Chennai, Feb. 19: Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa today announced her government would release all the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, taking a lightning decision to snatch the Lankan card from her local rivals and landing the Centre in a dilemma.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister has threatened to free the prisoners if the Centre does not respond in three days. The prisoners include the three whose death sentence was commuted yesterday by the Supreme Court on the ground of “inordinate delay”.
The law holds that Jayalalithaa alone cannot act in this particular case. The Centre will also have to remit the sentence since the CBI had probed the case, according to Section 435 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).
The Centre said it had not yet received the official communication from Tamil Nadu but the Congress reacted with dismay and Rahul Gandhi expressed anguish. The political response suggested the Centre might reject the Tamil Nadu decision, unless fresh political intervention prompts a rethink.
If the Centre refuses to endorse the release and Jayalalithaa acts as she has vowed, a constitutional stand-off can arise. The Centre also has the option of moving court if it feels that the law is not being upheld.
Either way, little prevents Jayalalithaa from claiming brownie points. Even if the convicts are not eventually released, the chief minister can claim that she was thwarted by the Centre.
Jayalalithaa has already scored over her Tamil Nadu opponents who court supporters of Lankan Tamils. Her principal objective appears to have been disarming the rivals who would have tried to fan local sentiments by pointing to the continued imprisonment of the convicts even after 23 years in captivity.
The chief minister’s announcement does not necessarily mean that widespread sympathy prevails in Tamil Nadu for the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, although a perception does exist that some convicts did not deserve the death sentence. For instance, Perarivalan, who was on death row and whose mother met Jayalalithaa today to thank her, had been accused of buying batteries eventually used in the bomber’s belt.
But the Lankan Tamil factor has assumed an added edge over the past few years because of the army action there in 2010 in which the Tamil Tiger leadership was wiped out. Allegations of atrocities, including visuals that suggest the young son of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran was killed in cold blood, have ensured that the issue remains a weeping wound in Tamil Nadu.
It is against this backdrop that Jayalalithaa has stunned her rivals, many of whom had assumed that the chief minister, known for tough decisions to uphold law and order, would not release the convicts.
Besides Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, whose death sentences were commuted yesterday, the convicts are Nalini, Murugan’s wife whose death was commuted to life by the Tamil Nadu governor in April 2000, and Robert Payas, Jeyakumar and Ravichandran, sentenced to death by the trial court but reduced to life by the Supreme Court in May 1999. All the convicts are lodged in Vellore Central Jail since 1991.
Reading out a statement in the Assembly today, Jayalalithaa, taking note of the Supreme Court’s commutation to life of the three prisoners and its observations, said that it was up to the state government to remit their prison term.
Under Section 432 of the CrPC, her government had decided to release all the seven life convicts, she said.
“Since this case was prosecuted by the CBI and the sentence had been delivered by a Tada court, the state government had to consult the Centre under Section 432 of the CrPC for its consent. If the Centre does not respond to our request within three days, the state will use its powers under Section 432 to release all the seven,” she announced amid cheers from all MLAs except those of the Congress.
A senior police officer said the decision was reportedly taken by Jayalalithaa last night after consulting some lawyers.
DMK chief and Jayalalithaa’s rival Karunanidhi expressed the hope that the Centre would accord the sanction for release without any delay. The state BJP welcomed the decision.
Congress functionaries were in shock. “Jayalalithaa first came to power in 1991 benefiting from the brutal assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Now she herself has buried his memory,” said Congress leader A. Gopannna.
On May 21, 1991, Rajiv was in Sriperumbudur, where he was killed, to campaign for the alliance between Jayalalithaa and the Congress. She became chief minister for the first time through the 1991 elections.
However, K. Raghothaman, a retired CBI officer who investigated the case, said: “The blame will lie entirely with the UPA government, which delayed the mercy petitions of the three from April 2000 to August 2011 and helped these convicts. UPA has betrayed Rajiv Gandhi’s soul,” he said.