An unstated political agenda

Print edition : September 06, 1997

Despite the Jain Commission's dismal and costly failure so far, it will now begin the second part of its enterprise - to establish the structure of a conspiracy that it does not know exists.

Will only conjecture and apprehension be taken into account? - former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, before the Jain Commission of Inquiry, May 30, 1995.

SEVENTY-TWO months after it was constituted on August 23, 1991, the Justice Milap Chand Jain Commission investigating the conspiracy-assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi finally submitted a 17-volume interim report running to more than 2,000 pages on August 28. Justice Jain's interim report deals with the backdrop to the assassination, the events in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka between 1981 and 1991, most critically the July 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. The voluminous report is arguably most interesting not for its comments but for what it does not say: its unstated political agenda.

The 'new knowledge' the interim report contributes to our understanding of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination is a tendentious and bizarre historical narrative that suggests the key factors that led to the Sriperumbudur tragedy were the policies of the V.P. Singh Government and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Government. Broadcasting such pulp fiction, sadly, is of a piece with the Commission's style of work.

The interim report, complete with 300 annexures, has not been made public, but there is not much doubt about its contents. Indeed, reportage of the thrust of the report, most of it based on a two-page note that was prepared obviously by high-level Commission officials, might give observers of the inquiry reason for disquiet on ethical grounds. Well before Justice Jain drove to the Western Court flat of Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta to deliver the report, newspapers reported that the document contained severe criticism of the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government and the M. Karunanidhi-led DMK Government that was dismissed in January 1991, and of V.P. Singh. The publicity given to the interim report underlined the fears of the Commission's many critics, who believe that it has been transformed into a platform to attack Sonia Gandhi's political opponents, and now those who oppose Congress(I) president Sitaram Kesri. They point to the Thakkar Commission report, which made allegations against Congress(I) leader R.K. Dhawan which later turned out to be a malicious slur but nonetheless affected his career.

Perhaps the most important political component of the interim report is its view of the DMK Government of 1989-1991. The interim report, informed sources told Frontline, sees this period as crucial, for having laid a foundation in Tamil Nadu for the death squads of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of which would take Rajiv Gandhi's life. It argues, for example, that no effort was made to stop the operations of the suicide squad led by Sivarajan that shot Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) leader K. Padmanabha, among others, in Chennai on June 19, 1990.

Links that emerged between arms smugglers in Tamil Nadu and the LTTE have been illustrated through the case of Vedaranyam-based trafficker Shanmugam, who harboured Sivarajan and committed suicide soon after the Sriperumbudur assassination. This development has been placed in the context of Karunanidhi's opposition to Rajiv Gandhi's Sri Lanka policy, which culminated, in some senses, in his refusal to receive returning Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) troops in 1990 at a formal ceremony. The interim report gives special attention to these developments and to related trends in Sri Lankan politics, notably the alleged nexus between Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE, and an LTTE-Sri Lanka Government joint enterprise to wipe out non-LTTE Tamil groups.

The origins of these observations are central to understanding their significance. Then Congress(I) leader P. Chidambaram, in his now-famous address to the Lok Sabha in February 1991, accused the DMK Government of aiding the killing by the LTTE of the EPRLF group in 1990 and of protecting the murderers from the police. Chidambaram claimed that there was hard evidence of the DMK Government systematically sponsoring LTTE terrorist activity in Tamil Nadu. Although in his deposition before the Jain Commission Chidambaram made it clear that there was no evidence to support these claims, others chose not to be bothered by this lack of evidence.

