“Minutes after he walked unhesitatingly into the crowd, there was a deafening sound as the bomb spluttered to life and exploded in a blinding flash. Everything changed. A moment that, in my head, will always be frozen in time. It was exactly 10.21 pm.”
Neena Gopal’s The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi gives a blow-by-blow account of the assassination as she was the last journalist to interview him and was just yards away when he was assassinated.
Rajiv Gandhi avarunde mandalai addipodalam.” “Dump pannidungo.” Blow Rajiv Gandhi’s head off. Eliminate him. “Maranai vechidungo.” Kill him. Of the hundreds of intercepts between the thirty-eight-odd Tamil insurgent camps in the Nilgiris in India and their cohorts in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, almost every single one centred on arms shipments and gunrunning between Vedaranyam and Point Pedro, barely 18 kilometres from coast to coast. But no intercept would be as chilling as the kill order that came through in short bursts of VHS communication on a frequency that the LTTE favoured, that April day in 1990.
When it was intercepted, it set off alarm bells among Tamil insurgents ranged against the Tigers, their numbers already worn thin by the LTTE's targeting of their cadres and top leadership. The intercept, in Old Tamil interspersed with English used by the Jaffna Tamils-and largely incomprehensible to Indian Tamils-only added to the confusion that hung over the all too brief radio message.
“Dump”. That particular term came into use when the LTTE began to ruthlessly eliminate Tamil civilians who resisted their fiat and “dumped” them in pits across Jaffna. It was another way of saying “kill”.
But the difference this time was that the order was not to eliminate one of their own. The target was the former Indian prime minister, the leader of another country.
When PLOTE leader Siddharthan Dharmalingam first heard it, he was so alarmed, he immediately tipped off the IPKF's counter-intelligence head in Sri Lanka, Col. Hariharan.
A native Tamil speaker with an inside track into the Lankan Tamil narrative, Col Hariharan was greatly helped in his task, he says, by having an aunt who was married to a Jaffna native. It was Col. Hariharan, the head of Counter Intelligence (COIN), and one of a handful of Indian operatives with his ear to the ground and an understanding of the Tigers’ mindset, who recognised its true import.
But it didn’t fly. Whether it wasn’t specific enough or clear enough to warrant immediate action, or was simply not taken seriously by the intelligence mandarins to whom the information was passed on, is not known. Either way, India’s intelligence agents were clearly unequal to the task of reading the threat for what it was-a death sentence passed by the LTTE, an insurgent group nurtured by India, on India’s former Premier.
“Even when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, the R&AW had drawn attention to the likelihood of a threat to his security from the Sri Lankan Tamil extremist organisations. It repeated this warning after he became the Leader of the Opposition,” says B. Raman, head of R&AW during 1988-94, in his eye-popping memoir, The Kaoboys of R&AW.
“These warnings did not receive the attention they deserved because they were based on assessments and not on specific intelligence,” he writes.
Except, this particular intercept was as specific as it could get.
Prabhakaran’s “handler” when the LTTE leader was in India, Chandran, is pushing eighty-five, but remembers the intercept as clearly as though it were yesterday. He recounts how everyone misread the signals-not just his men, but also agents from the IB who were tasked with monitoring the threat posed by Lankan Tamils residing in India, who had to trawl through hundreds of messages that went back and forth. Chandran, additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat and in charge of R&AW in Sri Lanka, was sidelined once the Rajiv Gandhi government fell, and his years of cultivating the Tamil militants came to nought. “By that time, the government had changed. Nobody wanted to hear what we had to say anyway. And I had been shunted out,” he said.
“The IB and RAW didn’t agree on much. If we had read the signals right, if we understood what was going on in Prabhakaran's mind, who knows, we could have prevented this. It was our fault, we made a huge error of judgement. We misread Prabhakaran. We never believed he would turn against us in this manner. We should have seen it coming. We didn’t. We failed Rajiv Gandhi, we failed to save his life,” he said, emotional and close to tears as he spoke to me from his office in New Delhi.
Twenty-five years later, neither Siddharthan nor Col. Hariharan remembers more than this particular part of the intercept. But both say that if it had been taken on board, and acted on with the seriousness that such a tipoff deserved, history would have taken a different course. It was brought to the notice of Siddharthan (now a Tamil National Alliance MP in the newly elected Sri Lankan Parliament) by an alert Jaffna Tamil in his employ who monitored radio communications between Tamils on the Indian mainland and Jaffna. The PLOTE leader, in turn, alerted Col Hariharan who served in Sri Lanka from August 3, 1987 to June-July 1990 and was reaching the end of his tenure.
At the time, the LTTE was the predominant force in the RAW-run training camps in India. Col Hariharan who also had a small army of Jaffna Tamils keeping an eye on the LTTE for him, says he too was taken aback when he was given the cassette to listen to and, from what his codebreakers told him, was alarmed enough to warn India’s IB that a plot was afoot to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi.
