Monday 2 September 2013

Black Tiger: The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi

It’s 10.20 pm on 21st May, 1991. The place is the town of Sriperumbudur, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A crowd is waiting at an election rally, which will be addressed by a prominent politician.

He’s not just any politician. The latest of India’s most prominent political dynasty, he’s been the country’s prime minister in the past, and now that he’s managed to pull down the government in Delhi, elections are due again; elections which he’s virtually certain to win.

Among the people waiting to see him are a few who do not, at the time, evoke anyone’s particular interest. One of them is a one-eyed man in white clothes; another is a plump-looking, bucktoothed young woman in an orange salwar-kameez, with flowers in her hair and holding a sandalwood garland in her hands. Like many others, she seems to be waiting to garland the politician when he walks past her to the dais where he’s supposed to address the gathering.

The politician arrives, and begins walking through the crowd, acknowledging its greetings and being garlanded by several people. The woman in orange pushes forward, as well, and slips the garland she’s carrying round the politician’s neck. She then bends to touch his feet in a gesture of respect.

It is not a gesture of respect. The woman is not one of the devoted throng of the politician’s supporters. She’s not even Indian; she’s a Tamil from Sri Lanka. Her name is Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, though she goes by Dhanu, and she is a member of a fanatical terrorist organisation fighting for an independent Tamil nation in Sri Lanka.

As she bends to touch the politician’s feet, she presses a button at her waist. It triggers a suicide jacket she’s wearing under her orange salwar, filled with RDX and some ten thousand steel pellets.

Mission accomplished.


I’ve been watching a film which has been in the news much lately in India, Madras Cafe. It’s a highly fictionalised, as well as conspiracy-theorised., version of the assassination of the former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, by the Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist outfit, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in May of 1991.

This article isn’t meant to be a review of the film, which I’ll mention en passant, and about which I’ll only say for now that it’s good by Bollywood standards. That means that it’s not necessarily anywhere in the neighbourhood of good by the standards of the average European or Iranian film, but does better than the typical Bollywood (or Hollywood for that matter) trash; faint praise, but better than none at all. Instead, in the course of this article, I’ll discuss the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi: one of the most important events in recent Indian, and Sri Lankan history.

Who was Rajiv Gandhi? Grandson to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, he was an accidental inheritor of the Gandhi dynasty crown. His mother, Indira Gandhi, had been grooming her younger son Sanjay as the heir apparent; but Sanjay Gandhi, always more of a street thug than a politician, was killed stunt-flying over Delhi. It was then the turn of elder son Rajiv, then a commercial pilot, to enter politics to “help mummy” as he said.

Rajiv Gandhi
On 31st October 1984, Indira Gandhi – who had first deliberately stoked Sikh separatism in Indian Punjab as a tool against the then provincial government, and then belatedly tried to fight it by sending the army to storm Sikhism’s most important shrine, the Golden Temple – was killed by her own Sikh bodyguards. Her Congress Party, then not as abjectly a private property of the dynasty as it is now, could’ve broken with the past and made someone else the prime minister; instead, it chose Rajiv Gandhi, who was sworn in the same evening.

Right from the outset, it was obvious that Gandhi wouldn’t exactly be a strong prime minister. Even as the country dissolved into massive anti-Sikh rioting, with Congress ministers openly leading mobs intent on murdering any Sikh they saw, his only reaction was this comment: “When a big tree falls, the ground will shake.” Only days later, when the army came on the streets, was order finally restored. And then Gandhi went on to win the next elections by a landslide on the “sympathy vote” – an election his mother was almost certain to lose.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, a civil war was brewing. This isn’t the space to go into a detailed examination of the cause of that war, but it involved an effort by Tamil militant groups to detach the northern and eastern provinces of the island to create a separate nation, Eelam.

In 1983, a Sri Lankan Army patrol was ambushed by Tamil militants belonging to the LTTE, killing thirteen out of fifteen soldiers. Chauvinist Sinhalese outfits made this into a casus belli to launch a pogrom against Tamils in Colombo, leaving many dead over several days of rioting. As a result, many thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled abroad. The rich and well-connected migrated to the West. The poor and helpless took to boats and made their way across the narrow straits separating India and Sri Lanka, to the doubtful security of refugee camps in the Tamil-majority Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Along with the refugees came fighters of the five main Tamil rebel groups. These weren’t new to India, having been active in Tamil Nadu since the seventies, and had occasionally fought internecine battles. But it was only in 1983 that the Indian government finally began training and arming the rebel groups to take on the Sri Lankan army.

