Unravelling the plot

Print edition : February 07, 1998

The SIT's charge-sheet provides a more cogent account of the assassination than the reports of the various Commissions of Inquiry that delved into it.

WHAT is perhaps most remarkable about the charge-sheet in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on May 20, 1992, is the extent to which its thrust has been endorsed by the Designated Court that tried the assassins and their accomplices, and the odds that the investigators who shaped it faced.

The charge-sheet provided a detailed account of how V. Prabakaran, Pottu Amman and Akila, top leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ordered Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, and what their motives were. It provided a graphic reconstruction of how the conspiracy was executed, from the time key accused Sivarajan reached the shores of Tamil Nadu from the LTTE's Jaffna stronghold in Sri Lanka until May 21, 1991, when belt-bomb assassin Dhanu detonated the explosive that she had strapped around her waist, at Sriperumbudur.

That the SIT's investigation arguably constitutes independent India's best example of rigorous police work is indisputable (see separate story). For this investigation to be of consequence, however, it was crucial that the charge-sheet provide a cogent and legally testable account of the conspiracy behind the assassination, and the execution of that conspiracy.

In key senses, a charge-sheet is something of an announcement by the police that they have completed their investigation. Section 173(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) says that a charge-sheet should list the names of the accused, the nature of the charges against them and the persons familiar with the facts of the case, and also detail whether the accused have been arrested or not. If built on the foundations of a weak charge-sheet, the entire prosecution case can collapse.

The SIT, headed by D.R. Karthikeyan, had to race against the clock to complete building the foundation of its case. Under the now-repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the charge-sheet had to be filed within a year of the police making the first arrest in a case. This provision was made to prevent protracted police witch-hunts that might harass innocent people. Unravelling a case as complex as that of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, however, required something of a miracle if the one-year deadline was to be adhered to. The SIT made it, but only just: the charge-sheet was filed a day before the anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, and 50 weeks after the SIT had made its first arrests - of S. Bhagyanathan and his mother S. Padma, on June 11, 1991.

Karthikeyan's team named 41 people as accused in the charge-sheet. Of these, 12 had died. The three principal accused, LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran, LTTE's intelligence chief Pottu Amman, and the deputy chief of its women's intelligence wing Akila, all operating in Sri Lanka, were declared absconders. Indian laws do not provide for the trial in absentia of those accused of crimes, and the three therefore could not be judged by the Designated Court. Section 273 of the CrPC explicitly provides that "all evidence taken up in the course of trial or other proceedings shall be taken in the presence of the accused, or when his personal attendance is dispensed with, in the presence of his pleader." This ensures that the right of all accused to a speedy trial is not made contingent on the ability of investigators to arrest other suspects.

Yet, the charge-sheet made it clear that the most important players in the conspiracy were either dead or absconding. Prabakaran, Pottu Amman and Akila, it stated, "designed the criminal conspiracy to assassinate" Rajiv Gandhi. Pottu Amman's role was to have "designed and arranged the execution of the objective of the criminal conspiracy," while Akila "planned and arranged the objective of the conspiracy." The task of the ground-level execution of the assassination was entrusted to Sivarajan, a member of the LTTE intelligence wing, who in turn relied on the belt-bomber Dhanu and another woman LTTE member, Subha.

At Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, the 'belt-bomb' assassin Dhanu waits, garland in hand, for Rajiv Gandhi. Beside her are (from left) Kokila Vani, Congress(I) volunteer Latha Kannan and Sivarajan, notepad in hand and posing as a journalist. This photograph was among several taken by S. Haribabu who died in the blast.-

THE charge-sheet provided a lucid political account of the LTTE's motives. While the LTTE's raison d'etre was the achievement of a separate Tamil Eelam state, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardane on July 29, 1987, recognised the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the island nation. Only a provincial state for the Tamils within Sri Lanka was acceptable to the accord's signatories. "While other groups of Tamils were agreeable to this Accord," the charge-sheet recorded, "the LTTE was against it as this went against its avowed policy." "The Accord, therefore, triggered their (the LTTE's) hatred for the Indian leadership of the time."

