Rajat Sharma

Release of Rajiv killers: Gandhi family faces a conundrum

akbThe Supreme Court’s Friday order releasing all six life-term convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has stunned the whole nation. This was not a simple criminal case. India’s former prime minister was assassinated in a dastardly suicide bomb blast on May 21, 1991 at Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. It was a terror attack against India.

Since the issue is 31 years old, let me elaborate. TADA court had on January 28, 1998 given death sentence to all 26 convicts on charge of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi. On May 11, 1999, Supreme Court confirmed death sentences for Nalini, Sriharan, Santhan and Perarivalan, and commuted the death sentences for Robert Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran. It set aside the death sentence given to 19 others.

The next year, on April 19, 2000, Tamil Nadu government recommended commuting the death sentence of Nalini to life imprisonment, and this was approved by the governor. A week later, Sriharan, Santhan and Perarivalan submitted mercy petitions to the President. The matter remained in limbo for 14 years. On February 18, 2014, the Supreme court citing inordinate delay by the Centre in deciding on mercy petitions, commuted the death sentence of all these three convicts to life imprisonment.

From 2014 till 2018, the Union Home Ministry declined to give approval to Tamil Nadu government’s decision for premature release of all seven life convicts. This year, on May 18, Supreme Court, invoking its special powers, ordered the release of Perarivalan. In August this year, Nalini and Ravichandran moved the Supreme Court seeking premature release.

In a nutshell, one by one, all the convicts who were awarded death sentences, got their sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and on Friday, the Supreme Court ordered the release of all seven convicts. They were immediately set free from Tamil Nadu jails. The killers of Rajiv Gandhi will now move freely in India.
This is nothing but a blow against our entire system, our judiciary and our executive. Several questions arise from the apex court’s Friday order.

First, can the Supreme Court using its extraordinary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution order the release of life term convicts? Second, will the writ of the Centre stand or the demand of state government be accepted? Third, whether the state government has the right to pardon terrorists in serious matters like the assassination of a former PM? Should there be politics in such matters?

The most surprising part is that Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had publicly said that all the killers be forgiven. But the Congress party on Friday said the apex court decision was bad in law, “totally unacceptable, completely erroneous”, and not in consonance with the spirit of India.

Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, the party even disagrees with the views of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. The Congress party said it will use all legal remedies at its disposal to challenge the release of the convicts, since the Supreme Court order raises questions relating to how to deal with similar claims that may arise in future. The DMK, which welcomed the apex court decision, is in power in Tamil Nadu. It has an alliance with the Congress, but Chief Minister M. K. Stalin’s government fought hard for the release of the convicts.

Let’s have a look at what the Supreme Court bench of Justice B R Gavai and Justice B V Nagarathna said while releasing the convicts. They referred to the earlier Supreme Court order of May 18, 2022 in which the court invoking special powers ordered the release of life convict A G Perarivalan.

The apex court on Friday said, six other life convicts Nalini Sriharan, V Sriharan alias Murugan, Santhan alias T Suthendraraja, B Ropert Payas, Jayakumar and P Ravichandran, are also on the same footing as they have also spent over 30 years in jail and their conduct in prison was satisfactory and that they all pursued various studies and completed courses inside jail. The apex court cited charitable work done by Ravichandran and also noted the fact that Nalini was a woman and that Payas and Suthendraraja were suffering from various ailments.

The bench said, the factors which led the Supreme Court to pass order for the release of Perarivalan were directly applicable to the other convicts as well. “We therefore direct that the appellants be set free forthwith”, the bench said.

On May 18, 2022, the apex court, using its extraordinary Constitutional powers under Article 142, had ordered the release of Perarivalan, and it was a matter of time for the remaining six convicts to be released.

On Friday, when Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi was opposing the apex court order in Delhi, fireworks were going on outside Nalini’s house in Tamil Nadu. The family members of convicts were waiting outside the Vellore jail for release of the convicts. Sweets were distributed as people danced in joy. A local party TPDK’s president went around the streets of Vellore distributing sweets to people.

It is a fact that on March 19, 2008, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had met Nalini Sriharan in Vellore jail and later said that she has forgiven all the killers of her late father. In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Friday night, we showed video of Priyanka saying why she had forgiven all the killers.

Priyanka Gandhi said, “When my father was assassinated, I was angry not only at the killers, but the entire world. But this anger did not remain for long. As you grow old, your anger slows down. I realized that there is no point in constantly remaining in a situation of victimhood. There is no point in always feeling yourself as the victim. When you realize that not only you, but the person in front of you is also a victim of the situation, then you gain the power of forgiveness, and your victimhood ends.”

Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that Modi government had opposed release of the live convicts and its views were similar to the views of the previous Congress government. But it is also a fact that the the views of Gandhi family and the Congress party are different on this issue. Congress leader Randeep Surjewala said that the release of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers has shamed the Indian legal system. He blamed the Modi government for not fighting the case properly in the court. But BJP leaders pointed out that Gandhi family members themselves had publicly said they were forgiving the killers.

Even Rahul Gandhi, in a question-answer session in Cambridge University in UK this year said that he has forgiven the killers of his father. He was asked, you have been a victim of violence, your grandmom and father were assassinated, and what are your feelings now. Rahul replied: “The only feeling that comes to my mind is forgiveness. For a son, there can be no pain bigger than the murder of his father, but I have learnt an important lesson in life”.

It was astonishing for me to find for the first time Congress party leaders disagreeing with the Gandhi family. This is indeed surprising. There can be no two opinions on whether the brutal killers of a former Prime Minister must be given the death sentence. It was their terrorist designs that shamed India before the world. They must be given the harshest punishment. The courts concluded who were the killers and who were involved in the conspiracy. The matter reached the Supreme Court. The investigation went on for years, but those were given the death sentences had their punishments commuted to life term.

The first strange part was that Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi publicly wanted that the killers be forgiven. The second strange part was that Congress spokespersons openly opposed the Supreme Court order releasing the convicts, and the third strange part was that the Congress party’s views differed with those of Gandhi family.

It seems difficult to understand why Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka wanted forgiveness for the killers. When Sonia Gandhi appealed for forgiveness, she was the Congress president. How can the views of a party president be different from that of the party?

These are questions for which it will be difficult for the Congress party to find answers. It is nothing less than a conundrum. But, one thing is certain. Millions of Congress workers will surely feel sad to see the killers of Rajiv Gandhi being forgiven and set free. Their feelings will be hurt. It could be difficult for Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka to explain their views to the party workers. But, in Tamil Nadu, this will become a big political issue. It was the then CM Jayalalitha whose government had decided to seek release of all the convicts. It could not be implemented at that time due to opposition from the Centre.

Last year, M K Stalin as Chief Minister wrote a letter to the Centre seeking release of the convicts. The coming months will witness a competition between the DMK and AIADMK to claim credit for the release of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers. On Friday, after the Supreme Court order came, Stalin was at the airport welcoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had gone there to launch several important projects.

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