The Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA), a unit of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probing the 1991 assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, seldom makes headlines. Formed in December 1998 to unearth the larger conspiracy behind the suicide bombing, the agency has been around for the past two decades—working stealthily, away from the public eye. It was, however, in the news again during the bitter CBI reshuffle this month when the bureau’s No. 4, joint director (policy) Arun Kumar Sharma, was shunted there.
Sharma’s posting, considered the fallout of internal strife in the premier investigating agency, raises questions about the MDMA itself. The most obvious question is why is this little-known agency wreathed in secrecy and packed with experts drawn from the CBI and other agencies taking so long to crack a puzzle it was tasked to solve in two years? Why have the two years become 20 without a charge-sheet, while many key suspects and witnesses are dead already?
Millions can recall the moments when a bespectacled woman bent down to touch Gandhi’s feet during an election rally in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, and detonated an RDX-rigged belt concealed under her dress. The explosion killed the former PM, the suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and 14 more people.
Detectives arrested several suspects; many of them were convicted and a commission under Justice M.C. Jain was formed to unravel the conspiracy behind the murder. The plot had thickened by then with the names of a godman, a political rival of the Congress, Khalistani militants, an arms dealer, and long-time Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi thrown into the mix. But only three people could perhaps tell the truth—LTTE chief Prabhakaran and his sidekicks, Kumaran Pathmanathan, alias KP, and Kittu.
Arun Kumar Sharma, CBI’s joint director (policy), was moved to the MDMA after the recent controversy that hit the CBI.
The Jain Commission, which named 21 suspects, threw up questions that the MDMA was supposed to answer. What was the role of godman Chandraswami? Why did Congress-baiter Subramanian Swamy meet Chandraswami in London? Were Khalistani extremists involved? What was the role of Karunanidhi? At whose behest did arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi ship guns to the LTTE around that time? The probe panel advised that Indian agencies should get hold of Prabhakaran, KP and Kittu because they alone knew of its “external” matters.
By the time the commission’s action taken report (ATR) was placed in Parliament, Kittu was dead. “The Indian Navy shot and sank his boat. They should have taken him alive; his information was crucial,” says K. Ragothaman, who was with the MDMA’s Chennai unit between 1999 and 2001, and also with the SIT that charged the LTTE operatives. After Kittu’s death, the key to unlock the secret lay with Prabhakaran and KP. But in 2009, Sri Lankan soldiers killed Prabhakaran.
Among the triumvirate, only KP, captured three months after Prabhakaran’s death, is alive and in custody of Lankan authorities. “It is incredible that Sri Lankan intelligence, which has fewer means than India’s agencies, grabbed KP while the Indians failed for years. He is the only way the truth can be revealed,” says Ragothaman.
Former MDMA investigator B.N. Mishra, who was with the unit for 15 years, says he had interviewed KP, who was the LTTE’s arms procurer, in Sri Lanka. According to the MDMA’s 2011 status report, KP denied having any involvement in the conspiracy, saying that Prabhakaran and his deputy Pottu Amman took the decision.
But more muck surfaced when KP’s name was linked to arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi—a devotee of godman Chandraswami—whose associate, journalist Rajinder Kumar Jain, alleged that the spiritual leader was involved in the assassination. In 1998, a car bomb killed Jain. Curiously, the MDMA was not asked to investigate Jain’s murder despite tell-tale signs that the bombing was a cover-up. Both Chandraswami and Khashoggi died last year.
Jain wasn’t the only one pointing his finger at the godman. Jailed underworld don Babloo Srivastava too had made “a damaging statement” regarding Chandraswami’s role, says former MDMA man Mishra. “But I cannot divulge it,” says the former officer, who was ejected from the CBI despite a Union cabinet order stating that his term in the MDMA was to be “co-terminus” with the agency’s tenure.
Proximity to Chandraswami also brought BJP lawmaker Subramanian Swamy under the lens, with the Jain Commission raising suspicions about his visit to London with the godman. The MDMA closed the probe against him in 2006. Mishra says Swamy told investigators that it was a mere coincidence that he and the godman were travelling to the UK around the same time.
Another player appeared in the plot when Akali leader Mahant Sewa Dass Singh claimed after the assassination that, almost six months before the horrific act, he had told then PM Chandra Shekhar that Khalistan movement founder Jagjit Singh Chohan had informed him of the threat to Gandhi’s life. But investigation suggested the late mahant’s imagination was working overtime.
Conspiracy theorists also had it that the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu may have had some knowledge of the plot. Ragothaman wrote in his book, Conspiracy to Kill Rajiv Gandhi: From CBI Files (2013), that the DMK and the Congress’s Tamil Nadu unit had sought permission to hold rallies in Sriperumbudur but around noon on May 21, hours before the bombing, the DMK office in Chennai postponed Karunanidhi’s rally. “There was no investigation into this. While in the MDMA, I had to facilitate a meeting with Karunanidhi for the CBI investigators from Delhi. Obviously he denied everything but what was the point of asking him without conducting an inquiry first? There was a rumour that the DMK cadre were advised to stay indoors that evening. None of these were probed,” Ragothaman says.
In his book, Ragothaman blamed SIT chief D.R. Karthikeyan for not letting him probe this angle or the role of other politicians. The former MDMA officer says the agency should have looked within India to uncover the conspiracy. So, with a UPA government at the Centre for a decade, what stopped them? Former Congress leader Ramesh Dalal alleges that the party struck a deal with the godman and the UPA scuttled the probe. His allegations couldn’t be substantiated, though he says he has evidence.
The MDMA lost its steam, or political push, over the years. This is evident from the UPA government’s move to reduce the agency’s size to 38—its current strength. Its status reports to the Union home ministry show that much of its investigation in India is over. The reports also say only six of 25 letters rogatory—requests to other countries for assistance in criminal cases—are pending with foreign governments. Yet, there is no answer to why the probe is dragging. “No information, this is a secret organisation,” an MDMA officer says.
So, has the MDMA become another sloth institution, a consummate freeloader living off taxpayers’ money and answerable to none? Has the investigation gone cold too? What explains why around 60 progress reports—until 2013—of this unit remained sealed and collected dust in a Chennai special court’s records room? These sealed records—there are probably around 100 by now—supposedly hold details of who hatched the plot to assassinate Gandhi and why. MDMA’s former investigator Mishra says he, along with a prosecutor, would explain each report to the judge before sealing it. But lawyer S. Prabhu, representing Gandhi murder convict A.G. Perarivalan, disagrees. He says a judge of the special court in Chennai was unwilling to examine the sealed reports. This happened in 2013.
The foot soldiers who executed Gandhi’s murder have been in jail for decades. Several key suspects are dead or out of reach. In the meantime, the MDMA continues its expensive probe. Even the Chief Justice of India refused to set a deadline for the agency, citing the sensitivity of the case.