From July 30, 1987, Army troops forming the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) began arriving in the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka to ensure that the accord was implemented. The LTTE now resorted to bickering over its share of representation in the interim administrative council for the North-Eastern province and its chairmanship. Senior LTTE leader Thileepan went on a hunger strike to push his organisation's demands, and died. Just one week after Thileepan's death on September 26, 1987, the Sri Lankan Navy detained 17 LTTE leaders who were travelling by boat. The LTTE attempted to get the Indian Government to secure their release, but failed. Twelve of the group committed suicide by swallowing cyanide after being handed over to the Sri Lankan security forces to be taken to Colombo for interrogation. This chain of events led inexorably to hostilities between the IPKF and the LTTE: a bloody conflict that would alienate Prabakaran from Rajiv Gandhi totally.

Rajiv Gandhi lost office in late 1989; the V.P. Singh Government completed the withdrawal of the IPKF in March 1990. Following the collapse of that Government and the Chandra Shekhar Government that succeeded it, fresh elections were called for May 1991. Rajiv Gandhi was seen by the Indian media as the Prime Minister-to-be; the perception was shared by the LTTE. That the former Prime Minister and the Congress(I) he headed could well have lost the elections had he lived is just one of the many ironies of the period, as is the fact that Rajiv Gandhi, at least overtly, was at that time perhaps more sympathetic to calls for a Tamil Eelam than at any point earlier. Yet, the LTTE was not ready to forget the past. The LTTE, the SIT charge-sheet recorded, believed that the Indian Government's new policy of non-intervention in Sri Lanka would be reversed if Rajiv Gandhi came to power. "In order to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from coming back to power," it said, "the LTTE conspired to eliminate him" and "create instability in India." Hardcore LTTE cadres were put in place in "strategic positions" in India as the conspiracy unfolded, the charge-sheet noted.

On April 28, 1991, a nine-member hit team assembled in Jaffna, to be briefed by Pottu Amman. Sivarajan was to be the leader of this operational cell. Its other members were Sivarajan, Dhanu, Subha, the wireless operator Nehru, Chinna Santhan, Shankar, Vijayanandan, Reuban, and a driver, Anna. Their first attempt to cross the seas into Tamil Nadu failed when their boat developed a snag. On April 30, 1991, however, the nine were seen off by Pottu Amman and Akila. They made their way to Kodiakkarai, near Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu. This group, the SIT charge-sheet said, was received by Shanmugam and other LTTE cadres early on May 1, 1991. The group promptly dispersed. Sivarajan stayed in Chennai with Jayakumar, an LTTE operative. Dhanu, Subha and Nehru set up camp at Vijayan's house, where the cell's wireless communication equipment was established.

Sivarajan and his group conducted a dry run at former Prime Minister V.P. Singh's campaign rally at Nandanam, Chennai, on the night of May 7. Dhanu was to garland V.P. Singh while the photographer S. Haribabu was to record the event. Although she could not gain access to the dais, Dhanu did manage to hand over a garland to the former Prime Minister as he descended from the dais.

ON May 21, the assassination cell went about its assigned task. Dhanu strapped the belt bomb to her waist and wore a loose-fitting churidar suit over it. She, Subha and Sivarajan, who was carrying his favourite 9-mm pistol, reached Nalini's home around 3-15 p.m. After offering prayers at a local temple, the four met the photographer Haribabu at a bus terminus and made their way to Sriperumbudur. At the venue of the rally, Dhanu latched on to Congress(I) volunteer Latha Kannan and her daughter Kokila Vani. Positioning herself between them, clutching a garland that Haribabu had bought earlier, she waited for Rajiv Gandhi's arrival. Sivarajan stood a short distance away, clutching a note pad, pretending to be a journalist. Subha and Nalini sat in the crowd, watching the tragedy that was unfolding, unknown to everybody else. As Rajiv Gandhi walked towards the dais, he paused to hear a recitation of a Hindi poem by Kokila Vani. Dhanu moved forward, and detonated the explosive.

WHEN the SIT was constituted on May 24, 1997, the most valuable pieces of evidence it had were Haribabu's photographs. The photographer died in the blast, but he had faithfully captured the activities of Sivarajan and Dhanu until the end. Although the group had dispersed, this evidence was to prove crucial to their identification and location. A string of arrests and recoveries of invaluable evidence followed. The SIT was able to close in on the group, and when an LTTE rescue team sent to pull out Sivarajan met with an accident at sea, his last chance of escape was also sealed. Meticulous reconstruction of the events leading to the explosion at Sriperum-budur enabled the SIT to put together a charge-sheet which has, backed by hard evidence, stood the scrutiny of rigorous questioning during trial. The charge-sheet, filed more than five years ago, continues to provide a more cogent account of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination than the endless and expensive Commissions of Inquiry that have delved into it.

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