A series of dramatic events relating to the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case seemed to reveal yet again, the opportunism inherent in Tamil Nadu politics and the strain it imposes on a beleaguered Indian Central government. On Tuesday India’s Supreme Court commuted the punishment given to three of the prisoners from death [...]


Will Jayalalithaa’s political opportunism backfire?


A series of dramatic events relating to the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case seemed to reveal yet again, the opportunism inherent in Tamil Nadu politics and the strain it imposes on a beleaguered Indian Central government. On Tuesday India’s Supreme Court commuted the punishment given to three of the prisoners from death sentence to life imprisonment. On Wednesday Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jeyaram declared she would let all three go free, along with four others who were already serving life sentences for their role in the crime. On Thursday the Central government moved court to have the State’s decision stayed, and also filed a petition to have the verdict that commuted the death sentence reviewed. The Supreme Court has asked the TN government not to release the convicts till March 6, when it will hear the Centre’s plea. All this within a week in short order.

Indian Congress Party supporters prepare to burn an effigy of Tamil Nadu state Chief Minister Jayalalithaa during a protest in New Delhi. India's top court February 20 blocked the release of three of former premier Rajiv Gandhi's killers after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh denounced their freeing as against all principles of justice. They were among seven Tamil extremists who had been due to walk free from prison by this weekend after the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state ordered their release, sparking political uproar.-AFP

The fallout of Jayalalithaa’s move is of interest in Sri Lanka because Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber, and four of the men to be freed were Sri Lankan Tamils. The situation also draws attention to complications arising from tensions that erupt between Centre and State in the quasi federal Indian system.
The Central government argues the Gandhi assassination was investigated by a central agency, the Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and under central law, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA). Therefore, the decision has to be taken in consultation with the Centre. Jayalalithaa says the convicts have been acquitted under the central law, (implying that it no longer applies).

Jayalalithaa’s actions have sparked outrage in many quarters within the Indian political establishment — and especially in the Congress party, whose ex-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed in her state. The party which is led by Gandhi’s widow Sonia, and is the main constituent in the UPA government, condemned the move as “irresponsible, perverse and populist.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a strong statement described the Gandhi assassination as ‘an attack on the soul of India.’ The release of the killers would be contrary to all principles of justice” he declared. “No government or party should be soft in our fight against terrorism.”
He said the Tamil Nadu government had been informed that its proposed course of action is “not legally tenable and should not be proceeded with.”
The most pained by the move seemed to be Rahul Gandhi, who is reported to have said “Rajiv Gandhi’s killers are being set free, I am saddened by this. I am personally against the death penalty but this is not about my father. If a Prime Minister’s killers are being released, what kind of justice should the common man expect?”

Did Jayalalithaa forget the 15 others who died along with Gandhi in the blast in Sriperumbudur in 1991? Did she show disrespect for the sentiments of their kith and kin when she issued the release order? The feelings expressed by the family members of these victims seemed no different than those of Rahul Gandhi, in that their disappointment was not because they favoured the death penalty but because they saw in this decision, a miscarriage of justice. Ten of the victims were policemen and five were Congress workers, according to reports.

“We are not advocating death penalty but we want those convicted by the highest court of carrying out a heinous act to undergo the punishment meted out by the court. They cannot be allowed to walk scot free,” ‘the Hindu’ quoted one of them as saying. Referring to Jayalalithaa, Congress spokesman V. Narayanan had said, “She should remember that she is also the Chief Minister for the victims.”

Jayalalithaa’s announcement, greeted with desk-thumping in the state assembly, is seen elsewhere as a politically opportunistic move made during the run-up to general elections due to be held by May. The timing of the move would seem to betray unabashed cynicism. Competition to champion the Sri Lankan Tamil cause in order to harness Tamil nationalist sentiment has often reached ridiculous levels in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK’s game of one-upmanship with DMK leader and arch rival M Karunanidhi is all too familiar. But has she taken it too far this time?

Law Minister Kapil Sibal is reported to have taken a dig at the Opposition BJP for “not uttering a word on the issue while it had bayed for Afzal Guru’s blood.” (Afzal Guru, one of those convicted in connection with the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, was hanged last year. BJP leaders at the time of the attack hinted that ‘a neighboring country’ was involved, leading to heightened tensions between India and Pakistan.) The BJP is currently mulling the possibilities of forming alliances with regional parties like AIADMK in order to challenge the Congress-led UPA in the elections. Hence the cautiousness in its response.

The ‘Times of India’ in a comment said, “Chief minister Jayalalithaa’s decision to set free all seven convicts in the Rajiv assassination case amounts to playing politics with terror. While the Supreme Court has decided the death convicts deserve mercy, the indecent haste with which the state government has announced that it is setting them free smacks of vote bank politics in an election year.”

The Indian Supreme Court’s ruling apparently allowed the state government the option of remitting the life sentences of those convicted. But the ‘Times of India’ reported that the top court commented adversely on the Tamil Nadu government decision.The court said the remission of life sentence which is awarded on commuting death penalty is not automatic, observing that “there is an elaborate procedure for remission of such life sentences, which TN govt appears not to have followed.”

If Jayalalitha has to eat humble pie at the end of the day, with the Supreme Court nullifying her state’s decision, will she find her political opportunism backfiring on her this time around?

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.