This was a full year before the suicide bomb blast claimed the former prime minister’s life. “It was the first time we heard any mention of Prabhakaran taking vengeance against Rajiv Gandhi,” Siddharthan said, quickly correcting himself after having first used the word “revenge”. But the warning-albeit tenuous and imprecise- instead of being investigated, was laughed out of court; it was simply set aside and forgotten.
It wasn’t the only warning that wasn’t fully investigated. In his book, Raman talks of another alert, this time from German intelligence, about the repeated visits of a Sri Lankan Tamil explosives expert and an LTTE sympathiser to Madras. But it was not sufficiently probed by the IB. Instead, it ignored the warning on the grounds that the Lankan Tamil wasn’t an explosives expert, and remained curiously blind to the question of what the man was doing in Madras in the first place.
In 1990, LTTE had the upper hand. PLOTE’s founder Maheswaran had co-founded the LTTE with Prabhakaran in 1976. But by 1982, the two had fallen out and almost killed each other in a public shoot-out in Madras. Maheswaran went on to found PLOTE but was murdered in broad daylight on a Colombo street in 1989.
PLOTE made every effort to stay one step ahead of the main person of interest at the time-their main enemy, “Baby” Subramaniam, the LTTE commander operating out of Tamil Nadu. Subramaniam was the LTTE’s point person to eliminate all challenges to Prabhakaran.
“Subramaniam was the darling of the Tamil Nadu politicians and knew exactly how to keep R&AW and everyone happy while doing exactly what Prabhakaran wanted him to do,” Siddharthan tells me. The intercept may have been to Subramaniam from someone speaking on Prabhakaran’s behalf. Together with other LTTE leaders, like the intelligence chief Pottu Amman and the deputy head of the women’s wing, Akila, Subramaniam was closely involved with the planning and execution of the plot to kill Rajiv Gandhi.
Even though the Indian Army was making tracks for home, Prabhakaran was relentlessly whipping up anger against the IPKF, blaming them for excesses against civilians.
This single burst of chatter should have alerted the then V.P. Singh government and, subsequently, the Chandrashekhar government to restore the “Z” security that Rajiv Gandhi used to have before he lost the prime ministership. Opposition leader or not, he was on the hit list of the Khalistanis and the Sikhs, and warranted more than the negligible cover he had been provided.
Rajiv Gandhi was too proud to ask for it, and his political opponents lacked the generosity of spirit to give it to him. The PLOTE alert-which may or may not have changed their thinking-did not even reach the Prime Minister’s Office. In fact, Col. Hariharan said he had his knuckles rapped for raising the alarm about the plot to assassinate the former prime minister even though the intercept was nothing less than Prabhakaran putting a hit on Rajiv Gandhi.
“I was asked to stick to my brief,” Col. Hariharan told me. The IPKF was after all, packing up to leave Sri Lanka, removing the main source of the grouse against Rajiv Gandhi. “Politically, we had become unwanted baggage in both Colombo and New Delhi; our mandate was finished, we were on our way out. But R&AW, overconfident of its influence over the LTTE, failed to factor in that revenge was always on the cards when it came to VP (Vellupillai Prabhakaran)”
Raman, commenting on the LTTE’s poor communication security in his book, brings up the IB’s “better interception capability” — which gave them the ability to listen in on the Tigers-versus “R&AW’s better code breaking capability”, while driving home the larger point of how little trust there was between the various agencies running India’s biggest covert operation. He said the huge gaps left in the intelligence gathering on the Tamil groups, resulting from how little one agency knew about what the other was doing, did enormous damage to India’s conduct of its Sri Lanka policy.
More fatally, “The Monitoring Division failed to detect the conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi before the tragedy took place,” says Raman. “Sharing of knowledge of each other’s capabilities-particularly in respect of intelligence collection-and joint or co-ordinated exploitation of these capabilities should be the norm if we have to avoid such surprises,” writes Raman, unsparing in his criticism of the agencies.
The Jaffna Conspiracy
In the dense jungles of north-eastern Sri Lanka, across the Palk Strait, Prabhakaran nursed a grudge against Rajiv Gandhi which would become a full-scale obsession. It was here, deep in the forests of the Wanni, that the plot to kill the former Indian prime minister was first hatched.
As the LTTE chief, solitary and furtive, moved like a hunted animal under the cover of darkness from one hideout to another, night after night, from Jaffna and Kankesanthurai to Vadamarachchi, and Vavuniya and back, the depth of his fury at Rajiv Gandhi's perceived perfidy was an open secret. That is, it was a secret to everyone but the Indians.