Why did India do this? There are several reasons. First, and not the least important, is the compulsive Indian desire to meddle in what it considers its backyard. This meddling has often recoiled spectacularly, such as when it trained and armed Khampa rebels in Tibet, only for China to retaliate by backing the far more damaging Naga and Mizo insurgents in North East India; but it never actually seems to have taught anyone a lesson. By “anyone” here I mean, primarily, the external spy agency, the extremely incompetent Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). As an author I read recently (S Murari, The Prabhakaran Saga: The Rise And Fall Of An Eelam Warrior) said, RAW “had its own weird logic which was not for lesser mortals like us to fathom.”

The second reason has everything to do with internal Indian politics. Now, the state of Tamil Nadu is one of India’s more influential provinces. Most of its people are Tamils, and they number more than three times the entire population of Sri Lanka. Obviously, there was a certain amount of anger over the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees and the condition of the Tamils still living in the island. The Indian government had to be seen to be doing something. In 1971, it had trained and armed Bengali Mukti Bahini guerrillas against Pakistan, and that little effort had ended in the secession of the eastern part of the nation as Bangladesh. That was still fairly fresh in public memory in 1983, and the same prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was still in office; although India, to this day, has never officially admitted helping the Tamil rebels, it was common knowledge in Tamil Nadu and took some of the heat off the government.

LTTE militants (see below) in training in Sirumalai, India. Velupillai Pirabhakaran is third from left and Pottu Amman far right 

 A third reason was that India fantasised that training and arming the rebel groups to take on the Sri Lankan army would force the government in Colombo to reach an agreement with moderate Tamil political parties. Of course it didn’t work out like that. What actually happened was that the armed rebel groups swiftly sidelined the moderates and turned the “struggle for self-determination” into a wholly armed one.

At this point one thing should be clearly understood: at no point was there the slightest chance that India would stand by and allow Sri Lanka to be broken up. The absolute last thing India wanted was to set up an independent Tamil state neighbouring India, a state which would at once rouse secessionist tendencies in Tamil Nadu itself. The LTTE understood this at a very early stage; the others did not.

Inevitably, as time passed, the Tamil groups also began jockeying among themselves for arms, training, funding and influence. The LTTE, by far the most ruthless of them all, swiftly destroyed the rest, starting with the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, which had received the maximum Indian largesse. In the course of a week in April to May 1986, the LTTE wiped out TELO, murdering hundreds of its men including those who surrendered. India did nothing to rein in the rogue rebel group, which then went on to neutralise two of the three remaining other groups, the EPRLF and PLOTE, forced the final one, EROS, into an alliance and ultimately absorbed it. By 1987, the LTTE was effectively the only Tamil rebel outfit still in the field.

The history of the Sri Lankan civil war, from 1986 onwards, is inextricable from that of the LTTE; and of the LTTE, from that of its leader, Velupillai Pirabhakaran (the name is also transcribed as Prabhakaran or Pirapaharan). There’s not enough space in this article for a proper discussion of this man; in fact, entire books have been written about him. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll just say that he was the LTTE – its political and military leader, top ideologue, and charismatic, megalomaniacal dictator all rolled into one.

Velupillai Pirabhakaran, later self-styled Sun God and President cum Prime Minister of Tamil Eelam

Pirabahkaran tolerated no dissent; as time went on, he also developed a strong vengeful streak which led him to exact retribution on anyone even thought to be in opposition to him. As long as this hatred was directed at the Sri Lankan army, India didn’t care. Nor did it react as it should have when Pirabhakaran began murdering Tamils opposing him. All this only emboldened the LTTE leader, who decided that he was the arbiter of Tamil destiny.

When 1987 came around, Rajiv Gandhi was the Indian prime minister, and had continued his mother’s policy of arming and training the LTTE. Not that India ever admitted it, though; I remember a press conference where a foreign reporter (a white woman) asked Rajiv Gandhi about the training camps. Gandhi replied in these words: “You’re welcome to visit Tamil Nadu,” (looking around) “...any of you, and if you find any training camps I’ll have them closed down.” Of course, he didn't deny there were camps, so technically Gandhi wasn’t lying.

In early 1987, the Sri Lankan army struck back hard against the LTTE, which at the time controlled the city of Jaffna at the northern tip of Sri Lanka. It was soon besieging Jaffna, prompting fresh demands in Tamil Nadu for Indian military intervention. In an exercise (known as Operation Poomalai, Garland) reeking of both bullying and tokenism, Rajiv Gandhi sent four Indian Air Force Antonov 32 transports escorted by Mirage 2000 fighters to drop 25 tonnes of “relief materials” over Jaffna. All this was right on live TV so everybody knew how concerned Gandhi was about the Sri Lankan Tamils, of course. How much of it ever actually reached the civilians it was allegedly meant for, and what use 25 tonnes would be to a city full of people, is a question that most people didn’t bother asking.

