The Tamil Nadu government did the legally correct and politically wise thing in accepting the recommendation of the Prison Advisory Board against releasing Nalini, a life convict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case lodged in the Special Prison for Women in Vellore. Nalini played a key role in the monstrous crime that shook the nation on May 21, 1991: alongside the charge of conspiracy, she faced charges on 121 different counts and was physically present at the scene of crime. As Justice D.P. Wadhwa noted in the Supreme Court decision awarding the death penalty to Nalini and three others in the case: “It is not that Nalini did not understand the nature of the crime and her participation. She was a willing party to the crime.” Fortunately for her, the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment in April 2000 following an open appeal by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. But if a life sentence for a heinous crime is to have any meaning at all, it should be just that: a lifetime in prison. Indeed, one of the arguments of those who want the death penalty to remain on the statute books in India is that the alternative, a life sentence, is decidedly not meant to be incarceration for the remainder of the convict's life. The life convict, in fact, can count on freedom after 14 years and usually earlier. Early release of Nalini would have bolstered the argument of the hanging party, advocates of an extreme, barbaric punishment that no longer exists in most countries.

While there is something commendable about the sense of forgiveness shared by Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka, who showed personal nobility in visiting Nalini in Vellore, this can have no bearing on the legal issue. Nor is the fact that Nalini is a mother or has acquired educational qualifications in prison relevant to the issue. A relevant question is: has she shown any remorse? “Even now,” the PAB records, “she does not admit her guilt.” Add to this the problem of taking care of the security of Nalini and others who might have to live in close proximity to her in the event of her release and the issue resolves itself from a practical standpoint as well. The principal perpetrators of the assassination are all dead now, but the ends of justice, including proportionality of the punishment, will not be served if Nalini is set free. After all, as Justice Wadhwa held, without her help, the assassination could not have been carried out. Instead of taking up the wrong cause, sympathisers of the no-longer-extant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam would do well to support humanists in campaigning for the abolition of capital punishment in India — and for getting the three others sentenced to death in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case off death row.

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