Chennai: Hours before the Tamil Nadu governor’s decision to toss the ball on the release of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi case back to the Centre, chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami was making an impassioned speech at the state assembly expressing hopes of a “positive decision by the governor”.
In the same speech made at the assembly on February 4, the chief minister also accused the DMK of “doing little about the release of seven convicts, yet pretend to fight for them now, merely to earn sympathy in the forthcoming elections”.
“It was our [AIADMK] government that had done everything in this issue from commuting the death sentences of Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, to approve the release of all convicts. The DMK, on the other hand, did nothing despite being in alliance with the Congress, yet staging a drama now to gain sympathy votes in the elections,” he hit out at the DMK.
But home ministry’s affidavit based on governor’s response filed in the Supreme Court on January 25, four days before the chief minister met him appealing for the release of seven convicts, stated that the President was the competent authority to decide on the release. In doing so, the governor had effectively turned the tables on the chief minister.
The governor’s decision came at a time when the convicts and the families were finally hoping for a release, after a three-decade-long struggle.
“We were almost there. I personally believed Arivu [Perarivalan] would be released anytime, we had crossed every hurdle that had come our way. Now it looks like we are back to square one,” laments Arputham Ammal, mother of A.G. Perarivalan, one of the seven convicts.
Besides dashing the hopes of the convicts and their families, the governor’s decision continues to play out as a bone of contention between the two major Dravidian parties in the face of the state assembly election scheduled in May.
Responding strongly to the chief minister’s accusations, DMK president, M. K. Stalin, said that the chief minister’s masks on the issue “had come off”.
“It was the AIADMK that had brought resolutions favouring their release in the assembly before elections in 2014, 2016 and again in 2018. But the resolutions were conveniently forgotten once the elections were over. The chief minister seemed to remember the seven convicts only now because we have another election coming,” Stalin had said, adding that the DMK was willing to jointly represent to the President on the issue if the state government chose to do so.
The Tamil Nadu cabinet had passed the resolution in September 2018 and since then, the resolution had awaited the governor’s approval. After an inordinate delay on the part of the governor in deciding on the resolution, A. G. Perarivalan, one of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, had approached the Supreme Court seeking an early release. The Supreme Court had directed the governor to file his response in two weeks.
The fact that the chief minister had met the governor on January 25, four days before the affidavit was filed, is seen as a major source of embarrassment for the state government. Dr N. Ezhilan, public health expert and a Dravidian ideologue, says that the chief minister was “lying to Tamil people on this issue”.
Interestingly, prior to the home ministry’s affidavit, the Centre had submitted in the Supreme Court on January 20 that “it was the President under Article 72 and not the Governor under Article 161 who is competent to grant pardon/remission”.
“Neither the judge seemed keen about the argument nor did we think importantly of it,” says activist Selvaraj Murugaiyan, working against capital punishment in the state. “It was an already settled issue, what we failed to expect was the governor’s decision to toe the Centre’s line. It is clearly a murder of Constitution.”
While the ball is ostensibly in the President’s court now, activists and observers are worried that this might just be another tactic to delay the entire process. Incidentally responding to a letter sent by Madurai CPI (M) MP S. Venkatesan seeking the release of seven convicts, the President’s office on November 9, 2020, had said that it was forwarding the appeal to the “Home Ministry of Indian government for appropriate attention”.
“The governor and the Centre say the President is competent authority to decide on the release, but the president is forwarding my request to the home ministry. Clearly, there is no real interest or concern about the seven convicts who are languishing in jail for three decades now, they keep passing the buck,” says Venkatesan.
Federal issues at stake
But the AIADMK continues to maintain that they are sincere on the issue. Hinting at the BJP’s reluctance in granting the remission, a senior AIADMK leader says the issue “would have been resolved in no time if only the BJP was on the same page”.
“Our leader Jayalalithaa had also granted an audience to and had promised to help her. We have always been sincere about this issue,” says the AIADMK leader.
DMK spokesperson and Chennai-based lawyer Manuraj Shanmugasundaram, however, says that the state is well within its rights to release the seven convicts.
“According to Tamil Nadu Prison Rules, a life sentence is about 20 years. This makes all the convicts eligible for release in June 2011. When the governor is not willing to take any decision and abdicates his responsibility, the court can step in and decide on the release citing inordinate delay. In the Shatrugan Chauhan versus Union of India case, the Supreme Court had commuted the death sentences of 15 people citing undue delay on mercy petitions. So, we have precedents.”
Activists also feel the governor’s decision raises questions about the validity of state powers. “What is the necessity for Article 161 if the state cannot use it?” Shanmugasundaram asks.
Echoing his sentiments, Selvaraj Murugaiyan says the issue “is larger than the release of Perarivalan or other convicts”.
“It is about our federal rights. The governor had overturned the rights of the state, also the resolution had come from the cabinet and the governor should have informed the cabinet first. Instead, he chooses to forward it to the home ministry. In an ideal situation, the Supreme Court should take note of this.”
Murugaiyan says the state’s rights have been compromised on the issue, and the state should “ideally fight it out”.
“The Supreme Court in 2018 says the state government can decide appropriately under Article 161. The resolution followed the observation. If the State decides to concede to the Centre again, it is a compromise on the federal rights. It looks like the AIADMK wants to get rid of this responsibility. Unfortunately, when the DMK says it is willing to send its representatives to meet the President, it is toeing the same line.”
Arputham Ammal too says the governor had made a “mockery of federal rights and had insulted the decision of the elected cabinet”.
“He stepped into jail when he was 19, Arivu is 49 today. We have knocked all possible doors; we need an answer.”
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.