The million dollar question for the crisis managers was : did Rajiv assassination require a military response?
A special aircraft took off from New Delhi at around 0300 hours on May 22, 1991.
The Madras-bound eight-seater BSF plane had on board M K Narayanan, MI chief Lt General B M Khanna, RAW chief G S Bajpai and two joint directors of IB - the crack operations man Ajit Doval, who was in charge of all IB operations, and E S L Narasimhan, an expert on the LTTE.
The crisis managers were carefully picked. The emphasis was on finding out the possible involvement of a foreign power, and planning out various operations if the answer were to be a “yes”.
The immediate suspicion fell on Punjab terrorists and the LTTE, in that order, though at that time there was no evidence to prove either outfit’s involvement. Who killed Rajiv? How was he killed? There was no answer to these fundamental questions.
But the one big question that began intriguing India ’s crisis managers was whether the Sri Lankan government was in any way involved with the assassination. Did the Sri Lankan government engineer or support the assassination, or whether it had incited the assassins or connived with them?
An influential section of the Sri Lankan leadership had bitterly opposed Rajiv’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Colombo . In March 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, visibly under pressure from the Tamil Nadu state government, had adopted aggressive postures to help Sri Lankan Tamils. Colombo had announced an embargo against the Tamildominated northern and north-eastern areas of the island nation. The decision had evoked a bitter response from the Indian Tamil community. In June 1987, Rajiv sent two Coast Guard flotellas with food and medicines for the Tamils in Sri Lanka . In a rare show of defiance, the Lankan navy did not allow the flottellas entry into their waters. Baulked by Colombo ’s show of strength, Rajiv sent a transport aircraft with fighter air cover to air-drop the relief material. The fighters flew over the Sri Lankan air base of Palaly near Jaffna . The Lankan air force had orders from president Junius Jayewardene not to retaliate. The air-dropping caused an uproar in Colombo ’s corridors of power. Prime minister R Premadasa accused Rajiv of interfering in Sri Lanka ’s internal affairs and browbeating a much smaller neighbour. To drive home the point, he absented himself from the signing ceremony of Indo-Sri Lanka Peace accord in Colombo in July 1987.
Later, when Premadasa became the Sri Lankan president he made it clear to Rajiv’s successor V P Singh that the IPKF had ( to pull out completely from Sri Lanka as it was an “occupational force”.
V P Singh could not agree more, but the withdrawal had to be in a phased manner or else those who supported the IPKF’s presence in Sri Lanka faced certain massacre at the hands of the LTTE. Premadasa was known to be in touch with the LTTE in the fond hope of winning it over diplomatically. In fact, intelligence reports suggested that when the IPKF’s phased withdrawal had begun, Premadasa, then the president, had supplied the guerillas with arms and ammunition to fight the IPKF if it were to return. New Delhi was in a quandary. What if the Sri Lankan government’s involvement in Rajiv’s assassination is borne out ? What if Premadasa colluded with Prabhakaran to get rid of Rajiv who was on a come-back trail in the ongoing general elections ? What if some other country was found to be actively behind the assassination? If answered in the affirmative, India would have had to exercise military option to salvage national honour. The entire southern coast had to be patrolled by navy and the coast guard personnel. Troops would be needed to be redeployed. Para-military forces, like the BSF would have to be withdrawn from terrorismhit states to back up. This would mean cancellation of elections in some states. All these questions had to be addressed to by the expert panel, led by Narayanan. The occupants of the aircraft had animated discussions during the four-hour-long flight. Lt Gen B M Khanna’s role was crucial. Investigation was not the objective of the expert panel, but to assess the need for a military response.
Laxmi, the librarian at the Indian High Commission in Colombo, had received a mysterious call nearly six hours before the assassination.
“Is Rajiv Gandhi dead,” the caller asked in chaste English. Laxmi, a Sri Lankan Tamil, asked the caller to identify himself, but he had already hung up. She took it as a prank and did not inform anyone about it, until the next day when she realised its importance.
Was the anonymous caller a friend or a foe ? Did he want to tip off Indian intellignece agencies about the coming event or was he a desperate conspirator or accomplice who wanted to check their secret mission’s progress ?
Another LTTE shipment of weapons and explosives reached Jaffna. It was five months after Rajiv’s assassination.
The same pattern was followed. Golden Bird, an LTTE ship, cast anchor in the high seas off Bay of Bengal some time in September-October, 1991. The vessel, of the same size and tonnage as Sunbird, had originated in Greece . This time the Tigers were more lucky. The Sea Tigers’ speedboats transferred the entire cargo of RDX, ammunition and anti-aircraft guns from the ship to their speedboats and sped away to Jaffna .
It was yet again the unfailing KP at work. KP’s movements are interesting and may illuminate the dark areas of the international conspiracy behind Rajiv’s assassination. He was in Cyprus before the assassination, making arrangements for the Golden Bird shipment. But after Rajiv was killed, he shifted base to Karachi , the bustling Pakistani port city, from where he operated for quite some time.
KP has a Pakistani passport. There are reports of his hobnobbing with the Pakistani secret service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
Two months before the Golden Bird incident, there was another development. Another LTTE-owned vessel, Tong Nova, was seized in a dramatic fashion in the Bay of Bengal , about a hundred nautical miles from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.
The 60-feet-long vessel, larger than a trawler but smaller than a ship, with a large boat by its side, were sighted by a reconnaisance plane of the Indian navy in the evening. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination had taken place about two months ago and surveillance in the coastal areas and high seas had been stepped up. The naval plane radioed a command to Tong Nova to identify itself, but the crew did not respond. The reconnaisance plane then informed its base at Vizag of the two unidentified vessels and gave their latitude-longitude. The information was passed on to the nearest naval base at Rameswaram, with instructions to immediately send an armed patrol vessel to investigate.
Though an armed patrol vessel can sail at 22 nautical miles an hour, more than double the speed of a cargo ship, it could reach the spot only the next morning. The boat had been sunk by the Tigers by that time and only a small portion of it was visible above water. Tong Nova was seized and brought to Rameswaram.
There was a strong suspicion that the seized vessel was carrying arms and explosives. The vessel had originated in Cyprus and had been booked by none other than KP. What is more, K P was among the crew members to have been chargesheeted in the case. KP, who owns a chain of shipping companies in different countries, and was also found to be the owner of Tong Nova, was charged with illegally procuring arms.