Political parties in Tamil Nadu have been sparring over a demand for the premature release of 36 Muslim prisoners who have been in jail for over two decades in connection with the 1998 Coimbatore serial blasts that killed 58 people.
The Opposition AIADMK, which had taken a beating at the hustings in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2021 Assembly elections after finding itself alienated from the minorities for its tie-up with the BJP, has demanded that the Muslim prisoners be released on compassionate grounds. The ruling DMK has questioned the timing of the demand, coming as it does after the AIADMK split with the BJP.
AIADMK leader and former chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, whose party recently exited the NDA to lead a front of its own in Tamil Nadu in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, made a forceful pitch during the just-concluded Assembly session for the release of the prisoners, who have been in jail for over 20-25 years. He said 16 of them were sentenced to life imprisonment and the remaining handed varying terms.
The convicts, he said, were either afflicted by old age or were suffering from health issues or had families that had requested their release citing financial difficulties. The 1998 blasts in Coimbatore had claimed 58 lives and injured over 200.
Palaniswami, speaking on a special call attention motion in the House moved by the AIADMK and other parties including the Congress, CPI, CPM, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi (MMK), a Muslim outfit led by Prof. M.H. Jawaharullah, and the PMK on the issue of the premature release of long-serving prisoners, said representatives of Muslim organisations had informed him that a government order issued in November 2021 had impeded the release of the Muslim prisoners.
Besides aligning with the BJP, the AIADMK had enabled the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in the Rajya Sabha in December 2019. The AIADMK also did not come out against the NRC proposal mooted by the BJP.
Against this backdrop, the irony of Palaniswami now passionately pleading for the release of Muslim prisoners on humanitarian grounds was not lost on many during the heated House debate.
Refuting the impression “sought to be created by some” that the DMK had taken no steps to grant remission to the 36 since the party returned to power in May 2021, chief minister M.K. Stalin asked what triggered the AIADMK’s “sudden love” for the Muslim prisoners. The AIADMK was in power for 10 years earlier, but did nothing on the issue, and more so after they “blindly supported” the BJP on critical issues like the CAA-NRC, Stalin pointed out.
Considering the plight of a number of life convicts lodged in jails for over 20 years and beset with old age, deteriorating physical and mental health and disabilities, the state government had appointed a six-member panel headed by retired judge of Madras High Court, Justice N. Authinathan, in December 2021 to review all such cases seeking remission in line with Supreme Court rulings and existing laws, Stalin said.
The Authinathan panel, which submitted its report to the state in October 2022, had recommended the premature release of 264 life convicts in various jails of Tamil Nadu, Stalin said.
In August 2023, after considering the panel’s recommendations, the government in the first phase decided to release 49 life convicts, 20 of whom are Muslim prisoners, coinciding with the 115th birth anniversary of DMK founder-leader C.N. Annadurai on September 15, Stalin said. However, the governor had not yet cleared the file and they would be released once the approval comes, the chief minister said.