Against the odds

Print edition : February 07, 1998

The verdict in the assassination case marks the culmination of years of meticulous investigative and prosecutorial work by the SIT.

THE judgment of the Designated Court in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case marks the end of a six-and-a-half-year investigative and judicial process. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which led the investigation, constituted perhaps the finest police and legal talent available nationwide. The members of the SIT were drawn from a variety of State and Central police backgrounds, and even the Railway Police and Customs. National Security Guard troopers and diverse support service personnel were deployed at various times to help the SIT's operational work.

The reasons for the choice of such a diverse team were apparent. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated at 10-10 p.m. on May 21, 1991, no one was certain who his killers were. Terrorist groups ranging from Khalistan outfits to Kashmiri secessionist groupings and of course the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were, at the outset of the investigation, all possible suspects whose role had to be explored. The man chosen to head the investigation, CBI Joint Director and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Inspector-General of Police D.R. Karthikeyan, reflected the breadth of the SIT's task. Posted at the CRPF's southern sector in Hyderabad, Karthikeyan had intimate knowledge of the LTTE. He had earlier been assigned the task of preparing a confidential report on the situation in Sri Lanka for the Cabinet Secretariat. The CRPF was also at the cutting edge of counter-terrorist work nationwide. Karthikeyan had personal experience of counter-terrorist operations in Punjab, the northeastern region and Jammu and Kashmir.

The team Karthikeyan assembled reflected his own diversity of experience. Deputy Inspectors-General of Police Radhavinod Raju, R. Srikumar, Amod Kant and S. Ramani had varied kinds of hands-on experience. Raju, for example, had served with distinction in Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, Superintendents of Police S. Balaji, Salim Ali, Amit Verma, C. Balasubramaniam, Ashok Kumar and D. Manoharan, Deputy Superintendents of Police Selladurai and Mohammad Iqbal and Chief Investigating Officer K. Ragothaman, were chosen not for narrow specialist skills, but because of their ability to unravel murder cases even if there were next to no clues about their perpetrators. Jacob R. Daniel, Deputy Legal Adviser for the CBI's southern zone, was appointed Public Prosecutor to peruse cases that would be filed under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. A team of prosecution lawyers was assembled under P. Rajamanickam.

Over the first three months of its work, the SIT was able to establish that Rajiv Gandhi's assassins were indeed operatives of the LTTE. Photographs taken at the assassination site by S. Haribabu, an associate of the LTTE's assassination cell, provided the first breakthroughs. Haribabu died in the explosion, but his camera miraculously survived. His film documented the belt-bomb assassin Dhanu approaching Rajiv Gandhi, as the leader of the team Sivarajan watched from a distance, and their associates Subha and S. Nalini watched from the crowd. With the arrests of S. Bhagyanathan and S. Padma, Nalini's brother and mother, on June 11, 1991, the SIT made the next major breakthrough. The hunt for the LTTE cell came to an end on August 19 that year, when Sivarajan and other key members of the cell were surrounded at Konanakunte on the outskirts of Bangalore. Sivarajan shot himself with his pistol; the others consumed cyanide (see separate story). These suicides were intended to ensure that the role of the LTTE in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination could never be proved.

The next task before the SIT, in some ways more difficult than its earlier work, was to ensure the conviction of the remaining conspirators, and to make sure the LTTE's guilt could be established through the rigorous test of a courtroom trial. Racing against legal deadlines, the SIT filed the charge-sheet before the court of the Designated Judge just one day before the first anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. Four further months of work were needed to serve copies of the charge-sheet to all the accused, along with copies of documents and witnesses' statements that ran into thousands of pages. All these documents were in English; the accused, however, demanded Tamil translations, necessitating another laborious round of paperwork which was only completed in November 1992.

The bodies of Sivarajan and Subha, who committed suicide when their hideout in Konanakunte near Bangalore was raided by the SIT on August 19, 1991.-T.A. HAFEEZ

Meanwhile, a special high-security jail was built to house the accused at Poonamallee, 30 km from Chennai. The decision to build this structure was driven by the apprehension that regular movements of the prisoners from jail to court would enable the LTTE to eliminate them, destroying the only first-hand evidence of its organisational complicity. The jail was ready in January 1993. A narrow corridor and a wall separated the individual cells of the prisoners from the large court hall were the Designated Judge conducted the trials. CRPF troopers were deployed to guard this jail-court complex.

In this maximum security prison, the Designated Court began its work, with pre-trial arguments by the prosecution and the defence opening on May 5, 1993. Charges against the accused were framed in November that year, but the progress of the trial was anything but smooth. One of the accused, Murugan, first refused to engage a lawyer, and then proceeded to boycott the trial. Since all accused must be in court when a trial is conducted, this was an ill-disguised stalling tactic. When the Indian Government asked the Sri Lankan Government for the extradition of V. Prabakaran, all the accused demanded that the trial be suspended until his presence in India was secured. A string of legal interventions, both habeas corpus petitions and appeals against the Designated Court's proceedings, were also made. The defence team, comprising S. Doraisamy, N. Chandrasekar, T. Ramadoss, N. Gnagunaseelan, P. Gopalakrishnan, K. Thennan, V. Ilangovan, C.M. Gunasekar and R. Jeyaseelan, used their knowledge of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem while arguing the case of the accused. The Designated Court disposed of a few hundred petitions; 50 other petitions made their way to the High Court and the Supreme Court.

If this legal obfuscation was not bad enough, the trial was almost derailed by the workings of Justice M.C. Jain's now-notorious Commission of Inquiry (see A.G. Noorani's column, "Justice vs Jain", from Page 110). On June 26, 1995, Justice Jain directed that Karthikeyan, on behalf of the SIT, "make available the investigation records and the case diary for perusal by the Commission, and if necessary, seek the permission of the Designated Court in this regard."

Designated Judge S.M. Sidickk, quite correctly, refused to allow anything of the kind. Handing over the diaries, Judge Sidickk held, would "amount to grant of a stay of the trial of this case by this Court itself." The court, he said, "cannot be a party to such a course of action". The matter was settled when it was argued that only copies of the diary and investigation records would be shown, and that too for Justice Jain's eyes only.

The task of completing the examination of 288 prosecution witnesses, just a part of the 1,044 witnesses the SIT had originally cited, was completed on May 5, 1997. Chief Investigating Officer Ragothaman spent a record 67 days in the witness-box, at one point suffering a mild heart-attack during the course of his examination. Amazingly, he was back in the witness box four days later. As many as 1,477 documents, adding up to a colossal 10,000 pages, along with 1,180 material objects, including Haribabu's photographs and Sivarajan's pistol and assault rifle, were produced in evidence by the prosecution. No defence witnesses were produced. Judge V. Navaneetham, who took over from Judge Sidickk, had himself questioned the accused using his powers under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure from May 14 onwards. On November 5, 1997, arguments in the trial concluded, and Judge Navaneetham reserved his judgment for January 28.

Both the SIT, the legal team, and others associated with the investigation are justifiably proud of their work. They worked long hours, often without holidays. The sense of working as part of a team manifested itself even at mealtimes: everyone from Karthikeyan downwards ate the food prepared for the CRPF troopers guarding the SIT headquarters in Chennai.

"We did it despite tremendous odds," recalls Karthikeyan. "When we began, it could have gone the way of the Kennedy assassination case, with no conclusive results. But we pushed ourselves. It shows that we have superb talent in this country, and can achieve anything if the right people are picked for the right job, and allowed to function professionally, without political interference."

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