Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: To Uphold Justice is to Release the Seven Convicts

After 28 years of struggle, a single signature by the Tamil Nadu governor remains the only hurdle.

The seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case have already spent 28 years in jail and the campaign to release them cannot be dragged on any further. 

The Supreme Court commuted their death sentences to life terms and said the state has the power to release them. The Tamil Nadu cabinet passed a resolution to release them, despite pressure from the Centre. Each legal hurdle has been crossed, yet their release continues to be uncertain. After nearly three decades, the justice the convicts deserve is lying on the governor’s desk, waiting for his signature.

Whenever their release is advocated, powerful voices vociferously protest, saying they are “murderers” undeserving of freedom or mercy. They forget that we live in a civilised world that believes in basic rights for convicts and in which the purpose of incarceration is reform of the prisoner.

Unopened files, fables and buried truths have made the case one of the country’s most mysterious. The national media hardly covers it. Forgetting is in people’s nature, and can only be countered with repeated reminders. 

Since it started, the case has bred confusion. Questions over the identities of those behind the belt bomb that Dhanu activated, along with several others, remain unanswered.The Jain Commission’s 1997 report is proof enough of the complexity of the case. The report mentioned influential names and demanded that they be probed. But the CBI never took it up. Several important papers and documents got “lost”. The controversial godman Chandraswami died without being interrogated. A 1999 letter from former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh to the then-home minister L.K. Advani raising several doubts over the CBI enquiry is further proof of foul play.

Also read: There Is Compelling Legal Precedent for TN Governor to Release Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins

In the letter, Singh demanded the multi-disciplinary monitoring committee should investigate angles beyond the 26 persons accused of the crime by the SIT.  He also raised questions about weapon procurement and the exchange of money.

Those concerns were buried in secret files and the CBI concluded its probe by scapegoating seven ordinary Tamils – Murugan, Santhan, Perarivalan, Nalini, Ravichandran, Robert Paes and Jayakumar. Several Tamil and Dravidian movements protested against the injustice. Yet, the CBI did not investigate further.

Former investigating officer Thyagarajan filed an affidavit about the error while recording Perarivalan’s statement. Ragothaman, who led the investigation, has said in his book that the identity of the belt bomb’s maker was never ascertained.

The fact is that the investigation could never find the real culprits. While this continues to be an unforgivable blot on the Indian law enforcement and criminal justice system, the official silence that has accompanied the Supreme Court’s ruling that the state government is empowered to release the convicts is no less unpardonable.

Both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have said they have no objection to their release; they have ‘forgiven’ them. But it is now common to get the families of those killed along with Rajiv Gandhi to speak out against the release. Those who follow the case closely will realise that the police establishment is behind this.

Also read: Jailed 27 Years for Assassination He Knew Nothing About, Perarivalan Deserves a New Life

Would the police, government, judiciary or civil society take note if the families of those killed in the Mumbai blasts demand Sanjay Dutt’s permanent incarceration? What would happen if every affected party starts making such demands?

The case is not discussed very widely beyond Tamil Nadu. The general opinion is that Rajiv Gandhi was killed by seven Tamils and hence they deserve an unending lesson. Every punishment has a time frame. Our system is not designed to see punishment as retributive – the aim is to give the person a chance at reform. A civilised society does not aim to harass endlessly.

The Supreme Court did not condemn the convicts to prison until death. In the case of Gopal Godse, convicted for his role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and sentenced to life, the then Congress government released him in 1964. The Central government’s decision to not forgive the seven convicts in the Rajiv case naturally leads one to make inferences about the social background of Godse vis-à-vis the seven convicts.

The conditions for the premature release of life convicts are based on their conduct, not the nature of the crime. The seven convicts have maintained good conduct for 28 years. Perarivalan did not just finish many certificate courses in jail, he also helped educate other inmates and maintained the jail library. Under such circumstances, caste comparisons between Sanjay Dutt, who was released on account of good conduct in a case related to the killing of hundreds, and the seven convicts, becomes inevitable.

Could it be that as far as the release of convicts goes, good conduct is not important for our government? And that a person’s caste and social background play a greater role?

It has been six months since the resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu cabinet. The governor’s approval remains the only hurdle. This approval is only a matter of bureaucratic ritual.

The governor perhaps considers himself more powerful than the cabinet. Former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa twice  announced the release after the Supreme Court commuted their sentences. On both occasions, the Centre played spoilsport. It said the case was still in court. With the case concluded, it had no reason to procrastinate. However, it is using the governor to that end.

Since January 24, Perarivalan’s mother, Arputham Ammal, has been demanding that the governor break his silence and release the seven convicts. She is 71 years old. In the last one-and-a-half months, she has visited 22 districts. To mark six months of the Supreme Court judgment, she has announced a protest on March 9. Tamil Nadu could be on the boil – just as it was in 2011.

Perarivalan has brought the case to where it stands by waging a straightforward legal battle. The release of the seven convicts is the only option available to the powers-that-be. Human rights cannot continue to be crushed for political reasons. The AIADMK, in alliance with the BJP now, has no other recourse. Every moment of silence earns deeper resentment from the public.

In the name of justice, the convicts must be released. Tamil Nadu will not forgive the further continuation of this travesty.

Jeya Rani is a journalist based in Chennai.

Translated from Tamil from Kavitha Muralidharan.