(Editor’s note: This piece should be read in continuation of the Firstpost article published here)
Forget the Indian media’s idiosyncrasies of lionising and over-reporting murders of a model who acted as bartender on her last night at a high-profile party in south Delhi and of a teenager girl in Noida.
My apologies to the families of Jessica Lal and Aarushi Talwar whose murders have been covered extensively by TRP-driven Indian TV channels and the print media as well. I have no grouse against the media’s hyper-activism in getting to the bottom of these condemnable murders.
But here is a murder that our proactive Indian media has virtually forgotten and invariably its reportage appears on the inside pages of newspapers, if at all it does. I am talking of the murder, nay an assassination, of India’s former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It is indeed a pity that while the Indian media has gone berserk in reporting murders of individuals of much lesser importance, it has never found time and space for the coverage of the assassination of a former prime minister which directly impinges on national security.
Don’t forget the fact that the Rajiv Gandhi assassination came at a time when the Indian state was facing its worst-ever period, even an existential crisis. Many enemies of the state and their foreign collaborators were hyperactive in 1991 in trying to dismember India; but we know nothing about this, thanks to our media’s relative blindness on such issues.
I have amplified this point in my investigative book Beyond the Tigers: Tracking Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination, published by Kaveri Books way back in 1998, and stressed the need for reopening investigations into the dastardly event in view of a number of lapses of the Special Investigation Team (SIT).
Nothing has happened even 23 years after the tragic incident. But that is a different story.
However, the Supreme Court of India is seized with a hearing in the case relating to the defence counsel’s plea that the three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case—Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan—be spared the death sentence and their capital punishment be commuted to life imprisonment. The convicts’ plea is centred on the ground that there has been an inordinate and undue delay in deciding their mercy petitions.
Moreover, there has been a recent Supreme Court judgement (21 January) wherein the apex court itself commuted the sentences of 15 death row convicts, ruling that delays in their execution were grounds to change their sentences to life imprisonment. The mercy petitions of the three were rejected by then president Pratibha Patil in 2011 - almost 11 years after the Supreme Court had confirmed their death sentences.
The crucial Supreme Court hearings are likely to go on for some weeks more and the final judgement may be expected much before the Chief Justice of India, Justice P Sathasivam, who is heading the three-judge bench in the case, retires in April. One should not be surprised if the final judgement is pronounced within four to six weeks.
Interestingly, published media reports have reported a pregnant observation of the apex court as follows: "They (the three convicts) deserve death sentence, but the question is how long can they be kept in solitary confinement."
At this juncture we need to ask: Why were Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan awarded death sentences in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in the first place? Why are they important?
But to understand this, one has to understand what happened in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and who did what. It is also important to know the dark areas in the SIT’s investigations and some important mysterious aspects of the case which were ignored by the investigations team.
The Rajiv Gandhi assassination was a ‘blind murder’. Yet some invaluable clues had come to the notice of the SIT, which, for reasons best known to the investigators and powers that be, were either not investigated or were given a quiet burial.
To understand this, I am reproducing below the second chapter of my book Beyond the Tigers: Tracking Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination.
This chapter, titled The Night of the Tigers, does not focus a laser beam on the three death-row convicts (Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan) per se. But to understand their respective roles (which I intend to highlight by publishing more relevant excerpts from my book in the near future), one needs to understand how Sivarasan, the chief of the assassination squad, operated. It is equally important to understand the roles played by Dhanu, the suicide bomber who eventually killed Rajiv Gandhi, her stand-by Subha and Nalini, who later became Murugan's wife, before we come to the parts played by Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan.
The excerpts from a chapter of my book, carried in two parts, are an effort to highlight some unknown nuggets of real information in this regard.
The Night Of The Tigers
A day before the assassination, Dhanu showed signs of nervousness.
She complained of severe headache and running nose. On May 18, just three days before D-day, she had twisted her ankle coming down the stairs from Nalini’s one-room rented accommodation near the Madras High Court. Dhanu did not pay much heed to it then. But by the next day, the ankle had swollen considerably and the would-be assassin had started limping.
This threw Sivarasan into a tizzy. Everything had been planned meticulously. The minutest possible details had been taken care of. But Dhanu’s ankle threatened to jeopardise all their plans.