Former Tamil Nadu Home Secretary R. Nagarajan charged Karunanidhi with having deliberately delayed investigations into the EPRLF massacre. Nagarajan's allegations, which were first made in a deposition before a magistrate in Tiruchi in November 1991, also covered the alleged nexus between Karunanidhi's son Azhagiri and LTTE cadres. Former Chief Minister Jayalalitha, for her part, outlined before the Commission her conviction of a DMK-LTTE nexus. This claim was supported by the deposition of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who had an obvious interest in justifying his dismissal of the Karunanidhi Government. Various Congress party figures affirmed the broad thrust of these claims, suggesting that Karunanidhi's policies, the V.P. Singh Government's support to the DMK, and its decision to withdraw Special Protection Group (SPG) cover to Rajiv Gandhi, mandated by an Act passed during the tenure of the previous Congress Government itself, were somehow part of a murky, fantastic conspiracy.

What is perhaps curious about this assemblage of facts, however, is that they appear peripheral to the Commission's work: if the DMK indeed collaborated politically with the LTTE, it would still require an enormous leap of the imagination to read this as proof that the party had anything to do with the assassination. Nothing has so far emerged from the SIT's meticulous investigation to suggest the culpability of the DMK or its functionaries in the assassination. Given Justice Jain's failure to find even a preliminary suggestion of a conspiracy involving the DMK, his evident desire to proceed down this path is mystifying.

Much of the confusion had its origins in Justice Jain's evident misinterpretation of his terms of reference. As legal commentator A.G. Noorani has pointed out, the Jain Commission only came into existence because its predecessor probe, by the controversial Justice J.S. Verma Commission, refused to investigate the conspiracy issues that arose from the assassination. Justice Jain was therefore entrusted with the tasks of discovering "the sequence of events leading to, and all the facts... relating to" the crime, and any possible "conspiracy in this behalf". By a somewhat opaque line of reasoning, Justice Jain took this clear mandate to mean that he had to excavate, as he told interviewers, "the root cause that ultimately flourished and ultimately culminated into the assassination." A prolonged battle between Justice Jain and the Narasimha Rao Government followed over the cut-off date for investigations, and the Commission won the battle. The year 1981 was chosen as the cut-off date. Since the conspiracy could, by no stretch of the imagination, have been hatched at that time, this was clearly a licence for the Commission to engage in a witch-hunt.

But the Jain Commission's interim report has been delinquent with respect to an even larger issue: the connection between the Central Government's schizoid post-1983 policy towards the Sri Lankan Tamil question and the proximate circumstances surrounding the assassination. One of the two conflicting elements of the policy was harbouring, funding, arming and training Tamil militant groups, including the LTTE, and Indira Gandhi was its undisputed author. Rajiv Gandhi inherited, developed and came to terms with the implications of this schizoid policy which surely had something to do with his tragic assassination.

The Commission's gross misunderstanding, if not worse, of its raison d'etre, laid the foundations for what has now emerged. Justice Jain has let it be known that it intends to retrace much of the ground covered by the SIT, including the decisive encounter in Bangalore at which Sivarajan was killed. It legitimised these investigations in an order passed on July 2, 1993, arguing that "the Commission may arrive at the truth while the same may not be established in a court of law for want of legally admissible evidence." Precisely what such a"truth" might constitute is far from clear, and leaves open room for apprehension.

The Commission's intention to review the entire work of the SIT, it would appear, is founded on its understanding of the historical circumstances leading up to the assassination. The excellent investigation conducted by the SIT, and the trial that is under way in a satisfactory manner in the Designated Court in Chennai, could well be compromised by any wild allegations made by the Commission in subsequent efforts. These fears in the past led to sharp disputes between the SIT and the Jain Commission over the sharing of investigation records, which pressure from Rajiv Gandhi 'loyalists' tried to resolve in the latter's favour.

How, then, does one account for the Commission's continued ability to secure endless extensions of its tenure despite its evident lack of results? Justice Jain's interim report anticipates criticism on this count. Much of the interim report is an effort to exculpate the Commission for blame for its prolonged, and so far fruitless, course. The interim report charges Narasimha Rao with hindering the Commission's work under a series of "pretexts". These included, during the Government's five years in power, a move in the Union Cabinet to wind up the Commission and prolonged wrangles over the Commission's jurisdiction to investigate areas dealt with in the SIT's charge-sheet.

