The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to release Muslim convicts who have served prison time exceeding their sentence has created furore. The ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and the main opposition party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), locked horns over this in the Assembly, while the Bharatiya Janata Party opposed the idea and urged the state government to reconsider the release of the 20 Muslim convicts awaiting Governor RN Ravi’s assent.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on Tuesday, October 10, said that there is a deliberate attempt to create the impression that his government has not done anything for Muslim prisoners who have spent more than 25 years in prison. He noted that a total of 335 life prisoners including 9 Muslim convicts were released as of October 8, 2023, after the DMK assumed office. Stalin also asked what the AIADMK government had done for Muslim prisoners while in power for 10 years, and why the party supported the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
This development comes at a time when a special motion was moved by the AIADMK and other political parties including allies of the DMK questioning the legal steps the government has taken so far to release Muslim convicts. For this year’s birth anniversary celebration of C Annadurai –DMK party founder and erstwhile Tamil Nadu Chief Minister – the state government recommended the release of 49 convicts including 20 Muslims, and sent files to Ravi for his assent on August 24. The government is yet to receive his response.
Stalin said in the Assembly that he had issued an order on September 13, 2021, for the release of the said life prisoners on humanitarian grounds and goodwill, on the 113th birth anniversary of Annadurai. Stalin highlighted that "15 life convicts and another 20 prisoners with medical conditions were released based on the recommendation of the Advisory board.”
In 2021, the DMK government had constituted a committee to consider the pleas of prisoners who served in prisons for more than 20 years. Chaired by retired Madras High Court Judge N Authinathan, the committee was also assigned to consider the pleas of elderly prisoners, prisoners with disabilities, as well as prisoners suffering chronic diseases and mental illnesses.
Talking about the committee’s recommendation for this year, Stalin said that “all the 49 life prisoners will be released after the Governor gives his assent.” He slammed Opposition leader Edappadi K Palaniswamy and questioned why there was special concern about Muslim prisoners.
Who are the Muslim convicts?
Madras High Court advocate Pugazhenthi told TNM that among the said 20 Muslim convicts awaiting the Governor’s assent, a few were convicted for the 1998 Coimbatore bombings, and some of them were linked to Dr Sridhar's murder case. Dr Sridhar was BJP town secretary in Trichy and he was stabbed to death in 1999.
For years, many political outfits urged ruling parties to release the convicts who were linked with the Coimbatore bombings. The demand seemingly grew after the release of 7 convicts who were involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Earlier in July, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), who is in alliance with the DMK, picketed the Coimbatore Central Prison and asked to release Muslim convicts who spent more than 25 years in prison. TMMK subsequently announced a protest in front of the Secretariat on September 30, which was later withdrawn.
It is to be noted that on October 4, the Supreme Court denied bail to the life convicts involved in the Coimbatore bombings and refused to grant any relief to them. A bench comprising justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Sudhanshu Dhulia, and CT Ravikumar termed the crime atrocious. Justice Kaul also stated, "Bail is out of the question. All of us are unanimous that the bail cannot be granted...You may be inside for 25 years but 58 people lost their lives in this incident. That is good enough a reason for you to remain inside."
Citing this court observation, Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party's state president K Annamalai said, “Despite all this, the Tamil Nadu Assembly [on Tuesday, October 10, 2023] discussed the release of terrorists serving life imprisonment for their involvement in the Coimbatore bomb blast and other heinous acts,”.
On social media platform X, he also stated that minority appeasement seems to have taken the driver's seat for a few, and the safety of those who elected them has taken the back seat (sic). Annamalai hoped that "good sense" would prevail, and MK Stalin will stop this misadventure of releasing the radical Islamic fundamentalists involved in the Coimbatore Bomb Blast from prison.
However, Article 161 of the Constitution confers power with the Governor of a state to grant pardons, reprieves, respites, or remissions of punishment, or to suspend, remit, or commute the sentence of a convict.