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Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and the downfall of LTTE

Rajiv Gandhi is greeted before his address at an election rally in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, moments before he was killed by a suicide bomber.

In retrospect, everyone is wise. One will, however, be never sure what destiny would have had in store for Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran had he not ordered the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi .

May 21, 2021, will mark the 30th anniversary of a well-planned and well-executed grotesque killing that snuffed out the life of an Indian leader believed to be on a comeback trail to power.

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Though the LTTE and Prabhakaran kept denying its role in the suicide bombing, the killing sealed his fate.

It was Dharmalingam Siddharthan, a former Sri Lankan Tamil MP, who was among the first to realise the heavy cost Prabhakaran would pay for the killing.

Ezharai Sani [a bad phase of life, according to astrology] will go away for everyone after seven-and-a-half years,” Siddharthan told me a long ago. “I can say without hesitation that Ezharai Sani gripped Prabhakaran on May 21, 1991, and it will not leave him until he dies.”

Looking back, Siddharthan turned out to be on the dot.

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None of this would have been evident to the LTTE chief when he, along with his intelligence boss Pottu Amman , decided to do away with Rajiv Gandhi, fearing that he might again dispatch Indian troops to Sri Lanka.

Sivarasan gets the task

Once the task of killing Gandhi was handed over to the LTTE intelligence operative known by his nom de guerre Sivarasan, the Tigers decided that the latter should not get mixed up with the existing LTTE network in Tamil Nadu.

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The LTTE knew that Indian security agencies were aware of almost all its activists in the State, including those working for the intelligence wing.

Accordingly, one day in September 1990, a boat packed with Tamil civilians fleeing the war in Sri Lanka’s northeast reached the Tamil Nadu coastal town of Rameshwaram.

Two men and a woman from the group met Indian officials and registered themselves as refugees but moved on to Chennai, saying they had friends in the city.

A few days later, another boat of Tamil refugees also reached the Tamil Nadu coast. As in the first instance, two men and a woman registered themselves as refugees and said they, too, would prefer to live with friends in Chennai.

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The two groups rented out separate houses in Chennai, telling those who cared to ask that they were lucky to be away from the war.

The six Sri Lankans did not know themselves but their arrival in Tamil Nadu marked the unleashing of a deadly plot Prabhakaran had drawn up to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi.

Sivarasan, known as “One-Eyed Jack” because of a glass prosthesis he wore in place of an eye he lost in a battle, realised soon that the men sent in advance as “refugees” were not enough for the tough job he had on hand.

By then, two LTTE intelligence operatives, Nixon and Kanthan, also reached Tamil Nadu. After a brief stay in the State, Sivarasan went back to Sri Lanka and returned to Chennai in January 1991.

Sacking of the DMK government

It was the month the Indian government sacked the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu for turning a blind eye to LTTE activities and placed the State under direct federal rule.

After taking permission from Pottu Amman, Sivarasan telephoned Sathasivan Krishnakumar, alias Kittu, the London-based LTTE representative, and sought introduction to a reliable Indian contact in Chennai. Sivarasan did not realise that this was a blunder. Since the June 1990 assassination of Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) chief K. Pathmanabha and his associates in Chennai and the easy escape of the killers, Indian security agencies had stepped up surveillance on LTTE activists in Tamil Nadu.

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Kittu telephoned an Indian national, Muthuraja, who was close to the Tigers, and asked him to help out a new group of LTTE members from Sri Lanka. Kittu cautioned Muthuraja against speaking to anyone about the new arrivals.

Unknown to Kittu and Muthuraja, the latter was under the watch of the Intelligence Bureau. The intelligence officers were surprised by Kittu’s instruction and surmised that something sinister was afoot.

Even as a crackdown on the LTTE followed the sacking of the DMK government, Muthuraja introduced Nixon to some Indians who ended up playing a key role in the assassination. Muthuraja also introduced another LTTE intelligence operative, Murugan, to an Indian family.

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This is when Muthuraja suddenly disappeared one day. He was being shadowed in Chennai by Indian security agencies but gave the slip one evening at Egmore. It was later learnt that he had left for Sri Lanka, ostensibly on the request of Pottu Amman.

