In a stunning political move that caught practically everyone off guard, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa on Wednesday announced her government had decided to release all seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, including the three whose death sentences were commuted by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
She told the state Assembly that the Centre had three days to respond to the decision, after which her government would exercise its power to free the convicts.
While commuting the sentences of A G Perarivalan alias Arivu, Sriharan alias Murugan and T Suthentiraraja alias Santhan, the Supreme Court had left it open for Tamil Nadu to grant remissions to them under the executive powers of the state government.
On Wednesday morning, Jaya convened a meeting of her cabinet to discuss the release of these three, and four others serving life terms in the same case: Sriharan’s wife Nalini, B Robert Payas, S Jayakumar and PRavichandran.
“Taking into account that they have spent nearly 23 years in prison, the state cabinet has resolved to release them, exercising the power of remission vested in it under section 432 of the CrPC,” Jaya said in the Assembly.
However, as the case was investigated by CBI, a central agency, and tried and convicted under the now-repealed TADA, the state would have to discuss it with the Union government under section 435 of the CrPC, she added.
“To proceed with the consultation, the state cabinet’s decision to remit the sentences of the seven persons will be forwarded to the Centre immediately. If the Union government delays its response beyond three days, the state government will exercise its powers and will release Perarivalan, Sriharan, Santhan, Nalini, Robert Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran,” Jaya informed the House.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision had triggered demands to free the convicts from Perarivalan’s family, activists and all political parties except the Congress. Jaya was silent on Tuesday, but on Wednesday she criticised former chief minister M Karunanidhi for remaining indifferent to the matter while he was in power.
The five MLAs of the Congress, which had protested against the decision to commute the death sentence, walked out of the assembly after the Speaker did not allow them to raise their point.
Jaya’s decision left even the families of the convicts speechless. “This is so unexpected that I feel I am floating weightless. I know it takes a lot of political courage to take such a decision, and we cannot thank the chief minister enough for this mercy,” said Perarivalan’s father T Gnanasekaran alias Kuildasan, a school teacher who was active in the Tamil outfit Dravida Kazhagam.
Perarivalan’s younger sister Arulselvi, an assistant professor in the computer science department at Annamalai University, Chidambaram, was in class when she got the news. “We had been campaigning to save his life. Now all of a sudden, not only has he been spared death, he is going to be back with us. It all seems incredible,” she said.
DMK chief Karunanidhi told reporters that the Centre should support the state government’s decision. He said he had been demanding their release for a few years. “I congratulate Chief Minister Jayalalithaa for heeding to that demand,” he said.
Had the state government discussed the matter in detail beforehand, the seven convicts could in fact have been released immediately, Karunanidhi said.
Political parties including the CPI, PMK, MDMK, VCK, SDPI and several others welcomed the decision.