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Did Rajiv Gandhi use INS Viraat as his 'personal taxi' like Modi says? Some facts are known, others not yet

With less than a month remaining for his 28th death anniversary, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's name is in the centre of a political controversy after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a slew of allegations against him in his campaign rallies last week.

The BJP's official Twitter timeline also flooded with allegations against the ex-prime minister. Although there is no apparent reason why issues which took place over three decades ago should be a factor in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, BJP and the Congress have turned it into a fight which now focusses on the details of a 1987 trip that Rajiv undertook with his family.

Addressing his first poll rally in Delhi ahead of the 12 May elections for seven seats, Modi alleged that the Congress insulted the warship by using it for a vacationing Gandhi family. "This happened when Rajiv Gandhi and his family were out for a 10-day vacation. INS Viraat was deployed for securing our maritime boundary. But it was diverted to take the Gandhi family which was out for a vacation." He asked, "Were the Gandhis not playing with country's security then?"

 Did Rajiv Gandhi use INS Viraat as his personal taxi like Modi says? Some facts are known, others not yet

File image of former prime minister late Rajiv Gandhi. Getty Images.

The "personal taxi" jibe came days after the prime minister threw the "bhrashtachari no. 1" barb at the former prime minister. The allegations were vehemently countered by the Congress, and soon navy veterans also got embroiled in the political mudslinging.

To make sense of the ongoing controversy (devoid of any opinion), let's try and segregate the facts from the claims and counter-claims. Here is what we know:

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Report from 1987 said Rajiv planned to spend Christmas with family in Lakshadweep

According to newspaper reports and features from the time, Rajiv Gandhi travelled to Lakshadweep, in December 1987, to spend Christmas in Lakshadweep with his family. While The Indian Express reported that the former prime minister had spent 1986 year-end in the Andaman islands with his "Italian in-laws and friends", there was no clear mention whether he brought the "Italian in-laws" to Lakshadweep as well. In a report headlined 'Barren islet to host Rajiv’s holiday', the report said, "Engineers and workers are building helipads and temporary “hutments” with modern facilities which have to be brought from the mainland, some 200 km to 400 km away….Almost everything — except coconut and fish — will have to be airlifted… This includes cooks, water and generators, in addition to the omnipresent securitymen and attendants."

Reports from 1987 said that PM planned to host New Year onboard INS Viraat

Bangaram island, which Rajiv visited with Sonia, is the only island in Lakshadweep where consumption of liquor is permitted. In all the other Muslim-majority islands, prohibition is strictly in force. The only other place where one can enjoy a drink while travelling to Lakshadweep is aboard ship. An Indian Express report from 30 December, 1987 notes this special status. "…It is understood that the prime minister is planning to host a new year’s party aboard a ship," the report said.

According to the report, (headlined PM's choice not dry) cartons of some of the "choicest brands of liquor were sent to Bangaram to cater to the needs of VIPs."

Report from 1988 speaks about the presence of foreigners onboard INS Viraat

An Indian Express report from 1988, however, confirmed that "eight foreigners joined the Prime Minister and his family during their New Year holiday..."

"In all, the group consisted of 24 men, women and children. Looking after their needs were 70 persons from various departments, cooks and valets and naval personnel. Nearly 1,200 policemen drawn from Lakshadweep Police and Madhya Pradesh Armed Special Police, based at neighbouring Agatti island, were on patrol on the periphery of Bangaram."

The report headlined The holiday that was is part of the archived reports released by The Indian Express on Thursday. The report further said, "According to reliable sources, among the Indian Navy vessels performing various duties in connection with the holiday were aircraft carrier INS Viraat, the frigates INS Vindhyagiri and INS Taragiri, and the landing craft carrier 39 INS Magar. The Lakshadweep Administration’s oil tankers MT Suheli and MT Bharat were also there. Passenger liners like MV Bharatseema and research vessels like Sagardeep had been taken off their regular duty and put on the holiday tasks."

According to a 1988 report, Rajiv’s “powerful secretary V George” was on board INS Viraat along with Mani Shankar Iyer, Mrs Sarla Grewal, MM Jacob and others. “…There was recreation aplenty as the Prime Minister and his party went swimming and boating and tuna fishing in the seas. Kabaddi with men and women lined up against each other provided the Indian touch. The New Year night was marked by a firelit party on the sands…”

Report from January 1988 claims Amitabh Bachchan with his family was also onboard INS Viraat

According to another report published by The Indian Express, Rajiv travelled with his entire family (which is different from the claims made by navy veterans onboard with former prime minister). Also accompanying them was the family of actor Amitabh Bachchan. The report headlined The VVIP list, said:

"The Prime Minister’s party which holidayed at Lakshadweep consisted of Rajiv Gandhi, his wife Sonia and their two children, Rahul and Priyanka, Ajitabh Bachchan’s three daughters,… Amitabh Bachchan, his wife Jaya, their children, Sweta and Abhishek,… Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s mother, Mrs P Maino, her sister, Nadia Valdimero, and her child, G Valdimero, Sonia’s brother-in-law, Walter Winci…, a German friend of Sonia’s called Sabina…"

Navy veterans step in

The official press statement, which highlights events from December 1987, said that Rajiv and his wife Sonia were on board INS Viraat and en route Lakshadweep to chair a meeting of the Islands Development Authority from Trivandrum. Former Vice Admiral (retired) Vinod Pasricha, who was the captain of INS Viraat in December 1987, has categorically rejected the allegations made by Modi.

