Saturday, August 20th was the late Rajiv Gandhi‘s birthday. Rajiv Gandhi’s political career was barely seven years; it started with the assassination of his mother Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1984 and ended with his own assassination. But within those years, he made a mark by doing things differently from the traditional political class. Had the charismatic leader not become the victim of a LTTE suicide bomber on 21 May 1991, the Congress party’s fortunes might have been scripted differently.
Neena Gopal’s latest book ‘The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’ has once again brought the focus on the sordid episode of the nation’s failure to protect its former prime minister. I have always found Sri Lanka fascinating particularly after serving as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990.
The author, during the course of writing the book, had long conversations with me on the situation leading up to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. I have not read the book yet; but I find from the published extracts the book contains some of my recollections.
Rajiv Gandhi served as prime minister from 1984 to 1989; he had no political experience but his exuberance to get things done and impulsiveness and impatience to get results endeared him to the masses. He attempted to end longstanding conflicts facing the country during his term. While some of them like river water sharing in Punjab and ending Bodo insurgency in Assam were partly successful, many other such attempts did not live up to the expectations.
When Rajiv came to power India- Sri Lanka relations were in a mess. Mrs Gandhi had given sanctuary to a motley collection of Tamil separatist insurgent groups who had fled the island nation along with thousands of Tamils in the wake of Sri Lanka’s infamous July 1983 pogrom against Tamils. The Tamil insurgent groups became a potential threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. So Sri Lanka had little option but to accept Indian counsel, particularly after talks with Tamil groups failed to yield results.
Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 with President J. R. Jayewardene to ensure Sri Lankan Tamils got a degree of autonomy within a united Sri Lanka, while India underwrote the disarming of Tamil militants. The Accord was hastily conceived and hurriedly executed in typical Rajiv Gandhi style of trying to resolve problems in double time, often defying political wisdom. Though the implementation of the Accord cost Rajiv Gandhi his life, it is an anachronism that both the countries never allowed it to reach its logical conclusion.
Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership had done quite well till opposition parties managed to rally together and focus on his alleged involvement in the Bofors gun purchase scandal; the misconceived Indian army intervention in Sri Lanka only added masala to the allegations of Rajiv’s ineptness. Young Gandhi scion’s popularity drastically came down, resulting in the Congress party’s defeat in the national elections held in 1989.
It was a depressing time for men in uniform like me in Sri Lanka from 1988 onwards when opposition parties at home ridiculed the Indian forces while the Congress was put on the defensive. The DMK government had come to power in Tamil Nadu was openly hostile to the IPKF.
It extended hospitality to wounded LTTE cadres in the state, while our soldiers fighting them died un-mourned in foreign soil.
The V. P. Singh government in New Delhi and President Premadasa were on the same page on the recall of IPKF. It was on 24 March 1990 the last landing craft carrying Indian Peace Keeping Force commander and his operations group left Trincomalee harbour to Chennai.Thus both the governments saved the LTTE from annihilation as IPKF had already cut it down to size, reducing the overblown self image of Prabhakaran to the realistic proportion of an insurgent leader in hiding in the jungle. He knew he was fighting with his back to the wall; eight batches of LTTE leadership were dead.
Even as IPKF observed a ceasefire, Prabhakaran had secretly made common cause with his sworn enemy Sri Lanka President Ranasinghe Premadasa to do what he couldn’t – to evict the IPKF from Sri Lanka. It must have been a humiliating experience for Prabhakaran to break bread with Premadasa. Prabhakaran’s plot to assassinate Rajv Gandhi was probably conceived at that time. Premadasa readily obliged the LTTE leader; he not only issued an ultimatum to India to withdraw the forces from the island but also supplied arms to the LTTE.
During the next couple of months, the IPKF was being disbanded in Chennai and our headquarters was being wound up. The component units and formations moved out. Last of our radio interception units that had regularly shared its output of LTTE transmissions brought me one such intercept.It was a recording of one of the LTTE networks operating from somewhere in Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. The contents of the conversation in the peculiar Jaffna Tamil dialect were startling. It ordered the ‘dumping’ of Rajiv Gandhi. While I don’t remember the exact wording, the scene is still embedded in my mind.
Dumping is the term LTTE used for killing. I was familiar with the LTTE dialect used in their communication. In 1987, I had collected the documentation of LTTE kangaroo courts done with Nazi precision ordering “dumping” of 102 people who were shot and dumped in garbage pit for committing crimes like selling drugs, soliciting etc. I called the radio operator who knew Jaffna Tamil very well to confirm the content of the intercept; he was emphatic it was an order to kill Rajiv Gandhi. I was shocked and immediately informed the IPKF force commander.
He asked me not to “touch it.” He had good reasons because we have no functional headquarters for follow up action. He asked me to hand over the audio cassette to the Intelligence Bureau in Chennai for taking further action. Immediately, I went over to the IB headquarters and met the joint director.He was a good friend known to me for over a decade. He listened to the audio and laughed at me. “Colonel, it is all bravado. They are not specifically saying when and where Rajiv should be killed. In any case, I don’t believe they would kill Rajiv. Why would they?” I still remember the conversation because it left me uneasy though I had no answer to his logical reasoning. With a troubled mind, I returned to my office.
I checked with my Sri Lankan Tamil sources who said Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination would be in keeping with Prabhakaran’s style.Later, when I was in New Delhi in early 1991, I dropped into the North Block office of the same IB officer I had met in Chennai. He was holding a top security appointment. He asked me about my future plans after retirement in March 1991 and offered to assist me in case I needed any help. I again asked him about the Rajiv Gandhi assassination cassette; he simply laughed it off.The rest is history; Rajiv Gandhi’s killing came as a shock to me. I was left with a lingering feeling of guilt for not vigorously pursuing the information I had in hand which could have prevented the assassination. When the Special Investigation Team was formed to investigate Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, its chief DR Karthikeyan called me to help out in the investigations. As I had retired, I suggested the names of officers and NCOs who could help him to progress the investigation.
I also informed him about the audio cassette containing assassination threat to Rajiv Gandhi I had handed over to the IB. He told me the Navy also had a similar intercept.
This is one instance where Indian intelligence community as a whole had failed. Now I understand why Americans had failed to read the 9/11 attack although they had bits and pieces of information about it well in advance. Collecting information is one thing; but assessing what it implied is a different ball game.
Napoleon said if you expect the enemy to attack from four directions, he may well do it from the fifth one!
*Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 90. E-mail: [email protected] Blog: http://col.hariharan.info(Courtesy Colombo Telegraph)