COLOMBO: Following the Indian Supreme Court’s stand that it is up to the Governor of the State of Tamil Nadu to decide whether the seven life convicts in the 1991 Rajiv Gandhi assassination case should be released or not, the Tamil Nadu cabinet on Sunday recommended to the State Governor that the convicts be released forthwith.

Given the grave issues involved, Governor Banwarilal Purohit is expected to go by the advice of the Central government whose representative he is.

But the political powers-that-be at New Delhi will be on the horns of a dilemma because the conflict is between Indian nationalism and Tamil Nadu sub-nationalism or Tamil nationalism for short.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Narendra Modi portrays itself as the staunchest upholder of pan-Indian nationalism, the Tamil Nadu government and Tamil politicians generally consider themselves champions of Tamil sub-nationalistic rights and repositories of Tamil consciousness.

Indian nationalism would want the convicts to be in jail for life for committing a “heinous crime” aimed at destroying the very roots of democracy and challenging the sovereignty of India. Rajiv Gandhi was a former Prime Minister and the assassins and conspirators were partly from Sri Lanka.

But Tamil nationalism would want the convicts released for a number of reasons: they had already spent 24 years in jail; they were not the actual killers (the assassin and her two handlers having killed themselves); and the assassination itself was the result of the atrocities committed on fellow Tamils by the Indian army which was sent to Sri Lanka by Rajiv Gandhi to maintain law and order in the later 1980s.

Rajiv Gandhi ,who was on a comeback train in 1991, was killed by a Tamil Tiger human bomb Dhanu at an election meeting in Sriperumbhudur near Chennai on May 21, 1991. While conspirators Murugan, Perarivalan, Santhan, Jayakumar, Robert Payas, Ravichandran and Nalini were caught, Dhanu died in the blast and her handlers Sivarasan and Suba killed themselves when cornered.

While initially, there was much anger in Tamil Nadu against the Tamil Tigers and sympathy for Rajiv, over a period of time, the award of the death sentence to all the accused was considered too harsh. Later, except for Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan, the sentence on others got commuted to life imprisonment.

When a Tamil Chief Justice P.Sathasivam commuted the death sentences to life term in the case of four of the convicts, Tamil nationalists took up the cause of releasing all seven on “humanitarian grounds”.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa sensed that the issue could be electorally important and made a series of moves to get New Delhi to sanction their release.

But these moves failed, with New Delhi assuming an uncompromising stand.

But a change came about last week when the Supreme Court said that the Tamil Nadu Governor could take a call in the matter.

All Tamil parties and the also the Communist parties hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling and urged the Tamil Nadu government to appeal to the Governor to release the convicts. On Sunday the State cabinet recommended to the Governor that they be set free.

With Tamil nationalism backing the bid for release, can Governor Purohit ignore it? Would New Delhi climb down from its high nationalistic horse and bow to Tamil nationalism?

Given the political realities in Tamil Nadu, New Delhi and the ruling BJP may not be in a position to clash head on with Tamil nationalism which is entrenched in Tamil Nadu since 1967.

It is noteworthy that only Tamil parties have come to power there since 1967. If the BJP wants to have a foothold in Tamil Nadu, it has to co-opt Tamil nationalism and not clash head on with it.

Further, Rahul Gandhi, Congress President and son of Rajiv Gandhi, has expressed no anger against the assassins of his father. He has said that assassinations such as those of his father and mother Indira Gandhi had their origins in a climate of violence.

Therefore, the Congress may tacitly support release and this may add to the pressure on the BJP-led Center to be conciliatory to Tamil nationalism in this case.

(Cover Photograph: Life convict Perarivalan’s mother Arputham Amma with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E.K. Palaniswami.)