The decision of the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu >to release the seven life convicts in the 1991 Rajiv Gandhi assassination case and seek the Union government’s view on the move is a politically partisan attempt to corner Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s electoral rivals and place the national parties in a spot ahead of the Assembly elections to be held this summer. It needs a perverse disregard for normative politics to convert the humanitarian issue of granting freedom to prisoners incarcerated for nearly a quarter century into an electoral trump card. To add perspective, it must be recalled that on February 18, 2014, the Supreme Court >commuted the death sentences of three conspirators in the Rajiv Gandhi case to life terms on the ground that there was an unreasonable delay in the disposal of their mercy petitions. The very next day the >AIADMK government declared that it would release all seven life convicts in the case and gave a three-day deadline to the Centre to give its views, marking a dramatic leap from capital punishment to en masse release, within 24 hours. The Supreme Court intervened to stay their release after the Congress-led government of the day >challenged the decision . A Constitution Bench >settled the substantive questions of law arising from the issue, holding on December 2, 2015, that the Centre had ‘primacy’ in according remission to life convicts in a case that involves consultation between the Centre and the State. It observed that the remission law should not be used for the ‘rescue’ of ‘hardened and heartless offenders’.
Commuting death sentence to life imprisonment is an act of compassion. Releasing the beneficiaries of such commutation, on the other hand, requires careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. It can be nobody’s argument that life convicts should be locked away for life. At the same time, it is noteworthy that lifelong imprisonment is now seen as an alternative to the death penalty. There may be instances when the death sentence is deemed excessive, while a regular life term, which has scope for remission after 14 years, seems inadequate. In such cases, imprisonment for the rest of one’s natural life may be the appropriate punishment. Any decision on releasing such convicts will have to be made after evaluating the gravity of the crime, the probable effect of their release on society, and the essential inhumanity of prolonged incarceration without even a sliver of hope of freedom. Some may believe it is time to set free the Rajiv case prisoners as they were mere accessories in the assassination, while the masterminds are dead. But there can be no omnibus order covering everyone. With the Supreme Court saying these convicts should not even be allowed ‘a ray of hope’, the BJP-led government at the Centre may not respond positively. The AIADMK regime could have explored the scope for a constitutional remedy such as invoking the Governor’s clemency power under Article 161. Instead, it has chosen a legally discredited route for political gains.