Through the IPKF deployment in the north-east, he played a game of cat and mouse with Delhi. Knowing he would be easy prey if he broke cover, he rarely slept in the same bed twice, neither took nor made any telephone calls, trusting no one, staying one step ahead of both Colombo and Delhi. It was a habit that stayed with him till his last days.
His only entertainment after he was forced to return to the island nation from India in 1987 came from a movie projector in the safe house he picked to hide out for the night. This is where he would watch the latest thriller play out as shadows on a blank wall. The Tiger chief 's obsessive paranoia fed off Kollywood, the Tamil movies that featured his idol, MGR, in the lead, and films of the same genre as the 1984 Kamal Haasan-starrer Oru Kaidhiyin Diary (A Convict's Diary) that spun stories of angry men nursing a grievance, extracting retribution, driven by revenge.
A school dropout, Prabhakaran did have his Achilles' heel. It wasn't wine or women or song, or books-he grew up on Phantom comics-it was the movies. He was addicted to the string of videos brought to him by the one RAW agent with whom he shared a very special rapport- the legendary S. Chandrasekharan, known affectionately by the moniker 'Chandran' Chandrasekharan, who retired from RAW and set up the respected Delhi-based think tank, the South Asia Analysis Group, says it was from these nightly thrillers that the Jaffna conspiracy to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi probably took its inspiration. The Fred Zinnemann 1973 movie, The Day of the Jackal, based on the Frederick Forsyth bestseller, was the probable first seed.
Prabhakaran routinely settled scores by publicly eliminating his rivals to instil fear in his enemies; his first 'kill' was the Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiappah in 1975, whom he reportedly shot as he entered the Varadaraja Perumal temple. Chandran believes the plan to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi was in keeping with this 'kill or get killed' philosophy. 'Everyone thinks it was the CIA and Mossad that planted the idea of assassinating Rajiv Gandhi in Prabhakaran's head. I believe it was the movies that he saw; that's what gave him the idea,' says Chandran. Conspiracy theorists, however, demur.
It wasn't that Delhi didn't have him within sight. If Prabhakaran wanted to get back at India for trying to call the shots in his backyard, India had mobilized every resource at its command to have eyes on their prize target at all times.
But as a RAW operative from that era freely admits, with surveillance dependant on tip-offs from Lankan Tamils outside the inner circle, they never knew precisely where he was at any given moment. 'We knew the minute he left that location,' he laughs. Close, but never close enough.
Delhi undoubtedly had ample opportunity to eliminate the LTTE chief a number of times-and chose not to. As a senior member of the Indian Air Force (IAF), who served in the IPKF and was stationed as the IAF bases in Palaly and Trincomalee, recounts, he and the helicopter squadron he commanded had been given Prabhakaran's co-ordinates.
'I had my copter, all ready to go. We informed headquarters that we had been tipped off on where he was. One of our chaps had tracked him down. It was all systems go. All we needed was clearance from Delhi and we could eliminate him. Just like that,' he says, snapping his fingers. 'We waited for the signal but then came the message-a firm "no",' says the senior Air Force pilot. 'We had him in our sights. If we had eliminated him then, who knows . . .' he says with a shrug, leaving the sentence hanging.
Only once thereafter did the IPKF get close enough to Prabhakaran. They bombed his bunker in the Wanni, in his hideout Base One Four, in January 1989. The LTTE chief, though angry and upset, escaped with barely a scratch.
Complicating matters was the confusion and lack of clarity in Delhi's intelligence and strategic circles, on whether Prabhakaran constituted a short-term threat to be eliminated or a long-term asset to be cultivated. And added to this was the question of whether this bit player who had forcefully interjected himself into the Indo-Sri Lanka narrative by taking on the Indian Army, could still be 'turned'; a Tamil 'card' that India could use to keep Colombo off balance in the years to come.
Prabhakaran was under no illusions about where he stood vis-à-vis Delhi. He may have made concessions on a one-on-one basis to Indians like Chandran, but Rajiv Gandhi's Delhi was the enemy.
In fact, the RAW operative's relationship with the LTTE chief and the man that RAW cultivated as its LTTE insider, Col Kittu, real name Sathasivan Krishnakumar, was so strong that when Indian soldiers were being held prisoner by the LTTE, it was Chandranas he himself admits-whom the Indian Army called for help.
Excerpts from The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by Neena Gopal, Penguin Viking, Rs 499.
About the author
A journalist for thirty-seven years, Neena Gopal began her career in a Bangalore that was the hotbed of post-Emergency politics. Moving to the UAE in the 1980s, she worked for the Dubai-based daily Gulf News where, as Foreign Editor, she travelled in the Middle East during and after Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War in 1990, covering war-torn Iraq and its neighbours through the Second Gulf War in 2003. Neena’s other news-hunting ground has been India and its immediate neighbourhood, both as a foreign affairs journalist and as a close observer of the life and times of many leaders in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. She currently edits the Bangalore edition of Deccan Chronicle.