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Explained: Rajiv Gandhi case convicts’ legal battle and Governor’s delay on pardon plea

The Centre has told the Supreme Court that Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit will take a decision on the release of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case within three to four days. What does this mean?

Written by Arun Janardhanan , Edited by Explained Desk | Chennai |
Updated: January 22, 2021 7:53:15 am
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991

The Centre on Thursday informed the Supreme Court that Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit will take a decision on the release of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case within three to four days. This comes after a prolonged legal battle by one of the convicts, A G Perarivalan, who had moved the apex court seeking release from the jail.

What does it mean to Perarivalan and six other convicts serving life sentences in the case?

The latest development in the Rajiv Gandhi case

As per the submission before the SC today, the much-awaited decision on the release of the Rajiv Gandhi case convicts will be announced from Tamil Nadu Raj Bhawan by Monday.

It may be one such case where the larger conspiracy angles are being probed in 2021 in an assassination case of 1991, while the CBI had submitted its chargesheet and the highest court had handed out punishments by 1999 itself.

However, what led to the prolonged delay in remission by Tamil Nadu Governor, even after an elected government had sent the same recommendation twice in the last two years, was a constitutional provision which says the Governor cannot reject the state’s recommendation but there is no time limit prescribed to take a decision..

Since the Governor had already returned the file to reconsider the government’s decision and the government stood by its decision, and with the SC also clarifying that the Governor is the competent authority to give remission, there may not be many options left before the Governor than to give assent to the cabinet recommendation.

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Timeline of the legal battle

It started with a pardon plea by Perarivalan before the Tamil Nadu Governor in 2015.

In September, 2018, the SC asked the Governor to decide the pardon plea as he “deemed fit”. Following the SC order, the Tamil Nadu Cabinet had recommended to the Governor to release Perarivalan and six others.

The cabinet decision to remit sentences of all seven convicts, including Perarivalan, was welcomed by all political parties in the state. But the Governor chose to take time. The Cabinet recommendation remains pending.

In 2020, the SC had rebuked the CBI for failing to make any significant progress in its investigation into a larger conspiracy behind the assassination 29 years ago and remarked that the Multi Disciplanary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) “has done nothing, nor do they want to do anything,” referring to the CBI-led MDMA set up in 1998.

In July 2020, the Madras High Court said that Tamil Nadu Governor cannot sit on the state government’s recommendation for so long and reminded that there is no time limit prescribed for the constitutional authority (Governor) to decide on such issues only “because of the faith and trust attached to the constitutional post”. The court said, “If such authority fails to take a decision in a reasonable time, then the court will be constrained to interfere.”

Overcoming a major hurdle in his legal fight, a counter filed by the Centre before the SC in November 2020 said the CBI has nothing to do with Perarivalan’s remission petition and that it remains an issue between the petitioner and the office of the Governor. The Centre also submitted that the CBI has no role in the case of remission of the petitioner.

On Thursday, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta was informing the SC that Governor Purohit himself will take a decision “in three or four days.”

After the SC had also expressed displeasure in the inordinate delay in Governor’s decision and probed legal grounds to dispose the case under humanitarian grounds asserting reformatory values of Indian judiciary, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta was informing the SC on Thursday that the Governor Purohit himself will take a decision “in three or four days.”

What were the arguments in Perarivalan’s petition seeking pardon

Perarivalan had been pleading for release citing that he was 19 when he was arrested, he was the only male child of his parents, there were no records of criminal antecedents and that he had an excellent conduct in his entire prison life. His petition also cited UG and PG degrees from Indira Gandhi National Open University during his incarceration, and that he was the university topper, Gold medalist in diploma in DTP and that he completed more than eight diploma and certificate courses during his prison term. Citing that his probation officer gave a report in favour of his release or parole, he also cited retired CBI officer V Thiagarajan’s admission about lapses in recording his confession statement that handed out maximum punishment in his case.

Basis of arguments calling Perarivalan innocent

Perarivalan cannot be called innocent before the law as he continues to be a convicted prisoner serving imprisonment. But what had strengthened the perception about his innocence was a revelation by a former CBI SP V Thiagarajan, who interrogated and took the crucial confession statement of Perarivalan in TADA custody.

He was accused of having bought two battery cells for Sivarasan, the LTTE man who masterminded the conspiracy. Perarivalan was sentenced to death based on this crucial confession statement. But years later, in November 2013, retired CBI officer Thiagarajan revealed that he had altered Perarivalan’s statement in custody to “qualify it as a confession statement.” Thiagarajan had later submitted the same as an affidavit in SC, which was never revisited.

Perarivalan’s statement recorded by Thiagarajan was this: “…Moreover, I bought two nine volt battery cells (Golden Power) and gave them to Sivarasan. He used only these to make the bomb explode.”

But Thiagarajan revealed later that Perarivalan had not actually said the second sentence — and this, Thiagarajan admitted, put him in a “dilemma”.

“It (the statement) wouldn’t have qualified as a confession statement without his admission of being part of the conspiracy. There I omitted a part of his statement, and added my interpretation. I regret it,” Thiagarajan said.

Interestingly, in 1999, the SC acquitted 19 accused and suspended TADA provisions in the case but it upheld Perarivalan’s TADA confession alone, observing his statement was “believable.”

Arrested at the age of 19, his incarceration completes three decades in June 2021, including as a death convict between 1999 and 2014, mostly in solitary confinement.

Political significance of Rajiv Gandhi case convicts’ release

The release of seven convicts is a demand raised by not only the ruling AIADMK but the main opposition the DMK too. While both parties had been raising the issue suggesting that the Indian judiciary should be able to reform and let them live as good citizens in the country to uphold the high values of reformatory justice, a letter written by Justice K T Thomas too had demanded remission for all seven convicts in a letter addressing Sonia Gandhi in 2017. Writing as one of the three judges who delivered verdicts in the case and requesting magnanimity from her side too, Justice Thomas wrote: “…may I point out that Mahatma Gandhi assassination case, the main accused were hanged and the other conspirators who were sentenced to life imprisonment, after remaining in jail for 14 long years, were set free from the prison by granting remission for the remaining period (they included one Gopal Godse who was the brother of Nathuram Godse, the principal assailant).”

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