Anatomy of a witch-hunt

Print edition : November 29, 1997

The manipulation of evidence by the Jain Commission to defame the DMK and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh is part of a larger political project. Fact has been the first casualty of this enterprise.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

"He was a champion of human rights and was opposed to oppression and exploitation... It may be that he was not cut out for politics. Nevertheless, by his charismatic personality he won the hearts of his countrymen. His smiling face and his pattern of behaviour were so attractive and appealing that would turn his foes into friends. Though he lost power in December 1989, when Shri V.P. Singh became Prime Minister, he was on the crest of his popularity and seemed as if destined to be the future Prime Minister of India after the May 1991 general elections."

- The Justice M.C. Jain Commission Interim Report, "Rajiv Gandhi: A Profile", Vol I, Chapter 1, page 5.

A FULL page remembrance photograph of Rajiv Gandhi adorns the first chapter of the first volume of Justice M.C. Jain's 17-volume dissertation on the causes of the former Prime Minister's assassination. The image, something of a landmark departure from the unbroken black ink gravity of quasi-judicial reports, serves to illustrate a certain mentality. Complete with references to references to Rajiv Gandhi as "India's charismatic leader", the Interim Report is part of a larger project of consecrating the controversial politician's memory.

Security checks outside Parliament House as copies of the Interim Report of the Jain Commission are unloaded on November 20.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Fact has been the first casualty of this enterprise. The often unscrupulous manipulation of evidence to defame the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh has its origins in Jain's wilful inability to dispassionately engage with the history of India's troubled engagement with ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Critiques of the Jain Commission's Interim Report, in the form of the Union Government's Memorandum of Action and well-documented rebuttals issued by V.P. Singh and the DMK, have come a fortnight after its partial leak to the media. The two key themes of the Interim Report are the nature of support given to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by Union and Tamil Nadu Governments from 1981 up to the assassination, and the V.P. Singh-led National Front Government's handling of Rajiv Gandhi's security. Jain's media pronouncements suggest he was not unaware of the political import of his findings. Indeed, his reasons for having produced an interim document in the first place are not clear. "The Commission decided to submit its Interim Report before the end of its present term," Jain explains, "for more than one reason." Neither is subsequently stated. The body of criticism that has emerged, however, makes the real reasons only too clear.

1. THE INTERIM REPORT ON THE DMK AND THE NATIONAL FRONT

The Interim Report's central proposition on the role of the DMK in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination is simple, if outrageous, in its language. "The assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi," Jain asserts in Volume VII, "would not have been possible the way it has materialised without the deep nexus of LTTE operatives with the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and tacit support from the State authorities and the law enforcement agencies" (emphasis added). The accusation against the entire Tamil population is breathtaking. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has justly highlighted it and the indications are that the accusation will not be kindly received in Tamil Nadu. On what this tacit support may have been, Jain leaves us in no doubt. "Soon after the DMK Government took over the reins of power in Tamil Nadu, the LTTE slowly began to consolidate itself in the State and their clandestine activities, hitherto dormant, became more and more pronounced." "It cannot be denied that the unusual ineffectiveness of the police was due to their awareness that the LTTE rank and file operating in Tamil Nadu had political patronage of the ruling party." "From the evaluation of the material, the conclusion is irresistible that there was tacit support to the LTTE by Shri M. Karunanidhi." According to Jain, such support after the initiation of hostilities between the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in October 1987 was "anti-national" and indefensible.

During the course of its six-year inquisition, the Jain Commission received adequate information on the origins of official Indian support to the various Sri Lankan Tamil armed groups in Tamil Nadu. From 1981, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Cabinet Secretariat and the Intelligence Bureau engaged in setting up a string of training bases for these groups on Indian soil; the number of these camps exceeded 30. Apart from these, centres were set up at the high-security military installation of Chakrata, near Dehra Dun, and in New Delhi's Ramakrishna Puram area. The fact of these militant training camps was reported at various times by the Indian press. For example, Frontline's T.S. Subramanian, in one of a series of reports on this enterprise, wrote quoting a source that "each training camp was a mini-Union Territory, controlled by Central agencies." During hearings before the Jain Commission, counsel for the DMK pointed out that the real root of terrorist activity in Tamil Nadu lay in this militarist enterprise. Jain's Interim Report acknowledges these facts, admitting that Tamil groups "indulged in clandestine activities including procurement of armaments and smuggling activities" well before the DMK came to power.

Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, minutes before the blast in which he was killed. Dhanu, the suicide bomber, is at bottom left, flowers in her hair, waiting to approach him. This photograph, part of a series taken by a freelance photographer who too died in the blast, gave crucial investigative leads about the assassin and her accomplices.-

Jain, however, escapes the logical conclusions the facts mandate through an extraordinary discursive escape trick. "Training camps of various militant groups in India imparted training to Sri Lankan Tamils in self-defence in order to ward off attacks and defend themselves and the unarmed Tamil citizens in the event of recurrences of well-organised anti-Tamil pogroms in Sri Lanka" (emphasis added). "The imperatives which led to a situation where Sri Lankan Tamil militants underwent training in India were based on the perception that the training was essential for self-defence and not for launching military operations or encouraging internecine conflicts." At one point, Jain claims that "evidence available before the Commission indicates that the training was essentially for self-defence and not for launching military operations," but conspicuously fails to cite the evidence.

In fact, what evidence there is suggests exactly the opposite. M.R. Narayan Swamy's book, Tigers of Lanka, for example, describes the teaching imparted to Tamil terrorist groups of such "self-defence" (not Narayan Swamy's phrase) techniques as "the use of automatic weapons, self-loading rifles, 84-mm rocket launchers, heavy weapons, and in laying mines, map reading, guerrilla war, mountaineering and anti-tank warfare."

Similar liberty with the truth, amounting to wilful malice, characterises Jain's handling of the DMK's political relationship with the LTTE. He acknowledges that violent LTTE activity in Tamil Nadu predated the rise of the Karunanidhi regime. Under the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) Government led by Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, a series of terrorist attacks took place on Indian soil. In May 1982, for example, the LTTE supremo, V. Prabakaran, and Uma Maheswaran of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOT) were involved in a shootout in Chennai's Pondy Bazaar. But this did not stop Prabakaran from functioning on Indian soil and dealing with the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi Central Governments and MGR's AIADMK Government between 1983 and 1987 despite the pendency of non-bailable warrants against him in this case. Rs. 40 crores worth of military equipment, including surface-to-air missiles, assault rifles, two-inch mortars, hand grenades, explosives and ammunition were recovered from 1,005 LTTE operatives arrested on November 8, 1986. The weapons were returned, according to former Tamil Nadu Director-General of Police (Intelligence) K. Mohandas, on the explicit orders of Chief Minister MGR. In fact, the LTTE appears to have been the beneficiary of weapons and ammunition seized from other Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups.

Here, the Interim Report resorts to its second great ink-trick. This time, Jain asserts that while there "is no denying the fact that Sri Lankan Tamil militancy took roots and grew during the period 1981 to 1986," it was "under control and had not assumed anti-national character." The stories of the bomb blast at Chennai airport which killed 30 people in 1985 and the civilian casualty in the November 1986 shootout at Choolaimedu are recounted by Jain pages earlier. The only conclusion can be that the learned former Judge is of the view that setting off bombs in public places which kill Indian citizens and other innocent people is not by definition anti-national. As for the support extended by Rajiv Gandhi and MGR to the LTTE, Justice Jain offers this breathtaking insight: "The MGR Government of the day openly and overtly supported the militants and Shri V. Prabakaran was quite close to him. The Centre had also helped the militants in training and arming. The leaders were meeting militants to devise peaceful solution of the ethnic issue and not for encouraging militant activity."