At that time, as I recall, most people imagined that India was on the verge of invading Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans also thought so; I remember one of their ministers saying something like this: “If India attacks, we will fight, and perhaps lose...but with dignity.”

It was Sri Lanka’s good fortune that at the time its president was Junius Richard Jayawardene, one of the wiliest politicians South Asia has ever produced.

Sri Lankan President Jayawardene

Instead of looming disaster, Jayawardene saw an opportunity to turn the tables. He signed an agreement with India, the details of which aren’t germane to this article; but the main points were that the Sri Lankan military would stop operations, an Indian army contingent would take over the Tamil areas, disarm the militias and oversee a political settlement, which would preserve the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Overnight, India went from being an observer to being in the middle of the mess.

For a mess it was. The Indian military contingent, known as the Indian Peace Keeping Force, was welcomed by the Tamil civilians with open arms at first; but by the rebel groups, which by that time meant the LTTE? Not so much. They felt they’d been stabbed in the back, because the agreement had been signed by Colombo and Delhi, and their own leaders had been virtually shanghaied into signing on afterwards. Pirabhakaran and his LTTE saw that the agreement meant that Eelam would be permanently abandoned, and that they would also completely lose the power which had accrued to them over the years of fighting.

So, of course, they decided to torpedo the agreement. Pirabhakaran admitted as much in private conversations, as described by MR Narayan Swamy – he’d sabotage the agreement in such a way, he said, that it could never be brought home to him. Indian journalist Anita Pratap – who interviewed Pirabhakaran several times – also says, in her somewhat highly-coloured account of the Sri Lankan conflict (Island of Blood) that the LTTE chief had always known that he would have to fight the Indians some day.

Therefore, to everyone but Rajiv Gandhi’s government, it was obvious that the agreement would never work. This was something, of course, that Jayawardene had seen coming and counted on. It was easy enough to remove his troops from the Eelam campaign; they were now needed to crush a Sinhalese Marxist insurgency in the country’s south. Instead, since the IPKF was now in charge of overseeing the settlement in the Tamil areas, whatever the rebels did, it was now India’s business to handle.

Within a remarkably short time, then, the IPKF was at war with the LTTE. And it was a war that the Indian troops had absolutely no idea how to fight. The LTTE, which still had the support of the local Tamils, fought a vicious guerrilla campaign in the towns and jungles of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, forcing the IPKF to retaliate with artillery, armour, and helicopter gunships. Wounded LTTE fighters sneaked back into Tamil Nadu, where helpful Indian Tamil politicians helped them rest and recover before returning to resume fighting the Indian army. 

LTTE troops

As losses mounted, as I recall, the Indian media stopped reporting exactly how many IPKF soldiers had died in Sri Lanka. At first, they’d give the daily toll and say “until now, ___ Indian soldiers have been killed.” After the toll reached somewhere in the vicinity of 1400, they stopped giving totals; and later on they stopped mentioning the daily toll at all. To this day there’s been no official figure of Indian casualties; the estimates range from “almost 1200” (The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE’s Story by MR Narayan Swamy) to 5000 (Time Magazine story at the time of the IPKF’s withdrawal in 1990). My own rough estimate, going by the media reports at the time, would put it at something in the neighbourhood of 3000.

At around the same time, Junius Jayawardene was replaced as President of Sri Lanka by Ranasinghe Premadasa. He wasn’t, let’s say, knee-high to his predecessor as far as political acumen went. With right wing Sri Lankan political parties, the Marxist rebels and racist Buddhist monks all clamouring for Sri Lankan territory to be “freed” of the “hinsakari bandurusenava” (invading army of monkeys, a reference to the Indian epic the Ramayana), he decided to start arming the LTTE to take on the Indian army.

So this was the situation, circa 1988 – the Indian Army is in Sri Lanka, fighting the LTTE, which it had once trained and armed. The Sri Lankan army, which had been fighting the LTTE, is arming it to fight the Indians. And Indian Tamil politicians are providing the LTTE backup support to fight the Indian Army.

As I said, it was a mess.

