Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit has said he will take a decision on the Cabinet’s recommendation to release of all remaining seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case in due course in accordance with the Constitution and in a fair manner.
Denying that the Governor has sought the view of the Union Home Ministry, the Raj Bhavan has in a press release said: "The case is a complex one and involves the examination of legal, administrative and Constitutional issues. The records which are voluminous are being received from the State Government with the connected judgments having been handed over to Raj Bhavan only on Sept 14”.
It went on to say that "all efforts will be taken to process the papers scrupulously” and that “necessary consultations may be carried out, when required in due course”. The decision, it said “will be taken in a just and fair manner and in accordance with the Constitution".
The press release implies that the Governor has so far not taken the issue to the centre but he will in due course after studying a series of judgments.
This will surely take time. He has to study the trial court verdict sentencing all 26 accused to death. Later, the Supreme Court in November 1999 confirmed death for only four—Nalini, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan and awarded life sentence to Ravichandran, Robert Payas and Jayakumar.
The remaining 19 were found guilty of other offences under the Arms Act, Explosives Substances Act and the Passport Act and were released as they had already spent several years in jail for these offences.
Of the four, Nalini got Governor’s pardon in April 2000 on the basis of a recommendation of the Karunanidhi Cabinet. It left untouched the death sentence awarded to the other three.
The President rejected their clemency petitions in 2011. The Supreme Court in Feb 18, 2014 commuted their sentence to life on the ground of inordinate delay on the part of the President in taking a decision. While doing so, the court said the Tamil Nadu government can use its executive power of remission to release the prisoners, of course with the concurrence of the Centre.
The very next day, the Jayalalitha Government sought the concurrence of the Centre for its decision to release all seven. The Centre not only refused to give concurrence, but also petitioned the apex court and got a stay on the decision. In the petition filed by the Union of India, the Government of India and Murugan and others were impleaded as respondents.
It was on this petition earlier this month, a three-judge bench of Justice Ranjan Gogoi asked the Governor to take a decision as he deemed fit on the mercy petition of Perarivalan pending with him since Dec 30, 2015.
It was on that basis, the Tamil Nadu Cabinet recommended to the Governor to invoke the power under Art 161 and release all the seven.
Though the Cabinet decision is binding, the Governor has the right to seek legal counsel and take\into consideration various factors. One, the Centre has opposed their release on the ground that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a foreign terrorist organisation and the release of the convicts will set a dangerous precedent and have “international ramifications”, meaning it will hamper its efforts to get Mumbai serial blast mastermind Hafiz Sayeed extradited from Pakistan.
Further, Murugan, Robert Payas and Jayakumar are Sri Lankan Tamils and were hardcore members of the LTTE. If they are released, they will have to be sent them back to Sri Lanka. Though the LTTE was exterminated in the final battle in northern Sri Lanka in May 2009, the Sri Lankan Government will naturally view these former Tigers with hostility though it may agree to take them back.
Finally, if a humanitarian view has to be taken, what about doing justice to 15 others, including nine policemen, who died with Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumpudur on that fateful night of May 21, 1991? It is not an easy decision to take. And Governor’s decision is unlikely in the near future.