Meeting militants at the instance of the Central government of the day to "devise peaceful solution of the ethnic issue" was precisely the substance of Karunanidhi's claim about his own dealings as Chief Minister with the LTTE. But a bloody-minded Jain gave short shrift to the Chief Minister's factual claims, choosing to place emphasis on three key episodes that took place after the DMK came to power in January 1989. The first was a clandestine visit to Jaffna by DMK Rajya Sabha member V. Gopalsamy in the spring of 1989. The Interim Report held that "the impression the entire episode created was that pro-LTTE gestures, even if they were illegal, would be tolerated by the Government." The second was the boycott of the reception given to the IPKF on its return from Sri Lanka by Karunanidhi. Finally, Jain attacks the fact that for 14 months after the murder of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front's (EPRLF's) K. Padmanabha in June 1990, no serious police action was taken. Jain suggests that "the credibility of the Government of Tamil Nadu plunged to a new low as far as their professed determination to control the activities of Sri Lankan militants in the State was concerned."

The evidence clearly shows that Padmanabha and his EPRLF colleagues, bridling at their being confined to a special camp in Orissa under Chief Minister Biju Patnaik's uneasy eye, made their way to Chennai without informing either the Central or Tamil Nadu Governments. But once the massacre of the EPRLF leaders by LTTE operatives took place in Chennai, the matter was handled defensively and not satisfactorily by the State Government authorities. It is one thing to criticise the way the State police went about investigating the assassination of the EPRLF leaders. It is another thing to assert gleefully, as Jain does, that the investigation had established the culpability of DMK persons, including a former Minister, Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan, in the crime. The simple fact is that before the 17 volumes of the Interim Report were tabled in Parliament, 15 of the 17 accused in the Padmanabha murder case, including all the DMK persons, were acquitted on the ground that there was absolutely no evidence implicating them.

As for the period before V.P. Singh became Prime Minister, Jain chooses to miss a vital point. Chief Minister Karunanidhi acted with the endorsement of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the abundant evidence available on this was glossed over in the Interim Report. The revealing correspondence between then Rajya Sabha MP and now Union Minister Murasoli Maran and Rajiv Gandhi released by the DMK illustrates the former Prime Minister's profoundly ambiguous, indeed schizoid, stand on the LTTE. On May 15, 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wrote to Maran: "When Shri Karunanidhi proposed sending a DMK emissary or group of emissaries to talk to the LTTE, I had said that we would gladly provide the facilities to make such a visit possible." Speaking at an election rally in Tiruchi on November 5, 1989, Rajiv Gandhi "thanked the DMK Government in Tamil Nadu and the Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for offering their cooperation during the last several months in finding (a) solution to the Sri Lankan Tamils' problems" (source: report in The Indian Express, November 6, 1989, page 1).

When the Rajiv Gandhi letter to Maran was written, the LTTE was deeply involved in prolonged hostilities with the Indian Army and had been implicated in numerous terrorist acts. The outbreak of hostilities in October 1987, Justice Jain asserted, "was the watershed which exposed the LTTE as a militant organisation which was inimical to the national interests of India." Yet he has nothing to say about Rajiv Gandhi's endorsement of contacts with the terrorist group almost two years later. He is silent on the AIADMK leader Jayalalitha's interview published in The Indian Express on October 4, 1990, asserting that "if we do not support the LTTE, it will mean the end of the Tamil race in Sri Lanka." He instead lashes out at the V.P. Singh Government, claiming that despite "the growing connivance of the DMK government with the LTTE having been brought to the knowledge of the National Front government, effective steps were not taken by the Central Government to check it, whatever may be the reasons." As V.P. Singh has pointed out in a detailed factual rebuttal, repeated measures were taken to do exactly that. On no less than 12 separate occasions, criminal proceedings were initiated against the LTTE and its supporters, in some cases under the National Security Act.

Perhaps most illustrative of Jain's approach is his effort to evade the import of Rajiv Gandhi's meeting with Kasi Anandan, an admitted Central Committee member of the LTTE's political front, on March 5, 1991, 86 days before his death. The meeting, which took place at Anandan's request and after reported clearance from the LTTE's Kittu, then in London, was held in New Delhi. In his letter dated March 4, 1991, which Anandan delivered to the former Prime Minister, he conveyed the "greetings of Mr. V. Pirabakaran, our leader." He hoped that "this meeting will mark the beginning of a cordial and friendly relationship between you and our movement," and asked that the communication gap "between the Government of India and LTTE be effectively bridged."

