying their release even after the Supreme Court ruling. But Jayalalithaa pulled the rug from under Karunanidhi’s feet by taking the decision just a day after the apex court’s verdict.

Indeed, DMK leaders insist that their party was the first to demand the convicts’ release. “We have taken a consistent stand in favour of the convicts,” said Rajya Sabha MP TM Selvaganapathy of the DMK.

The CPI, which has forged an alliance with the AIADMK for the Lok Sabha polls, has hailed Jayalalithaa’s decision. “It was well-timed and will help the AIADMK sweep the polls in the state,” says CPI state secretary D Pandian, who had accompanied Rajiv Gandhi on the day of his assassination and was himself injured in the blast that killed the former PM.

The Congress, however, seems to be perched on the horns of a dilemma. While party vice-president Rahul Gandhi has said that his father’s killers should not be released, the state unit has taken a more lenient stand. State Congress chief BS Gnanadesikan told the media that the Supreme Court judgment should be accepted without any debate. The state leaders, perhaps, are wary of hurting Tamil sentiments in an election year.

Meanwhile, Perarivalan’s mother is eagerly waiting to see him outside prison.

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