The Tamil Nadu cabinet on Sunday recommended that Governor Banwarilal Purohit order the release of all seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi Assassination case, 27 years after they were imprisoned. The State cabinet recommended they be released under Article 161 (Power of Governor to suspend or pardon sentences) of the Constitution. With legal experts stating that the Constitution is bound by the advice of the elected government, relatives of the prisoners and even their counsels expected the release date to be announced soon.
The centre has now, however, thrown a spanner in the works.
Talking to TNM, under the condition of anonymity, a Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) official says, "The state cabinet has made its recommendation clear. The Governor will now send the recommendation with his notes to the Centre. Following this, the Centre will examine the recommendation and then take a call on the matter."
When TNM pointed out that Article 161, under which mercy has been sought for the convicts, does not require the Centre's intervention, the official said that Section 435 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) was also being considered. Under this section, the State government is required to act after consulting with the Central government in certain cases.
"When there is damage to Central Government property or employees, this section will definitely have to be considered," says the MHA official, referring to Section 435(1)(b), which says the Centre will have to intervene if there is misappropriation or destruction of, or damage to, any property belonging to the Central government.
"This is not just about the death of the former Prime Minister. Several police officers and security personnel were also killed. The matter is complex and must be seen in totality. The Centre will be consulted because they have also made submissions to the Supreme Court," he added.
The Centre's stand comes even as legal experts opine that the Governor's hands are tied and that he would have to go by the Cabinet's recommendation.
"Once the cabinet takes a decision on the mercy petition, a constitutional head has no power to reject it. He cannot consult the Centre or even the President. But what he can do, is delay the decision, even for three months. Even former President Abdul Kalam had delayed in taking any kind of a decision on their mercy petition to commute death sentences to life imprisonment. But he finally has to take a decision, irrespective of the delay," explained retired judge D Hariparanthaman to TNM.
But the state government itself has now failed to take a strong stand following its recommendation on Sunday.
A senior minister who spoke to TNM says, "We have made our views to the Governor clear. We have echoed what all Tamilians say."
But will the government protest if the Centre intervenes?
"The governor will be taking some form of legal advice before going ahead," he concedes. "That is up to him. But he has to consider the sentiment of the people and also the fact that these convicts have now spent 27 years in prison."