The commutation of death sentence to life imprisonment for the killers of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi by the Supreme Court of India and the subsequent incidents surrounding the same have raised serious questions about India's resolve to battle terror with an iron hand. The present controversy is with respect to the 11 year delay on the part of the Government of India to decide on the mercy plea of the convicts. The three prime perpetrators namely, Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan were given death penalty in 1998 and their mercy plea was rejected in 2011.
The politics thereafter....
Even while Supreme Court commuted the death sentence to life, the Tamil Nadu Government moved quickly to score some brownie points by instantly deciding to release the three LTTE terrorists knowing well that such a move would be severely resisted by the Centre. Eventually the Central Government woke out from its self-imposed slumber and immediately rushed to Supreme Court to have the release of the Rajiv Killers stalled.
In the hindsight one can only laugh at the joke India has made out of its so called "War on Terror". It is kind of strange that Afzal Guru gets hanged for his role in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament because the parliament is supposedly the ‘Temple of Indian Democracy' and yet the killers of a former Chief Priest of that very ‘Temple of Indian Democracy' are shown so much empathy by our system. And then if the family of Afzal Guru or the Kashmiris feel disgruntled or feel discriminated for this biased treatment, does the Indian state have any right kind of justification to give?
India can't adopt double standards with regard to Afzal Guru & Rajiv's killers
While the Supreme Court's judgement is a wake-up call to the Government of India that its culture of inordinate delays and indecisiveness has to stop, what is appalling is the manner in which the Tamil Nadu Government tried to literally misuse the loopholes of the Indian criminal justice system to attempt the release the terrorists.
Does Life imprisonment mean release from jail at the whims of state governments?
In 2012 Supreme Court made it clear that Life Imprisonment means prison for life [Read here]. Justice K S RadhaKrishnan and Justice Madan B Lokur had stated, ‘"It appears to us there is a misconception that a prisoner serving a life sentence has an indefeasible right to be released on completion of either fourteen years or twenty years imprisonment. The prisoner has no such right. A convict undergoing life imprisonment is expected to remain in custody till the end of his life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government,"
The verdict further stated, "In the case of a convict undergoing life imprisonment, he will be in custody for an indeterminate period. Therefore, remissions earned by or awarded to such a life convict are only notional. In his case, to reduce the period of incarceration, a specific order under Section 432 of the CrPC will have to be passed by the appropriate government. However, the reduced period cannot be less than 14 years as per Section 433-A of the CrPC."
It is this caveat that is present in Section 432 and 432 A that encourages the likes of Tamil Nadu government to take the excuse to release people convicted of not just terror acts but also of killing none other than a former Prime Minister of India.
One standard for Afzal Guru and another for others?
The issue here is not about whether the LTTE- Sri Lankan Army conflict was justified or not or about grievances of certain elements. When it comes to international politics and geopolitical affairs there would always be certain controversial issues. Moreover LTTE was no saintly organization either. Tamils of Sri Lanka would not have suffered as much due to the war if LTTE had agreed to negotiation from their point of strength with the Sri Lankan Government much before the final war started. In any case, come what may, no one and simply no one can ever justify the act of killing of a former Prime Minister of India. That act is nothing less than an attack on India.
Now the moot question is, can India have one set of standards for fighting Islamic terrorism and something completely different for dealing with other kinds of terrorism? Can Afzal Guru's act or that of Ajmal Kasab be termed heinous and punished even while being lenient on killers of Rajiv Gandhi or that of Beant Singh?
It was a wake-up call from Supreme Court
The Supreme Court verdict is not an action but a consequence of the culture of delay and indifference that has become part of Indian style of Governance. While the Government is putting up much hue and cry on the issue of Supreme Court's commutation of death sentence of Rajiv killers, one wonders what stops the Government of the day to pass a special act in parliament to declare that delays in deciding on the mercy petition of convicts on death row cannot be a reason for commutation of death sentence? What stops the Government of the day from passing a law to separate ordinary convicts on death row from those involved in heinous acts of terror?
Yet the more shocking saga is the fact that the Supreme Court had merely commuted the sentence to life. It was the Tamil Nadu Government which took recourse to both Sec 432 and 432 A to show some jingoism and attempt to release the terrorists. So the chain of events is like this. A terrorist on death row has his death sentence commuted to life sentence due to horrible delays in deciding on mercy petition. And then that life sentence was almost getting commuted by the TN Government since they have been in jail for more than 14 years. In other words a death convict of yesterday was about to walk scot free today in spite of having been involved in the killing of a former Prime Minister of India.
What message India is sending out to terror groups?
While the Supreme Court intervened on time to stay the release, the moot question is what statement is India sending out to terror groups? Is it not that it is shouting loudly that anyone can come and kill even a former of PM of India and a schizophrenic India is so indecisive that it does not have the resolve to ruthlessly deal with terror? Is it not crying out loud that India is so weak that it does not even have the resolve to have a no-nonsense approach to dealing with terror? Is it not crying out loud that as a nation we are so politically opportunistic that political parties would continue to play with politics even with terror?
Even as this article is being written, several hundred thousand personnel of Indian Army and Indian Police Forces are constantly putting their lives at risk to protect not just the sovereignty of India but also the Idea of India from terror groups of all shades and colour. If India as a nation has to be eventually so soft on terror then what is the point in putting at risk the lives of so many uniformed men every day? And if it is indeed a noble act (and rightly so) to protect the motherland, then why is that that the law of the land is not strong enough to give decisive and exemplary punishments to all and sundry whoever puts its hand on it?
The same goes for India's fight against Left Wing Extremism. In spite of severe ruthlessness shown by Maoists who are armed to the teeth and have brutally killed thousands of policemen and innocent civilians, India unfortunately still does not have a cohesive national policy to deal with the menace. Each state is fighting its own battle against Maoists and each is being outsmarted by the Maoists.
India is not perfect but still far better than what terror groups want to reduce it to
The threat to India is not just from Islamic terror groups or Pakistan but also from all kinds of terror groups including the Maoists, the Khalistan groups which are now again being propped up by Pakistan based elements as well as every kind of insurgent or separatist group including LTTE. As a nation India cannot encourage either sympathy for any terror group or sub nationalism where different separatist and terror groups would have sympathy in different parts of the country.
Thus, it is perhaps time that India separates punishment for conventional crimes from that of heinous crimes like acts of terror which have very serious ramifications for the nation as a whole. Politicking with terror and leniency towards terrorists may someday cost India badly. Or perhaps it is already taking its toll on India. India is not a perfect state. In fact no nation is. But yet India is far better than the lawless regimes and mayhem that terror groups created be it in Syria or Pakistan or Afghanistan. And thus the idea of India has to be protected at any cost.