IT was a case in which the award of the death sentence evoked no debate. For such was the brutality of the crime committed by three All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) activists on February 2, 2000.
On February 16, 2007, D. Krishna Raja, First Additional District and Sessions Judge, Salem, awarded capital punishment to Nedunchezhiyan alias Nedu (41), Ravindran alias Madhu (44) and C. Muniappan (52), holding them responsible for causing the death of three women students, Kokilavani, Hemalatha and Gayathri, of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) who were on an educational tour.
The three men set fire to the bus, in which they were travelling along with their classmates when it stopped at Ilakkiyampatti village near Dharmapuri town. The three students had pleaded in vain with the men to allow them to get down from the bus.
Krishna Raja said: "In this Dharmapuri bus burning case, only for [furthering their] political career, the three accused have committed the murder in [an] inhuman way. Considering the inhuman, diabolical, ghastly action of these three committing the murder of three innocent girls, it would be clear that this is a rarest of the rare cases in which the death sentence has to be imposed." He added that showing "undue sympathy by imposing inadequate sentences will do more harm to justice and undermine the public confidence in the efficacy of law."
The Judge also awarded seven years' rigorous imprisonment to 25 other accused in the case. Two persons were acquitted and one of the accused had died during the course of the trial.
On the day of the crime, AIADMK men took to violence in different parts of Tamil Nadu to protest against the sentence awarded to party general secretary Jayalalithaa. Jayalalithaa became the first former Chief Minister to be punished under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, when Special Judge V. Radhakrishnan in Chennai convicted and sentenced her to one year's rigorous imprisonment for her role in illegally granting exemption from building and hill area development control rules to Pleasant Stay Hotel, Kodaikanal in 1994.
The TNAU students, who were returning to Coimbatore, ran into a roadblock set up by AIADMK men near Ilakkiyampatti. According to the prosecution, Nedunchezhiyan, Ravindran and Muniappan broke away from a group of party activists who were sitting on the road. They went to a shop on Muniappan's motorcycle, bought kerosene and reached the stranded bus.
Nedu and Madhu opened the front door and poured kerosene inside the bus. (The rear door was not functioning properly.) On seeing what the men were about to do, most of the students managed to jump out.
Shouting "burn them all down", one of the men fed a lighted matchstick to the kerosene. They closed the front door, shutting out the only escape route that was available. Kokilavani, Hemalatha and Gayathri, who were helping other students retrieve their luggage, were caught inside. It was a headcount that revealed that the three girls had been charred to death.
A Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch, Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID), was entrusted with the case. The CB-CID arrested the accused and placed the charge-sheet before the Sessions Court at Krishnagiri. When the trial was to begin in 2001, the AIADMK returned to power. Attempts were made to scupper the trial. Witnesses were intimidated. Twenty of the 23 witnesses turned hostile.
N.P. Veerasamy, father of Kokilavani, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court, seeking the transfer of the trial to Coimbatore and appointment of a new Public Prosecutor. Justice V. Kanagaraj lambasted the AIADMK government and ordered fresh trial in the court of the First Additional District and Sessions Judge in Salem. The High Court appointed R. Srinivasan the Special Public Prosecutor. But the AIADMK government did not notify Srinivasan's appointment for 15 months. When the matter was brought to Justice Kanagaraj's notice, he reprimanded the State Home Secretary. The trial began after Srinivasan was appointed Special Public Prosecutor.
In his judgment, Krishna Raja said that when the collective conscience of the community was so shocked by a crime, the community would expect the judiciary to impose the death penalty.
He pronounced the death sentence under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He also awarded seven years' imprisonment and a fine of Rs.46,000 to each of them under Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC.
Twenty-five other accused received seven years' and three months' imprisonment and a fine of Rs.13,000 each under various sections of the IPC and the Tamil Nadu Public Property (Prevention of Destruction) Act, 1992.T.S. Subramanian