The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi
Penguin Books India – 2016
Pp 273 Rs.499
To have stood, and remained standing in a stupor of disbelief, a few feet behind Rajiv Gandhi on that fateful night of the 21st of May, 1991.
To be “saved” by an unwitting human barrier that dropped like nine-pins before one’s eyes.
To hope against all rational thought that Rajiv may yet have been spared the worst.
To know even then that that terrible blast will reverberate through the recesses of one’s mind for as long as one lives.
To live with those terrible images of dismembermentdeeply etched in one’s mind … and 72 tension-filled hours later, the tears.
The reader quietly realises why the book has taken 25 years to be published.
In the meantime the investigators came out with their respective authorised revelations; native and foreign commentators freelanced on the situation, some of them taken up with terrorism in its various forms and some on the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship.
There is Subramanian Swamy’s take on questions that according to him remain unanswered, and then there is Rohan Gunaratna’s(“searing book” according to Neena Gopal) “Indian Intervention in Sri Lanka”. Swamy’s book has been described by at least one reviewer as nothing but a compilation of statements made in innumerable press conferences; Shekhar Gupta’ reviewing the other book, laments that while India is blamed squarely on all issues, Gunaratna could have brought out the irony in the arms and ammunition supplied by Premadasa and Sri Lankan intelligence to the Tigers, in Tata trucks given by India! And then there is Rajeev Sharma’s “Beyond the Tigers – Tracking Rajiv Gandhi’s Assassination” who widens the canvas to include a jet-setting tantric, a clique of unscrupulous politicians working with international arms dealers and terrorists, obliging foreign secret agencies, and an overambitious Sri Lankan President.
There is an overwhelmingly detailed account of the rise of Prabhakaran, as she walks us through the isolated functioning of R&AW as much as of the Army and Intelligence Bureau – not to mention the wrangling within each of the agencies. In reading this book, where the wounds are still raw in many places, one needs to be clear that it is about the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, ex Prime Minister of India, and not about international relations or the efficiency of espionage agencies.
There is noneed to understand the nature of the relationship between India and Sri Lanka over centuries which in the first place encouraged the migration and settlement of Tamils on the island, their gradual marginalisation, the mounting pressures of the native Tamil population in India and abroad on the Government of Tamil Nadu – and therefore on the Govt of India.
We do not have to look at the why of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal problems – too many unanswered questions; we need not look into the handling of evidence and witnesses by the investigating teams – too many unasked queries there although Raghavan (of the Godhra riots fame(?), who failed in his duties as in-charge of security at Sriperumbudur), expresses “supreme satisfaction” over the investigation; we need not, as many have done, draw parallels with our North-east, where the Armed Forces have legal use of their Special Powers – the IPKF was described as mandated to fight with one hand tied behind the back.
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What we do need to look at, especially in a book that is based on 15 years of research, analysis and soul-searching, is whether the questions asked by people over the years are at least addressed, if not answered. If the questions remain unattended there can be hardly any justification for another book on the subject, and it is the work of just another troubled journalist seeking release from post-traumatic stress disorder – something that most Indians have experienced since “Dhanu” blasted her way into history.
No doubt, Neena Gopal has done a great job in linking all these factors within her 250-odd pages. While she addresses our doubts and suspicions and questions about the raising of the LTTE, there is absolute silence on the aspect of the involvement, if any, of the political parties in Tamil Nadu.
The TN Congress Committee head, Vazhapadi Ramamurthy, had hinted about the dangers, to the author around 24 hours before Rajiv Gandhi fell. The SIT ought to have been informed about this conversation. Then she says that immediately after the blast, one white Ambassador with a red beacon, and another … sped away. Rajeev Sharma recounts the same in more detail in “Beyond Tigers”.
The investigation did not even try to find out about the occupants of these two cars. The author also mentions the role of A.J. Doss in clearing the “invitees” at the meeting without the knowledge of the police, but neither the police nor Doss was questioned by the SIT.
Interestingly, the alleged role of MK Narayanan in the disappearance of a crucial video tape is passed over by Neena Gopal. “Controversially, no recording of that video was subsequently seen or submitted as evidence…”, she says, and leaves it at that. Of course, the fact that Narayan is her husband’s uncle is not relevant here.
So, when telling images of the characters in this tragic drama were seen in a camera found near the assassination site, they were surreptitiously released to the press before the SIT could work on them. Little wonder.
The book is based on a tremendous amount of research as it covers the investigation from ground zero till the time of the convictions and the confirmation of the sentences by the Supreme Court of India. K. Ragothaman, one of the special investigators,and author of one of the books on the subject, claims that Vaiko and Karunanidhi’s roles and behaviour leading up to the assassination were never probed.
Vaiko, says Ragothaman, was never questioned about an association which might have linked him to the conspiracy. Karunanidhi abruptly cancelled his meeting in in Sriperumbudur on the same day – as per advice of DGPRangasamy. What was the information with the DGP that led to cancellation of the meeting? This is a question that Neena Gopal doesn’t ask either.
The author’s description of the death of Prabhakaran deserves special mention. The process of cornering him, trapping and killing him, and the state of his body after he was killed is brought out in graphic detail covering several pages. It seems to be a kind of highly understandable personal vindication reminiscent though of Mussolini’s corpse hung in the public square for the crowd to abuse.
The several books and movies based on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi have left many questions unanswered – because the answers have perhaps been scary, indicative at once of the invincible Hydra-like manifold evil that had spread far beyond the visible and perceptible.
For instance, Rajeev Sharma says that Bollywood producers approached him for making a film on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination “but later chickened out as they found the political turf to be blazing hot” – confirming all doubts about the long arm of the lawless. As Neena Gopal says, “The truth, of course, depends on whom you are talking to”. And that’s a telling statement.