Muthuraja, however, never reached Sri Lanka. His boat sank in the sea after being hit by a Sri Lankan naval vessel. Believing he died, the LTTE honoured him. But Indian security agencies believe that Muthuraja did not die. The Sri Lankan Navy took him into custody after his boat collapsed.

Prabhakaran, meanwhile, asked an LTTE member, Kasi Anandan, to meet Rajiv Gandhi to convey his best wishes for the upcoming general election in India. The meeting took place in New Delhi on March 5, 1991.

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Some days later, a Sri Lankan Tamil banker based in London also called on Rajiv Gandhi with a message that the Tigers were eager to make up with the Indian leader. Both meetings were meant to make the Indian security brass believe that Prabhakaran was willing to bury the past and start a new chapter with New Delhi.

Arrival of Dhanu

Sivarasan, who had again gone back to Sri Lanka, returned to Tamil Nadu by sea early in May 1991 with Dhanu, the suicide bomber. They landed in the coastal town of Vedaranyam and left for Chennai by bus.

Within 10 days of their arrival, Dhanu and a companion, Shuba, wrote to the LTTE leadership: “We are determined to attain our objective.”

By now, the Intelligence Bureau had intercepted a couple of complex, coded radio messages from Tamil Nadu to Jaffna. The IB headquarters in Delhi was pressed to break the code.

One of the LTTE messages, decoded after Rajiv Gandhi was killed, was a revealing one-liner from Sivarasan to Pottu Amman: “Nobody [in India] knows about our operation.”

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Another explicit message, intercepted on May 7 but again deciphered after Rajiv Gandhi had been killed, was a vow by Sivarasan: “If I return to Jaffna, it will be as Pottu Amman’s man, having achieved the incredible feat of assassinating a world leader.”

Sivarasan, who pretended to be a journalist when it suited him, found out from some Congress party functionaries about Rajiv Gandhi’s election rally in the small town of Sriperumbudur, near Chennai, on May 21, 1991.

A rehearsal

To ensure that everything went well, the LTTE had carried out a rehearsal at an election rally of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh in Chennai. As Singh was leaving, Dhanu walked up to him and touched his feet as a mark of respect for an elder.

The whole exercise was recorded on video and viewed by the LTTE many times to check if there were any flaws. Clearly, there were none.

On May 20, 1991, the LTTE killer squad watched a Tamil movie at a cinema hall in Chennai. The next evening, the group proceeded to Sriperumbudur and was met by a young Indian photographer, Hari Babu, who had no clue about the planned assassination.

This is one of the photographs taken by freelance photographer Hari Babu, who died in the blast at the venue of Rajiv Gandhi’s May 21, 1991 election rally in Sriperumbudur, that proved vital in pursuing various leads. In this picture, the woman waiting with the garland is Dhanu, the suicide bomber. Flanking her are Latha Kannan and her daughter Kokila. The man in the photograph is Sivarasan.

This is one of the photographs taken by freelance photographer Hari Babu, who died in the blast at the venue of Rajiv Gandhi’s May 21, 1991 election rally in Sriperumbudur, that proved vital in pursuing various leads. In this picture, the woman waiting with the garland is Dhanu, the suicide bomber. Flanking her are Latha Kannan and her daughter Kokila. The man in the photograph is Sivarasan.

At the rally, Dhanu was armed with a sandalwood garland — and a deadly suicide vest which was hidden by a loose-fitting bright orange salwar-kameez. When a policewoman tried to question Dhanu after seeing her near the VIP enclosure, Hari Babu intervened to say she would garland Rajiv Gandhi. Sivarasan, dressed in a white kurta-pyjama, stood near the dais. Eventually, when Rajiv Gandhi made his way towards a waiting crowd, Dhanu moved close to him. The same policewoman tried to push her back. But he stopped her and remarked: “Let everybody get a chance!”

Dhanu put the garland around him and bent down as if to touch his feet. But she never got up. She switched on the toggle switch attached to her suicide vest, triggering a terrible blast that ripped through her, Rajiv Gandhi and 16 others.

The author is a Sri Lanka watcher and has written a biography of LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 6:39:46 am |