Despite everything, the IPKF finally forced the LTTE out of the cities and into the Sri Lankan jungles, and so comprehensively destroyed its networks that it was almost paralysed as an effective fighting force. According to S Murari (The Prabhakaran Saga; The Rise And Fall Of An Eelam Warrior), the IPKF could have wiped out the LTTE if it had wanted; but evidently the orders were that it should let it remain in existence, just in case it was required again. By this time, the occupation had long since passed the point of diminishing returns: the Sri Lankans, Tamils and Sinhalese, would have to settle their differences politically, because India had done all it could.

By 1988, also, Rajiv Gandhi was in political trouble. His government was beset by incompetents (he had imported his old school chums and made them his ministers and advisors) and corruption scandals (most especially one which involved the purchase of Bofors 155mm artillery pieces for the army). After elections in 1989, his government was replaced by a coalition of parties led by V P Singh, who had once been Gandhi’s finance minister before being packed off to defence when he got too curious about financial shenanigans. And when, in 1990, Premadasa’s government demanded India withdraw its forces, the new government complied. The occupation had been such an evident disaster that to this day Indian media don’t make the slightest attempt to pretend that it was a victory.

Once the Indians withdrew, fighting soon resumed between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces. Pirabhakaran swiftly defeated India-aligned Tamil militias created out of the rubble of the other rebel groups, and recaptured Jaffna, which the LTTE turned into their capital. At the same time, they began a massive expansion of their activities abroad, buying weapons and creating what would later turn into a merchant navy of cargo vessels and a coastal “navy” of speedboats. This was the point at which the LTTE changed from a guerrilla band into one capable of fighting conventional wars and holding on to territory. In other words, it was much more powerful than ever before, and this also meant that it had much, much more to lose.

It was around this time that the plan to kill Rajiv Gandhi must have been laid.

At this distance in time, and with almost all the chief participants in the affair “no longer with us”, it’s not possible to say just why the decision was taken. However, there are some indications which give a good idea.

By late 1990, VP Singh’s government was crumbling. The middle classes were up in arms against an affirmative action programme he’d implemented, his ramshackle coalition was falling apart, and it was only a matter of time before there would be elections again – elections which Gandhi was more than likely to win. And if he did, Pirabhakaran feared, and as he said in an interview, he’d send the IPKF in again.    

Actually, there was just about zero chance that Gandhi would ever be able to send in the IPKF even if he’d wanted to. The duplicity of Premadasa’s government was clear, as was the unwillingness of the LTTE to accept any kind of political settlement. Besides, since the Sri Lankan government would certainly not invite the IPKF back again, India would have to fight its way in – first invade Sri Lanka, and then, after winning that war, restart the battle against the LTTE. This is the kind of imperial quagmire the US is adept at getting itself into, but there wasn’t any way India was going to get itself into it, thank you very much.

Of course, this was so clear to any rational person that he or she would’ve automatically discounted Gandhi’s statement as grandstanding for the gallery before the election soon to come, which it obviously was. But Pirabhakaran wasn’t a rational person. He was driven by two passions – a relentless desire to obtain Eelam on the one hand, and a consuming megalomania on the other. The latter had already led him to murder anyone who crossed him in the slightest – and would be instrumental in the final collapse and extinction of the LTTE twenty years later. Pirabhakaran thought he, and he alone, knew what was best for the Sri Lankan Tamils; what anyone else thought was immaterial. He also hated Gandhi for the betrayal at the time of the signing of the 1987 agreement; and anyone who was hated by Pirabhakaran generally paid for it, sooner or later.

Besides, there was the strategic consideration. The LTTE had much more to lose in 1990 than it had had three years earlier. It had risen much higher and had much further to fall. The last thing Pirabhakaran wanted was to go back to a guerrilla war in the jungles. It was an aversion that was to last the rest of his life; in 2008-9, when the LTTE was crumbling before the onslaught of the Sri Lankan armed forces, he adamantly refused to abandon a clearly lost conventional war in favour of a resumption of guerrilla operations, thus sealing his own fate, that of his outfit, and of Tamil Eelam in general.

So, these were, almost certainly, the driving considerations behind Pirabhakaran’s decision: revenge for the past, and a clearly illogical fear of future actions which were logically speaking impossible. I say almost certainly, because there are persistent conspiracy theories that Gandhi was killed by the LTTE at someone else’s behest; these are also the core idea of the film, Madras Cafe, I mentioned earlier. It is, however, highly unlikely that this was so. Pirabhakaran, for all his faults, was a proud man and kept an extremely tight and disciplined grip on his organisation in those days. He had never allowed criminal elements to enter the LTTE, unlike the TELO for example. He would never have countenanced turning his militia into a mercenary murder-for-hire Mafia outfit. Also, no evidence has ever been produced of any such behind-the-scenes influence. The highest ranked surviving LTTE leader, Kumaran Pathmanathan or KP, who succeeded Pirabhakaran as the outfit’s chief (and who has been portrayed as one “Rajsekharan” in the film) has maintained that it was Pirabhakaran’s decision, along with his much-hated intelligence chief, Pottu Amman.

