70-year-old Veerasamy is seated alone at his home in Namakkal district, seething with anger. He shouts into the phone, rage evident in his voice as he says that 18 years of his family's distress have boiled down to nothing as the murderers of his 20-year-old daughter Kokilavani walked out as free men from the Vellore Central jail on Monday.
In Cuddalore, 72-year-old Vedachalam has not switched on the television set at home for two days. In addition to watching the men who killed his daughter Gayathri walking out of prison, he is afraid that images of the burning bus, where she breathed her last, will lead to more sleepless nights.
Both these men lost their daughters in a gruesome incident of arson in February 2000. Three young female students of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University – Kokilavani, Gayathri and Hemalatha – were burnt alive in Dharmapuri district after AIADMK cadre set fire to the college bus they were travelling in. This brutality was meted out in anger over the conviction of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in the Pleasant Stay Hotel case.
The three main accused in the case – Nedunchezhian, Ravindran alias Madhu, and Muniappan were initially given death sentences which were later commuted to life sentences in 2016. However, on Monday, the three men were released from prison prematurely as part of the MGR centenary celebrations.
"My wife fell ill due to the heartbreak of losing our daughter and she never recovered. She died within a year of Kokilavani's murder," says Veerasamy. "My family has been shattered and the government has fought so much to release these men. Are they freedom fighters? No. They are cold-blooded murderers," he adds.
And for these fathers, who are unable to recover from the loss they faced 18 years ago, it is not just the release of the prisoners which is unpalatable but the alleged political backing for their release.
"It was former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who ensured that they received a life term instead of a death sentence. That is the day that justice first died and now the Edappadi Palaniswami government has stepped in to release them," says Vedachalam. "I am not saying that prisoners cannot be pardoned. But is clear that these three men have been let off due to a political backing. We are tired of fighting for what is right. We know that only money and power can win," he adds.
Governor asked TN govt to reconsider
It was the Tamil Nadu government which sent a list of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment, that they had decided to release ahead of the MGR centenary celebrations, to Governor Banwarilal Purohit. Following criticism for his approval of the release, the Raj Bhavan clarified that even the Governor was unwilling to release them initially. According to the statement, a total of 1,627 life convicts had been listed and a case by case analysis was to be carried by the Governor.
"On examining the cases one by one, the Hon'ble Governor recorded with regard to these three life convicts that the recommendation of the Government should be reconsidered and returned the file. The file was reconsidered by the Government and submitted on 25.10.2018 with the same recommendation that they be released," reveals the statement.
That is not all. The Advocate General, Chief Secretary and Home Secretary have personally met the Governor and pushed the case of these convicts. They quoted the Supreme Court's reasoning to commute their death sentences and claimed that they had no intention to kill and were in a mob frenzy. The apex court had also stated in 2016 that the acts committed by the convicts were aimed at destroying public property and that the victims were unknown persons. It was said that there was no premeditation or planning in these murders. These observations were submitted to the Governor by the Advocate General.
The government then argued that the three life convicts fell within the guidelines laid down by the government for the release of the prisoner on the occasion of the centenary celebration.
"The Hon'ble Governor was not satisfied even after the file was submitted to him on 12.11.201 for the third time for his approval," reveals the statement. But with the Supreme Court's observation and the government's assurance that there would be absorbed into local society without any disturbance, he agreed to their premature release under Article 161 of the constitution. This gives the power to the Governor to commute, suspend or remit a sentence.
However, when TNM contacted the AIADMK, party spokesperson Kovai Sathyan maintained that the three prisoners were merely part of a long list of names given to the Governor.
"The list is based on merit. There are no political motives to this release. This is based on how they behaved in prison and how long they have been languishing there," he says. "There is no weightage being given to them being AIADMK cadre," he adds.
The family of the victims and experts, however, are not convinced by this explanation.
'Powers used selectively'
"The power to prematurely release prisoners cannot be used selectively by the government to favour their party cadre," says former Madras High Court judge, Justice K Chandru. "If they are released, what about other prisoners who are similarly placed? The anxiety shown by the government in the release of these three men cannot be seen in other cases. This release could be politically motivated," he adds.
The DMK meanwhile alleges that the AIADMK is rewarding the former party members for the gruesome murders.
"When the Rajiv Gandhi assassination is compared to this crime, the role of the convicts in that particular case is minimal. And yet political motivation leads to the release of these men," says DMK spokesperson A Saravanan.
But Justice Chandru points out that this partisan behaviour is prevalent irrespective of the party in power. In 2008, 11 years after CPI(M) councillor K Leelavathi was hacked to death by five DMK cadres, Marudu alias Nallamaradu, who was serving a life imprisonment for the murder, was released. The then DMK government released him along with 1,404 others during the birth centenary celebrations of DMK founder and former CM CN Annadurai.
Human right lawyer Sudha Ramalingam says that the only way to curtail politically motivated releases is to device a standard checklist for the release of prisoners.
"The intent of punishment is for reformation and we cannot stop premature releases. But we must have uniform rules applicable to everyone because of the reality that we live in," she says.
The parents of the victims are, however, inconsolable.
"My daughter had joined the agriculture university because she wanted to prepare for the Indian administrative services and join the Tamil Nadu government," says Vedachalam. "But they have failed her over and over again."