A stupendous task

Print edition : February 07, 1998

D.R. Karthikeyan, the head of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that ensured the conviction of Rajiv Gandhi's assassins, has reason to feel vindicated. The verdict of the Designated Court at Poonamallee, near Chennai, has effectively rebutted the barrage of criticism that was directed at the SIT not only by self-serving politicians, but also by a Commission of Inquiry. Yet, in this interview to T.S. Subramanian and Praveen Swami, on January 27, Karthikeyan described his work with modesty and candour. Excerpts:

How do you personally feel after the end of this enormous process of investigation and trial?

A sense of great relief and satisfaction at having done my duty to the nation. Had I stayed on in my State cadre, my career graph would have been very different. I would have had greater interaction with the public and would have enjoyed that special satisfaction of having done something for a community, which gives you so much back on its part. Every Government in Karnataka and every Chief Minister, irrespective of their party, tried to persuade me to come back to the State to occupy key positions. Had I gone back to the State, I would have certainly occupied positions that are generally considered most important, powerful and glamorous. So, by staying on in the Government of India, at its request, I might have missed the thrill and excitement enjoyed by police officers in the States. However, I have no regrets on that count.

In the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a great force of which the nation should be proud, I had an opportunity to see every nook and corner of India. I used to go to Punjab almost every month when it was reeling under terrorist violence. I stayed at the most terrorism-affected place, Tarn Taran. I saw Jammu and Kashmir in 1989, when it was still quiet, while the situation deteriorated, and when terrorism was at its peak. In the same way, I have seen various insurgencies and terrorist actions in the northeastern region and the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh. While I cannot say I have been able to solve any of these problems - which, for that matter, no one can - it helped me to understand the problems and dangers that confront India. My tenure in the CRPF, then, gave me a much better understanding of my country and its problems.

What sort of understanding of Sri Lanka did you have before you were assigned to the Rajiv Gandhi case? Had you studied the situation there?

T.A.HAFEEZ

During the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) operation in Sri Lanka, I was entrusted with a unique operation to make an assessment of the prevailing situation. I have never spoken of this assignment before. My task was to report on the relative strengths of various groups, the IPKF's performance, and more important, on how much devolution had taken place in the North-Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, as mandated by the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. I travelled very widely in Jaffna, Trincomallee, Batticaloa and Vavuniya at the peak of the IPKF-LTTE confrontation. I saw vehicles blown up in front of my eyes. I did submit more than one assessment report, which were appreciated at the highest levels. I found that the LTTE was in control of most areas outside major towns, and that hardly any meaningful devolution had taken place in pursuance of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. I said that given the ground realities, India could not avoid talking to the LTTE to avoid further losses to both sides.

When you took control of the SIT, it must have been a very difficult decision to make, given what was at stake.

I was at my Hyderabad office when a call came from K.P.S. Gill, who was then Director-General of the CRPF. Gill informed me that the Government wanted me to be associated with the investigation of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. However, he was very particular that I continue to be in the CRPF to carry on and complete the several development projects we had initiated for the force. A little while later, I got a call from Vijay Karan, who was the Director of the CBI at the time. Vijay Karan conveyed the decision of the Government that I should head the SIT that was being formed as part of the CBI to investigate the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. I clearly recall his telling me that unlike the Mahatma Gandhi or Indira Gandhi assassinations, where some assailants were caught red-handed, in this case there was no clue. Even the intelligence agencies had no information about the possible assassins or the groups involved. He added that this case might be as elusive as the Kennedy assassination, but we should make all attempts to solve it. I did tell him that they should go for a more senior and experienced officer, but Vijay Karan responded that all aspects had been considered, and he agreed with the Government's decision that I was the best choice. Thereafter, I said that although I would respond to the call of the nation, I was not sure I was equal to the task. I said that I was fond of Rajiv Gandhi, and he was fond of me. Let me at least make an honest attempt to find the killers of a man whom I liked.

Almost instinctively, I raised three conditions. I told the CBI Director that I would have complied with a Government order, but since my consent was being asked for, I would take the liberty of setting these conditions before accepting. The first was that there should be no politics or political interference during the investigation, as I believed we should go only on facts and evidence. Secondly, I stated that I did not believe in third-degree methods, and would not permit my team to use them whether the case was detected or not. To both of these points, Vijay Karan, who shared my faith in these principles, agreed. My third condition was that I must continue to hold my position in the CRPF for various reasons, including the fact that the CBI had neither the manpower nor the logistical support for such a major investigation. Also, I did not want to keep shifting my family from place to place for short durations, and disturb the education of my children. Vijay Karan promised to get back to me, and he called me back around 3 p.m. the same afternoon to say that all my conditions had been accepted. I left at 5 p.m. by a special flight carrying two companies of the CRPF from Hyderabad to Chennai. I landed at 6 p.m. and plunged into the investigation, although the SIT took over the investigation only later.

