Rajiv’s assassins: ‘Innocent’ Tigers get a free pass

By Neena Gopal

If Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated today, would the probe have been limited to appointing a special investigation team and a pro forma mandatory hunt for the killers in the state of Tamil Nadu when the complicity of the Tamil Tigers became evident within hours of the assassination of India’s youngest prime minister?

That the hunt led to Bengaluru and an inexplicable 24-hour delay in capturing alive the chief conspirators Sivarasan, the ‘One-eyed Jack’, and fallback suicide bomber, Subha, even though they had them cornered in a house in the suburb of Konanakunte, three months later, has never been adequately addressed.

The evidence? The leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) V. Prabhakaran had wanted every detail of the assassination recorded on camera. And while the young photographer Haribabu, tasked with the job—without exactly knowing whom he was doing it for—died in the blast at Sriperumbudur when the human bomb, Dhanu, self-detonated right next to him, his camera was found undamaged on his blood-soaked chest by the sharp-eyed R. K. Raghavan, the IG of olice in charge of the chaotic melee at the Sriperumbudur ground, within hours of the actual blast.

When examined, the chilling image of a huge human fireball, the last picture, told its own story. The ten final frames were a photographic record, not just of the moments leading up to the carnage on the night of May 21, 1991, but of the men and women who made it happen—Dhanu, the female suicide bomber, and her handler Nalini Sriharan, who along with six others and a seventh, Perarivalan, were freed from jail, 31 years after they executed LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s plans to eliminate the one man they saw as standing in their way—Rajiv Gandhi, the primary threat to Prabhakaran’s dream of founding an independent Tamil nation that would have, ominously for India, straddled both countries.

That film roll was the most conclusive piece of evidence that nailed Prabhakaran’s role in the assassination, and of the 26 who were sentenced to death by a trial court, including Perarivalan, the belt bomb maker, Sriharan, a close Sivarasan associate and the Indian woman he eventually married—Nalini.

Not only was Nalini—who plays the innocent with rare aplomb—editing the LTTE manifesto and flyers printed in her family’s printing press, but she was also responsible for Dhanu and Subha during a dummy run of the assassination when V. P. Singh addressed a gathering at Marina Beach, on May 12.

Looking back, the elimination of the leader of India’s most powerful party at the time posed a grave threat to national security, attempting as it did to change the course of electoral history. Many ask why the government of the day did not undertake a ‘Pulwama’, a punitive cross-border attack on the Tamil Tiger hide-outs in northern Sri Lanka that Indian Air Force pilots were long familiar with.

Instead, India sent a team of investigators to liaise with the rabidly anti-Indian and anti-Rajiv Sri Lankan government politely—which conclusively identified Sivarasan, the ‘One-eyed Jack’ and others in the hit team.

It was not beyond India’s ambit. A key Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) operative confided how he kept a line open to Prabhakaran by providing him with a regular supply of Tamil movies that the LTTE chief loved to watch at night.

Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major (retd) recounted to me how easy it would have been to eliminate the betrayer. And how close they came. Deployed with the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), helicopters at the ready, it was a call from the then Air Chief’s aide that saw his team abort the plan at the very last minute.

Today, amidst the Supreme Court’s controversial decision to free the remaining six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, scrapping their death sentences, and now their life sentences, calls are mounting for an informed debate on how the time spent behind bars by murderers, cannot be equated with death sentences given to assassins who strike at the heart of India’s national security like Rajiv’s killers did.

The massive intelligence failure it marked, even though all signs that the LTTE was set to bite the hand that feeds were there for all to see, has never been fully addressed. Then Prime Minister Chandrasekhar convened a meeting the morning after the assassination. But no heads rolled. Not his own, for sure. And despite all the finger-pointing at the LTTE by those present, the Research & Analysis Wing chief G. S. Bajpai was equally sanguine over Prabhakaran’s role, and of the RAW mole, Col Kittu aka Sathasivan Krishnakumar, who had blindsided them.

An emotional Prabhakaran’s handler, RAW senior operative Chandrasekharan would tell me, years later, wiping tears from his eyes, of how he could never forgive himself for not being able to see through Prabhakaran’s long game.

The Jain Commission and the Justice Verma Commission too pulled up the Centre, the Tamil Nadu police and the Congress. But no one was put on the mat for reducing Rajiv Gandhi’s security when his own security staff shared chilling details of previous failed attempts, one in Delhi, the other in Stockholm.

Of far more concern is the misplaced sympathy that the assassins and ‘Eelam’ continue to evoke, even after the LTTE was decimated by the Sri Lankan government, and the open support to the separatist cause by prominent politicians, for electoral gain.

On the night of May 20, 1991, as I put through one frantic call after another to the Congress’ election in charge, Margaret Alva, to track Rajiv Gandhi’s poll campaign, no one in Delhi had a clue about where he was headed, except to say that his plane had developed engine trouble and was probably stuck in Visakhapatnam. It was only when I arrived at Vazhapadi Ramamurthy’s door that the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee chief let on that Rajiv was coming to Sriperumbudur to campaign for his mother Indira Gandhi’s friend Margatham Chandrasekhar. But that wasn’t all he said. Without any prompting, he asked me to be careful, saying he had learnt from the grapevine that there would be trouble the next day!

Vazhapadi was the first—and the only—person to talk, a full 24 hours before the assassination, of the dangers posed by the Sri Lankan Tamils who were based in sizeable numbers in the city. His warning would make me the first reporter to point fingers at the involvement of the LTTE. Accusations were reinforced by a police officer who came to my help in the mad crush moments after the bomb went off, leaving us covered with the blood and gore of the dead who had fallen to the bomber. All I could say, repeatedly, as Congress leaders tried to lift the crumpled form of Rajiv Gandhi lying face down just a few feet away, was, “who could have done this”. To which this unnamed officer said chillingly: “the Tigers, the Tigers.”

-Neena Gopal is a foreign policy analyst and author and this article was originally featured on newindianexpress.com. Neena can be contacted on neenagopal@gmail.com


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