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The release of Nalini Sriharan sets a worrying precedent

There are two things that need to be said about the release of Nalini Sriharan, convicted of her involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and of the others convicted in the same case.

The first is obvious: The release was wrong.


I yield to nobody in my respect for the Supreme Court (SC). But on this occasion, I believe that the judges got it wrong.


   The second is more complicated. The Congress has opposed the release even though Rajiv Gandhi’s family seems to approve. Sonia Gandhi has not objected to the release. Earlier, she had asked for Nalini’s death sentence to be commuted. Priyanka Gandhi also seems to harbour no ill-will towards Nalini, having decided to move on after the assassination of her father.


   Despite this, the Congress has objected to the release, even going so far as to say that it disagrees with Sonia Gandhi.


   I think that’s great: Who would have believed, even a year ago, that an official Congress spokesman would dare disagree with Sonia Gandhi? So, regardless of whether you agree with Sonia Gandhi (and I think she is wrong) or with the Congress, it is good for internal party democracy for the party to disagree with its former president so openly and publicly.


   Why do I think the SC was wrong to release those convicted in the Rajiv assassination case?


   That’s easy. If people are convicted of involvement in a particularly serious crime then they should serve their time. Otherwise, punishment serves no purpose. The release has not been ordered on the basis of any new evidence that persuaded the court that Nalini had been wrongly convicted. The judges did not overturn the conviction itself.


   Instead, they released her on the grounds that she had already been in jail for a very long time and that she had behaved well while in prison. Given that she was originally sentenced to death, I am not sure how much time is so long that she needs to be released.


"A criminal matter, on the other hand, is not a matter between private parties. It is the State that takes action against those who break the law."

   But it also sets two dangerous precedents. The first is that “been in jail a long time”, or “behaved well in jail” are similar to the grounds that were used by the Gujarat government to release the murderers who gang-raped Bilkis Bano and killed the people with her. If we oppose the release of those criminals (as we must), then it is hard to see how we can take the line that murderers of a former (and possibly, future) prime minister should be released because they behaved well in jail.


   If we don’t respect the sentence handed down to those convicted of serious crimes, then we risk turning the judicial and penal systems into sad jokes. Already, politicians act as though prison sentences are not binding. Witness the recent, disgraceful example of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim who is regularly let out on parole (usually when he can help with elections) and resumes his life as though nothing untoward has happened while politicians rush to pay their respects to him.


   There is also the very basis of law and punishment to be considered. A criminal prosecution is entirely different from a civil matter. In a civil matter, if I sue you for the return of a sum of money that I have loaned you and then decide that I don’t really want the money back, then it is fine for proceedings to be withdrawn. A criminal matter, on the other hand, is not a matter between private parties. It is the State that takes action against those who break the law. If relatives of the victim now feel bad for the murderers/criminal, then that’s good for their souls. But they have no locus standi to ask for the case to be withdrawn or even for the punishment to be withdrawn.


  We can all admire Sonia Gandhi for her magnanimity. But she is not the one who prosecuted Nalini. The Union of India, acting for us, the people of India, successfully concluded the prosecution.


   Given that there is already a political dimension to the case (the DMK has behaved disgracefully), the release of the prisoners sets a worrying precedent.


   As for the Congress saying that it disagrees with the Gandhis, well, I am delighted. Partly, because it suggests that when Sonia and Rahul Gandhi said they were stepping away from the top jobs in the party, they were telling the truth. Nobody believed them but if there are a few more disagreements of this nature then a shift in power within the Congress may seem more credible.


   Besides, it’s not just about the Congress. It is about every single Indian political party. Both Jairam Ramesh and Abhishek Manu Singhvi have made public statements emphasising that the Congress disagrees with Sonia Gandhi.


   Now, try and imagine any other spokesmen from any other party going on TV and disagreeing with such respected party leaders. Can you imagine a Samajwadi Party spokesperson saying “Akhilesh is wrong. I disagree with him.”?  Or a TMC spokesperson declaring “the party disagrees with Didi”? Or least of all, anybody from the BJP disagreeing with Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, JP Nadda or even LK Advani? In the last case, we know they all treat Advani as a tiresome irrelevance, but they won’t say it publicly: It is not the Indian way to disagree with leaders.


   So, to summarise: This is a reversal of the usual situation. This time the SC is wrong. And the Congress is right to distance itself from the Gandhis on this issue.




  • Premsagar 22 Nov 2022

    One simple Q, 14 people were killed, then why even we bother to seek only Congress/Sonia opinion on this? This just shows how people are just statistics for the big fish to play around

  • Swapan Roy 14 Nov 2022

    A practical set of analysis done by @virsanghvi. Doing a fun kind of thing, against a crime of highest level, committed just to destabilize the nation and leaving the
    criminals almost scotfree, is not the cup of judiciary.

Posted On: 13 Nov 2022 11:30 PM
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