The reason I sought reassurance on these points was to avoid any bitterness later on. It was a high-profile case and of great consequence to the country. You cannot allow yourself to get side-tracked.

Did you believe at the outset that you would crack the case, or were you prepared for failure?

You have to set off with a lot of faith and confidence. Once they said, "you do it", and I accepted it, I had to start off believing I could do the job. The John F. Kennedy and Olof Palme cases, after all, were never properly solved. You know, I met Rajiv Gandhi shortly before the assassination. He talked about some issues which I am not free to discuss now. But he was very kind to me. He waved out to me from a distance, and held my hand. I felt in some ways that I owed it to his memory to do my best. He was, after all, one of the greatest leaders of our time. And had we failed to solve the murder, it would have had appalling consequences for the integrity of our political system, the security of the nation, and our international standing.

This investigation was criticised for being too open to the media. Were the media a help or a hindrance?

The public had a tremendous interest in the assassination case. Our working had to be transparent if our investigation was to have credibility. And without that credibility, the investigation would have been pointless. Without transparency, when I filed the charge-sheet, you would simply have had to take my word for it that these were the facts. But we chose to open ourselves out to the media, and made no effort to conceal our failings. Sometimes, these were misreported with mischievous intent. But the reporting was overwhelmingly responsible and constructive. That worked for us, because even before the judgment was delivered, the results of the investigation were believed by the public, who supported us all the way.

There must have been times when you felt you were failing?

If you lie flat on your back, you will never fall. But is lying on your back a desirable state of being? What will happen if everybody plays safe and does nothing? If you run, you risk falling down, but you will still reach your objective quickly. Everyone in the SIT was running flat out, and just on a couple of occasions, we tripped and fell. People worked round the clock, without any regard for their families, holidays or whatever. And the fact is, we have done a job which may justifiably be called stupendous. The plot was cunning in conception, meticulous in planning and ruthless in execution. The assassins not only killed their target, but at each stage brushed their trail away. But we broke the case. Not a single conspirator in India was allowed to escape. They are all either dead or in jail.

Were you ever demoralised by the attacks on the SIT, from the media and in other forums?

We placed facts and circumstances before the Court. We did not engage in that widely accepted practice called embellishment. We felt that facts established must speak for themselves. They must stand or fall on their own. There is a Commission of Inquiry which has a much longer life than the SIT. But as far as we are concerned, our case is complete in itself.

When I flew to Chennai to begin the investigation, I was hoping that the assassination had not been carried out by the LTTE. As I told you, I had concluded after my mission to Sri Lanka that we must negotiate with the LTTE, and I submitted my report before the IPKF pullout. I could visualise what the consequences would be if the LTTE had indeed killed Rajiv Gandhi. But the facts led to them, and to them alone.

Nonetheless, attacks must have affected the morale, when you were working so hard.

I have many friends who stood by me during those days. I am grateful to them, but even more grateful to those who have attacked me. I cannot name them now, but there were people inside and outside the SIT who almost let jealousies, politics and ego problems destroy the investigation. They did not mean to help the accused, but that was the result of their actions. They have taught me to be truly philosophical. I think I am now a much more patient and philosophical person than I was, and I didn't have to go all the way to the Himalayas to get inner strength. One person who supported me throughout, and whom I can talk about now that he has retired, was Chief Justice J.S. Verma. "Destiny has placed an enormous burden on your shoulders," he told me. "You did not ask for it, but you must do your duty to the nation."

Looking back, do you think Special Protection Group cover would have saved Rajiv Gandhi's life?

It would not be appropriate for me to discuss this now.

Do you believe that Commissions of Inquiry serve a useful purpose or do they simply obstruct the due process of investigation by police officials?

I am afraid that it is not for me to comment on this aspect. This is especially so when the Jain Commission of Inquiry is still seized of the issue and is yet to submit its final report. I will say they add to our work and delay trial.

What do you think the lessons of the SIT investigation are for future police probes?

Get the right people to do the job. Let them put together homogeneous teams of people they can work with. Give them the resources they need to do their job. Keep them free of political interference and do not constantly carp at them.

I would only venture to add that extraordinary situations call for extraordinary laws to deal with them. Without TADA, for example, it would have been difficult for the SIT to have done its job in the way it has.

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