The Supreme Court has done justice to the seven people, including Nalini Sriharan, convicted of their involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991.
On November 11, the court ordered the immediate release of Nalini, 57; Santhan, 54; Murugan; Robert Payas; Jayakumar; Ravichandran; and Perarivalan, originally sentenced to death by a TADA court of Chennai.
The CBI-SIT team led by DR Karthikeyan which investigated the case, implicated 41 people, a majority of them the Sri Lankan nationals. The TADA court pronounced death sentence on 26 people in 1998. Of them, 12 had already died either in the blast like Dhanu who blew herself up in Rajiv’s close proximity, or photographer Haribabu. Sivarasan, who executed the assassination conspiracy, and his companion Subha, both presumably died by suicide.
It is a much-awaited relief for the poor souls because for one, none of them were the main conspirators to assassinate a young and promising former prime minister. Perhaps realising this, their death sentences were first commuted to life imprisonment on Sonia Gandhi’s intervention. Despite that they spent 31 years in prison. Most main conspirators and executioners are dead. But the conspiracy remains shrouded in mystery. As for these men and women, they are at best accessories to the crime. It is not even clear whether anyone or all of them were privy to Sivarasan’s actual plan till almost the last day, by which time they had been so sucked in that they could not have wriggled out. It is, for instance, absurd to imagine that Haribabu knew of the plan that Dhanu would explode the bomb tucked under her shirt, in Rajiv’s close proximity and yet go so close as to die. His natural instinct would have been to keep a safe distance as Sivarasan himself maintained, and so did many like the Sriperumbudur candidate Maragatham Chandrasekar or her daughter Lata Priyakumar or the overall security in-charge of the event Inspector-General RK Raghavan. They all survived without any injury despite the obvious need to be closest to Rajiv at that moment because they were supposedly escorting him, giving rise to suspicion that they were probably in the know of things.
Within hours of the attack, the then law and justice minister Subramaniam Swamy declared publicly that it was an LTTE attack. Next morning, then PM Chandra Shekhar set up a special team of reputed police officers led by Karthikeyan to catch the perpetrators of the crime. Rajiv was killed in the midst of the 1991 general election and the next polling date was delayed for nearly a month. After much deliberations two commissions were set up to know who killed Rajiv and why.
Meanwhile, Karthikeyan’s team of sleuths charged 41 people. But only after killing crucial witness Shanmugam and the wilful delay in nabbing Sivarasan alive. No one was held accountable for these terrible bunglings.
In my book on Rajiv’s assassination, ‘Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi -- An Inside Job’, I had tried to prove how the entire system was out to keep the episode wrapped in secrecy. It was my thesis that despite the tall claims there was no evidence nor logic to conclude that this was an LTTE conspiracy ordered by then supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. Because Prabhakaran was not going to gain anything from killing Rajiv at that juncture. On the contrary, as it turned out, he and his organisation, the LTTE, lost a safe haven in Tamil Nadu after the assassination. Had that not been the case, Sri Lanka would never have succeeded in liquidating the LTTE and capturing Prabhakaran alive and brutally humiliating him before killing him.
There is no doubt that Sivarasasn, a one-time TELO member who joined the LTTE only after Prabhakaran decimated the TELO, another Sri Lankan Tamil militant outfit, presumed close to RAW, was the prime executor of the plot to assassinate Rajiv. But did he do it at Prabhakaran’s instance or was he a mercenary? And who actually gave out the contract to kill Rajiv in the midst of the general election. While it makes little sense for Prabhakaran to order Rajiv’s killing, the urgency with which the Indian establishment shifted the blame on to Prabhakaran, without conducting an honest and transparent probe, left many wondering whether there was a motive in keeping that conspiracy in a shroud of mystery.
Most people in Tamil Nadu sympathise with the plight of their Tamil brethren in Sri Lanka and when the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) came in direct conflict with the LTTE, they were angry with Rajiv for sending Indian troops to Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE, more so after the DMK government led by M Karunanidhi was dismissed by the Chandra Shekhar government, but that wasn’t reason enough for the CBI-SIT to assume the active complicity of these people in planning the conspiracy. Because by that standard more than half the Tamil Nadu could be held on grounds of suspicion.
