Anatomy of an investigation

Print edition : February 07, 1998

Hard work -- and a bit of luck -- helped the SIT complete the challenging task.

THE judgment in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case has brought to a close what was without dispute the most challenging criminal investigation in post-Independence India. Cunning in its conception, meticulous in its planning and ruthless in its execution, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been designed in such a manner that its perpetrators thought it would never be attributed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Operatives and cells of the LTTE that had been known to Indian intelligence and to the Tamil Nadu Police were systematically excluded from the operation. Even LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran's closest aides were denied knowledge of key components of the structure and intent of the assassination conspiracy. Frontline's reconstruction of how the Central Bureau of Investigation's Special Investigation Team broke the case is based on interviews with protagonists in the affair carried out over the six and a half years since Rajiv Gandhi's assassination at Sriperumbudur.

The SIT came into existence three days after LTTE woman member Dhanu set off the belt-bomb strapped around her waist on May 21, 1991. At that stage, the assassination was what police professionals describe as a "blind case". There was nothing resembling evidence on who Rajiv Gandhi's assassins were and what their motives might have been. For all that SIT chief D.R. Karthikeyan knew as he flew into Chennai on a special flight from Hyderabad, terrorist groups from Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir or even the northeastern region might have carried out the killing. Cracking the case would take the interrogation of hundreds of people, the study of thousands of pages of documents, the slow business of decoding wireless transmissions, viewing over 400 hours of video-taped material, and taking innumerable telephone calls, often irrelevant, from those who seek to pass on information. And above all, it would require sustaining the conviction that the case could be solved despite all signs to the contrary.

THE first breakthrough came by chance. The LTTE typically records all its operations, and in this case had hired a Chennai-based photographer and sympathiser, S. Haribabu, to document Rajiv Gandhi's killing. But the LTTE had not anticipated one disastrous error. Haribabu strayed too close to Dhanu and died in the explosion. Ten photographs, however, survived in his Chinon camera. This was a graphic illustration of the Locardo principle of investigative theory, which states that all criminals leave their 'pug marks', inadvertent or otherwise, at the site of their crimes. Haribabu's photographs showed Dhanu, although the SIT had no idea of her identity, holding a garland in her hand. Rajiv Gandhi's arrival had been captured on film, followed by his reception by a Congress(I) activist's daughter, who recited a Hindi poem. Dhanu could be seen edging towards the former Prime Minister. A bespectacled man, who would turn out to be the assassination cell's leader Sivarajan, stood nearby, a bag slung around his shoulder, reporter's notebook in hand. It is possible that even if these photographs had not survived the explosion, the SIT would have managed to break the case. There is no doubt, however, that Haribabu's photographs speeded up what would otherwise have been an excruciatingly slow investigative process.

Near the assassination spot on May 22, 1991, CBI Director Vijay Karan (far right), Tamil Nadu Forensic Sciences Department Director Prof. P. Chandra Sekharan (far left) and other investigators.-K. GAJENDRAN

PROF. P. CHANDRA SEKHARAN, the Director of the Tamil Nadu Forensic Sciences Deparment at that time, visited the site the day after the assassination and remarked that the assassination was the work of a human bomb. Only one body at the site, he noted, could not be identified: while the face was intact, the rest of body was dismembered. Prof. Chandra Sekharan said that investigators recovered from the site tattered bits of denim material, which, when pieced together, was found to be in the shape of a vest jacket. The assassin evidently carried the belt bomb with the explosive material in her lower back region; the power pack, two switches and the circuitry were in the front. One switch was to initiate the circuitry and the other was to activate the bomb.

Prof. Chandra Sekharan said that the explosive used was RDX, or Research Department Explosive; about 10,000 steel balls of 2-mm diameter were embedded in the semi-solid RDX. After garlanding Rajiv Gandhi, Dhanu evidently stooped to touch his feet and activated the explosive. Rajiv Gandhi must have tried to stop her; his face bore the impact of the blast.

Prof. Chandra Sekharan also devised an electronic skull identification method to identify the assassin with the help of earlier photographs of her, along with the skull and the head model of her. He constructed the head model, using stone plaster, after taking a mould from Dhanu's severed head. Prof. Chandra Sekharan also identified Sivarajan and Subha by preparing their head models and then making a video comparison with their photographs.

