June 21, 1991

The gory end

Print edition : February 06, 2015

The following photographs in sequence taken by freelance photographer Haribabu, 22, who died in the blast at the venue of Rajiv Gandhi's election campaign rally in Sriperumbudur, proved vital in pursuing various leads. In this picture, the woman waiting with the garland is Dhanu, the suicide bomber. Flanking her are Latha Kannan and her daughter Kokila, 15. The man in the photograph is Sivarajan, "the journalist". Photo: The Hindu Archives

INDIRA GANDHI was devoured by the never-ending Punjab crisis which turned malignant some time in the 1980s; her tragic end, which came on October 31, 1984, at the treacherous hands of her own armed bodyguards, showed that she stood no chance whatsoever against the furious forces of fundamentalist enmity and hatred and fanatical, extremist determination which had been unleashed, partly by a deeply flawed Punjab policy.

In much the same sense, her son and successor, 47-year-old Rajiv Gandhi—who hoped to win back the prime ministership he had lost in November 1989 and campaigned for it freely, heedless of security barriers or warnings—was devoured by Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis into which India had been drawn involuntarily in 1983 and which, in turn, had been affected by India’s activist and deeply flawed policy.

While Indira Gandhi clearly apprehended that there were powerful forces determined to kill her, Rajiv, by all accounts, was laid-back or perhaps even philosophical—he did not seem to bother at all about the danger, or lose any sleep over it. Else, there can be no explanation for what happened on the night of May 21, 1991, in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. According to the latest intelligence, it could easily have happened elsewhere on the campaign trail—had the assassin failed to strike near Madras. Both the factional disarray and the state of the Congress party organisation, and the confusion and ambiguity which marked the design of the official security arrangements, made it extremely unlikely that Rajiv could have been successfully protected against this type of suicide mission assassination plan, which seemed to have an awesome element of “overkill” built into it.

Rajiv fell victim—in a crime of unimaginable brutality, enormity, dare-devilry and cool expertise in execution, which shook the world—to the inability of two neighbouring societies to find a peaceful and reasonable solution to the ethnic conflict, which has meant an unending civil war in the north-east of the island. This much is established by all that is known about the grisly assassination carried out in Sriperumbudur by the “belt-bomb woman” and the investigation into it.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and State police investigations have obtained vital evidence on how the assassination was carried out, its modus operandi and the agent or agents who executed it for a resourceful organisation. Two photographs of the woman alive, moments before the assassination (from a frame of colour pictures taken by a photographer who died in the explosion); other clues concerning her movements and associations before the crime; information available on a youngish man in white kurta-pyjama who reportedly made use of the professional services of a young photographer, made an effortlessly easy entry into the enclosure, had the advantage of mobility and whom the police are looking for; and various other bits and pieces of information, including claimed intelligence about a larger squad of killers who were stalking Rajiv, leave little doubt about the highly sophisticated, highly resourceful, semi-military character of the crime.

In other words, nobody seems to have any doubt that the Sriperumbudur assassination and massacre are the work of Sri Lankan militant hands, waists and minds. Top on the list of real suspects (following some initial confusion and disarray in the investigation) is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Also under examination are theories and speculation suggesting that someone in the Sri Lankan official establishment could be involved and that the assassination was executed merely through the agency of some Sri Lankan Tamil militants; or that some other “foreign hand” is involved; or that there might have been individually conceived “revenge” motives or fringe element plots. A week after the assassination, the CBI investigators and intelligence assessments had virtually ruled out the hand of pro-Khalistan extremists (in this kind of terrain and given this mode of killing) and the involvement of far-out, fringe or “dropout” elements.

The needle of suspicion—to recall a tragic phrase culled from a controversial inquiry into the assassination of Rajiv’s mother—has magnetically swung towards the Tigers, who have vehemently denied any involvement (from London and elsewhere). What is quite clear a week after the crime is that specific evidence linking the crime and its agents with the organisation most suspected has not been obtained—notwithstanding the claims made by Subramaniam Swamy & Co. But the investigators were hopeful of making a breakthrough, despite some indications that there were lacunae, gaps and tardiness in the investigative efforts featuring the State police as some kind of junior partner of the CBI—the central agency which has been given the responsibility.