Sivarasan had tried to make sure that the chief executor of their mission got all attention and care. The Black Tigress had come out of Jaffna for the first time in her life. This was true of most LTTE cadres. Only too aware of this, the chief of the assassination squad opened his purse strings for Dhanu. Sivarasan had given clear instructions to Nalini and Subha to fulfill all her desires for food, entertainment, dresses and cosmetics and not bother about the money. During the last 20 days of Dhanu’s life, Nalini and Subha had spent as much as Rs 10,000 on her -- a princely sum considering the miserly budgets of most LTTE operations.
Nalini had virtually become her alter ego since Dhanu came to Madras in early June. She used to take the Black Tigress out to the market, beach and restaurants every day. Dhanu’s favourite food was chicken biryani, a luxury in the jungles of Jaffna.
The would-be assassin bought herself a few dresses, trinklets and cosmetics. Never before in her life had she used cosmetics. She also bought a pair of spectacles - again a first-time purchase which she did not really require.
Dhanu had suddenly become fond of cinema, seeing as many as six Tamil movies.in 20 days. An introvert who betrayed no emotion, Dhanu had never told Nalini she liked watching films. But ever since she had seen her first, every second or third day she would ask Nalini to take her out for a movie.
Dhanu had, in fact, watched a movie just the day before the assassination. Nalini had taken her for a night show. Despite having a headache, Dhanu watched the movie, silently. It was a social drama.
Dhanu’s injury on the penultimate day of the terrorists’ mission was beginning to cast an element of doubt over the entire operation. But Dhanu was a Black Tigress, trained to kill herself to kill the target. Hers were nerves of steel. She assured Sivarasan that Subha, the standby human bomb, would not be required for the operation.
The last-minute details of the conspiracy were thrashed out at the residence of Nalini and Bhagyanathan’s mother, Padma. Besides Dhanu, Sivarasan and Subha, Bhagyanathan, Nalini, Haribabu, Sriharan and Arivu were also present at the meeting. Sivarasan assigned each one of them specific tasks for the next day.
Haribabu was to buy a garland and wait for the assassination squad at (Broadway) Parrys Corner mofussil bus stand at 1700 hours. Nalini was instructed to take a half-day leave and return home by the afternoon.
The next morning, Sivarasan visited Haribabu to remind him of the evening programme. As the photographer was not at home, he asked his sister to convey the message. Haribabu bought a sandalwood garland from Poompuhar Handicrafts, Mount Road, Madras and went to see his friend, Ravi Shankar, a freelance photographer, to borrow a camera. The conspirators were indeed frugal. The Chinon camera that was to photograph the assassination was borrowed. The film reel had been given to Haribabu by Arivu.
As the fateful evening approached, Sivarasan started getting ready at Vijayan’s house. He changed into a white kurta pyjama and hid his favourite weapon, a 9-mm pistol, inside a cloth pouch specially stitched by Vijayan’s wife.
From there Sivarasan went to a hideout at Kodungaiyar where Dhanu and Subha were waiting. The two Black Tigresses dressed inside a closed room - Subha in a saree and Dhanu in a churidar-kurta. An unusual dress in southern India, Dhanu’s churidar had been stitched at a shop at Purasawalkam in Madras (now Chennai). It was loose enough to conceal the belt bomb. It was so garish that more than one witness remembered the woman wearing it.
That only one set of churidar had been ordered to be stitched demonstrated the level of preparedness. It also indicated that had Dhanu’s fallen ill at Sriperumbudur, the assassins might have had to defer execution of their plot. Two belt bombs were ordered to be made, though the unused belt bomb has not been recovered. Sivarasan’s anxiety was understandable when Dhanu sprained her ankle a day before the assassination.
He need not have worried. Dhanu was up and about the morning of May 21. After her daily chores, she applied lipstick and nail polish. (The SIT recovered a partially used vial of nail polish from Nalini’s house later; Dhanu’s severed arm showed her polished fingernails. The colour of her nail polish matched that found at Nalini’s house. Chemical tests also proved the two samples were from the same vial. There was no doubt that Dhanu and Nalini had stayed together at least for some time.)
The four conspirators, Dhanu, Sivarasan, Nalini and Subha — went to a nearby temple and offered prayers. They then proceeded to the Broadway bus stand around 1700 hours. Haribabu was waiting for them.