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with (from right) LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham and 'Panruti' S. Ramachandran, then a Tamil Nadu Minister, during talks in New Delhi in July 1987.-

The point is that this was no one-off meeting Rajiv Gandhi had with LTTE representatives or emissaries. The Jain Commission proceedings record the fact, without analysing its import, that a subsequent meeting took place (on March 15, 1991) between Rajiv Gandhi and an LTTE emissary, Arjuna Sittampalam, who had come from London for this purpose. The evidence is clear that Rajiv Gandhi was interested in establishing, if not eager to establish, good relations with the LTTE and its leader even after the IPKF experience in Sri Lanka. The former Prime Minister was deeply suspicious of President Premadasa's approach to India and, on the rebound, sought to move closer to the LTTE in the period preceding the treacherous assassination.

According to the official report on Kasi Anandan's questioning by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on July 7, 1991 (Annexure M-90 in volume XIV of the Interim Report), "Rajiv Gandhi appreciated the stand of LTTE and admitted that a wrong approach had been made in the past to solve the Tamil problem. He wanted the LTTE to continue the struggle and assured help. Nevertheless, he asked Kasi Anandan to get a letter from Prabakaran as to what the LTTE Chief expected of him... Kasi Anandan duly conveyed the message to Kittu in London. But there was no response thereafter."

The letter from Prabakaran never arrived. It is now clear that Rajiv Gandhi, as well as Kasi Anandan and Arjuna Sittampalam, were duped by the LTTE, as various others were in India and Sri Lanka at different points of time. Prabakaran's answer came in the guise of Dhanu, Sivarasan and Co. at Sriperumbudur on the night of May 21, 1991.

2. THE INTERIM REPORT ON RAJIV GANDHI'S SECURITY

The most important fact about the Jain Commission's findings on security cover to Rajiv Gandhi is that it had no business to make any. When the Jain Commission was set up, that very issue was being probed by the Justice J.S. Verma Commission. In fact, the roots of the Jain Commission lay in the flat refusal by the man who is now Chief Justice of India to accept the revision of his terms of reference by a notification in May 1991 to include the task of discovering "whether any person or persons or agencies were responsible for conceiving, preparing and planning the assassination, and whether there was any conspiracy in this behalf and, if so, all its ramifications." Justice Verma, in a letter written on June 8, 1991, made it clear that these terms did not "fall within the scope of the legitimate functions of a sitting Judge and by their very nature are within the scope of the function of the investigating agencies which are engaged in the task of investigation of the crime."

This prescient warning to allow the SIT led by D.R. Karthikeyan to get on with its job without interference from a commission of inquiry was not heeded. A more than willing Justice Jain was asked to inquire into the "sequence of events leading to, and all the facts and circumstances relating to, the assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur" and also "whether any person or persons or agencies were responsible for conceiving, preparing and planning the assassination, and whether there was any conspiracy in this behalf." The terms of reference specifically excluded "the matter covered by the Committee of Inquiry by Shri J.S. Verma". The Supreme Court, in subsequent litigation, noted that the terms of the Jain Commission were "very broad", adding: "only that is not covered which was before the Verma Commission."