Agonisingly, democratic India is also attempting to come to terms with the irrefutable information available on an intriguing development of some political and policy significance. On March 5, 1991, starting 4-30 p.m., Rajiv Gandhi held a one-to-one meeting of approximately 45 minutes with an authorised LTTE representative in his home in New Delhi; and a second meeting with an LTTE sympathiser who came from London on behalf “of the Sri Lankan Tamils”. The news of the first meeting was reported by The Hindu, on its front page, on May 25. After an incredible denial by Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress spokesman, the story has been completely confirmed. The meetings went well, according to information available from both sides. This intriguing development is a matter of obvious interest to the investigation.

Prof. P. Chandrasekharan, Director of the Tamil Nadu Forensic Sciences Department, said the woman waiting to garland the former Prime Minister could have bent forward as if to touch his feet and could have activated the timer, triggering the explosion.

The explosives were probably tied to her back, going by the complete disfiguring of Rajiv Gandhi’s face and the extensive damage caused to the back of the woman’s head. That the back of Rajiv Gandhi’s head and the face of the woman were not damaged beyond recognition also confirms this theory.

Prof. Chandrasekharan said the abdominal belt had sticking to it shreds of the orange-and-green salwar-kameez which the woman wore. “Some pieces were also found near the body. The build and other physical characteristics, hinted strongly that the woman was a Sri Lankan Tamil, although this obviously needed to be confirmed. While all the other bodies had been mutilated or charred, the woman’s face and legs were intact.

Prof. Chandrasekharan said experts were examining the teeth and hair of the woman to determine, if possible, her nationality or origins. Anthropological tests are expected to throw more light on the racial or ethnic type. Some experts in DNA-testing have also arrived to check her post-mortem examination report.

The 8 cm wide, 65 cm long belt with steel ribs, worn by the “live bomb”, resembles the ones used by patients suffering from back pain. At least three steel ribs had been removed and the chambers stuffed with explosives. The experts have also collected from the scene a switch, a time-delay device, parts of detonators, some wire and a foreign-made 9 volts battery with two switches. The woman probably wore a vest jacket to keep the explosive intact for detonation. She probably used her right hand to switch on the explosion. According to the experts, the explosive was similar to that used by military authorities. Known as Cl, C2 and C3 combination, its major constituent is RDX (cyclotrimethylene trinitramine). The assassin employed the “Claymore effect” to inflict maximum damage. This was done by fixing hundreds of 2 mm spherical pellets of uniform size in the explosive packed round the waist; some were recovered from the scene and many were found on Rajiv Gandhi’s body.

The plastic explosive is highly malleable and can be easily placed in the belt. It cannot be traced by conventional metal detectors. The blast in Sriperumbudur was nowhere as powerful as the military-style explosion that blew up Sri Lanka’s Minister of State for Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne, in Colombo on March 2 this year. But it was so powerful, a body was found on top of the pandal over the dais while parts of some bodies were found quite some distance away from the scene.

The forensic team has ruled out the possibility of a remote-controlled device like the one speculated about in connection with the assassination of Wijeratne. If a remote-controlled device had been used to detonate an explosive planted at the site, the legs of all the victims would have been blown to bits. Ruling out also the possibility of a bomb in a garland or a flower basket, the experts said in that case the bomb would have left a crater.

Ten hours after the blast, one could see at the spot a bizarre reminder—a basket with jasmines. These were intact as also was most of the red carpet. This further supports the belt bomb theory.

Prof. Chandrasekharan said that in his 30-year experience in forensic science, he had not come across such precision work. “This is the first time I am seeing a belt bomb although we have seen letter and transistor bombs used by militants in India and elsewhere,” he observed: “The finesse with which the explosive was stitched into the denim belt proves the involvement of professionals.”

It is not known whether the suspected Sri Lankan Tamil woman came to the spot by herself or with someone else. A picture shows her comfortably placed between Latha Kannan and Kokila, both belonging to the Congress in Arakkonam. The “eyewitness” accounts of how the “belt bomb woman” managed to sneak into the line of party workers—supposedly cleared with security in advance—and how the kurta-pyjama man “penetrated” the enclosure vary.

K. Sulaiman, a party worker from Sriperumbudur, identifying the woman with the help of the published picture, told the press she was seen at the spot some five hours before the arrival of the VVIP. He said she came in a “light blue Ambassador car” along with a 16-year-old girl described as “good-looking”. “When questioned, the other girl said something in English and when I told her I could not follow the language, she switched to chaste Tamil, much different from the one spoken by the people in this region. She sought permission to garland Rajiv Gandhi. When asked where they were coming from, the girl said Kancheepuram.” This is Sulaiman’s account.