Still, one should be aware that there are these alternative theories: that the LTTE committed the killing at the behest of a controversial Hindu religious figure called Chandraswami, or with the help of the CIA or Mossad, or to help Gandhi’s in-party rival and future Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao. That not one of these theories has stood up to scrutiny by two independent judicial commissions hasn’t managed to silence them. But people still believe in the Roswell crash and the Loch Ness Monster, so I don’t suppose they’ll stop believing just on some judge’s say-so.

There’s also the hypothesis, put forward by LTTE apologists, that Pirabhakaran was not responsible for the assassination at all. Either, according to this narrative, his deputies acted on their own initiative, or else the LTTE wasn’t guilty of the killing; they were framed.

Neither of these ideas stands up to any examination. In 1991, the LTTE was a united organisation, fiercely loyal to Pirabhakaran and still over a decade away from the Great Split of 2004, which was to lead to its eventual demise. No LTTE official, however powerful, could have undertaken such a major operation without it coming to the attention of Pirabhakaran or his intelligence chief, Pottu Amman. If they ignored such a mission, the only reason could be that they approved of it.

As for the idea that the LTTE wasn’t responsible: many years later, in 2002, when Pirabhakaran was “President and Prime Minister” of the (short-lived and de facto) state of Eelam, he addressed his only press conference ever. At this conference, he and his spokesman, Anton Balasingham (a British Tamil of Sri Lankan birth, married to an Australian) apologised for the killing, describing it as a tragedy, and asked everyone to look at the future, not the past. You don’t apologise for something you haven’t done. And, of course, there's KP's statement that Pirabhakaran and Amman organised the killing.

Yes, the LTTE did it, and Pirabhakaran was in it up to his ears.

Once the decision was taken to murder Gandhi, the next question was how to do it. The LTTE had killed many of its opponents in the past. One popular technique was to send a killer squad to the victim’s residence in the name of “talks”, and murder him there. Another, later to be used for Sri Lankan anti-LTTE Tamil minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, was the sniper; the man was shot from a distance in the centre of a high-security zone in Colombo. But an LTTE murder squad could hardly expect to be able to meet Gandhi without being frisked, and sniping him in India was more easily said than done, especially after a Sikh had tried and failed (with a homemade weapon, no less). 

That left one other way: the suicide bomber.

Although the LTTE did not invent the suicide bomber, it developed the concept to the level of a potent military technique. It had had a suicide culture from the beginning; throughout its existence, members were given cyanide capsules to kill themselves rather than be captured by the Sri Lankan army, and most of them used the poison when they had to. However, its first suicide bomber was a “Captain Miller”, who drove a truck bomb into a Sri Lankan Army camp in July 1987 (just before the IPKF arrived), killing himself and 40 soldiers. “Miller” became an icon to the LTTE, which started a suicide attacker wing called the Black Tigers, fanatically devoted to Pirabhakaran and which stood by him to the very last.

During and just after the IPKF period, the Black Tigers stayed away from suicide attacks. But it was time to start them again, and this time for good (the Black Tigers would continue both human bomb and fidayeen style storming raids for the rest of the LTTE’s existence).

Having decided on the method, it was left to select the team to carry it out. Nine members were picked, of whom Dhanu was the main bomber with another woman, Subha, as backup. I’ve read that Dhanu was a volunteer who was raped by the Indian army and thus desired vengeance. This may or may not be true. Either way, as a Black Tiger, she would have unquestioningly obeyed Pirabhakaran’s orders. Her personal history would’ve been irrelevant to her dedication to her mission. The leader of this team was an LTTE intelligence wing operative (which meant he reported to Pottu Amman), called Sivarasan, who’d lost an eye in an earlier bomb explosion. He was familiar with Tamil Nadu and had helped to murder dissenting Sri Lankan Tamils there in the past as well.

The team sneaked across the sea from Jaffna and into Tamil Nadu, where they stayed at safehouses with Indian LTTE sympathisers. [A detailed description of their movements can be found here, including how they recruited facilitators; I do not necessarily subscribe to the opinions expressed on the site, though.] 

