Commutation of a death sentence to life imprisonment could be seen as an act of compassion, but a straight leap from capital punishment to wholesale release as has been proposed by the Tamil Nadu government in the case of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination convicts raises the question whether the very object of penal laws is being subverted. If the assassins of a former Prime Minister, who had been sentenced to death, are allowed to walk free on political considerations and on the basis of regional and linguistic passions, public faith in the criminal justice system is bound to erode. The Supreme Court, while commuting the death sentence on three of them, had said the life term was subject to remission by the appropriate government following procedures set down in Section 432 of the CrPC. The haste with which the Tamil Nadu government decided on the release of the seven convicts, overlooking procedural and substantive requirements, was questioned in the Supreme Court, which stayed it. The power of remission, the court had held on an earlier occasion, cannot be exercised arbitrarily but has to be “well informed, reasonable and fair to all concerned”. In addition, the State has to obtain the opinion of the court that awarded or confirmed the sentence, and in any case remission cannot be wholesale but has to be considered on a case by case basis. It is debatable if justice would require the convicts to remain in prison until the end of their natural life or if the 23 years that they have spent in prison is enough of a punishment. Again, while the law requires consultation with the Centre at the very least, the State has announced its decision and is then going through the motions of consulting the Centre. Setting a three-day deadline for the Centre to convey its view is not merely unreasonable but also goes against norms of interaction in a federal polity. With the Supreme Court restraining it from altering the status quo, the State’s action will no doubt be subject to deeper legal scrutiny.

A decision on the convicts is bound to have repercussions for India’s foreign and internal security policies, and for States hit by militancy. Arbitrary decisions to release life convicts found guilty of a political assassination may also have another consequence: the erosion of public support for the abolition of capital punishment, as society may tend to view life terms cynically, as an oblique means of releasing convicts after some years. In dealing with those found guilty of killing a former Prime Minister in collaboration with a foreign terror outfit, the judiciary has shown it can stay above political considerations, and displayed a humanistic spirit. Even convicted killers may some day deserve freedom. Any decision to set them free calls for careful consideration; a decision based on regional passions carries with it the danger of creating an emotional disconnect between Tamil Nadu and the rest of India.

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