FORENSIC reconstruction of the belt-bomber's maimed body affirmed what the photographs had suggested. Dhanu was indeed the immediate agent of Rajiv Gandhi's death. But the SIT still had no name to match the face. "We were groping in the dark," one member of the SIT recalls. "We had so many leads. There were Haribabu's photographs, the belt with which Dhanu had strapped the explosives to her waist, pellets recovered from the bodies of the dead which told us what kind of bomb had been used. But although many people in the crowd had seen the people in the photographs, nobody knew who they were."

Stone-plaster head models of Sivarajan, Subha and Santhan, designed as part of investigative efforts.-N. SRIDHARAN

Both evidence and conspirators had scattered even as the SIT desperately burrowed for leads. The photograph of Dhanu with a garland in her hand was first published in The Hindu on May 24, 1991. Sivarajan's photograph was also published by The Hindu on May 29 and by other newspapers on May 30. Meanwhile, Subha Sundaram, Haribabu's one-time mentor, had contacted Haribabu's father and advised him to dispose of the photographer's cache of letters and pro-LTTE propaganda material. Although news of his LTTE sympathies had appeared in the local press, Haribabu's home was not raided. Mere LTTE sympathies, at that early stage of the SIT's work, were not enough to warrant major attention. Luckily for the investigators, however, Haribabu's family did not act on Subha Sundaram's repeated advice. Nor did they approach the police to inform them about their son's LTTE connection.

THE first major breakthrough came, in the midst of this confusion, by chance. Late that month, a routine police picket of the Tamil Nadu Police flagged down a young Sri Lankan Tamil speeding down a road near Vedaranyam on a motorcycle. News of the young man's arrest immediately caught the attention of the SIT. His sustained interrogation threw up dramatic results. The young man was Shankar, alias Koneswaran. He was one of the nine-member assassination squad that had reached Kodiakkarai on the Tamil Nadu coast from Jaffna on May 1, 1991, under the command of Sivarajan. Shankar first told the SIT about the existence of the hit squad and its command structure. He also carried a crucial piece of paper, containing the office telephone number of a Nalini and a contact number for B. Robert Payas. Payas was one of several LTTE members who supported the hit team during its operation in Tamil Nadu. Nalini, an Indian citizen, was the lover of another LTTE member, Murugan (she later married him). She had, however, fled by the time the SIT could raid her premises.

Shankar's arrest gave the SIT its first clear picture of the assassination conspiracy and its layers of support structures in Tamil Nadu. It was followed in double-quick time by confirmation of Sivarajan's existence by sources in the smuggling trade off Vedaranyam. The description of the one-eyed LTTE member matched the person in Haribabu's photographs. Finally, another extraordinary stroke of luck followed. The SIT headquarters received a neatly packed envelope, despatched by registered post, of the documents that Haribabu had kept in his room. The documents revealed the names of Murugan - by whom Nalini has had a child in jail - and of Bhagyanathan, her brother. This set of fortuitous breakthroughs led to further results. Bhagyanathan and his mother Padma were arrested on June 11, 1991. Although Nalini and Murugan had managed to escape to Tirupati and on to Karnataka, the SIT was now hot on their trail.

The first arrests made by the SIT proved fruitful. Bhagyanathan, who knew Sivarajan as Raghuvaran, proved to be a major source of information. He confirmed that Sivarajan was the key figure in the murder of Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front leader Padmanabha in Chennai in June 1990. The publication of Bhagyanathan's pictures led to an flow of information on his movements over the previous months. The arrests of Perarivalan alias Arivu, an LTTE sympathiser in Tamil Nadu who had aided the Sivarajan cell, and of Robert Payas, followed. Another important arrest was that of N. Shanmugam, a smuggler from Kodiakkarai. From Shanmugam the SIT learned of the LTTE's weapons shipping routes into Tamil Nadu and the intimate connections of the smuggling mafia with terrorists. A staggering 121 cases packed with high explosives, along with wireless communication equipment, were seized from the area around Shanmugam's house.

The most crucial was the revelation that Shanmugam's men had received a nine-member LTTE squad at Kodiakkarai on May 1. This information corroborated Shankar's testimony. The group had consisted of Sivarajan, Dhanu, Subha, the wireless operator Nehru, Santhan alias Chinna Santhan, Shankar, Vijayanandan, B. Ruban and "Driver" Anna. Two letters written by Dhanu and Subha, dated May 9, 1991, were also seized from Shanmugam's premises. One was to the deputy chief of the LTTE's women's intelligence wing, Akila, and the other to LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Amman. In their letters, the two promised that they would remain steadfast until their mission was accomplished. The group was, Dhanu and Subha had written, waiting for an opportunity to carry out their mission. The letters explicitly described a test run of their assassination plan that they had conducted at a rally attended by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh in Chennai on May 7, 1991.(On how it surfaced: Frontline, August 2, 1991).

