The killing of Rajiv Gandhi

Print edition : May 21, 2004

Criminal investigation at its best.

IT is difficult to write with precision and poise on a traumatic incident that took place more than a decade ago, right before your eyes, especially if it carried heavy overtones of poignancy. You are liable to get sentimental and emotional and also slip up on facts. It is an equal challenge not to be subjective when reviewing a book that describes the happening and its background in vivid detail. These are the hazards that face me when I take up Triumph of Truth: The Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: The Investigation (New Dawn Press Inc., New Delhi) that has just hit the stands rather unpretentiously and without much fanfare. Two distinguished police officers, D.R. Karthikeyan and Radhavinod Raju, who were intimately connected with the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that arraigned those responsible for the inhuman crime, narrate all that happened in an appropriate and gripping style. The authors successfully steer clear of any temptation to embellish an event of such momentous significance. The book does definitely do justice to all those who toiled if only to ensure that truth did ultimately triumph. If I was traumatised in the moments after the cold-blooded murder of several innocent persons, and subsequently hauled over the coals for what was described as deficiencies in the system protecting Rajiv Gandhi, my supreme satisfaction is to live to see that the crime was clinically investigated and a majority of the offenders dealt with adequately by law.

Former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma releasing the book Triumph of Truth: The Rajiv Gandhi Assassination: The Investigation; written by (from left) D.R. Karthikeyan and Radhavinod Raju in New Delhi on April 5.-

A dear colleague of mine reminds me to this day that I was privileged to be present at a spot where history was made. This was indeed a sad privilege when one looked at the numbers that perished on that fateful night of May 21,1991. The SIT was acutely conscious that it would also be evaluated in history. Apart from an apparent high sense of professionalism, it was possibly this prospect that future generations would sit in judgment over its findings that made the SIT adhere to the ethical path. It is a Herculean task to keep politics totally out of such probes. Actually, it will be unnatural for politicised elements not to exploit such momentous happenings. It is for civil servants to cope with and ward off all insidious attempts to deflect investigations and remain on rail. Overall, the SIT managed to handle pressures effectively and put forward an almost unassailably credible account of the crime that few could discount. It is a tragedy beyond words, however, that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam supremo V. Prabakaran, in a televised interview last year, chose to brush aside the incident as a "mistake". There was not even a trace of remorse. A cavalier statement of this kind was a pointer to the monstrous motivation that dictated the crime and the resoluteness, which the SIT confronted, in its weary labours.

TO begin with, this was nearly a blind case. There were several speculations, ranging from the plausible to the most ridiculous. One mad cap had reportedly alleged that this was no assassination, and that the adorable former Prime Minister had committed suicide. Could anything have been more preposterous, or incendiary in an ambience surcharged with emotions? Both the LTTE and Sikh extremists were suspected. There was also a conjecture that an international conspiracy existed beyond these two groups, encompassing elements that were keen to destabilise the polity of the country. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat had reportedly, during one of his visits, conveyed his own apprehensions in the matter of protecting Rajiv Gandhi. Although this fell within the ambit of the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Authority formed much after the SIT had made considerable progress, it was an index of the complexity that baffled the SIT.

A well-preserved scene of crime facilitated the initial enquiries. The inexplicable and bizarre LTTE drill of filming most of their operations, however sensitive and cruel they might be, was the foremost aid to the SIT. The film developed out of photographer Haribabu's camera at the Sriperumpudur meeting that was to be addressed by Rajiv Gandhi on the evening of May 21 gave it all away. The principal characters were all there waiting for their prey. It is an entirely different matter that the pictures found their way to the press before the SIT could work on this invaluable clue. Incidentally, the SIT did draw some benefit out of the unexpected expose. But then the outfit itself had perforce to resort later to a high-profile investigation in order to indent on public help to identify all those who took part in the conspiracy and apprehend them. I know that there were several people who were critical of Karthikeyan and his team for the publicity blitz that the investigation came to be associated with. This was uncharitable to a dedicated team if one took into account the gains that the SIT made through an aggressive and transparent style. Actually, ever since then, Indian criminal investigators have been greatly attracted to this approach. The media simply love and deify an investigator who is willing to talk to it at every stage of the investigation. Naturally, some traditionalists like me, who in their careers stuck to the copybook and were stoically or annoyingly uncommunicative, were boring and uninteresting.

Next came the quality forensic work by the Tamil Nadu Forensic Science Laboratory (TNFSL) led by its Director Prof. P. Chandrasekaran. The latter was again a high-profile scientist who was infectiously enthusiastic in all his endeavours - possibly much more than his peers in the trade and the administration would at that time countenance - and who had many successes under his belt. A knowledgeable and pleasing personality, he simply revelled in controversies, and was one who could hardly be reined in.

