CHENNAI: The Supreme Court’s release of AG Perarivalan, one of the four convicts sentenced to death in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, has triggered a round of self-congratulation among Tamil Nadu’s political parties, which have campaigned to have him freed. But it is important to understand the basis for the Supreme Court’s decision taken under Article 142 of the Constitution, which gives it the authority to pass any order “for the sake of doing complete justice” in any case pending before it.
In setting Perarivalan free, the three-member Bench was focussed on the narrow question (though admittedly one with larger legal implications) – the inordinate delay and indecisiveness over the issue of releasing him, a matter that kept shuttling between the Governor and the President without reaching fruition. It was in 2014 that the Supreme Court declared that the death sentence on Perarivalan (and two other co-convicts) be commuted to life on the ground that the powers of clemency should be exercised in a timely manner. In short, the ground for commutation was the same even then: delay.
No one deserves to spend three decades in jail, most of it with the shadow of death hanging over him, as Perarivalan did. And what his release has done is settle niggling doubts about the powers of constitutional authorities to take decisions about commutation and release. At the immediate level, the Supreme Court’s decision has implications for the others convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case – the three originally sentenced to death (Nalini, Murugan, Santhan) and the three others who received life imprisonment (Robert Payas, Jayakumar and Ravichandran).
As for Perarivalan, he was charged as a 19-year old for purchasing the nine-volt batteries that were used in the bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi and 14 others in a dastardly attack masterminded by the LTTE leadership in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Later, a CBI official admitted that he failed to mention Perarivalan’s declaration in his confessional statement that he had no knowledge of what the batteries were going to be used for.
This triggered the feeling among political parties and a section of the public in Tamil Nadu that he was wrongly convicted. However, this strange omission from the confessional statement – not to speak of other issues such as his participation in the so-called ‘dry runs’ and his association with the hit squad – were irrelevant to the issue of his release. It had precious little to do, as some misguided people are making out, with Perarivalan’s innocence or otherwise. The miscarriage of justice lay in indecision and irresolution, in a pattern of behaviour that is cruel and unfeeling. As the Supreme Court pointed out in 2014, no one deserves to be submitted to a “living death”.