The Narasimha Rao Government is also charged in the interim report with having engineered two legal challenges to the Commission's work: claiming executive privilege on confidential intelligence documents and failing to provide proper administrative and legal assistance. Another former Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, is also criticised for having failed to depose before the Commission before February 1996, while the DMK is taken to task for withdrawing from the proceedings for over a year. No concession appears to have been made for Singh's failing health, which led him not only to delay appearances before the Commission, but also to curtail drastically his public and political commitments.

Although Justice Jain may have cause to complain about delays caused by politicians, he has had nothing to say about his own willingness to transform the Commission into a platform for mavericks and over-the-top conspiracy theorists of every kind. Mahant Seva Das, an obscure religious figure from Punjab, held forth before the Commission about a meeting that he claimed to have had with Khalistan ideologue Jagjit Singh Chauhan in London. Seva Das claimed to have received vital information on a conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi using Khalistan terrorist groups hired by Chandraswami from Chauhan. Leaving aside Chauhan's complete irrelevance in the Khalistan hierarchy, and the fact that he does not live in a hideout of the kind Seva Das described but in a city council flat in the United Kingdom with a widely available telephone number, the Mahant's deposition was obviously frivolous.

Chandraswami, for his part, was questioned at length about his career in fraud, but his relevance to a probe of Rajiv Gandhi's death remains exactly zero. Several such frivolous witnesses compromised the Commission's credibility.

At the heart of the Commission's problems has been the indisputable fact that Rajiv Gandhi's assassination has sometimes been appropriated by his political heirs and family to serve political ends. This fundamental criticism will undoubtedly be underlined by the interim report. After six years of work, the Commission has offered to the nation nothing that could not be gleaned from the press. The dynamics of the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship, the rise of the LTTE and Rajiv Gandhi eventually becoming the victim of a history that he helped to shape: these events and processes are well-known. Priyanka Gandhi's well-publicised attendance of the Jain Commission's hearings has left no one in doubt about its real purpose - which is to broadcast the continued role of 10 Janpath in Indian politics.

It appears increasingly probable that the Jain Commission will go the way of the grossly mishandled Thakkar Commission that probed Indira Gandhi's assassination. That shameful enterprise, while it contributed little additional knowledge of the murder of Indira Gandhi, made a series of unsubstantiated allegations, the most important of which was the suggestion that her key aide, R.K. Dhawan, was somehow involved in the affair. Although the monstrous suggestion was subsequently demolished, it aided Rajiv Gandhi in his enterprise of clearing the Prime Minister's Office of key figures of the old order.

The Justice Verma Commission that investigated during a year-long tenure the security lapses that led to Rajiv Gandhi's death ended up in much the same morass. Its finding that Special Protection Group cover being absent at Sriperumbudur was a contributory factor in the assassination was later used to hound several bureaucrats close to V.P. Singh, notably former Cabinet Secretary V.C. Pandey. The spiteful crusade carried out by the Narasimha Rao Government against certain bureaucrats, who were merely enforcing the law on providing protection to former Prime Ministers, collapsed in the face of a reasoned legal critique. Its intention was obviously to placate Sonia Gandhi, who believed that the then Prime Minister was not paying her adequate attention.

Despite the enormous investment of resources in the Commission, it is yet to establish that there is any reason to believe that there was in fact a wider conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi, one that involved not only the LTTE but also other organisations. Clearly, despite claims emanating from the Congress(I), no general infallibility, and perhaps even objectivity, can be attributed to commissions of inquiry. Despite the Jain Commission's dismal and costly failure so far, it will now launch into the second part of its enterprise - to establish the structure of a conspiracy that the Commission does not know exists. Like Karl Marx's Hegelians in quest of a Dialectic, many ambitious young politicians in the Congress(I) are only too willing to dive into the bushes to help this search for a conspiracy that could make their careers.

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