May 25, 2020
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Still Too Many Loose Ends

Investigators feel Chandraswami could provide the vital clue to Rajiv’s killing

Still Too Many Loose Ends

WITH Chandraswami coming under intense scrutiny, investigators in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case want the godman’s suspected links with the LTTE, via Adnan Khashoggi, to be probed. The globe-trotting gun-runner, say RAW reports to the Special Investigation Team, was among the main arms suppliers to the Tigers, the prime accused.

Indeed, the then additional CBI director, S.M. Dutta, had wanted to extend the probe to Kumaran Padmanabhan, the Tigers’ Swiss-based arms procurer. This was after Interpol tipped off the CBI on Padmanabhan’s links with Khashoggi. RAW also had clinching evidence: remittances from Padmanabhan’s Swiss bank account to those operated by Khashoggi.

Another name too has come to light. The Tiger’s ordinance man, Shankar, who is suspected to have been in touch with Chandraswami a few months before the assassination. Credited in LTTE circles as the "efficient procurer and transporter of arms", Shankar is also believed to have been in league with Khashoggi.

While a direct link between the godman and the killing is ruled out, investigators have a hunch that his interrogation may throw light on the source of the explosives used in the killing. This is one area which the SIT has not been able to tie up.

What has made all the focus zoom in on Chandraswami? An in-camera recording of the Jain Commission, in which Babloo Srivastava, Chandraswami’s aide-de-camp, reportedly said the godman was jubilant to hear the news of Rajiv’s assassination. According to Babloo, Chandraswami told his followers gathered at his Delhi ashram: "Rajiv Gandhi has been murdered, blown up by a bomb. Now Narasimha Rao will be the prime minister. Everything will fall into place." It’s a fact that witnesses deposing before the Commission have at times churned out some instant mythology, and investigators know Babloo’s testimony too can’t be taken at face value. But the godman’s name as a wheeler-dealer in the global arms market, they feel, is sufficient reason for him to go under the microscope.

Officials in the SIT under chief Karthikeyan have complained that the probe has suffered because of its fragmented mandate: three broad aspects are being probed at three levels, each insulated from the other. The SIT made up from the CBI side is looking into the criminal aspect of the assassination. That means its role is restricted to tracing and arresting persons involved in the actual crime. The Verma Commission was set up to examine the security lapses that may have led to the assassination. The Jain Commission’s brief was to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and zero in on the plotters.

Working in such watertight compartments hasn’t helped. Says an investigating official: "If there was an external ‘hand’, that ‘hand’ must have worked in tandem with the security agencies to gain access to the site of crime. So all aspects have to be investigated in one coordinated effort." The terms of reference given by the Narasimha Rao government stipulated that the Jain Commission won’t encroach on areas that come under the SIT’s purview and vice versa. As a result, beyond establishing that the LTTE was actually involved in the murder, little progress has been made since 1991 on the mystery surrounding the larger conspiracy and the LTTE links in Delhi. Investigating officials are of the view that interrogating Chandraswami, among others, could reveal hitherto unknown details.

One aspect that still remains to be explained is who passed on the details of Rajiv’s visit to Sriperumbudur to the assassins. The late prime minister’s tour programme was kept a top secret. The then TNCC president had announced as late as May 18, 1991—three days before the assassination—that Rajiv had no plans to visit Tamil Nadu since he was tied up with canvassing in other parts of the country. These were the hectic days before the deadline of May 22 for electioneering and the TNCC, at any rate, seemed to believe Rajiv’s visit was doubtful.

In her deposition before the Jain Commission, AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha also confirmed that she was not informed of Rajiv’s tour schedule. It was on May 19 that the AICC announced that Tamil Nadu was, finally, on Rajiv’s itinerary. If the LTTE plan was to kill the Congress leader before the elections, time must have been running out. And if there was so much uncertainty about whether Rajiv would visit Tamil Nadu, what made the assassins take the ‘risk’ of laying their ambush there? Rather than go hunting in neighbouring states where they, theoretically, would have been surer of finding the prey.

The chargesheet SIT filed before the designated court in Madras under Section 173, CrPC, is clear about the killers’ movements: "On 28/4/1991, the following LTTE conspirators assembled in Jaffna and Pottu Amman briefed them and directed them to act according to Sivarasan’s orders: Sivarasan, Dhanu, Subha, Nehru, Santhan, Shankar, Hariayya, B. Ruban and Keerthi. On 30/4/91 this group was seen off by Pottu Amman and Akila. They were received by Shanmugham and other LTTE cadres on the Indian shore in early morning of May 1, 1991." The chargesheet goes on to say that Sivarasan and his team waited in Madras from May 1onwards. Rajiv’s visit was announced by the AICC only on May 19. The upshot is that the Tigers had a very clear picture of Rajiv’s campaign schedule and this vital information, say investigating officials, could only have been passed on by someone having access to the AICC headquarters in Delhi or top-level officials of security agencies.