The commanding officer of INS Viraat rejects Modi's claims

In an exclusive interview to Firstpost, Pasricha, who retired from the navy in 2002 as the Western Naval Command chief, said, "In those days, the Islands Development Authority meet used to be held in alternate years. Wajahat Habibullah was, I understand, the then administrator of Lakshadweep. Six people came on board the INS Viraat. They were Rajiv, Sonia, Rahul, who was then a young boy around the age of sixteen, and three IAS officers."

Detailing Rajiv's 1987 trip, when Pasricha was in command of the ship, the navy veteran said, "We took a helicopter till Trivandrum and then sailed to the Lakshadweep Islands, which was at a distance of 200 nautical miles. He (Rajiv) then went on to visit six islands and was dropped back after a two-day stay. The three IAS officers, who had accompanied him on board the ship, went along with him (and Sonia) when he went to these islands. The logistics (for these visits) was provided by the navy. The logistics (for these visits) was provided by the navy. In those days, there were no airports but these islands did have helipads and the former prime minister took the helicopter to visit these islands. Naval ships used to take the prime minister when he visited these islands on a biannual basis."

When asked whether there were foreigners onboard INS Viraat, Pasricha said, "Had foreigners boarded the carrier, I would have been court-martialed a long time ago."

Ex-navy chief Admiral L Ramdas backs Pasricha claims

The then top brass of the navy also denied the comments by Modi, stating that the former prime minister was on-board the vessel on an official trip en route to the Lakshadweep islands. Former navy chief Admiral L Ramdas in a statement, said, "I would like to state unequivocally that this (allegation that Rajiv was on holiday with his family) was not the case. There were no foreigners with them. I, as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (FOC-in-C), Southern Naval Command, based in Cochin, also boarded INS Viraat. Four other ships were with INS Viraat as part of Fleet exercises. As FOC-in-C, I hosted a dinner for them on board INS Viraat. There were no other parties held on board INS Viraat or, for that matter, any other ship in our fleet during that time." The statement had collated responses from other top officers of the Western Fleet at that time.

Apart from Ramdas, the statement included responses from Pasricha, former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, the then CO of INS Vindhyagiri, which accompanied INS Viraat; and Vice Admiral Madanjit Singh, then CO of INS Ganga.

According to both Ramdas and Pasricha, They (Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi) had no functions aboard the ship. During the day, Rajiv and Sonia visited the islands but Rahul did not accompany them on those visits.

Two more navy commanders speak up, support Modi claim

However, another group of ex-naval officers have backed Modi's claim. Former Navy Commander (retired) VK Jaitly tweeted to state that the Gandhi family had extensively used naval resources during their holidays.

Speaking exclusively to Republic, Jaitly said, "I was witness to the entire episode. A room was readied in the admiral’s cabin for the Gandhis. It's true that the Gandhis used INS Viraat to head towards Lakshadweep. It’s not a small thing. Vice Admiral Pasricha was our commanding officer. He would know about the foreigners. The warship was anchored off Lakshadweep. It’s was not a small fleet. We were told they were coming to ship and that it would sail to Bangaram. One admiral room was readied. The ship went to Kochi to pick them up. They stayed overnight. After that, they left towards Lakshadweep on a chopper. They did stay on a ship. The ship anchored nearby Bangaram. The aircraft carrier never sails alone. Several Naval ships accompanied. Resources were used."

Another former navy officer, Lieutenant Commander Harinder Sikka told Times Now, that the Gandhis using naval resources was not appreciated by the naval officers but they were forced to remain quiet.

"A foreign national was roaming freely in the most-coveted warship. Control rooms were made open for civilians. Navy resources were used for holidaying. It was not right. We were furious but as serving officers, we could do nothing. Now we are speaking out. Prime Minister in INS Viraat is ok but his wife was a foreign national and sensitive information was at stake. No one, even Navy officers, was not allowed inside but here they were holidaying. I raised the issue before the Commanding Officer and I was asked to shut up. He is the Prime Minister. Even if you use a pin from a Navy ship, it has to be docketed."

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Updated Date: May 10, 2019 16:44:30 IST