Preparations have begun at the Vellore Central Prison for hanging Murugan, Santhan, and Perarivalan — convicted for their involvement in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Jail officials have fixed September 9 as the date for the executions.
The mercy petitions of the three were rejected by President Pratibha Patil earlier this month, 11 years after they were filed, and the Union Home Ministry has notified her decision to the Tamil Nadu government. Of the three, Murugan and Santhan are Sri Lankan Tamils.
They were core members of the LTTE team that carried out the ground work for the assassination, acting as its conduits for money and messages; and Perarivalan, an Indian, was charged with buying the battery cells used in the belt bomb worn by Dhanu, the suicide bomber who carried out the assassination. He also bought the battery for an illegal wireless set the assassination squad used to communicate with the LTTE in Sri Lanka. All three were convicted and sentenced to death for murder and criminal conspiracy, along with Nalini, who was granted clemency in 2000.
The assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was on the comeback trail two decades ago, shook India. The monstrous crime, months in its planning and cold-blooded in its execution, deserves the harshest civilised punishment. Capital punishment is a throwback to a medievalist bloodlust that has no place in a modern criminal justice system. The sanction of law does not mitigate the cruelty of taking another person’s life. It has been The Hindu’s consistent stand for decades that, regardless of person, place, and circumstance, India must abolish capital punishment. The just punishment for crimes such as the Rajiv Gandhi murder must be a lifetime in prison without any possibility of remission.
Globally, an increasing number of countries are tending towards abolition of the death penalty. Ninety-six have done away with it, and 34 are abolitionist in practice by observing official or unofficial moratoria on executions. India too has not carried out any legal execution since 2004, though every year the courts add substantially to the numbers who face the threat of execution. That the government is suddenly eager to fast-track death penalties that it has sat on for years may be no coincidence.
But hanging a few condemned prisoners is not going to redeem the UPA in the eyes of the nation. The case of the three LTTE operatives on death row at Vellore offers an opportunity to put an end to the death penalty without in any way going soft on their crimes. The government must seize it by commuting their sentences to life, extending this to all other death row prisoners as well.