At this point it should be understood clearly that while a lot of people did aid and abet the team, they would not necessarily have known that it planned to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that they’d have known anything about it, for the simple reason that the LTTE had a tremendous dedication to secrecy. People were only given information on a strict need-to-know basis. This extended to somewhat ridiculous lengths at times. MR Narayan Swamy quotes (The Tiger Vanquished: LTTE’s Story) a former LTTE woman fighter as saying that when the outfit was to attack a position, even the actual troops who would take part in the operation wouldn’t be told what they would be attacking. They’d be briefed along these lines: “Suppose this building is to be attacked, you must take up position in these spots”. Especially when such a prominent target was to be hit, the secrecy level would of course be even higher.

Once the team was in place, more arrangements were necessary. Rajiv Gandhi had to be enticed to come to Tamil Nadu, a place his security felt to be unsafe. Apparently, the LTTE let it be known on two occasions that he wouldn’t be at risk if he came to the state to campaign before the elections. And Subha was there as a backup, to try again in Delhi or elsewhere in case Dhanu failed in her mission.

Yet another item needed to be arranged. One of Pirabhakaran’s fetishes was the filming or photographing of operations, which could be used as training films for future missions. On this occasion, too, he had Sivarasan hire a freelance photographer called Haribabu. This Haribabu (an Indian Tamil) had been previously suborned into believing in the LTTE cause to the extent that he was completely indoctrinated, and one of the kill squad members was staying with him. It was no problem for him to agree to photograph the assassination for Pirabhakaran.

In this instance, though, as we shall see, that was a monumental blunder.

The film Madras Cafe, incidentally, claims that the RAW had unravelled a far-reaching foreign conspiracy to kill Gandhi, even pinning down the date and time, and only missed saving him by the narrowest of margins. This is a piece of fantasy. RAW did not even know that Gandhi would be in Sriperumbudur at the time, let alone the hero, an RAW man, dashing towards him seconds before the bomb went off.  Even afterwards, it was the domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, which handled the investigation, along with the police. RAW was out of the picture completely.  

In the days before the assassination, Dhanu carried out two dry runs at other meetings, but otherwise stayed indoors at the safe house. The reason was that she didn’t want to give her Sri Lankan origins away – the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils speak different versions of the language. Then, on the 21st May, after stopping off for ice cream, she got to the meeting with Sivarasan, who was posing as a journalist, Subha, Nalini (an Indian Tamil facilitator), and the photographer, Haribabu.

From second left, Dhanu (holding the sandalwood garland), Nalini and Sivarasan. Photo by Haribabu.

Exactly what time they got there is the subject of an interesting controversy. The Indian police claimed they reached the venue only just before Gandhi did, and managed to sneak through the security lines in the push of the crowd. On the other hand, there are reports that a video exists showing them waiting over two hours earlier. Some further claim this video was “edited” to remove footage of them meeting local politicians, including those belonging to Gandhi’s Congress Party, thus fuelling conspiracy theories that Gandhi was offed by his own people. Of course, this begs the question of why these politicians would want to meet the suicide squad right out in the open and just before the assassination, when they could have done so in complete safety anytime earlier.

If the video actually exists, it might have been suppressed by the police, but for a much more mundane reason: the presence of the kill squad at the meeting hours before it started simply proved the incompetence of their security procedures, and they were just covering their collective ass. It’s highly likely that the killers actually did arrive hours in advance; Indian politicians are notorious for unpunctuality, and since Gandhi had stopped off at other meetings before the Sriperumbudur one, they would have no way of knowing exactly when he’d arrive. And after all the other meticulous arrangements, it’s unlikely that Sivarasan would’ve left anything as basic as this to chance. Also, one of the two commissions of enquiry into the killing concluded that local Congress politicians had interfered with the security arrangements, so as to increase Gandhi’s interaction with the people and hence his likelihood of attracting votes.

Not that Gandhi was known for obeying security protocols either. As Prime Minister he’d become notorious for flouting regulations, and after his assassination a policewoman claimed she’d tried to stop the suicide bomber from approaching, only to be countermanded by Gandhi himself, saying something like “Relax, baby.”

But to get back to the assassination.

As they waited for the moment to strike, Haribabu began taking pictures. He photographed Dhanu, Nalini, and Sivarasan standing together. Then he photographed the crowd, and Rajiv Gandhi arriving. He photographed people handing Gandhi scarves, and then another picture of him being mobbed by supporters. This photograph clearly shows the back of Dhanu’s flower-bedecked head in the foreground, still a couple of women away from Gandhi. And then it shows a red blur as Dhanu’s suicide belt explodes.[all photos at source]

Rajiv Gandhi's last moment. The back of Dhanu's head can be seen left lower corner. Photo by Haribabu.

