The >verdict of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on legal questions relating to grant of remission to life convicts exposes the haste with which the Tamil Nadu government acted in February 2014 in >seeking to release the seven persons serving life terms for plotting to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The court’s finding that the Central government has primacy in according remission to life convicts in a case of this nature is a political setback to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. It was apparent that she wanted to be seen as a champion of Tamil rights rather than the stern opponent of terrorism that she was believed to be. In token compliance with a statutory requirement, she wrote to the Centre, giving just three days’ time for its opinion on their release. Alarmed by the thought of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers being freed, the then United Progressive Alliance government rushed to the Supreme Court to stall the process. Thus, the humanitarian question whether convicts who had only been accessories in the LTTE’s assassination plot should languish in prison even after 23 years was converted into a political issue. It became embroiled in technical questions that were referred to a Constitution Bench. The validity of the Tamil Nadu government’s decision will be decided separately by a regular bench.
However, the larger significance here is that the court has barred State governments from invoking their statutory remission power for the premature release of those sentenced by a High Court or the Supreme Court to a specified term above 14 years without remission. It has rejected the theory that every convict, even those facing life-long incarceration, will have to be offered a ‘ray of hope’, placing the interests of the victims of murder above those of the perpetrators. It indicates that those whose death sentences are altered to life terms will have to spend the rest of their life in prison. At the same time, it has kept a small door open for life convicts by declaring that one who had got the benefit of commutation of death sentence to life is not barred from getting remission from the executive. In any case, it has said the constitutional powers of the President and the Governor for grant of clemency remain untouched. The State government will now have to get the concurrence of the Centre in cases investigated by Central agencies before it can use its power of remission to release convicts. Also, the sentences they are undergoing must be for crimes relating to subjects falling under the Union government’s executive powers. The court rejected the idea that a State government can remit prison terms on its own without following the prescribed procedure. A lesson to be drawn from this episode is that the release of prisoners ought to be dealt with on merits on a case-by-case basis by following statutory procedures and not through whimsical or partisan acts of political misadventure.