The Tamil Nadu government has stoked a fresh controversy by writing to the Union home secretary seeking the latter’s opinion on the release of the seven persons convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The political implications of this move beg to be analysed in detail but it is the legal fallout that may have serious repercussions for the nation going forward. This is the second time that the state Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has played this move, in what seems to be a larger game of political chess.
On February 19, 2014, Jayalalithaa had announced in the assembly that “whether the Centre responds to our recommendation or not, we will invoke the powers vested with the government and release them”. This was a day after the death sentences of the convicts were commuted to life by the Supreme Court in Sriharan vs Union. The first bench of the Supreme Court qualified their judgment by saying that “imp-risonment means end of one’slife, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government” as per the Code of Criminal Procedure.
This triggered a chain of events starting with the Union government seeking the court’s clarification on the correct interpretation of remission law. Subsequently, the matter was referred to a constitution bench and the release of seven convicts stayed. Out of a total of seven issues brought before the bench, two were of immense significance to this case — whether the state must get the Centre’s concurrence in remission cases involving conviction under a Central act or prosecution by a Central agency; and whether imprisonment for life meant the “rest of one’s life” without any right to claim remission.
The constitution bench pronounced its judgment on December 2, 2015 and answered the first question in the affirmative and unanimously that the state shall obtain the Centre’s concurrence in such cases. With regard to the second question, the bench delivered two judgments with the majority supporting the view that court can award “punishment of imprisonment for life” and “put that category beyond application of remission”. However, a minority judgment, authored by Justice U.U. Lalit and supported by Justice A.M. Sapre, provides a thought-provoking dissenting opinion.
In the dissenting judgment, the larger question of whether a prisoner can be “condemned to live in prison till the last breath without there being even a ray of hope to come out” was considered. The judges argued that such a situation would “not be conducive to reformation” and will “push him into a dark hole without there being a semblance of light at the end of the tunnel”.
The prison manual of Tamil Nadu says that the “theory of reformation and rehabilitation” is followed in dealing with the offenders in the state. All over the civilised world, such measures are being preferred over the theories of “retribution and deterrence”. In a landmark case Shatrugan Chouhan vs Union, the Supreme Court liberally interpreted the right to life to commute death sentences on account of delay in deciding mercy petitions in a number of cases. More recently, the Law Commission of India has recommended the abolition of death penalty for all but two offences.
As a society, we must evolve towards a penalogical system, which is more humane. It is only logical that those who speak against the barbarism of death penalty also realise the dehumanising effect of “imprisonment without remission”. Apart from the case of seven Rajiv Gandhi convicts, all life sentence prisoners who have completed the minimum mandatory sentence must be periodically assessed by a prison board. Such a measure would invariably assist the reformation process and help re-integrate offenders back in to society. Ultimately, the true test of society lies in providing a mechanism which will ensure that offenders are sent to prison for correction, not condemnation.