The crime of these convicts appeared too negligible for the kind of punishment meted out. For instance, one of the now-released convicts had only bought the 9-volt battery, not necessarily knowing its purpose, the CBI said. Even the CBI records showed that on the day of assassination, Nalini was directed by Sivarasan to buy a garland for Rajiv and only on the way to Sriperumbudur in the bus Subha told her that “something big was going to take place” that day. Dhanu was dressed for the occasion by Subha alone and, therefore, what was under her shirt, too, was a secret known only to Subha and Sivarasasn.
Justice JS Verma, who chaired the one-man commission to go into any security lapses, made a significant observation. Quoting a former director general of National Security Guards, S Subramanian, he wrote, “If a conspiracy is hatched by an insider then it is nearly impossible for the security net around the target to counter it in good time.” Justice Verma, who was appointed by the Chandra Shekhar government, seemed determined to underplay the glaring security lapses which were so amply evident. For instance, Rajiv, who was one of the prime targets of not just Tamil militants but also of Sikh militants, and perhaps a host of others, landed at the Meenambakkam airport accompanied by only one Delhi Police unarmed inspector Pradeep Kumar Gupta, who died with Rajiv. Despite this obvious instance of security lapse, Justice Verma relied on the testimony of the then joint secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs NK Singh to conclude in his report, “It appears that the IB and also the MHA did not feel comfortable at the withdrawal of the SPG cover to Rajiv Gandhi without proviso of a suitable alternative proximate security, in spite of the threat to him continuing unreduced…The exercise by the IB and MHA, it must be said to their credit, to find suitable alternative proximate security cover for Rajiv Gandhi as a consequence of the Central government’s decision to withdraw the SPG cover to him, appears to have continued.”
As for the Jain Commission appointed to go into the question of the larger conspiracy, its proceedings were thwarted repeatedly by all manners of legal hurdles. Eventually, the Jain Commission submitted its report pointing an accusing finger at Chandraswamy. But the top brass of the political establishment was eating out of the tantrik’s hands those days, so though his passport was seized by the government and never returned, nothing really happened to him except that he became a persona non grata.
The United Front government led first by HD Deve Gowda and then by IK Gujral was brought down by the Congress on the interim report of the Jain Commission. But the final report came only in 1998 when an NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in office. After much heated discussion in Parliament between Swamy and Ram Jethmalani, some of which Swamy had mentioned in his book on the subject, the government constituted a Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) of the CBI to probe any international conspiracy. The MDMA was recently dissolved. Nobody knows what the MDMA did all these 24 years. When I formally approached the CBI on the MDMA progress, I was told that there was a court stay against disclosing anything that the MDMA might have probed.
Meanwhile, the Verma Commission did mention of a video recording of the event which had been damaged exactly at the assassination spot giving rise to suspicion that it was deliberately done to hide embarrassing facts. Also, Haribabu’s camera was recovered by RK Raghavan from the spot but instead of preserving the camera and the film, the film was removed and sent to a camera shop by the senior police officer who eventually became the CBI chief.
The fact is the courts accepted the official theory full of holes that Prabhakaran ordered Rajiv killing because he feared Rajiv would return as PM. One, even after the assassination which created a sympathy wave, the Congress failed to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha. Two, Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and no outside power could send its troops into Sri Lanka without an invitation by the Sri Lankan government. Rajiv sent the IPKF on J Jayawardene’s request and had to withdraw the IPKF even before the 1989 general election on orders of the then Sri Lankan president Premadasa. It is nobody’s case that the seven were totally innocent. But the quantum of punishment imparted to them was far higher than their crime. Co-conspirator in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination Gopal Godse was given a life sentence of only 18 years and was released after 16 years though he never regretted the killing. But these seven who had no direct role remained incarcerated for 31 years.
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