But Jain has chosen, for reasons that become perfectly clear from his findings, to transgress what the Supreme Court laid down and to go over the very terrain covered by the Verma Commission. Volume III of the Interim Report extensively discusses the threats to Rajiv Gandhi from a spectrum of terrorist groups, and the V.P. Singh Government's handling of his security cover. "These prevailing conditions of the time," Jain pontificates, "made Shri Rajiv Gandhi the most threatened Indian in recent times." "The level of threats to him was unprecedented and ever increasing." He indicts security agencies for underestimating the threat from the LTTE, ignoring the fact that this may have been because the former Prime Minister was even in the 1990-91 period providing several indications that he was keen to improve his equation with the LTTE and its supremo and was, in an unmistakable sense, supportive of their struggle. Jain's observations on the very high threat the LTTE posed to Rajiv Gandhi's security are much worse than a case of being wise after the event. He superimposes our knowledge of what happened on May 21, 1991 on the whole period V.P. Singh's National Front was in power, links it tendentiously to the actions of the DMK Government of January 1989-January 1991, and accomplishes his witch hunt.

In Volume IV, Jain attacks the V.P. Singh Government's decision to withdraw SPG cover for Rajiv Gandhi, as enjoined by the law of the land. The action, he asserts, "can be said to be motivated on the part of Shri V.P. Singh and his Government." "However," he pompously concludes, "I leave this matter for soul-searching by Shri V.P. Singh himself."

The Interim Report, perhaps predictably, chooses not to discuss other facts. The SPG Act, specifically excluding protection for former Prime Ministers, was passed by the Lok Sabha in 1988, with the Congress(I) bent on ignoring bitter criticism. Then Union Minister P. Chidambaram stated in the Lok Sabha that the new force was to protect the office, not the person of the Prime Minister. After the National Front came to power, the issue was discussed and settled at a Cabinet meeting. Cabinet Secretary Vinod Pande subsequently prepared a note, pointing to the legally mandated fact that SPG "security deployment is meant for the PM (Prime Minister) and cannot be extended to an ex-PM." As V.P. Singh points out, "the alternate security provided to Shri Rajiv Gandhi was planned by the top security officers of the Government of India and drafted by Shri K.N. Thakur, who had an experience unmatched by any one else in the country in so far as the security of VIPs and VVIPs are concerned." This alternative security plan, vetted by the Intelligence Bureau and the Ministry of Home Affairs, included all components of SPG cover, and was overseen by six SPG personnel deputed to the Delhi Police.

Jain, the great security expert, summarily rejects the expert consensus that the alternative security cover was adequate. "The Prime Minister, Shri V.P. Singh, should not have accepted the advice tendered by the security experts and bureaucrats," Jain argues astonishingly, "and should have critically evaluated the vital issue of adequate protection." This assertion is bizarre, given Jain's own acceptance of the "expert" reports of the Intelligence Bureau which he deploys against the DMK. But the flaws go even deeper. The Report attacks the V.P. Singh Government for failing to monitor the efficiency of its alternative security system. But V.P. Singh's rebuttal points to the fact that the Commission received evidence on periodical reviews. Critically, the rebuttal note argues, during V.P. Singh's tenure, "Shri Rajiv Gandhi visited Tamil Nadu more than eight times and on each occasion returned... safe and sound in spite of the existing threat from various extremist organisations including the LTTE."

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is possible to argue that SPG cover might have saved Rajiv Gandhi's life (even though that cannot be asserted as a certainty). But neither V.P. Singh nor his successor Chandra Shekhar nor Rajiv Gandhi himself was possessed of that commodity. B.G. Deshmukh, Cabinet Secretary to Rajiv Gandhi and Principal Secretary to V.P. Singh, was assigned the task of liaising with Chidambaram on the former Prime Minister's security cover. Deshmukh told the Jain Commission that "proper procedure was followed for arriving at adequate security arrangements for Shri Rajiv Gandhi, which was in conformity with the experts' assessment." It is certainly a telling fact, glossed over by Jain, that Rajiv Gandhi, perhaps responding to acid media criticism of his obsessive security apparatus during his Prime Ministerial days, never pressed for the restitution of SPG cover. There are even indications that the former Prime Minister was rebelling against what he saw as his 'security cage'. He and members of his party certainly made it very, very difficult to provide anything like cover enough to have satisfied a Jain wise after the event.

