It is a sign of the expanding vision of the Indian judiciary that it has reaffirmed the law relating to the correct and constitutional use of sovereign clemency powers without being weighed down by the political and high-profile nature of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The court has stuck to its humanitarian outlook, placing emphasis on the continued relevance of fundamental rights even after a convict’s death sentence has been confirmed and mercy petitions rejected. Coming less than a month after a three-judge Bench unequivocally laid down that unexplained delay on the part of the executive in disposing of mercy petitions is a supervening circumstance warranting commutation of death sentences to life terms, the Supreme Court’s latest verdict extending that relief to V. Sriharan alias Murugan, T. Suthendraraja alias Santhan and A.G. Perarivalan is least surprising. There was very little scope for it to deviate from its sound and well-reasoned earlier verdicts. It was quite obvious that the passage of 11 long years since their mercy pleas first reached the President would render any move to execute them unconstitutional. The court has also clarified that “life imprisonment means [until the] end of one’s life”, but has noted that the life term would be subject to provisions relating to remission by the appropriate government under the Code of Criminal Procedure. It has wisely refrained from any discussion on the roles played by Murugan and Santhan, both committed LTTE members, or Perarivalan, an Indian national.
One unsavoury aspect needs to be taken note of. There was an attempt in Tamil Nadu to give an ethno-linguistic angle to the campaign to save the three convicts from the gallows. The humanitarian demand to abolish capital punishment was overshadowed by efforts to portray the three men as “innocent Tamils”. It is good that the court had laid down a sound jurisprudential foundation for its verdict well before it granted relief to the Rajiv Gandhi case trio, lest someone read in it any unseen influence of emotions whipped up by some political elements. There is bound to be a view that the state’s failure to execute convicted killers and conspirators may mean that justice had not been fully rendered to those killed or maimed in the blast. Rather than looking at it as inadequate justice, an enlightened citizenry should see conviction and imprisonment as sufficient punishment that would give true closure to a dastardly offence, and not execution, which even in the case of the most brutal offences would not be in keeping with the values of a civilised community. Verdicts such as this would create a humane atmosphere and pave the way for the eventual abolition of the death penalty.