Tamil Nadu

Sentence commuted in bus burning case

Print edition : April 15, 2016

C. Muniappan, Nedunchezhian and Ravindran, the three accused in the bus burning case. Photo: K.N. Muralidharan

ON March 11, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentence awarded in 2010 to three persons in the February 2000 Dharmapuri bus burning case in Tamil Nadu to life imprisonment, concurring with the defence counsel’s argument that “the mental capacity of the convicts was impaired during the mob fury”.

Three girl students of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore, were burnt alive when a mob set fire to the bus in which they were travelling at Ilakkiyampatti near Dharmapuri town. The students were on an educational tour when the university bus found itself in the midst of a crowd agitating against the one-year prison term awarded by a special court to All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalithaa in the Pleasant Stay Hotel (Kodaikanal) case. While 44 girl students and two teachers managed to scramble out of the burning bus, Kokilavani, Hemalatha and Gayathri were trapped inside and burned to death.

The three-member Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Arun Mishra and Prafulla C. Pant commuted the death sentences of Nedu alias Nedunchezhian, Madhu alias Ravindran and C. Muniappan, said to be AIADMK party members, after hearing their review petition which sought reconsideration of the court’s August 30, 2010, judgment, which upheld the capital punishment awarded by the Sessions Court in Salem on February 15, 2007, and which was confirmed by the Madras High Court on December 6, 2007.

The Supreme Court earlier stayed the death sentences and referred the review petition of the accused to a “limited and open court hearing before a three-member bench in case of death penalty reviews”.

The bench, while concurring with the defence counsel’s contention that sought to invoke the doctrine of “diminished responsibility”, accepted the argument that the three convicts were “victims of mob psychology” and had no personal animosity towards the deceased girls. One of the defence counsel, senior lawyer L. Nageshwar Rao, even drew a parallel between the bus burning incident and the riots that took place across the country in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. He claimed that the accused, who were a part of a mob, “cannot be held fully criminally liable for the crime as their mental capacity was impaired” at the time. “Mobs possess a demented sight of what is around them,” he said. He argued that in south India people worshipped their leaders and were prepared to even kill themselves if anything untoward happened to them. He said the convicts did not mean to kill anyone but were actually looking to destroy government property. The State government, the prosecuting agency, represented by the advocate Yogesh Kanna, chose to leave it to the bench to decide the case on merit.

Disposing of the review petitions on March 11, the court ruled that the incident happened in a flash during mob frenzy and it was “not premeditated”. It observed that the convicts did not even know the victims and so their crime did not deserve the death penalty.

A senior advocate in Chennai said the State government could now exercise its power of remission in the case. A political row erupted over the issue of the State government’s power of remission for the seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination (1991) case. The convicts sought release from prison on the grounds that they had already served the sentence for more than 25 years, but the Centre objected to their release.

R. Srinivasan, who was the Special Public Prosecutor (SPP) in the bus burning case in Tamil Nadu and who assisted the prosecution in the appeal in the Supreme Court, told Frontline that the Rajiv Gandhi case was different since the investigation in that case was undertaken by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). He pointed out that a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had ruled that the Centre, and not the State government, “will have the primacy” in deciding whether persons convicted in cases investigated by the CBI or any other Central agency should be released on remission, and that “life imprisonment is for life”.

“But in this case [bus burning], the State of Tamil Nadu has the power of remission. The three [accused] can be released if the State wants to release them since it was a State investigation,” the senior lawyer from Salem pointed out.

Poomozhi, a Salem-based rights activist with the Tamil Nadu People’s Rights’ Movement, pointed out that though there were no two views on the need to abolish capital punishment, the apex court’s concurrence with the defence counsel’s claims that the crime was not “premeditated” was unacceptable.

While upholding the death sentences in 2010, the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices G.S. Singhvi and B.S. Chauhan expressed shock over the brutality of the incident. “The manner of the commission of the offence is extremely brutal, diabolical, grotesque and cruel. It is shocking to the collective conscience of society. The rarest of rare cases comes when a convict would be a menace and a threat to the harmonious and peaceful coexistence of society. The death sentence may be the most appropriate punishment for such a ghastly crime. We do not see any cogent reason to interfere with the death sentence awarded to the three accused,” it observed.

It was a painful struggle for the victims’ families, especially for N.P. Veerasamy, the father of Kokilavani and a small poultry farmer of Namakkal, to get justice. Veerasamy approached the Madras High Court when he felt that he would not get justice from the trial court at Krishnagiri. “My fight for justice against a formidable combination of a political dispensation to which the perpetrators of the brutal crime were affiliated and a reluctant State government, which left no stone unturned to derail the judicial process, sapped my energy and livelihood resources,” he said.

There was interference at every stage, from the filing of the charge sheet to the identification of the accused. But for the intervention of the High Court, and, surprisingly, a few committed officials of the State Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID), which investigated it, the case would have come up a cropper. “I am facing similar hurdles today. I want to appeal against the present Supreme Court verdict, but I am not able to get hold of the copies of my daughter’s post-mortem report and the charge sheet from relevant authorities,” he said.

The trial court in Krishnagiri, where the case was taken on file in 2001, witnessed some bizarre incidents. All 22 witnesses, including the Village Administrative Officer (VAO), C. Ramasundaram, who preferred the complaint, turned hostile in a week. By that time, the AIADMK had returned to power in the State. Unhappy with the way the Krishnagiri court was conducting the trial, Veerasamy approached the High Court.

On September 19, 2003, Justice V. Kanagaraj of the Madras High Court scrapped the trial in the Krishnagiri court, calling it a “colossal failure and eyewash”. He ordered a fresh trial and transferred the case to the Salem court. He asked the State government to appoint an SPP for the case. The government tried to scuttle the order. A contempt petition prompted the High Court to appoint Srinivasan as the SPP.

The court also asked the Inspector General of Police, CB-CID, to initiate disciplinary proceedings against an Additional Superintendent of Police for “permitting the prosecution to manipulate its witnesses freely” and entrust the case to a “responsible officer”. In fact, the High Court ordered the government to place the VAO under suspension for tendering false evidence and signing false statements. After a 14-month delay and five D.O. letters from the High Court, the Home Department issued a gazette notification on the confirmation of the appointment of the SPP. On February 17, 2005, the State government told the High Court that some of the case documents were missing. They had to be reconstructed.

Such manoeuvrings and delays did not stop the Salem First Additional District and Sessions Court from going ahead with the framing of charges against the 31 accused, signalling the start of the trial afresh. During the trial, 123 prosecution witnesses and two court witnesses were examined. On February 16, 2007, the trial court judge D. Krishna Raja, in a 181-page verdict, awarded the death sentence to the three accused under Section 302 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and prison sentences to 25 others for terms ranging from three months to seven years under various Sections of the IPC. One of the accused died during the trial and two were acquitted.

On appeal, the two-member bench comprising Justices D. Murugesan and V. Periya Karuppiah of the High Court upheld the death sentence. The bench concurred with the trial court’s observation that it was the “rarest of rare” cases, which justified the award of the capital punishment. In 2010, the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence awarded by the High Court.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor