The events of the past will always impact upon the politics of the present. However, developments in India over the coming weeks and months will push this truism to the extreme; for it was announced last Friday that on 9th September three men will be hanged for their part in the murder of Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi twenty years ago.
The fall-out from the executions, should they go ahead, will inevitably be vast- after all this has been an utterly sordid saga from the start.
The assassination itself was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in retaliation against the involvement of Ghandi’s forces in the Sri Lankan Civil War. The so called Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) had been fighting battles with the LTTE since 1987, marking something of a reversal of India’s previous sympathy for the Tamil struggle, and proving dramatically counterproductive. IPKF Massacres of Tamil Civilians including twenty-one patients and medical personnel in the Jaffna Teaching Hospital only severed to stoke violence and tensions.
Withdrawal was finally forced under strong opposition from the Sri Lankan government (which resented Indian involvement from the start) and the Indian population (many of whom supported the Tamil people in their bid for independence). Yet the LTTE were determined to have revenge and prevent Ghandi’s proposed attempt to resumed intervention should he be re-elected. Their suicide bombing took his life along with fourteen others.
In the aftermath twenty six people were tried under the authoritarian Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for involvement in orchestrating the atrocity. Secret trials, coerced confessions and legal irregularities tainted the process which, in 1999, resulted in highly politicised death sentences being handed to the entire group (despite the fact that several were found to have only played minor parts).
On appeal to the Supreme Court nineteen were released- highlighting the weakness of the original convictions; three of the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and four were upheld – one of which was then commuted at a later stage. Now, after decades of solitary confinement and cancelled execution dates, these men are less than two weeks away from being hanged.
It is unclear what this can possibly achieve for India apart from some kind of perverse belated revenge for a handful of people. Yet the damages that it can inflict are stark and numerous.
For one thing it will mark India’s first execution since 2004 – a sorry step backwards for a state that was well on the way towards reaching a decade without resorting to judicial murder. It will also compound the corrupt and fallible nature of its justice system, something which has long been used a tool of politicians and is once again being used to take the lives of citizens.
At a time of mass street protests against official corruption, putting people to death on the basis of a twenty-year process that was flawed at every stage is hardly a confidence building measure. Protests by law students have already taken place against the sentences – and were quickly broken up by police, a sorry situation for the ‘world’s largest democracy.’
The executions will also mark another bitter blow to relations between the Indian political class and the Tamil people. Whilst Ghandi’s assassination all those years ago was barbaric and utterly unacceptable, many had genuine grievances surrounding the action of his forces against their countrymen. Yet, in the intervening period very little has been done to rebuild lost trust – a matter underscored by the silence and even tacit endorsement of the Indian government as Mahinda Rajapaksa orchestrated War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity against Tamil civilians in his 2008/2009 push to destroy the LTTE – an in the aftermath.
Many Tamils in India will now rightly question why the authorities are making little if any noise about the on-going torture and arbitrary arrests across the water in Tamil Eelam, yet are determined to kill three imprisoned Tamils for their part in a crime two decades ago.
Of course there is no time limit on justice – but just is not what these executions represent. Rather, they represent an unsound and politically driven sentence that will set-back India’s democratic and judicial progress whilst striking at chances of reconciliation with one of Asia’s most maligned communities. While a reassessment of the men’s cases and a fresh engagement with the Tamil people could move India forward, the gallows can only bring more suffering.