The Supreme Court on November 11, 2022, ordered for the immediate release of six convicts who are serving life sentence for more than three decades in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
Nalini, Ravichandran, Jayakumar, Suthenthiraraja @ Santhan, Murugan and Robert Pius are the six who are now free.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on the night of May 21, 1991, at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu by a woman suicide bomber identified as Dhanu, at a poll rally.
The Bench comprising Justices B R Gavai and B V Nagarathna while pronouncing the order also referred to the release of former co-convict A.G. Perarivalan on May 18 in exercise of its extraordinary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution. In the May judgment,the Apex court had concluded that the State of Tamil Nadu, and not the Union, had exclusive power to recommend remission in the case.
After the release of Perarivalan, the other convicts Nalini and Ravichandran approached the Supreme Court for parity. The other four convicts had joined in by filing separate applications.
Justices Gavai and Nagarathna noted that the convicts have spent over three decades in prison and that their conduct in the prison was satisfactory. The court noted that the Tamil Nadu State Cabinet had recommended their premature release to the Governor in 2018. Instead of taking a call, the Governor had passed the files to the Centre. The Governor was bound by the advice of the Cabinet in cases of murder as their convictions under the now-lapsed Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was set aside by the apex court.
Freeing the convicts , the court noted that these persons had earned postgraduate degrees and diplomas while serving their sentence. Santhan had published poems and articles and won awards in France and Germany. In Nalini’s case, the court said she was a woman and had already spent more than 30 years in incarceration.
TAMIL NADU STAND
Ina recent affidavit, Tamil Nadu had agreed with the petitioners when it said the State Governor was bound by the advice of the State Cabinet, proposing the premature release of convicts Nalini and others in September 2018. The State had contended that the Governor, instead of acting on the recommendation of the Cabinet had kept the files pending for over two and half years before finally forwarding it to the President in January 2021.
The State of Tamil Nadu also contended that the President had also not taken a decision for more than a year.
In its judgment in the Perarivalan case in May, the Supreme Court held that the State Cabinet’s advice was binding on the Governor under Article 161 (Governor’s power of clemency) of the Constitution. The Governor had no business forwarding the pardon pleas to the President after sitting on it for years together.
“The advice of the State Cabinet is binding on the Governor in matters relating to commutation/remission of sentences under Article 161. No provision under the Constitution has been pointed out to us nor any satisfactory response tendered as to the source of the Governor’s power to refer a recommendation made by the State Cabinet to the President of India. In the instant case, the Governor ought not to have sent the recommendation made by the State Cabinet to the President. Such action is contrary to the constitutional scheme,” the Supreme Court had held.
It said the Governor’s delay to decide Perarivalan’s pardon for over two years compelled the court to employ its constitutional powers under Article 142 to do justice to him.
In 1998, the TADA court had sentenced 25 persons, including the appellants, to death for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. When the case came up before the Apex Court, a Bench headed by Justice K T Thomas acquitted 19 convicts, but upheld the death sentences of four (Perivalan, Sriharan, Santhan and Nalini). Three others were sentenced to undergo life imprisonment. Later Nalini’s death sentence was commuted to lfe imprisonment by the Tamil Nadu government in 2000. The Supreme Cour in 2014 commuted the death sentence of the three others to Life.
NALINI; Now in her mid fifties, she is the daughter of a nurse and a police officer in Chennai. She is a graduate from a prominent Chennai college. Among the seven convicts, she was the only one present at the assassination spot in Sriperumbudur where Rajiv Gandhi was killed. Later, photographs showed Nalini with the alleged assassins before Rajiv Gandhi’s arrival.
After the killing, Nalini and her husband Murugan, another accused, left Chennai and hid out in various places for more than a month until their arrest. Nalini was then pregnant. Their daughter was later born and raised in prison until age five.
R P Ravichandran: Was close to the Tamil Eelam movement in the 1980s, Ravichandran is said to have had close links with Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) leaders before the armed group was actually formed.
Prosecution charges said Ravichandran had visited Sri Lanka several times in the mid-1980s via sea. In fact, several leading politicians from Tamil Nadu also visited LTTE strongholds in Sri Lanka during the period. However, conspiracy charges against Ravichandran were struck down in 1999 by the SC, which also suspended TADA provisions from the case.
Santhan: A Sri Lankan citizen, Santhan is believed to have fled then strife-torn Sri Lanka in 1991 and reached India by boat, along with Sivarasan (who led the assassination team and was never caught alive) and a few others. According to the Supreme Court order, his role in the killing was direct and active. He was one of those initially sentenced to death — along with Perarivalan, Nalini and Murugan — before their sentences were commuted to life.
Murugan: Nalini once recalled that Murugan was one among many Sri Lankan youth who fled the country and reached Chennai, hoping to go abroad. He was her brother’s friend, and stayed at their home briefly. Nalini’s first meeting with Sivarasan was through Murugan.
Robert Payas: Also a Sri Lankan citizen, Robert Payas, had come to India with his wife and sisters in September 1990. He is believed to have had links with the militant group LTTE. Payas was also accused of a close association with Sivarasan. While the court took note of his involvement in the conspiracy, it observed he was also a man who faced atrocities from the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka and had lost a child in that period.
Jayakumar: Brother-in-law of Payas, Jayakumar reached India along with Payas. Jayakumar was also a victim of alleged atrocities during IPKF action in Sri Lanka.
Perarivalan: He was 19 when he was arrested in June 1991. He was accused of having bought two battery cells for Sivarasan. During the probe, one piece of evidence was a decoded radio message sent on May 7, 1991 by Sivarasan to LTTE leader Pottu Amman in Sri Lanka: “Our intention is not known to anybody except us three.”