The TNFSL's first finding that an improvised explosive device (IED) had been used was later amplified by that of the Central FSL and the National Security Guard (NSG). The accepted conclusion was that a slab (half a kilogram in weight) of RDX, a deadly explosive, spread inside a waist-belt and embedded with about 10,000 metallic pellets had been employed in the crime. Electric detonators connected to a 9-volt battery and two toggle switches completed the lethal device carried by the assassin who physically pulled it off, undaunted by the horror of a self-annihilation. The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) of Hyderabad also chipped in with the finding that the tissues collected from the dismembered parts of the unidentified woman at the scene and those sticking to the denim cloth in which electrical wires had been stitched were from the same person.

Painstaking enquiries led the SIT successfully on to fixing the identity of the `human bomb' as Dhanu, widely believed to be the daughter of a motivated LTTE cadre Rajaratnam through his second wife. (Rajaratnam was one of the eight Tamils honoured by the LTTE in the days after the assassination although he had been dead for 16 years.) It is an amazing admission by the SIT that it did not have a clue as to where and how the IED was built. One conjecture was that this had been brought in from Sri Lanka (without the source of power) by Sivarasan, the `one-eyed jack' present at the Sriperumpudur scene and also at a dry run for the crime conducted a fortnight earlier during a public meeting addressed by V.P. Singh at Nandanam in Chennai. Sivarasan was a known mastermind of the LTTE who was hounded by the SIT from place to place till he put an end to himself when holed up in a house at Konanakunte, on the outskirts of Bangalore.

One of the chapters The Chase describes the dramatic events leading to Sivarasan's end and the SIT's operation aimed at catching him alive. The SIT was faced with a serious dilemma: To catch Sivarasan alive at all costs or to kill him to prevent his escape? It was well known that the Tigers were so highly motivated that driven to a corner they would rather bite the cyanide capsule held in a string around their necks rather than give themselves up to the authorities. In the Bangalore operation, before the NSG team could break into the house where Sivarasan and his companions were hiding, an unexpected breakdown of a truck passing by, right in front of the building sent an alarm to the group scurrying them into action. Sivarasan put a bullet to his temple and the other six, who included Subha, a possible standby to Dhanu (the two had landed from Sri Lanka together in May 1991) consumed cyanide. There was the unmerited and most ill-informed criticism that the SIT had botched up the operation to catch Sivarasan alive. This was by people who hardly understood the intricacies of a police operation and how the LTTE had mastered the art of eluding arrest. These factors were compounded by those who aided Sivarasan and his deadly accomplices wittingly or unwittingly.

WHY did the LTTE liquidate Rajiv Gandhi? The SIT charge-sheet was crystal clear. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 that President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed in Colombo put paid to all hopes of any Indian support to the Tamil Eelam conceived by LTTE. The Accord's resolve to disarm all militant groups went further to demoralise the LTTE. The latter was totally unreconciled to the new situation, and the confrontation with the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) between October 1987 and July 1989 only served to exacerbate feelings. The LTTE lost more than 700 cadre to the IPKF, and this was a loss beyond the numbers that it could hope to replace. The going out of office of Rajiv Gandhi in the November 1989 parliamentary elections and the gradual withdrawal of the IPKF in the months that followed no doubt eased the pressure somewhat on the LTTE. But the edge of animosity towards Rajiv Gandhi never got blunt. The prospect of Rajiv Gandhi returning to power after the 1991 elections perturbed the LTTE greatly, and hence it sprung into action with a dastardly plan that it executed with great ease.

The SIT case rested heavily on intercepted wireless transcripts and the seized handwritten documents and videocassettes. These related to LTTE ideology, training and specific meetings and functions that it organised to disseminate information as well as indoctrinate cadre. Also valuable were the thousands of photographs of LTTE cadre that the SIT came by. While all these were a treasure-house of information on the group's activities spread over a long period, especially 1983-87, what the SIT had on hand also revealed the nexus between sympathisers who passed off as innocuous and law-abiding citizens and the LTTE.

Perhaps, the most significant seizure was The Satanic Force, a two-volume compendium of articles highly critical of the IPKF and Rajiv Gandhi's policies on Sri Lanka. Published in Chennai and financed by a senior LTTE member Baby Subramaniam, this was highly inflammatory in its tone. It highlighted the assiduous exercise to promote hatred against Rajiv Gandhi. The SIT did a great job sifting information from such a mountain of records to build its solid case against Prabakaran and others.

The SIT investigation is a landmark in the history of criminal justice anywhere. It is appropriate that Karthikeyan and Raju thought it fit to bring all details on record so that future generations understood the context very well. I find no distortion of the fundamental facts and no tendentious criticism of functionaries in a multitude of agencies that assisted the SIT in the enormous fieldwork that was required for unearthing the conspiracy. This was gracious. Ultimately, the whole exercise was a triumph of dedicated teamwork. Petty squabbles and ego differences were inevitable in such a massive investigation. These were not allowed, however, to dilute the quality of the output. The judiciary's eventual endorsement of the SIT findings was itself a tribute to the ungrudging labour that was put in by Karthikeyan and his band of officers. This book is a must read for all police officers internationally, because it exemplifies how in the final analysis a terrorist organisation could be made accountable to the rule of law. This, in fact, is the task that squarely faces every investigator across the globe in the post-9/11 era.

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