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TN Can't Free Rajiv Gandhi's Killers without Consulting Centre
Dec 05, 2015

A Constitutional bench of Supreme Court held that the Tamil Nadu government has no power to release the convicts on its own as the case was investigated by the CBI or Central Bureau of Investigation. After the verdict, the case has been sent back to the three-judge bench.

Key Points

  • Tamil Nadu cannot free Rajiv Gandhi's killers without consulting the Centre.

  • In cases where the state tries a case, the state has powers to grant remission.

  • The Constitution Bench held that a state government cannot be allowed to exercise its power of remission and free convicts in cases which have been investigated by central agencies such as CBI and NIA and where offences entail death penalty or conviction is for an offence relating to Executive Power of the Union.

  • The Bench also criticised the Tamil Nadu government for exercising its power of remission “suo motu”.

  • The bench ruled that no state can carry out this exercise suo motu and there has to be an application by the convict first.

  • The bench, led by Chief Justice H.L. Dattu, held that cases such as the killing of a former prime minister would mean assassinating ‘national figures of very high status by resorting to diabolic criminal conduct’ and that ‘such a situation should necessarily be taken as the one coming within the category of internal or external aggression’.

  • The judgment, by a 3:2 majority, noted that granting the Centre overriding authority in cases of national importance cannot held to be interfering with the independent existence of the state concerned.

While Justice F.M.I. Kalifulla, the author of the verdict, and Justice P.C. Ghose wrote the majority judgment with the CJI, Justice Uday U. Lalit and Justice Abhay M. Sapre concurred with them on all issues except one legal point.

The two judges differed on whether there can be a special category of punishment beyond 14 years in jail and if the power of the state government for remission can be curtailed.

Underscoring that life imprisonment means jail term till the end of one’s natural life, the majority verdict held that there is no bar on a high court and the top court to sentence a convict to 20 or 30 years in jail without benefit of remission.


  • On February 18, 2014, the apex court had commuted death sentence of three convicts in the case—Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan due to inordinate delay by the executive in deciding their mercy plea.

  • The next day, the Tamil Nadu government suo motu ordered the release of all seven life convicts. 

  • The Centre then rushed to the court on February 20, 2014 and got their release stayed.

  • The bench then framed seven questions and referred it to a Constitution Bench. 

  • The Tamil Nadu government had in August argued that a convict in Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, Gopal Vinayakram Godse, had been released in 1964 after being sentenced to a life term. Vinayakram Godse was the brother of Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse.

  • The seven people have spent over 20 years in jail. Three assassins—Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan were spared execution because of an exceptional delay in a decision on their mercy plea. Four others, including Murugan's wife Nalini Sriharan, Robert Pious, Jayakumar and Ravichandran are serving life terms.

  • Nalini, who was earlier on death row, was granted mercy on the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi's widow and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. 

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