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The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi… 32 years later

As I began to put together my book on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the one recurring theme that cropped up during interactions with both Indians and Sri Lankans, was not just the lax security at what would have been his last round of electioneering in Tamil Nadu on the night of May 21, 1991.

Neena Gopal     

As I began to put together my book on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the one recurring theme that cropped up during interactions with both Indians and Sri Lankans, was not just the lax security at what would have been his last round of electioneering in Tamil Nadu on the night of May 21, 1991. Instead, it was the vulnerability of India’s porous southern coast and its proximity to Sri Lanka’s Tiger-held northern tip that had allowed free movement of men and arms from Point Pedro in Sri Lanka, to Vedaranyam in India, a mere 18 kms from coast to coast.

A border so porous that, to no one’s surprise, Lt. Col. ‘Neelan’ Sinnathamby, the chief architect of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the deputy chief of the Tiger’s intelligence wing, who was never caught, simply slipped through India’s fingers. Known under a number of aliases – Kanthan, Santhan, Periya Santhan and Kundu Santhan, he was the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE)  intel chief Pottu Amman’s main man in India, who directed the one-eyed Sivaresan and his team of assassin’s every move, from behind the scenes.

 It was easy. Through the eighties, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils on small boats, crossed into India across that narrow strip of water. Escaping the relentless persecution of their people at the hands of successive Sinhala majority governments at home, triggered by the July 1983 pogrom when the homes of ordinary Tamils were torched in the capital Colombo and in the northern Tamil redoubt of Jaffna, hundreds found shelter in official refugee camps in Tamil Nadu.

But there were an equally large number of undocumented Lankan Tamils, who used fake identities to rent homes across the capital Chennai and other towns in the southern state, even penetrating the city of Bengaluru in neighbouring Karnataka where Rajiv’s assassins were finally hunted down in August the same year. They melted unobtrusively into the community, the shared language and ethnicity providing the perfect cover. Running small businesses, networking with local politicians, they rapidly grew into a virtual state within a state. For many, India would also become a stepping stone to finding homes abroad, with many legally moving to Europe, Canada and Australia where sizeable numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils continue to thrive and prosper.

But hundreds of young men and women from the embattled north chose to stay on. Like Sinnathamby and scores of others, they became the proverbial fifth column, trained to handle arms and how to wage war. Insiders say, this was a bid by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to replicate her East Pakistan putsch that carved out the separate state of Bangladesh in 1971, using the India-created Mukti Bahini. Except, Rajiv Gandhi, wary of insurgencies at home, in Punjab that had claimed his mother’s life, the north-east and the first signs of a Pakistan-stoked unrest in Jammu & Kashmir, had no interest in following that path, if and when he came to power. The anger that the LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran stoked against the deployment of Indian forces in 1987 when Rajiv sent the Indian Peace Keeping Forces at the behest of then President Junius Jaywardene, had been a salutary lesson on the need to thwart any moves to create a separate state. This was the chief reason, incidentally, that drove Prabhakaran to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi.

But the Lankan Tamil bases in Tamil Nadu, de facto military training camps, where hundreds were given military training since 1983, were a reality, an open secret. There were some thirty Tamil insurgent camps in the Niligiris alone, where the LTTE and the far more pro-Indian Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and others, operated under the radar. While they were united in their goal to establish a Tamil homeland, some even going so far as wanting a Tamil state that united the Indian and Lankan Tamils, their intense fratricidal rivalry saw them monitor each other’s every move. Especially, each other’s chatter on the wireless radio that they used to communicate, with their bases, deep inside Lankan Tamil territory.  

In fact, it was one such radio chatter that was picked up by Indian operatives that should have tipped Indian authorities off, on the LTTE’s plans to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, who, as the Congress party chief was on his way to being re-elected as prime minister.

“Rajiv Gandh avarunde mandalai addipodalam…dump pannidungo…marani vechidungo…” was the kill order, that came through in short bursts of the VHS communication on a frequency that the LTTE favoured’ in April 1990, a full year before the assassination.

Col Hariharan, the head of Indian counter intelligence, based in Sri Lanka, was one of a handful of Indian intelligence operatives who understood the Tigers’ mindset. And language. Tipped off by an alarmed PLOTE leader Siddharthan Dharmalingam, who homed in on the fact that the phrase ‘dump pannidungo’ was a commonly used LTTE order to eliminate opponents who were ‘dumped’ in deep pits, quickly realized that it meant that Rajiv Gandhi was the target. Col. Hariharan bounced the tapes of the radio chatter off his Jaffna Tamil code breakers before he dispatched the warning to his counterparts in Delhi, only to have his knuckles rapped about making an issue out of nothing!

The only other spook who understood the full import of the radio chatter was Chandran, the former Research & Analysis Wing operative and Prabhakaran’s official ‘handler.’ Chandran, who is no more, was former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat and head of India’s intelligence agency R&AW in Sri Lanka at the time.  He too read the signals. But as he admitted, his warning fell on deaf ears, his years of cultivating Tamil militants standing for nothing. “The government had changed, nobody wanted to hear what we had to say. I was shunted out, sidelined ….”

Every year as the anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on May 21, 1991, comes around, there’s an almost ritualistic hand-wringing on the poor security that was in place at Sriperumbudur with much finger-pointing over the fact that Guindy airport where Rajiv had landed, piloting his own aircraft, had only a handful of policemen, and the road all along the route to the big rally that night, completely un-sanitised. Much of the focus is on the seven assassins including Nalini, the Indian woman who took the suicide bomber Dhanu under her wing, and the fate of the bomb makers who conspired in various ways to assassinate India’s former prime minister, and who after over 30 years in gaol have had their death sentences and their life sentences, commuted.

What merits little attention is how neither former Prime Minister V.P. Singh nor his successor Chandrasekhar’s lack of attention to the Tamil insurgency have been called to account. Or for that matter, how senior Tamil politicians, blinded by their sympathy for the Tamil Eelam cause have much to answer for, given how they glossed over the danger posed by a vengeful Prabhakaran, seeking to settle scores with a leader of the stature of Rajiv Gandhi.  

Prabhakaran and the LTTE may have been decimated but is this the justice that Rajiv Gandhi deserved?


(Neena Gopal is a journalist and the author of “The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi”, that begins with a chilling account of the last interview that Mr Gandhi gave to the author, minutes before India’s first suicide bomber detonated herself.)

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