Rajiv Gandhi landed at the old Madras airport at 8-26 p.m. on that fateful day and in less than two hours he lay faceless and heart-rendingly mangled near a stage in the temple town where he was supposed to address an “unnecessary” election meeting. Apparently, the highly factionalised State party organisation bossed over by Vazhapadi Ramamurthy and affected by the manoeuvres and confused plans of individual bigwigs was in two, or several, minds about the necessity of the Sriperumbudur meeting on a site concerning which security officials had expressed their objections. Nevertheless, Rajiv Gandhi felt morally obliged to campaign for a balanced short list of party candidates, beginning with a veteran, Maragatham Chandrasekhar, who rose to some political prominence from a Scheduled Caste background.

The pictures, published first in The Hindu, tell the story far more powerfully than any words or analysis can. A youngish woman, estimated to be in her thirties and tentatively identified as a Sri Lankan Tamil, waits to garland Rajiv (with a sandalwood garland) as she stands between 15-year-old Kokila, and her 35-year-old stepmother, Latha Kannan—a Congress worker from Arakkonam who was keen on her daughter reading a poem to Rajiv Gandhi in his praise.

The unidentified woman looks cool and credible in her heavy, “garish” make-up; she looks so different from the rest that it might have been assumed, psychologically, that she was cleared by someone in the Rajiv entourage, or by the organisers. The man whose picture has been circulated around the world through Interpol and Indian missions also stands out from the rest in his white kurta-pyjama, but the point is that he is yet to be traced or accounted for.

Kokila, the young, talented girl to the left of the “belt-bomb woman” and Latha, her stepmother, are believed to be innocent victims. Certainly, they did not know about the “belt bomb” or the assassination plan. Whether they knew the “belt-bomb woman”, rendered any kind of unwitting help to her or were used by her in some way, is under CBI and police investigation. But it is also suspected that the dead photographer, Haribabu, whose camera recovered by the State police gave us this dramatic pre-assassination evidence, was used by the mysterious man.

Circumstantial evidence aside, an experienced journalist based in Madras has provided information to the investigators that the photographer introduced the kurta-pyjama clad youngish man to him; the man, who did not utter a word, is believed to have attached himself to the photographer and this gave him mobility inside the enclosure, since both would have passed as part of the press, allowed freely (by the nature of the arrangement) to cover this meeting. The photographer who died did not know what was in store—that much seems clear.

The final moments of Rajiv Gandhi are recorded in a rare picture, also taken by Haribabu (whose frame of nine colour pictures, not all released, includes a shot of a part of the explosion). This photograph, of dramatic human interest, was also first published by The Hindu.

In this picture, Rajiv Gandhi is greeted enthusiastically by Kokila, whose double plait is clearly recognisable from the back; he affectionately places his left hand on her shoulder and accepts her poetic tribute. There are others (including security personnel) crowded around him in the photograph, which reveals that the line within the enclosure broke. But behind the young girl stands the “belt-bomb woman”, with flowers in her hair.

Moments later came her turn to greet Rajiv Gandhi—with her garland and her humble gesture of bending low before him and apparently falling at his feet. This we know, not from any picture, but from varying or confused eyewitness accounts and attempted reconstructions of what happened.

Here is where the forensic evidence comes in decisively. The investigators have pretty much pieced together what obviously happened at the moment of assassination. The woman, bending low, blew herself up and directed the force of the blow at Rajiv’s unguarded face like a missile. Rajiv Gandhi was scooped out from the front above the waist, but the shell of his back—including the back of his head—was relatively intact and recognisable, and so were his brand new walking shoes.

A notable feature of the investigation is the fact that all the items of evidence—including the vital photographs of the “belt-bomb woman” and the others taken by the photographer who died—were not handed over to the CBI promptly by the State police authorities. In fact, the CBI investigators came to know of the sensational photograph of the woman, standing between Kokila and Latha Kannan, through its publication in the press.

It is ironic and touching that Rajiv Gandhi spoke at his last press conference at the Madras airport on poll violence, on his changed campaign style and on his party’s confidence about returning to power in New Delhi. “There is a difference between campaigning as Prime Minister and merely as a party president, I am now able to mix more freely with the people, that is all,” he told journalists who asked him specifically about the sudden change in his approach.

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