Friday, September 02, 2011

Day Of The Assassins

From Byword- India Today (September 2)

Curious. Thiru Dr Muthuvel Karunanidhi, patriarch of the DMK, ruling ally of the Congress in Delhi and defeated ally of the Congress in Tamil Nadu, has called the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, father of Rahul and husband of Sonia, a "man of honour". Is that why Karunanidhi's friends assassinated Rajiv two decades ago? Is this the fate reserved for a man of honour in the Karunanidhi moral code?

Perhaps Thiru Karunanidhi might object to being called a friend of Perarivalan, Santhan and Murugan, the three assassins on death row convicted of taking the life of Rajiv Gandhi. Would he prefer friend to be downgraded to "sympathiser"? If Karunanidhi can move a bit of heaven and a lot of earth in his efforts to save the assassins who merely elicit his sympathy, imagine how much of the stellar system would be disturbed if he had to save a murderer who was a friend.

Pardon me if I sound a trifle confused: I no longer understand the meaning of simple words being flung across the public discourse in the debate about whether the killers of Rajiv Gandhi should be hanged to death, as ordered by the law, or given a reprieve, as urged so passionately by a coalition of politicians, lawyers and, well, sympathisers. Why is a death sentence, passed through due process of law, wrong for those who have planned and then carried out the murder of a former prime minister of India because they did not agree with a political decision that he made? Karunanidhi is not interested in the abolition of the death penalty on principle, otherwise he would have campaigned for it, irrespective of this case. He is only interested in keeping the killers of Rajiv Gandhi alive.
No one suggests that there has been a mistrial. No one pretends that the judges who passed the sentence have gone beyond the remit of the law. Karunanidhi's case for mercy rests on the thin basis that "they have already served 20 years". That must be good news for any murderer. If he kills someone at the age of 20 he will still be 40, a youth by current political standards, and ready to enjoy a long and happy life ever after, or at least until God passes His death sentence. If the political class believes that the death penalty is inhuman, then it should have the courage to change the statute.

As long as the law exists, it will follow its course, and if the course leads to a noose, so be it. A protest by students in Delhi condemned this judgment as judicial murder, while one innovative poster demanded, "Give justice. End political revenge." Excuse me? Since when has escape from justice become justice?

Political revenge? The phrase clarifies one aspect, though. It admits, implicitly, that the assassination was not an emotional crime of passion; it was a cold-blooded political decision. The response of the Indian state was not Mark Antony's exhortation after the assassination of Julius Caesar: "Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!" It was long, transparent and even tortuous, full of the very delays that are now being used as reason for exoneration. Those who believe that 20 years in jail is sufficient punishment, might perhaps consider the decades that Rajiv Gandhi lost of his life.

Perhaps my confusion arises out of an inability to sift through the duplicity inlaid into the debate. Any relief for assassins is greeted with triumphalism by the Chennai legal and political elite. Celebratory slogans were raised and crackers burst in front of the court when execution was stayed on August 30. The Tamil Nadu Assembly, led by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, has passed a resolution urging death be commuted to life imprisonment. The politics is transparent. Every public gesture by the Tamil regional parties all but justifies the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, who is being deliberately recast into the "villain" who prevented the birth of a Tamil state in Sri Lanka. The rout of the Tamil Tigers has only sharpened the need for artificial alibis.

Why was Karunanidhi less generous to these three assassins when he refused to recommend clemency for them in 2000, when he was chief minister? The defining difference, a decade later, is politics. Karunanidhi believes that there are votes to be milked from post-Eelam Tamil angst. A defeated politician is tempted into many swamps; this one has poison currents that corrode the national interest and infect vital institutions of state. Is there someone in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly already working upon a resolution for clemency towards Afzal Guru? Politics is the life of democracy. It should not become the death of national interest.

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