The five-member squad boarded a Kancheepuram-bound bus which was to go via Sriperumbudur. They were among the first passengers to board. The conductor was later interrogated by the SIT and the stubs of the five tickets, purchased by Haribabu, recovered. (The conductor told the SIT, Dhanu had sat near the window, along with Nalini. Sivarasan and Subha sat together while Haribabu sat alone. Dhanu looked out from the window and kept silent throughout the journey. Subha and Sivarasan chatted merrily.)
They reached Sriperumbudur two hours later and entered a restaurant close to the public meeting venue for dinner.
Sivarasan asked Dhanu what she wanted. Chicken biryani, she replied immediately. Chicken biryani was ordered for all.
Dhanu ate to her heart’s content. It was her last supper.
They then bought flowers from a local vendor and reached the Sriperumbudur meeting site about 30 minutes before Rajiv Gandhi’s scheduled arrival.
Sivarasan walked to the meeting venue, smoking. This was deliberate; smoking, drinking and adultery are against LTTE ethos.
Rajiv’s flight from Vishakhapatnam was delayed. This did not upset the conspirators’ plans. They arrived early and mingled with the crowd. Haribabu, who was well known in journalistic circles, and Nalini helped them find their bearings.
When a press photographer enquired about Sivarasan, clad in a kurta and pyjama, Haribabu introduced him as a reporter of the Madras-based English fortnightly Aside; a press accreditation card of the publication had been forged for the purpose. Dhanu and Subha took care not to speak too much because of their Sri Lankan accent.
Nalini was nervous right from the time the killer squad members reached the assassination site. Her anxiety increased when it was announced that Rajiv Gandhi was about to arrive. She kept biting her nails, thinking whether Sivarasan and company would succeed or not.
Not a single member of the assassination squad carried any cyanide capsule, so common with LTTE cadres. The capsule could have blown the lid off the operation had any of them got arrested during the getaway.
Haribabu was busy taking photographs of the crowd from different angles as instructed. The LTTE has a penchant for recording the history of "Eelam-in-the-making"; it records every major terrorist act executed by the Tigers to motivate cadres. In fact, as many as 450 video cassettes and hundreds of photographs of various LTTE operations were seized by the SIT and the Tamil Nadu police during post-assassination raids.
Haribabu had earlier proved his usefulness for the LTTE by taking videos and photos of strategic buildings. But he was given only that much information as was necessary for a photographer.
This time, too, Haribabu was merely told to record the assassination of an important leader - it was not until a fortnight before the actual event that he realised the target was none other than Rajiv Gandhi. Even then, he was not given the complete picture. What if he were to develop cold feet?
Haribabu was told Rajiv would be gunned down from close range. He was instructed to be in the immediate vicinity to get the best shots. Presuming Sivarasan would be firing; Haribabu kept away from him and clung to Dhanu, the walking death. He had taken nine photographs already.
Sivarasan carried his 9-mm pistol, presumably to kill Dhanu if she were to be caught unawares and overpowered. In such an eventuality, he would have aimed at the belt bomb. The circuit would thus break and the bomb would explode.
Sniffer dogs had been pressed into service in the evening, some hours before Rajiv’s arrival. Dhanu had gone away. Even if she had not, the sniffer dogs could not have smelt her belt bomb, made of RDX - an odourless plastic explosive. No member of the killer team had been checked or frisked. The dais was also combed, but Rajiv would never reach it.
Minutes before Rajiv’s arrival, an Ambassador car drove up and parked close to the sterilised zone under a palm grove. A local woman Congress worker, Kumudavalli, later told the SIT that Latha Priyakumar, daughter of veteran Tamil Nadu Congress leader Margatham Chandrasekhar, alighted from the vehicle along with another woman and a young girl.
Kumudavalli said the second woman and the child—Latha Kannan and her daughter Kokila—were seen talking to Sivarasan and Dhanu. The assassins stood together with Latha and Kokila as they waited for Rajiv to come.
According to Kumudavalli, Latha Priyakumar had told the organisers that Latha Kannan wished to garland Rajiv and have her daughter read out a Hindi poem in his praise. Kannan and Kokila were then allowed to stand with other people who wanted to garland Rajiv. These people had already been checked and frisked. But Dhanu was not; she sneaked in along with Kannan and Kokila. The die was cast.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is a Firstpost columnist who tweets @Kishkindha and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)