How do we know what he photographed? We know, because when Dhanu blew herself up, she killed not just herself and Gandhi (who, according to an article I read at the time, was pretty much scooped inside out) but fourteen other people – and among these fourteen was Haribabu. His Chinese-made 35mm camera, however, survived; and its film became the only clue the investigators had about the killing. After all, why would a professional photographer focus on a seemingly nondescript trio of people? It was at least interesting enough to be checked out. And it was that checking out which blew the case, so to speak, open.

Rajiv Gandhi, dead.

As a matter of fact – and unlike the story peddled by Madras Cafe – at first, nobody knew who’d committed the killing. The first suspects were the Sikh separatists of the Khalistan movement, with the LTTE in a distant second spot. Though a radio message sent by Sivarasan to Pirabhakaran’s headquarters (Base 14) in Sri Lanka was intercepted, it was decoded and understood only after several days.

By that time, the culpability of the LTTE in the assassination was becoming clear. The photographs had led the trail back to the safehouses, and more than twenty LTTE facilitators were arrested, including Nalini. Most of them were sentenced to death, though ultimately – as I have mentioned elsewhere – only three of them are still on death row as of this writing. The sentences of the others were commuted.

As for the remaining members of the hit squad, they did not immediately flee across the sea back to Sri Lanka. Why, I can’t tell you – maybe they were lying low, waiting for an opportunity to strike at another target. After all, they still had Subha to use. Or perhaps they wanted things to cool down before leaving. Whatever the reason, they waited too long to get away to Sri Lanka, and escaped to the neighbouring state of Karnataka, where many Tamils live and the LTTE had a network as well. The police ran them to ground there, in a manhunt which involved the neutralisation of several LTTE cells and the suicide of over twenty LTTE men. Finally, three months after the killing of Gandhi, Sivarasan and six members of his squad were tracked down to a house in Bangalore. Surrounded by police, they all committed suicide rather than surrender – Sivarasan by shooting himself, Subha and the rest by biting into cyanide capsules.

The story was over. Wasn’t it?

Of course not.


At the start of the previous section of this article, I described Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination as one of the most significant events of modern Indian and Sri Lankan history. Why?

Let’s take India first.

Rajiv Gandhi, for all his faults, was a reasonably good person as an individual. He was not, certainly, completely in the pockets of capitalists and industrialists as the current lot in power; nor was he reflexively pro-American like virtually all the political leadership today. If he was personally corrupt, no succeeding government – including those led by his right-wing political enemies – has ever been able to present any evidence proving it. He had blundered extremely badly in his first stint in power, but should have learnt his lesson. It’s highly unlikely that in a second term as prime minister he’d have brought in school cronies as ministers and the like. Also, like his mother, he was by conviction a secularist and at least a pinko economically.

Under his successor, Narasimha Rao, India abandoned any pretence at socialism and embraced a bandit capitalism which brought along with it skyrocketing corruption, immensely increased rich-poor disparity, and a foreign policy which is nothing more than an appease-America policy. It also junked secularism in all but name, in favour of pro-Hindu policies (known as “soft Hindutva”) which made the minorities feel insecure and directly emboldened the Hindunazis.

Today, India is a hyper-corrupt, dysfunctional oligarchy run by clueless morons taking orders from bandit capitalists at home and American warmongers abroad. This fate might not have been avoided if Gandhi hadn’t been killed; but it’s certain that his murder brought it about much faster and without any vestige of internal opposition. And as I speak, the bandit capitalist economy has finally gone into free-fall, with the currency dropping like a stone, fuel prices shooting through the roof, and the government all set to lose power to the Hindunazis next year; Hindunazis who promise to be no better in any way and quite likely even worse.

As for Sri Lanka:

Having got away, as he imagined, with the killing of Gandhi, Pirabhakaran began using the Black Tigers in a big way. The first major victim was Sri Lankan President Premadasa – the same Premadasa who had supplied the LTTE with arms and ammunition to fight the IPKF and had then ordered the Indian army to quit the island. Having outlived his utility, he was no longer anything but a target as far as Pirabhakaran was concerned. On May Day 1993, he was murdered in Colombo by a male Black Tiger suicide bomber, who had spent about two years setting up a cover ID as a grocer in order to be able to find an opportunity to get close enough to Premadasa to strike.

