Print edition : February 21, 2014

Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, death-row convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Photo: The Hindu Archives

"To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice".

--Desmond Tutu

EVEN before the campaign against capital punishment became a movement in the late 1990s, history records that there were spirited protests, though sporadic, in Tamil Nadu against the death penalty in the pre-Independence days.

Activists refer to protests that were organised in various parts of the erstwhile Madras Presidency against the hanging of Bhagat Singh in 1931. “There were spontaneous outbursts. Protests and rallies were organised in Madras, Madurai, Tenkasi, Kancheepuram and Nagapattinam. E.V.R. ‘Periyar’ and Congress leader Vaidyanatha Iyer condemned the hanging,” said A. Marx, an activist and campaigner against the death penalty.

In another significant episode, “the British in Malaysia sentenced to death Thambikottai S.A. Ganapathi, a Tamil labourer, one of the organisers of the Communist Party in Malaysia and a trade union for plantation workers. He was hanged on May 4, 1949. There was a heated debate in Parliament and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru condemned it. Protest rallies were organised here,” A. Marx said.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi wrote a play in Tamil, Thookil Thongiya Ganapathi (Ganapathi on the noose), on the incident, and actor M.R. Radha staged it. It was a runaway hit, prompting people to debate the issue of capital punishment.

The execution of Balu, a trade union leader from Madurai, and the movement the communists and others launched against his death sentence, had become a sort of folklore in the 1950s. Freedom fighter I. Mayandi Bharathi has recorded the sacrifices of this trade union activist graphically in his 1954 book Thookumedai Tyagi Baluvin Iruthi Natkal (Martyr Balu’s Last Days).

Balu, a reserve constable in the British Police, was sent to quell the Telangana farmers’ agitation in 1950. But he prevented his fellow policemen from opening fire on the agitating farmers, violating the orders of his superiors. Later, he was implicated in a murder case and was awarded the death sentence.

The Madras High Court dismissed his appeal, and on February 20, 1951, the then Madras Governor, the King of Bhavnagar, dismissed his mercy petition. He was hanged two days later in Madurai prison.

A similar incident was reported at Chinniampalayam village near Coimbatore in 1944. Four young men—Ramaiyan, Venkatachalam, Rangaiyan and Chinnayan—irked the mill managements with their trade union activities for the unorganised textile workers. All the four were implicated in a murder case for which the lower court gave them the death penalty. Coimbatore witnessed a strong wave of protests and rallies against the sentence. After the Madras High Court confirmed their sentences, the case went on appeal to the Privy Council in London, which also dismissed it. The sentences were executed on January 8, 1946, in Coimbatore Central Prison. Thousands took part in their last rites. All the four were buried in the same grave as they had wished.

A. Marx said that the struggle against the death penalty should not be confined to the convicts’ ideological, political and ethnical affiliations. The objective, he said, should be its abolition as it is an act of rights violation. “While pursuing it, we should not confine it to Tamil victims alone,” he said. “We should have the moral courage to oppose not only the hanging of Bhagat Singh but also of Nathuram Godse.” Tamil nationalism, he underscored, had emerged as a powerful tool behind today’s campaign against the death penalty.

Dalit writer and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader D. Ravikumar endorsed his views. “Take for example the case of Govindasamy, a poor farmer in Erode district, who was sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder of five of his relatives following a family dispute. It was left to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties [PUCL] and a handful of rights groups to take up his case,” he pointed out. (Following a spate of mercy and review petitions, his execution was suspended. A government order on December 31, 2009, spared him from the death sentence but with a rider that he would have to undergo rigorous life imprisonment, with no room for leave or parole, until his natural death.)

Although the fight against the death sentence in Tamil Nadu dates back to the pre-Independence era, it gathered momentum only after a TADA court in 1998 sentenced all the 26 accused, most of them Tamils, to death in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

“Only three Tamils, Murugan alias Sriharan, T. Suthendraraja alias Santhan and A.G. Perarivalan alias Arivu, are facing the gallows today in the case since 1998. The death sentence for the four Veerappan aides, again all Tamils, further strengthened the movement [against capital punishment] here,” Ravikumar pointed out.

Political organisations such as the Dravidar Kazhagam, the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the DMK and various other outfits have expressed their support to the struggle against the death penalty. “But the ethnic considerations in cases in which the Tamils have been awarded the capital punishment have prompted them to extend their support to the cause,” said Ravikumar. Tamil nationalist groups, he said, had usurped the campaign for obvious reasons.

On August 30, 2011, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a unanimous resolution asking then President Pratibha Patil to review the mercy petitions rejected earlier by her in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Ravikumar insisted that the fight against the death penalty should not be confined to a few select cases for political and ethnic considerations. “The fight is against the death penalty,” he said.

Apart from the Amnesty International, anti-death penalty organisations that are active in Tamil Nadu include the Campaign Against Death Penalty (Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer inaugurated it in Chennai in 1998), the PUCL, the People’s Movement Against Death Penalty, the Asian Centre for Human Rights and the South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring.

R. Ilangovan

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