Interestingly,Chidambaram told the Commission that Rajiv Gandhi himself was "stoic about his security." Finally, while Jain attacks the Chandra Shekhar regime for not restituting SPG cover, he does not even attempt to address the question of why the Congress(I) itself never felt the need for such protection for its leader. Had Rajiv Gandhi or his party merely asked for a particular type or level of security cover, the dependent Government would instantly have obliged it.

Once again, with the wisdom of hindsight, it becomes clear that the Indian political, intelligence and security system failed to arrive at an accurate assessment of the character of the LTTE, its motives towards Rajiv Gandhi and other political leaders and potential targets, and its long arm. But why single out V.P. Singh or the DMK, neither of whom was in power at the time of the assassiantion?

Jain, in effect, holds V.P. Singh more accountable for the security and life of Rajiv Gandhi than Rajiv Gandhi himself, his party and confidants, those who failed to form a higher threat assessment of the LTTE, those who provided expert advice on alternative security for Rajiv Gandhi, and those who were in power at the Centre and Tamil Nadu at the time of the Sriperumbudur tragedy.

Troops of the IPKF disembarking in Chennai in March 1990 on their return from Trincomalee. The IPKF pullout from Sri Lanka began during V.P. Singh's prime ministership.-N. SRIDHARAN

Like Jain's Interim Report, the Verma Commission had also held that the withdrawal of SPG cover was unjustified. But, in a significant departure of emphasis, it attributed no sinister political motive. It found that the Central Government's decision of January 30, 1990 was prompted by the lack of a proper perception or the requisite will. Critically, the Narasimha Rao government rejected even this aspect of the Verma Commission's findings. The Action Taken Report tabled in December 1992 stated that the "alternate security cover provided for Shri Rajiv Gandhi was comprehensive and adequate to meet the perceived high level of threat." Subsequently, under pressure from 10 Janpath sycophants, the Government changed its stand, but it never filed a reasoned report explaining this volte-face. Efforts to hound seven bureaucrats involved in the withdrawal of SPG, including Vinod Pande, were summarily thrown out by the Central Administrative Tribunal. Former Union Home Minister S.B. Chavan, deposing before the JainCommission, himself admitted that his Government's shifting stands on the Verma report was based not on facts, but political concerns.

Critically, the Verma Report addressed several issues Jain has chosen to entirely gloss over. "The general behaviour of the Congress partymen and the organisers at the venue of the meeting contributed to an environment of disorderliness and confusion at the venue which was conducive to flagrant breaches of security norms." "The Congress partymen and the Congress candidate Maragatham Chandrashekhar exhibited by their behaviour throughout their total lack of awareness of their obligations to cooperate with the police force and to facilitate them in their task of providing security to Rajiv Gandhi; and their intransigence created impediments in effective access control necessary for Rajiv Gandhi's security." This behaviour was of a piece with Rajiv Gandhi's campaign. Indeed, as early as May 25, 1990, then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed wrote to Rajiv Gandhi warning him not to violate security procedure impetuously.

THE genesis of the Jain Commission's near-scurrilous allegations is worth considering. On 26 January, 1991, Chavan explained the relevance of M.C. Jain's appointment to the Lok Sabha, using Indira Gandhi's killing as an analogy. "The immediate killers were given punishment," he declaimed, "but at the same time we could not trace out as to who were the people behind the whole matter." Perhaps his memory failed him. The Justice Thakkar Commission, set up in November 1984, had pointed a now-infamous "finger of suspicion" at senior Congress(I) figure R.K. Dhawan. The allegation was absurd. So are Justice Jain's 'findings'. "The growth of militancy was the root cause and the real cause which ultimately culminated into the hatching of a conspiracy and assassination of Shri Rajiv Gandhi," Jain's report records. "If what has happened in the State of Tamil Nadu right from 1981 onwards up to the date of the assassination had not taken place, it would have not been possible for any conspiracy to have materialised." Justice Jain is right. But why, in the chain of causation and casuistry he builds over thousands of pages, he could not hold the real architects of events from 1981 responsible tells the real tale of the Interim Report.

"Justice retired along with Justice Jain," says V.P. Singh. That proposition requires little further comment.

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