Premadasa’s successor, the left-liberal Chandrika Kumaratunga, tried to make peace with the LTTE, but almost suffered the same fate. In November 1999, a Black Tiger human bomb struck at a meeting she was addressing; Kumaratunga survived, losing an eye. Though she continued to attempt peacemaking with the LTTE, she was never the force she had been before, and began showing an increasingly authoritarian streak. Finally, this brought her into open political conflict with her liberal and pro-peace Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, a clash which led in time to the election of the hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa as President.

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Even though, at this time, the early 2000s, there was a ceasefire in place, Pirabhakaran continued using the Black Tigers against the Sri Lankan state. Among the targets was President Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya, the Defence Minister, who survived narrowly. Another was the army chief, Lt General Sarath Fonseka. A Black Tiger woman who was (according to whom you believe) either pretending to be pregnant or actually pregnant, made said pregnancy an excuse to attend maternity classes at the military headquarters in Colombo; she then blew herself up near Fonseka’s car, badly injuring him. Fonseka recovered after treatment in Singapore, determined to crush the LTTE at all costs.

When open fighting finally erupted again between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army in 2006, the Tigers found themselves suddenly, and unexpectedly, outclassed. Though they had provoked what came to be called Eelam War IV, they had completely underestimated both the army and the political leadership, which had come to the conclusion (helped along by the ceaseless Black Tiger suicide attacks) that the LTTE had no desire to talk peace and had to be eliminated at all costs. As the LTTE defences crumbled, they began hoping desperately that – as in 1987 – India would bail them out.

It did not happen.

The LTTE's last battle

One of the most important reasons it did not happen was the fact that after Rajiv Gandhi’s murder, it had become politically impossible for any Indian government to come to the LTTE’s aid. Even though some Indian Tamil politicians – who had supported the LTTE from the pre-IPKF days – demanded Indian intervention, Delhi stayed aloof. The people of Tamil Nadu had also turned against the LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamil separatism in general. This made it possible for India to stand by unmoved and watch as the Sri Lankan army annihilated the LTTE in a murderous series of battles, finally destroying it completely, and killing Pirabhakaran, on 18th May 2009. 

The end of Tamil Eelam: Pirabhakaran's corpse

That many thousands of Tamil civilians were caught in the fighting and killed by shelling and airstrikes made no difference. India had had enough of the LTTE after Gandhi’s murder. Nothing would make any difference to that.

The elimination of the LTTE brought Mahinda Rajapaksa immense political dividends. He had come to power by an extremely narrow margin, and that because the LTTE had (going by the cynical calculation that a Sinhala hardliner would be better for it than the pro-peace Wickremasinghe) ordered the Tamils to boycott the election. Now, having won the 36-year-old civil war, Rajapaksa was a national hero, and could do anything he wanted. So he promptly turned the Sri Lankan government into a Rajapaksa family fief, where today he, his three brothers, their in-laws, and associated hangers-on control everything, and ordinary Sri Lankans (Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims or Burghers, it matters not what they are) had better shut up and knuckle down – or else.


I’ll end this article on a personal note. On 22nd May 1991, I was home on vacation from college. My cousin Gayatri was visiting, and she was set to leave early in the morning. While I was talking to her, with dawn grey in the sky, my father came up to tell us he’d just heard on TV that Gandhi had been killed the night before.

I regret to say I felt a flash of joy. I regret it now, and I’ve regretted it for years.

But, in my defence, I was young and stupid then.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013


  1. Bill, Wow - what a story. No one could make this kind of stuff up!

    In terms of how you felt when Gandhi was killed, I can completely understand insofar as being committed socialists, we've never concerned ourselves much with the fate of capitalist politicians. However, who could have foreseen the mess the world would be in today, what with the rightward swing in politics everywhere, the support of warmongering fakers like Obama and the resultant extremely rapid closure of political space to engage in politics, all this hand-in-hand with the militarization of the police forces to make sure that we stay in line. I think we all have a much more nuanced view of politics as a result.

  2. Thanks so much for shedding the light on that historical part of India. I have always wondered about the true story behind all the commotions that have been happening on that side of the country for the past couple of years.

  3. An excellent analytical article on Tamil problem in Sri Lanka. Thank you!

  4. unfortunately,pakistan is going through the same thing,soon nawaz sharif would start the process of privitization and then corruption would be..........................i don,t have words.

  5. Arnold D'Souza03/04/2014, 19:14

    Just happened to stumble upon this piece while searching online for some stuff related to the assassination, and I would like to say thanks for having written just a wonderfully detailed post!

  6. excellent, well-researched and detailed historical account. Thank you

  7. Excellent article, well written!


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