The Tamil Nadu government has recommended the release of all seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Their fate now rests in the hands of the state’s governor. The convicts have spent 27 years in prison for their involvement in the suicide bombing that killed the former prime minister and 14 others, as well as injuring over 40 people. The state government has argued that its decision is a reflection of the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu.
The situation must be considered from two grounds: political and humanitarian. Politically, the ‘Tamil sentiment’ has long been exploited by parties and fringe groups. Some of these outfits conflate the systemic oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka with an uncritical adoration and support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a brutal terror organisation that committed crimes against the very people for whom it claimed it fought. The situation in Sri Lanka, however, is changing arguably for the better. The Tigers have been wiped out. For the politicians of Tamil Nadu, only the fate of the seven arguably remains to be exploited. Their release could hasten the dissolution of such sentiment, especially if the convicts eschew the political circles.
On humanitarian grounds, the situation raises the question of what a society believes to be justice. What are our expectations for it? In some cases, we seem to argue a death for a death, in others we consider a lifetime and more behind bars as sufficing. The seven convicts have spent close to three decades in prison. In some cases, a good part of that sentence was in solitary imprisonment.
If one believes that capital punishment cannot be condoned, how long is an imprisonment so long that it becomes inhumane and unsustainable? If we believe their plight was inhumane as at least the Tamil Nadu government indicates, their release should open the door to assessing what we offer as justice, and what we take away—especially from the poor, oppressed and destitute—in its pursuit.