THESE successes were followed by an unsavoury controversy. Shanmugam escaped from custody, and was later found hanging from a tree. There was, predictably, speculation that he had been the target of an extra-judicial killing. Although these claims were not substantiated, and an official inquiry subsequently established that it was a case of suicide, the affair diverted attention from more substantial developments. The SIT had seized a diary from Murugan's hideout at Madippakkam, a Chennai suburb. In the diary, in which the LTTE operative had maintained accounts, was found a fake identity card which purported to show he was an accredited photographer for Aside, Chennai-based magazine. The card, it transpired, had been prepared by Haribabu. There was also a picture of Murugan's brother Sivasiri, alias Appan, an LTTE member who was killed in a 1991 bomb explosion. In New Delhi, LTTE members Athirai and S. Kanagasabapathy were arrested while trying to rent accommodation for the assassination cell's members. Pictures taken of Athirai training in Sri Lanka had also been recovered, establishing the linkage between the groups.

S. Haribabu, whose photographs of the assassins and of Rajiv Gandhi's final moments taken for the LTTE provided crucial investigative leads.-

The task of finding the key group of nine, however, was proving frustrating. Nehru's regular wireless transmits provided some clues to their whereabouts, but efforts to locate the set using direction-finding equipment proved fruitless. While triangulation of the high-frequency transmissions provided an accurate direction for the set, it could not provide a precise fix on the distance from which Nehru was operating. Frustration followed. LTTE members Gundu Santhan, Arasan and Kulathan committed suicide in characteristic LTTE style, swallowing cyanide, when surrounded by SIT raiding parties at their hideout at Navalpattu in Tiruchi and in Indira Nagar, Bangalore. "We had cyanide antidote kits with us," says one officer, "which were especially brought from abroad. A doctor stood by to inject those who took cyanide, and National Security Guards personnel trained to rescue hostages from kidnappers were brought in to stop them from killing themselves. But these skills proved useless because cyanide leads to death within minutes."

In August 1991, the SIT received hard source information that Sivarajan, Subha and Nehru had left Chennai for Bangalore, stowing away inside an empty petrol tanker. Sivarajan was aware that the SIT was closing in; also, a desperate rescue bid by the LTTE proved abortive. In Bangalore, the three first stayed in a house at Domlur, then at the home of J. Ranganath at Puttanhalli, and finally at Konanakunte. On August 18, when the SIT knocked on the door, the three were inside the house with their LTTE colleagues Suresh Master, Amman, Anna and Jamuna alias Jameela. The last act of the tragedy had begun. "We were in a real dilemma how to handle the raid," an SIT officer told Frontline, "Sivarajan knew we were after him, so there was no element of surprise." "The press was after us too, and with Parliament in session, the last thing we could risk was some mess-up which let them escape."

The LTTE group did not get away. Surrounded, all but Sivarajan swallowed cyanide. The "one-eyed jack" who masterminded Rajiv Gandhi's assassination shot himself with the 9-mm pistol he habitually carried and had worn to Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991. The only work that remained before the SIT was to bring the 26 accused in its custody to trial and secure their convictions.

THE SIT's success is phenomenal, given the odds against it. Starting with no idea of the structure of the conspiracy at all, it managed to create a strong case not only against the immediate assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, but their superiors at the apex of the LTTE hierarchy. Such an achievement is best judged against the results of other, similar, cases. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Olaf Palme are yet to be adequately resolved, despite their investigation by forces with resources several times greater than those the SIT had at its command. In India, the Beant Singh assassination investigation, also conducted by the CBI, continues to be dogged by persistent doubts about whether key conspirators managed to escape investigative scrutiny. And all these investigations were free of the harassment that the SIT faced at the hands of politically-inspired expeditions like the Justice M.C. Jain Commission of Inquiry. It is true that the SIT was aided by luck, but its real test was to convert those clues into a meaningful and systematic investigation. Its triumph constitutes a high watermark in Indian policing, one that will provide a model for police officers in years to come.

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