Ambivalence is least desirable in the world of law. Not that it can always be avoided, because life is complicated while law strives to reach clear-cut resolutions. But the sense of ambivalence, even confusion, surrounding the commuting of the sentences on the three men convicted in Rajiv Gandhi’s murder from death to life is slightly different. In comparison, J. Jayalalithaa’s announcement about freeing all those jailed in the same case is fairly, even crudely, unambiguous. Her bid for electoral gains made her ignore the fact that commuting a sentence from death to life does not mean freedom, but life imprisonment. But the real confusion has its roots elsewhere. The court itself had three points of view regarding the time limit within which a mercy petition could be heard — ranging from two years to no limit. Yet the three convicts were taken off death row because their mercy petition has lain with the government for 11 years, and the Supreme Court has decided this is “inordinate delay”. If this is the principle, then all prisoners, whose petitions have been languishing for at least 11 years, and who are probably not guilty of murderous attacks on prime ministers, have to be reviewed as well. The law is equal; the unknown convict is as important as the high-profile one.
Since the sentence on three convicted killers and terrorists has been commuted, people need to understand the black-and-white principles at work. For example, how many mercy petitions are allowed and how soon must they be dealt with? There should also be comprehensible guidelines for dealing with death row prisoners whose petitions the government has not responded to. Should the heinousness of the crime matter? How should a case with a politically, ethnically or communally partisan element be processed? A kind of indecisiveness that involves governments and courts alike seems to haunt all such cases. Is the country absolutely certain that in the “rarest of rare” cases it is willing to go through with capital punishment? If not, that decision must be made now. Life imprisonment, not for 14 or 21 years, but for the whole of the prisoner’s life, without bail, could be considered as an alternative. And if capital punishment is accepted, then the process should be geared to ensure that those so sentenced are executed. Otherwise the country’s institutions will keep giving out the most confusing messages.