Mixed response greets Supreme Court’s order releasing Rajiv Gandhi assassination case convicts

FRIDAY’s order by the Supreme Court releasing the remaining six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has received mixed reactions from the print newspapers.

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THE Supreme Court bench of Justices B.R. Gavai and B.V. Nagarathna ordered on Friday, the immediate release of six convicts- Nalini Sriharan, Ravichandran, Jayakumar, [email protected], [email protected] and Robert Pius- serving life sentences for more than 30 years in the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, on account of prolonged incarceration.

Out of the six convicts, the death sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court in the case of S. Nalini, [email protected] and [email protected] The court subsequently commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment on the ground of inordinate delay in deciding their mercy petitions by the Executive.

The present bench examined this issue in light of the observations made by the Supreme Court bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao B.R. Gavai and A.S. Bopanna, earlier this year in A.G Perarivalan’s case. The A.S Bopanna bench had invoked its extraordinary powers of complete justice under Article 142 of the Constitution and ordered the release of Perarivalan.

Governor’s power

The Nageswara Rao’s bench took into account the Perarivalan’s prolonged period of incarceration, his satisfactory conduct in jail as well as during parole, chronic ailments from his medical records, his educational qualifications acquired during incarceration and the pendency of his petition under Article 161 for two and a half years after the recommendation of the State Cabinet to remit his sentence while deciding not to remand the matter for the Governor’s consideration.  

In 2018, the Tamil Nadu Cabinet passed a resolution recommending the release of Perarivalan. However, the Governor instead of deciding on it, passed an order in 2021 stating that the President is the appropriate authority to decide the petition filed under Article 161 of the Constitution,  after two and a half years of the state’s recommendation.

Perarivalan was given the death penalty, which was later commuted to a life sentence for murder. However, his conviction under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 was set aside.

The Supreme Court bench, while deciding on the correctness of the reference made by the Governor, found that such recommendations were made without any constitutional backing and are inimical to the scheme of our Constitution. It observed that petitions under Article 161 pertain to individual liberty and thus, inexplicable delay, not on the account of the prisoners, is inexcusable as it contributes to the adverse physical condition and mental distress faced by the prisoner, especially when the State Cabinet has also recommended the remission.

The Supreme Court held that there is no provision in the Constitution to suggest that the Governor has the power to refer a recommendation made by the State Cabinet to the President. It, therefore, reiterated its position in Maru Ram versus UOI(1980) which had observed, “the Governor is but a shorthand expression for the State Government.”

On Friday, the Gavai-Nagarathna bench found that the factors which weighed with the court while directing the release of Perarivalan are equally applicable to the remaining six convicts, who too sought remission of their life sentences on similar grounds.

Mixed response

While the Tamil Nadu chief minister, M.K.Stalin hailed the release of the convicts as a victory for the state government’s legal battle, and for humanity, Congress condemned the decision of the Supreme court.  

Jairam Ramesh, All India Congress Committee General Secretary, tweeted: “The decision of the Supreme Court to free the remaining killers of former PM Shri Rajiv Gandhi is totally unacceptable and completely erroneous.

The Hindu, in a sober editorial, noted that while the release of the convicts is no occasion to celebrate, it is not one for lamentation either.  “The plot’s masterminds are dead and only mid-level operatives and some local collaborators were apprehended. A sense that 31 years of imprisonment is punishment enough does indeed prevail”, the editorial commented.  

The newspaper called for a fresh evaluation of the remission system and norms for the premature release of life convicts. “Going by the glaring omission in this particular case, some indication of remorse on the part of the convicts should be a prior requirement”, it opined.

The newspaper underlined that their freedom has come about through legal processes and legitimate advocacy.

The Indian Express, on the other hand, critiqued the Supreme Court’s decision to release the six convicts, as raising disturbing questions about due process. “The Court, regrettably, preferred a procedural approach and allowed itself to be guided by the Tamil Nadu government’s push for remissions in a case that pertained to an act of terrorism by an overseas organisation.”  

“The Court ought to have insulated the law and due process from being overly influenced by the political executive”, the editorial noted. “Its approach is stark when the plight of hundreds of persons incarcerated for extended periods because of state overreach in curtailing individual liberties is concerned,” the newspaper observed.  

Comparing this to the recent remission order of the Gujarat Government while releasing the convicts in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case, the paper expressed its dismay that abdicating its role to the political executive when it comes to crime and punishment reflects poorly on the judiciary.

The New Indian Express, in its editorial, described the Supreme Court’s conflating its Perarivalan case judgment with that of the other six convicts as flawed equivalence. “The court normalised a global terror plot by a non-state actor from a neighbouring country to thwart the possibility of Rajiv returning to power in the 1991 elections”, it noted.

While commuting the sentence is okay, life must mean life, narrow political interests and legal hair-splitting notwithstanding”, it added.

Comparing this with the Gujarat government’s remission order in the Bilkis Bano case, the newspaper commented: It’s woke verdicts like these that open a window for the undeserving, like in the Bilkis case. While the Gujarat government took a different route, if its cabinet were to now adopt a resolution to free the 11 convicts and get it signed by its rubber stamp governor, case law would deem their remission kosher.  Unfortunately, the court went by the letter of the law and not its spirit”.

The Tribune newspaper, in its editorial, expressed its concern that a wrong signal should not emerge that acts of terrorism are pardonable. Another signal that public sentiment, such as in Tamil Nadu on the issue, has a bearing is more erroneous, the newspaper said.  Referring to Sonia Gandhi and her children’s gesture of leniency, it said that a family’s attempt to bring closure to a horrific incident that scarred their lives can only be a matter of personal choice.  

The newspaper asked: “Should the SC not have considered the matter at greater length? Similar cases of clemency are bound to crop up”.

The Asian Age, in its editorial, concluded that this was a judicial overreach, as a set of conspirators carried out the diabolical act on Indian soil in an act of terror against the Union of India, more than just the state of Tamil Nadu. It reminded that it was a decision taken by the judiciary that had put these convicts in prison in the first place.