The last-minute switch in plans doesn’t seem to have been the Tamil Nadu party unit’s idea. Indeed, the TNCC was of the view that Rajiv’s visit to Madras, Sriperumbudur, Sivaganga, Salem and Krishnagiri would be fraught with security risks. In particular, the Sriperumbudur meet and the proposed overnight stay there were said to have met with serious objection from the TNCC.

Normally, the AICC would consult and work out the final schedule with the PCC In this case, the PCC seemed to have been kept in the dark. This, when it had even said Rajiv could concentrate on other states since the Congress-AIADMK alliance was on a winning wicket.

Vazhapadi Ramamurthy (the then TNCC boss), AICC election observer for Tamil Nadu and sitting MP Hanumanthappa, and Governor Bhishma Narain Singh (the state was then under President’s rule) had all objected to the itinerary. Despite this, the ‘ill-fated’ schedule drawn up in Delhi stuck. Who took the decisions at the AICC And why were the objections from the TNCC overruled? Investigators feel the answers could be significant.

Things appear curiouser when one considers what transpired at Vishakapatnam on May 21, the D-day. The aircraft developed a technical snag, whereupon Rajiv decided to forego the Tamil Nadu leg and retired to the circuit house. But again, sources say, some powerful lobby from Delhi seemed to have interfered, and instructions were given to repair the aircraft pronto. This was done within an hour and Rajiv was informed that he could proceed to Madras. Why was there so much pressure to include it in the programme?

Come to the crime itself, and the mystery deepens. The SIT chargesheet states that the explosive used by suicide bomber Dhanu was RDX. How did the RDX reach Madras and where did the assassins source it from? The Intelligence Bureau, while intercepting wireless messages between Madras and Jaffna, had tapped a message that talked of a "powder which was to be supplied by a firm." The identity of the firm remains unknown. But Interpol and RAW reports to the CBI pointed to deals between LTTE ordinance men and Khashoggi. The Chandra-swami-Khashoggi link throws up the probability that he too may have known about the conspiracy.

IN the past, the godman has been linked to Punjab militants. His channels with Dawood Ibrahim as well as the underworld in Uttar Pradesh and Nepal too have been speculated on. The RAW dossier on the godman, with the home ministry, establishes his political and criminal contacts.

Come to the specifics of the killing, and there are more loose ends. For one, where was Dhanu’s belt-bomb put together? She couldn’t have possibly come from Jaffna with an assembled unit. Neither were the preparations for the bomb attack done in Sri Lanka. Para 31 of the SIT chargesheet notes that Arivu, accused number 26 in the case, bought the battery for the detonation in Madras a week before the crime. Para 35 states that Subha (accused no. 6) helped Dhanu wear a loose-fitting ‘churidar’, stitched in a shop at Madras, over the belt bomb around her waist at Vijayan’s (accused no. 20) house. There is no oral or documentary evidence about where the denim belt with C4-RDX and battery as well as the toggle switch were assembled.

According to inputs from Interpol to the CBI, the man who could have put the deadly suicide-belt together was the LTTE operations man in Germany, Kirupalan, who was in Madras a month before the assassination. Dutta had listed him also under those who needed to be probed. But the SIT, for reasons unexplained, has not acted on this either.

Now, for the post-assassination. When EPRLF leader Padma-nabha and 13 others were slain in June 1990, the killers fled India after the crime. Rajiv’s assassins chose to stay back. The chargesheet states Sivarasan and his aides watched television coverage of the assassination in Madras for the next two days. Why did they choose to stay on in India? Who promised them shelter?—these questions remain unanswered.

The CBI made one arrest in Delhi a month after the killing: this was accused no. 16, A. Chandralekha. The chargesheet says she was sent to Delhi by Sivarasan to secure a hideout for him through his contacts. Why Delhi of all places? Who did Chandralekha meet there? What was Sivarasan’s Delhi connection? The ambit of the probe, officials say, has to be enlarged to include possible behind-the-scene operators.

The chargesheet is clear about the Tigers’ role: with Rajiv’s possible return as prime minister, the LTTE "apprehended a reversal of the Indian government’s non-interfering policy towards Sri Lanka". This was because Rajiv "stood for Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity (and) a role for all Tamil groups in any solution." So to prevent Rajiv from regaining power, the LTTE "conspired to eliminate him, create instability in India and make a clean getaway," it adds.

The SIT has decoded many of the assassins’ wireless messages to Jaffna, intercepted by the IB in the month before the assassination. These clinch the case against the Tigers. There’s dry irony in the fact that these messages were decoded, indeed taken seriously, only post facto.

It’s beyond doubt that the hamstrung probes have left large areas unlit. One valid entry-point to the maze, officials believe, is Chandraswami. And, via the godman, the CBI could bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of the plot in sharper relief.

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