Walking inside the mind of human bombs – The Sunday Guardian
New Delhi: It was on 15 July 1991 that Anirudhya Mitra, who wore jeans and T-shirts on assignment, wrote his detailed investigation for India Today on the gruesome assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The investigation was the finest that year, 1991—a year which had lots of political significance for India with its eighth Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar heading a minority government and secretly mortgaging gold to avoid default of payment in the midst of elections. The government fell after Congress withdrew support. The year was also known for Mahesh Bhatt’s superhit, Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin, starring Pooja Bhatt and Aamir Khan.
Now on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sriperumbudur near Chennai during an election campaign.
Wrote Mitra in India Today: “One month after the brutal assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the crack special investigation team (SIT) has managed to edge considerably closer to unravelling the complex plot behind the shocking crime that stunned the nation.
“The exhaustive investigation process and interrogation of key suspects picked up so far have established that the plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi was first hatched in October 1990 deep in the jungles of Jaffna. The motive is now understood to have been related to the political tremors then emanating from New Delhi. The then prime minister V.P. Singh was battling for survival following a threat by the BJP to withdraw support to his minority National Front government.
“Across the Palk Straits, in the forest hide-outs of Jaffna in north-eastern Sri Lanka, the LTTE leadership met for a crucial assessment of the situation. The meeting decided that the chances of Congress(I) president Rajiv Gandhi returning to power were now almost certain. For the extremist organisation struggling for Tamil Eelam, this meant a possible re-induction of the IPKF in Sri Lanka and a certain crackdown on the elaborate LTTE network established in Tamil Nadu.
“Even before the National Front government finally collapsed, the LTTE had made up its mind to prevent Rajiv Gandhi from regaining power even if it required the ultimate deterrent—his assassination. By early November 1990, the V.P. Singh government was voted out and Rajiv Gandhi was virtually back in power, shooting from behind Chandra Shekhar’s shoulder. The possibility of a mid-term poll loomed ever larger. The LTTE was getting desperate.
“Realising that Rajiv as prime minister would be a near-impossible target, it was decided that they should strike while his security status was still that of an opposition leader and election campaigning would render him even more vulnerable. In end-November, the elusive LTTE supremo Pirabhakaran, having decided on the physical elimination of Rajiv Gandhi, summoned four trusted lieutenants—Baby Subramaniyam, Murugan, Muthuraja and Shivarasan—to finalise the contours of an assassination plot. Subramaniyam and Muthuraja were summoned from Madras where they were staying at the time.”
Now, three decades later, Mitra, now an accomplished filmmaker, who honed his skills in southeastern Indonesia and is now settled in Mumbai—home to Bollywood—has explained details of his investigation in 90 Days, The True Story of the Hunt for Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassins. The book is an interesting read, especially for intrepid reporters who want to get to the bottom of the truth. Mitra says it was in December, 1990, LTTE supremo, the stone-faced Velupillai Pirabhakaran, explained to four of his core team members that he wanted Gandhi assassinated. And each was assigned a specific task.
So who were those four key members of the LTTE? The book, brilliantly scripted like a hungry reporter’s diary, listed them as Baby Subramaniyam, a prominent ideologue of the LTTE, who was operating from Madras (now Chennai) and running a printing press publishing LTTE literature. He was to prepare a back-up team which, in turn, would arrange hideouts for the assassins before and after the killing.
There was Muthuraja, who was asked to prepare a base in Madras to ensure proper communication facilities, couriers for messages and the smooth distribution of cash for the team members.
Murugan, a key instructor and an explosive expert of the LTTE, was asked to take over the assignments from Subramaniyam and Muthuraja after their departure for Jaffna. And there was Shivarasan, often called the one-eyed Jack, who was to do the most crucial of all assignments, the actual assassination.
The book, produced by HarperCollins India, shows how the assassination plot received further impetus with the dismissal of the DMK government led by M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu. Now we need to remember that Karunanidhi’s government was dismissed on grounds of having encouraged the LTTE movement in the state. The book explains why the charge was not entirely baseless as Karunanidhi on his campaign trail, before the assassination, portrayed the fellow Tamils’ cause in Sri Lanka as just and noble.
The dismissal happened following tremendous pressure from the Congress(I) and the AIADMK, the two political parties filled with reports from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) which showed an informal relationship between the followers of the DMK and the LTTE. The IB reports also said the relationship was growing, growing very fast.
And then Mitra’s investigation showed how the IB remained—more or less—in the dark with LTTE’s plans to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. Mitra, bold in his work, bold in his writings, wrote how even the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the external intelligence organisation, remained equally clueless about the existence of the plot.
And then, the LTTE conveyed the most important message to one and all: Rajiv Gandhi was solely responsible for the crimes perpetrated by the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.
The plot, says the book, started taking the final shape. The LTTE seemed sure that Gandhi would return to power and hence, the former PM had to be eliminated. Mitra had written in his report: “The elaborate web spun by Pirabhakaran in the jungles of Jaffna for the execution of Rajiv Gandhi.”
Dhanu alias Gayatri and Shubha alias Shalini, two women members of the LTTE’s shadow squad, were selected as the human bombs. The two women were to carry belt bombs which would be fitted with as many as six grenades and could reduce Gandhi and those standing close into a mangled heap.
Some dry runs took place.
On the fateful day, Rajiv Gandhi arrived at around 10 pm. A sub-inspector, Ansuya, once again tried to prevent Dhanu from getting close to Gandhi. In fact, writes Mitra, the cop had almost caught hold of the assassin but for Gandhi, who, according to Ansuya, said: “Let everybody get a chance.” Ansuya moved away, thus saving her own life. Dhanu bent down as if she wanted to touch Rajiv’s feet. Rajiv in turn bent to lift her up. Dhanu’s right finger activated the bomb.
Rajiv Gandhi, the youngest Indian Prime Minister at the age of 40, was assassinated on 21 May 1991, by the LTTE. Rajiv was the second Indian Prime Minister to be assassinated after his mother Indira Gandhi, who was killed by her bodyguards.
All hell broke loose. A meticulous investigation—like threads tied on investigation board by cops from here to there and somewhere—launched by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) eventually arrested Murugan and Nalini from a bus stand in Madras (now Chennai). It was a huge breakthrough, their interrogation not only revealed the entire plot but also pointed a conclusive finger at Prabhakaran as the mastermind.
I remember reading about Nalini’s book, Rajiv Murder: Hidden Truths and Priyanka, where Nalini wrote about her meeting in the Vellore jail with Priyanka Vadra in 2008. Priyanka Vadra, wrote Nalini, “looked straight at me for nearly two minutes” in silence.
“When I raised my eyes to look at her, her cheeks had turned red.”
Priyanka’s lips quivered, claims Nalini, as she asked “Why did you do it? My father is a good man, a soft man, you could have resolved anything over a discussion with him.”
And then Priyanka, claims the book, broke down.
“I did not expect to see her cry. I know how painful a tear is,” wrote Nalini, found guilty of helping in the assassination plot and giving shelter to the assassins.
Nalini’s death sentence was commuted to a life term in 2000 following the intervention of Rajiv Gandhi’s wife and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the mother of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Nalini’s daughter Megara lives in the UK.
But that is a separate story. Mitra’s book is a fascinating read. Will young reporters trying to hone their skills in investigative stories buy some copies? They should, if they wish to learn the ropes.